that’s so last millennium, english!

[estimated reading time 12 minutes]

there are many things about the english language that truly need to be upgraded for it to be efficient and streamlined, easy to learn and functional without a huge delay for non-native speakers. most of these upgrades would make it far easier for children to learn to use the language effectively and upgrade the quality of communication in daily life in english-speaking areas, too. but there is a huge amount of resistance to those changes because people are both too stupid and too traditional to embrace them.

that being said, most of them will eventually come simply as part of the linguistic-evolution process. for example, english gradually shed its cases (inherited from german) and gender (inherited from both its french and german roots) and now functions as a caseless, genderless language — thankfully. these are excellent changes that, i have no doubt, were resisted at the time just as much as the changes i propose are resisted now. they will mostly come, though, in the decades and centuries that follow. if, that is, english survives at all. i suspect it will but there is always the chance it will be overtaken in a hundred years by a more-modernized and better-adapted language that’s already spoken by a huge number of people — the one that immediately comes to mind, of course, is likely the one you’re thinking of — mandarin chinese.

to improve the situation for english at the moment, though, is actually far simpler than my opponents would have you believe. and it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing wholesale change to the language. many of the upgrades i suggest could be done independently of each other. yes, an integrated overhaul would be easier but at what point has the easier path ever been selected by any western society in language or otherwise? if the sensible approach was taken, we wouldn’t have had world wars and the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 would have lasted two months. but a century of warfare and years of viral idiocy have resulted from people’s pigheaded refusal to take the peaceful, obvious solution because they didn’t feel like it and western society is all about giving people a choice, especially if they are incapable of handling it.

looking at the history of the world is actually exactly the right place to start, though, as distant as it may appear from the idea of linguistic modernization. the largest fundamental problem with english is its tense structure. english has three primary tenses — past, present and future. you would, if you are a native speaker of any western, european-derived language, be quickly forgiven if you think “no, that’s not a linguistic thing but the way the world works — things happen in the past, present and future, don’t they?” — the simple answer is no. there is no sharp dividing line between these three times. yes, whether something happened yesterday or will happen this afternoon is extremely important. but in many cases that’s no more important than the difference between yesterday and last week or today, tomorrow and next year. why is the hard-and-fast division so entrenched in language that people make a clear delineation between only three of these blocks of time but ignore the just-as-important difference between other timescales and periods? it is a result of our language.

there are languages that don’t work this way. a few examples come to mind rather quickly. japanese has no future tense. things are either in the past or the present. japanese and korean both treat tense as a marker rather than a continuous state. so, instead of a sentence being in the past and using the past for all its verbs, the verb discussing the whole action is put in the past but the rest remain in the standard form (which is often called “present” but should be thought of more in terms of “default” because it’s used for all time periods when combined with a single verb whose tense has been shifted). chinese drops tense completely and uses keyword markers and maya (and various other mesoamerican languages but the specifics vary and maya is probably the best example) uses aspect instead of tense.

what’s the difference between aspect and tense? in an aspect-based language, you have “before”, “during” and “after” for each action and they are set up as containers to put other actions in. each action has all three and everything else is dropped in place relatively. in a tense-based language like english, “past” doesn’t mean before or after another action in the sentence. it’s given only in relation to the present. there are advantages and disadvantages to both systems but it’s important to remember that language shapes the way we encounter the world. a native speaker of english, french, german or russian, all fundamentally-tense-based languages, approaches the world with a sharp division between past, present and future and talks and thinks about things in those terms. a maya native speaker, however, thinks of and discusses things in terms of when they happen relative to other actions and the worldview that results is strikingly different — and difficult to translate without changing the reference points quite significantly.

what is important to note about these differences is that they’re not just linguistic but cultural. the whole culture in maya civilizations was structured based on a system of relative times. chinese culture is timeless as a result of its language dealing with time in a tenseless manner. it is a simple matter of taking something that happened in the past and talking about it in the future — the action itself doesn’t change at all. japanese society sees this moment and the future as being a continuum with no break and this has had obvious results in tradition and the way the future itself is understood. it is a culture where procrastination is generally not experienced, for example — why do things tomorrow? tomorrow is just an extension of today. so is next year. and next century. the future is actually part of this moment and that means there is no escaping what has to be done by shifting it to another box. i’m sure you can see the changes that can occur when you get away from divisions between times and these range from very subtle things — thinking of events in your life as “before” and “after” certain other events rather than “all in the past” — to extremely concrete, daily-life-changing things — it is very hard, for example, to forget that history is cyclic and a warning for the future when the past is not separate and the future is now so learning lessons from wars and politics of the past becomes a much more tangible reality, where when taught in english it is easy to be detached from both what happened and what it teaches us will happen. if you want a practical way this has impacted modern society, take a look at the response difference between the united states and china to the novel coronavirus. in america, lessons from the spanish flu pandemic are relegated to ancient history and concerns about the future are ideas for another day — “just keep swimming”, as disney’s maxim says. what this president does is short-term and a mess can easily be left for another leader, another generation or just another day. the chinese response learned its lesson from the past and took immediate action, resulting in dramatically fewer lives being lost, people becoming sick and the economy being systemically changed because of shifting general behavior patterns. it’s difficult in many cases to say whether a modernized version of a language and its results for society are “better” or “worse” than its precedent. in this case, it is very clear the chinese way, both linguistically and practically, is better.

so there are two questions that need to be answered now that we’ve talked about why modernization of the tense structure in english needs to be upgraded — what does that upgrade look like and how can it be achieved?

upgrading english to turn it into a tenseless language requires a complete rethinking of one specific aspect of english grammar — its verbs. it doesn’t, however, necessitate shifting any other component. english has a very complex verb structure with some verb forms being single words, others being multiple words, either with helper-verbs or prepositions functioning either as prepositions or adverbs — “i walk to the store”, “i have walked to the store”, “i walked out on my family”. cleaning this up is a fundamental change in the way english works in two ways — first, the elimination of complex tense simplifies the structure considerably and is a fairly simple thing to achieve. second, the elimination of the joined-prepositional forms of english verbs requires a replacement of those verbs with single-word versions. this is actually not that difficult to do but it definitely looks strange if you are used to seeing these as complex, multiword composites as they are generally seen in english – in german and russian, for example, these are already treated, in many cases, as joined single-word entities and this process sees an even-more-extreme treatment in finnish where conjoined prepositional words are non-segmented.

the practical side of this isn’t that difficult but it will take some serious getting-used-to for experienced english speakers. it looks like this. take the primary verb in the sentence or phrase and put it in the dictionary form (in english, the dictionary form is often the same as the first-person present but that’s not always the case — for example, “i be” doesn’t exist but “i am” is used while “i walk”, “i run”, “i go”, “i talk” and “i see” are perfectly standard). the elimination of tense has an interesting side-effect that corrects english’ other most problematic issue, actually, which i haven’t yet talked about here — agreement between subject and verb. this is where there is a difference between “i am”, “you are” and “it is” (none of which, by the way, you have already noticed uses the dictionary form “be” or even anything recognizably-close to it). yes, it would be possible to simply shift to using the agreement-focused present form of the verb instead of the dictionary form but if the language is going to modernize in one way and people have to get used to the shift they might as well only have to do that shift once, as the result of splitting it in two steps doesn’t change the result in the slightest, replacing all verbs (eventually) with their dictionary-forms.

the other piece i’ve already mentioned is what needs to be done with what linguists often refer to as “phrasal verbs”, which is misleading but frequent enough to have gained a recognizability in the english-learning community as a thing — these are actually two completely different groups of verbs that work in unrelated ways, one that forces verbs to function with prepositions as prepositions and another that uses prepositions functioning as adverbs to answer questions like “where”, “when”, “why” or “how” as default placeholders for missing information. more on that in another article, i suspect, though no point in beating that horse beyond its styx-crossing life at the moment as it’s irrelevant. the point is that many of these would have to become single verbs but that’s far less a problem than it may appear. for example, there is a huge distinction between “i pick” and “i pick up”. “i pick a book” means “i select something to read” but “i pick up a book” means “i take a book from the floor and carry it in my hand” — these are, of course, not the only specific meanings of these two phrases but i’m certain you can see the difference from these examples.

the answer to how to deal with these meaning differences is very simple and it should have already occurred to you. if, however, you are an english-native-speaker, i suspect it hasn’t because the simple way of dealing with word-separation in english is never the solution that’s been selected as the first choice in language history. “end of week” became “week’s end” then “week-end” then, eventually, what it should have been in the first place, “weekend”. why the roundabout approach to word-combining? an english idiosyncrasy that must be assumed to exist through its complete history and there are literally thousands of examples of this having happened and being in the process of happening even today.

shifting from “i pick up the book” to “i pickup the book” is a fundamentally simple shift and should pose no problem of comprehension to any english native-speaker or learner and this is the obvious solution to what to do with these segregated, conjoined verbs in a system of single-word dictionary-form verbs. it eliminates the issue of difference between “i pick up the book” and “i pick the book up”, which is a dialectic issue and far beyond the scope of today’s discussion but it’s another serious problem with english that should be corrected if it is truly the universal language of communication it pretends to be.

a continuation of this progression is actually a simple and realistic way to improve the way the language works. english doesn’t need word spacing at all but removing it is a whole other difficulty. the space between the dictionary-form verb and any accompanying preposition, however, is easily dismissed as irrelevant and in some cases has already happened — “i set up my computer” has now become “i setup my computer”, for example, much like in the noun form this is far more common with “i look up the answer” becoming “i do a lookup on the internet” in its noun-based form. so this changes “i walk to the store” to “i walkto the store”, which doesn’t appear to be confusing to any english speaker. it may look unusual at first glance but it doesn’t reduce comprehension and it solidifies the placement of the preposition as part of the verb rather than floating freely in the sentence, a problem that confuses almost all english learners at some point, whether children or adults.

these problems out of the way, however, the main issue still remains — what to do about tense. actually, this is extremely simple and the fact that it hasn’t been done is a staggering mystery to me because it doesn’t just make the language easier to deal with but requires so little change in the structure itself it’s seemingly insignificant except for the replacement of the verb with a verb that already exists and doesn’t need to be created or adapted in any way. this is perhaps not the simplest upgrade to english (that would be the elimination of articles — “i walk to the store” becoming “i walk to store” and “i read a book” becoming “i read book”, articles having absolutely no meaning and being irrelevant to linguistic comprehension so their elimination being a matter of them simply disappearing. it is, however, relatively easy to achieve.

the obvious question is that, unlike with the elimination of articles given as an example, actual information is lost in the conversion of “i walk to the store”, “i walked to the store” and “i will walk to the store” to “i walkto the store” in all three cases. and this is certainly true. but the answer is just as obvious as the problem and chinese (only one of the languages that does this but certainly the most widely-spoken example) has already solved it. adding a relative time marker doesn’t just remove the problem of information loss but gives the potential and expectation for the sentence to include far more information. the english sentence “i walked to the store” has the obvious question attached to it “when?” but no answer other than “in the past”. the implication in a chinese sentence is that the answer to that question should be there. so not just “i walked to the store in the past” but “i walked to the store this morning” being the standard quantity of information being provided in every sentence. if the ambiguity of the english sentence norm is desired, though, while i have no idea why this needs to continue as it is both aggravating and silly, this can be replicated through the use of a general marker. “i walked to the store” would become “i walkto the store before” and “i will walk to the store” would become “i walkto the store after”. but these could just as easily be “i walkto the store yesterday” and “i walkto the store tomorrow”. the higher level of content specificity is great but optional. markers are functionally temporal adverbs and they can be selected and used interchangeably at different levels of detail without any change in the structure.

what we are seeing here is a simplification without significant difference in the overarching structure of the language, what might be thought of as the holy-grail of linguistic evolution. it means a huge step can be taken to make english easier to learn and more useful without actually making people learn a new way to form their sentences.

the result is a bit more wide-ranging than that. in eliminating the past and future as separate times, the impact on english-speaking culture and its recipient cultures in europe and much of the rest of the world, it is possible that people will become more aware of their history and engaged with their future lives. is that necessary as a result of this linguistic shift? i believe it is, at least gradually. whether it happens, however, remains to be seen and is difficult to predict for many reasons. that being said, making this upgrade to the english language, even without its cultural ramifications, will have such an incredible impact on the level of difficult of learning english that children in english-language areas and language-learners all over the world struggling with english will experience a rapid improvement in their skills eliminating many of what are currently seen as “learning difficulties” or “educational disabilities” in western society by streamlining communication and language-learning while improving comprehensibility in non-native-speaking situations, literal billions happening every day all over the world.

is this upgrade likely to happen in the next five years? absolutely not. will it happen without being enforced? difficult to tell. there will eventually be a shift away from tense in english, i suspect, though whether it will be fifty years from now or five-hundred is difficult to determine. english has evolved as a series of huge leaps and vast troughs of sedentary historic idiocy and conservatism — much like biological evolution, it is nearly impossible to determine when the next major advantage will suddenly outweigh the resistance to its adoption into the general population but, when it occurs, it occurs almost overnight. resistance to language-modernization is as infectious and pernicious as the virus now attacking the world and the result, sadly, is much the same thing — the virus is making cultural and information exchange extremely difficult and social and economic mobility nearly impossible while the english language continues to subjugate minority populations and keeping it more difficult than necessary to master and learn is self-serving for a conservative white-dominated western-exceptionalism-focused population. perhaps it’s time we put our actions where our mouths are in a literal sense and shifted our spoken language so it is streamlined, efficient and as easy as possible to learn, master and use. or perhaps we really are, as western societies, too stupid, racist, conservative, biased and hate-motivated to want to. i’m not sure. thanks for taking the time to explore this issue with me. i know it’s controversial — if it wasn’t, there wouldn’t be much point in talking about it, practically-speaking. your thoughts have honored me.

fundamentals of japanese saws

[estimated reading time 30 minutes]

japanese saws (nokogiri, ) have, for the last few decades, been becoming more and more popular in the west as an alternative to inaccurate, rough push-stroke cutting tools that have been the norm for centuries, requiring thicker steel, more force and causing untold mechanical injury to craftspeople. it is unsurprising that they have been so effective in penetrating the lucrative hobbyist woodworking market in such a short period of time. this saturation of the industry, however, has come at an unpredictable cost — there is vast supply of the tools but, as a result of the shift in japan away from handtool woodworking in production shops, very little english-language instruction on how best to use them. the result has been that woodworkers in the west have embraced the tools but simply put them into daily use, replacing their push-saws with pull-saws and not changing their workholding and processes to take best advantage of the tools. the same has been the case with japanese chisels (nomi, ) but not so much for japanese planes (kanna, ), which have had limited appeal in the west and generally come with far more knowledge of their use. while i am not a japanese-trained master this gives me a significant advantage. those on the ground in traditional workshops are out-of-touch with the situation of western woodworkers and their shop requirements and they are stuck not only in a mindset of holistic tool use in the old-style shop but unwilling to entertain anything else as they reject modernization and westernization. being a teacher embracing both the traditional norms of japanese woodworking practice and the advances of modern design and construction techniques means i can speak of the potential use of japanese tools in a western shop and hopefully provide some answers. as such, what follows is some basic instruction in the differentiation, selection and usage of japanese saws. i have written many articles on what the differences are and which to buy but i will summarize that quickly for anyone new to the topic then dive into the details of their specific use in a western woodworking environment.

background

first, though, let’s define a few terms. when i talk about a traditional japanese workshop, this may be a strange concept — especially if you’re a japanese craftsperson — because there is no such thing as a traditional japanese workshop any more than there is a single traditional western workshop that encompasses all the traditions of america, france, spain, egypt, italy and the holy lands from three thousand years ago to today. japanese woodworking really has spanned the entire history of the island nation and it hasn’t remained either static or single-path. that being said, though, there are a few things that are significantly different that distinguish the general rule of modern western woodworking from the traditional form of the japanese version as it was practiced at the time the borders with the west were opened in the late nineteenth century. these can be summarized mostly in three categories — location, workbenches and workholding.

in terms of location, much (perhaps even the vast majority) of japanese woodworking was not done in a workshop. it was done on-location. what this meant was that the tools, to a large degree, were actually built on-site and remained there. this process seems completely alien to the western woodworker but it was not at all unusual for a japanese master and their apprentices to show up with minimal tools, take over a small space either outside or in the home or business (often the same thing in nineteenth-century japan, by the way) and start from scratch, building the complex tools like marking and measuring items, workbenches, workholding, etc and, when the project was finished, those tools remained there and this cemented the ongoing relationship between the master’s shop and the client’s family, often for generations. the tools were there — this is why, in many cases, examples of japanese tools larger than the ones transported in a small toolbox (chisels, saws) tend to be both extremely basic and unadorned. the only exception to this was generally the line-marking tool (sumitsubo, 墨壺), which could become extremely elaborate but was more ceremonial, especially as it was replaced by western-style pens and later pencils for most craftspeople. there is a whole culture that has grown up around the notion of the master and apprentices visiting the home of a local person and the exchange of respect and work but that is rather outside the discussion of saws. it’s important to keep in mind, though, that as a background the idea of having a “workshop” in the western sense is largely a modern and alien concept to much of japanese craft, woodwork in particular. this is of significance when it comes to how the saws developed over time.

from the workbench perspective, there has been a general notion in the west that all japanese masters used a low workbench on the floor and that’s the history of japanese woodworking. that is not the case. not even a little true. yes, low workbenches were often used and they are extremely common. but they are only one of the many workbench styles used in japan and this depended on the type of work, location, availability of wood and, to a large extent, the duration expected from a workshop. for example, if you are in an area with limited lumber and have to set up shop for three months in a client’s back room, how much time are you going to spend creating your workbench? better to put something together very quickly and work on the ground. but if you’re engaged on a ten-year temple project to create decorative screens, for example, and you have all the time in the world to prepare the best possible setup for yourself as an investment in your future work quality, this might be a good three or four months of your time well-spent to build a solid workbench for you and your apprentices. what western culture has mostly embraced is the “notion of difference”, accentuating what seems strange or “oriental” — sitting on the floor is such a feature of japanese culture, it has been tempting for most people not to look elsewhere for japanese woodworking history, despite it blatantly existing. the important lesson to take from this, however, is not that japanese saws work best on a low bench — this is patently untrue for many reasons. it’s that western workbenches standardized on a rather specific dimensional norm even before the time of andré jacob roubo (of l’art du menuisier fame) to talk about it – approximately two and a half meters by nearly one meter by seven-hundred-ish millimeters in height (2×6’x36” if you’re in america) but japanese workbenches were purpose-built and most masters had various small workbenches. small in this case doesn’t mean low. some were low, others as high or higher than western benches. but there was rarely need unless it was for large-scale construction to have a workbench larger than a square meter or slightly longer so a small shop could hold several rather than the one mammoth bench in western shops. it’s just important to keep in mind that western woodworkers are not trying to replicate the situation of a low-workbench environment to best use japanese saws. this is simply an ahistorical interpretation, dwelling on a single aspect of a much more diverse traditional culture.

the third of these concerns is workholding. yes, many masters learned the ancient tradition of workholding with the body while operating on parts. if you want to see this demonstrated in a good english-language text, you can certainly take a look at japanese woodworking tools by toshio odate and it is an excellent guide to this style of woodworking. the problem with his book (which is, by the way, a brilliant discussion) is that it seems to imply that this is a singular and expected tradition for all woodworking in japan. he doesn’t claim this to be true anywhere in the book and has often spoken against this notion in his public statements but it has been embraced as the entirety of japanese craft in a single volume, given that there has been little else written in the west about other forms of it. and this has led to a rather large degree of simplification and confusion in western woodworking about what japanese forms were truly like in history. what he is describing is definitely one school of thinking and practice and it is probably the oldest. it is not, however, the general rule for modern japanese craftspeople of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where production was far more important than those first-millennium and early-second-millennium floor-and-body-type traditions were still followed. much as some japanese artists still worked on rice paper on the floor, by that point most were painting at easels standing and most japanese woodworkers had shifted away from those ancient forms of deviceless workholding to something far closer to the western norm of clamps and vises.

it is not common to see a vise on a truly traditional japanese woodworking bench in the simplest tradition but from the eighteenth century on it was far more common to see a collection of wooden clamps (very rarely metal even for their mechanical parts) and some vises in production shops. what this meant was that work could be more easily held and work, as a result, could be completed more quickly without sacrificing accuracy. as most modern woodworkers have discovered, working with an unsecured piece can either be done quickly by ignoring small inaccuracies or slowly to achieve the same level of perfection as a fully-secured piece. in japanese woodworking culture, unlike western culture of the time, working for any goal other than absolute aesthetic perfection was shameful. while western clients accepted functionality, japanese products, much like japanese ceremonies and spiritual rituals, were not meant simply to fulfill a purpose but be art in a real sense. so modern workholding advances were welcomed wholeheartedly in most japanese workshops. this is important as i will discuss the use of saws assuming the use of modern workholding and a modern high bench situation in most cases and this is not a divergence from the historical reality, as some would immediately think. wooden clamps and vises were well-known in production workshops living side-by-side with traditional saws, chisels and planes from the seventeenth century on in japan and they were actually embraced in many high-end shops earlier than their western counterparts, especially those specializing in work for local daimyo, who had extremely high standards of expectation, often vast riches to pay for them but very little patience or acceptance of anything that was not absolutely as expected. while i’m not aware of it ever happening, as the local rulers had absolute authority, they could easily execute someone for gaps in their joinery — and there are stories, many true, of workers being killed in the streets of japanese towns in this period simply for standing in the path of a powerful person who just happened to have a sword and lacked patience. this was not a risk most craftspeople were likely to take so perfect pieces were the order of the day, regardless of their construction time, and anything to speed up this process was welcomed. there was also far more significant interaction between japanese and european/chinese cultures at this point in terms of information. the people weren’t moving around much until the late nineteenth century but art, books and culture were flowing across the border in both directions. japanese woodworking masters were well aware of what was happening in china and europe, though it is unlikely those in europe were particularly aware of the japanese traditions, as it was not encouraged that these things were written about in the way they were in europe at the time. whether japanese craftspeople got their ideas for workholding and bench design from the west (including china in this context) or they grew from native roots is anyone’s guess, though i suspect it’s the former.

types of saw

that all being said, let’s take a look at the types of japanese saws and what they’re used for, now that the context of their use has been established. there are three main types of japanese saws that are commonly-used but, unlike western saws, they’re not separated by their purpose or function but their shape. i won’t get into the technical details of what they’re officially called or the history of the names but we’ll call them by the (fragments of their) names they go by in the west because that’s what you’ll be looking for when you buy one unless you read japanese – in which case you’re probably looking in japanese-language resources for this particular guide, anyway. they are the ryoba, the dozuki and the kataba. i will talk a little about the more niche-focused saws in a bit but we’ll start with these three and all the niche-style saws actually fit in one of these three categories, anyway.

the ryoba is probably the most recognizably-japanese of saws. here’s one… (by the way, the photos of saws i use here are an attempt to represent all the major brands i recommend but they’re mostly just taken from official photography done of them and selected for clarity — just because you see a particular ryoba here doesn’t mean i think it’s the best, just a clear demonstration of what a ryoba is, for example.)

perhaps it’s good to start with what a ryoba is not because there are so many misconceptions about it. it’s not specifically a saw that has teeth for crosscutting and ripping on alternate sides. it’s not specifically a saw with teeth for hardwood and softwood on alternate sides. it’s not nearly that specific. actually, it’s not even necessarily a saw with a trapezoidal blade, though that is definitely the typical shape. a ryoba is a saw with no spine, a thicker (relatively-speaking) plate (resulting from the lack of spine/back) and two cutting edges with different profiles. sometimes this means one better for crosscutting and another better for ripping. but that’s certainly not a given and different saws approach this in different ways.

it may be useful to point out a few things here about tooth configuration. western saws are generally thought of as having a rip-pattern or crosscut-pattern tooth configuration. japanese saws don’t fit that differentiation at all. the way saws are generally classified is a little more complex than that but it’s much easier to think of them in terms of their pitch rather than their shape. a ryoba typically has one side with a fine (not super-fine but fine — this is a differentiation you’ll see a little later) and the other with a medium pitch, though this can vary. the important part about a ryoba is that it has two different pitch sizes (the distance between and, as a consequence, size of the teeth) but a single plate thickness. this means all cuts can be started with the finer pitch to make that easier then, if appropriate, the saw can be flipped to continue with more aggressive teeth without binding, something that would certainly result from beginning a cut with a western dovetail saw and finishing it with a tenon saw, for example.

a typical ryoba is particularly useful for doing joinery — cutting tenons, for example. it doesn’t have the limitations of a saw with a spine in terms of depth so you can cut a long tenon on a board without fear of running into anything. it’s fine enough to do this precise work but coarse enough to do it fairly quickly. but what is very important is that the “typical ryoba” sold in the west is only one example of the ryoba type of saws. any saw with a double-sided spineless plate is a ryoba saw (even if it cuts on the push-stroke) and some are used for rough construction work or even to cut down trees. as most non-joinery work is done by machine in the modern japanese woodworking world, there is little demand for these other types of ryoba but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. thinking of the ryoba as only a delicate joinery tool or a slow saw would be an error. the short, fine ones sold by companies today including suizan, bakuma and gyokucho, however, are neither aggressive nor large so this is an easy trap to fall into. you can think of this type of ryoba as the equivalent of a western carcass, tenon or sash saw but i would certainly avoid thinking of it as in any way equivalent to a large handsaw or panel-saw, despite being able to do that work — it is only going to do it with a lot of effort and patience and is certainly not the best japanese saw for that purpose, despite what some of the advertising and youtube discussions may lead you to believe.

the other type of japanese saw that is extremely common in western woodworking circles is the dozuki. it usually looks like this.

“dozuki” is just the japanese word for what in english is called a “backsaw” or “spined-saw” — a saw with a rigid spine holding the plate to make it possible for that plate to be significantly thinner without losing any of its lateral strength. this is a joinery saw in all its iterations. you won’t see a dozuki with a thick plate. actually, if you see a dozuki with a plate that even approaches what in the west is considered a “thin-plate saw”, that’s surprising. japanese saw plates are generally significantly thinner than their western counterparts as a result of the in-tension nature of the pull movement so this isn’t just a thin saw — it’s an extremely thin saw. there was a master japanese woodworker who spoke of their “invisible-line technique” and what they were getting at was their ability to cut such a thin kerf and follow the grain of the wood so carefully and exactly that the cut itself disappeared into the pattern of the wood when it was assembled as furniture. while that’s not necessarily a realistic possibility to aim for in most cases, a dozuki has a thin enough plate for its kerfs to be confused for grain pattern in some species. unlike the ryoba, however, a dozuki (because of its spine) is limited in cut depth. it is useful for small-scale joinery like dovetail-type joints on standard case-pieces and indoor furniture. the dozuki can be thought of as the equivalent of a western dovetail saw but can be used for most of the work of a carcass, tenon or sash-saw if necessary, depending on the depth of the plate. it trades precision for speed – a ryoba will be a faster saw to cut with while a dozuki will leave a cleaner, thinner kerf. you will see dozukis with their outside edge curved, angled or perpendicular to the spine — this is generally a design feature and has no real impact on the performance of the tool, though a rounded edge is often a sign of a cheaply-made blade.

the third of the common saw types is far less common in western woodworking circles but the reason for this has always been unclear to me as it’s the saw i think is best to begin with if you’re doing all-around woodworking. the kataba is a single-sided saw. this is by far the most common type of saw in the world — kataba is the japanese term for what in the west is called a “panel-saw”. it looks like this.

the important thing to remember first about these, though, is that, while this is a great example of the form, this style of saw has infinite variation. these are also kataba saws, though a different subtype and quite rare now, though extremely common a century ago.

as far as i’m aware, these are not made anymore except by a few custom black smith shops where you can special-order one and negotiate your price in fractions of your country’s national debt. just don’t forget that if you think your kataba is small and therefore all japanese panel saws are thin, tiny saws with delicate teeth, you couldn’t be more mistaken. these saws were made to rip and resaw whole trees while other katabas were much smaller, closer to dimensioning or even joinery saws. they typically have a curved back (sometimes the curve is quite subtle) and a uniform tooth pattern. they can vary wildly in pitch but you can think of them as the other extreme from the dozuki. a dozuki is usually a super-fine pitch while a ryoba fits in the fine and middle pitch groups and the kataba ranges from the middle to the coarse and beyond into the brutal and extreme tooth sizes. the kataba is equivalent to the western panel and handsaws, large framesaws (bucksaws or roubo-style framesaws, for example) and rough carpentry saws like you see in hardware stores. in japanese hardware stores, where you might in the west expect a cheap disposable hard-point saw with a yellow handle, you’ll find a cheap rough-pitch kataba.

having gone through this list, you should now be able to identify any saw as belonging to one of these three types, including all your western saws. try not to forget that direction is a mechanical choice in japanese woodworking and it has a cultural background but these saws still exist on the spectrum saws from other countries and traditions also reside on.

positioning and holding your work

there are several ways to position and hold work for use with a japanese saw but this mostly depends on the cut you’re trying to make and the bench style you’re making the cut on. if you want to use a low bench, you have a choice of using clamps or vises or applying your body to the work. using your body as a holding method is generally seen as arcane and i won’t get into the specifics of how to do it — it is similar to using a notch or palm in western woodworking in that some people do it but it’s mostly a traditional-niche thing. if you have a high-bench, i would suggest not trying any of the body-position-workholding techniques you might see done on floor-style benches in videos as they’re impractical. i am assuming you are using a western-style high bench and the techniques i talk about here will work on these. i will discuss them given you have the common, roubo-style bench typical of american and european workshops with a thick top, sturdy legs and plenty of space. if this doesn’t apply to you, please take these guides as a starting point. if it does, however, this should be relatively-complete.

there are several possible positions for the wood and saw. these are not all of them but they are the most common tasks you need to complete. these are pictured as position diagrams and the saw shape/size is not a factor. this is also not in scale. the saw is pictured much larger than it actually is to show an approximate position and angle clearly without the size of the wood and bench making the picture too large to be visible.

while these are certainly not the only ways of holding a board to work with a japanese saw on a high western-style workbench, they are certainly the most useful and common so they are the three i will deal with. we’ll look at when is best to use each and how it should be approached with the saw. the part this doesn’t cover is what to do if you have to cut on a low workbench. if you are vertically above the wood, it it best to bend over the wood and cut with the saw angled down from your body in a stroke bringing the tip of the saw perpendicular to the floor. as these low benches are uncommon, though, i won’t go into more detail here unless someone has specific questions about it. i assume for all these tasks you are using the saw in your right hand. if you are left-handed, feel free to mirror all these explanations and the same techniques apply in exactly the inverse. all japanese woodworkers traditionally worked right-handed regardless. you won’t see photographs or demonstrations from traditional woodworkers using their left hands as primary. there is nothing wrong with using your left hand. it was just expected apprentices copied their masters exactly so hand-preference was disregarded.

position 1 is the board flat on the bench with the end you are cutting sticking off the tail. you are standing facing the bench with the saw inline with the cut. remember, this is not that the body is centered on the board but that the saw plate is exactly perpendicular to the cut. you are not standing with your body centered on the saw but beside the saw and back from it (we will talk about body position in a few moments). position 2 is the board in exactly the same position but with you standing beside the board. the saw is in the same position but you have shifted your position ninety degrees. not every cut, of course, is inline with or perpendicular to the board but the vast majority are (for dimensioning and joinery) so it is easier to think of these as the two dominant workholding and standing positions. position 3 is far less common and we will talk about when it’s used but the board is clamped upright with one face looking at you and your cutting position is the same as in position 1.

position 1 is used to cut most joinery. dovetails and tenons are done in this way (there are japanese names for these joints and infinite variations on them but most joints are one of these two with potential added complexity). this position is also used to rip boards. position 2 is used for crosscutting and to cut the sides of tenon joinery. it is also useful for cutting miters, though those are rarely used in japanese styles. if you are cutting a miter, it is best to stand at that angle to the wood. position 3 is potentially used for crosscutting or ripping boards but it is generally not a preferred workholding position for use with a japanese saw. the reason is fairly simple — in this position, your depth of cut is limited and the force and accuracy that can be applied to the board is far less stable and direct with the board lacking its horizontal flat surface backing. each tiny movement of the board saps your energy and potentially increases inaccuracy, things that can be completely avoided if the board is firmly placed against the surface of the bench.

as for the actual workholding, traditional japanese workholding is done with clamps rather than vises. this is mostly because it allows more flexibility of placement. with the advent of modern vises, however, which include moving dogs and parallel rows of holes for dogs to act as multiple clamping stops holding a board flat against the surface of the bench, this method is also frequently used. to achieve positions 1 and 2 with clamps, it is a simple matter of putting the board close enough to one side of the bench for the clamp to reach both the bottom of the benchtop and the top of the board with good solid pressure. two clamps are usually sufficient. the type is unimportant as long as the board is secured in all directions. to achieve position 3 it is generally assumed a vise will be used or the board can be clamped against one of the legs of the bench. for positions 1 and 2 using a vise, the board can hang off the end of the bench pinched between a front-vise and a dog or hang off the side of the bench secured between a tail-vise and a dog. either is fine for this work. it is important to remember the board is meant to sit flat on the bench, however. holding the board in the vise with nothing supporting its bottom face is not typical.

saw movement is something that is often overlooked but vastly important to get the most efficient use of a japanese saw. while a western saw’s path of travel is intuitive, a japanese saw’s is a little less until you remember why the saw is shaped in this way. that requires a journey down the road of japanese history rather more distantly than woodworking in the west tends to travel for its inspiration. in the early part of the second millennium of the common era, during the high artistic period in japan, a warrior class emerged that would later be known as the samurai. you can think of this as being somewhere approaching low-aristocracy in the west, though nothing similar really existed in european civilization either then or later. these were warriors in one sense but their code of honor and passivity had reached legendary status long before their skills with weapons. they were the strong arm of peace, you could say. as a history teacher, this is a topic i could write an entire book on but the result was that, over many centuries, the samurai class eventually lost its financial backing when peace was more the norm than war and had to take up skilled crafts. their swords were of little use beyond decorative symbols of wealth that often didn’t exist. but they were the model of perfection in japanese society. there was additionally a general assumption of guilt and fault. western society was built on the idea of self-sufficiency and looking out for yourself, taking responsibility. but japanese society was built on community responsibility and the notion of taking care of others. most japanese tools were the result of these ideas coming together. japanese saws are used on the pull-stroke not just because it’s more efficient (which it is from a mechanical perspective, though this doesn’t make it “better” than western saws, which have a different advantage to compensate) but because the idea of group-responsibility meant if you hurt someone you were responsible even if they weren’t being careful. so you had to be far more. working together in small shops meant controlling a tool pulled to you was far less likely to potentially cause harm to another than pushing with your body’s force against something. the other piece, though, is the sword. while most woodworkers weren’t samurai, almost everyone in japan certainly respected their tradition and it was common for all peasants to have at least some experience with edge weapons. these were not the heavy swords in the west that went with metal armor and slow, cumbersome swings to brutally sever limbs by force. japanese saws were thin, light and wielded by people who were mostly without armor in the traditional sense, sometimes wearing the highly-stylized leather protective gear of the late shogun era but that generally came much later. swords were a question of skill rather than force. they were extremely thin but the significant part here is to think of the movement of the sword. you lift your hand with the sword in it and slice down in a single stroke through your enemy. you hold the sword very lightly right at the end for maximum downward momentum and it is a clean cut from the sword being slightly above your head and angled up with your arm bent and out in front of you to your arm being mostly straight by your side, lower, with the sword pointing almost straight forward. this is the general pattern followed for a japanese saw in its use, too.

with the board in positions 1 or 2, begin with the near end of the saw plate against the end of the top of the board, starting about 1cm from the near end of the plate. swing the handle of the saw down and closer to your body until the saw has reached about 1cm from the far end of the plate then reverse the stroke. use the entire length of the saw in a single motion in both directions. when you are beginning, you can start and stop 2-3cm from the ends if this makes it easier not pull the saw too far but you will quickly learn where both ends of the plate are. in position 3, again start and end in the same places on the plate but start with the saw on the side of the board facing you rather than up. continue to repeat this until the cut is complete. at the beginning of the cut, the saw should be significantly angled up. when the saw is at the end of the cut, it should be close to perpendicular to the board. for the last few strokes, it is often necessary to change these angles slightly but they are the most efficient and effective so they should be maintained as long as possible while still cutting the correct line.

the first two strokes are extremely important. if these are in the correct line, the rest of the cut will follow. if they are not, stop and return to the point where they were correct and cut from there. attempting to twist or skew the saw in the cut will simply damage the saw and the cut will still not be straight. a japanese saw has a thin plate under considerable tension during the cut. any pressure other than inline with the saw will bend the plate and break teeth. you can cut almost any material with a good-quality japanese saw if you apply pressure inline with the plate. the softest wood cut using a stroke that is not inline can destroy a saw in moments. this is a general rule with japanese tools — they are meant to be used in a single direction. with saws, it is particularly important. a chisel will bend over time with poor form. a plane is almost impossible to use any other way. a few degrees of twist or lateral force for a single stroke can break teeth from an expensive tool and must be avoided at all times. in terms of speed, a comfortable speed is best. if you find the work difficult, slow down. if you feel you can move more quickly without exhausting your body, speed up. there should be a rhythm to the work and your breathing should be deep and easy as you saw. if you feel like you are working hard enough to sweat, you are working too quickly. if your saw strokes are not all at the same speed, either slow down or speed up to make them regular. japanese woodworking is an exercise in harmony with the body and the material. jerky movements will lead to inaccurate joinery, exhaustion and physical injury.

the body mechanics are, i believe, somewhat obvious from the position of the saw as we have just discussed it but i think it’s important to be absolutely clear about position and movement as i have seen body positions that are awkward, painful, potentially causing injury and certainly leading to inaccuracy and damaged tools not just from beginners but experienced instructors who advise things like standing behind the saw or holding it with two hands while making a cut.

hold the saw in your right hand (we will talk about hand position in a few moments but just assume you’re holding it like a sword — you’ve certainly seen enough martial arts movies to know how a samurai sword is held, i have no doubt). your arm should be beside your body in a comfortable position, extending in front of you. it shouldn’t be coming across your body or angled away, just straight forward. your elbow, at the beginning of the cut, should be somewhat bent. as you go through the cut, drop and straighten your arm. don’t lock it down straight but extend your elbow as you pull the saw through the cut and the handle closer to your body. the saw is moving forward and back, not side-to-side. any lateral movement is to be avoided in all three items concerned — the saw, your arm and your body. they should be swinging in a single arc inline with the cut. you should be facing the cut, body inline but off-center to the left so your arm and the saw are directly inline with it. do not stand behind the saw. it needs to be free to swing by your side without your arm leaving the plane of the saw and the cut. keep one hand on the saw handle and the other relaxed on the other side of your body. there are some specialized tools that require two hands. these are generally rough-milling saws. if you are cutting joinery or dimensioning boards, one hand is sufficient. if one hand gets tired, you are welcome to switch but, realistically, if your hand and arm are getting tired, you are putting too much force into the saw or working to quickly, possibly both at the same time. slow down and stop putting pressure on the saw.

this brings us to the other point. how much pressure should there be on the saw? this depends on the direction of the pressure. you are pulling the saw closer to your body. that is the direction of all your force and that force should be only just enough to make the saw move in the cut. if it requires more than gentle pulling in the direction of your body, it is not sharp enough and you should replace the plate immediately. there should be absolutely no down-pressure on the saw at any time. i will say that again to make sure it’s clear. pull the saw. do not push it down at all.

when you are holding the saw, it should be extremely gentle. you can keep your whole hand on the saw but i find the last finger and often the second-last on my hand are past the edge. you are really only gripping it between your thumb and first finger or two, the others are just for stability, anyway. there are many ways to describe the amount of grip you should be using. some say it is the same as holding the hand of a baby but i have seen some large-pawed hypermasculine types put more force than i would use for my saws when holding a child’s delicate extremities so my usual guidance is that it is about the amount of force you should use when holding the egg of a small bird without cracking it. if you put enough force into your saw handle to crack, for example, a chicken’s egg, that is many times too much pressure and you are tensing your arm and hand muscles and exhausting your body. this is how a japanese sword is held and the saw was modeled on that idea.

these concepts of saw, body and hand position can be applied to all japanese saws and techniques. they are not specific to the ryoba used in the diagram or one form of joinery or cut. all saws can be held and used in the same manner and this allows you to develop a rhythm and familiarity with the tools and achieve precision.

specific woodworking tasks

some tasks may be useful to describe in detail. to cut a board to length, use position 2 and simply cut through each end in turn. to rip a board, use position 1 and cut a straight line to the end of the rip. it is not necessary to cut to the end of the board. if you are ripping and crosscutting, though, it is best to crosscut first then rip because it reduces the tension inherent in long boards that can bind on the saw.

resawing can be done in one of two ways. i recommend tipping the board on edge and using position 1. if the board is short enough to be sawed vertically, position 3 can be used for this with the board held against a solid, stable surface. this should not be the end of your bench. it can be a leg going all the way to the floor but the small surface area of the end of your bench is not sufficient to stabilize the cut and you will likely end up with shaking that will cause lateral force on the saw and potentially damage it.

to cut dovetails, which are extremely common in japanese joinery, though they go by various names depending on their shape and are often hidden within pieces, begin by cutting the tails using position 1. follow this step by cutting the sides of the tails using position 2 from both sides. you can flip the board and cut from the same side but there is no need. you can just walk around the board and cut to save yourself the trouble of unclamping and reclamping it. chop the waste using a sharp chisel (i won’t get into chisel use here but i’m happy to discuss it if anyone has questions or desires a detailed explanation of this procedure). mark the pins with a pencil or pen (ink is traditional in japanese joinery but has mostly been replaced by pencils in the modern era, not just the last few decades but since about the beginning of the twentieth century). cut the pins using position 1 and use a chisel to remove the waste. you can certainly use a fret-saw between your dozuki and chisel if you prefer that approach. those small frame-saws were not typically used in japanese woodworking shops and have had very low adoption as chisels tend to be both large and sharp and make quick work of joinery cuts with greater accuracy than saws.

to cut a tenon, begin by cutting the correct depth on the faces then the edges using position 2, turning the board. when you cut the faces, they should be pointing left and right when you are facing the board preparing to saw. when you are cutting the edges, these should be facing left and right. you will only need to turn the board once. you have now finished the shoulders. cut the cheeks using position 1. it is common to cut the cheeks on the long edges using only a chisel but sawing is also frequently-seen so either approach is acceptable and traditional, mostly chosen based on the amount to be removed. if it is less than a centimeter, a chisel is likely faster. a larger waste piece will probably reward a saw with more efficiency.

having discussed the joinery in detail, it is important to clarify something about accuracy. while japanese saws are highly-accurate in an abstract sense, they are not chisels. we do not cut on lines or to lines. we cut slightly away from the side of a line in the waste material and use a chisel to complete the cut. guide blocks to keep the saw in exactly the right position are sometimes used but these are generally more common for chisels. as the saw is not expected to leave a precise cut without at least a small amount of paring, its accuracy irrelevant in the most complete sense. there is no shame in japanese woodworking to using a jig, guide or modified tool to complete a task. almost all chisel cuts are made using a guide. if you are attempting to saw more accurately, make yourself guides. they are frequently used to teach apprentices to saw straight and masters use them for long, straight cuts on a regular basis even after decades. japanese woodworking is not about showing the marks of the maker. it is about absolute perfection. if the cut is not perfect, it is shameful. if there is any inaccuracy, it is shameful. shameful craft skills were not accepted and frequently punished with physical injury, loss of family status, monetary cost and, in extreme situations, death. there was never any reason to take this risk. you shouldn’t have one either. make some guide blocks and sawing jigs and consider it part of the traditional approach. if you want to do things freehand, put down the japanese tools and return to western woodworking because freehand doesn’t give the absolute perfection and accuracy japanese tradition and aesthetics require.

of course, that sounds rather heavy-handed and i am certainly not telling you that you shouldn’t use a japanese saw inaccurately. but there is a notion in the west that guides and jigs are non-traditional and that it is always more skillful or enjoyable to do things freehand. in the japanese tradition, there is no “graduation from jigs” or “no longer needing paring blocks”. perfection requires using guides for guaranteed accuracy. in a society where wood is extremely valuable, time is priceless and anything short of aesthetic perfection is seen as a personal insult not just to the client but the entire spiritual world and its inhabitants, there was no room for error. measure twice cut once? not on your life. measure once, build a jig to guarantee accuracy, hold everything so it can’t possibly move then cut decisively. it is considered respectful of the tree to be accurate and ensure perfection. anything else is shameful to its spirit.

other questions

there are a few other questions i have been asked that i will now address here as they don’t really fit in any of the existing sections. if you have specific questions, please feel free to ask. if i haven’t covered it here, it may require a detailed answer, a new article or simply adding a section to this one, all of which i’m happy to do.

the first of these questions is about the common western approach of sawing boards using a triangular cut method. there are reasons why this is effective and wise in the west, though i suggest most of them can be avoided by simply using a sawing guide and saving a lot of time and effort. given the fact that a japanese saw will cut straight when it is pulled, there is no need for flipping the board, rotating anything including your body or cutting triangles. it doesn’t matter whether you can see the other side of the cut. it is straight. if you line the saw up and the first few strokes have produced a cut in the right plane, it will continue that way unless the saw itself is damaged, in which case replace the plate and try again. if you are sawing the wrong line, stop and saw the right line then continue. do not try to twist or redirect the saw. you will simply break the saw and annoy yourself in the process but not fix your cut.

the second question is about sighting. western woodworkers often draw lines on all sides of a cut. japanese saws obviate this need. when dovetails are marked, for example, there is only the need to draw a single line on the top face of the board from the end to the base of the tail you are about to cut then cutting on that line. when you are cutting on a line, you are looking down at the top face of the board so marking other faces, ends and edges is pointless. marking should be done with a pencil or pen in a way that is visible to you without needing to get closer than a meter. if you can’t see a pencil line on the board at a meter, use a pen. if the pen is too difficult to see at that distance, use a marker. don’t get closer or “choke-up” on the saw. this is a beginner error that would never have been let pass unpunished in an apprenticeship situation even the first time. you’re not trying to hit a baseball. take your time. if you can’t see, fix the fact that you can’t see until you can before you saw. inaccuracy comes from rushing. so don’t rush. it’s disrespectful to the tree. remember you are only ever going to see what is on the left side of the blade. don’t bend your body out of shape to look over the saw. if your arm is straight and your saw is good quality, you will cut a straight line. if either is not, it doesn’t matter where your eyes are — at that point, you have already made a mistake before the saw has even touched the wood and you should correct it then, not after you’ve damaged the piece and attracted your own disgust with yourself. that’s not about skill. it’s about preparation and thought. most of this practice is about preparing and thinking rather than doing. using a japanese saw doesn’t require skill. it just requires patience and being slow, methodical and self-aware. you can get every cut perfectly-accurate the first time if you are careful. so be careful and your results will make you happy and proud. try not to be too proud, though. the tree did the hard work and sacrificed its life. you only spent a few minutes compared to its years and death. it deserves most of the credit. when you are looking down at the board, you should see where the saw is and make sure the line is going in the direction you require. the important part, though, is not about cutting close to the line but about making sure you don’t get too close to it. the line marking the end of your cut should be clearly visible and you shouldn’t touch it. you also shouldn’t touch the line marking the cut. keep at least 1-2mm from both your cut-line and your stop-line. that is a place only chisels may go and their spirits will haunt you if you intrude on their domain. seriously, though, you’ll be happier if you stay away and pare every time. it’s an excellent habit and very traditional.

final thoughts

i am honored you have taken the time to explore this topic with me and deeply hope you have found this discussion useful. thank you for your respect. i wish you the best of luck with your endeavors in the land of japanese saws and traditional woodworking. please, of course, let me know if you have any questions about this or any other aspect of the craft. i am more than happy to provide answers on anything if i can or, if i am unaware, consult with those with decades more experience in the tradition to find you an answer, if possible.

ありがとうございます。

2021 furniture challenge, stage 1

[estimated reading time 29 minutes]

this year, as a woodworking teacher, i was given a challenge and gave it in return to students and others in the wider woodworking community. this challenge is simple. it’s a variation on the “draw this in your style” challenge floating around the art world and on instagram but with a design and manufacturing twist. take a historic form of furniture and design a modern piece in any style you like based on it. the restrictions, though, are what make it especially fun. as furniture, it isn’t just art. it’s craft, which means it’s meant to be useful – there’s no point in making a chair you can’t sit in or a table that can’t hold up the dinner plates. it has to be beautiful. but it has to be functional and that means a chair that’s too weak is meaningless and a table that has to be two meters tall to look right is useless because who eats dinner with the plates above their head?

so that’s the starting point. but where to go from there? it was decided it was only fair that, as an experienced instructor, i had to take on a much larger challenge than the students. they would each do a new version of five forms – bed, chair, cabinet-on-stand, tea-box/jewelry-box and stool. and i would (yes, this is a huge amount of work) do five new completely different versions of each of them. so what i’m calling “stage 1” is creating the five versions of one form. i wanted to start with the most challenging one for me, a form i’ve always struggled with because i personally don’t like the objects themselves and they’re so incredibly large and ungainly they leave less scope for decorative details compared to their sheer bulk. and they have no choice but to have fixed-dimension soft components added. i’m talking about beds. and mattresses. unlike seats, where you can make the soft components optional, beds need mattresses and those are fixed dimensions and large. anyway, this is what i have come up with and how the process has gone. i’ll go through each of my new designs and talk about how each was created. i know this may only serve a niche audience but i figure there are plenty of furniture-design students out there who don’t like to ask about the design process because they think they should know or, in many cases, because designers tend to be rather secretive about their processes. i am not. so feel free to ask any questions you like if anything isn’t clear.

pencil-post bed

having accepted the design challenge, i started, of course, like all good designers by looking for inspiration. many people will quote “good artists borrow but great artists steal” when you’re designing. or any other art process, come to think of it. and it’s very true. but there’s a question of how far you can go before you’re not doing anything new anymore. so i had to think seriously about what it means to create something new and what it means to just make a copy. there’s a very thin line between these things. for example, if you go to ikea and buy an eames-inspired chair or a shaker-style dresser, how much design work has actually been done by ikea and how much was done by eames or one of the brothers in the village? hard to tell. not that this is a judgment – a shaker dresser is a beautiful piece in many cases and it doesn’t matter who did the design as long as it is beautiful in your home. but, as this is an exercise in design, i didn’t want to simply nearly-duplicate something that already existed. my first design style, i decided, was going to be an interpretation of my favorite visual style for a bed – the classic pencil-post. i have always liked this form because it is so light yet refined and decorative without needing all the embellishment poster-beds are often known for, especially if you look at photographs from historic castles and manors from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. they tend to have more the aesthetic of a blocky fireplace mantle than the decorative simplicity of a light frame. where to find inspiration, though? i first went to the source, looking at shaker originals and modern copies of them. there is one thing you notice about pencil-post beds in general. they have either tapered or simple round columns as their posts. some are tapered from the middle to the top with a small foot, others from both directions to top and bottom. some have a square post detail in the middle. but i don’t generally like round posts and i’m far more heavily-influenced by the danish modern style where straight, clean lines tend to be used as detail elements rather than ornamentation and turning. so the bed became a series of square posts tapered in four directions. if you look at craftsman-style (arts-and-crafts-style) poster beds, you’ll see a two-face taper where the foot is biased in the direction of the outside edge. shaker-style furniture, though not always the case in poster-beds where thickness is more necessary for strength, are tapered in the other direction quite notably. these tapers in my version aren’t straight lines – they’re subtle curves. this can be accomplished with a simple process of mounting and wedges at the bandsaw but that’s a construction rather than design detail and i’ll focus here on design – i just want to point out that this isn’t a difficult detail to create in the final product, just an interesting embellishment compared to the typical straight tapers on many bedposts, especially columnar ones.

where to be inspired, though, is the real question here, beginning the first design of the first stage. and the answer was surprisingly simple – not furniture but trees. i looked at various photographs of forests and the interlocking canopy of branches and their thinness and simple elegance gave me a push in the right direction. trees don’t do straight lines. they do curves. up the trunk, along the branches. so my design takes the curves of branches and uses them not only for the upper arches where a canopy can be supported but the support rails and headboard/footboard panels. they’re not rising-sun-style half-circles. they’re subtle curves but i think they’d lose a lot of their appeal and look much closer to mass-produced furniture made without attention to detail if they were simply straight. even the support rails on the sides have a curve top and bottom. the only straight-line detail that gets real attention here is the square post but it’s got an organic curved outer profile contrasted against the straight linear version if you look at it directly from top or bottom. this is in many ways a very minimalist and simple bed – not something usually said about a four-post, nearly-ceiling-height piece of furniture. but in this case i believe it’s true. i think it works either with or without an actual canopy structure – as a straight pencil-post bed or a full-on silk-draped luxury in the bedroom. having the structure cross in the center rather than either at split-right-angles or in rows and columns is a way to channel the idea of tree branches in the forest rather than the more human-created style of grids and equal rectangles – neither of which i’m opposed to but in this particular design feel too brute-force and confining for the visual effect.

organic mid-century bed

the next piece i began to work on is a style most of my students and friends will recognize as my typical approach to design – minimalism, offset edges, sweeping curves. if i had to say who are the most influential designers in my life, it would be very difficult to come up with a short list or perhaps five. but it would probably look something like this.

  • george nakashima
  • arne jacobson
  • hans wegner
  • finn juhl
  • kaare klint

they all have several things in common. they use large-scale curves, clean lines, wide, flat surfaces and organic forms. their furniture is all distinct but their similarities are most of why they have been so fundamental to how i design. looking at george nakashima’s chairs, for example, was the starting point for the inspiration for this bed. most of the time, designers treat a bed as something like an enlarged picture-frame sitting on the floor with legs where the art is replaced by the mattress. i have no problem with that approach but i wanted it to be less a picture-frame than a comfortable place not simply to sleep but to rest, work and read. the problem with the picture-frame approach is that the headboard tends to be decorative and usually very uncomfortable. taking the curve from when i design simple chairs and turning that into a place for the back to make the bed a usable piece of furniture during the day is something i’ve always tried to do but it’s not always possible. in this case, though, it certainly is. an organic split headboard is relatively simple to visualize but getting that curve to be dramatic enough to be beautiful but subtle enough not to feel like you’re in a recliner when you lean against it is certainly a balancing-act.

this is a place where i should probably talk about construction details, especially as they’re not necessarily visible here. this bed would be made from mostly solid stock (walnut), of course, for strength. but the headboard is an exception. there are two ways this can be achieved – mixing materials and veneer or simply veneering a segmented panel. i opt for the second in this case because it’s non-structural but the more-involved mixed-material approach would be perfectly fine as a way to build this headboard, too. what i mean by segmented panels is that instead of trying to bend wood to form the headboard or using layers of veneer stacked from face to face, this panel would actually be a series of 19mm plywood cut to the shape of the curve in cross-section then laminated and veneered on all six sides. this gives incredible strength not just through the multiple glue joints but the inherent strength of the plywood – in this construction, it has glue in all three directions against an axis rooted in the frame so you get torsional rigidity without adding weight or density. to shift to the mixed-materials approach, this same process can be replicated but, instead of simply stacking identical plywood curves along the direction of the headboard, metal panels would be cut to the same curve and sandwiched between the plywood curves to add strength. these would be adhered to the two plywood panels on each side in the lamination using countersunk fasteners then the plywood would again be glued in cross-sectional lamination. this provides a stronger panel than the straight-plywood-lamination version and is very useful for the construction of chairs but, in this case, is unnecessary and adds a significant level of complexity as routing a template for that curve in plywood is easy but, in metal, requires significant metalworking tools and more refinement time for no significant benefit in practice. as for the rest of the construction details, the bottom of the bed is supported to avoid those curved feet having to take all the down-pressure of people sleeping on the mattress. they would, in practice, likely hold up quite well but there’s no reason to take that chance and have people break a bed that involves so much intricate shaping and construction when the risk isn’t necessary. the support feet are moved back far enough that anyone standing in a bedroom wouldn’t see them without dropping to the floor and the bed then looks like it is floating on extremely thin curved legs. these are a detail mostly reminiscent of traditional shinto temple design, something that was often incorporated in samurai armor and some of the early buddhist temples in japan. the non-mitered corners of the bed strike me as far less western. i’ve always hated mitered corners so you will likely never see them appear in my work unless what we’re talking about is a mitered-corner box – even then i tend to use other methods than having a visible miter. i’m totally fine with having box sides come together in a miter but i will usually do my best to avoid having that miter seen on top or bottom, even when the box is open. so in such a visible place as the edges of a bed with wide platform sides it would be unthinkable for me to have a 45-degree anywhere when a straight line is far more pleasing and simple to the eye. this gets the construction closer to frame-and-panel than traditional picture-frame. the actual construction is completed with hidden integral-tenons on the flat rails and floating-tenon joinery is used for everything else. the process could be done with floating-tenon joinery in all the components but there seems no reason to avoid integral-tenon joinery where it is possible and the tenons can be far larger as a result, providing extra rigidity in the platform components.

storage bed

one of the things that bothers me about beds in the western sense is their massive size and permanence. japanese beds are traditionally only a padded cushion on the floor. it’s much the same as putting a western mattress on the floor and feels mostly indistinguishable from that with one important difference. it’s not usually possible to fold a mattress. the japanese version, however, is designed to be folded and put away in a closet in the morning to be taken out in the evening when bedtime approaches. this means there’s no need for a dedicated space to sleep or a dedicated room to sleep in. in western homes, the space dedicated to the bed is generally wasted the rest of the day and this has always struck me as odd. the solution to this has been seen as things like the murphy-bed, which i don’t understand – why have a folding bed frame when you can just have a folding mattress and avoid all the complexity? i think a far better option is to take the footprint of the bed and make it functional as something other than a bed at the same time. i’ve always liked storage beds – i had one as a child for most of my teen years and it was incredibly useful in a small bedroom. so, given the challenge of designing beds, it is only natural that i incorporate storage. in this case, i have taken a traditional craftsman-style storage bed and turned it into a more organic, asian-inspired bed without losing the functionality of the under-bed drawers. drawers, unfortunately, tend to be boxes with rectangular edges and that makes them blocky and uninteresting. they can be decorated with carving or color, embellished with complex visible joinery or simply accentuated in a brutalist style. in this case, though, i took a different approach – turning the drawer shapes into intersecting curved shapes closer to leaves than storage boxes. the curves are more exaggerated than my usual soft organic shapes but with such a large form as this i believe it’s necessary to make the curves clear and decisive rather than almost-hidden and easily mistaken for straight lines at first glance. wood selection is very important in these large panels. in this case, the frame is dark-stained cherry and the decorative panels are veneered with highly-figured cherry with continuous grain. the match doesn’t have to be perfect but being visually matched makes the dramatic contrast less visually-jarring. the same effect could be achieved with solid-wood panels but the expense of this for beautiful grain in those sizes is prohibitive and veneer in these cases is a far simple option – it also eliminates the need for incorporating floating panels as the veneer-and-plywood approach negates the potential for seasonal-wood-movement on large elements like headboard panels and inset drawer-fronts.

simple children’s loft-bed (taking a break)

sometimes when completing large-scale design projects, i like to take a break and work on something in the interim. it keeps my ability to focus on highly-elaborate designs from getting distracted and bored, something i have struggled with my whole life. i easily lose motivation when a task is monotonous or loses its challenging aspects. what i often supplement design projects with is actually short design exercises to help the woodworking community with simple projects. there is a flood of simple plans on the market, often free or cheap, to build everything from dressers and beds to chairs and boxes. the problem is that most of these plans are difficult to follow and uninteresting. they’re either so boring nobody wants to actually have the finished project or so complex beginners don’t bother to try them. i have tried for the last few years to provide free plans to students and other woodworkers of easy-to-complete projects for furniture for their homes that are interesting and aesthetically-pleasing enough that, even if they weren’t limited in experience building, they would want the furniture. while i was thinking about beds, i realized there was one thing that i had never seen a freely-available model for that was within the grasp of most beginner woodworkers. the result was putting together and making available this model of a loft-bunk-bed. it’s simple and uses clean, straight lines – squares rather than rectangles. it doesn’t have complex joinery or construction and it’s meant to be mounted against a wall for extra strength, as most bunk-beds tend to be. it incorporates a simple desk but is mostly just a straight-forward bed for two children. i imagine this is what the shakers might have imagined for such a project if they had needed to house two children in a room, though that’s just speculation.

this raises another interesting topic, of course – the cost of woodworking plans. while i, in theory, respect the right of people to make their own decisions and i won’t get into a discussion of my issue with the trade economy and competition, i make all my plans, diagrams, drawings, models and renders available at no charge to the woodworking community as a volunteer service. i love design and building and i will happily charge money to create a new piece for a client. and i am happy to be paid to teach classes. but i see no reason why students and woodworkers out in the world should be restricted from making interesting and beautiful pieces of furniture simply because the only freely-available plans are boring and simplistic – or, in many cases, poorly-thought-out to the point that you see workbenches with complex fastening solutions that will fail in a matter of months and chairs held together with nothing more than screws where failure is only one two-legged-reclining-action away from the first day they’re used. so the result is items like this and many simple projects where i produce step-by-step plans and dimensional drawings to accompany rendered models. i am happy to do that for a community that has supported and nurtured my love of design and building and anyone is welcome to my cad models, too, if that’s useful. it’s nice when people give me credit for my work but i understand that’s not always the case and it’s a risk i am prepared to take if it means more people get out there and build beautiful things.

floating-platform bed

in the spirit of channeling george nakashima, i returned to my japanese-danish-mid-century design roots with the next design and modeled it on a totally different type of chair. this concept is loosely based on a nakashima chair i once saw in a museum exhibition, though i can’t remember what it was called – the chair, not the museum. either way, it’s unimportant but if you look at any genuine nakashima furniture i suspect you’ll see the chair i mean. the inspiration is loose but unmistakable and i tip my hat thoroughly in his direction for this. it doesn’t resemble any of his bedroom furniture designs but credit is certainly due for the inspiration. the story (no, not every piece has to have a story but this one does) is that this is the bed equivalent of a floating slab-top table. the difference is that the tabletop isn’t on the top. it’s under the mattress and the curve scoops up the mattress and gives the impression of movement away from the headboard, which is angled and curved. the curve matches the one on the bottom of the platform and the angular meeting between the headboard and platform provide a human contrast with the organic shapes on the opposing faces. the whole structure appears from a distance to be floating but has solid, square, straight-line feet and an underframe to support the bed firmly from below. the through-tenons on the headboard give it strength without needing the lamination approach on some of the other designs here – the headboard is also fairly light. the contrast is accentuated by the combination of wood species – the majority of the bed being built from walnut but the slats coming from the rich red tones of cherry selected to avoid uniformity but this could easily be a more decorative exotic wood – jarrah would make a great tone in keeping with the red or padauk, potentially. using something very dark like wenge or ebonized oak would give contrast in the other direction and that would work well for this piece, though i think the lighter tone on the headboard sets off the dark exterior more clearly. the blocky, elongated squares tapering to thick rectangles gives the impression of solidity to balance the floating platform and airy, almost insubstantial headboard that is deceptively thick when measured but takes little visual space. the undercarriage of the bed is far more solid than the other designs in this challenge as the bed is not resting on outside feet, taking the slats only for mattress support. the whole frame, which is relatively heavy because of the thick walnut components and floating headboard, must also be supported by the four legs so their strength is distributed through the frame using lapped cross-members the entire length and width of the frame, keeping everything solid.

lofty childhood ideas

having allowed the idea of a loft-bed (or bunks in general) to live in my mind for a little time, i was prepared to come back to address the concept not just to create a beginner project for the community and students but a serious design for a whole-bedroom-in-a-single-piece bed. this is a considerable departure from the previous designs, not least because it’s not a single bed or even a bed in and of itself but two beds – not for adult clients but children. not that the bed is too small for an adult but most adults have moved from single beds to large ones at ground-level (though honestly i have no idea why, come to think of it, as i am completely happy with a single bed – i prefer floor-level, though, to ceiling-height because climbing that ladder for me would be more than difficult). this is the result of an interesting mental exercise. i thought first about the styles i truly love in furniture – danish modern, scandinavian minimalism, japanese minimalism, shaker. then i turned around to look at other twentieth-century styles i have far more a hate relationship with than one of love. bauhaus came immediately to mind – does anyone truly need all that concrete? it’s like taking the overwhelming nature of brecht’s refusal to acknowledge the lessons of the past and applying it to architecture and, mostly by accident, it seems, furniture. but more to the point are the styles i’ve never really understood or appreciated and likely won’t at any point soon – art deco and art nouveau, which are often seen as a continuum but i tend to imagine as two distinctive stylistic aesthetics. so my walk through experimental images in my mind took the form of a single question – if i had been designing at the height of the deco movement, taking its cue from the art nouveau period that just predated it, with all its blatant large-scale curves, thick panels and frames and unsubtle contrast transitions, could i design in that style without breaking my own design sensibilities. the result is this bed (bed-ish, you could say and still be quite accurate as it’s two beds, two desks, four dressers and an awkward number of shelving systems, depending how to decide to count them).

having explored the idea of deco more thoroughly (i am forever grateful for museum collections existing online, though i do wish more of the museums with huge furniture collections would photograph them and share the way they have with their oils and inks), i embarked on the idea of a different question. assuming i am living in the twenties (the nineteen-twenties, not the twenty-twenties, which i believe would have been a much safer place to live in many ways, though whether the great depression was more potentially-dangerous than the current combination of viral pandemic and generalized self-obsessed idiocy i have no idea) and designing furniture, what would a child’s shared bedroom setup look like. could i make something with enough interesting large-scale curvature and bold lines to fit the style but be subtle enough to satisfy my desires for clean and unadorned. the result is the contrast between ebonized frame pieces and figured cherry but meshed with a lack of offsets, flush-mounted inlaid drawers, hidden joinery and shelving on grain-matched runners, eschewing decorative elements for more bold geometrics and color contrast. these desks are large for children and there’s plenty of storage for even the most collection-obsessed – assuming there are closets or wardrobes, of course, for the myriad clothing children seem to have for all potential events in the modern world, though this exploding wardrobe size for someone who is about to outgrow it all any moment (or even someone who isn’t) confuses me more than most things about western consumer culture. that being said, though, this bedroom furniture is hopefully something that could be around for a child’s life, being comfortable and soft enough for young children and simple and modern (an interesting thought for decor of the twenties that can’t really be said of some later decades of the twentieth century) for teens and possibly go on to another generation, though i always hesitate to imagine my furniture designs being passed along as family heirlooms. the whole structure sits above the ground rather than being flush like most stroage-type bed units, making it feel more light, despite its large visual weight. the open design of the desks with shelving above and beside contribute to this, too. it’s all-too-easy to box things in with loft beds and storage units, making the whole thing feel like a built-in in a dark room, especially with wood-grain, something i hope this has avoided with its pass-through, free-standing aesthetic. even the dressers stand well off the ground to eliminate that sense of weight and permanence children often react badly to. my original thought was to have a single curved ladder in the center but, unlike a century ago, safety regulations conspired against that idea and recommendations from governments say straight ladders are the only way to go for commercial furniture, a trend i feel i should copy in this. i make up for it with the aggressive curves on the desks and shelves, both the small shelves above the desks and the much larger ones to hold books and clothing above and beside the dressers. in practice, this unit could be modified to be two beds end-to-end and mirrored by rotating the perpendicular unit ninety degrees and shifting the ladder half its width to the right – i expect if i have an opportunity to build this again that might be the requested form, depending on the dimensions of the room it will live in. even without shifting the ladder, that solution would be functional with minor adaptations. these are not strictly mirror images (see the support beam above the left side of the desk on the short leg that doesn’t appear in the other segment, for example) but they are close enough to make that modification work without much difference in the design phase. i would have said this would be the most interesting of these designs to build and the one i was most looking forward to at the time. but that was about to change with the introduction of color – just wait and you’ll see what i mean. i believe this is the most practical room design i have yet created, though. that may be the greatest irony, starting from the least-functional of styles (self-admittedly and by design, if you read literature of the deco movement) and coming up with an extremely practical and functional piece. i guess that’s what happens when a mid-century minimalist dives into the recent past.

the book’s a foot(board?)

in the interest of all things simple but with subtle details of custom design and organic flavor, the final bed in the challenge was the answer to a different hypothetical question – given true straight lines, blocky squares and inset overlays work in cabinetry and small pieces, can it work effectively at the size of a full bed or is it simply overwhelming in its bulkiness? i believe it works, keeping a few things in mind. i originally thought of this as having drawers and storage at floor level and that simply gives the piece far too much weight from a visual perspective. having small storage at the top creates balance but at the bottom feels more like an overweight posterior outstripping the beauty of a lean upper-body. the open shelving and double braces rather than much thicker large single braces adds visual airiness and allows the piece to float, especially with its fairly-high legs combined with its low-mounted mattress, connected to the bottom of the lower stretchers rather than, as is more typical in split-stretcher bed designs, the middle of the upper one to allow the bottom to be the frame and brace for the structure. the shelves at the end would work as bookshelves or clothes storage depending on need – in my case, it would certainly be books as i have dramatically more of those than clothing, something i am more than happy with on reflection. the wireframe aesthetic conveyed by even these fairly-thick double-rails and single-posts feels modern without being experimental and the whole piece, i hope, looks solid without being blocky, especially with its inset drawers. the curved shape of the headboard makes it comfortable to sit in for hours and work in a way a straight headboard wouldn’t and it is surprisingly small for a full-size bed. a single-bed version of this would be even more minimalist – the single version, by the way, has three columns of drawers, the left being two drawers mirroring the four on the right but with no other significant changes and, though i have mostly showed all of these in their queen-size forms, i can honestly say i prefer this in its single implementation. i have been careful not to show the king-size versions as the example pieces because they start to become all-too-square in their proportions. queen is a good balance and by far the most common size requested from custom furniture makers in canada and america today, anyway, so it’s an honest representation. it could be rather more overwhelming here in image and speed if i shared all the versions of each bed! i have only showed the children’s beds as single and adult-focused ones as queen.

reflections

so that’s five and that was the challenge so i turned my attention to reflecting on the process and what i have gained and experienced through the creation of these designs. but there was at least one more thing i didn’t feel like i had completely fleshed-out and i couldn’t leave that undone. what was missing? i’d done history, curves, contrast, hypothetical trips to the days of speakeasies and functional minimalism. what i hadn’t done was color. of course, i wouldn’t be the first wood-obsessed woodworker to avoid using anything but natural wood color – and, in my defense, i did use ebonized accents and frame components, covering the natural wood. i was thinking deeply about the milk-paint i often use in my design. but that didn’t satisfy. what i needed was (gasp) veneered plastic laminate. and not just as an accent. as a design feature on a large scale. this is something i’ve tackled before but only in small (read decorative casework) pieces, never something that was the primary element in a room like a bed or dining table (stay tuned – more colorful laminate is on its way in another form, i assure you – colors are more contagious than viral coronas). so there are reflections on the process i want to share but first i want to take the whole notion of reflections and share something far more literal.

thinking about the notion of colors and reflections, i found myself looking for inspiration in an unlikely spot, a designer whose work i have always respected but generally not liked very much – frank lloyd wright. what has continued to inspired me, though, from his work isn’t his architecture, which i find painfully childish, or his furniture design, which is all-well-and-good but i don’t like medieval castle furniture and it’s painful to actually sit on those chairs with their awkward proportions and straight backs – the shakers did it so well and he simply ignored their ideas and designed furniture like buildings, pretending humans don’t have curved body parts. but his glass accents intrigue me. they are a bit too abstract for much of what i want to accomplish in a minimalist way – and especially for a young audience, who would probably find the sheer complexity of the patterns overwhelming. but i wondered what might happen if those interlinked curves of color might work as solid elements, not just for decoration but structure in a piece. taking as inspiration the idea of the roma (also romany, though i’m not sure which actual members of this culture prefer and i’m happy to change my terminology if any of you are and wish to let me know what is the correct or most appropriate term) horse-wagons in a loose sense. that overlapping curved top and ranked design was a starting place but my abstract sensibilities felt the need to make it asymmetrical rather than just having the center of the arc be in the middle of the piece rather than at the edge of the bed. this configuration is far closer to traditional korean and japanese structures from the first millennium but it feels surprisingly fresh more than a thousand years later when transposed indoors.

i personally like this color combination but any combination of colors would work just as well here, depending on the target audience. even shades of gray or simply frosted white or black panels would have much the same effect. this is a piece where construction details and methods are likely of significance, though. before continuing with that, i want to make a few other points about the lack of shelving and divisions. adding extra divisions on the long shelves is certainly possible but it impedes the visual openness and i feel it is unnecessary – bookends would be preferable to dividers from an aesthetic perspective and these shelves can be used from both sides. a rank of books facing out and a different set facing in would be an excellent use of space and doesn’t feel like it adds and weight to the unit. extra shelving above the desk would require an extra pair of supports that looks out of place or extremely lightweight shelving mounted only connected to the back using a cantilevered design. even that, however, feels like it takes away from the open-concept nature of this piece, which is already quite heavy from a visual perspective with its low overhang on the bed side and its deep color palette.

one last thing before talking about actually building the piece rather than just the design. i have designed two variants of this, not just multiple sizes for different mattresses. one has a solid roof, the other with wood-framed plexiglass skylights (or, potentially, simply open to the air, the plexiglass inserts resting on mounts anyway and easily removed). some people like being able to look up at color while others prefer having more visual openness and light. it’s an aesthetic choice and i believe both work, though i personally prefer the skylight version.

in terms of construction, the frame of this piece is all built using walnut and loose-tenon joinery. the only complex work is in the headboard (which isn’t difficult, just a bit of a layout nightmare) and the roof (which is, i admit, one of the more practically-difficult things i’ve designed but not for the reason other woodworkers might immediately think as they’re probably looking at creating those curves in the wrong plane, making the whole thing a true disaster of complexity). let’s look at how it’s built starting with the headboard – i assume square-profile rectangular prisms and loose-tenon joinery don’t need an explanation and the drawers are inset-groove and rabbet construction with laminated fronts and inset holes as pulls rather than protruding ones, keeping with the flat and simple colorful motif. to create the headboard, there are two options – plywood lamination or steam-bending. that overlooks the obvious, though. a single board doesn’t have to be cut only in directions perpendicular to its axes – these frame arcs are actually cut from walnut boards as outlined curves rather than trying to bend anything. imagine the board with its edge facing straight up and its face pointing to the bed. tip the left side of the board at an angle until the board covers the area of the arc then scribe and cut each arc on a board in that orientation. this goes against the standard notion of what direction the wood in a curve will follow but it is beneficial in this case, leaving the beautiful face-grain of the walnut facing the bed rather than the ceiling – an added benefit of this method. the colored panels are simply plywood laminated to thickness with plastic veneer adhered to the outside (the adherence method of choice here is structural epoxy, by the way, if that’s useful to know, though many glues will work for this, even, contrary to popular-believe, pva, which is surprisingly strong bonding to plastic if the mating surface is sufficiently scored and roughed before the process is completed – i have done this with epoxy, pva and polyurethane glues, beyond strict urea-formaldahyde glues specifically for veneering, with good results in all cases but far better strength from epoxy, unsurprisingly, as it is a plastic-to-plastic bond). unlike the other colored panels in this work, which are all flush with their walnut mounts, the headboard offsets the colored panels to give more visual depth but, more importantly, allowing the panel to sit in a groove running around the inside of the headboard pieces, giving extra strength to a piece that will be leaned on for years. this might be a good time to point out something obvious about the framing material, by the way. i designed and imagined this as walnut with colored accents but it is, unlike most of my design work, not married to the choice of material – this would work well with oak or cherry but it could even be done with pure white or black frame pieces and have much the same aesthetic but a completely different mood sensibility. it is only pictured here in detail in the way it was conceived but it is interesting to imagine it, for example, with a bleached-oak frame and a series of blues from dark to pastel as color accents, conveying a completely different look and feel. a sample of three of these alternatives is added at the end of the photographs to show just one potential way to adapt it to other desires for color.

the real question, though, is how to build the roof structure. the simple answer, from my perspective, is to apply veneer to multiple arcs cut from plywood and that is my construction method of choice for this entire piece beyond its frame. let’s begin with the frame, however. the same strategy is employed for cutting the arcs as those on the headboard. the arcs are significantly larger, though, so they have to be constructed from multiple edge-laminated segments of walnut. if attention is paid to the grain structure, though, and layout is done carefully, the joins are invisible at all but the closest distance and the curve hides any glue line as it’s not in-line with the horizon or the edge. the frame pieces running parallel to the long axis of the bed are simpler. they are cut to square-dimensional shape then the entire piece is assembled and these are smoothed by sanding to the existing line from a template. the arc is quite gentle across any section as narrow as those frame pieces and sanding the curve required takes only a few minutes by hand. the colored panels are a different story, however. forming them in this way would be cumbersome and – not to dwell on the point too much – silly and wasteful. the answer to these is far more pragmatic. the curve is cut in the same way as the walnut edges but there is no need to do it from large, laminated sections as each panel only needs to be made independently. the long frame pieces are joined using loose-tenon joinery to avoid the need for lapped joints and the same procedure is used for the colored panels, too. they are done using a set of laminations in cross-section of plywood then the entire panel for each block is veneered on two faces with colored plastic veneer, as the flat panels were done, using a vacuum press. this process is relatively straightforward and only requires good glue adhesion. each panel is cut for loose-tenons then the whole roof structure is assembled and glued, lifted and mounted to the top, again using loose-tenon joinery as is the case for the rest of the piece.

one last construction detail remains. the optional skylights are cut perpendicular to the plane tangent to the center of the curvature of the roof. the way this is done is actually quite simple. each panel that is receiving a skylight inset is put in a jig where it is mounted with its central curvature tangent to the horizontal structure of the jig and template-routed using a plunge-router descending as if it was flat against the its plate. the only caveat to this is that it requires a long bit but that is not a significant problem as such bits, while somewhat prohibitively-priced are easily-sourced. this could be done on a shaper but there’s no need for such heavy equipment for fairly small panels and insets, not to mention their geometric simplicity. once the skylight holes have been routed, 8mm walnut strips that have been bent around forms using steam are attached to the rims and sanded flush. the only bond necessary here is glue between the edge-strips and the plywood as this is a non-structural joint and it is wood-to-wood with no potential for seasonal movement shifting the segments.

final thoughts

of course, this is only the end of the first stage and i have four more forms to go but i have some initial conclusions. the first is that this is an amazing exercise and i would recommend it to any furniture designers looking to explore their ideas. the second is that what i have come up with in this more abstract way, without being restricted by my usual requirements of “what the client will buy” or, more frequently, “what the students can build in a unit or semester” has truly surprised me and stimulated what i hope will be some interesting ideas in future pieces. one final note, it’s important not to become too complex and theoretical. while i was working on this, i found myself having to be very careful to remain true to the idea of things i can actually build and that people might actually want in their homes – this is a cautionary note because i found myself drifting all-too-often. that being said, i hope you will all take this challenge with me and design at least one style of each piece on the list. those five forms, once again, were bed, chair, cabinet-on-stand, tea-box/jewelry-box and stool. see what you come up with – you don’t have to share but i encourage you not simply to put your designs out there but to reflect on them like i have and explore your inspiration and motivation for each decision you made. it will make you a better and more self-aware designer. until the next stage is complete, may the force and the fusion be with you. thanks for reading.

woodworking gifts — christmas 2021 edition

[estimated reading time 12 minutes]

every year, one of the big questions on everyone’s mind as the seasons get snowy and trees start to get used for decoration rather than just furniture is what to buy the woodworker in your life for christmas. so let’s think about a bunch of small things, another bunch of less-small things and a few rather large things pretty-much every woodworker will smile finding under the tree christmas morning. this isn’t an exhaustive list and (warning) some of these involve the use of electricity so if the woodworker in your life is actually morally opposed to the use of electrons those might be off-limits. i’m an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to how to shape wood, though, so they are welcome in my shop any day.

before we get on to the specifics, though, there’s one gift every woodworker is always happy to receive regardless of season, time or quantity. wood. want to find your way into the heart of someone who builds things? give them some beautiful raw materials and they’ll forever be grateful. it might help to know what their favorites are but here are a few basic suggestions.

exotic wood is expensive. it’s always nice to have a few small pieces to use as decoration and a little goes a long way. if you’re in north america, this usually means things like wenge, bubinga, ebony, cocobolo, padauk and zebrawood. if you can get your hands on a few of the hardcore rare african or australian species, that’s likely to be appreciated, too. remember, a single nice example is far more desirable than large quantities of poor-quality wood — that’s never going to end up in a project anyway.

domestic wood tends to be expensive, too. seriously, wood is a disaster for the wallet in recent years. that’s not because it’s not worth it. it’s simply that most woodworkers are operating at a loss because they’re doing it as a hobby rather than selling enough of their work to make a profit. that means every new investment in lumber is another trip into the painful area of throwing good money after enjoyment. that being said, north-american domestic species like maple, walnut, cherry, oak (white or even red) and ash won’t go astray in just about any workshop, especially if they are either very straight-grained (ask your hardwood dealer if you’re not sure but it should be visually-obvious) or highly-figured. take a look at the pieces coming from the shop and see what wood is used in them already — some more of that is probably going to be well-received.

some woodworkers like softwood (pine, fir, spruce, cedar, etc) but that tends to be far less expensive and a lot of us (like me) simply don’t use it unless we have to so that’s not going to light up the eyes on christmas morning the same way a nice board of curly maple or figured walnut will.

the last piece of advice about wood is that woodworkers come in three main flavors when it comes to wood — the ones who work with softwood all the time, lovers of hardwood (knights of the white oak unite!) and passionate advocates for veneer. i happen to be in the second and third camps — i love working with good-quality veneer. if you’re connected to a woodworker who is down with the veneer and has started to ride that train, that’s another beautiful thing to provide — a few sheets of burl or highly-figured decorative veneer can be acquired relatively inexpensively and that’s far easier to wrap than a stack of white oak. anyway, if you’ve taken an interest in their life, you probably already know this. just don’t think wood is a tacky or meaningless gift. we truly do want more of it. always. there’s no such thing as an overfilled woodstack if you’re building things on a regular basis.

consumables

there are many things that can appear in the stocking that will never go astray. it doesn’t matter if we already have them. we can always have more these come in two varieties — consumables and multiples. i’ll get to the multiples in a minute.

consumables are things like glue, sandpaper, pencils, chalk and even epoxy.

there are many varieties of glue but most of us use the same three types all the time. the vast majority is done with basic wood-glue — and the dramatically-most-popular of those is titebond. you’ll probably never go wrong with a bottle or two of titebond (especially 3) in the stocking. there’s no shortage of uses for it and you can never have too much. it lasts years if unopened and sometimes even after it has been if stored properly. so it won’t go to waste. cyanoacrylate glue (also called “super” or “crazy”) comes in various types but you can usually find it in thin, thick and gel. thick and gel are a bit more specialty-focused and most of us probably don’t use them much. but for quick repairs, making jigs and dealing with plastic in the shop, thin ca is something that’s always nice to have around — if your woodworker is also a turner, this is even more typically the case. the third type isn’t really a glue at all but a liquid plastic — epoxy. whether you’re doing full-on epoxy resin as a decorative element or just using it the way i do as a way to fill cracks and glue pieces together, a serious two-part epoxy (totalboat, west system) or even a five-minute epoxy for shop tasks is definitely something just about every woodworker will use and, being liquid plastic, this won’t go bad — a properly-stored bottle of epoxy, as it only works after it’s been mixed together, will literally last decades.

sandpaper is the gift that keeps on … wearing out. whether it’s the kind you’re using by hand or the type to fit the random-orbit sander (you’ll have to check which kind they need but hand-use sandpaper is always useful regardless), sandpaper is part of pretty-much every project in the shop. skip the really low grits, though. we’re not talking about rough carpentry here. 120, 180, 220, 320, 400 and 800 are extremely useful. if you’re looking at working with a lot of epoxy or you’re turning things like pens and handles, 1200, 2000 and beyond might be helpful. but a nice new stash of 220 and 320 is probably never going to go astray — especially the hard-to-find and overpriced stick-backed sandpaper that makes construction of sanding blocks and sticks so much less annoying! 3m makes great paper as does klingspor but if you go to any woodworking supply shop they’ll have a few different good-quality brands. most people don’t care too much as long as the paper is fresh — especially if it’s free.

pencils and chalk are always useful in the shop for marking — as are markers like sharpies. i can’t begin to describe how many pieces of chalk (multicolored if you can find a good selection) and disposable mechanical pencils (.5mm is generally the most useful for me) have disappeared over the years. a few boxes of chalk and packs of mechanical pencils will always be appreciated. there’s nothing like being able to mark an accurate line or make a quick note on a piece of wood without having to go searching for a pencil on the other side of the shop. having dozens of extras lying around all over the place is generally a happy place to be. there’s nothing special about a pencil, practically-speaking. just the cheap ones from the office-supply store or box-store will work just fine if you have enough of them — they’re going to get lost faster than wear out, anyway.

multiples

there are various things in the shop you can never have enough of. not just pencils, though that’s definitely the first thing that comes to mind. here are a few of the others, though, that are inexpensive and, even if they already have one, they’ll be happy to have.

squares. my most-used square is a 150mm combination square but i have several of those, some 300s, 600s, 100s, etc. you can’t have too many of them. even a few cheap ones never go astray. i recommend starrett if you can afford it because they’re awesome but there are various other good brands, too. johnson makes a really nice one that’s very affordable and irwin’s is ok but a bit less precise. anyway, a few combination squares and you can just about do anything in the shop. try-squares, machinists’ squares and 1-2-3 blocks are also definitely on the list of useful squares for shop-use, though i find i only really reach for the combination ones unless i’m working on setting up a machine — then i use the machinists’ square, as you might expect. in theory, you can have more squares than you need. but i can’t imagine anyone ever complaining about it.

rulers. measuring is important. remember that thing about measuring twice and cutting once? most of us end up measuring a dozen times for every cut. just because it’s so hard to put the wood back once you’ve cut it off. again, i recommend starrett but short, medium, long, really-long, whatever you can get. metal rulers with etched numbers are truly important and invaluable in the shop. my most-used is (like the square) a 150mm but i use my 300 all the time and a 1200 is awesome for larger projects. a tape-measure is a necessity but having more than one of those isn’t all that helpful as they’re not used that much. metal rulers, though, are worth their weight in … iron.

many woodworkers (probably the vast majority) don’t agree with me about marking. i believe in using a pencil, always a pencil and only a pencil, never a knife. i have reasons for this and there are absolutely justifiable ways to get better-quality joinery and higher levels of accuracy this way. but it’s a decision and a way of working. most do their marking with knives. that means a few extra marking-knives are definitely useful to them. other marking tools it’s useful to have multiples of if you cut your marks rather than pencil them include marking and mortising gauges. if you check out the ones listed from veritas, grammercy and igaging, they’re all good-quality and i have no doubt they’ll be well-received — unless, of course, you’re like me and simply don’t use them. but i’m in a small minority and i still find them beautiful and fun to make from kits.

which brings us to an interesting aside. if you’re going to buy a tool for a woodworker, there’s often the option to get it as a kit they can make. that’s almost always going to be the more fun approach. even if they don’t want the tool, they’ll enjoy the making and probably give the tool away after and be very happy for the excuse to get in the shop and make something quickly.

other things that are useful to have multiples of, by the way, are clamps. i really like bar and pipe clamps but quick-clamps and f-style clamps are really useful in the shop, too. some woodworkers (not me) really like wooden hand-screw clamps. i find them slow and annoying to use but most don’t agree with me on this and actually like them for many tasks. whatever they’ve already got a few of and use regularly, though, is probably a good bet. having more clamps is good. having less is … usually an excuse to go buy some cause they’re so useful in the middle of a project. i’ve never heard of a woodworker who doesn’t want more clamps.

kits

beyond the basics of marking gauges and small things, there are many kits out there for woodworkers. but the ones i usually recommend are for saws. grammercy and blackburn (among many others) make kits for frame-saws, turning-saws and other specialty tools. while these aren’t necessarily going to get used all the time in an average shop, they’re fun to make and usually relatively inexpensive. i highly recommend them as gifts — the grammercy kits for the 36” frame-saw and 12” turning saw are particularly nice things to play with.

it’s also fun to make handles. many tools are available unhandled or simply come with worn-out ones. you can never have too many chisels. the thing to keep in mind, though, is that you probably want to ask a reputable vintage tool dealer before parting with any of your money. whether it’s american-style or japanese, a good-quality old chisel is going to cost some actual money — what you can pick up for five bucks is probably worth exactly nothing. if your woodworking gift-recipient is a fan of the vintage tools, though, a beautiful example of history is probably going to be a great place, especially if it’s something where the steel is a bit out of their typical price-range because it looks like it needs a new handle, something we can all quickly remedy with a few hours in the shop.

small tools

speaking of chisels, you really can’t have enough of them. but they vary a lot in quality and size. there are a few chisels that will almost always be well-received, though.

most of us have neglected our collections of the very-small, very-large and speciality. a chisel of the 2/3mm or 36-60mm range is probably something most people don’t have nearly enough of and that’s extremely useful. these are outside the range of typical kits and are usually purchased only as single chisels. you might want to check on favorite brands or at least favorite styles (japanese or american in particular) but here are a few guidelines. for an expensive chisel, narex and two cherries are good american-style brands. better quality chisels are made by veritas and lie nielsen. you won’t go wrong with those. japanese chisels are generally made by individual makers and vary much more in quality (and price). if you go to a reputable dealer (hida, iida, etc) they’ll point you in the right direction — just pick your budget and tool of choice and it’ll be pretty easy to choose. skew and fishtail chisels are useful and most woodworkers don’t actually have them — or at least don’t have enough of them. those are usually nice things to get and hobbyists rarely find the excuse to spend the money on them.

another tool that fits in the hand and is always useful, even if you already have one or two of them, is a block plane. no, it’s not the most useful plane. but you can pick them up cheaply — both low-angle and standard-angle — and having a few setup at different depths is useful for many tasks. i like to keep one really light, one really heavy and one medium one so i don’t have to adjust them if possible. and they’re used with one hand so they’re far less exhausting for tiny adjustments than picking up a heavy full-size plane.

other fun tools in this size and price range include spokeshaves, drawknives, rasps and files. they’re small, easy to ship and wrap and constantly useful — even if you’ve never used them before. as spokeshaves go, the veritas and lie nielsen ones are truly awesome but even the cheap amazon ones are wonderful to play with. there are many drawknives out there but for the money i think the mora is probably the best deal. rasps and files range from the incredibly-cheap (avoid those) to the extremely-expensive (beautiful but usually unnecessary). aim for something reasonably-priced and you’ll probably get it right. ones sold at woodworking shops tend to be quite good regardless of brand — i’ve never seen a bad file or rasp at a shop like woodcraft, though many bad ones are sold at hardware stores every day.

if your gift-recipient hasn’t done much carving, that might be another place to look for something interesting for them to play with. there are excellent starter sets from narex, flexcut, pfeil, mora and two cherries that range from the under-a-hundred-bucks range to two or three, depending on your budget. if they’re just starting, i’d suggest one of two places to begin. two cherries has a few fantastic sets for under a hundred dollars with six or seven tools in each — they’re all excellent. if you’re looking for something a bit more niche, though, mora makes some great spoon-carving knives. to get started, a sloyd-knife, tight-hook and loose-hook are all you need and that’s pretty inexpensive. while you’re at it, a small carving hatchet or axe might be helpful but i understand not everyone wants to put such a dangerous-looking tool under the tree, especially if there are kids around. so that might be an addition for another day. there are amazing handmade tools for carving and they’re definitely, in some cases, worth the money. but starting out the difference isn’t significant and it’s usually better to start with the inexpensive ones and see if it’s really something enjoyed in the first place, anyway.

not-so-small tools

there are a few other things i generally recommend as gifts for woodworkers, though this may be a bit more controversial. i believe in exploring what’s out there rather than sticking to the tried-and-true tools. as such, i think everyone should experiment with japanese saws. if you don’t have one, it’s worth a couple of days playing and some really excellent saws are available that work on the pull-stroke for very little money.

if you pick up a suizan dozuki, it will definitely give you a different understanding of what a fine, precise cut is. whether you decide in a few months you really love the thing and want to use it for all your fine joinery or you simply want to chalk it up to experience and go back to your american-style saw, you can get them for under forty bucks and that’s less than you’d pay for a lot of other far-less-educational and far-less-fun experiences. other good brands of japanese saws include z-saw and gyokucho but i have found the suizan to be the best value. i recommend a dozuki as your first japanese saw but a kataba or ryoba are both great choices, too.

the other saw your woodworking recipient may not have is a bushcraft saw. i find these extremely useful, especially the folding ones. you never know when you’ll have to chop down a small tree somewhere or take off some branches — or, like me, use it in the shop for rough cutting boards to length and shape. i think every workshop can be supplemented by and enjoy the use of a silky gomboy. they’re thick-plated, nearly-indestructible saws with replaceable blades that fold and are light enough to stick in your backpack and simply keep there (unless you’re going through a security checkpoint cause, you know, it’s a saw). if you have one, you’ll find new uses for it. it’s like a pocket-knife but without being limited to things the size of an apple.

one last little tool, though these often come in kits of multiples, which is great, too — card-scrapers. while i’m a huge proponent of sanding, a card-scraper will save you so much time both with preparing for finish and getting things in the right shape in the first place. dfm makes some great ones — a few flat and curved ones make a great little collection. while you’re at it, get a burnisher (carbide if you can find it because that’ll make your life far easier).

brands

i don’t usually include this specifically but i keep getting asked for specifics so here it is. i highly-recommend talking to a reputable tool dealer in your area but here are some excellent brands to pick something up from… almost anything they make will probably be happily-received under the tree this christmas. it’s not a complete list but it’ll get you started.

  • veritas
  • lie nielsen
  • woodriver
  • starrett
  • grammercy
  • blackburn
  • pfeil
  • two cherries
  • silky
  • bearkat
  • dmt
  • knew concepts

if you want a reputable dealer for japanese tools in america, i recommend hida or iida. there are definitely others but these are two i have had great experience with and they’ll point you in the right direction for the right brand and item for your budget. having a relationship with a good tool dealer is a great thing for any woodworker (or woodworking partner)!

thoughts

well, merry christmas and all that. seriously, though, if you’re shopping for the woodworker in your life, i hope i’ve made that task a little easier. good luck with the rest of your holiday tasks!

kane tsugi picture-frame

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

(click here to download the detailed 3d diagrams with measurements.)

one of the most common things i’m asked to demonstrate is traditional japanese joinery – realistically, though, while i certainly prefer japanese methods, the joints are often more complex than are needed in contemporary furniture and the traditional mortise-and-tenon and dovetail used in the west are actually the most common in japanese furniture construction, too. the more-obviously-asian joints are relatively rare in practical applications but they can be beautiful and extremely strong. perhaps the most visibly-appealing of these joints is one that’s more often faked than cut as a functional joint – the kane tsugi. without getting into all the specifics of translation, though, the easiest way to think of this joint is as a pinned-mitered-bridal-joint. if you’re curious why it’s called a “bridal-joint”, it has male and female sides and i’ll leave the rest to your imagination. it results in strong picture-frame joints that never shift and the visual interest makes it obvious this is a handmade frame – no mass-produced machine process is going to go to all this trouble!

that being said, it’s a time-consuming joint to cut but nothing particualrly difficult. if you can draw some lines and use a chisel to carefully pare to them, this should be no problem. you’ll need a small backsaw, a couple of chisels, a hammer (or mallet) to hit the chisels, a straight-edge paring block, a pencil (of course) and, perhaps, a drill (electric or hand-powered makes no difference as long as you can drill straight with it) – you can definitely cut the hole with a chisel but i’d personally avoid that because it significantly increases the difficulty of the whole project and the result is the same.

the first thing to do is to prepare your stock. i am building this (as you can see from the pictures) from cherry with walnut pegs but you can use any wood you like. cherry (sakura) is one of the most traditional woods in japan and it’s one of my favorites to work with. i’m using walnut pegs simply because they provide visual contrast but you can use the same species for those if you prefer – i’ve also done this with brass or aluminum pegs for a more industrial look.

first, square your stock at 80x18mm then cut to length. i suggest leaving yourself a little extra when you cut but the lengths you’re aiming for in the finished piece are 400mm rails and 560mm stiles. if you cut them to 420 and 580, you should have plenty of extra material to pare away and guarantee perfect 45-degree miters.

while you’re preparing stock, the other things you’ll need are four pins. these will be 12mm squares and i suggest making them at least 40mm long to make them easy to insert later. don’t prepare your back or glass until you’ve finished all the joinery unless you’re exceptionally confident in your precision. it’s far easier to fit a back once you’ve got the rest already in-place.

we’ll cut the rails first. either is fine but i find it easier to cut a mortise then shape the tenon to fit. a bit of layout. lay your stile across your rail flush against the end and draw a line where they intersect. this line should be 80mm from the end. repeat this on all four ends of your rails. if it’s not 80mm (check with your ruler), figure out why it’s not. precision is important and, while you can definitely do things with different measurements, the first time is far easier if everything is precisely as expected. this isn’t a simple 45-degree miter-joint and it’s easy to get lost if things get a little different. do the same with your stiles using a rail to draw your lines. the drawings on the faces and edges should be the same on both rails and stiles. don’t forget to label them “left”, “right”, “top” and “bottom” on the front face of each. it is easy to get confused – i’ve definitely had it happen.

you should now have an 80mm square on the end of each rail. draw a diagonal from the outside point to the inside point of each square.

from the inside point of that square, draw a 48mm square then a 12mm square in the center of that square (18mm from each face).

turn the boards and draw lines 6mm from both faces on the outside edges. these are the guidelines for your mortises and tenons.

mark your waste. if you’re not sure what’s going to be waste, take a look at the diagrams both in 2d and 3d. the idea is that we’re going to be cutting a miter on the outside corner and a mortise in the rails to accept a tenon on each end of each stile. don’t worry about the rabbets for the back and glass yet. we’ll cut those once the rest of the frame is already assembled.

the first thing to cut shouldn’t be your miters. cut the straight edges first. on the rails, this will be a 48mm-deep cut 32mm from each end. don’t aim for your line. give yourself at least 1mm to pare to – much more if you’re not precise with your saw. when you have those done on each end, complete the squares and you should have a 48x32mm rectangle cut from each rail. repeat this on the stiles the same way. the cuts are rotated but the dimensions are all the same.

how to cut the angles is a good question. i think it’s easier to simply skip the saw and go straight to a guide-block and cut them with a chisel. you’re welcome to use a saw if you prefer but don’t get too close to your lines. pare with a chisel for accuracy. start with the rails then move on and do the same for the stiles. with the rectangle already removed, it should be simple to connect the inside point of the missing rectangles with the outside points of the rails and stiles. if it’s worked properly, you’ll have a rectangle and a right-triangle missing from each piece.

now comes the difficult part. cutting the mortises and tenons. yes, you can use a saw for this. i don’t. remember the outside faces need to be accurate but everything else is hidden within the joint so you can be significantly less precise there. just make sure you don’t have gaps on the outside and the rest can be shaved thinner to make the joint easier to fit – the pin will hold it together even if there’s not a complete bond with the glue.

use a thin chisel (3-4mm) to make a mortise in the end of each rail. you’re aiming for 48mm deep but if you go deeper on the inside it’s totally fine – it just has to be at least deep enough to fit the mating piece. dig the entire mortise at the width of your chisel then bring in a larger chisel (32/36mm is my recommendation) to widen it to 6mm.

on the stiles, the process is far easier, which is why we left it until now – it’s easier to make this fit the mortise than to keep going back to try to get the mortise exactly the right size. start about 1mm from your line and chop down with your large chisel along the entire line to create a stop-cut – hold the bevel away from the line. now flip the bevel and angle the chisel at 45-degrees, move it a few millimeters into your tenon and chop out the v. go back to the first line you made and go deeper, repeating the same thing. do this for the entire tenon. all your cuts should be across the grain. if they’re not, you’re doing it wrong and the piece will split. be careful.

if your joint fits, that’s fantastic. if it doesn’t, you can continue to pare your tenon using a chisel or use sandpaper to make sure it’s smooth there and inside your mortise. when they’re all exactly 6mm-thick, the joint should slide together with light pressure from a mallet or clamp. glue it together. yes, i’m aware we haven’t made the holes for the pins yet. apply clamping pressure left-to-right, top-to-bottom and, most-importantly, front-to-back on the joints. check for square. if it’s not square, force it to be. you won’t hurt it. it’ll thank you later.

once all four joints are seating properly, take out your drill and drill the four holes straight through the completed joints at 8-10mm. don’t drill at 12mm unless you want larger holes. use your 3 or 6mm chisel to make these holes square through each joint. with those holes made, put glue in the holes and drive your pegs through. you can leave the pegs proud, round them or cut them flush. i like to cut them flush for a more contemporary look. totally up to you.

you don’t need to use clamps for that. once it’s all dry and your pegs are trimmed, you can cut your rabbets. use a straight-edge and saw to make 6mm-deep rabbets 6mm from each inside edge on the back. i’ll say that again – on the back. i’ve made this mistake before. i will never make it again, i hope. if you do, it just means you’re switching which face is the front but you’ve probably picked the nicest faces for the front and it’s disappointing if you have to switch now. there are many ways to cut a rabbet – you can even use a trim-router if you like. i do it with a saw and finish the inside corners with a large chisel. yes, it’s easier to cut them before you glue the piece together. but they never line up perfectly and cutting them after ensures no gaps. take your pick. i do it after.

sand. thoroughly. at least to 400 but this is a display of your woodworking prowess. i’d go to at least 1000/1200 and make the thing shine. apply finish (i suggest 6-10 coats of thin shellac) and let it dry.

cut your back and glass to the size of your opening, seat them and pin them in place.

now you have a picture-frame. i hope you’ve enjoyed building with me today. this is a very functional joint, extremely stable and secure, though not the simplest to cut. perhaps you’ll find other uses for it in your daily woodworking. where it typically shows up is in frame-and-panel construction – perhaps make a desktop or doors using this as a way to accent your edges. thanks for taking the time to explore japanese joinery with me. until next time…

searching in the garden

[estimated reading time 2 minutes]

as mina rounded the corner on her way home from another unfulfilling day at college, she was confronted by the silhouette of her grandmother bent on the ground, face almost touching the grass in front of the house. she burst into a run and, within a few meters of her grandmother, suddenly stopped and began staring. she hadn’t collapsed. she was actively searching for something but obviously not finding it.

grandma, i’m home. i’ll help you look.

her grandmother’s face began to shine with pleasure to see mina and she was obviously relieved because her eyesight left much to be desired and young eyes should have guaranteed success.

i’m glad you’re here! now i’ll be able to find my glasses.

you dropped your glasses out here?

no. i dropped them in the living room. but it’s so dark in there i can’t see. out here it’s bright so i have a chance of finding them.

this is a traditional buddhist story about enlightenment. a diligent search in the light, however well-intentioned and devoted, will never lead to wisdom or understanding. enlightenment is impossible unless we confront and accept not only the light, the happiness and goodness in ourselves but the darkness and confusion, the suffering and imbalance found there, too.

mina’s grandmother is putting a lot of effort into her search and she is doing it where there is an excellent chance of finding something — the problem is that she won’t find what she’s looking for there, though perhaps she will discover something else. this could lead to confusion in many ways. the first is that she will eventually become discouraged and disinterested by her fruitless search. the other is that she may mistake whatever she finds for the object of her search — her glasses in this case or enlightenment in ours.

what buddhism preaches is revolutionary acceptance. not simply accepting the good but looking deeply at the darkness and problems in our lives and understanding that we will have to start from wherever we are rather than fighting against the things that are already true and present around us. if we don’t accept the situation, we will be locked in a struggle with reality and reality always wins. when we accept it, it doesn’t mean we have to see our current place as good, only recognize it as true. from that moment of acceptance, we start looking in the right place for our enlightenment — the place where we are.

shut up and write down

[estimated reading time 29 minutes]

you think you understand and that’s great. but here’s the real question — can you teach it? there is an old saying. “those who can’t do teach.” it’s sadly true in many cases but the truth of the matter is actually on a totally different axis. those who teach understand. no, not that those who are teaching things have the deepest understanding — those who have taught them understand them better.

and i don’t mean people in the education system. i mean students. when you’re learning, the hardest thing is often to take the things you understood when you were told, listening or reading them in a theoretical sense, and turning them into practical, useful knowledge. i’m sure you’ve experienced this disconnect. you sit in a classroom for hours and everything makes perfect sense. you’re shocked how much you got. and you’re even more shocked by the fact you didn’t automatically know it before. it all seemed so easy and comprehensible and obvious. now you know. and as soon as you go to your friend’s house after the lecture and they ask you what you were studying, you start to tell them. they’re excited and ask questions and you … simply draw a blank. you have no idea. what seemed clear only an hour or two before is so far from your grasp you can’t even give the most basic explanation.

what’s happened? has your memory failed you? are you really that bad at trying to remember basic information in context that you don’t know what was explained not days but hours earlier? not in the slightest. i mean, your memory might be absolute shit but that’s a whole other matter. what’s really happened is that the information has never truly solidified in your mind and that’s an easy problem to solve. instructors have spent centuries trying to crack this problem. they ask spontaneous questions, give in-class quizzes and drill people repetitively in front of their peers, usually leading not to better understanding or deeper memory-penetration but embarrassment for students, which is, even more painfully, exactly the reason many instructors continue to do it, despite it simply not working.

why doesn’t it work? because memory is write-only. when things are taken from outside, they’re written in our memories but they don’t get reaccessed until the next need to write them — read isn’t really a thing for memory unless we’re dreaming. as much as this is difficult to understand, this example might help.

you can’t remember something. a detail. someone’s name. you try and try and minutes go by. a few hours later, you still haven’t remembered but your friend asks you who you were thinking about earlier and their name immediately comes as you are speaking your answer. you had to “write” the information and it has been retrieved by your memory-on-demand system. that’s how it works. if you request the information, you’re not going to get it. but if you need the information for a practical purpose — like communicating it or forming a dream — it will be there. there’s a side-effect, though. the next time you remember it, it will be written to your memory again. this is why memory drills are so useful — rote learning really does work, though it’s often a slow way of doing it because the same information repeated is less useful as a storage method than information with its context.

but what does that mean for practical learning? we’re not going to be there in front of a class teaching the entire introductory organic-chemistry course we’re sitting through. unless we become professors. and that’s a long way off and we’d better have learned it long before that point or the rest of the courses in the degree aren’t likely to make much sense. there has to be a better way.

well, there are several ways. flashcards are probably the most obvious triggers for memory and they’re incredibly-useful. but there’s a far better way — a way that doesn’t require someone to ask you questions and interpret your answers. what’s the simplest way to get thorough understanding of information? blog about it.

i know that’s going to sound really strange but hear me out.

it doesn’t have to be the place you share your darkest secrets — if you have such a place, this might need to be a different place. you can get a free blogging account from many sources, though i recommend wordpress because it’s simple and has been around for years and just works without problems unless you’re trying to do something complicated. and it’s free for this. sure, you’ll have to pay money if you want to do something more public and involved and get a domain and custom graphics and stuff. but this is for learning. don’t get fancy. just shut up and write.

so start a blog for each course you’re taking. let’s say you’re taking a basic course in modern history. i’ll use it as an example because it’s my favorite course to teach. so you go to wordpress and you log in (cause you probably have a wordpress account already and if you don’t i have no idea where you’ve been living without wanting to write before — put down the fucking pen and join the twentieth century a few decades too late) and tell it you want a new blog. it’ll take you a few minutes and you can play with a few visual settings and get the thing to be nice and pretty but you really can just start immediately with the basic blogging interface and write your first post. it’ll ask you what you want and you can literally just type “jean’s history 1000 notes”. or you can get creative. “exploring first-year history with shannon” or “dive into the recent past with kirstie”. be as funky as you like but start the blog. then you end up staring at an empty screen. you don’t know what to write.

but wait. you took notes, right? if you have a good instructor, they didn’t let you take notes. i don’t. i give the notes printed in point form and provide detailed ones online. and that’s great. but i don’t expect students to read them. i expect students to write them. no, not copy them verbatim. that would be stupid. i’ve seen people who want to be novelists do that. take whole books written by other writers they want to emulate and copy them completely by hand. it’s a ridiculous practice. sure, it’ll work. but it’s a bad way to use your time when there’s something far more beneficial and no more time-consuming. write your own version.

let’s take the first class of an introductory history course and write a short blog article. copy the entire contents of the first class’ notes into your article then start at the top rewording it. it will feel strange taking something that’s already, in theory, written perfectly-well and turning it into something else. but the point is you’re stimulating your memory by forcing it to write the information again after you’ve already written it once. you’re guaranteeing long-term storage in your memory this way in a way reading or listening simply can’t do. you can do this for any course, of course. but we’ll start with this one. here’s the basic outline — you should make one if your instructor hasn’t given one for the class before you take their paragraphs and reword them.

by the way, keep your answers short. don’t try to write two or three thousand words about a single idea. divide it. never write more than a few hundred words on something without shifting to a new question. if the question requires more than that, split it in pieces — as many pieces as you can. if you can get detailed enough to write only three or four sentences then go to the next thing, it will flow far more easily. this is a good way to do all your writing but especially writing about topics you haven’t mastered yet. you won’t drift off-topic. and you’ll be able to focus more easily on communicating the information rather than getting sidetracked into self-delusion or opinions.

this is an example from the most recent version of my introductory contemporary-history course (generally called history 1000 or something similar at most colleges) that starts about 1900 and goes to today. this is, of course, only the introductory lecture so there’s not much detailed historical knowledge in it. you’re welcome to browse through the rest of the course notes for this or any other course i teach. they’re not restricted only to my students. i don’t see any reason to prevent knowledge from being shared. i get paid exactly the same amount to teach it regardless of how many people read the notes and i put in exactly the same amount of effort — for greater reward with each pair of eyes.

i’m going to do exactly the exercise with my publicly-available notes that i suggest you do for every class of every course you take from now until the end of time. it’s worth it. you won’t have to study nearly as much. or at all. while you might be able to remember the information well-enough for an exam if you can’t teach it, if you can teach it, you’ll know it far more intimately and that memory won’t fade the way batch-learning as a recipient does.

let’s begin with that outline.

  • why study history?
  • what is history? can anything be true?
  • what is revisionism and is it always bad?
  • what’s so important about the contemporary period?
  • why is the last century (or so) different from the rest of the human past?
  • why do we go to war?
  • why do wars end? do they ever really?
  • how do we determine who was on the right side of a conflict?
  • what’s the difference between history and current affairs?
  • what can history tell us about the future?

i generally split all my lectures into a series of short sections that last between ten and fifteen minutes — for a three-hour course that happens once a week, this works out to be about ten or twelve point. for a one-hour lecture, that’s probably five. each one can be subdivided but it’s a good place to start. given how useful this is as a way to organize, i think everyone should start their writing this way, especially if they’re writing something like notes or nonfiction. fiction can be far more fluid and flexible. but notes are meant to be organized. without organization, they’re not notes. they’re just a verbal cluster-fornication. and that, despite its name, is no fun at all.

if you’re not interested in history, this might get a little boring for you. but if you’re not interested in history you should be ashamed of yourself. and of your teachers. because history is nothing but the story of humans. and if you’re not interested in what humans are doing what exactly is happening in your day? if teachers have made history boring with detailed, meaningless facts and numbers (dates, populations, distances, casualties), that’s not history. that’s just knowledge-gatekeeping. tell them to fuck off. history is about telling stories and understanding the past as a way to prepare for the future. the details are fine but they’re only useful once you already understand. they’re not the path to knowledge. only the side-effect of having so throughly understood you want more. more history has been hated by students learning from teachers who want to share statistics than by any other purpose — likely including those who have lived through some of its darker periods.

with your outline created, turn each of those into headings and work your way through the provided notes. just keep moving and turn each new paragraph into one of your own explaining the same information in your own words. you don’t have to be creative but you certainly can be. if you find something interesting, make a little note to yourself to come back and add more details later. it wouldn’t surprise me if a few of these topics become populated with five or ten or more subtopics and you go diving in wikipedia or other sources to find more details to add simply because you’re interested. but don’t do that during the initial transformation process. you want this to be relatively fast and unencumbered — if it takes you ten hours to complete it, you’re going to stop doing it. separate your research-from-personal-interest-time from the process of solidifying your memory after class and it will be much easier to see the positive results.

what follows here for the next few pages is actually a notes summary like i would suggest you write for this class. i won’t comment throughout on how to do it. just write whatever you think best communicates what you heard in class and read on the screen in the existing notes. imagine your audience is your best friend. be generous with the information but don’t assume they’re stupid. just be accurate and talk to them like someone you know well. i will, of course, write this as if i’m speaking it in a classroom situation. so should you. go off on asides because they’ll help you remember. don’t be afraid to wander. just make sure you get all the information from the source paragraph and all is good. when you’re finished, you can even come back and read it — make your own recordings and listen to them later or share them with someone else who might be interested. now you’re learning by teaching.

why study history?

there are two reasons history is a useful thing to study — enjoyment and practical knowledge. the best part about history is that it’s both the expression of searching for real information and a narrative. if either is missing, it’s not history. as humans, we love storytelling. we share what happened in our days and what we hope to have for the future. we talk about others (gossip) and ask about our friends and their families. we want stories — humans have an insatiable desire for narrative detail. while we may not be interested in how many, how long, how much or precisely when, we simply can’t get enough of “what happened next?”. every movie you watch, show you stream and novel you read is an exploration of a human story. even if the characters are cute animated kittens. it’s all about how human life unfolded and you’re watching with rapt attention, waiting for the next thing to occur. this is history. the stories of the past we tell in historical exploration are no different from those portrayed in novels and movies and drunken-retellings all over the world every day. the difference is actually quite subtle — we do it not just for entertainment but with a second purpose, perhaps a more-important primary purpose and this is the side-effect.

the other purpose is predictive. you might be told it’s not, that history is meant to be an objective exploration of the past for no purpose other than awareness. that’s nothing more than bullshit academic garbage and anyone who says such a thing should be repeatedly shot then encouraged to swallow their own words. we might study because the information is interesting but if that’s all we’re doing we might as well just watch a movie. it’s far easier and the story will probably be far easier to understand. no. we study history to learn how to face the future. what? history? in the future? of course. we don’t look at hitler and think “wow that was sad” — well, we might but there’s more to it than that. we look at hitler and think “how do we make sure that never happens again?” — we look at the mistakes made in the past and use them as determiners for how to avoid them in the future.

there is a famous saying — “those who forget the past are destined to repeat it”. there’s a debate about who said it first but, given how old his teachings are, it’s likely to have been laozi. maybe someone said it before him. hard to tell. but it’s very true. we will continually make mistakes the past has already seen and recovered from (hopefully) unless we are aware of them and see them coming the next time. how do we stop antisemitism? we see the warning signs before yellow stars and broken windows replace snide comments and bitter asides on the street. how do we avoid plagues? we see them coming, assume there will be another every few years and make sure we teach people about personal responsibility and protective equipment.

these are concrete examples of things we have collectively ignored from our recent past — the rise of nazism in the thirties and the spanish flu pandemic of the earliest decades of the twentieth century are cautionary tales that could easily have prevented much of the suffering and misery of the rise of populism in the early twenty-first century and the novel coronavirus pandemic it spawned. people chose to forget history and it came back to bite them not only in the asses but in the genitals. and they pretend it’s the first time — there’s nothing new in our lives, practically-speaking. just slightly-modified things from the past. indian culture talks about karma but it’s a simple equation — everything we do has many causes and many consequences. nothing that happens happens in a vacuum and whatever we do was influenced by thousands, millions of events in the past and will at-least-partially-cause millions, even billions of events in the future — something as simple as the decision between fruit and oats for breakfast might have knock-on consequences for the rest of your life — leaving five minutes earlier could be the difference between saving someone’s life on the street and being hit by a drunk-driver or falling off a bridge in a sudden windstorm or randomly seeing an ad for your next job, your biggest life-changing event. history is being prepared for the future so we know what to do when it comes.

and it’s good if you ever want to be on jeopardy, of course.

what is history? can anything be true?

history is an understanding of the past. no. it’s not the understanding of the past. it’s not the sum of all things that happened. it’s not the truth about the past and it’s not objective information from past times. it’s what we think happened combined with why we think it did. objectivity is a myth. all information is biased and subjective but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make sense of it and construct a coherent narrative. but it’s important we remember history isn’t about truth. it’s not about discovery. it’s about building a story from blocks that may be real but whose veracity isn’t important. it’s the lessons it teaches us about the future that are significant. does history have to be true to be useful? not at all. actually, modified, theoretical history is often far more useful in figuring out what to do — “what if” history is something many historians mock but, remembering why we study history — to teach us how to react to the future — it makes perfect sense.

an example to illustrate why details don’t matter and truth is irrelevant to the lesson it teaches.

there is a story about a girl and her family. her name is rachel (later other things but we’ll just call her that) and she lived in paris with her parents and sister. when war began, she suddenly became aware she was jewish. she’d never really thought about it before because she was only six — her older sister, a whole eight, hadn’t really noticed much about it, either. her parents thought they were fully-assimilated and it wouldn’t matter but french society soon shifted as the germans poured in and paris was falling around them. her father, a strong member of the community, thought he would be safe and didn’t escape to america as many of his culturally-aligned friends were doing. it was too late. the roundups were beginning in paris and there was no way onto a ship. taking his gold to a friend at the bank where they worked, he arranged to leave his home and bring his three female family members, too, taking up residence in their attic. it was a huge risk for them all — both families could be sent to the camps. but it was a good investment on all sides and it began.

after a year of close-quarters living, rachel and her family were suffering from malnutrition and the side-effects of staying locked in an attic twenty-four-hours-a-day without escape or fresh air or, in most cases, real light. there was a tiny window in the attic and on this particular evening rachel saw snow for the first time in a year. it was the middle of the night and she couldn’t sleep because she was so hungry — rationing for a family of four was hard to share with a family of eight and it wasn’t even enough for four. she was entranced by it as she crawled down the ladder from the attic to go to the bathroom — something she did as slowly as possible to allow herself to escape the confined space. she didn’t understand why she had to stay there and why she couldn’t see her friends. but she knew she had to be quiet. seeing a cat on the roof just outside the bathroom window shivering in the cold, she remembered her mother’s lesson about always helping those weaker, that this is the duty of all life. she opened the window and crawled out on the roof, cradling the frozen kitten in her lap as she sat on the frozen ledge.

unaware of the light in the house across the alley, she was a malnourished ghost-girl in the moonlight holding the kitten and speaking softly to it in hebrew as her mother had for her when she was scared in the night. there was a sudden noise and the light went out. the cat jumped from her hands and landed on the ground, finally warm and able to run. she knew she had made a mistake but wasn’t sure what it was, crawling back in the window. she hadn’t gone outside. not really. the roof had to be safe and she climbed the ladder and tried to sleep. the whole next day she said nothing but couldn’t even eat the tiny portions she was given, complaining of pain. that night, she knew something would happen. the noise from the neighborhood that came with darkness, people being rounded-up and taken away to a constant background of screaming and yelling in multiple languages and usually passed in the streets in a few hours got closer and there was a knock on the door.

her father’s friend opened the attic and told them it was too late. the germans were coming. they might be able to save rachel but the others were impossible. they pretended she was their own child but the german soldiers dragged her parents and older sister to a processing facility. that was the last she saw of them. they likely never knew why they were found after so long safe in hiding. her family was torn from her because she had been kind to a helpless kitten on a frozen night.

this story is history. it teaches us a huge amount about how the holocaust happened in france. but is it true? no. does that matter? absolutely not.

nothing is really true unless it’s logical. really logical. 1+1=2. this is true. gravity pulls things together as a function of mass and distance. also true. what happened yesterday is a matter of perception. history is our personal best-guess at what happened and why. we can use this to create a narrative of the past and learn better ways to deal with the future. whether it’s true or not doesn’t matter. it just has to do two things to be functional history — it must be logical and it must be a useful lesson. historic truth is imaginary. but useful history doesn’t have to be true, only feel possible and sensible to teach us about our future.

what is revisionism and is it always bad?

revisionism is taking things from the past and pretending they didn’t happen — or that they happened differently. the common target for this is genocide. groups that wish to imagine genocide didn’t happen often create new narratives. and it’s important to remember that, while history isn’t objectively about truth, it is important to base history on logical information. if someone died, they died. if someone didn’t die — well, they didn’t die.

the point about history not being truth isn’t to ignore facts. it’s that the facts alone tell us nothing and we have to have the narrative. we must take the facts and build something that teaches us understanding and a useful lesson. in the case of the story, we know rachel was a real girl and her family was taken to a german death camp in 1941 where her parents were gassed on arrival and her sister eventually died of disease. the germans were meticulous record-keepers if not good humans. we know she continued to live and spent most of her life known by the family name of her father’s kind-hearted friend who sheltered them and eventually treated her as one of their own children — the neighbor knew she wasn’t one of theirs because they only had two boys, both much older.

if you don’t know something, you’re not pretending. but if you know something is true and try to mislead yourself and others, that’s lying. it’s dishonesty. and there is no greater human evil. turning dishonesty into history is “revisionism” — a fancy word because putting a fancy word on something makes it sound more respectable. revisionists pretend the holocaust didn’t happen despite there being myriad records. they pretend the crusades were about religion rather than greed. they pretend koreans weren’t forcibly made prostitutes for soldiers in the war, that they actually worked in factories for the invading army. they pretend genocide was actually war with both sides fighting and one losing more heavily despite them being mostly unarmed civilians, children included.

accepting that history is a combination of objective fact and “our best attempt at truth” is necessary. pretending the fact that history isn’t true justifies dishonesty about the things we truly do know is manipulative and wrong.

making a mistake about the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing. intentionally rewriting history to make it sound more like you wish it had been teaches you nothing about the future and destroys the potential benefit from studying it. sometimes we need to ask questions about “what if this was different” and question the sources. but ignoring information and basic statistical facts is never good.

it’s important to remember revisionism occurs in all periods and from all sides. often at the same time. you will hear revisionist palestinian history saying “the jews destroyed our homeland where we lived since the beginning of time” — no. it’s not true. they weren’t there that long and most left hoping to escape a war zone, not because they were driven out. they knew armies were coming and didn’t want to get trapped in the middle. on the other side, some jewish revisionists tell another story, “no palestinians were forced from their homes and they all left voluntarily” — also completely false. as with most things in history, the real story is somewhere in the middle with both sides doing terrible things and pretending they weren’t. most people on both sides of the conflict were innocent and did nothing wrong. but so much pain was caused in both directions. it doesn’t help anyone to pretend about it, though. knowing the truth teaches us important lessons. ignoring the truth is why the problem is still ongoing all these years later.

what’s so important about the contemporary period?

human history has accelerated through its entire existence. from the dawn of human existence, tens of thousands of years ago, to the rise of urban social culture in the last five thousand to industrialization and globalization in the last few hundred to the rise of technology and ubiquitous connectivity in only the last few decades, what once took millennia to change now takes years or even days. what took months to walk takes days to ride, hours to drive, minutes to fly and seconds to experience on a videochat. the world was once slow because it was disparate. it’s not tiny because any distance is only a few seconds to cover in our minds and with our words and eyes. the contemporary historical period, from the beginning of the twentieth century to today, is when we experience the rapid acceleration of the birth of modern communications technology and its impact on the world. from the rise of the telegraph through radio, broadcast-media and telephony to the birth of the internet and dominance of social-media as a replacement for culture, we have seen a greater shift in earth and its human population in the past 120 years than in the previous 120 000. we may be the same species as our great-great-grandparents but our daily lives are as different from their as theirs were from their primate ancestors of a million years before. nearly our entire existences are composed of tasks and thoughts that would have been unthinkable and incomprehensible to even those three or four generations ago — it not magic, certainly scientific-impossibility.

beyond the sheer volume and scope of change, studying the last century gives us most of the useful lessons from history without having to go deeper into the past. we see wars of conquest, greed and hate. we see racism, fascism, totalitarianism, control, revolution, manipulation, deceit, conflicts of ideology and religion as an excuse for everything. we see nations rise and collapse, cold and hot conflicts, proxy wars and intelligence services using information as weapons. we see pandemics and genocides, natural disasters and great discoveries. everything that’s happened in human history can be understood from the perspective of studying only the last century. the previous ages are absolutely useful. but you can get a solid foundation and coherent set of lessons for the future from this period and no earlier period has such a wealth of experience to share.

why is the last century (or so) different from the rest of the human past?

the last century is different because it is the last century. the next century will be different for the same reason. history is progressive. that doesn’t mean the future is an improvement on the past. it simply means the future is the result of the past. history accelerates over time. each new development makes more developments possible. building a car was hard but building millions was easy. the first guns were primitive and far-less-effective than swords but they were perfected over time to become the feared weapons we know today. computers were primitive at first but now the cycle of development has accelerated to the point where last year’s technology is nearly worthless in the minds of most young people who desperately desire new phones and tablets.

there are other things we acquired in the last century that are fundamental shifts in history. it is the first time the majority of people stopped having to rely on religion for the source of information and knowledge about the world. science isn’t a new concept but bringing education and science to the masses is a revolutionary idea that shifted so much of human experience and it happened in the last hundred years.

the rise of virtualized experience is hugely-important — information is no longer something that takes paper and can only exist in one physical place. we live in a world of information where only a hundred years ago we lived in a world of paper records. the significance of a data-driven society can’t be understated.

the nuclear age appeared in the middle of the twentieth century and changed the nature of conflict. while damage had been done to the environment for thousands of years, the scale of the damage and its impact on humanity became decisive in the last hundred years in a way it simply wasn’t.

these aren’t things that will go away in the next century of human existence but they are fundamental changes in the way humans lived, movement from how they lived for many thousands of years to how they will live for the next thousand or more. information as a way of seeing the world is a whole new approach to human interaction. science and technology were always important but before the twentieth century most people lived lives barely different from their ancestors in the times of ancient egypt and mesopotamia. warfare was, before the last hundred or so years, something fought between military groups and shifted to something including the whole population with disastrous impacts for everyone involved. these aren’t shifts that can be done more than once. whatever changes in the next century, these are already done and can’t be repeated. will the next century see larger shifts? it’s very likely. but it’s impossible to predict what they will be — it will likely involve technology, discoveries and social elements that simply haven’t even been thought of yet. for now, we can look back a hundred years and learn all we need to know if we pay attention.

why do we go to war?

there are two reasons to go to war — hate and desire. it has become popular to talk about the sanskrit word for war (there are actually two — yuddham, loosely meaning “fighting”, and “gavisti”, a desire for cows) and how understanding it teaches us myriad lessons about the nature of war. they usually mean “a desire for cows” when they say this but both words say a lot about why war happens.

sometimes we go to war because we hate people. for example, most of the battles of the cold war were about a generalized hatred between america and russia, though this is far too simplistic and most of those conflicts were about desire for power. but the reason many of those conflicts started was simply about hate. many tribal conflicts began for this reason, too — more than being about control or land, they came from one tribe hating another. this isn’t something historically-irrelevant. twentieth-century wars in croatia, bosnia, cosovo, sudan and congo are only a small sample of war from hate. these people didn’t just want to conquer others — they wanted to exterminate. while it’s never quite that simplistic and the desire for land and control is always present in these situations, it sometimes becomes secondary to a desire to hurt and destroy. this can be seen as analogous to the bully in the playground looking for a fight to cause pain and drive away others. this is the “yuddham” side of war.

the “gavisti” side of war, though, is far more common. it can be thought of as desire, greed or dominance. it can be aggression or belligerence, even colonialism or imperialism. these are all realistically the same thing, though. someone else has something i want so i will take it. i could ask them to give it to me but they won’t because it’s valuable and they want it, too. like a child desiring another’s ice cream, i will punch them until they give it to me. this is what the vast majority of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries looks like — a classroom fight over desserts between two children unwilling to share. taking a look at the major wars of the last century or so shows us an obvious pattern…

the first-world-war was about a desire for control, mostly control of europe. who would be powerful? england or germany? would russia regain its respect from the european community or forever be seen as weak after being defeated by a non-european power (japan)? could the ottoman empire take more territory or simply fall apart or would the austro-hungarian empire rise to be the new roman, trans-eurasian power? these were colonial powers fighting for more territory and power. they didn’t want more land in europe, realistically. but they wanted more european power and more land everywhere. actually, they wanted all the land. the war, practically-speaking, was mostly a conflict between the germans and the english with everyone else picking sides. that’s not how it appears it began but that’s what was really going on and that’s certainly how it ended up being divided. this can be thought of as the conflict between the old, established power of england with vast overseas territory against the newcomer, germany, lacking territory but willing to fight to take whatever was possible to gain and make up for lost time.

the second-world-war was partly about payback. but it was mostly about greed — germany wanted land. lots of land. it had a pretty-good reason for wanting it but other people wanted the land, too. and england wanted to have power over germany. america wanted to prove to everyone it could rule the world (mostly russia) — and its gamble succeeded for the sixty years that followed the war and its decision to use japan as a testing ground for the first modern weapons-of-mass-destruction, demonstrating its willingness to fight in ways others were simply incapable of emulating yet. but it really just comes down to different countries wanting to take what other people already had and demonstrating their power. desire, pure-and-simple.

the korean and vietnam wars were about two sides who wanted to control their entire territories. neither side in either case was particularly ethical or good. whichever side won was going to mean a lot of pain and death for everyone involved. but when larger countries decided to use these local conflicts as proxy fights (primarily america, russia and china), the greed involved became far more obvious. it’s unlikely the north koreans were particularly interested in the land in the southern third of the peninsula but the americans were certainly interested in creating a buffer against china and russia. did the vietnamese truly care if their country was communist or profit-seeking? not likely for most of them but the russians and americans were more than happy to pick their favorite sides as a way of trying to acquire more power on the international stage.

of course, some more recent wars are more obviously about greed. iraq invading kuwait or russia annexing territory in crimea aren’t ideological even in the abstract — they are about a desire for more land. america’s threats against china in the last twenty years have little to do with national politics and everything to do with greed for power and the natural resources and trade china represents.

we go to war for the same reasons young children fight. we either hate someone or want something. what we want, unlike the children, is usually either power or land. but what happens on school playgrounds and battlefields is no different except in scale and consequences.

why do wars end? do they ever really?

wars end either because one side decides it’s no longer worth fighting or because one side simply ceases to exist. the end of war is never a compromise or an agreement. that’s just how it’s talked about. it’s always about someone giving up or someone dying.

this, of course, brings up the question of whether wars actually end. practically-speaking, if two sides still exist, the war never really stops. there can be a temporary cessation of conflict and fighting can be postponed. but there are few examples of the animosity ever really disappearing. walk through the streets of europe today and you will quickly discover how much hatred there is between england, france and germany. these three countries haven’t openly been at war in more than seventy years and they still treat each other like enemies — if there was even the slightest excuse for armed conflict, it is doubtful open warfare could be avoided for more than a few months. north and south korea have spent more than sixty years continuing to train armies to fight each other in a war that has been over since before most people on both sides were born but it continues in the minds of both countries as if the fighting only ended yesterday. america and russia have never (truly — never) fought a real war against each other and they treat each other as enemies and have spent the better part of a century massing military forces and aiming missiles and strategic assets at each other without actual fighting breaking out. are america and russia at war? it’s impossible to tell.

looking at the present and future, who is america fighting? well, china, of course. is this a war? there’s no open conflict in the military sense but a trade-war has been ongoing for decades, warships sail through the taiwan straight to intimidate and land is claimed, defended, debated and fought over in international courts and on the internet where voices are raised and open conflict is always a moment away. these countries are actively engaged in cyberwarfare and information-war. their companies fight each other for money. it’s a war mostly based on american greed and desire and they have dragged the rest of the world into the conflict — especially japan, south korea and most of the rest of their asian trading-partners. did the war start? did it end? is it even a war?

there was a time when wars had obvious beginnings and ends. that time ended with napoleon. the first world war didn’t begin in 1914. it started with the russo-japanese war and the rest was just a spillover. it didn’t end in 1919 — it was simply postponed a few years while germany rearmed and everyone took a break from fighting. the second-world-war might have ended in terms of battlefields but conflict just shifted from europe and japan to korea, vietnam, afghanistan and the middle-east where open conflict still rages between the same ideologies and people — only the scale has changed and the type of weapons used.

we pretend wars end because it’s easier to quantify and study them that way. practically-speaking, there has been a single ongoing war since the first few years of the twentieth century with no end in sight, shifting between open conflict and digital (perhaps biological and cultural) battles. it’s unlikely war will ever end. if this one does, it will only be because one side ceases to exist — none of the current factions will ever give in or compromise in the slightest.

how do we determine who was on the right side of a conflict?

there’s a simple answer and a complex answer to this. the simple answer is this — if you fight, you’re wrong. it takes two people to have a fight. if someone attacks you and you fight back, you’re wrong. letting them win might cost you but fighting back will cost you more. always.

the complex answer is similar but a bit more nuanced. it usually comes down to figuring out justification for conflict and inequality. looking at who was being oppressed is a good way to see who was on the better side of a conflict but nobody in war is ever right. just less wrong than the other side in some cases.

the best test for less-wrongness, though, is universal good and equality. if you look at the situation both sides want and ask the question “what would mean something closer to equality for all the people involved?”, it’s likely to give you a sensible way to determine which side is the better potential winner. this side rarely wins, though.

if we look at world-war-two from this perspective, overpopulated germany expanded against financial and territorial oppression from england and france mostly resulting from the defeat in 1919. japan felt threatened by america (legitimately in many ways) and was being pressured by countries from all sides and fought to become a self-sufficient world power. both were, after years of fighting, absolutely crushed by american military power. this is complicated by the fact that germany also attempted to exterminate whole races and japanese military leaders committed horrific war crimes in korea and china. being on the “right” side of a conflict from the perspective of justification doesn’t mean the behavior of those fighting doesn’t descend to the level of less-than-animal-barbarism and human hate is perhaps the only thing other than greed the world has a limitless supply of.

looking at the korean war the same way shows one side fighting for equality and the other for inequality. the problem there is a lot more unresolved and complex, though. the side fighting for equality eventually gained the majority of the land but almost none of the money or international prestige. being supported by america, the south imposed its economic policies of competition and greed (exactly the same as america’s at the time and little changed even today) and gained prosperity while the north has descended into nothing more than postponed-collapse. this teaches us something very important. which side has more ethical merit or justification has nothing to do with who wins a war. and the leaders of the fighting on both sides are rarely anything close to good people — while the motivations and desires of the north were far more virtuous, kim ilsung and his backer, russian dictator stalin, were nothing short of demagogic monsters. judging a conflict by those fighting is difficult while judging its merits from results is destined to fail. the complex answer is almost impossible to determine. we therefore end up simply picking a side in hindsight and sounding silly for defending the actions of criminals and barbarians. it’s better not to talk about wars from the perspective of a good and bad side. if you fight, you’re probably wrong. it’s just a question of degrees after that.

what’s the difference between history and current affairs?

history is what happened yesterday and current affairs is what happens today. these can be looked at the same way. and what happened yesterday is no less history than what happened in ancient egypt or china. we can learn from what happened in either case but sometimes it is far easier to study the more-distant past. that is why studying the last hundred years is often so useful. a century means most of the information is still present and easily-accessible and the lessons are far more clearly useful in a modern context but it gives us enough separation that we can divorce some of our emotional connection to the events of literal yesterday when we are talking about a time of years, usually before our births.

we must take the same approach to history we take to watching or reading the news, though. the same objective-truth-seeking perspective is useful, though there is little that can be known other than basic statistics without there being at least some subjectivity and bias. but, once we have the narrative and have done our best to understand it, we can take that and create some applicable lessons for the future. this is exactly the same whether we are looking at the spanish-flu pandemic or the novel-coronavirus, the revolution in russia or that in iran, the protests in fascist italy and spain or those in the square of heavenly peace. it is important to understand these things as current-events rather than narratives truly separate from our reality. so it’s best to treat the past as present and the present as past — remove emotion and identify bias then try to learn and apply those lessons to the best of our abilities. we won’t always succeed but if we don’t try we’re guaranteed to fail.

what can history tell us about the future?

the future is the result of the past. so we can learn exactly what the future holds for us and determine how we can best deal with it. it’s important to remember, though, that the future isn’t just the result of our actions and decisions in a vacuum. it’s the collective result of everyone’s. what i want and try to make happen is likely not going to come — others seek different things are most of the power in our world comes from the rich and connected.

but history can give us patterns and lessons and we shouldn’t discount them just because they are from a time very different from our own.

history, of course, doesn’t have all the answers. people are human — they are, by definition, unpredictable. but when we look at the past and study history’s narratives, biases and assumptions, we can predict some of that behavior and much of the reaction that will come for each of our choices and decisions. if we study history looking for a perfect model for the future, we will be sadly disappointed. if we go there looking for a better lens to see clearly what to do for the best possible results in the circumstances, we may be pleasantly-surprised.

thoughts

practically speaking, i think i may have just created better summary notes for the first lecture of this course than the originals. but that’s the proof of what i have been talking about. every time you teach something, you understand it better. if you can’t teach it, you simply don’t know it.

this has been a demonstration, of course. do this for your own notes. you don’t have to write thousands of words for every class you attend, though i recommend being as thorough as you can comfortably be. what you will discover is that, having spent a few hours taking the information and turning it into a lesson for someone else, you will be vastly more comfortable with it and it will be retained far better than any in-class exercises, flashcards, group study-sessions or question-and-answer drills will ever give you. and it’s not really going to take you that long. you can probably do this for an hour lecture in little more than an hour or two — and i suspect you’ll probably spend more than that number of hours studying the material in that course during a standard semester, right?

thanks for taking the time to think about this and walk through a sample with me. i hope you’ll find the blogging-and-teaching-to-learn approach as useful as me and my students. good luck with your studies. may you be enlightened and deeply understand the world around you.

just say no

[estimated reading time 13 minutes]

there is a brutal pandemic raging across the world and it appears unstoppable. there is a vaccine but people are obstinately refusing to get inoculated despite the side-effects being minimal and it being provided free. no. it’s not another coronavirus. it’s something far worse and this isn’t just a matter of life and death. it’s a matter of our existence as a species. what we are currently experiencing is the pandemic of belief compounded by the curious corollary of respect — in a world where people are so rarely respectful of each other, the reverence for belief systems is frankly staggering and this is contributing to the spread of the disease.

let’s begin with a few basic ideas — thought, opinion, belief, fact, knowledge. these are five words that are often tossed around in everyday speech without really looking at them but it’s important to understand the difference.

a thought is a basic idea. it is something that comes to mind. these often come without any particular purpose or direction but exist there until we do something with them. i think it’s sunny today. i think that’s an apple on the picnic table over there. having a thought is a trigger for more serious development — like forming an opinion or seeking knowledge.

an opinion is something you think. it can be justified or simply random. it’s thought plus direction but without the need for actual information or knowledge. if you have an opinion, it can be something based on experience or what you have learned. it can be biased or nearly-objective. while i have a thought about it being sunny, i have an opinion that sunny days are good. is this justified? well, sunny days encourage plants to grow and make my mind more alert and happy. so perhaps it is. is it knowledge? no. there’s nothing objectively-good about sunny days and rain is also necessary for plants. but my opinion is that sunny days are good. i think it’s an apple on the table but i’m not sure. my opinion, however, is, on reflection, it’s probably actually a pear. why? because it looks a little wider at the bottom. i can’t know. my opinion could be right or wrong — just because it has the potential to be proved one way or the other doesn’t mean it can’t be an opinion. i don’t have to hold my opinions for life. i can walk over and check. then i’ll know. but at the moment i’m just sitting here in the sun, enjoying the warm day and it doesn’t much matter if it’s an apple or a pear because i’m not hungry.

a belief is an opinion that can’t be proved (either true or false). human english-speakers have a curious way of talking about beliefs that imply they are a natural part of existence but they’re actually a consequence of some rather problematic social pressure and indoctrination that’s only existed for a couple of millennia, a short time in the development of human culture and knowledge. instead of saying “i believe this exists”, people often say “i believe in this”. this is just shorthand for an existence belief but it doesn’t feel quite as outrageous to the listener because it’s such a common statement. you will hear people say “i believe in ghosts” or “i believe in gods” meaning “i believe ghosts exist” or “i believe gods exist”. the statement is the same but the underlying sentiment is different — “i believe in…” carries the implication of “…and that’s totally normal so don’t judge me” while a statement of explicit existence tends to come with the idea of self-justification in the face of necessary objections. when someone in the west says “i believe in god”, it has the context of “…don’t you? if you don’t, you’re weird and stupid”, which is a very curious sentiment for anything, especially a declaration of unjustified belief. the important part at the moment, though, is that belief isn’t opinion. this isn’t “i like chocolate” or “dogs are beautiful” — it’s something that must be taken on faith without the possibility of discovering its truth or falseness.

fact is the opposite of belief. it can be positive or negative. it is something that must be proved. yes, in some cases “fact” can be almost-proved, something that is beyond reasonable doubt and potentially modified later. but it’s usually true in a demonstrable way. 1+1=2. gravity exists between two objects pulling them closer together. humans require oxygen for life. these are all facts. it’s important to remember you can’t “believe” a fact — or, for that matter, “believe in” a fact. it simply doesn’t make sense. your belief doesn’t matter to the fact. it exists independently of your awareness of it or acceptance. while it’s important for humans to accept all facts, whether they choose not to is irrelevant to the truth inherent in each. the difference between belief and fact isn’t a matter of degree. they are true opposites. something can be one or the other but never both. a thing can’t be “mostly fact” or “like a belief”. it’s one or the other with no room for overlap or grayness.

knowledge is the next step beyond fact. it is what happens when we accept fact and use it as the foundation for seeking more. the easiest way to think of knowledge is as a collection of facts followed by a series of thoughts — a certain type of thoughts, actually — questions. a simple example looks like this. i am aware humans require oxygen for survival. gravity holds massive objects together (all objects with mass, that is). oxygen at standard earth temperatures is a gas. humans currently live on the surface of earth. does this mean oxygen is held near earth’s surface because it has mass and gravity is keeping it there? well, yes. that’s knowledge. what about other planets? a good question. if there was oxygen being produced in sufficient quantities on mars, for example, through the implementation of vegetation there, the gravity (in combination with many other features) would create an atmosphere on mars much like on earth and humans would be able to breathe near the surface on the “red planet”, too. while we might not personally have proof of every step of that series of questions and answers yet, each statement is either something we certainly can prove or that someone else can prove. none of them are beliefs. they are all facts or potential-facts waiting to become facts or be showed false and become negative-facts. this is knowledge.

there has historically been a pair of developments throughout human existence — the pursuit of knowledge and the escapism and development of beliefs.

in ancient egypt, for example, these two coexisted in society. mathematics and engineering were constantly being developed — just look at the pyramids and the construction of the tombs in the valley of the kings if you haven’t thought of the egyptians as masters of number-processing and structure-creation. at the same time, these astonishing building-projects were invested with mythological silliness and rituals were regularly performed to please non-existent deities in the service of belief systems that developed over the millennia to answer questions whose answers were not yet available.

the greeks of antiquity, a bit later than most of the egyptian progress was made, had a similar dualistic approach to knowledge and belief. there was incredible development in science and philosophy (yes, science was referred to as “natural-philosophy” but it was definitely at least the precursor of physics, chemistry and biology as we know them today) but citizens of athens venerated athena (as an irrelevant aside, one of my closest friends had a beautiful husky puppy named athena so every time i think of the mythological entity i can’t help picturing her as the embodiment of fur barking her commands for the ancient greeks and, while that doesn’t make her any more real, it certainly makes her far more striking in my mind) and made pilgrimages and sacrifices to various, sundry and inexplicable mythological entities believed to be just as real as their neighbors and far more powerful. in a world where so much about daily life was not yet understood, much like in the egyptian case, this was perfectly-comprehensible. before the evolution of scientific method and serious discovery, it was possible to live without belief but deeply dissatisfying because so many questions were left unanswered. the fact that the answers they were given by belief were completely false and intensely misleading didn’t make them less satisfying. as people today are well-aware, that often makes them far easier to accept.

the point is that in ancient times, before about the fourth century of the common era, belief and knowledge were pursued as parallel tracks that weren’t seen as conflicting with each other. all of that changed in three-hundred-and-twenty-five. when the roman mystery cults decided to rebrand themselves using the revolutionary teacher jesus of nazareth as their figurehead and dominate the roman empire with forced-conversion and messianic hyperspirituality, belief and knowledge were placed on an intersecting crash-course with disastrous consequences for those existing at these meeting-points.

at first, there was no contest. the world simply didn’t have much in the way of available knowledge in most of the west. actual fact had been mostly wiped-out as the roman followup to the greek empire collapsed and its scientific, engineering-focused information disintegrated. common people simply didn’t know anything. they couldn’t read or write and existed in insular communities that functioned mostly as echo-chambers of cultural expectation and mythological self-delusion. not only did they not have any knowledge, they had no desire to acquire any. and, as with most undesirable things, it certainly wasn’t going to show-up on its own.

for the first thousand years of what we can think of as the “cult-christianity era”, belief had it all its own way. as with nearly all things, though, thankfully, it couldn’t last. the end of belief’s monopoly rule, though, comes from an odd place in western history — warfare. with the renaissance, the old greed of roman conquest times was finally being let loose again and conflicts like the hundred-years-war required something beyond pure, brutal strength as had been common for a millennium. it required technology for military superiority. and technology demands facts and knowledge, not belief. you can’t believe you’re going to hit a target or forge a better sword. it’s something you have to know. and you have to know it for a reason. with the weapons of war, a revolution in the minds of the masses was being very gradually kindled. then a few great thinkers fanned those flames and got rather badly burned by churches full of candles and hellfire.

from the theoretical inventions of leonardo da vinci to the practical calculations of galileo, the generalized satisfaction with belief as the only answer to questions was now being challenged. it’s not that people were suddenly asking more questions. they were always asking the questions. it’s that they weren’t happy with the answers being “we believe…” — they wanted “we know…” and religious cults and mythology don’t give those kinds of answers even if they use the words to give a sense of truth they can’t possibly emulate. galileo proved (not for the first time but for the first time publicly and blatantly in a while in the west) that the earth was not the center of the universe (or even the solar-system) but that everything visible in the sky, including our tiny planet, orbited the sun. we weren’t special in his eyes and he was right. sadly, this wasn’t a happy place for the church — if earth isn’t special, at the center of everything, why would a deity focus their attentions on it? he was imprisoned and eventually died for his “sins” of fighting against belief in favor of knowledge. he didn’t even demonstrate the rest of the obvious idiocy of belief. only one particular fact. one fact is enough to bring the whole edifice of belief crashing down, though. and those were (and are) some expensive churches and powerful priests.

galileo’s statements weren’t about daily life. they didn’t really have much potential for impact on average people or our place as humans in existence. a few centuries later, though, with the church still holding all the power in the balance between belief and knowledge, a new figure arrived on the scene to issue a challenge — without appearing to be aware of the potential results — to belief as the fundamental way to answer human questions. by the end of the nineteenth century, charles darwin’s discoveries about evolution had shifted the basic belief of humans as distinct from animals and biology as the result of an intelligent plan created by a deity to what we now know is the fact of natural-selection by adaptation over large-scale time. his “theory of evolution” took time to shift from theory to actual proved fact but no time at all to be understood as a massive shift in the fabric of human belief-structures. from then until today (and still ongoing for some curious reason), organized christianity (though, it appears, none of the other religions) decided to wage war on knowledge and face it head-on as the destroying force it obviously was and is. yes, knowledge shows religion to be the useless error it is. i suspect, though, it wouldn’t have made this nearly as obvious if religion hadn’t declared itself willing to fight.

in the modern age, though, this fight is nothing even resembling over. we live in a world completely controlled by technology and scientific progress. our daily lives are governed by the internet and we have meetings in virtual space, talk to each other by typing and share our visual experiences in realtime on social-media. we are obsessed with our technology. science is the foundation of our lives. we rely on modern medicine and transportation every day. there is no aspect of our lives that doesn’t rely completely on the development of logical, scientific fact.

but that hasn’t protected us from the pandemic of belief.

nationalist conservatism has raised its ugly head many times in the past — nazism under hitler, fascism under franco, exceptionalism under truman, free people under berlusconi and populism embodied in the national front and its leadership. it is not a figment of the past and continues to hold court today in much of the west with a seething hatred backing fear of change and desire to live in a belief-focused society. we see this primarily in the united states as depicted by trump, the united kingdom in boris johnson and various other movements throughout the west — canada’s people’s party, brazil’s social christians, australia’s one nation, japan’s ldp and a shocking number of movements in germany, austria and france to name only a few. how are these movements able to exist in a modern world? the answer is surprisingly simple.

humans are refusing to be inoculated against the disease of belief. they embrace it not as a contaminating, deadly virus but like a refreshing drink on a hot afternoon.

what is this inoculation? education. there is only room for one answer to questions. where do humans come from? the simple answer is that we are the evolutionary children of primates, descended from other mammals who can trace our lineages back to fish and, eventually, bacteria. this answer isn’t just true. it’s logical. but there’s an alternative answer. we were created by an intelligent, all-powerful deity. this answer is, of course, not just wrong but unthinkable. but that’s the point. it’s absolutely unthinkable. it avoids thought completely. if you are living a life where thought is not the goal but the enemy, this might be exactly the answer you’re looking for — one that relies only on belief, not knowledge. the important part about this is that there is only one cure for belief — replacing the beliefs with knowledge. once you already have an answer, you don’t go looking in dangerous places (like churches) for belief-based ones.

what we have been doing, though, is allowing these answers to thrive. each belief-based answer is a spore in the transmission of the virus of faith and it contributes to the spread of the pandemic of anti-knowledge. the answer is clear but unpopular, though i am still somewhat uncertain why. we must not respect these beliefs. we must accept things that are true. and accept things that are false. but things that are neither — things that are simply beliefs — must be treated as anathema, undesirable. we must call out these things for what they are — contaminants remaining in our existences from past eras before science had functional answers to these questions. they were wrong then. they’re still wrong now. but it was once preferable to have a wrong answer than no answer at all.

before darwin, for example, there were many potential answers to “where did we come from” but it was impossible to know which was correct. having an answer was comforting. it meant you didn’t have to wonder and continuously ask the question. you felt like you knew something. and that’s what’s happening today all across the western world. people are being spoon-fed (often force-fed) religious answers to questions as if they are scientific truth and they feel they know the answers, despite being no closer to fact than they were in their absences. with the proof of the evolutionary model, however, there was only one acceptable answer that could possibly satisfy — when truth is possible, it is necessary. when truth is not yet possible, any answer is a fantastic temporary port in the storm of daily life.

the problem we are seeing is a generalized expectation of respect for belief and opinion. it tends to manifest as “it’s ok if you believe something because it’s harmless”. we have to stop allowing that cultural error to persist. why is it so important?

the other pandemic gives us a clear demonstration.

in the united kingdom and the united states, bastions of systemic elimination of knowledge from general daily life and its replacement with opinion and belief-based non-facts mostly by organized christianity and conservative politics, infection rates continue to soar despite high vaccination rates. why? respect for belief.

what is the belief people are respecting? you can think of it as many possible things but the easiest way to see it is “personal choice about responsibility”. we know how to prevent the spread of a deadly pathogen — it’s simple. you wear protection. all the time. around everyone outside your home. and this has been proved to work not just for this disease but almost all other airborne contaminants — like the flu where it’s been known for centuries. the belief of “i have a choice whether to wear a mask” or “i don’t want to do that and it’s my life” is inherently flawed. if individual behavior only had individual repercussions, that would be fine. but personal choice leads to society-wide impacts (like a daily infection count in the tens or hundreds of thousands in these two countries). where do those beliefs come from?

ah. that’s where the real danger lies. when knowledge is seen as undesirable and education is understood to be optional and something not necessary for daily life, people don’t get the basic facts about disease transmission. they don’t know how a virus spreads, for example, so they don’t feel any need to take precautions like wearing masks properly and continuously. when they are fed stories about human or national exceptionalism, they translate those into larger meta-belief-systems where they are the centers of their own perceptual universes and others are irrelevant. there is nothing particularly christian or biblical about the idea of “what i want matters and i am the most important person” but, sadly, it’s certainly where the result lands for most conservative christians. i’d love someone to point to the passage in the bible where it tells you to sacrifice your neighbors for your own personal pleasure because i’m fairly certain abraham, moses, david and jesus would have been all for masking-up in the service of public safety.

and this brings us to an interesting point. the problem isn’t religion, really. practically speaking, religious organizations potentially have an incredible role to play in modern society. they could support those without voices. they could help those in need. they could encourage happiness and ethical behavior. they could create community feelings, connectedness and the beauty of interpersonal relationships that have been sadly lacking for the last century as families become more fractured and ethics are destroyed. but they’re not really doing any of these things — at least, most aren’t.

they are focused on antiquated belief systems and conservative social ideas and politics. they’re spending their time thinking about profit and avoiding necessary change when they could be doing what their founders and figureheads instructed them to do — go out and serve those in need and bring peace and comfort to the people. they’re obsessed with belief systems that are no longer necessary when their roles in a modern society are more important than ever. sure, this will require some change in how religions are practiced. a shift from declarations of belief and demonstrations of worship and veneration to social organizations devoted to helping individuals and groups fighting for happiness in and against oppressive and outdated societal structures.

the simple answer is we need to treat belief the way we were taught as children to treat drugs. just say no. don’t stay silent. don’t respect. don’t look at opinion and say it’s ok when it’s not. opinion is often harmless and necessary for life. for example, i like raspberries but not strawberries. my mother is a devoted strawberry aficionado. my father loves sports and i am slightly less interested in watching hockey than staring at dead grass lie on the ground for three hours. there’s no right answer about questions of personal opinion. but belief is different. and we inherently understand that — the question of “is there a god?” is one with an answer. of course not. “where did we come from?” has an answer. after more than a century of elaboration, the simple version is darwin’s evolutionary method. you can’t believe 1+1=3. you don’t get to believe when there is actual fact. respecting those who ignore fact isn’t good manners. it’s teaching a new generation it’s ok to be wrong. to decide to be wrong. to embrace ignorance.

and ignorance, as dr king said, is the path to darkness and hate. let’s not walk there. let’s look at belief and treat it like meth. just say no. may your day be full of discovery. thanks for your eyes.

a sliver of time

[estimated reading time 17 minutes]

veneer is a whole different world of woodworking. it feels distantly-related but it avoids so many of the typical parts of working with an organic substance — it moves but its movement is generally irrelevant because we stick it to things that don’t and that solves the problem. and it’s realistically treated like a two-dimensional substance. so it’s not surprising many woodworkers, especially those working by hand, tend to treat veneering like a foreign country unless they’re doing decorative work like marquetry or inlay — even that is often overlooked as a possibility and i’ve rarely seen much from the hobbyist community. veneer has been given a terrible name by the cheap furniture from target and walmart and costco. it’s nothing more than thick cardboard with artificial wood glued to the outside and, yes, that’s veneer. but veneer has a long history.

king tut and the joys of wood-grain

five thousand years ago, the egyptians (well it was either going to be them, the mesopotamians or the chinese, right? did any other civilization actually invent anything? not really…) lacked wood. if you’re curious why, look at a map. egypt is a desert punctuated by a few massive rivers. not much grows there except right next to the rivers. and those are so densely-populated it’s almost all devoted to crop-production, not unexpected as dry-land agriculture was perfected there around the same time. but they still had to build things and wood, precious and scarce, was absolutely vital from an aesthetic and structural perspective. much of the lumber was mediocre. but thin slices of wood were used to veneer the surface from the most prized of trees to build beautiful furniture (and body-holding devices) for the pharaohs — both in life and death. of course, this started with quite rough sawing but moved on from there to thinner and thinner sheets to get more yield from a single tree and artistic forms were quick to develop. interestingly, much like today in much of the western world, their veneers were imported and adhered to locally-grown wood purely for visual effect. while it’s often customary to think of the ancient world as being obsessed with function because they simply had no other choice, this is a clear exception — actually, they were just as obsessed with aesthetics of things then as now but that’s a whole other story. to see just how far the art had come by the time of the new kingdom, browse through photographs from tutankhamen’s tomb and you’ll see the vast majority of his wooden accoutrements were veneered — not just slices but inlaid patterns mixed with precious stones and metals. nothing more complex was really done until several millennia later with chippendale’s extremism.

while the early times of veneer show it was extremely common in practice across the middle east and throughout the persian, greek and roman empires, the decline of civilization at the end of the roman period and the rise of byzantium realistically spelled the end of veneering for about a thousand years, much like with everything else in the west — thought died and the light that showed up in the renaissance is why the period has traditionally been thought of as the “dark ages”, though we now generally don’t use that term because, for some reason, people think the europeans might get insulted if we noticed they were really stupid for a while. honestly, i’d be more worried if they were still acting that way, mired in delusional reactionary conservatism and stuck in mythology against the progress of science and intelligence. you know, like the western world today. so perhaps the real reason we don’t call it the dark ages is that the age was in the middle but the darkness really only receded temporarily as we shifted from using the church as an excuse to using the economy. just a thought. but i digress. we’re supposed to be talking about sticking things together and making art. my bad.

from the beginning of the renaissance, starting mostly in germany, extending its reach more and more as baroque styles were more embraced, veneering was resurrected in the west. this wasn’t a cheap way to build furniture. you weren’t going to see the ancient equivalent of the $5 walmart dining-table in a renaissance-era farmer’s cottage. veneer was only for the rich. it wasn’t just done by hand. it was done by expert, highly-trained hands and it was purely decorative. plywood was a whole other thing but that was, again, something not yet mass-produced. it’s a story like plastic in the modern era — now it’s the cheap alternative but when it first came on the scene it was treated like a newly-discovered precious-metal.

italian and spanish craftspeople developed new techniques for veneering curves and the germans invented and perfected the fretsaw, perfect for cutting intricate patterns we now generally refer to as marquetry. the french and english soon followed these trends and the entire western world was on fire with veneering. (take a look at the louis xiv and xv collections if you’re curious just how decorative this got in this period. it’ll shock you. repeatedly.)

things shifted in the nineteenth century as veneering, along with everything else in the world of production, stopped being a hands-on process and automation was the watchword of the day. brunel’s mechanical veneering machine was quickly followed by faveryear’s veneer slicer, followed only a few decades later by the first production factory opening in germany devoted to the commercial production of veneer. from a technology to gild the already-expensive furniture of the upper-classes to an industrialized option so everyone and their dogs could afford ebony, rosewood and mahogany, the shift was immense and cheaply-finished-dining-tables were just around the corner. along with some of the most expensive decorative furniture ever made — think federal-style furniture, for example.

in the twentieth century, veneer production became completely automated and trees were processed into veneer far more than even regular lumber, mostly to make plywood, a strong material whose perpendicular grain stacks make it stable and eliminate the need to worry about wood-movement. the veneering revolution had come and gone and the beneficiaries were generally the mass-produced-furniture industry and anyone who wanted to build tables in a half hour from sheet goods. but if we look at traditional decorative veneering we will find something beautiful. the ability to do things we couldn’t possibly do with solid wood — either because it moves or because the wood itself is prohibitively-expensive — want an ebony desk? a rosewood cabinet? these, too, can be yours without sacrificing your life-savings if you buy them only a half-millimeter at a time. (ok, some are three times that thick but the really thin ones tend to be the cheapest.) something to remember in this age of an environment we’ve systematically plundered and destroyed, by the way, is that veneer is an extremely stable way to use a tree. it’s not at all unusual to get five-hundred and sometimes a thousand square-meters of veneer from a single tree. compare that to the yield from a log in terms of solid wood and you might start to wonder why the environmentalists haven’t started to protest in favor of veneering.

so that’s the history. let’s talk about how to do it then move on to actually building a simple project with veneer.

let’s grab a slice

there are many ways to get veneer from a board and most of them are industrial — you buy commercial veneer. and this is what i would recommend if you’re starting out in the world of veneering. commercial veneer is usually between .5 and 1.5mm thick and comes in pretty-much every species, color, variant, cut-pattern and grain-style you can imagine. it’s relatively-inexpensive. but you’re a purist and you probably want to make your own. and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. it’s actually surprisingly easy. especially if you have a bandsaw and a thickness-planer. but you don’t need either of them.

first, the powered, simple way to cut veneer. with shop-made veneer, you’re aiming for a final thickness of about 1.5-2mm — definitely no thicker than 2mm and if you can get it closer to 1mm you’re probably going to have better results. why so thin? well, the whole point of veneer is that it doesn’t move. i mean, yes, it’s nice to be decorative and all that. but if it moves when it’s attached to another piece of wood, whatever it is, it’s going to tear itself apart and that’s not good for anyone. at <2mm, the glue is strong enough to restrain the internal movement. thicker than that and you’re really just talking about a wooden panel and movement is the watchword of the day. avoid that.

the powered route

if you have a bandsaw and a planer, this is the simple process. plane both faces of a board so they’re flat and parallel — you know how to do that already as you’re a woodworker (if you don’t, go back to one of the articles about stock-prep but i will assume if you’re setting out to try veneering you’ve mastered the art of making a board flat and level. make a mark on the flat face to indicate which side you’re cutting from (i usually write “planed” but you can choose your own adventure), place the board with its other face against your bandsaw fence and resaw a slice at about 3mm. label the rough face of the resulting piece as “rough” or something that will remind you which face is which. remember to keep the offcut side of the board on the non-fence side of your bandsaw fence or you can get pinching between the fence and the blade, which can be dangerous, damage the piece and break your blade in very short order, often all three at the same time. take the board back to the planer and flatten its newly-rough side, mark it and repeat the resawing process until you’ve cut all your veneers. the last piece from that board already has a smooth face (which you have already marked) so you’re all good. don’t bother to smooth the rough faces now. it’s difficult and far easier at a later stage. just assume we’re going to do that.

the hands-on approach.

slicing veneer by hand is simple. it’s just painfully-slow. it doesn’t matter what you do. even a wide-toothed panel saw is simply not going to get through slice after slice of a board very quickly. if you want to do it, though, the procedure is easy enough. flatten and smooth your board on both sides. stick it in your vise and start cutting a slice off one side about 3mm from the edge and resaw all the way through. make sure you label the faces (smooth, rough). smooth the new rough surface of the board and repeat until you’ve run out of board. same process as the powered route.

getting sticky with it

either way you prepare it, you’ll end up with a stack of veneer smooth and flat on one side, rough on the other. that’s the basic source material for the next step — attaching it. if you’ve skipped the cutting-at-home step, you might have just arrived here with commercial veneer. that’s ok. just remember commercial veneer is already smooth on both sides so you won’t have to smooth it later, just prepare it for finish. otherwise all the same procedure except the “flat” and “smooth” doesn’t matter — you can adhere it with either face and it’ll work.

at this point, you need something to support the veneer — you can call this a panel or a “substrate”. i’ll call it a panel because substrate sounds very much like a government plot to control a population by putting drugs in the water-supply. you’ll hear it called both (and many other things).

so we need to think about what to use. you can attach veneer to just about anything but there are three typical possible choices in woodworking — solid wood, composite materials and veneer-sheet goods. veneering over solid stock is tempting but, unless you’re an expert and you want to have to deal with the wood-movement issue, i would avoid it. there is no upside to using solid stock for veneering. you’re not going to see it and sheet goods feel like wood. with the veneer attached, they look like wood. and veneered solid-wood looks like veneered plywood so nobody will know the difference. composite materials come in various forms — particleboard, cardboard, melamine, phenolic resin panels, mdf. the most common for veneering is the last — mdf, preferably lightweight mdf. if you’re curious what the difference is between lightweight and regular mdf it’s about half the weight, the species of wood used and the density of the adhesive. it’s not quite as strong. it’s strong enough. use the lightweight stuff if you’re going to go the mdf route — if you’ve ever had to move a full sheet of standard mdf, you’ll understand why.

there’s no reason not to use mdf if you’re ok with mdf in general. i have issues with mdf that have nothing to do with veneering. it’s dusty. really dusty. when you work mdf, you won’t be able to breathe unless you use a respirator. and i don’t mean while you’re cutting it. i mean in the shop for hours after. i have severe asthma. i simply refuse to use mdf in my shop for anything. it’s not worth the pain and suffering. there’s nothing wrong with it as a substance if you can put up with this obvious limitation. my suggestion, though, is, if you value your ability to breathe (i often wonder about this given the general public’s disregard for an infectious disease spreading as a pandemic that destroys your lungs and their willingness to accept that risk but that’s another matter entirely), use plywood.

plywood is the natural choice for veneering. why? because that’s how it’s made. plywood is a stack of veneers layered with alternating perpendicular grain directions. it’s extremely-stable and you can treat it like regular wood. plus it’s not dusty like mdf. yes you’ll get sawdust. but no more than with regular solid-wood. here’s another nice thing about plywood rather than mdf, by the way, if it’s never become an issue for you — if you get mdf damp in any way, it will completely disintegrate and start to grow mold. this is not generally a good selling-factor. my generalized loathing for composite fiber panels is rather extreme. just so you know.

some people will tell you veneering over plywood means you have to continue the pattern of perpendicular grain. while that may be the best practice, it’s not necessary. so you should do it if you can but if you can’t it doesn’t matter. treat it like grainless mdf and it’ll be totally ok.

so we have our panel. now how are we going to get the veneer to stick to it?

there are two ways to get things to stay in place — traditional clamping pressure or hydraulics. the second is generally the one that’s recommended if you’re going to do a bunch of it. it’s far simpler and tends to work very well. you can use a veneer-press (which is about the cost of a small village) or a vacuum-bag (which you can pick up at your local supplier for a couple of hundred dollars — or much more, depending on how large and powerful you want the bag and pump to be) to apply even pressure on a piece, often both faces at once. if you’re going to use that approach, once you get the glue on, don’t just put the piece in the vacuum-bag and apply pressure. it will warp. put a sheet of plywood over the veneered surface(s) then deposit the whole thing in the vacuum-bag and increase the pressure. you’ll get a much flatter result that way.

with clamps, though, the procedure is a lot more involved. not complicated. just more involved. you’ll need clamping-cauls. to veneer a tabletop, for example, you’ll probably need a clamp on each side every 10cm or so pressing down on a thick piece of wood spanning the entire width of the table. this requires a lot of clamps — and a lot of strips of wood —, especially if it’s a big table. a 1x2m table will require, at 10cm-spacing, 42 clamps and 21 cauls. if you can’t picture this, i’d say draw a picture and label the clamps. you’ve probably got it right in your head, though. this is a perfectly-acceptable way of clamping veneer and it will absolutely work. if you have to do this on a regular basis, though, you’ll quickly decide to get a vacuum-bag system to avoid the effort. it may also be cheaper than paying for all those clamps. you really do need a lot of pressure to avoid delamination in the future.

we’ve covered most of it but there’s one more sticky elephant in the room and it’s mostly yellow. what adhesive do you use?

let’s begin with what adhesive you shouldn’t use. contact-cement. just don’t. there are many reasons this is a bad idea and none that make it a good one. it’s hard to work with and it generally fails. don’t believe me? call a commercial cabinet shop that’s been in business for a while. ask them what the biggest problem they have with custom-made kitchen countertops adhered with contact-cement is. i promise it’ll be “they delaminate” — and their contact-cement is far, far more industrial than what you’re getting at walmart. it’s asking for trouble. do it at your own risk. no. on second thought, just don’t do it.

that leaves us with a few other options. you can use urethane glue or epoxy. they’ll definitely work. urethane glue, though, is very messy and comparatively-expensive. epoxy is even more expensive, though significantly less messy. it is, however, generally very slow. that being said, these options will both work. i should probably mention one other possible problem with these two, though, if you’re using a vacuum-bag system. water-based glues like pva will easily peel off the plastic on the inside. urethane glue is much, much more difficult to remove and the bag can be damaged beyond repair. trying to get epoxy off the inside of the bag is an exercise in frustration i wouldn’t recommend to anyone. so you will have great results if you use either of these adhesives. you just might not find the tradeoff worth it.

that leaves us with the obvious choice — wood-glue. as with most things in woodworking, yellow pva is usually the best tool for the job. it’s not the strongest but it’s stronger than you need it to be, easy to use and easy to clean-up. and that becomes more and more important as you get older, i guarantee. i’m not even that old and the fluffy residue from urethane glue drives me beyond crazy every time. it’s not that the glue doesn’t work. it’s that there’s going to be squeezeout and it’s going to be a nightmare. even a little is annoying.

for veneering, you can definitely use titebond 1 or 3. take your pick. i avoid titebond 2 in general, not specifically in veneering applications, because has a history (i’ve experienced it too many times) of color-leeching and visible pigment change. you might not have this problem. if you work only with oak and beech, you probably won’t. if you work with cherry and walnut, you likely already know what i’m talking about. the advantage of titebond 1 is that it dries faster and is cheaper. titebond 3 is water-resistant and gives a stronger bond. both work fine. you can certainly use other brands — check out james wright’s glue tests if you haven’t seen them yet — they’re awesome af. they have nothing to do with veneer but they will tell you a lot about glues. mainly that you can use whichever pva you have easy, inexpensive access to and it’ll be totally fine.

one last thing about the procedure. once you have your veneer attached to the board, this is the best time to surface it. if you’re doing it with powertools, run the panel through the planer and make sure the veneer is <2mm thick. if you’re doing it with handtools, do the same thing with your handplane(s) and the result will be the same. you’re going to have to smooth and sand it after the powered planer, anyway, right? if you’ve used commercial veneer, this should just be a question of light sanding but i suspect you’ve jumped in the deep-end and made the veneer from scratch, too. congrats.

time under pressure

let’s do a relatively-simple veneer project to get you started and dispel any worries about the procedure being impossible. you’ll only need a very basic set of tools for this. to cut the veneer, you need a veneer-saw or a very sharp knife. i like using a veneer-saw and they’re quite cheap. but these pieces are all linear so there’s no need for a fretsaw or any specialized gear for your bench. you can just cut the pieces using a metal ruler as a straight-edge or a paring block. anything that’s at least as long as the cut you’re making.

when you make these cuts, clamp the piece down. don’t assume your weight will keep it from moving. precision is important.

today’s project is a modern square clock. you can certainly make it round if you prefer but that involves all kinds of curves and i don’t think it’s necessary — the square one is quite striking already! you’ll need a cheap quartz movement and you can pick one of those up at a hobbyist’s store or on amazon or wherever you usually get your clock stuff.

this is what it should look like when we’re done…

as you can see, this is a sunburst-pattern veneer with some decorative dark pieces. you’ll need two different types of veneer to make this work — or a little ingenuity with some ink, which is what i did the first time i made this. the clock is 400mm square. so what you need is a board 400x400mm. i suggest 19/20mm plywood. use whatever tools you like to get a square. if you use good-quality plywood, you’re more likely to get it to be flat. high-quality plywood in most of the west is often referred to as “baltic-birch”, though it may go by another name in your area. that stuff works well. a very small piece shouldn’t cost much wherever you get it. you might already have a large-enough offcut in your shop.

now comes the fun part. we need to cover five faces in veneer. no, you don’t need to cover the back. why? because we’re using plywood and it’s already covered on the back. you need to finish it but veneering the back is only necessary if there’s going to be a difference in moisture-absorption-levels. and that isn’t really an issue on a small panel that’s already made from veneers. we need seven small trim pieces for the front, four edge pieces and twelve circle segments to put the clock together.

the edge pieces are the easiest to cut so let’s start with those. they’ll be the thickness of your panel wide (likely 19mm) by 400mm. they’ll all be the same. every panel should be cut too large and trimmed later, other than the inside-frame components. aim for approximately 24×410 on these. place your straight-edge on the grain of your veneer, slice with your veneer-saw or knife repeatedly until it separates cleanly. then repeat until you have four surfaces the right size.

the outside and inside frame pieces are the next ones we’ll cut. the top and bottom frame pieces are 10x400mm. the side pieces are 10x380mm (missing the 10mm on top and bottom). the center division pieces are a little smaller. the horizontal piece is 10x380mm) just like the sides. the upper and lower vertical pieces are 10x185mm. they’re all rectilinear so they can all be cut with a single straight-edge.

for the radial pieces, you have two choices. you can either cut a block of wood with a 30-degree angle on one end to use as a template or you can cut them all using an angled straight-edge. either is fine. each piece has a 30-degree angle and the other end will be trimmed to fit later. what i would suggest is cutting them all at 60x150mm and trimming them once they’re on the panel using your straight-edge.

align the 30-degree point so it is directly inline with the grain of your veneer and draw the two outside lines 150mm long then connect their ends and you have a 30-degree wedge. make twelve of these.

you now have all the pieces. from here, it’s just a matter of attaching them in a sensible pattern and trimming them to fit. start with the outside edges. glue those on and clamp them in place. they shouldn’t take long to dry. once dry, remove the clamps and use a chisel or plane to flush the edges with the panel. you’re already getting the hang of this veneering thing.

a note about gluing to plywood endgrain. it’s a good idea to size the endgrain first. this is not a structural joint. it’s just veneer so there’s no pressure to withstand. still, apply the pva to the sides of the panel and let it dry then sand flush. now adhere your edge-banding and all will be good with the world. instead of gluing to the endgrain, you’re gluing mostly to the glue. it’s a much easier bond to make work.

now stick your center dividers on. be careful about measurement. you will probably want to hold each one in place until the glue starts to set. double-check they’re centered. once they’re dry, you won’t be able to move them and they’ll look odd if there’s any variation. the human eye is an amazing tool for finding the middle of a square. these can be quickly clamped in place and it’s just a matter of waiting for them to dry.

people will tell you a lot about taping pieces in place. you’re welcome to do it for the radial pieces if you like. i’d use masking-tape or veneer-tape. don’t use painter’s-tape because it’s simply too strong and can damage the veneer if you have to pull hard to get it off. if you use a vacuum-bag, it’ll make it particularly difficult and might leave an indentation in the veneer, too.

the important part, though, is that you align the points. each piece has a precise 30-degree angle – you triple-checked this when you were cutting, right? either with the template or your angle-guide. given that each edge is exactly 90-degrees, three of them should fit exactly. they will significantly overhang the edge but that’s ok. we’re going to solve that problem right now. stick all twelve pieces in place. now lay your edge pieces where they will go and make a mark where they intersect. you could have cut these exactly the right size before but it’s far easier to do it accurately with the pieces you’ve actually made. the important part is to get four straight edges. exactly 10mm of edge isn’t significant. it just has to be straight. and cutting these pieces independently, hoping they will come out straight when assembled is a lot more difficult than just cutting them too big and trimming them later. you can hold them down with double-stick tape while you mark them or you can tape them in place. it doesn’t matter which you choose. just make sure they’re firmly in place and draw your lines. then take the whole thing apart and trim the pieces. then glue them and clamp them in place. i’d suggest using the clamping cauls we discussed earlier to make sure there’s pressure across the whole face.

the last step is to put on the face’s four outside-edge pieces these should be easy at this point and won’t even need cauls because the clamps can be put along their entire lengths. you can use cauls if you are low on clamps. stick those in place. when they’re dry, trim the overhang.

if you’ve been using shop-made veneers, this is the point where you will need to seriously smooth the whole thing. if you’re using commercial ones, you can skip to finish-sanding. the piece is now done and ready for finish.

apply the finish of your choice. i’d recommend six to ten coats of thin clear-dewaxed-shellac.

whether you’ve made the clock with me today or just discovered a little more about veneering and put the decorative timepiece on your todo list, i hope you’ve become a little more confident about using veneer in your usual work. it’s a great skill to develop and incredibly useful for building furniture, though we often neglect it as traditional woodworkers. thanks for taking the time to explore the topic with me!

boxing day

[estimated reading time 10 minutes]

let’s build a small western-style toolchest. there are many ways to do this and most of them involve complex joinery – usually dovetails and mortise-and-tenons. or metal fasteners. this one is very traditional-looking and doesn’t use any of those. it’s held together with long dowels and can be made completely from solid-wood or use a few pieces of plywood to save on cost and simplify a few of the components – up to you at each stage.

this is what the toolchest will look like – if you use my measurements. if you use other ones, it’ll look different. and that’s totally ok!

before we get going, there is a set of diagrams that accompanies these step-by-step instructions. if you click here, you can download them and they’re completely free. all i ask is that, if you share them, you don’t just send the file but link these instructions, too. yes, someone can build the project from only the diagrams but why bother to try to figure it all out when you don’t have to? i don’t mind making this stuff completely free for my students and anyone else taking the time to read. i’m a teacher, after all. i make my living teaching, not making woodworking plans. that’s not to say nobody should sell plans. just that i don’t. yes, i might be able to make a few bucks. but it would be a few bucks and it’s truly not worth that to me to keep them from anyone who might want to use them and doesn’t have the money to invest. of course, if you really want to send me money, you’re more than welcome to pass along a few dollars. but it’s certainly not necessary and you can take these instructions and plans, along with all my others, and use them freely – most of the reason i do that is because i have been asked by other teachers if they can use my plans in their classes and, of course, i think that’s a great idea. we have so many people teaching woodworking now who don’t have the design background and skills, only the desire to impart basic construction knowledge. and i want to make it as easy for them to do it as possible.

in terms of materials, let’s talk about metal. you’ll need two strap-hinges with an offset as thick as the back piece. if you use my dimensions, this is 20mm thick so they need to be 20mm-offset strap hinges. i recommend a hinge-length of about 200mm and a width about 50mm but you can use whatever is available. you’ll also want some sort of a closing fastener. i’ve showed it here with a locking hasp but you can use anything you like. if you use one of these, you’ll need to carve a little recess (mortise) in the top to house it and attach the other component to the front. measure carefully. i’m not going to prescribe specific hardware. use your judgment. i’m sure it’ll be great whatever you use. if you don’t want to lock it, you can ignore that completely and stick to hinges. i like the look of a traditional folding-hasp close and the brass is beautiful so that’s what i use. it’s not necessary. you can get a gate-fastener at your hardware store for five bucks and it’ll work fine.

now we need to think about wood. try not to think too hard about it. you can make this from whatever wood you like. i can think of some that would be truly awful for it – white pine is simply too soft for most construction needs unless you’re framing a building because when it’s thin it bends and has little strength along its length. but most things are totally fine. if you’re on a serious budget, something like spruce or southern-yellow-pine would be ok. if you want it to look nice, you can use cherry, walnut, oak or, my personal favorite, hard-maple. it’s a toolchest. there are no rules about this.

the other thing about wood selection is that you probably want to decide what you’re going to finish it with. i think you should use shellac. why? because i think that’s pretty-much what all projects should be finished with. it’s cheap, fast, beautiful and easy. but you can finish it with anything. if you want it to have more color, use milk-paint. if you’re going to milk-paint it, that might mean you can use a cheaper wood because you’re not going to see it – even if you don’t like the look of poplar (which i honestly don’t mind that much but it’s definitely not my fav), you can use it under milk-paint and it’s far cheaper than cherry in most places. the other option is dye. if you want it to be a beautiful almost-black color with some grain showing through, pick any wood species you like then dye the pieces with sumi/india/asian-calligraphy ink. a caution about dye, though. it doesn’t protect the wood. once it’s dyed and dried (i know, i’m a poet and definitely realized after my first few books got published) you still need a protective finish on the wood. again i say shellac. but you can use something else if you like – polyurethane works as does varnish. but i strongly believe nobody has that kind of time and shouldn’t have to put up with the awful smell.

one more note on finishing. when should you finish? contrary to the obvious answer, don’t finish at the end. finish before you assemble the parts. first, prepare things so they’re flat and smooth and cut your joinery. then sand them. then finish. now assemble. the easiest way to finish an inside corner? before it’s inside anything or a corner. how do you keep the finish out of the holes and grooves? tape works. or you can ignore it and just stick your drill/chisel back in there to clean it after. i suggest tape. it’s hard to get finish off and glue to stick later. but it’s not my chest (i’m told that’s what she said) and you’re welcome to do anything you like. you can fill dowel-holes with cotton balls, by the way. i’ve also seen people use earplugs. i just tape over them completely. the area around the mouth of the dowel-holes isn’t going to be seen so it doesn’t need to be finished. just put a strip of painter’s-tape along the entire part that’s going to be covered by the mating board and you can save yourself all the trouble of filling the holes.

a final thought on materials. the panels of the top, bottom and tray-bottoms can be either solid-wood or plywood. the design will work with either. if they’re solid, you have to make sure you only glue them in the centers to allow for expansion and contraction of the panels with the changing seasons. if they’re plywood, glue them in the grooves and move on with your life. again, up to you. there’s no reason to worry about it either way. the same dimensions and procedures work regardless of which direction you decide to walk in.

as for finishing, on outside parts you’ll want to break the edges with a block-plane. these edges, if you’ve done your job well, will be sharp. soft hands will touch them. just remember to do this at the end. that’s not really part of the construction process. you should do it just before you apply finish. it doesn’t have to be round. just a few passes with a plane will leave the edges visually-sharp and precise without cutting your children’s fingers when they explore. or yours. cause nobody likes bleeding fingers.

with all that out of the way, i think you’ll find this box surprisingly simple to build. let’s begin with making wide boards. you can certainly use a very wide piece of wood to get the sides, front and back from. the board will need to have a nominal-yield at least 400mm wide. as that’s not generally a cheap or easily-sourced thing, i’m assuming you’re going to glue two boards together to make this and that gives a nice decorative touch to it with a thin dividing line in the grain at the halfway point, anyway. if you want an even-more-obvious break, you can add a light chamfer to the mating-edges on the outside of each face to accentuate the dividing line as a design feature. i think it’s fine just to have it even all the way around the box. it shows precision and deliberate choice rather than simply making panels and not caring where the divisions go around corners.

so the first step is to cut these to approximate length. you should leave them a little long and thick when gluing up because you’ll need to smooth and trim later if things aren’t completely-accurate. which they might not be. you want a front and a back panel that are made from two 860x200mm boards and two sides with two 380x200mm boards each. these pieces are all 20mm thick. i’m assuming unless i say specifically (which i won’t) the grain will be running in the long direction on these boards.

before you glue them together, take a look at the diagrams and see where the grooves will be cut. it’s easier to cut the stopped-grooves on the front and back panels before you glue them together. so do that. you can cut the long grooves on the front, back and sides before or after glueup – the timing doesn’t matter for those because they don’t change in difficulty. the rails that will sit against the side panels can be glued together at this point or later. it doesn’t really matter. i’d do it now while the glue and clamps are out but as long as you get them done before they have to be inserted it’s all fine.

at this point, you need to decide whether you want to make your bottom panel from plywood or solid stock. if you need solid stock, glue your panel the same way as the other components. if plywood, cut out the piece. it should be 840x200mm. i’ve showed it here as 20mm thick (like 20mm plywood) but you will need to adjust your grooves to match the material you have. remember, don’t worry about being accurate to the plans if your materials vary. always make things fit reality, not theory.

with your panels glued together, now you can assemble the bottom. you’ll need to drill the holes for the dowels. i’ve given specific placing instructions for them but realistically the point is to drill the holes in the centers of the side edges and make sure they match in the vertical direction. you can do this with a ruler or a combination-square. you can do this by drilling one set then marking the second to match. as long as they’re not too close to the ends or edges or grooves, they’ll never be seen. the depths are approximate but they’ll be good guidelines to make strong joints. don’t add lots of extra dowels. doubling the number of dowels doesn’t add strength. you’re just weakening the sides. this is plenty of dowels already.

my recommendation is this – glue the thing together as two capital-l-shaped assemblies then slide in the bottom and box-rails and glue the last two mating-faces. you can definitely do it all-at-once. but there’s no need to put that much pressure on yourself. just glue and check it’s square and it will all come together fine. if you’re using plywood, glue the bottom panel in. if you’re not using plywood, glue it only at the center of the ends and put no glue along the sides. make sure you leave enough space in those grooves for the panel to expand and contract. with plywood, you can make it tight. with solid wood, you need to pay attention. if you’re making this in the winter, you might need a couple of extra millimeters. at the height of summer, you can probably make it fit tightly and it’ll be ok. wood expands and contracts across its grain and not noticeable along its grain. this bottom will expand in the 400mm direction, not the 840mm direction. the base as a whole will expand and contract vertically and all the pieces are moving the same amount in the same direction so you don’t need to worry about it at all.

now you can move on to making the top – probably while the glue dries on the bottom. the top is even easier. it’s frame-and-panel like the bottom but it’s a single-layer frame. cut the four pieces, make your grooves, drill your dowel-holes and slide it all together. if you use plywood for the panel, you can glue it in – this makes the whole thing significantly stronger. plywood here really is the best material and you won’t see the edges. it really will look the same as a solid panel except you’ll get extra strength. if you want to use solid-wood, though, you have to be careful in the same way as with the bottom. leave yourself enough room for expansion and contraction depending on what season you’re making this in. you can glue it in the center of the short edges but nowhere else. with that done, slide it all together with glue and stick it in the clamps.

you’ve now made the chest. let’s make the sliding trays that go in it. these are made exactly the same as the base of the chest but you don’t need to glue panels together to make it happen or cut extra grooves for rails. prepare your four sides, cut your grooves, drill your holes for dowels and put the whole thing together. yes, you’ll need to allow space for expansion and contraction of the bottoms in their grooves if you are using solid-wood but plywood works just as well here as in the other components. up to you. if plywood, glue the bottoms in their grooves. if solid-wood, glue them in the middles of the short edges and nowhere else.

how do the trays work? the bottom one is slightly narrower. it fits in the lower rail’s cavity. the top slides on top in the wider space left at the top of the rail. they shouldn’t prevent each other from sliding but they should touch each other. and the top tray should touch the lid when it closes. they should run firmly against the sides. a tight fit can be a beautiful thing. if it’s loose, it will rack. if it’s too short, it will rattle when you move the chest. if they don’t move smoothly enough, wax the sides. they should slide easily but not move out of place too much when the chest is shifted. no, it’s not a portable toolbox. it’s too big and heavy for that. but it’s not going to stay in a single place its whole life so it’s useful to remember it’s not a piece of stationary furniture.

now you can attach your hardware with screws. don’t forget to predrill. this isn’t driving deck screws outdoors through construction lumber. these are thin pieces and they’ll split. it’s worth the few seconds. you’ve put in a lot of work already and it would be a shame to destroy it by trying to take shortcuts, don’t you think?

you’re done. if you’ve taken my advice on finishing, you’ve already sanded and finished before you put it together with glue. if you didn’t, you have some finishing to do. either way, you’re finished with the construction process and you’ve very quickly and easily built yourself a beautiful little toolchest that will last you years. you should be proud of yourself. thanks for following along here.

if you missed it earlier, here’s a link to the printable diagrams with measurements.

thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.