Friday, September 12, 2008

Ten Of The Eleven Of My Top Ten Tools

People ask me occasionally about the tools I use, and the place I use them in. They always ask about the wrong tools. Tablesaws and jointers and bandsaws are important, don't get me wrong, but they are machinery. Tools are things you can pick up.

I never buy wood at Home Depot, or the Blue Home Depot, either. I buy wood at a real lumber yard and machinery by mail order. "Mail Order" is now the Internet.

The average tool show is selling what I consider toys. The average Norm show is using tools that require three phase power now. If you need the electrical utility company to perform $25,000 worth of service upgrade to your pole so you can make a spice rack, you might want to rethink your strategy.

At any rate, here's the Top Ten Tools I Use most every day. I'm just trying to get things done, so I thought it might surprise and interest you. People who care very deeply that all their tools have to be (Fill in the blank -- Oh the hell with it. Delta. The cranky woodworker always says Delta. They're like Apple fanatics.) I need machinery now, not just tools, but I don't give them a lot of thought. These little tools matter. It's not that I can't get along without them. It more like I'd lay down on the floor and die if they were taken away from me.

1. A Stick
No really, a stick. That one's Poplar, I think. I've been using it for four years. I push all the wood through the table saw with it. It has a hook cut in it to hold the wood down as well as push it. It has common blade heights marked on it so I can raise and lower the blade without measuring over and over. On the Norm shows, they always lie and say that they've removed the blade guard temporarily so you can see the cut. Lies. All lies. All woodworkers throw them away. If you can shove a piece of wood in the saw, you can shove your hand in there, too, so the guard won't save you unless you fall on the blade. Here's better advice: Never, ever, ever put your hand between the blade and the fence. Never. Use a push stick for everything and you'll never be known as lefty. If you need to be told not to put your hand between the wood and the blade, you can't read this so there's no point in me warning you.
2. A Tiny Plane
I know John Denver got in trouble in a tiny plane, but don't be scared. It's a plane iron I'm talking about. That one is 1" wide, and I use it on every piece of wood I handle, more or less. Never sand if you can cut. Take the sharp machined edge off the corner edge of everything with a perfect bevel made with this tool. You have to learn the knack of holding it exactly at a 45 degree angle to make a chamfer, while learning how to swing your arm in a curve while describing a straight line, but it's fun to see the little angel hair shavings come curling out of the thing.

3. The Stop Block
I've explained accumulated error here before. It always shows up; don't make the mistake of inviting it over, too. Stop measuring with a rule over and over. I clamp that little elegant block to fences and jigs with a big clamp and cut multiple pieces all the same. They might all be wrong, by by gad, they're the same sort of wrong.

4. The 6" Square
You're not a framing carpenter. If you're wearing a huge belt in your shop, you're confused. You need little things that you can put in a pocket that serve many purposes. Marking perpendicular lines gets done all day. This is all you need. You can slide the blade all the way up and set fences on the saws and jointers too. You'll need the bubble level a lot if you're not a dope, too. You're not a dope; I know you.

5. Square Drive Screws
I'm old enough to remember the dark ages before phillips head screws. I still use flat head screws, as they are still common in boatbuilding and furniture hardware. But phillips heads rule all else. Forget them. Those bad boys there in the picture have a square hole in them, hold like the devil, the heads never slip, and the ingenious bulbous shape of the threads make them self- tapping, so they don't drive components apart when you drive them through. Google McFeeley's. You're welcome.
6. Pocket Hole Jig
Here's the first thing you can use your square drive screws for. That's a Kreg pocket hole jig and stepped drill bit. You clamp the jig to the piece of wood you wish to join to another, and it will drill an angled, stepped pocket hole. You then clamp the two pieces of wood to be joined, using the same Vise-Grip clamp you see there, and drive square drive screws into the stepped, angled holes you made, and voila! Instant joinery with no mortise, tenon, biscuit, dowel, or domino. No glue either, if you want to take it apart later. Cabinet makers put face frames together like that, with the holes hidden on the back of the face frames. I assemble every cabinet, workstation, and jig in the shop using it.

7.Bungee Cords
Bungee cords are next to worthless for their suggested purpose, which is holding down cargo. Cargo straps shouldn't stretch. But in a place where work is done, everything must be kept from getting underfoot or interfering with tools on the bench. You will never get any kind of meaningful dust extraction on hand tools unless you learn to suspend the snaky vacuum hoses from underfoot, or worse, from dragging all over the work. Instant and adjustable and stretchy work setups.

8. Moisture Meter
The least understood part of woodworking. Humidity is how much water is in the air. It affects the wood. But the moisture content of wood is really important, and only related, not the same. Wood is full of water, and they dry it by either putting it out in the air, or more usually, by putting it in a kiln (oven) to remove the water in the cells. But the water will want to get back in there, and if there's water available in the atmosphere, the wood will absorb it and swell. And shrink later. Furniture, designed well, will allow for seasonal movements in wide pieces of wood, and good finishing techniques will slow the change in moisture content in the wood. But you've got to start with dry wood. All home improvement shows tell you to take kiln dried flooring and put it in a half-built house to "acclimate" for a few days. Said house generally being built in the summer, with thousands of gallons of outgassing water from the concrete, plaster, tilesetting, and every other darn thing during construction. Then your strip flooring shrinks during heating season and you wonder what happened. In general, shrinking is bad and expansion isn't good, but can be managed. Never deliberately introduce water into any wood product, ever.

9. A Brick
Small, heavy things are always useful in a shop. But the brick is not mentioned here for its exciting doorstop possibilities. It's the weapon of choice for distressing things. It's the perfect thing to mimic the gentle loss of fiber that the bottom of table legs gets from many shoekicks, chairleg dings, and miles of being dragged across the floor. It rubs edges raw. The soft, abrasive face of a brick is perfect to wear away things believably, and when the face becomes too smooth with paint and other finish, you can restore it by rubbing it on... you guessed it, another brick.

10.Cotton Gloves
If you work in the barbarian arts, you learn early to wear gloves as often as you can stand it. Manual work will use up a sacrificial layer of something. You can choose it to be your hand, or the glove. Most finish carpenters come from the land of framing, and you can never "let them up on the furniture." Workers who learn to work dirty never get over it. I can't afford to smear finish-repelling oils from my hands on freshly sanded work. Productivity goes down if your hand is throbbing with splinters all the time. There's plenty of delicate work to be done with most woodworking, and if your hand is like a catcher's mitt you're useless half the time. All fancy gloves are a waste of time. Get big rubber coated versions of these to handle solvents and so forth, and wear these the rest of the time you're material handling, painting, and so forth. It'll save you carrying a rag all the time, too. Oh; you'll have to be tough enough to be called a sissy at the jobsite if you wear them.

What are you looking at, tough guy?


Thud said...

a great list and no doubt a surprise to some...where is all the power etc?

Ron said...

I dunno...I'm pretty cow dumb around wood related things...I'd probably need a 6" square to cut the cheese...

David St Lawrence said...

Excellent recommendations!

Although I designed custom furniture for a few years, I never graduated to the distressing of surfaces.

The brick is perfect.

Thanks for sharing this. I will forward your post to the neighbor I lent all of my woodworking tools to when I changed careers.

Anonymous said...

Excellent advice as usual, but tell us about the lovely wood used in the table top. What grain! And the perfect finish used to enhance the grain.
-Deb in Madison

Harry said...

Thanks. I'll save this for my Christmas list.

Eric said...

I think I just learned more about tools in the 5 minutes of reading that post than I have in 20 years of casual watching of Norm and those this-old-house guys.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Your last two pieces got me thinking about the tool dilemmas I run into as a hands-on homeowner (i.e. not a professional carpenter/plumber/electrician, but capable of doing a fair amount). Projects come along all the time that call for tools I don’t have. The choices:
a. Buy the cheap tool that will probably break before the job is done.
b. Buy something more professional because you know you’re going to need it again.
c. Rent it.
d. Tape a level to the hacksaw frame and wire the coping saw blade in there and hope the mess you make isn’t too visible (there are many variations on this “wing and a prayer” theme).
Unless you have the money to burn and plenty of storage space, it’s hard to justify b. But I rarely regret it when I do. In fact, I usually wish I had bought something better, but now there’s little chance of that because I already have something that “works”, most of the time.
A recent example came up a few weeks ago in the 1973 split-level house we just bought. We wanted to replace the stairs going to the upper half of the split with wooden treads and a nice runner (for the dogs). So I bought oak treads and prepared the crappy existing framing as best I could. (Carpet covers a multitude of sins in the houses of this era.) Because I had a 10” contractor’s table saw, it was easy to trim the extra inch or so off the width of each tread and to rip each riser to fit.
Cutting the treads to fit lengthwise was much harder. Each angle on each side was slightly different, and I had no 90 degree side to count on. And I definitely didn’t want to have to look at random gaps between the tread and the trim on the sides of the stairs every day for the rest of my life.
Perfect job for a sliding compound miter saw, but I already have a perfectly good miter saw that handles 95%+ of the work I do around the house. I couldn’t get myself to pull the trigger and upgrade my saw, so I opted for option d. The process went something like this:
- guesstimate the angles on the narrowest stair as best I could
- penciled my cut lines
- eyeball the 1.425 degree angle I needed on the miter saw
- cut the maximum 7 inches or so my saw can handle near the cut line
- flip the tread over and cautiously cut the rest of the tread (approach the existing cut slowly)
- repeat on the other side of the tread
- carry the too long piece over to the stairs to eyeball my cuts
- change the angles slightly on the saw and shave off a bit more (having to flip each piece to cut all the way through, of course)
- carry the piece back to the stairs to check the fit
- repeat until happy
Once the narrowest tread fit well enough, I used it to create better initial guesstimates on the remaining treads, then repeated the process for the remaining treads. A very long day’s work to build a half flight of stairs.
The end result turned out better than I hoped, despite having to rush the staining and finishing so we could actually move in. I still wish I had a cool sliding compound miter saw.
Love your writing.

Bruce Charlton said...

Another classic.

Pat Caulfield said...

I use the same cheap little plane. I sometimes I put it where it isn't so noticeable so as to keep up the image (of what I am not sure). I have had it for years and it is always near by.

SippicanCottage said...

Pat- I use mine all day every day and it still only needs to be sharpened once a year. Never sand if you can cut!