fake letters

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

english has the most unnecessarily-complex spelling system of any modern language. while spelling is not necessarily-simple in many european languages, it is usually complex for a reason — mostly because the words are actually that long or have that many phoneme-groups in them. the letters usually represent how the word sounds. english, however, has a unique problem.

it’s not the evolutionary child of an ancient language with some other influences thrown in. it’s the child of two languages with competing spelling systems in approximately-equal quantities.

let’s think about where english came from.

english is the result of the language of the people (sort-of old german) being different form the language of the aristocratic and ruling class (close enough to old-french we can think of it that way). as these two pseudo-languages merged to create a new dialect, eventually a whole new language, they became less and less similar to the languages they derived from and closer and closer to what we now know of as english — a language that has no functional gender, german-influenced grammar and predominantly-french vocabulary — with many exceptions to these rules, of course.

in many cases, english has four words for the same thing — one each from french, german, latin and greek. almost everything has at least two, the french and german roots shifted to english. what this has done is created the largest language of borrowed-words that’s ever existed. nearly 100% of words in english aren’t just etymologically-related to words in other languages. they’re taken either completely or slightly-modified from their original forms.

what this has meant is that english didn’t create its own spelling or writing systems. it took those that already existed in german and french, the french being derived from latin but german having its own decidedly-unlatin version.

this wouldn’t be nearly as much of a problem if english had simply chosen one and used that, modifying words borrowed from other languages to fit its single writing-system. but it didn’t. it incorporated the french letters for french-derived words and most coming from latin and other romance languages. it used the german spelling-system for words from german, most of what came from greek and almost all eastern-language-derived words. the result is the mess we now call written-english.

let’s take a look at a few examples before we talk about it in more general terms so you can see the scope of the problem.

  • knock
  • muscle
  • design
  • column
  • whistle
  • knowledge

these words are pronounced, if you don’t already know…

  • nohk
  • mus-l
  • duh-sin
  • kawl-uhm
  • uis-l

so what are we actually seeing here? k can be pronounced or not. c can be pronounced or not, sometimes as s and sometimes as sh, other times as k. w is sometimes a composite vowel, other times completely absent from the pronunciation. n can have a sound or be ignored, as can g.

the problem is not trivial. when trying to go from written english to speaking, how can a learner tell if the g in design is pronounced like the g in good or the g in high (as in, not pronounced at all). how can they know if the c in muscle sounds like the c in pick, car, church or scene (where it doesn’t actually appear on-scene at all, auditorily-speaking).

the process in the other direction is even more confusing. why is “column” not spelled “kolum” or “design” not spelled “desain”, “muscle” not “musl” and “knock” not “nok”? it’s not a logical answer — it’s simply tradition, linguistic history and an unwillingness to change — all, sadly, hallmarks of an english-speaking society. actually, spelling-reform and standardization is a huge part of the history of english. at the time of shakespeare, a massive spelling-modernization program made english a more-easily-written and somewhat-easily-read language compared to what it had been in the past, eliminating some of the historically-curious letters. but it’s never really had another organized reform since. compare that to french were government-backed spelling shifts have happened many times, the most recent being just thirty years ago. in german, an even-more-recent systematic reorganization of the language happened in 1996, making things far simpler for german students in the twenty-first century. english, though, hasn’t had a comprehensive reflection on its spelling in more than four-hundred years and it shows.

while the obvious answer is to scrap the outdated latin alphabet and shift to a featural writing system (i suggest a phoneme-supplemented version of hangul because it would be easier to adopt something that already exists — which english already did with the latin alphabet that had been around for millennia by the time english began to be written — than to create something completely new), an interim step might be easier for people to accept, especially the notoriously-uneducated english-language-native-speakers — this isn’t an opinion — english speakers speak their language less-precisely than any other native-speakers of modern languages. take your pick of the dozens of studies — whether this is simply disinterest (i suspect this is the majority of the reason) or because english-language schools actually don’t teach grammar as a general rule like schools teaching german, spanish, french, korean or chinese, focusing only on grammar in foreign-language-study courses and completely ignoring english, it’s hard to say and it’s likely a combination of these with other reasons.

so what can be done to simplify english.

first, the shift must be from “traditional” or “historic” spelling to standardize on phonemic spelling. what does that actually mean? words should be spelled how they sound, not as a reflection of their history or etymology. the word “scene”, for example, that we have just seen, has an extra “c” in it and a silent “e” at the end. english typically uses “ee” to represent “i” as a sound and that’s not nearly as much of a problem. but where does the “c” come from? it’s obviously not important because the same sound is represented by the word “seen”, the past of “see”. it comes from the older word “skene” (greek) that passed through latin as “scena” — by the time it reached latin, the c was already arcane and no longer pronounced. another example from our selected words that demonstrates it clearly is “design” — it comes from the latin “designare” whose root is “signum” — sign, as in something that demonstrates a meaning. in latin, the “g” is pronounced. by the time the word entered french as “désigner”, the g was irrelevant and “draw” in french adopted the same root and is spelled “dessiner” — no “g” at all. in english, the word would be just as comprehensible as “desin” without the “g” at all.

second, we must eliminate the unnecessary letters and ensure we have sensible patterns for composite sounds. “i” is used in english to signify neutral “ih”, pure “i” and grouped “ai” (among other things but these are the three main ones) — this can be seen in the words “sin”, “semi” and “sign”, just to use three simple and similar-looking examples. the problem in the other direction can be seen in the use of multiple letters to represent the same sound — “car” but “kit”, for example.

a more sensible set of constants doesn’t need to differentiate “c” from “k” or “s” — we simply need to decide which letter represents which sound and use it only for that. in this way, transcribing spoken english always has a single answer. the letters used are the only ones that make those sounds. and reading english is easy as every letter has a specific sound without exception.

once this has been done, shifting to a featural writing system is actually fairly simple because it involves no more than transliteration from one way of representing sound to another. while english persists in using many possible letters to represent each sound and many possible sounds to speak each letter, this transition to a modern writing-system is hopelessly complex and has to be done at the word-by-word level rather than simply running a series of letters through a basic algorithm.

taking some examples everyone already knows — “to”, “too” and “two”, “see” and “sea” or “there”, “their” and “they’re” — clearly demonstrates the potential confusion present in a language with flexible spelling that could be completely eliminated, removing a stumbling block for those who are trying to learn the language — but, as is very clear in the sheer volume of complaints about people misspelling words on the internet and the decibel-level of the hatred expressed in both directions, this isn’t just about students and most english-speakers simply can’t spell, either. it’s not because they’re stupid. it’s because the spelling is.

english learners, whether children or those learning as adults, have incredible difficulty with spelling yet it’s not just a question of education. this is an issue of social justice, too. we judge people for their ability to speak and write english clearly and correctly. if someone makes a spelling mistake, especially in an employment context, they are chastised and judged, often seen as unintelligent, despite the fact that spelling in english has nothing to do with logic or intelligence and everything to do with a history most minorities have been only on the receiving end of — particularly from a violence and discrimination standpoint.

keeping the current spelling system intact is simply an act of white-supremacy and maintenance of the status quo. inclusion doesn’t just mean encouraging equality in the workplace. it means removing the barriers created by unnecessary shame linked to things like education. while it is certainly important for everyone to be educated regardless of background or race, a society that judges people’s intelligence not on how well they can solve problems or complete tasks but the way they write words is decidedly-problematic. this is not about communication. there is a huge difference between judging someone for saying “i ain’t got nowheres to eat ma lunchtimes” (which is, admittedly, an awful assault on a language that is already painful to listen to) and “you sea, i got their just as the to others left hour table”. this sentence, while using the wrong spelling in several places, is completely comprehensible and has no structural or grammatical errors once the words are standardized to their common-spelling versions. if this person spoke an identical sentence, it would result in no shame — writing it, however, would likely result in judgment and an assumption of being both uneducated and unintelligent.

so english spelling is difficult and cumbersome, complex and arcane. it is all these things because it has simply not modernized and these historical anachronisms do nothing except stand in the way of those learning english or those not coming from a white-european background. don’t you think four-hundred years is a bit long for english to go without correcting these obvious and simply-repaired issues? thanks for taking a walk with me through the garden of metamorphic letters. may you have a day full of peaceful words.

aquatic woodworking

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

if you cut a lot of dovetails, there is a tool you may be missing from your kit — a fishtail chisel. of course, this might be old news to you as most of the modern manufacturers make one. the problem is, as always, that they’re brutally-expense. but we’ll get to that in a minute. first, let’s talk about why you might need one.

a fishtail chisel, as the name suggests, looks like a regular bench chisel of the same size but, instead of having a blade that’s straight along its length, it has two rounded notches cut in the side. this varies by brand, of course, but it looks vaguely like you pinched the chisel perhaps a centimeter behind the cutting edge and squeezed it hard enough to thin the blade to a small fraction of its full width. the effect of this is to make a chisel shaped like a very aggressive dovetail when viewed on its face.

of course, there are actually fairly few times when you need a chisel like this. if you cut a lot of through-dovetails, this isn’t an issue. a standard flat bench-chisel will clean the insides without any problem. but if you cut half-blind dovetails or any other angled-recessed joinery you’ll probably have noticed it’s difficult to clean the waste from the inside corners because the thickness of the chisel keeps it from getting close enough for the last tiny bit of paring — either from the edge or face direction.

what the fishtail profile does is allow the chisel to get close to that inside corner without the rest of the blade making contact with the angled portion of the joint — it’s designed specifically to allow undercutting, which is part of making half-blind joints.

this is realistically a single-use tool but it’s a very important thing to do to get your half-blind dovetails to seat properly and can save you a huge amount of time and frustration. what’s the alternative? well, there are two.

one is you can use a skew-chisel with a very acute angle. this will allow you to get in the corner but it’s far more difficult to do it with that sharp point. and, if you are cleaning both sides of a dovetail, you might find it easier with a pair of skew-chisels, one skewed in each direction. of course, if you’re buying new, commercial skew-chisels, this doesn’t save your budget anything.

the other is to use a long, flexible knife to trim the waste right in the corner. this definitely works but it’s easy to break a disposable knife this way or bend a non-disposable one. you’re realistically using a tool not very-well-suited for the task at hand.

but you’re in-luck. for a tool you only use for a few seconds when you’re cutting one specific joint, the nearly-hundred-dollar pricetag feels unreasonable. don’t get me wrong — i have no problem spending serious money on a nice chisel. veritas, lie nielsen and various japanese makers will certainly encourage me to part with vast quantities of my hard-earned currency. but for something i’m not really going to use much or often, i am very hesitant. and when it’s something that doesn’t even have to be good to be useful, i’m not really interested in cashing in when i can just have something far more useful for what i save.

the solution is to convert a standard, vintage bench-chisel to a fishtail profile. and this will take you only a few minutes with things you probably already have in your shop. you’ll need a drill (seriously — are there any woodworkers out there without a drill?), a dowel, some sandpaper, glue, a long bolt and a cheap chisel in your desired width. let’s get started.

grind your chisel but don’t bother to sharpen it. put tape over the edge because, even without being sharp, it’ll still cut you if you’re not careful. and i’m not that careful — if you are, you can skip the safety precaution but for ten seconds and a piece of tape i suggest your fingertips don’t need to bleed today. your choice, though.

grab a wide piece of dowel-stock maybe 40-60mm long and a bolt long enough to go all the way through your piece with at least 50mm sticking out the end. drill a hole through the center of your dowel — yes, be precise — if it’s not centered you’re going to have a nightmare when it comes to using it. put some quick-set epoxy on the bolt and shove it through the hole then let it dry. when that’s done, stick the shaft of the bolt in your drill and make sure it spins properly. it should unless you made a rather strange error at this point.

use your quick-set epoxy to glue coarse sandpaper to the entire round surface of the dowel. when it dries, you’ve got yourself a rotary sander. you can just buy one of these if you want to skip the steps to here and you can often pick one up for a couple of bucks but not everyone wants to do that so this is how you make one rather quickly.

with that spinning in your drill, clamp the drill to your bench — i use a vise but you can just use clamps if you don’t have a vise. wait a second — you don’t have a vise? this may not be the time to make a fishtail chisel. this might be a time to make a vise. ok. no more tangents. make sure you can run the drill without it moving. now take your bench-chisel and slowly press it against the spinning wheel so the end of the blade ends a few millimeters from the point where the circle comes out the side. if the steel gets warm, stop for a few seconds for it to cool. don’t rush. when you get one side done, do the other side. you should end up with a profile that looks like this…

this is not the traditional profile for a fishtail chisel but it should be perfectly-fine for what you’re doing. you can always grind another half-circle of use a metalworking file to take away more steel and taper the whole thing back to the shaft or the handle. but what you’re trying to do is get the walls of the blade away from where they can interfere with your dovetail sockets and a circle with a 40mm diameter is likely to do it. if you do bigger dovetails, use a bigger dowel or file back more of the edge once you have the shape in.

one of the nice things about doing this with an old chisel is you can usually pick those up for only a few bucks so if you mess it up you haven’t really lost anything. yes, there is definitely a risk of warping or snapping the chisel but, having done this many times, i’ve never encountered it. the theoretical risk exists but you’re practically keeping 6-8mm in the center of the blade and that’s definitely strong enough. don’t worry too much if the fishtail profile isn’t centered. it doesn’t matter. you’re not using this to actually shape anything, just to clean waste from one side or the other. the handle being exactly in the middle of the tail is irrelevant to its usefulness, though it does look nice if you’re careful so you should probably at least try to get the two sides to match fairly closely.

once that’s done, simply hone an edge on your new fishtail-chisel exactly the same way you do a bench-chisel — it is, practically-speaking, just a bench-chisel that’s been pinched really hard by some overwhelmingly-strong fingers, after all.

i think i’ve had three people ask me about fishtails this week alone so it seems to be on everyone’s minds lately. hopefully this has at least given you something to think about and maybe you, too, can have a fishtail in your shop and no longer just have the spirits of the trees keeping you safe but have suijin (水神 — mythical water spirit) on your side? whatever you’re working on today, i hope it goes … swimmingly. thanks for taking the time to dive into this with me.

the language of more-than-one

[estimated reading time 5 minutes]

the english language is famous for many things, most of them bad. it is evolutionary and cumbersome. it has tense, number, gender, myriad useless pronouns, more punctuation than it needs by many times, impossible spelling because it doesn’t really follow rules and borrows from multiple simultaneous writing systems and an alphabet that makes slightly less sense than trying to see patterns in the clouds.

possibly the most stupid thing english does, though, it shares with most other western languages, though none of the modern eastern ones. it differentiates between one and not-one. not one and many. just one and not-one.

it’s the singular-plural divide and it shows up in english, french, german, spanish, arabic, farsi, urdu and even most african and early-mesoamerican languages. but it doesn’t show up in korean, japanese, chinese or vietnamese.

so if you are starting to wonder if i’ve gone crazy by thinking english (and other languages) doesn’t need plurals because it would be so confusing without them, remember a third of the world speaks languages that simply don’t use this marker in any meaningful way and it doesn’t stop them from communicating effectively. if you don’t already agree with me, i suggest two billion people not needing something is probably a good reason to at least ask the question of whether it’s necessary — or, if not whether it’s necessary, whether it’s worth all the effort and complexity pluralization causes in english — and, to be fair, all the other languages it appears in as it’s never simple in any i’ve studied, despite the fact that it could very easily be.

plurals are generally formed in english by adding the letter “s” to the end of a noun. but that’s not all that has to happen to make this shift. the verb usually changes — from singular to plural.

  • the child runs. (singular)
  • the children run. (plural)

english has a number-neutral pronoun, though. in addition to number-specific pronouns.

  • he talks. (singular)
  • she talks. (singular)
  • it talks. (singular)
  • they talk. (number-independent but uses the plural verb)

so what’s the purpose of plural?

well, practically-speaking it doesn’t have one. it differentiates between whether a thing is an individual (a book) or more than one (books) and that sounds, at first glance, extremely-useful. but how many books are there? is there a situation where you would find it useful to be aware of there being more-than-one but not find it useful to know how many there are, at least in a general sense?

so what we really need is a way to quickly differentiate between “few” and “many” or, at least, between “one” and “many” rather than “one” and “not-one”. i’ll give you an example.

  • there is a book on the desk. (one)
  • there are books on the desk. (not-one)
  • there is either a book on the desk or two, perhaps even three books. (few)
  • there are many books on the desk. (many)

this second differentiation is extremely useful but the first is rarely significant. if you’re going to cook rice, you don’t care whether it’s one grain or two. you care whether it’s one or a hundred. when your bookcase has books, you don’t differentiate between one book and two. it’s a small number or a large number.

there are very few situations where the important difference comes between one and two. they certainly exist — i am going to meet one friend, not two. but this is no more important than the difference between two and three — i am going to meet two friends, not three. and this is where the key to the issue actually lies — the fact that when the division between one and two is important we already have a marker in the sentence telling us about that difference. it’s not the plural noun or verb that matters and that just makes the whole grammar more complex for absolutely no reason.

  • i am going to meet a / one (noun).
  • i am going to meet two (noun).
  • i am going to meet three (noun).

there is nothing confusing about these three sentences. the noun doesn’t need to be singular or plural to differentiate.

in the same way, this applies to verb conjugation.

  • one girl (verb) on the bench.
  • two girls (verb) on the bench.
  • three girls (verb) on the bench.

while i have used the singular/plural versions of the noun, the noun is irrelevant to the distinction. the first word in each sentence has already told us all the information we need. by the time we get to the verb, it doesn’t matter — we already know how many girls there are.

while verb-conjugation in english as a whole is cumbersome and unnecessary (a thought for another article), it is unhelpful in showing number because the number is always there anyway.

if we need to differentiate “one” from “not-one”, we already have a word for that in english without needing to modify nouns or verbs — “some”. specifying vague quantities is already easy without needing singular/plural modifiers, too — “few” and “many” are simple words that require no grammatical changes to a sentence.

the answer is very clear. western languages simply don’t need pluralization any more than east-asian languages. this is something that, in a sensible system, would have evolved itself out of existence centuries ago simply because it is unnecessary and unhelpful. we’ve developed other pieces in the language that communicate this information in far simpler ways — like numbers and generalization terms for quantity like “few”, “many”, “a lot”, “some”, “multiple” and “various”.

why does this singular/plural division persist in english? simply tradition and resistance to change. we adopt new words all the time and grammar has been shifting for centuries — and very quickly for the last four or five decades. but this hasn’t disappeared yet because people are so resistant to changing a fundamental piece of the language. we need to stop being so precious and anal about it, though. there is no need for this and all it does is confuse children and foreign language-learners. it makes our sentences more complex than they need to be and it takes english-speakers longer to say something than it should because these modifiers are present in almost every sentence.

there are many things about english that need to be modernized and simplified to turn it into a truly useful, contemporary language. this is only a tiny part of that necessary shift but it’s a simple, small thing that could be adopted with no real change in the rest of the language. if all verbs were only used in their singular forms and all plural markers removed, english could continue to function the same as it has been for years and nothing else would be different. many english verbs don’t even have different forms by number for past and future — “the boy went to the market” and “the boys went to the market”. so the shift is less significant than you might imagine and far less difficult to adopt.

let’s take at least a single step in the direction of improving this backward and endlessly-overcomplicated language with a silly name (the dominant form of modern spoken english isn’t even from england — it would be like calling “spanish” “cuban” or “french” “alsatian”. if you’ve never thought about plurals as irrelevant, next time you use a singular noun in a sentence, ask the question — would i know how many of these there were if not for the verb or the end of the noun? i bet you would. i suspect every time you use a word like “table” or “chair” you put a number word with it like “a” or “five”. perhaps it’s time for us to notice the redundancy of our language.

i hope this has been a fun short stroll through the idea of modernization and simplification. may your words taste beautiful today. be at peace.

counting planes

[estimated reading time 16 minutes]

if you’re starting as a woodworker in the west, you would be forgiven for assuming stanley didn’t just make planes but was actually aiming to give craftspeople a better way to fight insomnia than counting fluffy sweaters-in-training (sheep or was that obvious?). with its confusing number system, many beginners either give up on the numbers completely and just go with the names (jack, smoother, jointer) or become so obsessed by the numbering system they walk up to strangers at flea-markets and ask what their opinion is of the 60.5 compared to the 9.5. the blank look in return is often taken as lack of expertise but really it’s just an indication that the numbers are somewhat irrelevant. except when they’re not.

the stanley numbers don’t make a lot of sense except one very specific set. bench planes are numbered (sort of) 1-8. the bigger the number, the bigger the plane. simple. if they’d stuck to this system, things would have been far easier. of course, they didn’t and there are literally hundreds — the 151 is one of stanley’s most popular tools, for example. and i think it’s worth taking a look at the common plane numbers. if you’re experienced in the world of stanley metal planes, this won’t be much use to you because you probably already know it. if you’re just starting out, i hope it will demystify some of the numeric confusion — these are numbers you’ll hear thrown around all the time without being qualified and people really will expect you to at least have a good idea of the size of a 4 or 7.

today, i’m going to talk about metal bench planes — and not even all of them. just the ones that are either common or useful. the complete list of what we’ll look at is…

  • whole-numbered bench planes — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 62
  • fractional-numbered bench-planes — 4.5, 5.5, 5.25
  • block-planes (9.5, 60.5)

i propose we look at these in five groups — smoothers, jacks, jointers, blocks and useless. let’s take a look at what they’re meant to do, what they’re capable of and whether you might want to buy one.

smoothers

practically-speaking, stanley made four useful smoothing-planes (don’t call them “smooth-planes” — for one, that’s not how english works. if something is “smooth”, it doesn’t make the wood smooth. it’s a description of the object — and of course your metal plane is smooth. if it’s not, you’ve got a problem. for two, it sounds like a character judgment and i don’t think even stanleys have that much personality).

while some may disagree with my classification, these are four planes that work well for taking a flat board and making it feel like glass. yes, you can do it with other planes (2, 3, 6, 62, etc) these planes are specifically useful for this task and, i believe, do it better than the others. you can get a glass surface with any plane. but these make it easy and efficient while smoothing a furniture-component-sized board with a 2 or a 6 is either very slow or very cumbersome.

number 4

when someone says “smoother”, they mean the 4. if they mean something else, people still hear it as “4”. this isn’t stanley’s most popular plane but it’s definitely a close-second. i suspect more furniture made in the last hundred years has had its final surface created with a stanley 4 than any other single tool.

the 4 has gone through twenty types and has been made since 1869 — ok, it’s not made anymore but you can assume stanley stopped production of its traditional planes quite a few decades ago. from the time they began building metal planes, though, the 4 was continuously part of the available models. that doesn’t mean they’re all the same but it does mean the size and shape hasn’t really changed much.

i’m going to break with my usual convention and, as i’m talking about planes made in america beginning in the nineteenth century, give all these measurements in inches. if you live in the modern world, i figure you’re probably pretty fast at doing conversions but, as a basic guide, 2” is about 50mm and 9” is about 230mm. that should get you in the ballpark, if not actually hitting the ball.

the 4 has a 2” blade and a 9” sole. this allows the plane to be setup for a fine smoothing cut. it’s a bit short to joint a large board but it is light and agile — perfect for fast, efficient smoothing.

number 5

the 5 is stanley’s “jack-of-all-planes” but, while this term tends to be seen in the modern world as pejorative, it’s actually one of respect from when stanley was using it — and for several centuries before that. the implication isn’t that it’s “master-of-none” but “master-of-several”. the 5 is small and light enough to be a smoother, large and heavy enough to be a jointer and solid enough to be a heavy-stock-removal (fore) plane. we’re going to talk about it three times here (once for each category) but this is somewhere it truly shines. it’s heavier than the 5 but takes the same iron (blade). so the result is much the same with the same sharpening and preparation but the extra mass can definitely give a smoother surface if you’re working with difficult grain.

that being said, it’s heavier and that means it will be more tiring to smooth with a 5 than a 4. the tradeoff is completely one of weight. my recommendation is to use the 4 to smooth smaller pieces and the 5 for larger ones where the weight is a benefit and the extra size doesn’t make it cumbersome to keep on the boards. the 5 has the same 2” blade but is 14” long.

number 4.5

the 4.5 is a wider 4. it has all the same characteristics but has the advantage of being heavier and requires less passes to smooth a wide board. being heavier makes it more bulky to use.

it’s almost the same length as the 4, 10” as opposed to the 4’s 9”, but has a 2 3/8” iron, meaning you can usually improve your coverage efficiency about 20%. is that worth it? practically-speaking, no. which is why stanley sold comparatively-few 4.5s. this sometimes means you can pick one up cheaply because people don’t think of it as the standard model. realistically, the extra weight and width make little difference in daily use and you can treat this the same as a 4 — take your pick and you’ll probably like them both about the same.

number 5.5

in much the same way as the 4.5 relates to the 4, the 5.5 is a wider version of the 5.5. it’s realistically an answer to european infill planes — heavy smoothing-planes. the 5 isn’t heavy enough to give that downward compressive force. neither is the 5.5 but it’s definitely closer. with a 2 1/4” iron and 15” length, it’s bulkier and notably heavier than the 5. unlike in the 4s, this extra length and width changes the feel of the tool and makes it more solid and substantial. in daily use, though, it can be used like a 5 and, if you just have one or the other, you won’t be missing anything.

number 62

yes. the 62 can be used as a low-angle smoothing-plane. but it’s far better-suited as a jack so i’ll deal with it there. just know you can make it work for this if it’s the only plane you have — though that’s probably not a good idea.

jacks

a jack is designed to remove stock quickly. also called a “fore” or “try”, these planes are the first tools used when a board is being taken from rough to usable. straight from the mill, a jack quickly removes the surface damage from the saw and makes the board approximately-flat and vaguely-smooth. while doing joinery is unwise after this step, it gives you almost-finished dimensions and the vast majority of the shaping and cleaning of the wood is done with this tool before another takes over (usually a jointer then a smoother).

number 5

here we meet our old friend 5 again. this is the next thing it’s particularly good at. setup with an aggressive camber and wide mouth, the 5 is an excellent heavy-stock-removal tool. this is what it is specifically designed to do and it excels. the other nice thing about this is that it doesn’t have to be in good condition. pick up a beat-up old 5 and you won’t even have to restore it. whatever its condition, sharpen the blade and you can probably do this rough work without having to put much effort into the tool. this goes for all jacks but, given that the 5 is the most-popular plane stanley ever made, you’ll be able to find one cheaply (probably about twenty bucks) at a flea-market or auction. if you buy a few jacks and one isn’t in great shape, you can set it up for this task and it’ll be fine.

number 5.5

there’s very little to say about the 5.5 as a jack other than that it can be used exactly as the 5 is for this purpose. find a 5.5 instead of a 5 and you won’t notice the difference. they’re relatively uncommon in the wild so you may never see a good deal on one. if you can’t get one cheaply, don’t get one. if you get a great price, consider it a substitute for a 5.

number 6

this is the next step up in size — what people have often referred to as the ugly-stepchild of the stanley family. but it’s my favorite of the metal planes. it’s practically-speaking a slightly-larger version of the 5 with a 2 3/8” iron and 18” length. this makes it significantly heavier and longer.

the extra weight means when removing stock quickly you’re less likely to have it stop. the mass gives you extra momentum to cut the wood and its wider iron means you can get through this step of the process more quickly while the extra length increases stability on large boards. if you’re dimensioning small pieces, this is the wrong plane. if you have big panels, this thing will save you a lot of time. its extra length makes it an excellent jointer, too. but that’s for another time.

number 62

the 62 isn’t just the ugly-stepchild of the family. it’s a distant cousin. while it looks vaguely like the other metal bench-planes, the 62 works in differently. it works upside-down. the other bench-planes we’ve been talking about all have a standard cutting angle — 45-degrees. it doesn’t matter what angle you sharpen the iron at. because the bevel is down in the direction of the wood, the sharpening-angle doesn’t matter and you get a 45-degree cutter touching the wood.

the 62 doesn’t work that way, though. it has a 12-degree angle and the iron sits with its bevel up, adding its sharpening-angle to that of the plane. that means it can be low-angle (sharpen the iron at 20-degrees and you get 32) or high-angle (sharpen at 45 and you get 57).

the impact of the angle on the wood is that a lower angle dulls quickly but cuts more easily. a higher angle provides something closer to a scraping action and avoids tearout on more difficult grain but is significantly harder to push. the advantage of a higher angle is that the blade remains sharp dramatically longer — a 35-degree blade will stay sharp multiple times as long as a 20-degree blade on the same surface. the low angle is specifically useful for planing endgrain, which makes the 62 great for shooting or planing butcher-blocks or cutting-boards. it also has a simpler design — no chip-breaker. this tends to lead to more difficulty planing difficult wood but in something easy just simplifies sharpening and assembly.

many beginners love the 62 but usually find it disappointing as they try to improve their planing over time and switch to a 4 or 5. for heavy-stock-removal, though, the 62 does a perfectly-fine job. i wouldn’t recommend it to be used as a smoother.

it has the same blade size and length as the 5 — 2” and 14”. it doesn’t feel at all like using a 5 but, sitting side-by-side, they look strikingly-similar. actually, the 62 just looks like a 5 someone stepped on and compressed vertically. these are highly-collectable, by the way. if you see a 62 in the wild, it will probably be very expensive. if it’s not, buy it. then sell it for a significant profit. they’re worth a fortune and are generally better as investments than useful tools unless you spend your days flattening large butcher-block countertops or shooting endless numbers of parts with difficult endgrain.

jointers

after the jack, the jointer takes your roughly-surfaced board and makes it level (before the smoother then turns level to smooth). this plane should be long to allow it to ride on the high-points in the wood and flatten them without taking material from the low-points between (sit on the hills and avoid the valleys, you could say). the longer it is, the longer the board you can joint. a good estimate is that you can joint a board between two and two-and-a-half times the length of the jointer — used in this way, a 5 can easily joint a 28” board, perhaps one as long as 31”, while an 8 can definitely handle 48”, maybe as much as 60” (5’ or 1.5 meters) yes, you can joint a longer board with a small plane but you’ll need a straight-edge and it is far less automatic.

number 5

we’ve already looked at this plane quite a bit but it makes an excellent small-jointer. it’s light enough not to make the process exhausting and if your board is relatively small it works just as well as a larger plane. if you’re working with large components, though, it is somewhat lacking as a jointer.

number 6

the smallest of the functional jointers, the 18” length of the 6 can easily handle a 36” (3’) board and that’s usually enough for most small furniture. if you don’t have a larger jointer, this will often be functional. the only thing to keep in mind about this one (and the 5 if used for this task) is that you’ll either need a different one from the heavy-removal tool or a different blade — get another plane for each task because swapping blades is cumbersome and hugely-time-consuming and will mean you won’t want to spend time in the shop. you need an aggressive camber and wide mouth for removing stock quickly but a mostly-straight iron and tight mouth for jointing.

if you think anything’s going to be a multi-use plane, remove that thought from your mind as quickly as possible. there are three tasks — scrubbing, jointing and smoothing — a plane can do and you need at least three planes to do them quickly, efficiently and effectively. you can do them all with a 5 or 6 but you’ll need three of them or you’ll be kicking yourself. the 6 is a great little jointer.

number 7

while the 6 is a great “little jointer”, the 7 is the real thing. it’s heavier and much larger. it’s 22” long but has the same iron as the 6 (2 3/8”) so you’re really just gaining the ability to joint at least 44”, potentially 55” in board length. if you’re regularly doing longer parts than 36”, you’re probably just building bookcases and desks. going beyond 55” and you’re in bedframe-land and that’s far less common as a frequent task in a hobbyist’s shop. the same rules apply as for the 6.

number 8

the 8 is wider and longer than the 7 — a 2 5/8” iron and 24” length. this gives it more mass and allows a slightly-longer board to be jointed. practically-speaking, though, if you’re going beyond four feet, you probably need a very long straight-edge anyway and the extra few inches the 8 gives you won’t help much. it’s a little wider but, again, if your panel is big enough to want wider, you probably won’t notice this slight increase. the 8 is quite rare and usually far more expensive than the 7. if you can find one for a good price, go for it. if you can’t, you’re not missing anything. it’s heavy enough you’ll think you’re pushing a car, too. so keep that in mind and make sure you try a few test-passes before you commit to using this thing as a jointer — on the edge of a long board, it can feel extremely unbalanced because it’s just so wide, too!

blocks

a block is meant for small tasks and should be used one-handed. it doesn’t really have the same handle configuration as the larger, two-handed planes because it’s specifically meant for shaving endgrain and doing edge-details like chamfers. while stanley made (and still makes) many block-planes, the two common ones are the high-angle 9.5 and low-angle 60.5 and those are the two you’ll probably see. most modern blocks are approximate copies of one of these two, even stanley’s other models.

number 9.5

the 9.5 is tiny — 6” long with a 1 5/8” iron. it’s bevel-up like the 62 we just talked about but it’s not 12-degrees on the bed — it’s 20. that means that at a sharpening angle of 25-degrees it gives you a 45-degree cut on the wood — the same as a standard block-plane. there’s little to know about this other than that it does its job. the thing about block-planes, though, is that they’re extremely simple. i’ve used very few bad ones and a huge number of inexpensive modern copies. it has no real complexity compared to a larger, bevel-down bench-plane and you shouldn’t be spending a lot of money on it unless you’re making an investment for collectibility.

number 60.5

the 60.5 is slightly longer (6 1/2”) than the 9.5 but looks much the same. its 12-degree basic angle means you can sharpen your blade at 20 and get a very-low 32-degree angle to cut the wood. this is particularly-useful on endgrain, which is what a block is specifically meant for, anyway — remember the “block” in the name is referring to “butcher-block”, a countertop made of all exposed endgrain to resist breaking when repeatedly hit with a heavy butcher’s cleaver. these are, again, very simple tools and you should be able to find one cheaply or a modern copy. spending a lot of money on a block is probably just going to make you feel regret. having a nice little one, though, is very useful for edge-details and everyone likes a nice crisp chamfer.

useless

we’ve gone through quite a list — the 4 and 5 families, 6, the jointers, the low-angle jack and the common blocks. but stanley made a lot of other bench-planes. what are they for?

well, they’re not for anything.

the 1 is a gimmick. you’ll see them well over a thousand dollars but this has nothing to do with its usefulness and doesn’t reflect that it was a complete failure — actually, it being a complete failure is why it’s so rare in the modern market. stanley only made a few of them and didn’t even keep producing this size until the end of the second-world-war. yes, you can use it like a block-plane. no, you shouldn’t. it’s meant to be used two-handed (it has an actual rear handle, also called a “tote” for no particularly-good reason, the other handle being called a “knob” for more obvious reasons, often the description of a person who obsesses over terminology for plane-components or anything else) but if you have hands this small, you’re not just a child — you’re a child monkey. honestly, if you give this plane to a six-year-old, they will probably find it too small for their hands. don’t believe me? pick one up at an auction sometime and try to hold it in a way that’s comfortable. trust me. you won’t find one. it’s a waste of money and effort. don’t. get. a. 1.

the 2 is realistically just a slightly-swollen 1. again, it’s block-plane-sized but meant to be used with two hands. i suspect it was designed for young children to use in nineteenth-century shop-class. it’s too small even for that. this is another useless tool.

while we’re on the subject of stanley, the master-manufacturer of metal planes who brought woodworking to the american masses, you might be wondering why such a company managed to make these silly mistakes. it’s because the plane-manufacturing market was already very mature before stanley got in the game. planes have been used for woodworking for thousands of years. they just happened to be either made of wood (the vast majority) or solid metal without adjustors (like some roman planes). when stanley started making these bailey-style planes, they simply copied all the common sizes — smoothers, jacks, fores, jointers, etc. they innovated with things like low-angle planes because wood doesn’t work well with those extremely-low bed angles — it just cracks. but most of their planes were copies of common sizes. a plane the size of a 1 or 2 is extremely useful as a wooden plane. you hold it in one hand and use it the way a block-plane is used today.

the problem is, as a metal plane, we already have that. it’s a block-plane. and there’s no easy one-handed grip on a 1 or 2. they weren’t competing with wooden planes. they were competing with their own 9.5 and 60.5 and they were beyond silly as competition for these extremely-useful alternatives. so don’t think of these as “useful because stanley made awesome tools” but meaningless glitches on the learning curve that are exceptions to the general norm of making excellent tools.

while we’re on the subject, though, by the way, stanley made excellent tools. they’re well-designed. but they’re not well-made. something you’ll notice about old stanleys is that the material quality is extremely-poor. the metal isn’t uniform (seriously, test a dozen prewar planes from a metallurgy standpoint and you won’t even be able to tell what the baseline is) and the milling is crude at best. but that doesn’t really matter. they were cheap tools for everyday use. they’re not premium and they’re not meant to be. spend a lot of money on an old stanley and you’ve wasted it. get one cheap and fix it up and you’re doing great. something to keep in mind — you won’t turn an old plane into a luxury tool but it’ll serve you well if you accept its flaws. if you want a premium plane, call veritas or quangsheng — even woodriver. stanley’s old faithfuls simply don’t stack up well against those modern methods.

the next one on the list for contemplation is the 3. it feels like it has all the makings of a good smoother. here’s the problem — the 4 is a better one. the 3 is tiny. if you’re a child, this is a great plane for you. it’s light and will fit your hands. i’m not a big girl in any way. but i find it small for me and if you have large paws you’ll feel like you’re holding cinderella’s slipper — glass or fur but definitely miniature — i wonder if she had bound feet like my grandmother. if you can pick one up really cheaply … don’t bother. get a 4. there’s nothing the 3 can do the 4 doesn’t do better. again, this was a case of stanley copying an existing wooden plane and ending up competing not against the wooden one but its own already-better product. don’t make the same mistake stanley did. get yourself a 4. actually, get yourself several for different setups. it’s an awesome plane. the 3 isn’t worth your time unless you’ve got kids — and in that case it’s awesome.

the last one on our list is the weirdest-numbered of the planes. the 5.25 isn’t a larger version of the 5. it’s a smaller version. it’s a little longer than the 4.5 but narrower than either the 4 or 5 — 11” and 1 3/4”. what’s it for? practically-speaking, it’s … not for anything. it’s too narrow. it’ll take you far longer to use it as a jack compared to the 5, 5.5 or 6 and that’s what it’s meant to be. stanley fucked up even putting this plane into production — not because they made a bad plane but because they’d already made a far better one in terms of useful size in both the 5 and 6. this thing didn’t even make an appearance until after world-war-one so you won’t see it very often. if you do, ignore it. pretend it doesn’t exist. it’ll be better that way.

final thoughts

so you want to get into woodworking. and you like the idea of fixing up a few old stanleys. awesome. a few quick tips.

buy three planes to start. one to smooth, one to joint and one to scrub (a jack).

  • for your smoother, get a 4, 4.5, 5 or 5.5.
  • for your jointer, get a 6, 7 or 8.
  • for your jack, get a 5, 5.5 or 6.
  • get a block-plane but don’t spend much on it.

don’t overlap your purchases. in other words, if you get a 5 for a smoother, you still need a jack. so you can get another 5. that’s fine. just don’t expect your planes to do double-duty. you won’t do it and you’ll just end up back at the flea-market anyway. might as well start with three.

while we’re on the subject of flea-markets, buy cheap.

a 4 or 5 should cost you no more than $20-25. if you’re buying online, expect to spend double that. but don’t spend a lot because this is a well-designed but poorly-made tool that will require hours (often days) of your time to get it working. yes, a good-quality new version will cost two or three hundred dollars. that might not be worth it. but you’ll find a cheap old one if you keep looking.

a 6, 7 or 8 shouldn’t run you more than $50 in-person — likely twice that, online, unfortunately. these are more expensive new (and were more expensive when stanley made them) and paying more makes sense. again, the same guidance applies.

if you can’t get a cheap block-plane, you’re not looking hard enough. even the ones you see on amazon will do just fine. don’t spend a lot on a classic stanley — it’s not worth it. save your money for a nice smoother. that’s where the investment will pay off in quality of results.

that’s it. it’s certainly not everything you might want to know about stanley bench-planes. but it’s a start. and now you’ll know what they mean when people talk about the common numbers. hopefully you’ve found that useful and, if not interesting, enlightening in at least a small way. thanks for reading!

all’s well that’s endgrain

[estimated reading time 23 minutes]

there’s an elephant in the room. a sticky yellow one. i know you’ve seen it. the video about endgrain and glue. and i have lost count of the number of times someone has mentioned it to me and asked if this has changed the way i think about furniture and glue and removed any of my disdain for butt-joints and the people who think they’re acceptable in fine-woodworking. and honestly the answer is no. while some of you may have been shocked by the results of the “myth-busting” about endgrain gluing, i wasn’t. i already knew those things. and none of those are the reason i think you should avoid gluing endgrain. by the way, i don’t think the video was bad or that the test was inaccurate. i think it was seriously overhyped and sensationalized but a content creator trying to make a living can be excused for trying to go viral, especially if they’re successful about it. my only problem is that what it’s managed to do is confuse a lot of beginners and probably lead to some seriously-structurally-unsound furniture being built that would otherwise not have been attempted. if it’s grabbed some people’s attention, though, and attracted them to the craft, perhaps it’s all good in the end. but let’s take a look at some of the things that are relevant to glue that i can address in a more thoughtful form than is possible in a few minutes of video — again, not a criticism of the creator, just a natural limitation of modern attention-spans.

  1. mechanical joints and glue joints
  2. glue strength in general (how to pick a glue)
  3. how endgrain performs when glued
  4. wood-movement and glue joints
  5. water (and why it’s relevant to endgrain, glue, life, the universe and everything)

a trip down memory lane

first, though, let’s talk a little about where we came from. no, not the internet. glue. pre-humans and early homo-sapiens actually pioneered the use of glue before the use of anything we’d think of as functional language. they took tree-sap and used it to — you’re going to laugh at this — stick two pieces of wood together. i know, right? some things never change. almost a hundred-thousand years ago, stone-age laborers began making more complex glues by mixing tree-resin (not far from what we now call epoxy, practically-speaking) with iron oxide (rust — they’re literally making thickened-epoxy like what you use to build a boat) to adhere tool components like handles to axes. of course, the axe-head was made of stone but if you’ve ever knocked a wedge into an axe handle through the eye with some glue on it, you’re following in a tradition that’s probably older than you could possibly have imagined.

in more recent history, from the dawn of written language in ancient china and mesopotamia, spreading through india and egypt, clay and wooden daily-use objects were frequently repaired (and still survive at least as fragments) using bitumen — what we now call simple cement — and this was used for everything from fixing a broken bowl to attaching jewels to statues of great rulers in their eternal resting places. hot glue appeared a little later — you’ve probably heard of “pitch”, which is really just organic tar extracted from a tree using heat and applied to a surface. it’s surprisingly strong and we’re really only up to about 3500bce. by the time of the new kingdom (about 1500bce), egyptians were turning to more lively glue sources, turning animals into stickiness and producing what we now call “hide-glue”, which isn’t really any stronger than the thickened resins but is significantly easier to work with. they even used it for wood lamination — seriously, there are glue joints on king tut’s tomb and they’re done with hide-glue.

the greeks (and later the thieving romans) developed techniques we now think of as veneering and marquetry using egg-based glues and grain adhesives while the mongols conquered most of the known world using weapons mixing horn, bone, wood and metals adhered with hide-glue. it didn’t really matter which protein — they all worked. the point was to take a complex organic strand and heat it so it would liquify then polymerize as a solid resin bond on two sides of a surface. by the nineteenth century, grain-based glues were being used for things like stamps and hot rubber was being used to make something far closer to what we now think of as contact cement and urethane glues (yes, the nineteenth century — no gorillas we harmed in the production of this adhesion). in the twentieth century, though, major advances happened mostly because of military need for simple glues that worked without heat, mixing powder or preserving starches (hide glue and grain glue). rubber was expensive and plastic was very complicated to make — it still is, reflected in the price of a bottle of structural epoxy.

so they turned to water-based glues. just after the first-world-war ended, pva was born (in germany — where else?) to provide adhesion in a premixed, long-lasting glue that simply worked. it was the first time you could just pour something on, no preparation required, let it dry and have a serious hold. the world had shifted and most people didn’t notice. like many things developed in germany at the time, it didn’t work. but it was a great idea. over the next couple of decades, it was refined in japan and turned into a usable product (anyone out there in the japanese woodworking community who doesn’t want to use pva glue because it’s “not traditionally japanese” needs to stop talking and sit down because it was, practically-speaking, turned into a practical and marketable product there for the first time). despite being destroyed literally for fun in a war that should never have happened and was plagued by mistakes, kyoto imperial university persevered and, a few years after the occupation began, managed to get “kuralon” on the market — universities don’t usually get loans to make industrial products but desperate times… by the seventies, oil shortages and trade crises had shifted industrial demand from petroleum-based adhesives to something that could be produced very cheaply as a water-based alternatives. the pva-glue revolution had finally arrived.

now we’re here at a point where “woodworking” is synonymous with yellow glue. it feels like it’s been around forever but it’s realistically only been on the scene during my lifetime. and the controversies have been raging from the beginning — is it strong enough?

well, i don’t think it matters. i mean, it is. but it’s not the right question. glue test after glue test and what have we discovered? it’s strong as all fuck. but what does that really mean in-practice?

mechanical joints and glue joints

i think the largest issue with the debate about glue is what people are trying to do with it. they’re using the glue to stick two pieces of wood together. sometimes this is a good idea but it’s mostly just a shitty premise to start from. you don’t want to stick two pieces of wood together with glue. you want to stick two pieces of wood together with mechanical joinery and the glue is backup. only backup. it’s nice that it’s strong. but it shouldn’t be the cause of the strength in your furniture, just a way to hold everything tight because the mechanical joints aren’t always perfect. think of glue as wearing your seatbelt. you’re already going to try to drive to avoid the accident. you’re not going to speed. you’re staying in your lane. you’re driving on safe roads and paying attention. the seatbelt only has to work if everything else in your life goes completely to shit. that’s glue. it’s the shit-avoidance backup plan. you don’t put on a blindfold and get on the highway and say “no, i’m ok. i’ve got my seatbelt on”. relying on glue is a little like that.

where should you use glue?

glue as a single-source adhesive between wood has a very specific purpose. it holds boards together where there is a significant amount of non-moving surface-to-surface contact. note i haven’t said what direction the grain is moving here. it doesn’t matter. let’s say that again for the people in the back who want to have a fight about this. it. doesn’t. matter. the point is that it has to be wood that isn’t going to move differently and the surface area has to be proportionally-massive. so let’s think of some examples where this is relevant.

if you have to make a tabletop, it’s unlikely you’re going to find a meter-wide board. three-meters long is probably not an issue but unless you’ve got trees deserving places in scripture they’re not going to be that kind of width. yes, you might be a slab that’s approaching that kind of width but most people don’t make their dining-tables in the style of thor’s drinking-house or a viking party tent. they use lumber from the yard and that’s probably not going to be much beyond about 40-50cm wide. and that’s a narrow tabletop. so you joint the edges and glue them together.

no, you don’t need biscuits or dowels or (gasp) dominos or metal fasteners or anything. glue will work just fine for this. pva glue. as long as you squeeze it like you’re a dog and it’s the most exciting leg in your life. why? because it’s a huge amount of surface-to-surface contact and the wood (this is important) isn’t moving on one board relative to the other. it’s not expanding and contracting. it’s not doing anything. the two pieces could have actually lived that way inside the tree and the tree wouldn’t have cracked. so this is totally ok. the same goes for case-sides and other edge-laminated components.

what’s the other place we usually see this? face-laminations. whether you’re making plywood (you should definitely make plywood cause it’s all the awesomes) or bent-laminations or simply trying to make a thicker board, the glue surface is huge. it’s the whole surface. all of it. again, this isn’t because it’s face-to-face. it’s because it’s so much surface the glue isn’t going anywhere. starting to see a pattern?

i can hear the question coming, though. wood movement happens (mostly) across the grain. if you rotate your plywood laminations 90-degrees, you have crossgrain gluing, which is completely against the main guideline i just mentioned. and you’re absolutely right. but there’s a reason this works for plywood and doesn’t work for other types of lamination — proportional strength to potential absorption. if you have a thin piece of wood (let’s say 3mm or even less), there’s a very small amount of potential water it can take in. will it try to expand with moisture? yes. but that wood isn’t going to take in much and the expansion will be fairly small, even on a wide panel. it’s still going to try to move. but the sheer quantity of glue compared to the tiny amount of pressure that water can exert, though, will mean the wood simply can’t move. the next piece, which isn’t going to expand in that direction, is glue solidly to it and keeps it from expanding at all. the first piece locks the second down in return from moving on the other linear axis. the key here is the amount of surface area compared to the amount of potential expansion pressure. try this with 12mm-thick boards and you’ll rip the glue apart. but thin veneers just don’t have the strength to break the glue bond and this is where the power of plywood and its stability come from. yes, you could in theory do this with thicker panels if you used strong-enough adhesives. but you’d have to pretty-much encase them in liquid plastic to get that strength and it’s unfeasible. not to mention industrial players have no interest in making this possible because nobody in commercial manufacturing needs that kind of technology — plywood already works so why fix a problem nobody’s got by producing something extremely complex that nobody needs?

let’s review. if you’re going to use glue as a way to join pieces of wood together without functional joinery, it’s either edge-to-edge or face-to-face. this isn’t because endgrain-to-endgrain gluing doesn’t work. it’s because it’s irrelevant. yes, it’ll work. but you don’t need it to. it’s a proportional thing. don’t believe me? let’s look at some math.

the silly thing people try to do is adhere two long boards together using glue on the endgrain without a mechanical joint. let’s compare the three situations using common dimensional lumber. i’m assuming these pieces are all well-prepared, jointed and smoothed on all faces. none of that is relevant to the equation in practice, despite what you might have seen in a video. yes, they’ll make it work better. but they won’t change the comparison.

i’m going to give two examples, one large and the other small. let’s imagine attaching two identical boards together in three different ways — two 50x250mm boards (in america, this is a 2×10) and two 25x75mm boards (1x3s). i’ll treat the first as 1.2m (about 4’) and the second as 600mm (about 2’). i’m going to use the named dimensions but you could do the same calculations with nominal yields or planed dimensions and get much the same results. they’d just be harder numbers to talk about so this is easier to understand as a concept.

50mm x 250mm x 1.2m (2” x 10” x 4’)

the total volume of these boards is 30 000 000 cubic millimeters. their total surface area is 1 490 000 square millimeters. these are big numbers but you’ll see why it’s important in a minute. just think of it as thirty-million and one-and-a-half-million for simplicity’s sake.

gluing these face-to-face will give you a total glue surface area of 600 000 square millimeters (the large face of each board). gluing them edge-to-edge will give you 120 000 square millimeters (the long edge of each board). end-to-end, that surface shrinks to 25 000.

surface-area to volume looks like this… (and yes i know i’m comparing dissimilar units but the ratio doesn’t have to be a measurement unit because our comparison is unit-neutral as they’re the same.)

  • face-to-face = 2% (two percent)
  • edge-to-edge = .4% (four tenths of a percent)
  • end-to-end = .08% (eight hundredths of a percent)

what does this mean? the glue bond, all other things being equal (which they’re not) between edges is five times better and that on the faces is twenty-five times better than end-to-end.

let’s look at it when we think in terms of surfaces, which is less significant but demonstrates a similar pattern…

  • face-to-face = 40% (forty percent)
  • edge-to-edge = 8% (eight percent)
  • end-to-end = 1.7% (one and seven-tenths of a percent)

again, the comparison looks like about five times better for edge and twenty-five times better for face gluing. i know what you’re thinking, though. why does this matter?

well, let’s think in terms of torsional strength. if you’re going to look at the forces acting on the boards after they’re glued together, you need to think of them working like opposing levers. if you have two boards glued face-to-face, you have a very small amount of leverage — limited by the thickness of the boards. edge-to-edge, you can apply more levering force but it’s still quite limited — limited by the width of the boards. for end-to-end joints, though, you can go all the way to the extreme points on the full lengths of each board and apply far more pressure. it will break. think of it like a children’s see-saw. the glue joint is the fulcrum in the middle. if you put your board on there along the glue line, the face glue-up sticks out only 50mm on each side. the edge glue-up sticks out 250mm on each side. the end glue-up sticks out 1.2m on each side and even those children pushing down with minimal pressure will make those boards crack at the seam — unless they’re really weak boards and they’re going to crack anyway, which is certainly possible but we’re assuming for the purposes of this example you’re using lumber strong enough for the application and just trying to make sure the glue will hold them together.

25mm x 75mm x 600mm (1” x 3” x 2’)

you might think that was an unreasonable example. you don’t want to glue two pieces of construction lumber together. you want something much smaller. like the size of a typical small table stretcher — 25x75x600, for example. that’s about the size you’d use to support a tabletop on a side-table. let’s do the same calculations and see how it works out.

  • total volume = 1 125 000 cubic millimeters
  • total surface area = 123 750 square millimeters
  • face-to-face glue surface = 90 000 square millimeters
  • edge-to-edge glue surface = 30 000 square millimeters
  • end-to-end glue surface = 1 875 square millimeters

(these calculations were done per board rather than total, by the way, differently from the ones above to avoid anyone telling me one way shows different results — the two methods have the same proportional difference. i love math.)

  • face-to-face (volume) = 8% (eight percent)
  • edge-to-edge (volume) = 2.7% (two and seven-tenths of a percent)
  • end-to-end (volume) = .17% (seventeen-hundredths of a percent)
  • face-to-face (surface) = 73% (seventy-three percent)
  • edge-to-edge (surface) = 24% (twenty-four percent)
  • end-to-end (surface) = 1.5% (one-and-a-half percent)

in comparison, things look very familiar but more extreme — in the volume calculations, edge is sixteen times as high as end with face being three times as high again. in surface calculations, it’s also a factor of sixteen between end and edge and three between edge and face. so the result when using smaller boards is even more significant — going smaller doesn’t mitigate the force-balance problem. it actually exacerbates it. but you already knew this. glue two popsicle-sticks together end-to-end and you might as well have attached them with gift-wrapping tape for all the strength it has but glue their faces together, even with white-glue, and you’ll have a hard time ever getting them to shift. it’s not the strength of the glue joint. it’s the strength of the sheer quantity of surface-to-surface contact the glue is allowing compared to the leverage you can put on it to get them apart.

where shouldn’t you use glue?

realistically, everywhere else.

what do i mean by that? as you’ve seen, there’s simply no strength end-gluing boards together. it’s not because end-grain doesn’t glue nicely. it’s because of how lumber is cut. if it was a huge end-grain surface and the board was only a few millimeters long, the glue would work just fine. let’s take an example of where that could happen — it doesn’t because it’s a silly example but if you wanted you could definitely do it.

take a thick board (perhaps a 150x150mm or 6×6” beam) and slice 3mm (1/8”) veneers from it — all endgrain. now laminate them together to form … oh. now you see the issue here. you’re just gluing the beam back together and the result is actually a series of very strong glue joints, end-to-end. but why would you bother? we don’t avoid endgrain glue-ups in situations where it is functional because there aren’t situations where it can work. it’s because those situations never show up in our actual construction methods. you just wouldn’t cut the board that way because it’s silly and wasteful.

so let’s say you want to join boards together. you could use a butt-joint (it’s not called that for this particular reason — butt is just the old word for “end” — but i like to think of it as the joint used when your thinking occurs in that particular piece of the anatomy instead of the head) but what are the other options?

  • mortise-and-tenon
  • wedged mortise-and-tenon
  • drawbored or pinned mortise-and-tenon (are you seeing a pattern here?)
  • dovetails (or even pinned dovetails)
  • dowels or floating-tenons (the deified domino or the manual version — it’s the same joint)
  • pinned rabbets

there are lots of others but these are the most common. by the way, i’m a japanese-style woodworker. these joints have slightly different shapes and vastly-different names in japanese but they’re practically the same joints. if you think japanese joinery is complex, that’s simply because you haven’t noticed pretty-much every joint is either a tenon going in a mortise or a dovetail-shape between pins, sometimes both at the same time. the tendency to make things appear complex is a great way of keeping people outside the craft and making everyone impressed and willing to pay high prices but it’s unrealistic. they’re the same joints cut with very similar tools using slightly-different methods but well within the same ballpark, if not the same starting lineup.

a mortise-and-tenon joint looks like a butt-joint with two significant differences. and these are important for what we’re thinking about today. in terms of glue surface, it has a almost the same total glue surface. imagine taking a 50×100 and gluing its end to the face of another. the butt-joint has 10 000 square-millimeters of glue surface. cut a through-tenon (not even pinning or drawboring or wedging) that’s 20x75mm and you’ve realistically not changed your total gluing area in a measurable way. but what have you changed? try levering on the end of your board? now you’re not pressing against the glue at all. you’re pressing against the inside of the mortise and its shoulders. the glue doesn’t have to hold it torsionally — only from pulling the two pieces straight apart, which isn’t a force that’s ever going to happen in the normal use of a table-stretcher. the glue is just there to keep everything from looking messy and sliding around — you could honestly use children’s white glue and it would be perfectly-sufficient for the purpose. so all the debates about glue strength in mortise-and-tenon joinery and people paying for premium glues and obsessing over clamping pressure? meaningless. the joint is strong because it’s mechanically-strong. the glue is the back. the seatbelt.

what about dovetails on the sides of a box? let’s think about a box made with the same boards — 50x100s. on each corner, you’re looking at 10 000 square millimeters of glue surface if you butt-joint them. great. sounds like a lot. when you dovetail them, though — let’s say you have three tails —, you end up with six glue surfaces. i’m not going to take you through all the angled-surface calculations but it is approximately 30 000 square millimeters of glue surface (well, if it was finger-joints, that’s what it would be and it’s actually a little more because of the angles but let’s not worry too much about that cause it’s already three-times as large). but — and this is a big but(t) — that’s not the part that matters in this joint. having the dovetail means the overwhelming majority of the torsional forces, like in the mortise-and-tenon, are already being absorbed by the walls of the joint, not the glue. so not only do you have three-times the glue-surface (and then some), the glue isn’t even the thing doing the holding. if you have accurate dovetails, you don’t even need clamps. or, for that matter, glue, in many instances.

a pinned rabbet, by comparison, has somewhat less advantage and this is, practically-speaking, why you don’t see these as commonly in furniture construction. dowels and floating-tenons, however, work the same way integral-mortise-and-tenons work — not shifting the quantity of glue surface in a way that really matters but removing the glue from the equation by turning the joint into a mechanical one where torsional forces are absorbed by the physics, not the chemistry — the glue.

glue strength in general (how to pick a glue)

now that we’ve dealt with the issue of joinery and glue, there are, of course, a few other things we should probably briefly touch on for the sake of being complete. these could easily be complete articles on their own (and likely will be if anyone’s interested in reading them) but i’ll treat them briefly here because they’re relevant and i haven’t discussed them much in the past. there has been some discussion on forums and in magazines of these issues but it’s actually surprisingly thinly-spread (yes, a glue pun) and they can be rather sticky topics.

picking a glue generally comes down to three things — cost, strength and speed.

there are various options for glue in the modern world.

  • pva
  • epoxy
  • urethane
  • hide
  • grain
  • ca

i’m not going to get into the weeds about how each of these works chemically (unless you really want to ask — in which case, i’ll do my best to explain it) but here’s the simple version. pva glue is water-based glue. it’s easy to clean, quick to use, cheap to make and stable at room-temperature. it’s the most common thing most of us use.

epoxy is liquid plastic. it’s extremely expensive, very strong, cumbersome to work with because it’s almost always a binary chemical when you buy it (two-part, sometimes more). it gives you a more flexible open-time and it’s not water-based so it won’t swell the wood or raise the grain. short-time epoxies (1-minute, 5-minute, 30-minute) are realistically temporary bonds when it comes to wood. they’ll hold it quickly but they’re brittle and don’t have the structural strength. that being said, if your joint is a mortise-and-tenon, this is probably sufficient and you can definitely use 5m epoxy for that if you prefer, though you’ll spend a fortune on it compared to pva.

urethane glue (popularized by gorilla) is another plastic but it works rather differently. it’s moisture-activated (no, you don’t have to add water to it — ambient moisture is enough — though some people do and there’s nothing wrong with that approach). it’s messy, difficult to work with, painfully-expensive and smells awful (yes, so does epoxy, unfortunately). will it work? absolutely. should you use it? not unless you really want a headache trying to clean it up. it has only one real advantage over pva (and many disadvantages) — being non-water-based, the wood won’t swell. so if your joint is too tight, you can force it together more easily with urethane adhesives. it might, however, be better not to make your joint too tight. you are, after all, a woodworker. you have the tools.

hide glue is realistically boiled animals. i’m a hardcore animal-rights activist. the ethical issues with hide glue aside, though, it’s not useful. it takes many times longer to set than pva. you can buy it premixed but it mostly arrives in powder that you have to mix — and heat. compared to pva, which just comes from the bottle ready to use. it’s also water-sensitive in a way pva isn’t. get the joint wet at all and it’s got the holding strength of dish-soap. people talk about it being reversible as if that’s a benefit. either you want your furniture to stay together or you don’t. i want mine to stay together. forever. you can reverse pva with heat. but you won’t. nobody wants to repair your desk thirty years after it was made. they want a new desk. reversible isn’t a benefit. it’s a curse. step away from the hide glue.

grain glue (rice, wheat-starch, corn, etc) is very traditional. there’s nothing wrong with traditional when it compares well with modern alternatives. there are certainly applications where this can be useful — like adhering paper in traditional bookbinding where the hold doesn’t need to be very strong. there’s no application in the modern woodworking world where anyone should be thinking about these glues, though. anything grain glue can do, pva and epoxy can do better. it’s also water-sensitive like hide-glue, extremely messy, time-consuming to prepare and a disaster to clean up when you’re finished.

the other glue on the list is cyanoacrylate (ca) glue. this is superglue, crazyglue, quickbond glue, etc. it comes in various forms but you can think of it as being much the same as 1m epoxy. it’s not quite based in the same plastic chemistry but it’s surprisingly close — really just an organic version of petroleum-resin that’s air-activated. i know that’s a bit of a mess from a chemical perspective but that’s not the point. it works like a quick epoxy and the result is the same — it’s messy and brittle. you can hold things together for a few minutes this way but it has realistically no longterm or structural strength. it will, however, in many cases hold up well to water and heat. the fact that it’s easy to just crack off, though, means this property is rarely useful in woodworking. use it to hold parts together while you find better ways to make the bond permanent. don’t count on it. it won’t save you.

so the moral of this little story is simple. use pva glue. for just about everything. if you need something stronger — or something weather-resistant, for example — or something that fills gaps better than water-based glue, structural epoxy is your friend. it is, however, much slower to use both in mixing and curing and i would suggest avoiding it unless you have to. it also smells bad (because of all the plastics) compared to pva, which is far less toxic.

if you’re curious, i use titebond 1 and 3 and, when necessary, totalboat epoxy. yes, i use other things from time to time — ca glue for making jigs, for example, and quick-set epoxy to do minor repairs — but those are the staple of my adhesives. whether you buy titebond or another manufacturer’s pva, though, it should be fine. there’s a gorilla-branded version and even elmer’s makes one. just pick what’s cheap, really. and do joinery that doesn’t depend on the glue for extreme strength. you won’t be disappointed in the joinery-focused method. rely on glue and you’ll always be let down.

how endgrain performs when glued

endgrain performs badly when glued for a very simple reason — it’s the same reason wood gains and loses moisture through the endgrain. think of a board as a collection of very small straws. the straws terminate at the endgrain. so when you apply glue to the end it absorbs into the board rather than sitting on the surface waiting for adhesion. yes, you can certainly prepare the surface by sealing it — like with a first-application of glue, often called “sizing the joint”. this mitigates the issue. but it’s totally irrelevant. if your joint is structurally-sound and mechanical, this glue joint is fine the way it is. if your joint is shaped like your butt, it doesn’t matter how much glue you get on there and you can seal the endgrain with epoxy — and, for that matter, use epoxy as the adhesive for its extra strength. it won’t matter. for the reasons we’ve already discussed. it can’t resist the forces applied to it unless the joint has its own internal, mechanical strength.

so it’s the wrong question. how does endgrain perform when glued? who gives a shit? if you’re relying on endgrain joints, that’s the least of your design and construction problems.

wood-movement and glue joints

the other reason, though it’s a secondary one, is about wood movement. wood moves many times more across its width than along its length and the endgrain doesn’t really move at all (it can swell but only with a huge shift in moisture and this is unrealistic in a natural environment unless you’re literally dipping it in a pot of water).

imagine that same butt-joint where the end of one board is joined to the face of another with nothing but glue. if we’re talking about a stretcher going into a table-leg, the stretcher will expand and contract along the vertical axis and the leg will shift along one or both horizontal axes — there are times this isn’t going to be the case but it’s generally the way it works out — the grain runs along the stretcher but up and down the leg. it’s just a function of how boards are cut from trees. and the same applies (though slightly less aggressively) if the wood is rift or quarter. the expansion is less but the axis of expansion is still perpendicular between the two parts.

that means the endgrain is shifting relative to the face or edge of the leg. every year. multiple times. often multiple times a day. these shifts are tiny unless you have a seriously-huge table with bulky stretchers and legs. but they’re significant over time and there’s no glue we use in woodworking (there are flexible adhesives that can absorb this much movement but they have other disadvantages, mostly either strength or density) that can take that relentless shifting. so, even if the bond is strong when it’s first applied, over time it will fail. of course, it’s not strong at first, push on the far end of the stretcher and you’ll lever it off the leg in no time. but, assuming you don’t actively try to tear your table apart (though i assume you don’t have kids if you think this is a realistic thing to expect), it’s still going to fail simply because of the shifts of humidity in nature. it’s weak in both ways — structurally and temporally. that, of course, isn’t to dispute the findings of recent on-camera experiments. the glue is perfectly-strong from a numeric perspective. it just can’t resist leverage at a distance (your stretcher is proportionally-long) and it can’t hold up to the movement over time the wood will experience.

if you’re using glue to glue endgrain in a miter situation, the problem is even more significant but you might not have thought about it. a miter is a bad piece of geometry for glue. let’s imagine the moisture is at a midpoint when you glue the corner together at 45-degrees. if the wood expands and contracts 2% along its width, the angle will shift quite significantly from 45 in both directions.

let’s do a concrete example. a 100mm-wide board that expands and contracts 2% (flat oak or cherry don’t move quite this much but it’s a simple calculation and you can substitute your species of choice). let’s imagine you glue the miter joint together at exactly the humidity midpoint of the year and the two extremes will be +/-2% from there.

when the frame is assembled, the hypoteneuse (the glue-surface line) of your miter-triangle is 141.4mm long. when summer comes, the board will now be 102mm wide, making the glue-joint 144.2mm. in the middle of winter, the board will be 98mm wide and the glue-line 138.6mm. the result will be that, if the joint is perfectly-tight in the fall and spring, in the summer you’ll see a gap on the outside and the winter will bring a gap on the inside. this constant shifting isn’t just ugly. the movement will tear the glue apart. there are solutions to this, of course. use a different joint or add a spline, either visible or hidden. but a plain miter at this size isn’t going to hold together for long. if your miter is much, much smaller, you can get closer and closer to the glue being able to withstand the shifts — a 3mm-thick mitered case side is likely to hold together relatively well but a 200mm-wide frame board will pull apart in no time unless it’s secured with something other than that glue-joint. if you’re curious, by the way, a metal fastener like a stable on the back of the frame will do little to keep it together. you can use a spline or turn the joint into a mitered bridal-joint (yes, that kind of bridal — there’s a reason we talk about it having male and female parts that … slide together so nicely) and that will stop it from being able to shift through expansion and contraction.

water (and why it’s relevant to endgrain, glue, life, the universe and everything)

water is the source of life.

in terms of glue, though, most of our glues are either water-based or water-sensitive. the only thing that’s not likely to shift from the application of water even once it’s dry is epoxy. pva will weaken with water and protein glues like hide or grain will simply fall apart when they get wet (which people constantly talk about as an advantage — i’m not sure who wants their furniture to fall apart but i’m not one of them). but this is, yet again, asking the wrong question.

the right question might be why you’re taking your side-table in the bathtub with you. but that’s not even the right question.

the real question to ask is where the moisture is going. and that’s quite relevant to our issue here. boards expand and contract across the growth-rings (grain). we know this. we’ve had it driven into our heads since we took shop class as preteens. but the moisture, we often forget, enters and exits the boards almost completely through the endgrain. if the endgrain is covered with glue … what happens? well, one of two things can result. either the water won’t get in or come out, which is unlikely. or the water will literally push the glue out of the way.

if it’s strong epoxy, the first will happen at first and the chemical bonds will eventually break down over time. remember, not 100% of the moisture is getting in and out through the endgrain so if the board absorbs moisture through its face and edge in small quantities then tries to lose it, it’s still pushing on the endgrain from the inside and working its way through the microscopic bonds of the epoxy — the outside moisture doesn’t have much effect but what’s inside certainly will over years.

if it’s water-permeable glue like pva or protein or urethane, however, this process will happen very quickly. it will literally dissolve some of the glue every time there’s a moisture shift. and that can happen from morning to night and back again every day of the year, with larger swings happening between seasons.

final thoughts

theories are great. demonstrations are amazing. and videos are a stunning way to teach things so people engage and remember. we are a culture of useless myths and traditions in many ways and these need to be examined in the clear light of day and most must be eliminated. i think it’s a wonderful thing to do. but we have to ask the right questions. we can collect and share data about anything. but how does that data relate to what we do in our everyday lives?

ask yourself this question when you’re designing something — is this the best way to attach these pieces together? does it matter if the glue-bond is strong or is there something else that’s going to make this fail?

after weeks of seeing debates and, sadly, hate and emotion come into this topic — who the actual fuck is that invested in glue? certainly not the companies that make it! — i think it’s time we all calmed down and started to think more realistically about the situation. yes, endgrain can be glued. yes, it will hold together almost as well as other grain structures if we use it in the same situations. but we’re woodworkers. we’re building furniture. and the places we use endgrain aren’t the same as those where we use edges and faces of boards just because that’s how trees grow and are milled into lumber.

so let’s be peaceful, practical and gentle in our responses. let’s think instead of allowing our emotions to run away with us. and let’s stop getting stuck (yes, stuck, like glue) in our old ways of thinking and use things like logic and math to give us real answers. and our personal experiences. don’t believe this technical explanation? take two long boards and glue them together, end-grain to end-grain. then stand on one and try to pry the other off it. i know what will happen. so do you. but you’re welcome to try — be careful you don’t hit yourself in the face when they fly apart, though, as i’m not going to be responsible for your broken nose.

this has been a rather lengthy exploration (and i didn’t even go into the details of the different types of glue and their applications in woodworking!) but i hope it’s brought some answers to all the people who have seemed to have myriad millions of questions about this topic of late. i wonder if the questions were always there in the background but stifled from embarrassment — or if they were just spontaneous thoughts. either way, thanks for taking a trip down a very adhesive road with me today. be at peace in your shop and don’t forget to take a moment to thank the tree that gave you happiness today.

getting your curve on

[estimated reading time 19 minutes]

today is my mother’s birthday. she was my gateway to the world of wood — and nature in general. she’s an avid gardener and she and my father built the home they’ve now (finally, well into their seventies) retired to, years before i was born. just to give you a sense of how this all began for me, my favorite photograph of my mother is one where she is standing where a year later would be their house but is the middle of a forest, surrounded by stumps, decked-out in bellbottom jeans, kaftan and turban (no, buddhists don’t wear them religiously but it was convenient and she was a flower-child) holding a chainsaw with what looks like a two-meter bar but i’m sure isn’t even close to that — she’s not very large, one might say, so what for me would be a big chainsaw for my mother looks like something built to be used by a giant. anyway, my parents are both academics but they have a respect for nature in general and love for wood and working with wood in particular that inspired me as a child to enter the craft and still motivates me to design and built.

as a result, i have been designing a series of projects to build for them when next i can finally escape the hell of where i have been trapped since the beginning of the pandemic — being immunocompromised has really been a huge problem in my life but never nearly as much as it has the last two years and, having had an anaphylactic reaction to the first dose of the vaccine, i am forever destined to have difficulty traveling because i’ll always be classified as “not fully-vaccinated” — much to my sadness, as i was one of the first people in this country to be given the first dose and i was so happy that day to walk into the clinic and hope things were about to improve.

my parents have simple tastes in furniture (as in most things) and this is probably where i get my extreme minimalism. ok, i’m more extreme about it than they are and i simply refuse to build furniture for myself because … well, i don’t want to own any furniture. but i love building things for them. in the last few weeks, i’ve designed a simple bench and a couple of sitting-stools, as requested, for my mother. i wish i could go to the next step and make them for her today but it’ll have to wait. for now, though, they’ve given me some things to think and talk about. the bench is inspired by japanese traditional timberframing (in style, if not in assembly techniques as it’s actually built with floating dowels — or floating tenons if you’re a domino fan cause those work even better). one of the stools, though, uses kerf-bending or bent-lamination (either will work for the design) to get a pretty-aggressive curve in the top. you could steam-bend it but that is just asking for problems with such tight radii.

when i was a kid, one of the typical phrases used as an alternative to “fuck off” was “get bent” — i never really imagined at the time i’d be taking it quite so literally after i’d had it screamed at me a few hundred times…

there are realistically three ways to bend wood — heat, lamination and partial-segmentation. heat comes in three varieties — boiling, steaming and direct-application. so i guess we have five things to talk about. this could be a little long. then again, they often are.

bent-lamination

this technique has always sounded to me like a country of twisted, furry camels — you know, “bent-llama nation”. but i’m weird. and a lecturer in language and culture so what did you really expect? that completely aside, the easiest way to bend wood is to make it so thin it can’t resist then, once it’s bent, glue it together so it can’t go back. there are alternative methods, of course. but when i want to get a piece of wood to take a new shape this is probably the way i will automatically think to use. it requires no specialized equipment, no dangerous temperatures and no waiting time except for the glue to dry. it does, however, require a significant amount of planning and clamps — don’t rush your bent-lam or you’re going to end up with some very sticky firewood-in-training. let’s take a look at the process.

by the way, there are other processes for this. i have tried quite a few of them. i think this one works better. it’s not the simplest or the cheapest. but those are leaving a lot more to chance and i don’t work without a safety-net — i’m not a teen anymore and i don’t freeclimb rock-faces, either. life is a bit safer this way. my time in the shop is, too.

thin slices of wood will bend quite easily. if you’ve ever tried to skin a torsion-box door with a 3mm sheet of skinning material, you’ll know exactly what i mean. or if you’re like me and do a lot of your mockup patterns in 1.5mm laminate-wood panels, this has already become very clear to you. the concept of bent-lamination is extremely simple. if you want a thick piece of wood that turns a corner, you take thin slices and make them all fit that shape, hold them there with glue between them and they’ll become, practically-speaking, a plywood panel in that curve once the glue dries. the only question is how thin you need to make the wood to make it bend in the radius you’re looking for.

a good place to start is that wood thicker than 3mm in most species isn’t going to do much bending. if you want a very subtle curve, you might be able to use 5-6mm-thick pieces for your lamination but i typically don’t start with anything thicker than 3mm. there is a very tiny space for the glue but, realistically-speaking, that doesn’t matter. so if you are aiming for a 30mm-thick panel, you’ll need ten sheets. want a 60mm-thick panel and you’ll need twenty. thankfully, we don’t usually work with panels quite that thick and laminated panels are extremely strong — much like plywood, though their internal structure doesn’t normally have the benefit of the perpendicularly-opposing-grain. so it’s typical to see six-sheet laminations giving 18mm or even four-sheet lams for 12mm — typical plywood thicknesses.

before we get started on the procedure, it’s probably good to remember you’ll see the laminations on the side of whatever you’re making. so either you like the plywood-edge look or you’ll need to cut some banding material. the easiest way to do this is to cut the banding oversized then shape it once it’s been attached to the completed bent segment — you can do this by hand with a spokeshave or chisels or use a handheld trim-router with a pattern-bit. i’ve used both and they’re quick and effective. the bent piece gives you a great reference surface and even completely chiseling the extra away takes very little time in most cases.

there are various schools of thought about bending forms. one is that you need a form that outlines the curve, top and bottom that has a bunch of space between the inside and outside pieces. another is that you need a mostly-solid bottom form and the top can be replaced by a torsion-strap (usually ratcheting). a third is to make the form from sticks that point out to the inflection points of the curve and pull the whole thing tight against those points, allowing the curve to form naturally. yes, these all work. sort-of. but they’re a lot of pain and annoyance to use in-practice and the results are usually questionable. they’re also not very beginner-friendly. so much tension and flying-by-the-seat-of-the-overalls are involved in the process. i’d rather guarantee success — and if this is your first time doing it i suggest you stack the odds in your favor, as the mocking-jay would say (i really miss teaching young-adult literature courses).

what you need for this procedure is a pair of solid bending-forms. you’re aiming for two pieces shaped to the inside and outside of your target curve. i think the easiest way to do this is with plywood (or mdf if you’re not asthmatic like me and can put up with the dust). draw a cross-section of the lamination you’re doing on a big sheet of posterboard. now complete the rectangle it fits in. build the rest of the rectangle, the pieces above and below, from plywood and laminate multiple identical pieces of plywood to get the thickness you need for the entire laminated piece to fit between them without hanging out — you want your form to be exactly the depth of your laminated piece. leave at least 60mm on each end of the thing you’re making to be cut off, though. lamination at the ends is often problematic and you’ll get a little springback if you’re not careful.

once you have those forms made from plywood and glued together, you can figure out how you’re going to clamp it. draw your clamp positions that will hold the two pieces to each other for the maximum amount of force between them. there’s a shortcut on this if you are looking for one and have a good bench, though. and i often take this approach so i’ll describe it first.

if the whole form fits in your bench-vise, you can rejoice because this whole thing is going to be very easy. just clamp it together in your vise and let it dry there. simple.

but it probably won’t unless you’re making something very small or have an unusually-large vise. no problem, though. you have something better than a large vise — a large bench. if you have dog-holes in your bench, setup as if you’re making a full-width planing stop opposing your vise. now you should be able to position the two pieces of your bending-form with one against the moving dogs on your vise and the other against the planing-stop. clamp the thing in the vise with the laminated piece in the middle and walk away — you’re done.

if, however, this is not a possibility for you — for example, if you’re working without a good face/end-vise or, more likely, you’re actually making many laminated parts all at once and only have one or two usable vises, my typical problem with using this approach in practice — there’s an alternative. you can use clamps. a cautionary-tale about clamps. bent-lamination takes a lot of force. a shitload. a fuckton. more than you think. by far. for most of these things, you’re probably going to need a clamp about every 8-10cm the entire length of the curve. so you need to drill large holes on each side of the curve, perpendicular to the tangent of the curve at that intersection-point, so you can get the jaws of the clamp to fit in them. i use f-style clamps, sometimes c-clamps if it’s a small piece. once the piece is in, you can clamp the whole thing tight with pipe-clamps then add all the internal ones through the holes.

here’s another method i’ve used that works — clamping cauls and pipe-clamps. remember how we were going to do this in the vise? well, you can do the same thing with two long pieces of wood and a pair of long pipe-clamps. take the whole thing and lay it on the pipes with the clamps facing up. put a piece of wood on each end — between the clamps’ faces and the bending-form. now take a thin scrap and put it directly in the middle of the clamping form on each end. so you have a clamping-form sandwich, the outside pieces of wood are the bread and above and below the filling is a scrap — maybe 3mm thick and 50mm wide. this will distribute the pressure from the outsides across the entire surface of the form. it’s not necessarily as effective as using a lot of clamps but it’ll get the job done and i’ve never had a piece come apart when done this way.

the actual lamination is the easiest part. i have found it useful to grease the inside of the bending-form. some people use plastic or tape but i think it’s easier to use paste-wax and just skip the packing-tape nightmare — when that stuff sticks to the glue, you can get some weird reactions between the two adhesives and … well, let’s just say i don’t want to repeat that encounter.

with that done, take the all your pieces of 3mm veneer and spread one side with glue — except the final piece. this one will be dry on both sides for obvious reasons. believe me. you’ll forget. i have. it’s not a very calm thing. you end up trying to get all the glue off and it gets very messy, very fast. once you have all your pieces prepared, lay the first in the form, dry-side against the bottom, glue-side facing up. stack them like that until you finish with the final all-dry piece topping off your sandwich. press the top piece in and squeeze the living shit out of it. you’ll get lots of squeezeout. lots. you’ll feel like you made a mistake and your whole world is swimming in pva. that’s ok. if you’ve done it right, this is to be expected. i promise, you can’t squeeze out all the glue. it’ll hold.

clamp it tightly. keep going. you can’t squeeze too hard. honestly if you could park a ship on top of the form you’d probably still be jumping up and down on the deck to add pressure.

leave it for the glue to dry. if you’ve used pva, i’d say 6-8h is plenty but you can leave it as long as you want. if you used structural epoxy (like ecopoxy, totalboat or west-system), which might be a good idea if you’re worried about doing it quickly enough to get all the pieces in, leave it at least 24h before you even think of releasing those clamps. you’ll get springback. don’t worry about it. there are many ways to mitigate that problem but remember you’re edge-banding the whole thing. the edging will hold it in shape once it’s attached.

there are two ways to do that. i call them the pragmatic approach and the commiseration approach. you can call them before and after. cause those are so much easier to spell. the pragmatic approach is to actually glue the edge strips to the piece while it’s still clamped in the form. this way, you won’t get springback at all. the whole thing will be solid. the other benefit is that you don’t really have to wait. once the first step is done, you can simply clean up the squeezeout while it’s still wet and glue the edges on. remember to paste-wax the form or you could really end up with a sticky mess. you want to be able to release the form, remember, not glue the form to the edges. the edges should be trimmed very close to final shape. you can clean up a millimeter or two later but you want it to be very, very tight or it will risk getting adhered to even the best-prepared bending-forms.

the commiseration approach is to wait until the piece comes out the clamps, is smoothed and sanded then attach the edging. this is how i usually do it. i’ve found the “before” version too challenging to make work. i’ve successfully done it but it doesn’t seem worth all that extra effort and physical moving things around. anyway, once the thing is finished, plane or sand the sides to ensure a good bond with the edge, glue it on, clamp it thoroughly and go back to your watching-glue-dry activities (shop naps are fun).

with the whole thing complete, you can trim the lamination to length and scrape or sand the surfaces and you’re all finished. there’s no real complexity to any of this and it’s actually quite fast. it sounds complicated. but all you’re really doing is the equivalent of taking a bunch of sheets of paper and gluing them together to make a strong curved piece of cardboard and i’m sure you’ve all done that at some point as kids — for example, making a curved-wing paper-airplane in school.

kerf-lamination

this technique is completely different. it relies on math rather than brute-force and the joys of modern glue. it’s actually very simple but it scares a lot of people. the idea isn’t complex, though.

wood is strong even when it’s very thin. but most of its strength is in one direction — resisting torsional bending forces. as it gets thinner, its resistance to direct-bending is dramatically reduced. remember how easy it was to bend 1.5mm or 3mm sheets of veneer to make the bent-lamination we just talked about? well, instead of cutting the wood to make multiple sheets that thick, let’s just use a piece that thick to start. i know what you’re thinking. if you wanted a finished-thickness of 1.5mm, you’d be building a very tiny piece of furniture. but that’s not the point. the wood will actually hold together if that’s all that’s left — in very specific places.

if you’ve ever cut a groove with a tablesaw or tracksaw, you’ll understand the concept. you run multiple kerfs to get the task completed. instead of running them in overlapping passes, though, you space them. this is something that is easier to experience than explain. so i invite you to give it a try.

take a scrap maybe 60-100cm long and cut a single kerf right in the middle with your thickest saw until you’re 1-2mm from completely-through. now cut another next to it, spaced perhaps 5mm away. move another 5mm and do another. keep going until you’ve got eleven kerfs. now move back to the first cut and repeat it in the other direction, cutting ten more at 5mm spacings to a depth of all but the last 1-2mm. now you have twenty-one of them. pick up your board. try to bend it. that’s kerf-bending.

of course, it takes a little calculation (or trial-and-error) to figure out how many kerfs you need, how deep and how far-apart they need to be. but i have good luck for most curves spacing my kerfs 3-5mm with a kerf-size of 3mm on the tablesaw (it looks like a finger-joint) or spacing them about 2mm if i’m cutting them with a kataba (or the manual saw of your choice). you might need a lot of cuts if you’re aiming for a very tight radius on your curve. you’ll need far fewer for a larger radius. don’t assume the wood will compress — just add more kerfs. if you cut to a depth of all-but-2mm, you’ll probably be fine. if you really need it to bend, you can go closer to the edge but the closer you get the easier it will be to snap it when you actually do the bending.

the only other pieces to this are adhesion and banding. once it’s curved how you want, open it back up and add glue in each kerf. then bend it, clamp it in position and let it dry. i highly-recommend using epoxy for this because the gaps aren’t going to be tight enough for the kind of pressure pva requires. it can be done but it’s less likely to stay stable. when that’s dry, clean it up (the edges will be covered in squeezeout unless you forgot to add the glue) and add edging in whatever material you like — probably whatever you used for the bent piece. done. yes, it’s more math. but wow is it ever easy once you get the hang of it.

direct-heat bending

also called hot-pipe or hot-plate bending, the easiest way to bend a piece of wood is to get it hot enough the internal tension relaxes and you can just manipulate it in your hands. this is not an easy process to do safely, though. the simplest approach is to use a copper pipe (no, not galvanized or treated because you’ll be breathing in the off-gassing vapor and that’s a quick way to get yourself hospitalized) and a blowtorch. heat the pipe by sticking the blowtorch in the end and touch the wood on the pipe. i don’t recommend this approach. it’s very dangerous. even with the pipe clamped in a vise, it’s easy for things to come loose and even easier to start a fire — an open flame in a shop full of wood — what can possibly go wrong?

yes. you’ll light your bench on fire and probably yourself. so heat-bending is great. but this is a bad way to do it. if you’re going to heat-bend wood, a much better, safer approach, something i can actually recommend, is to either use a purpose-built wood-bending pipe tool (do a search — i can’t recommend a specific one cause i’ve never used any of the commercial ones) or make one yourself. the way i’ve made them is to take a heating element (electric soldering torch in my case) and put that in a copper pipe, turn it on and … well, it’s still going to be very, very hot. you have to be careful with this and i take no responsibility for what you might end up doing to yourself or your shop. press the wood against the hot pipe and it will bend at that point nearly at a complete 90-degrees if it’s a thin piece of wood.

a couple of caveats. first, like i said, you do this at your own risk. i don’t teach this in class and i have generally avoided even doing it myself because it’s fairly dangerous and prone to burning things — and scorching the wood if you’re not very careful. second, though, it’s not very effective. yes, you can absolutely bend a 12mm-thick board this way without too much difficulty. but if what you’re looking for is anything thicker than that or a denser wood than poplar or spruce you might end up having to heat the wood so much you’re turning it black and toasting the thing before it bends as much as you’re aiming for. this is great for thin things and it involves no glue. where you see this in the wild is instrument-construction. guitars, violins, cellos, etc. they’re often made using this technique but they all have something in common — very thin, light walls. so this isn’t a technique i recommend for typical hobbyist woodworkers — especially not unless you want to risk second-degree burns. the other approaches are far safer and more effective on thicker boards like we tend to use for furniture-construction.

hot-water-bending

bending wood in hot water is fairly simple but it’s slower than you think. and this is generally only functional for small projects unless you want to buy or build a water-heating appliance. there are better alternatives for those so don’t even contemplate the wisdom of it. it’s a bad idea. always.

but for small things like the sides of boxes that you want curved, this is far easier and faster than using steam or gluing laminations. get your biggest stock-pot — yes, one specifically for this purpose. i recommend a hotplate in your shop and one seriously-large pot — maybe 10-15l, something meant for large families and lots of soup — and fill it most of the way up with water. boil it. when it’s boiling, drop in your wood.

you’re going to need a form much like you had for the lamination process. i already explained how to build a two-part form, though, so i won’t describe it again here. just build a form to fit the piece and be ready to clamp it in place.

i recommend attaching a string to the end of the board or getting a good set of tongs. either way, you need to get the wood out without draining the water. put all the pieces in at once. once you’ve boiled the wood for a while, take out a piece and — very, very carefully — bend it. don’t touch the wood. it’s boiling. stick it in the form and clamp it in place. you’re done. just let it cool — actually, if you want it to hold that shape, it’s probably best to leave it in the form at least 24h, maybe longer. but you can take it out whenever you like if it’s going to be held in that shape by other components, which i expect it will be.

if it doesn’t bend easily enough to go in the form, just drop it back in the water. the longer you boil it, the more it will be like shaping cooked pasta. actually, this is exactly the process of cooking pasta and wood is very much like spaghetti noodles in precisely this way. you can’t really overcook it but you can make it soft enough to be a little difficult to work with. try fifteen or twenty minutes. if that’s not enough, give it another ten or fifteen and keep doing it in those increments until it fits the form. there’s no need to do most for hours. if the piece is big enough to require that kind of boiling time, you’re probably not going to fit it in the pot in the first place.

a word to the wise. students have asked me about doing this using other chemicals as a way to infuse the wood with scent or dye. don’t. most of those things are either flammable or reactive. they’re not usually meant to be heated to boiling. if you get any “smart” ideas about letting the wood soak up finish more easily at that temperature, what you’re actually talking about is building an explosive device in your shop. don’t do that. it’s bad for you. and everyone else. linseed oil will burst into flames. denatured alcohol will start a fire and make your workshop look like a scene from backdraft. water is good. water is happy. wood and water go nicely together. you’ll thank me later. and your eyebrows will still be on your face where they belong.

steam-bending

the only difference between bending with steam and hot-water is speed. steam takes far longer to take effect than heat directly-applied using water. there are many ways to build a steam-box. for long boards, i have generally used large-diameter pvc pipe — you know, like sewage pipe or plastic conduits in a big-enough diameter to fit the boards. you probably want to do all the boards at once because it will take a while for them to get soft enough to bend.

a cautionary note before i describe the procedure. you’re pumping steam into the pipe. it needs a place to come out the other end. a tightly-sealed pipe with steam pouring into it and not coming out has another name — a pressure-cooker. it’s also a bomb. a pipe-bomb. don’t make one of those. make sure you have a nice hole at the other end for the steam to escape so pressure doesn’t build up. if you get this wrong, it’s not my fault. i’m warning you now. you can blow up your shop if you pump steam into a pipe and don’t give it anywhere to go. see why i’m saying this so many times? yeah. i don’t want you to get hurt. be safe. i’m a teacher. i’m obsessed with safety. but i haven’t had anyone rushed to emergency yet and i’d like to keep it that way.

so you get yourself a steam-generator of some sort. you can buy a commercial steam unit (rockler makes one that’s quite good but a bit pricy, though i’ve only used theirs in someone else’s shop so i can’t really give it my stamp of approval) or get a wallpaper-steamer, which is what i’ve generally used. as long as it makes steam, it doesn’t much matter what it is. you pipe the steam into your box — probably a pvc pipe or something made from screwed-together pieces of plywood. oh. don’t use mdf. you’ll soak up the steam and the whole thing will come apart like soggy cardboard. yes, even laminate-coated mdf.

you drilled a nice big hole to let the steam out the other side, right?

anyway, you keep pumping in the steam and letting it go through the box/pipe and heat the wood. let it sit there for some time. it’ll probably take at least an hour. i usually end up having to let it steam for at least three or four if it’s serious wood (i usually use oak or maple, sometimes cherry, which bends a little more easily but is still slow — if you’re bending softwoods it’ll be faster but are you seriously using softwoods for a project involving this much curve? maybe fir but even that’s not very strong and you’re killing a lot of the inherent strength by bending it…). take out a piece of wood and try to bend it in your form. if it doesn’t bend enough, stick it back in and keep cooking. it’s really trial-and-error. there’s no real guideline. even two trees of the same species have different internal tensions and structural strength and different boards in the same tree can vary quite a bit.

much like with the hot-water approach, leave it in the form at least 24h and it’ll hold its shape quite well.

bent!

there you have it. lamination, kerfing, heating, boiling and steaming. you, too, can have bendy projects in your woodworking life and these techniques are fun to try (except the direct-heat approach, which you probably shouldn’t).

a few final notes. you can do this with any species of wood but the denser the wood the less easily it will bend. if you want to steam-bend jarrah or live-oak, you’re going to have it in that steam-box for ages. that doesn’t mean it won’t bend. you just have to be very patient. cherry and walnut bend much more quickly because they’re simply much softer and the steam penetrates more easily. if you’re trying to kerf-bend or laminate-bend harder woods, you might need to use thinner strips or leave a thinner outer-strip (at the bottom of each kerf) or, perhaps, make the kerfs closer. like most things, these techniques are very easy to learn using a little bit of trial-and-error.

you will have many people tell you you must use air-dried or green lumber to successfully steam/water-bend. that’s not true. you can (and i have) with kiln-dried stock. will it bend as far for the same amount of time being heated? no. will it bend as far if you heat it longer? absolutely. there’s nothing you can do with air-dried lumber that’s impossible with stuff that’s been in a kiln. just remember the actual structure of the wood has been altered so it is more difficult for it to absorb moisture. it can take two or three times as long for the heat and wetness to have the desired impact so you’ll have to be more patient with it. so if you have access to green lumber or air-dried boards, this might be the best source for your project. but don’t give up because you don’t have that — 80% of the bent stuff i’ve done has been with regular, kiln-dried wood and it works just fine.

there are many ways to have fun in the shop. most of them involve wood. this, though, i suspect will be one of the most fun projects you’ve tried in years. it’s especially good as a project to tackle if you have older kids — teens, i’d suggest, because younger kids aren’t usually all that careful with hot things, if you’re going to do steam or water. but even really young kids love to make stuff and will happily spread glue if you’re doing a bunch of laminations.

a great little bent-lam project to do with children is to make a few small toy cars shaped in the form of a u. make a few bending-forms about 30-40cm — semicircles on the ends of long boards with mating pieces. make 50-60cm strips and glue them in the form the whole thing should take no more than a half hour and be within their attention-span. the next day, go back out with the kids and pop them out of the clamps, quickly sand, drill two axle-holes through them and attach wheels (you’ll have to prepare these in advance, i suspect) and they can be playing with the cars in no time.

wood is fun. sometimes we forget that and just think it’s beautiful or the process rewarding. but it can be whimsical and artistic, too. thanks for taking the time to explore bending with me today. stay flexible, stay fluid, even try out being floppy. enjoy!

you don’t need a computer

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

from the earliest i can remember until i was perhaps twenty, i was constantly trying to convince people (usually people older than me) they needed computers in their lives. they often didn’t understand the purpose. what would it do for them they couldn’t do with typewriters or pens and pencils and notebooks? what was the advantage? all that cost and all it was was a word processor? that didn’t seem worth it. they didn’t understand the potential for data-storage and communication that was inherent in the digitization of data. i think most people, by the time the new millennium arrived and i began my third decade of human existence, at least started to understand, though. editing existing documents. making multiple versions. never losing something you’ve written. sending a letter that arrives in ten seconds rather than two days. talking to someone for three hours for free rather than paying five bucks a minute to use a cumbersome thing shaped like a banana and not even see their face. it took a while to get started but the ubiquitous-computing revolution seriously took hold about the same time as the largely-meaningless y2k panic.

but i was wrong.

since those days, i’ve spent about the same time again trying to convince people of exactly the opposite — you don’t need a computer. no, don’t walk away from the internet. and don’t stop connecting to the cloud. but what you need isn’t a computer anymore. most people simply have no need of a laptop — and if you actually need a desktop, you’re probably a gamer or video professional. even most of those don’t need desktop computers in the modern age.

apple’s official statement recently that “your next computer might not be a computer” is a bit behind the times. but it’s a good reason to visit this topic again.

your next computer shouldn’t be a computer. it should be an ipad. and i don’t mean it should be a tablet of some sort. i mean specifically it should be an ipad. the apple one. made by apple. in china. that one.

that might not be the best tool for you. you might need a laptop after all. so let’s take a look at the tasks you do every day and see whether you need a laptop or if an ipad might be a better thing for you to get — far cheaper, lighter, more comfortable to use and without any of the setup nightmares that come with even the most modern computers (and by this i mean a macbook pro, the only laptop anyone should ever consider buying in the year 2021). there are ten main tasks we use computers for. some of them actually require computers (sometimes). most don’t anymore.

  1. communications
  2. browsing
  3. organization
  4. documents
  5. photos
  6. videos
  7. music
  8. recording
  9. gaming
  10. designing

1 communications

you probably use email every day. we all do. add to that video and audio messages and chat, social-media and sharing sites, memes, photos and everything else that’s part of modern life. these are all things cellular-type devices are specifically designed to tackle and handle. not only do they do them well, they usually do them far better than laptops — for example, instagram and facebook are notoriously awful user-experiences on a browser but highly-polished workflows on a phone (sadly, instagram on an ipad is still living solidly in the dark ages, possibly the most-annoying of app deficiencies in the social-media category). if this is a large portion of your tech time, you’re probably already doing it away from your laptop keyboard. if you’re not, you probably should be.

2 browsing

ten years ago, non-desktop browsing was a disaster. it was impossible to get anything done without a laptop because sites were slow and cumbersome to navigate. with the rise of the ipad, though, with its desktop-type safari browser, this difference has realistically disappeared. there are very few things in the browsing category that even feel different on an ipad from a laptop. it’s the same browser (safari — and, if you’re using anything else, you shouldn’t be) and the rendering is faster on an ipad in most cases because it’s simply designed for internet transfer rather than multitasking so you don’t get rendering glitches from background processes like you often can on a laptop. if this is how you spend much of your computing experience, an ipad will be a happy place for you.

3 organization

this is where things can begin to be a little more problematic for some users. organization is key to modern daily life, especially if you work with technology on a regular basis — if you read, write and modify documents as a large part of your experience of the world, for example, like me. thankfully, things have really changed in the past few years and the best organizational software is no longer desktop-focused. it’s actually streamlined for tablets. while you may have heard many positive things about asana, trello and monday, these are cumbersome platforms to use. a simpler, todo-focused system of organization will probably serve you better unless you’re forced into one of those by your company.

todoist is probably a good place to start, though its interface is arcane and slow. if you want a better user-experience, check out things. if mindmapping is your thing, what you really want is either mindly or milanote — the first is specifically-designed to explore concepts in detail and put together complex organiational patterns in your mind. the second is more of a note-organization platform. it’s far less-overwhelming than evernote, the other option, though i recommend, if you need serious note-taking power, checking that out, too. the moral, though, is simple. if organization and collection of data is what you spend a lot of time doing, the ipad is a good place to be.

4 documents

documents are where the ipad shines. i am a writer and teacher. that’s how i spend almost my entire life, creating and editing documents. the ipad is a far more committed tool for documents — word processing, spreadsheets, presentations or simply text — than any laptop i’ve ever used. this is on top of the fact that it weighs almost nothing, costs a fraction of the price and never gets hot in my lap, three major considerations for me and, likely, you.

there are several built-in apps that are absolutely the best in these categories — pages, numbers and keynote are leaps-and-bounds better than anything microsoft or its competitors have produced. and they can accurately create and edit office-compatible files so nobody else will ever know whether they were created in office or apple’s far-improved apps. but that’s not actually the collection of apps i spend most of my time writing in. if you need something more powerful, more organized for large-document creation, what you want is ulysses. while this isn’t for everyone — most people really don’t write thousands of words every day or need to organize thousands of document-fragments — it’s definitely for me and anyone else who does (or wants to do) a lot of writing. writing books or large quantities of documents, blog posts, newspaper articles or anything along those lines is far simpler with ulysses than any traditional word processor. there’s no competition out there for this app. nothing else in this domain is even worth trying for a second. believe me. i’ve wasted many hours doing it. ulysses isn’t perfect but it’s the only functional large-scale writing app currently available.

5 photos

this is where the amateur/pro division rears its ugly head. if you’re taking pictures for fun, probably on your phone (if you’re using a point-and-shoot camera, you’d probably get better pictures from an iphone), the photo editing capability of the ipad (and the iphone because it’s the same software) is spectacular. i’ve used it to edit pictures even from my professional cameras. no, it’s not as powerful as on1 photo raw (by far the best professional-grade photo management and processing software on the market). it’s not a competitor for luminar (a distant second-place to on1pr) or lightroom (powerful yet so cumbersome you might be better off simply pretending it doesn’t exist). but it’s more than any home-user will ever need and it’s so intuitive and simple to use. not to mention it includes automatic cloud-storage and integration, simplified backup and sharing that just works. much like everything else on an ipad, it’s not perfect but it’s far closer than anything in the desktop-os world. if you’re a photo professional, though, you’ll need a macbook pro running on1pr or luminar to get your work done at that level and that’s not realistically avoidable.

6 videos

this is the next category where you might actually need a laptop. do you make videos? well, that’s not really the answer. if you create simple content, the built-in imovie software for the ipad is absolutely excellent. it’s simple and intuitive and there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for you. if, however, you’re a professional content-creator and this is where you make your living, the ipad isn’t the place for you. don’t bother to try anything else the ipad has to offer in terms of video. much like in the photography realm, the built-in app is absolutely the best and nothing else is worth a second-look. even a first one, honestly. if you need professional-level video editing, you really only have two sensible options — adobe’s painfully-overengineered premiere pro and apple’s excellent and mostly-intuitive final cut pro. no, anyone who’s talking about things named after famous renaissance artists is just wasting your time. there’s nothing free out there — you’ll pay in sheer frustration far more than you’ll save in dollars.

7 music

if you listen to music, the ipad is beyond brilliant. its integration with the only truly-high-quality mainstream streaming service available today, apple music, is both automatic and simple. it just works.

if you produce music, there’s nothing beyond the basics. the best recording app on the ipad is actually free — garageband. but it’s no logic. realistically, if you create music as a hobby, it will be perfectly fine in the same way the desktop version of the software is. but if you’re using serious gear and doing anything beyond the simplest editing, you need more powerful software — not to mention, you probably need the integration with the full-on computer’s ports and support for external recording equipment like mixers, microphones and midi controllers.

there’s one caveat to this. if your version of “creating music” isn’t recording but actual composition in the traditional sense, you may be in luck with the ipad in a way you wouldn’t have been even a year ago. much like there’s only one serious piece of recording software on the market today (no, adobe audition isn’t a serious piece of software — it’s a serious cluster-fornication with an asinine interface that barely functions at all), there’s only one worthwhile composition package and it’s available both on the desktop os and ipad — dorico. practically-speaking, it’s actually a better user-experience on the ipad for a few reasons but that’s something i’ll probably write a detailed article about later for those who love writing music (like me — did i mention i went to music school long ago and far away?).

8 recording

whether you’re recording video or music, the answer is very clear. if you want to do it at a home-user level, the built-in apps on the ipad are intuitive, simple, streamlined and have plenty of power for you — plus cloud-integration and sharing functionality that are simply impossible to beat. they’re part of the experience. if, however, you do this professionally, there’s no question. get a macbook pro (or, practically-speaking, an imac pro, as you’ll likely need that power if this is your job) and install logic and/or final cut pro.

9 gaming

this is an interesting one. there are so many games available on ios, both phone and ipad, you might be a gamer and find your experience is perfect on the ipad. but i suspect it won’t be. you probably need a desktop computer, likely not even a laptop. which desktop you need will mostly depend on the games. it’s probably the only time you’ll need to seriously consider using windows — sadly game developers are the last people in the world to have realized macos is far more stable and comfortable. this is more about compatibility. but if you’re a gamer you know who you are. and you weren’t considering giving up your expensive rig, anyway.

10 designing

this is an interesting category and it’s shifted a lot in the last year or two. two years ago, the answer would have been “if you design in 2d or 3d, you need a laptop or desktop”. but that’s not true anymore. with the arrival of adobe illustrator and shapr3d on the ipad, it’s actually a better experience with the apple pencil than you’ll get on any other device. i’m absolutely stunned by how much it’s improved my design experience to use these two apps with the touch-screen and pencil functionality compared to the heavy, hot laptop i’ve spent years fighting with. no, illustrator doesn’t have all the complex functionality of the macos version and shapr3d can’t compete with fusion360 in its technical power. but for 95% of users they are actually improvements on their desktop equivalents (or, in the case of illustrator, versions). shapr3d in particular is intuitive and friendly in a way no desktop cad/cam software has ever come close to being

final thoughts

so you might be one of that tiny minority who needs a new computer. maybe. or you might be in the 99% or more who should probably simply skip the laptop and walk into the future with an ipad in one hand and an iphone in the other. either way, i hope this has been useful. seriously, though, give it some thought. might save you a lot of headaches and, just as importantly, money.

let’s begin

[estimated reading time 35 minutes]

there is a traditional phrase in buddhist teaching that usually gets translated to english as “beginner’s mind” — an openness to new ideas and willingness to approach every moment as if it’s a new, unfamiliar experience and start there. this is both excellent advice for life and dramatically impractical — it is this dichotomy that makes buddhist teachings difficult for many to grasp at first but so revolutionary and impactful when they finally click — the idea isn’t to forget your experience or suppress your past but to fully accept that there are things in your past that make you think how you do but to take a new situation at face-value, calmly breathe and work through it, not simply act automatically but allowing yourself to be guided both by your wisdom in the moment and your past experience to guide that wisdom.

as with any craft, woodworking relies on this mixture of openness and experiential practice to be done well. actually, woodworking is the oldest of all crafts. i’m not sure if you’ve ever thought of this but it’s quite significant when you put your mind to it and allow the thought to penetrate. woodworking is the only craft that predates our solidification as genetic humans more than three-hundred-thousand years ago. you are engaging in a practice that is potentially millions of years old, continuing an evolutionary experience that is older than our species. if that doesn’t make you feel something, you’re probably deader than your lumber. why do i say this? our closest relatives in the animal world, other large primates, intentionally create tools from trees. they break, chew and combine wooden parts to make their food easier to gather and prepare to eat and to engage in other daily tasks. as humans became agriculturally-advanced about sixty-five-thousand years ago, we started to create tools to work the land and were already building shelters. the only materials available were stone and wood — wood being the easier of the two to work and frequently the only sensible choice. the first craft almost every human culture regardless of location has developed at its inception has been woodworking. there is traditional woodworking craft in mesoamerica and africa, on pacific islands, across asia and europe, even in the asian and north-american arctic tundra where wood is sparse but people walked literal thousands of kilometers in their lives, bringing it back with them because it was such a fundamental part of surviving as humans. i know this is a pretty distant tangent but it’s sometimes good to reflect on the fact that we’re not just the continuation of a european tradition of the last few hundred years (horny planes, joinery benches and the evolution of the metal plane) or an asian one of a couple of thousand (everyone loves a good torii in the garden).

what i want to look at today, though, is something that requires a lot of introspection and, perhaps, some admission. what are the typical mistakes i see beginners make? this is a topic i’ve wanted to discuss for a long time and it’s something i often tackle in individual situations or classrooms but it’s not one i’ve really written much about and there’s a good reason for that. as soon as i talk about a mistake, it makes me sound like i’m being judgmental — “you’re making this mistake and you should be ashamed of yourself!” — and that couldn’t be any more distant from the truth. so i want to preface this by saying most of these mistakes are things i’ve also done and there’s absolutely no shame in making errors. we’re humans — we can’t be perfect and as much as we try we’ll never get there. we may someday be master craftspeople, though i’m not sure i’ll ever achieve that. what i can do, though, and what i feel is my purpose in these distributed lessons is to help people avoid errors whenever possible without causing them any shame or embarrassment. believe me, we have far too much of those in our lives already. so if these are things you’ve done, join the club — i’m guilty of most. if they’re things you might do and will now avoid, even better. let’s go with that.

1 not being careful

i think the absolutely-most-common error woodworkers make, especially beginners but not restricted to only those of us new to the craft, is not being careful enough. actually, i think this is pretty generalized in daily life. but specifically in the area of woodworking this manifests itself in two ways — lack of attention to detail and lack of safety precautions. the first causes bad results. the second causes bad days at emergency.

attention to detail

this isn’t about safety (i’ll get to that in a minute) but results and design. there is a frightening (ok, aesthetically-frightening) tendency, especially in beginners, to ignore the details. is this process going to lead to gaps in my joint? what can i do about it? don’t just cut the thing and deal with the problems later. that just leads to disappointment in the work and annoyance at lack of skill development and learning. if you let yourself keep making mistakes you’ll never stop making them. make mistakes. then learn to anticipate and prevent them. keep cutting slightly skewed? assume it’ll happen — don’t just hope for the best.

so let’s think about the details that are typically ignored.

sawing inaccuracy

if you can’t cut straight with a saw every time, you’re not alone. nobody can. seriously, nobody. if you talk to someone and they say “yeah, i can cut a straight line”, they’re lying. they can definitely do it sometimes. but they can’t do it every time. i can’t. you can’t. nobody can. we’re humans and we don’t do perfect without exception. if that’s your standard, you’re living in a fantasy-world. but there are ways to guarantee straight, accurate lines. you can using a saw-guide. you can use a saw-mount (i hate using these things but they definitely work but they’re so annoying to set up!). you can saw a few millimeters away from the line without a guide, knowing you’re going to ignore the saw’s results and use a chisel. but you’re not going to saw guaranteed-straight lines every time.

why not? because body mechanics don’t work that way. inhuman accuracy is called “inhuman” for a reason. we have variation in our movements, even with extensive practice. how often does a professional cut an out-of-square line? not often. let’s say maybe 1 or 2%. what does that really mean, though?

in a project like a chest of drawers, for example, you might have five drawers and an outer case piece and a faceframe. let’s do the math. for each drawer, if you’re using traditional construction, you probably need to cut 3 or 4 (let’s assume four cause it’s probably a large peice) dovetails on each corner of each drawer. tails and pins. each tail requires 2 cuts. each drawer requires 16 tails. there are 5 drawers. that doesn’t count the cuts to remove the waste if you’re using a fretsaw. we’re already up to 320 (16 tails + 16 pins x 2 cuts x 5 drawers). wait a second, though. you had to cut the drawer pieces to length. so that’s another 8 cuts for each drawer (four pieces) meaning 40 for the piece (assuming you planed the tops and bottoms of the faces and we don’t need to count those). that’s 360 in our running count. your case pieces — we’ll assume they’re solid, though they might be glueups, leading to far more cuts — only need 8 to get them to length. and each piece probably has a few dovetails (let’s just say 8 because that’s fairly reasonable for a large piece) so that’s 8 tails, 8 pins, 2 cuts each, 4 boards (128), taking our total to 488. i won’t get into all the internal components like dividers and drawer runners but let’s assume there’s a faceframe and that’s got integral tenons. you’ll cut the mortises with a chisel but each piece needs a tenon on each end with 4 cuts. so that’s 2 sides of 4 cuts on 8 pieces (top, bottom, 4 between the drawers, 2 sides) plus each piece being cut to length (2 more cuts for each) — 80. our total is now 568 saw cuts for this one piece. and that ignores dividers, runners, feet, back-supports, bracing stretchers, etc. ok, let’s assume you’re a serious master and you only screw up straight on 2% of your cuts. which i don’t think is reasonable. but what is that? you’ve just made 11 mistakes. eleven. and you’ve only made one chest of drawers.

what’s the moral of this story? you won’t make it perfectly if you do it freehand. and i suspect you’re not counting in 98% accuracy. i’m certainly not. i’d be happy with 90% and i don’t know if i’d even expect that without a guide. maybe. hard to predict. but i can get 100% accuracy with a guide and that’s what i’ll do. every time.

chiseling inaccuracy

there’s no need to go into the details on this like i just did for sawing because it’s the same. errors are cumulative and compounding. it doesn’t matter if you can get it right most of the time. you’ll kick yourself for the times you don’t get it right even if they’re rare cause those are the ones you’ll notice — those are where there’ll be gaps. so let’s pay attention to the detail and using a paring block. and don’t rush. get close to your line tiny bit by tiny bit. be gradual. treat the piece gently and you’ll get paper-thin shavings from your chisel and never compress or tear the wood. hog off material (yes, like a pig) and you’ll make a pig’s breakfast of the board. no irony required.

how long is my board?

measurement is usually unimportant. doing things using reality is typically the best approach. but that means you need to use stop-blocks and hold pieces together for marking. thinking “oh it’s about a meter” isn’t going to get you accurate joinery. you might not care if the table is a hundred centimeters long or a hundred and four. but if the front and back are even a tenth of a millimeter from being exactly the same length you’re going to end up out-of-square and that’s going to look … well, it’s going to be a shitty table. and you’re not going to be happy with yourself for making it. but that’s totally avoidable. for example, clamp your stretchers together and shoot them as a single part. rough-cut your pieces then attach them together to do your final shaping or adding curves.

unequal visible spacing

one of the main reasons a piece looks odd isn’t because technique was bad or joints have gaps — it’s that the spacing isn’t quite right. when cutting dovetails, for example, if you’re aiming for even spacing, parallel angles and straight baselines, your eye will tell you in a fraction of a second if they’re not quite right. three equally-spaced dovetails and a fourth that’s a millimeter closer is going to disrupt your internal harmony. how can you avoid that? paying attention, of course. this isn’t expert skill. it’s not inhuman accuracy. and it has nothing to do with being able to cut a straight line. it has everything to do with making sure you mark the thing properly (you’ve got a good-quality combination square, right? and a .5mm mechanical pencil? good. if you don’t, get those now. like right now. then come back — it doesn’t have to be a starrett and a gold-plated writing tool — just get yourself an i-gaging or empire or irwin for ten or twenty bucks and a five-pack of bics) and cut on the correct (waste) side of your marks. draw your lines in the right places. chop on in the right places. pare very carefully and slowly to the lines. you really will end up with perfectly-spaced and parallel lines every time.

trusting your tape-measure

your tape-measure is shit. and it doesn’t understand you any better than your third-grade teacher. stop measuring things with a tape-measure and expecting them to be accurate. if you have to measure, use a serious metal ruler or square with etched marks (yes, starrett is nice but you don’t need to spend all that money if you can get a cheap one — though i do love my starrett 300mm combo and you’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands someday). if you can avoid it, though, just put your pieces together and mark from the actual workpiece or use a template (paper is good, card is better, 2-3mm material like door skins is awesome) and you won’t go wrong. again, much like with everything else in this domain, this isn’t about skill. and it’s not about experience. it’s about paying attention to what you’re doing. and you can do that even on your first day in the shop.

“woodworking is inherently dangerous”

one of the most common set-phrases in woodworking magazines (yes, it shows up in several including fine woodworking and popular woodworking — i think i’ve even seen it in wood magazine a few times) is “woodworking is inherently dangerous”. and i’m sure it began as a disclaimer. you know, they tell you how to do something and if you do it and cut off your finger it’s not their fault cause they warned you it was dangerous to even walk into the shop. and that’s fine. but it has a much deeper meaning. it’s dangerous because we’re choosing to do something that, in our world, is mostly an industrial, hands-off process and we’re not really used to living in a world without a safety net. when you go on the internet, you have the ability (and frequently indulge, though you shouldn’t) to scream and yell at people, communicate fake and misleading information and hurt thousands of others with your words and actions without consequences. consequences are actually pretty rare in our daily lives. when you pick up a tool, they’re far more present and sometimes that shift comes back to bit our collective asses rather firmly and aggressively.

i’ve written probably more than most people are prepared to read about specifics of tablesaw, bandsaw, router, jointer and cnc safety. and you’re welcome to go and take a look at the specifics if that’s something that interests you. but i think there are more fundamental problems beginners tend to make and they fall into a few specific areas.

expecting the tool to be safe

when you buy a tool, you can’t assume it’s safe if you use it correctly. it probably won’t be. a saw is perfectly capable of cutting off your hand if that’s what you tell it to do. or even if you take your eyes off it for a second, if it’s a powered saw. these are not inherently-safe objects. of course, you need to be aware of that. but i hear so many people say “if you use it correctly it won’t hurt you” or “it’s safe if you follow the instructions”. no. it’s not. it’s safe if you think everything you’re doing through and anticipate potential problems. if you blindly follow the instructions, you’re going to get hurt. you can learn this from experience or you can avoid the pain. i recommend avoiding the pain.

i’ll give you an example. if you are ripping a board at the tablesaw, you may have seen all the instructions and know how it’s done but still experience kickback. so it’s something you need to be prepared for with every board you feed through the blade. know what might happen and what to do about it in the split-second if it does. if you feel resistance or pinching, stop right away and immediately hit the power switch with one hand while continuing to hold the wood stable in the other. let go and it will go flying. keep pushing and it will probably hit you in the face. there’s no need to be terrified it might happen but you have to be aware of the risks. even if you do everything right, a twitchy board (remember we work with organic materials and they’re not always uniform — this is why we have safety gear!) might pinch the blade or get stuck against the fence. yes, there are precautions. and you should take them all. featherboards, segmented fences, etc. but that’s the point. do everything right as much as possible. and anticipate problems. just because you follow the rules doesn’t mean it’s safe. i’ve seen guide bearings fly off with no notice, blades sheer off teeth from bad welding or even damp storage conditions, boards get stuck on tables because there was a tiny flake of glue or (yes, in one case) a fly that got crushed under a board and made the table surface slightly uneven. you can’t predict everything. but you can do some prethinking and that will save you a lot of pain and regret. you can’t put the fingers back. but you can be smart in advance.

getting too close

while we’re on the subject of removable fingers, something i see from beginners is a distinct lack of awareness of proximity. some stay really far from the tool like it’s going to bite them. like so far from the tool it seems like they’re in another time-zone. that’s not very useful or particularly safe. because they’re probably using a process that involves a lot of balance and leverage that could suddenly shift and send things soaring through the air because of lack of control. the other side, though, is that people who are twitchy for the first few hours develop a sudden bravery around tools (not just powertools) that gets their fingers very, very close to spinning or cutting surfaces.

i’ve seen students paring with brutally-sharp chisel edges literal millimeters from their hands, knowing a single slip or lapse of concentration will lead to a deep gash. i’ve seen people with their hands so close to the sawblade when making a tenon i’m shocked if they don’t actually slice into their fingers — and they usually do before i even get close enough to tell them to stop. i’ve seen body parts get awfully close to router bits, especially on the table, spinning jointer heads and pass between the blade and fence on tablesaws and bandsaws with the excuse “i’m not even moving in the same plane as the blade” as if you can’t suddenly move your body a centimeter or two without thinking about it if a sudden noise happened or someone accidentally knocked something against the saw, not exactly an uncommon experience in a shop where wood and tools are being moved all around you all the time.

so while keeping distant from parts can cause some serious potential problems it’s generally a good idea to at least keep a healthy safety distance. this is what i usually recommend — if any part of your body is within 15cm of a cutting edge, it’s too close. imagine there’s a big orange “danger-zone” drawn around the spinning bit on a router table or cnc, the blade on a tablesaw or bandsaw, the cutter-head on a jointer, the spinning quill and bit assembly on a drillpress. don’t make exceptions. there’s no shame in using a pad or stick to push the board. for handtools, this distance is definitely smaller but avoid getting your fingers within about a centimeter of a cutting edge in every direction, including side-to-side. if you’re resawing (like when you cut the walls off a tenon) and removing very little material, make sure you’re keeping your hand off that outside edge. you can break through. you can slip with the saw. it can jump out the cut. it’s sharp. if it’s not, you’ve got other problems. assume it can take off some serious skin very quickly. and don’t forget handtools can do you some serious damage — if you don’t have a friend who’s stabbed themself with a chisel, just stick around here a little longer and i’m sure you’ll meet a few. i’ve done it. more than once. no stitches so far from that particular mistake but i’ve come awfully close.

not securing the work

we have a tendency to rush. i’ll talk about this a little more deeply later but it often means we think it’s unimportant to make sure a piece is solidly-attached to the bench before working on it. for example, you see experienced people shove something against a planing stop and not secure it from lateral movement. this is unwise. yes, people do it all the time. but you’re asking for trouble and a safer method is to actually clamp the piece in a vise or stabilize it between wedges on the benchtop. if the piece can move, it probably will. and if the piece moves unexpectedly you’ll have to react to that. with many years of experience, that may not be a disaster. with a few weeks of messing around with a plane, you’re courting problems. and if you’re doing it with a handheld router or circular saw, expecting friction to save you where vises and clamps would have provided more security, this is a day you’ll likely remember for all the wrong reasons just waiting to happen. lock that piece down securely in all directions before you even pick up a tool. every time. i’ve learned this the hard way. more than once. i don’t mess with this hard-and-fast rule anymore.

not securing the tool

the same goes for the other direction. benchtop planers, for example, are heavy enough to sit on the bench or even a rolling cart and get the job done without being bolted to the surface. yes. in theory. but if something can move it will eventually take that opportunity. and it won’t be at a convenient moment. having seen people have planers rock during a cut, benchtop drillpresses literally fall over because someone slipped on the floor and lifted the wood (they’re not nearly as heavy as you think when you’ve got a meter of board for leverage against the quill) and oscillating spindle sanders look like they’re walking away from the person using them to the point they almost fell off the back of the table before they noticed they kept having to get closer and closer to the front of the bench. it might be a pain in the ass but safety starts with making sure everything is locked in place — the same goes for jigs. screw it to the bench. clamp it down. stick it in the vise. don’t use a bench-hook that’s not actually clamped down. when you get your shooting board out, stick it in the vise. a few extra seconds of patience and precaution will go a long way. you don’t want the stories i have in my memory. i promise.

ignoring the direction of the grain

wood has grain. it’s one of the reasons we love it — and the main reason we hate it because that grain makes things more difficult and the shifts in grain are the source of wood-movement, our existence-threatening obsessive conversation-topic. if you’re planing or routing, for example, the grain determines whether the tool will catch or move smoothly. if it catches, things can quickly get out of hand. a router can rip the piece away from you and send things (including your fingers) flying. a plane can catch in the grain and knock you off-balance or even come crashing to the floor. if a drill or drillpress comes against shifting grain or a knot, it can tear the piece out your hands and that’s all kinds of unsafe. just pay attention to what the grain is doing and where you’re about to use the tool and all will be good. ignore the grain at your own risk.

not paying attention

it’s not just the grain that gets ignored, of course. i can’t describe the number of times i’ve seen woodworkers in shops listening to deafeningly-loud music, watching tv and movies, having conversations on the phone about dating advice or restaurant recommendations or whatever else they want while they’re operating a tool. yes, it’s possible to get in a zen trance while woodworking and that’s not necessarily a bad thing but distractions lead to mistakes. there’s a reason it’s not a good idea to watch a movie on your phone while you’re driving on the highway. and your car doesn’t have a big spinning blade on it a few centimeters from your paws. i won’t beat this horse any more than just to say lack of attention has been the source of myriad errors in my experience — i’ve witnessed far too many distracted people getting hurt.

thinking safety gear is optional for short operations

if you find yourself using excuses like “i only have to cut one hole!” or “it’s just one board”, do yourself a favor. just put on the damned goggles and masks already and get out the pushstick. it takes one time to fuck up. and you’re just as likely (perhaps more) to do it when you only have one item to do as if you’ve got fifty. wear the gear every time. you wouldn’t drive “just one day” without your seatbelt, i suspect. and, again, your car doesn’t want to take your hand off. your bandsaw probably does. it’s generally vindictive.

using the wrong tool

the final safety thing i want to mention in this section is actually something i see far too often but never expected to. the right tool is important not just for good results but safety. if you’re pounding on something to get it to work or pushing a powertool to the edge of its capacity (trying to resaw a thick board with a circular saw, possibly? how many times i’ve seen this shocks me even to think about it), you’re tempting fate. there’s always a better way than taking a tool out its comfort-zone and using it in an unsafe way. build a jig. mount things so they can’t shift. do it more slowly. if it feels like you’re rigging something up the designer of the tool would be shocked by, don’t feel proud of your ingenuity. expect you’re about to need an ambulance. put down the duct tape and ask yourself if you’re being smart or just living an unexpected resurgence of your childhood macgyver fetish.

2 ignoring the grain

ok, that was a lot. the other errors are just going to build on that rather than go into that much detail, i promise. safety and awareness are two of my personal obsessions in life, though, so i’m sure you’ll forgive me (or you’ve already stopped reading and that’s fine, too — i don’t like captive audiences or … well, captives — hell, i don’t even like tight underwear so free yourself from the bounds of … ok, too much. far too much. let’s move on…).

we are working with a flexible, organic material. how it looks and feels is extremely important. designing a table? which pieces do you want to be flat or rift or quarter? well, there’s an easy way to think about it. you probably want straight grain on your legs. all four sides. so that means you want rift for your legs. the top, though? that might be a place you want to show off the nice figure in the board so that could be flat. what about the stretchers? those are only going to be visible on one side and you probably want those to be straight, too, to avoid distracting from the figure on the top so those should probably be quarter. this may seem very picky but here’s the easiest way to think about it. “you don’t notice good design.” i think it was actually frank lloyd wright who said that first, though don’t take my word for it (i’ve googled it and google doesn’t know but i’m sure that’s what i was told decades ago). what you absolutely notice is tiny bad design choices. select your grain carefully at the lumberyard and your piece will reflect your attention to detail (noticing a theme here?).

something else beginners often neglect is to design for a particular species. they sketch a shape, refine a form and completely forget the properties of the wood they’re going to use dictate so much about how something will look. rift cherry and flat white oak have very, very different aesthetics. the cherry will look subdued and subtle while the wild grain of the oak and all the reflective properties of much of that species will scream at you. that’s not at all a statement that one is better than the other. but if you’re designing a quiet piece but haven’t thought about using a quiet wood, you might have just set yourself up for a very odd result. i’ve seen many pieces with absolutely-crazy grain patterns because someone thought they looked awesome in the store — and they did. but they used them all together. and it’s overwhelming. good design isn’t about using beautiful ingredients. it’s about making a beautiful whole. a sunrise is beautiful. so is a sunset. if they both happened at the same time, that would be rather unsettling, though.

when paying attention to grain and species, the other important factor is strength. going to build a piece from poplar? it’s going to need significantly more thickness to make sure the pieces don’t break. using hard-maple? you can probably get away with far less beefy components and joinery for the same result. this is an important consideration before you even start sketching. you’re not just working with a single material — wood. you’re working with a whole family with individual personality traits. it’s best to think of them in advance. beginners rarely do.

3 not expecting perfection — expecting perfection

humans are imperfect beings. i mean, it tells us this in the gita, the lotus sutra, the bible, the qur’an and the popul vuh. and everywhere else. literature and culture are a repeating theme of humans fucking up. constantly. so why would you expect perfection? well, you wouldn’t. you don’t. and you have resigned yourself to the fact that you’re not going to cut perfect joints or have perfect edges on your pieces.

and that’s a bloody disaster. not because i think you can get perfect results — you can’t and neither can i or anyone else. but if you stop aiming for perfection you’ll never get close. the motto of the american air force has always struck me as a little ironic — “aim high”. every time i see it written somewhere i can’t help thinking “if i’m shooting at something and i want to hit it, the last thing i want to do is aim high” but that’s, of course, not the point. the generals are telling you to have impossibly-perfect standards and hold yourself to them, knowing you can’t actually reach them. and that’s good advice for life. and woodworking. aim for perfectly-square. aim for perfectly-smooth. you might not get there. but if you drop your standards you’re just giving yourself another bar, a lower one, you’ll probably never reach. you’re setting a new maximum for how good the quality can possibly be. think you’ll be disappointed in your work? well, you definitely will be if you don’t even aim for perfect.

the other side of this coin is equally-dangerous. expecting perfection will lead to abject misery and disappointment in your work and continuous self-degradation. it also leads to a common disease among woodworkers — error demonstration. i’m sure you’ve seen it. you walk into a friend’s house and they say “look at this awesome table i just finished”. you look and it is, indeed, awesome and you tell them. then they say “but look at the gaps in these dovetails and this chipout on the back of this drawer and…” and you start to really wonder if it was awesome at all. or just firewood waiting to be burned. don’t do that.

so aim for perfection but expect to come up short. the more experience and practice you have, the closer you’ll get. aiming lower limits success. expecting to get there guarantees disappointment. as with everything, moderation is good.

4 patience

perhaps the greatest thing lacking in beginner woodworkers is patience. actually, that’s the thing lacking in modern western society more than anything else, i suspect. except maybe community-awareness and empathy. unrelated, though. but patience is key to woodworking unless you want every project to be an inaccurate study in how to butt-join construction lumber with screws. which i suspect is not why you’re here (yes, i have a strong, undying loathing for construction lumber, butt-joints and metal fasteners of any kind unless absolutely necessary — you probably do, too).

patience comes in two flavors — patience with your skill and patience with the task.

you’ll get better with practice. but you’ll only get better if you practice so you have to practice. want to get better at sawing? don’t cut drawer parts. cut a thousand narrow strips off the end of a board. want to get better at cutting dovetails? don’t make a drawer or a case. just cut dovetails. hundreds of them. thousands if you like. you’ll get better. if you were learning to play piano, you’d be doing scales and arpeggios. pattern scales and multioctave interval drills as you improved. in short, you’d practice. woodworking is a skill (well, a collection of skills) like playing a musical instrument or a sport. you didn’t kick a football well the first time. nobody does. and if you waited to learn by playing games, you’d probably never have fixed your awkward kicking posture. but a few hundred drills in the field behind the school with the ball and now you can perform in the game — maybe not exactly like you once dreamed you’d be able to but much, much better than when you started. if you expect to get good at woodworking by building furniture, you eventually will. if you want to get good quickly, though, put the furniture on hold for the first hour or two you’re in the shop and practice. just practice. it’ll cost you far less in materials than screwing up the real work and you’ll learn much more quickly. patience is rewarded. impatience — well, that’s only rewarded in politics. and you definitely don’t want to take a saw and a chisel there.

patience with the task is probably the other main issue i see in beginners. sanding is boring. sharpening is boring. actually, a lot of woodworking isn’t very exciting. but finishing a beautiful piece is. designing something you’ll be happy to give someone or proud to sell is rewarding in ways very few things outside the realm of skilled crafts can be. but you will always end up with bad results from cutting corners (yes, yes, sometimes we have to literally cut corners but that’s different and english is an awkward language). so when you sand you can’t skip grits. it might take twenty minutes to get through a single grit on a single panel. and another twenty minutes on the next one. that’s life. when you get a new chisel, you might not be ready to use it after five minutes with your stones. it might really take a half hour to completely flatten the back and get a screaming-sharp edge on the thing. especially if it’s one you picked up cheaply at a flea-market.

it takes time to get good results. if you expect to go in the shop and knock out a project in three hours, you’re going to end up with a rushed project that looks like it took three hours. if that’s your goal, you’ll probably achieve it. but if you want to produce something your grandchildren will look at and think you’re amazing it’s not likely to get the job done. take your time. this isn’t your job. it’s your passion. spending more time doing it isn’t a problem if you like it. if you don’t like it, it might be time to seriously think about taking up a new hobby. either way, patience is a happy place. oh — sharpen your chisels. i know they’re dull. so do you.

5a designing without thinking

beginners often start with plans and that’s awesome. i think the best source of plans is the pages of fine woodworking magazine. i’ve built relatively few of the pieces in there but so many of them have inspired me to build things that are only loosely-related to the originals. but, wherever you get your plans, it’s important to think about them. are you going to use the plans exactly as they exist? ok. just build the thing.

but you’re probably going to modify them. or use them as a basis for your own designs. or just an inspiration. maybe even design something from scratch. and that’s where the beginner-design-mentality problem rears its ugly head. you want to make something new and exciting. get away from the traditional, expected model. that’s not necessarily a bad thing. but first you have to think about a few things to avoid disaster.

why is a form generally built in a particular way? (why are mortise-and-tenon joints used in this construction, for example?) is it aesthetic or functional? if you change it, what happens? will the wood be able to move properly? will it fall apart?

designing is an exercise in logic, trial and error all coming together. it’s definitely better to avoid the third whenever possible and rely on the first without too much of the second coming into play.

5b building without designing

the counterpart to that is slapping together projects without actually designing — or just sketching some vague measurements on a napkin and going from there.

it is tempting to want to use every scrap of available shop time to cut joints and plane boards. i get it. i love building stuff. but if you want to have a result worth spending time on and don’t just want to spend your entire woodworking career cutting practice joints (i still like to cut a few hundred accurate angled slices to keep my skills honed, by the way), you need to design and plan. good things come not just to those who wait but those who prepare.

design usually functions as a process. here’s the process i recommend for beginners and students — and advanced woodworkers because it’s the process i use.

  1. sketch. whenever you have an idea for a piece, sketch it quickly in your pad. you should always have a sketchpad. i like unlined paper, sometimes with light dots but usually just plain, in a little coil-bound book. you can do it in anything. you can carry around a plastic folder with card stock in it. you can do it in an exercise book. whatever you like. i like hard covers, coil-binding and thick paper. you do you. don’t miss an opportunity to collect your ideas, though. for every piece i actually turn into a completed project, i probably do more than a hundred short (a few seconds, a minute at most) sketches. you don’t have to be an amazing artist. just get the idea on paper and the rest can come later — like dimensions. go to a museum and look at stuff? take notes, draw what you like, even give approximate measurements and describe interesting joinery. this is where design begins.
  2. model. this is where i’m going to get a lot of people telling me they hate doing this. you don’t have to do this on a computer. you can get out the rulers and protractors and draw actual measurement-accurate models. you can. but i wouldn’t if i was you. get yourself a copy of fusion360 or shapr3d and model your thing. you don’t have to be accurate at first. just make it look like what you think you want. unlike on paper where it’s hard to modify after it’s drawn, these apps make it easy to shift things in three-dimensional space and try out different approaches. maybe you want tapered legs. maybe you want really tapered legs. see how it looks in ten seconds. change your mind. change your mind as often as you like and it’s totally ok. when you’re happy with how it looks, move on.
  3. prototype. make it from cardboard or even draw it full-size on rolls of paper and tape them to the wall where the piece is going to live (or at least on a wall where the piece might look at home in someone else’s house, which is generally what i do, as i don’t build furniture for myself) and look at it. is it the right shape, size, depth, whatever? once you build it, it’s done. at this stage, though, you can correct so many potential mistakes. i’ve almost built some cabinets that were simply too deep or shallow, for example, more than once. this avoids the problem. they can look amazing onscreen but still be awkward when at fullsize and in-your-face.
  4. reprototype. yes. build the thing from construction lumber with simplified joinery. stick it in a space and see how you feel about it. it’s far cheaper to spend fifty bucks on low-grade pine and get the thing knocked out in a couple of hours than to spend five hundred on cherry and invest three weeks of attempted-perfection only to find the thing is ten centimeters wider and twenty shorter than you really wanted it to be. and you’ll learn a lot about order of operations. how easy will it be to cut this part after another has been cut? what measurement do you need to take? inside-edge to inside-edge? how will you cut your curves. don’t forget to make notes. woodworking is a preparation and logic game. you might make mistakes. don’t make them twice.
  5. build. this is where everything comes together. if you’ve done the first four steps right, your design will coalesce into something awesome af. if you haven’t, it’ll be half-assed. and ain’t nobody out there who wants to live with half an ass.

(if you’re curious, i highly recommend not even bothering to touch sketchup. it’s a limited piece of software designed on an arcane model that realistically only works well for simple things — complex design is possible but cumbersome and far more efficient in fusion360, which is nice, or shapr3d, which truly is amazing for design, though nowhere near as functional for things like automated production and rendering. take your pick. get one of them. fusion360 is free for hobbyists and shapr3d has a free version you can play with as much as you like and the pro version is actually pretty inexpensive — far cheaper than a nice saw or plane, for example. it’ll serve you well, whichever you choose.)

6 forgetting about wood movement

wood moves. be aware of it, why it happens, when it happens and in what directions it will happen. make your design decisions accordingly. don’t ignore it. don’t glue things together that aren’t going to move in the same way. or use plywood. whatever you do, though, remember it’s an organic material that breaths in and out with the seasons. no, your table isn’t going to grow and shrink ten centimeters. but it’s not going to stay a single size, either. so you have to be aware. beginners often either ignore the issue or become so obsessed with it they never actually get anything built. walk a middle path. the wood will thank you.

7 trying too many new techniques — or not trying any

you’re comfortable with a drill, i expect. so you can screw boards together. but that’s not exactly going to get you very far unless what you’re aiming for is framing a house. building beautiful furniture requires mastering some serious, traditional joinery techniques. but that doesn’t mean you have to use them all in every piece. especially not at the beginning.

one of the biggest points of failure i see for beginner woodworkers — who often leave the craft rather quickly as a result — is biting off far too many new techniques in their first few projects. if you’re going to build a table (a good first project), you’ll probably want to learn how to cut mortise-and-tenon joints. you have to cut a tenon (a few saw-cuts and some chiselwork) and a mortise (dig it out with a chisel — slowly, very slowly). but there’s no need to including tapered-sliding-dovetail batons. just use thick stretchers. there’s no need to dovetail the stretchers when those can be mortise-and-tenoned together, too. you don’t need complex table-to-top joinery — make a few simple table buttons or even use figure-eight fasteners. don’t add five new techniques. just add one. make it one you think you’re going to use a lot in the future (like mortise-and-tenon joinery, dovetails, bridal-joints or wedged tenons, all things i teach beginners rather early but never all at once). practice it on some scrapwood — if you ask a local cabinet shop, i bet they’ll be happy for you to take away a bunch of their small offcuts and save them paying for trash collection — or even just flatten some firewood and use that to make some pieces. we all need more practice with our foreplanes, after all, don’t we?

the other side of this can cause problems, too. there’s a whole generation of beginners raised on pocket-screws and river-tables. and while there’s nothing wrong with either of those things if used in the right places (ok, is there a right place for river tables? i abhor this style, though i think i may have been the only person who saw those first tables and didn’t think “that’s really cool” but “why the fuck would i want plastic in my wood?” or, perhaps, “what in the name of all that is sacred would george nakashima think of doing this to a perfectly-beautiful slab of walnut?”) there’s plenty wrong with them in the wrong places. pocket-screws are generally not very strong joints. they won’t hold your table together very well. and they’re definitely not going to be a good option for your bed. but they’ll attach a faceframe to a cabinet with something approximating perfection and they’re great for internal dividers. everything has its place. as a beginner, it may feel daunting to try a new thing. and if you download plans from the internet you might find the thing you want to build has ten techniques you’ve never tried. this might just be the wrong piece for you. learn a new technique. just one. once you’re comfortable with it — after a project or two incorporating it — learn another. you’ll get through all the major ones fairly quickly that way without being overwhelmed by them.

8 not getting sharp enough (or trying to get too sharp)

if you’ve ever watched a youtube video about woodworking, read a magazine or listened to shop talk live, you’ve heard “you’re not sharp enough”. and you’re probably not. most beginners have this idea of sharp tools that’s approximately equal to the sharpness of scissors or, perhaps, a disposable razor. that’s not nearly sharp enough to do good work in serious wood. it’s just not. if you think sharp requires thirty seconds of vaguely rubbing your tools on a stone then getting to work, you’re probably doing it wrong. you need to be sharper. i guarantee it.

unless you don’t. and this isn’t usually an absolute-beginner problem. it’s one that comes after a year or two but it’s just as problematic. sharpening obsession is, as far as i’m concerned, an intervention-worthy issue in the woodworking community. we get sharp to do work in wood. the wood dulls the tools and we get sharp again. it’s an unending cycle of pointiness and it’s annoying as all fuck. but it becomes an absolute fixation for many people — trying new techniques, new products, spending a fortune, always trying to get a whole new level of sharp. and there’s no point.

sharp is like pregnant. either you’re sharp or you’re not. once you’re there, there’s no point continuing down that road. i’ll give you an example. you get a 400/1000 (coarse/fine) stone. you grind on the 400 and hone on the 1000. then you get to work. unless you’re doing some pretty rough work, this isn’t sharp. not even close. you won’t be able to pare the wood without tearing it. ok, you think, so you add an 8000 stone (extra-fine) and get to work on that. you polish that bevel and now you feel pretty good. it takes amazing, whispy-thin curls when you pare the wood. now you’re sharp. congratulations.

but that’s not enough for some people. they think they need to keep chasing higher and higher levels of sharp because everyone keeps telling them it’s possible — this is particularly frequent in the japanese woodworking community where extreme sharpness is made possible with bimetal construction of chisels and plane-blades and you can get a 30000 stone to seriously polish the bevel. and yes it will be sharper. but you may have forgotten the point. the point is to be able to do good work in wood. and the wood will dull the tool as soon as you touch it. so if you get to 8000 and use it in the wood for a half hour, you’re probably down to the equivalent of 6000. another hour and the thing is closer to 4000 or even back to 1000 and you need to sharpen it again. but if you take it up to 30000… well, after two minutes you’re down to 8000 and a half-hour later you’re at 6000. what was the point of hundreds of dollars of stones, hours of hard work and general obsession taking over your life and wallet? well, nothing. a tool doesn’t have to look like a mirror to be sharp — actually, many tools that look like mirrors have been sharpened then bent using leather and won’t really pare very well — the mirror can be deceptive. don’t bother to shave your arm with the tool. it either works or it doesn’t. take it to the wood. if it pares, you’re good. if there’s an resistance, go back to the stones and keep going — you’re not there, yet. but remember there’s a purpose and fixed endpoint. you’re not trying to chisel diamond with it. it’s wood. there’s such a thing as sharp enough.

9 freehanding

there is a certain respectability in the woodworking community that comes from doing everything freehand and i’ve never understood it. perhaps it’s because i’m a japanese woodworker and we don’t really have that tradition — guides are our bread, butter and oxygen. but let me say this loudly for those who haven’t quite gotten the message — freehanding things in woodworking is a recipe for inaccuracy. if you want good results, guarantee them. build a jig. make a guide. plan and plan some more. if you want to cut things freehand, that’s your choice. want to sharpen freehand? go for it. but you’ll get better results if you don’t. the results for a beginner will be so staggeringly different i actually consider this a significant mistake.

you can always freehand as an experiment. but, as a beginner, you want confirmation of learning. you want things that look good. and you don’t want to be discouraged. once you already know how things work, you’ll be in a far better place to freehand them. how can you know what angle to aim for on your sharpening if you’ve never experienced sharp tools? how can you possibly have the body mechanics to cut a straight line if you’ve only cut ten in your life? use the guides. get used to the functionality of your body and how they force you to move. want to experiment with doing things without the guides? it’s far easier to learn with them than without them. you won’t learn errors and you’ll be rewarded with precise pieces of furniture. i know some people like the experience of freehanding everything. nothing wrong with that. but don’t let yourself be shamed into working that way, especially not at first. it’s not more honorable and it doesn’t require more skill. it’s just a different process and one i’ve never found nearly as successful. i’m a perfectionist. if i cut a gappy joint, i burn it. if i didn’t use guides and jigs, i’d have enough surplus firewood to supply my whole neighborhood.

10 cutting to lines

the line is there to tell you where the result needs to be, not where your saw needs to go. beginners cut on lines. over time, you’ll realize you need to cut in the waste beside the line. the line is a visual guide telling you where the saw isn’t supposed to be, not where to put the teeth. finish your cuts with a chisel. it’s what it’s for. with a paring guide. you’ll get perfect lines every time. while i’m at it, there’s this general trend in the youtube community to cut what are called “knife-walls” to guide your saw. don’t do that. it’s a waste of time. just cut in the waste and use all the time you’ve saved to pare to the line. this is a bad technique. it just teaches sloppy saw-usage and encourages people to cut too close to the final line when they’re simply going to end up with imperfect results. it’s like the illusion of a guide without there actually being one.

11a buying shitty tools

you have a budget. i get it. you don’t have to spend a fortune to get good tools. but you can’t just buy bad tools and hope for the best. research and try things out.

here are the basics you’ll need to get started.

  • a basic joinery saw (i recommend a dozuki, about $35)
  • a basic non-joinery saw (i recommend a crosscut kataba, about $35)
  • a few chisels (probably 3/6, 9/12 and 32mm, about $60)
  • a few planes (at least a jack and a smoother, possibly a jointer, at least $50 if you get old stanleys or build krenov-style ones and buy some irons, a few hundred if you get nice, new ones but we’re talking about basic budgets so just get the old stanleys or build your own)
  • a good combination square and mechanical pencil (about ten bucks, maybe fifteen)

that’s it. i mean, you’ll need a workbench but you can build that yourself (working on a few designs and plans but you can definitely use any of the ones suggested by chris schwarz, those being excellent, or follow the online guidance of james wright or rex krueger, both with a few great videos on workbench design). this is a relatively inexpensive craft to get started in — everything you need to begin will cost you about two-hundred bucks. yes, woodworking is an expensive hobby once you start getting all the fancy tools and buying lots of wood. but this is a good place to begin.

the problem some beginners face is that they buy tools below that minimum-quality-line and suffer — often spending months or years getting awful results with a hardware-store saw, plastic-handled chisels and a plane from amazon that wouldn’t hold a setting if its life depended on it. don’t deal with the frustration. if you really can’t afford the two hundred bucks to get started, get a dozuki, a single narex 9mm chisel and a vintage stanley jack, total cost about $70 and get the rest gradually. with effort and focus, you can do excellent work with only those three tools, a $1 pack of mechanical pencils and a $3 metal ruler. don’t let money stop you from pursuing the craft. but don’t buy shit.

11b buying expensive tools

yes. pricy tools are attractive. but they won’t make you a better woodworker. better than shit tools, yes. but not better than good-quality basic tools. if you’re expecting to spend your way into better woodworking and more beautiful furniture, this is certainly possible. there’s only one way to do it, though. get a cnc and have it do all your woodworking for you. replace your lack of skill with a robot. but a $500 plane and $1000 set of chisels hand-forged in nara won’t up your game. few beginners have the money to make this mistake. but i see it show up from time to time — “i just spent four-hundred bucks on a lie nielsen smoother and i can’t get it to take a good shaving!” — well, ok. but it’s a smoothing-plane and you haven’t got it setup with a tight mouth, it’s not sharp and you’re using it on a rough board you haven’t even gotten flat yet. it’s not the tool’s fault. it’s yours. start with the basics. work forward from there. save your money.

11c buying too many tools

i know. it’s sacrilege to even mention this but there’s no need to buy all the tools. you don’t need them all. you only need a few to get started. yes, specialty tools can increase efficiency and be extremely fun to use. but most you won’t even use once. buy good-quality tools. don’t buy huge sets of chisels, a dozen planes and ten saws. you may eventually find a use for all those things.

get them when you find yourself actually reaching for them. you’ll just end up confusing your learning — better to learn a technique on a single tool and perfect it than to spread out your learning across many things. imagine you only have an hour a week to work on learning an instrument. think it’s better to focus on just piano or try to pick up six instruments at a time? i bet the answer is obvious. it’s no different with learning to use your tools.

focus. practice. start with a few tools. it’ll come quickly. try to figure out all the tools at once and you’ll become overwhelmed. quickly.

12 ignoring plywood (and veneer)

plywood is amazing. it doesn’t move. well, it doesn’t move enough you have to worry about it. microscopic tension changes are definitely present but all well-within the limits of modern pva (polyvinyl acetate — “yellow”) glue. no, it doesn’t always fit the project. but there are few projects that don’t benefit from having the bottom, back or internal components made of a stable material, especially as most of these components aren’t seen. making a frame-and-panel door can definitely be done with hardwood. but it’s usually far cheaper to use a good-quality plywood, perhaps even a cheap plywood panel with a piece of veneer. this technique can save you an incredible amount of effort with complex joinery for wood-movement and cost of thick hardwoods. plywood is generally stronger. even a thin back solidly glued to your piece will probably stabilize and strengthen more than you expect.

while there is a continuous chorus of people saying they hate plywood (though there’s never any actual justification given), it’s an amazing thing. and it’s traditional. plywood has been used for literally thousands of years — sawing thin veneers and laminating them with perpendicular grain between the layers has been a traditional way of making a board stable and strong and it’s showed up in furniture, boatbuilding and even temple construction since antiquity. veneers and plywood are excellent options to consider. they’re not perfect for every application. but when you’re designing (remember all those steps? yeah — then) you should remember not every problem is best solved by adding a maple board.

13 using the wrong tool

a dozuki isn’t meant to cut a thick post in half. a roubo-style framesaw is a poor choice for dovetails on a jewelry box. the final beginner mistake on today’s list is using the wrong tool for the job. it’s usually quite obvious what the correct tool is and using the wrong one often feels awkward — it’s typically cumbersome and will seem like totally the wrong scale. just give it some thought. if the tooth is a centimeter wide and the cut is only two centimeters wide, is this really the right tool to give you a clean edge? ripping pencil-sized stock on the tablesaw is likely unwise. paring the sides of a 30cm mortise with a 3mm chisel is going to take you forever. but you’re only going to do that if you’re not thinking through each step before you start. if you have the basic tools i’ve discussed, you’ll have one that fits the task unless you’re doing something truly unusual and probably not part of a typical beginner project. try to pick the one that makes the most sense.

final thoughts

being a beginner is an amazing thing. you have your whole woodworking career ahead of you. and you’ll certainly make mistakes — ffs, i make them every time i go in the shop even today. but if you can try to avoid the ones on this list you might have a far more pleasant journey into the craft. i truly hope this has been helpful. for other instructors and professionals out there, what are the ones i’ve missed? i encourage you all to write articles about your best practices and recommendations for beginners. the more we can have for people to join and have amazing experiences with wood, the better the community will be. thanks for reading!

stop, drop and scroll

[estimated reading time 8 minutes]

you are living in evolutionary times. it might not feel like it and we’re not likely to sprout wings in our lifetimes but there is change all around us and it’s not just the climate or political attitudes. our languages are constantly evolving and we’re both the conduits and the forces of unnatural selection. while all languages evolve over time (well, unless they’re dead, which is, actually, come to think of it, why we call them dead — ancient greek, latin, sanskrit, pali, classical chinese, etc), there is no language with the evolutionary history of english.

english began as a non-language, a hybrid mess in a country that has, realistically, given the world nothing but mashed-up messes and nightmarish invasive species. in a country famous for its world-spread language in the contemporary age, things began quite differently. the british isles was a collection of indigenous languages (we can generally think of them collectively as gaelic and variants but this is a very complex idea and i’m not going to get into it because it’s not the point here) and gradually shifted with the arrival of invaders from the norse countries (old norse), the roman empire (imperial latin) then, later, the germanic tribes (old german) and the franks and normans (old french). what do you get when you take all these and mesh them together? well, not english. not even close. there’s another piece of the puzzle. class.

britain was a class-based society. actually, at the time we’re talking about, the entire world was populated by class-based societies, even in africa and mesoamerica, though especially in europe and asia. while not quite as diverse as indian classes (if you can even count them all, i’ll be impressed cause there are literally thousands of divisions) or as structural and familial as japanese clans (island cultures definitely have interesting cultural evolutions, not just tortoises and kangaroos), what we’re talking about is a collection of meaningless islands in the north atlantic where the rulers spoke one language and the common-people spoke (sort of spoke — the then-british spoke their languages about as well then as they do today, perhaps even worse, which i’m not sure is possible) another. while not completely true, you can think of the language of the court as french and the language of the people as approximately german, though no german-speaker, even then, would have understood most of it with all the local idioms, adopted expressions and foreign borrowings already being used.

the problem was twofold. government required translation and the aristocracy required entertainment. these were two needs being summarily ignored by a linguistically-divided system. things had to change or the people wouldn’t understand their governments (not that they ever did but there was certainly an attempt to fix this) and the upper-class people couldn’t go to a show or have performers come and give them a taste of the latest trends — it would have been like trying to lipsync kpop for a monolingual native of texas.

so a gradual merging of the languages began to happen from approximately the beginning of the second millennium of the common era, producing something vaguely resembling english by the time of shakespeare as standardization was just becoming accepted in the islands. with this standardization came popularization of english not just as a dialectic mashup but a distinct language. before the elizabethan era, we really were talking about pre-english — often called “old” or “middle” but i would suggest thinking of it as a whole different evolutionary stage, not just of the same language but of the creation of a language at all. it really was more similar to other languages before then than any english that happened after.

english was born with shared vocabulary from french and german — which is why there are often two different words for the same thing, one from each — dog/hound — though this often comes from borrowing from other languages like latin (cat/feline) or even greek (philosophy) and latin (science) at the same time — yes, these words originally meant the same thing. the grammar was decidedly german but lost much of its rigid structure — it dropped german’s cases in favor of french’ caseless structure but kept germanic negatives and verb forms, adjective placement and adverb techniques. you can think of english as predominantly-french vocabulary and mostly-german grammar.

but it was a new language. nothing like this had really ever happened before — and nothing has since. other languages have evolved and certainly been influenced by their neighbors but english is realistically the only language that survived after being created as the descendant of two completely separate languages — from two totally different structural families. what’s resulted is french words pronounced and spelled like they’re german. if you hear someone speak german, it’ll sound like english but you won’t necessarily understand much of what they’re saying. french sounds totally different but if you look at the words they’ll look familiar because the majority of english vocabulary is visible cognates, even if they sound completely different because french simply treats the letters in another way.

english has evolved quickly, though, out of necessity. it was the language of a spreading empire that was then fractured by a revolutionary war. while chinese has taken thousands of years to become what it is today (mandarin chinese, i mean — cantonese hasn’t evolved nearly as much and is still plagued by historical relics), english was realistically born around 1600, fully-standardized by 1700, dominant by 1800, revolutionized and mostly-modernized by 1900 and evolutionarily-boosted by 2000. in four short centuries, the first two barely even being relevant to its development other than its creation, english has become the language of international conversation, business, trade and travel. how did it do that? well, it’s porous and self-evolving. most languages are neither, some one or the other.

mandarin chinese is self-evolving but certainly not porous — the number of foreign words is relatively low and foreign expressions are extremely rare. japanese and korean are the reverse — myriad english (and other, though far less) words and expressions simply transliterated or slightly-modified but little structural shift over time. urdu and arabic have followed much the same pattern as japanese and korean while modern hebrew (ivrit) has taken the chinese path and kept its words to itself while dramatically shifting its structure over time — also gaining for itself the honor of being the only realistically-dead language that came back to life and stayed that way, though in many ways it’s not the language it once was, despite sharing much of the old vocabulary.

english, however, samples nearly 100% of its words directly from other languages — by definition as a hybrid dialect become a full language, it had no real choice and invented very few words of its own like “quiz” or “cheese”, even those born within a linguistic framework. more importantly, though, it shifts its grammar and usage over very short periods of time.

in 1980, a common phrase might have been “to whom do you wish to speak?”, which would confuse any modern english speaker only forty years later unless it was modernized to “who do you want to talk to?”. the frequent structure used even twenty-five years ago of (noun)-(which)-(secondary-subject)-(verb) became (verb)-(noun) or even (adjective)-(noun), a practice borrowed from east-asian languages. language evolution to get from the era of nixon, reagan and bush to that of gaga, drake and kim namjoon (yes, rm) has been rough and dramatic to the point that my parents’ speech now sounds arcane to my ears and i see things i wrote even ten years ago and wonder how i could have been so out-of-touch with language in the moment. i wasn’t, of course. language really has changed that quickly. things i would have been failed for in a writing assignment as a child are now not only acceptable but seen as old-fashioned and i caution students to avoid them as deprecated.

you, living in the modern world, would be excused if you imagined that this was an impact of the internet and global cultural trends and that twenty-five-year period of english hyperevolutionary modernization and standardization was a one-of. but you’d be wrong. this process is still ongoing and we are witnessing many things that are changing about the language we speak and write every day that we are simply not paying attention to.

here’s one i think you should be aware of, though. it can be summarized in a single statement — “i like it”. this sounds totally normal in english. actually, “i like it” or “i like this’ would have been seen as childish and simplistic even in the 90s and teachers would have told you to phrase it as “this is what i like” or “this is something i like” (even “this is something, which i like”, a painful anachronism but certainly a frequent one in my teen years). it’s definitely the most standard way of expressing the thought now, though.

but that’s shifting. if you have been paying attention to how things are said, written and posted on the internet, you’ll realize the object is becoming more and more frequently dropped, turning “i like this” or “i like it” into “i like”. of course, this is not the only verb where this is happening or it would simply be the birth of a new idiom. this is a wholesale structural change in the language, though.

japanese and korean already use what’s called “implied objectification” — if the object is understood, there’s no need to put it in the sentence. of course, these languages both practice “implied subjectification”, too, which is still a bridge too far for english, though i hope it finally arrives in a couple of decades because it’s far more structurally-useful. with the wave of kpop spreading across the english-speaking world and chinese and japanese culture flooding western media with anime and marketing, it’s no wonder these linguistic trends are catching on much more quickly than anyone had imagined possible — and far more permanently.

give it five years, perhaps ten, and “i like this” will be “i like”, “you gave it to me” will be “you gave me”, “we took it” will be “we took” and “do you think so?” will be “think?”. we are witnessing an online revolution in language and the people who are pushing it ahead don’t even know they’re shifting the reality of their future speech and writing. but i promise you they’re doing it with every passing day, text and meme-share.

remember, english is a language without oversight or safety-nets. there’s no government (think china or france) where a national institution is supporting the language and making decisions. english is an uncontrolled mess but it’s a freely-changing one where its speakers are easily-influenced by trends in popular culture. all it takes for a new word to be born in english is for it to appear in a song — even by accident. a single slip of the tongue in a viral video creates a whole new way of speaking (pwned? smol? tol? thicc?) and spelling is just as flexible (w/e u say, tho). no, not every internet trend will become an evolutionary trend in language. but i suspect this, especially as it’s already the norm in so many modern languages, will. you are witnessing language history in the making.

of course, there are other shifts in english that are likely to happen in the next decade or two. i have no doubt about this one. a few others are likely but less-certain. i suspect the next twenty-five years will see a complete elimination of capitalization, possibly the removal of the apostrophe (it’s useless anyway) and the deletion of the comma from most sentences. i predict by that point subject pronouns and, in many cases, subjects whenever possible will be dropped and the alphabet will have been repurposed to standardize on a much simpler spelling model — while i believe the alphabet and writing system should be wholly scrapped and replaced with a far better model (hangul), this is likely to take more than two or three decades — unless kpop is even more of a force in the west than it is today, i guess, which might make it a little easier for the american masses to accept more quickly.

these are, of course, evolutionary predictions in decades that depend on many factors that could shift more times than anyone thinks possible in the next year alone — did most people know what a corona was two years ago other than a beer? honestly, did you know what a pandemic was before the great plague of twenty-twenty hit or was that a new word for you? language, as you know, is flexible. always changing. nowhere more than in english either in speed or quantity of difference. what do you think will shift? what have you noticed in your meme-fueled travels through the cluster-fornications and black-clouded excrement-storms of the internet? thanks for taking the time to explore a little english with me. may your verbs be calm and your nouns be at peace. bye for now.

hard knocks and soft feels

[estimated reading time 12 minutes]

if there was an alternative title to be a bit more descriptive, it would be “so i’m building a project — what wood should i use?” — and the answer isn’t quite as simple and straightforward as we might like. but there are a few things to consider. let’s start with the basics.

there are, when it comes down to it, two types of trees. that doesn’t quite equate to two types of wood but we’re going to talk about it that way. trees can be either coniferous or deciduous — evergreen or leafy.

i know we all studied this as children but nobody really remembers what they did in third-grade biology so here’s a refresher. especially as it’s so incredibly relevant to our craft. actually, it’s pretty relevant to everyone’s daily lives. the trees around us have such a huge impact on our moods and emotions in the moment, i can’t imagine how people function without at least some awareness of what is towering over them or what they’re leaning on.

deciduous trees have leaves, usually large ones compared to the size of the branches. they change color in the fall and, as the name of the season suggests, give in to gravity and start getting up-close-and-personal with their dear friend ground. they spread seed using flowers rather than nuts or pods. some common examples are maple, oak, cherry, walnut, beech and ash.

coniferous or “evergreen” trees are very different. they have pins or needles, not leaves, that are much smaller and these don’t change color. they remain on the tree year after year and it’s often possible to see damage to the needles even a decade or two later while, if a leaf is hurt on a deciduous tree, it will be replaced the next spring. conifers spread their seeds in pods, cones or nut-clusters. common examples of coniferous trees are pine, spruce, fir, redwood and cypress.

while these terms are a little misleading maybe 1% of the time, as people will constantly remind you, these map directly to hardwood and softwood.

  • hardwood comes from deciduous (leafy) trees.
  • softwood comes from coniferous (evergreen) trees.

yes, there are a few species of “softwood” whose wood is relatively hard and durable (cedar, for example). it is, after all, wood. these are relative terms. and, yes, there are a few species of “hardwood” that are relatively soft and easy to break (basswood and balsa come to mind). but, as a general rule, hardwood is hard and softwood is soft. there’s a little overlap in the middle but if you take a spectrum of hardness and put all the species on it, the hardwoods are concentrated on the “hard” side and the softwoods are bunched together on the “soft” so it’s accurate enough as a general guide and there’s no need to get technical about it, especially when you’re just trying to get the basics figured out.

let’s take a look at this hardness before we go on to other properties of the wood, actually. it’s a good place to start. there is a hardness measurement used across different species (and non-wood substances, actually, though this is less relevant for our purposes) called the “janka scale” (yes, named after gabriel janka). i’ll give the hardness numbers for different types of wood and a higher number just means the wood is harder but you can think of them in several different categories. i think there are five, though these are my own and you can divide them in other ways if you like — light softwoods, heavy softwoods, weak hardwoods, strong hardwoods, extreme hardwoods.

light softwoods (<600)

the first category is, from my perspective, not very useful for us as woodworkers. some of these are usually used for carpentry because they’re light, flexible, easy to cut, cheap to source and transport and very readily-available.

  • white cedar (320)
  • western red cedar (350)
  • eastern white pine (380)
  • western white pine (420)
  • cypress (510)
  • larch (590)
  • alder (590)

you will often see these sold as dimensional lumber. yes, there are certainly projects you can make with them but they’re simply not going to hold up well for complex joinery or the thin/delicate construction that is typical of furniture. if you want to make mission-style furniture or pieces with thick structural parts, these are totally fine. if you’re looking for thin wood that will give you the strength you expect, you’ll be disappointed in this category.

heavy softwoods (>600)

this group is where softwood really does come to be useful in fine woodworking. these woods are harder and stronger and tend to work much more easily as furniture components because of this strength. actually, they feel in many ways like the weak hardwoods both in how they are worked and how they stand up to abuse once they’re turned into furniture.

  • douglas fir (660)
  • shortleaf southern yellow pine (690)
  • shedua (710)
  • longleaf southern yellow pine (870)
  • eastern red cedar (900)

there are some serious advantages to building with these softwoods. the biggest one, practically-speaking, is that you get a lot of wood for very little money, especially if you’re in an area where they are locally-grown. longleaf pine and eastern red cedar are particularly good for building strong furniture and cedar has the added benefit of being extremely good at resisting outdoor elements. you can build a piece of furniture from cedar and leave it outside all year and, while the color will certainly change, it will stand up to the rain and wind like even the strongest hardwoods can’t.

of course, if you select these species you have to be aware that what you’re buying will not look like a hardwood. the structure of the grain is different. hardwoods have pores to transport moisture through the tree. softwoods don’t. this means softwoods have light grain while hardwoods tend to have much more significant grain lines that can be seen in the finished piece.

but the real answer to your question is to ask a different one — what are these woods good for building or what have they been traditionally used for?

practically speaking, the place you’re most likely to find this category useful is making something you’ll use every day — your bench. workbench construction can certainly be done from something stronger, denser, harder and more beautiful. but there are myriad benches made from longleaf pine or eastern red cedar, even douglas fir. if you have access to good, straight boards of any of these species and you need to build a bench, it will give you a relatively-heavy structure without having to spend a fortune and it’s easy to work. don’t give it a second thought — just get yourself the wood and make the bench. this is probably a good way to think of this wood. it’s functional and useful where the visual appeal is irrelevant.

so you can continue this way of thinking. these all make excellent secondary woods for furniture. the hidden components of casework, drawers and backs, for example, can be made cheaply without compromising on quality using these species without anyone ever having to see them. and you will see this trick used over the last few hundred years as hardwoods became more and more expensive but less readily-available and cabinetmakers tried to keep costs low while providing quality furniture for their clients. if you want a nice dresser, you may want the outside to be cherry or maple but all the inside structure to be southern yellow pine, for example.

the other place these woods shine is structural furniture both in and outside the shop. if you’re building a toolchest or storage units, they’re fantastic choice. picnic tables that will sit out in the open or chairs, swings and play-furniture for children are frequently made from cedar (even the really soft cedars but it’s usually advisable to use the stronger species if they’re available). this means they’ll resist the weather but be strong and functional. practically-speaking, if it doesn’t matter what it looks like or how it feels when you touch it, you can build almost anything from these species until the joinery gets small and delicate, where more compact strength is required.

weak hardwoods (<1200)

there are some weak hardwoods that are really not very functional for structural use — i’m simply going to ignore balsa because it’s far closer to paper than useful wood. basswood can be used for decorative work (kumiko panels, for example, are often made from it) but i would be very careful imagining it’s strong enough for actual furniture components. it’s beautiful and the grain is almost invisible but that doesn’t make up for the fact that it’s very, very weak compared to most other hardwoods.

  • basswood (410)
  • yellow poplar (540)
  • chestnut (540)
  • silver maple (700)
  • mahogany (800)
  • red maple (950)
  • cherry (995)
  • walnut (1010)
  • eucalyptus (1125)
  • teak (1155)

poplar is the usual example given for “it’s a hardwood that’s softer than softwoods” and, while this is true, the grain structure of poplar means it’s generally strong enough to build furniture from without cracking and this is where i would suggest starting — go any weaker than this and you’re probably asking for structural failure in your finished piece with use. that being said, if you’re used to working with construction lumber, poplar will probably feel like a step up in quality and strength and it’s usually quite inexpensive. on the negative side, though, most people don’t find it very pretty — ok, most people find it blatantly ugly and either dye or paint it, which works well. poplar is often referred to as “paint-grade” and this reflects the tendency to cover it. you can easily dye it with ink and it will look like a black or gray wood with visible grain. it takes milk-paint well, too.

moving on down the list, though, we get to the traditional woods for furniture construction. while not all these woods are available everywhere, much of the traditional furniture you see is made from maple, mahogany, cherry, walnut and teak. these are all in a relatively-easy-to-work middle area where they are hard enough to have excellent structural properties but soft enough to work easily with handtools or to work with powertools and not have excessive dulling and replacement of blades and bits.

if you’re a handtool woodworker in particular, these are the woods you should be trying to focus on — silver maple, cherry and walnut. they have very different visual properties but all work similarly under the tools.

we should probably talk about those pores before we go on, though. trees can be divided in three categories based on how their pores are structured — ring, diffuse and mixed, which is between the two. ring-porous species have large rings in the earlywood and few in the latewood. diffuse-porous species have no real difference in size through the wood. the ones in the middle have far more subtle differences from early to late between the rings. these are very visible differences and impact the workability, too. generally-speaking, this category is mostly diffuse-porous (poplar, maple, cherry) or at least close to it in the mixed category (walnut). while there’s not a direct connection between the pore difference and hardness (maple, for example, can be very hard but remains diffuse), most of the harder woods have more pronounced rings.

silver maple is very light in color with a relatively-mild visible grain structure. this color doesn’t last. no, don’t ask how to keep it white. you can’t. unless you want to hide it from the sun. it will darken with age as long as there’s light (even artificial light) so assume it’s not going to remain its initial color unless you want to refresh it every year or two with a plane. cherry is considerably darker to start with but it continues to darken with age to be a rich, reddish-brown color fairly quickly once it’s finished and left to age. walnut is very dark to begin and actually lightens with exposure to ambient light, something that can’t be said about many species of wood.

these visual differences aside, though, they are all soft enough to work with sharp handtools without causing serious problems. they are far less likely to split or crack than harder wood (oak, for example, which is notorious for splitting, cracking and brutal tearout). they also tend to take finish relatively well because of their inherent small-pore uniform structure. eucalyptus and teak are on the harder side of this category and are relatively uncommon. mahogany and chestnut work like cherry or soft maple but, especially in the americas, have become less available with time and it’s probably easier to simply use cherry, maple and walnut for your projects.

there is nothing in the standard furniture group that can’t be made with this trio of woods. you can certainly make parts a bit thinner and more visually-light with white oak, hard maple or even ash but this is rarely a significant problem and these are excellent woods to start with, even if you intend to move to harder woods later in your woodworking journey. i suspect, though, once you start working with cherry and walnut, their beauty will give you plenty of reason not to have much desire to switch.

strong hardwoods (1200-1550)

if you’re looking for denser, stronger wood for your furniture, however, especially if you don’t want to rely on thickness for strength, these stronger hardwoods may be what you seek.

  • red oak (1290)
  • beech (1300)
  • ash (1320)
  • tasmanian oak (1350)
  • white oak (1360)
  • hard maple (1450)
  • sapele (1510)

of course, much as in the previous category, i’ve only selected the most common (generally in north-america) to put on this list for discussion. there are certainly thousands of other species that can be classified and if you find there are common woods in your area and you want to know how they might serve you for furniture you can look them up to check their structure and hardness. if they have similar looks and hardness to others on this list, you can probably swap them in — you may, for example, find “victorian ash” if you’re in australia but this wood is a somewhat generic hybrid and varies wildly from place to place. it can generally be swapped for any similar-looking dense hardwood. i have family in the coffeetree-growing region and, while not usually seen elsewhere, this is about the same hardness as hard-maple and can be a beautiful thing to work with.

much traditional american furniture has been made with oak, both red and white. these are quite different species both in how they look and how they work (and not even similar to live oak in a lot of ways) but we can treat them as a pair. they are very ring-porous, especially white oak. and they are easy to split (great for building with a froe or axe but not so wonderful for chisels and saws if you’re trying to keep the wood together) but strong along their grainlines in ways cherry and walnut simply can’t compete with. furniture built in white oak is likely to last generations and it is strong enough to build very thin and visually-light. it also bends relatively well, though it’s a very splintery wood to turn (because of its tendency to split). if you want to work with green construction methods in particular, red and white oak might be exactly what you’re looking for. they will, white especially, dull your tools much faster than woods in the previous category so be aware your tools need to be sharp and will need to be sharpened probably about 40-50% more often when working in oak.

beech and ash are more subtle-looking alternatives but are also excellent for casework and structural pieces. when you get to hard-maple and sapele, you’re starting to get into the territory of tool-killing woods. they’ll work great but you’ll spend a lot more time sharpening if you’re doing the work by hand. something to keep in mind about hard-maple is that it is almost visually identical as lumber to soft-maple so if you want the look without the hard work you can certainly substitute the softer version. hard-maple, though, will give you the strength to make your parts significantly thinner and have a more refined aesthetic. while pieces in white oak tend to be bulky and heavy both physically and visually, hard-maple construction can be more subtle and refined. this, of course, can be managed in oak, cherry, walnut, ash or beech, too. but it’s easier as the wood gets harder and more structurally-solid.

the other thing woods in this category are great for is making tools — planes or tool-handles, for example. while you might want to build your bench from a heavy softwood or relatively-soft hardwood simply because the density and strength isn’t required, tools take a much harder beating. planes made from beech, ash or maple will stand up to years of wear while cherry or walnut will break down much more quickly and those made from fir or pine are realistically temporary. while there is a strong tendency (especially in the youtube/internet woodworking community) to use the extreme hardwoods for these purposes, the ones in this category are well-suited and have been used for centuries for tools without problems. not many eighteenth-century planemakers building with jarrah or ipe in north-america for obvious reasons. nothing wrong with using them, of course. and they can be very beautiful. but if you don’t want to spend the extra, don’t feel pressured to go beyond this category for anything — these woods are hard enough for everything you’ll ever make. harder is just … personal choice.

extreme hardwoods (>1550)

the extreme hardwoods are exactly that. wenge is very hard, osage orange incredibly hard and buloke realistically like touching metal. there are no particular tasks these woods are better-suited for than those of the previous category but they are often beautiful, especially as accent woods in projects. the thing to remember is that many of them, if not grown in your local area, are extremely expensive. i’ve only listed the ones that are commonly-available in north-america here (if not locally-grown, which some like koa, live oak, black locust and osage orange are in some states) but that doesn’t mean they’re available at anything approximating a reasonable price.

  • wenge (1630)
  • black locust (1700)
  • padauk (1725)
  • hickory (1820)
  • jarrah (1910)
  • bubinga (1980)
  • osage orange (2040)
  • koa (2160)
  • mesquite (2345)
  • jatoba (2350)
  • live oak (2680)
  • cocobolo (2960)
  • ipe (3684)
  • lignum vitae (4500)
  • buloke (5060)

when you’re selecting an extreme hardwood for a project, i caution you to keep a few things in mind. if you’re a handtool woodworker, these are going to dull your tools more quickly and require more force. if you’re a powertool woodworker, you’re going to be wearing out (and potentially breaking) blades and edges much more frequently. this might be worth it for the finished product and how it looks. it might not be. but it’s a decision you should make from a place of awareness and not be surprised by it. that slab of ipe or cocobolo you picked up in the offcuts bin at the local hardwood supplier might look absolutely amazing. but it might take you two, three, even ten times as long to shape it. you should definitely experiment with various species if you have access to them but remember most furniture for the last thousand years has been made with local species.

a concluding bark?

realistically, this is only a brief overview of the differences between species. when selecting a wood, go to your local hardwood dealer (or lumberyard, i guess, though i much prefer those that deal exclusively in hardwoods as that’s what i generally use) and look at the boards. touch them and get familiar with their grain structure and color. look at pictures of furniture built with those species and see how they age. remember you’re building a piece that will spend six months at the color of the board and sixty years at the color it changes to when it shifts so don’t neglect that and think your light piece from maple will be white for long or your walnut table will stay that dark unless you actually color it that way with dye.

the most important suggestion i can give you is actually a little odd when you first hear it. make a list of all the woods you want to work with (a short list) in the near future. go to the store and find a small offcut of each of them and bring them back to your shop. plane them. cut them. chisel them. get to know them. seriously, take notes. take pictures. see how smooth you can get them and how much tearout you get. do they chip or splinter or can you get them to feel like glass with minimal effort? this will tell you more than you can possibly read in an article or see in a video. you’ll quickly pick your favorites. now start designing with those. whether it’s maple and cherry (my favorites) or walnut and oak or even southern yellow pine that strikes you as the answer to your woodworking prayers, embrace the species and how it feels, looks and works. because that will tell you what you can build and how you should design it. i hope this has been useful. thanks for reading!

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