After a decade + of reporting to work every morning in my detatched 2.5 car garage workshop I've finally run up against the wall.
The shop's been fun, and I sure have gotten a whole lot of work done in there. But because of the size requirements for infeed/outfeed of the machinery, and all the STUFF that I've got in there I've found that there's an absolute footprint maximum to the pieces that I can build. And unfortunately that footprint has realisitically been about three by five by 80 inches tall. Fine for some things, but dagnabbit, I've had to turn down work that I have been perfectly capable of building just because I didn't have enough fabrication space to get it done.
Well... that's about to change. It's taken several months' worth of searching and doing the backstory logistics, but I'm going to be moving my shop to a much larger leased space in the coming weeks.
Convoluted path to how I got here aside, I found a spot in an industrial area and which is a mere six mile drive from home. I'm going to be in a 2500 square foot area, with about 500 foot of bonus loft area.
I've already got the business license from the town. I've already got the state sales tax ID and I start filing quarterly reports (showing zero income for the first quarter...) as of the middle of June. Now the only thing I'm waiting on is the lease from the landlord.
2500 square feet. It'll have a 10X24' showroom in the front, which is on street level on a fairly busy thoroughfare. Behind that will be a 12X15' room dedicated to my small desk and will be used as a photo booth. So FINALLY, I'll have the ability to photograph my pieces in a clean, respectible looking location.
And behind that... well, roughly seventy five feet by twenty five feet for a shop. It's at street level, with no loading dock, no elevators, no stairs. I can pull my truck directly into the shop and load/unload if the weather is bad.
At this point I'm without a build project on the bench - but I am in design negotiations with a long-time great client. So as soon as I'm in with a decent amount of shop buildout I'll be off to the races with yet another bedroom set.
And... and this is a biggie... I'm courting a design colleague in my furniture design association and who has a number of shops building commercial and hotel furniture. I'm working my way towards becomming one of his stable of shops, evolving into a go-to solution when he needs something built for (and this is real..... ) the Hyatt in Maui or any of several major retailing stores with locations all over the country.
Like I said: my 493 square foot shop (21X23.5) has been good, and I've done a bunch in there. But to step up to becoming a Big Boy it's time to do what the Big Boys do and go out and get my own commercial location.
Funny thing, I can forsee that this is going to change what I do and how I do it. I'm slowly bending under the realization that I'm going to have to eventually hire a staff. I'm eventually going to have to hand off my builds to other people and, for the first time, act as a busines owner rather than a guy who generates saw dust on my own in an otherwise empty shop. And if that comes to pass, the reality is that this MUCH larger and graciously sized shop may (just may.... ) have a limited life span measured in only a couple of years, as I grow bigger and need two or three times as much space.
But alas... one thing at a time. I've got to sign the lease and get the keys and do some cleanup work in that front showroom. I've got to box up the entire present 2.5 car garage workshop and make a couple of dozen trips. And I've got to get a truck with a lift gate and move the big stationary tools.
It's going to be one hellova ride. I've been woodworking in this garage since 1994, when we had the garage erected. So I've had 19 years to pack up to and above the rafters with STUFF. Lots and lots of STUFF.
Stay tuned for some insights into this ride.
In the meantme.... I'm idling. I'm thinking. I'm doodling on graph paper to see how things are going to sit in the new space. And I'm just itching to get ahold of the keys to this place so that I can put down blue tape on the floor and translate my thoughts on graph paper to what it'll look like in real life.
To Elkhart, Indiana, that is.
It's been five years since the RISING FROM ASHES show began. It was launched at the time the emerald ash borer blight was just starting to become noticed in the press. Since 2008 the show has traveled to six venues in the upper midwest for multi-week shows. And, unfortunately, the EAB blight has continued to spread across the upper midwest, with no signs of slowing down.
But now, fast forward to April 27, 2013, and we add a seventh venue, the environmental center in Elkhart. A lot of pieces of furniture have sold in the intervening years, but we still have a couple of the most iconic pieces from back in the day. And we'll be trotting along one of our large educational kiosks and the seventeen minute long video that I produced in support of the show.
If you're in the area from the end of April through the end of May, please consider stopping by and checking out the exhibit. And if you're available during the day on Saturday, April 27, swing on by and shake my hand and you can wish me a happy birthday.
It really is amazing how far and wide this show has traveled, how much press it's gotten locally, regionally and nationally, and how many people have seen the furniture.
Now if you'll scuuuuze me, it's late as I write this and I've got to get up early in the morning to pack things up and get on the highway out to Elkhart. See you in a couple of days!
So while things are drying in the shop I've got to get into the business of designing several new items for a repeat client.
Designing. Old-school, with a pad and paper. Which, of course, means idly doodling, sketching, crossing things out, doodling again and otherwise letting my imagination wander freely.
It's funny - I'll say to myself that I'd rather be in the shop building what I've designed rather than designing what I need to build. But when it's design time it's a whole 'nother kind of creativity. Gone is the rational technician who's fussing over the fit of joinery and making all the surfaces 'just so'.
Instead, enter the five year old. The kid with the sticky fingers and a crayon and some paper, and who's mind is free to wander wherever the muse takes him. No rules. No real purpose. Just idle time to let the imagination wander and let creativity happen for its own glorious sake.
It takes some time to let the brain calm down and to enter that trance-like design state. I fight it. But it's necessary and it does require some relaxation maneuvers to help get there.
But the creative state does come. And occasionally it can be a fugue state, with the pencil taking on a life of its own, racing in lines and circles and arcs on the page while I watch from a sort of a detached viewpoint, a spectator to what's unfolding before my eyes. That's when design is the best. When the ideas from my imagination flow faster than my rational mind can keep up with. Some of the most interesting things come out of a design fugue.
So now I'll put on some soft music and sit in a comfy chair with my empty design pad and two sharpened pencils and a big pink eraser. Sitting in anticipation of the flow of the lines on the pad.
As many of you know, I've been working in the world of vacuum veneer pressing, with the occasional bent lamination form in the bag from time to time. And in that history I've been using what's called a Compact 100 pump and bag system and which was manufactured by VacuPress.
It's been nine years since I bought the system, and I've done dozens of projects, each of which having needed the vac system many times for all the various parts needed for the furniture pieces. So that's a lot of uses for the 20-mil vinyl bag, and a whole lot of hours on the little electric pump.
I had perceived that I probably had some kind of failure in my near-ish future with the pump, just based on what I considered a lot of use of the thing. There have been a lot of overnights with the pump running ten and twelve hours at a time.
And the 20-mil bag? It's definitely looking battle scarred, with a couple of patches here and there where bending forms have poked through at the corners.
Yesterday I called up VacuPress and we talked about me ordering a second pump and bag kit. The pump would be a hot spare, and I needed the bag. To conserve cash I was going to go with another 20-mil vinyl bag. And life was pretty good.
This morning I got a call back from the company. They were talking about my order and the owner, Daryl Keil, shook his head and told his people to call me up to advise that that there's no need for a second pump. Instead, he wanted to see me ONLY buy a 30-mil polyurethane bag to replace my 20-mil vinyl bag. The pump, he said, was rated for a service life far and away more than I'd use in my application. He didn't want to see me spend too much money and on the wrong item.
Wait a minute. A company calls you up and says that they want to sell you something less expensive than you originally wanted? Yuppers, folks. The folks at VacuPress are looking out for me.
Their goal is to make sure that you're buying the RIGHT thing, not just buying a thing. In my case we had talked about what I do and described my use of the system. And apparently the service life expectancy of the Compact 100 pump is far, far longer than I'd thought. Their experience with the things is that they just work, and work, and work - a bit like the Energizer Bunny.
So this morning we amended my order to be just the 30-mil poly bag (which reportedly is more supple and takes bends better than the vinyl, despite the added bag thickness) along with some breather mesh and some odd peripheral supplies.
In all, the reason for this cost savings and redirection in purchasing option was that I have been establishing a relationship with this vendor. I've ordered their glues two or three times a year for years, and I talk with the knowlegeable people on the other end of the phone and relay a complete picture of what I'm doing. And for a change of pace, these guys actually pay attention and work towards making sure that you're going to get a complete and proper solution for the challenge you have before you.
The nut of it is that instead of spending close to $450 for the full system - with redundant parts to what I have today - I'll be spending well under half that for just the part that they recommend that I need. And they made me feel better about the expected life span of the pump that I already have.
I love these guys.
As it sits now I'm in negotiations with the lease on the new shop. So that's a positive step. And the lease period is intially a year in length, giving me and my lessor the opportunity to do a burn-in honeymoon period to see if it's working or not.
At first I thought that this would be a bad thing. I didn't necessarily want to have to maybe move AGAIN in a year, with the associated moving and setup costs, if either of us decided that it wasn't working out. But now... well, now it's maybe a very good thing. More on this in a bit.
And I'll be shutting the old shop down in a short couple of days and then will be spending the next two or three weeks at the new place to build walls (you'll see why later), racking, benches, etc.
But as luck would have it (oh darn....) I've got customers positively crawling out of the woodwork. Two designs and two quotes to two new clients will go out in the next few days. A third wants a bit of my time as soon as possible. A fourth, my continuing work client, has still got oodles of work for me to do. And... well, it looks like I picked up some work for the design firm that provides a nation-wide, morning beverage company's bistro tables and live-edge woodwork. No, no names (and I ain't sayin'!). I had a business meeting with the principal of the company yesterday and it's Game On when I'm moved in and ready. And all by itself that's going to dominate my fabrication calendar.
So what I'm saying is that here I am, about to vacate my 504 square foot shop to dive into a 1600 square foot shop. And a week ago I'd have been absolutely thrilled and would have said that this will do me for the foreseeable future. Now... it looks like I'm going to use this 1600 foot shop as a temporary springboard for a year and will, in all likelyhood, be graduating to a much bigger shop than that in the next 12-16 months!
And tooling... wowzers! You guys may know that I live in a 110V world right now. I'm downright amused with myself right now to find that I'm taking notes on and doing product comparisons of 20-24 inch planers, 16 inch jointers, 50 inch drum sanders and 220V hazard duty (read: 'explosion proof') fans for my upcoming spray booth.
I can only imagine how hot to the touch my American Express card is going to be!
And it's all in the name of growth.
This is going to be an interesting next year or so, now isn't it?!?
I've been batting around the idea of starting a thread in either the Finishing forum or the General Woodworking forum, but decided that the place was really here, in my blog.
Every week I see folks faced with a connundrum, and I want to explore a bit about it. Many times the goal is to achieve the look of, say, cherry or walnut. Yet they look at the board foot cost of the real wood species and retreat from that. So, instead, they head over to the poplar rack and look at its relatively low cost and then say to themselves "Hey - I can stain that and nobody will know'.
But as they learn, they flat-out are NOT able to get the look after all. And certainly not from one of the all-in-one-can solutions that they think will be a silver bullet.
I don't want to get into the actual finishing issues. I want to get into the MATH of the choice. And for that I'll use my prices here in the Chicagoland area.
My board foot cost for walnut is $5.39 for S2S, 3/4" in thickness and for narrow boards (less than 9" wide). Cherry runs $5.98 for the same.
Poplar, by contrast, runs $1.88 per board foot.
OK, so let's presume that you're making a modest, yet kind of ambitious piece. Let's call it a night stand. So how much wood is involved? My thumbnail says that you need 25 bf of lumber for the average night stand.
- Poplar, at $1.88/bf would mean you're buying $47 in wood.
- Walnut, at $5.39/bf would mean you're buying $132.25 in wood
- Cherry, at $5.98/bf would mean you're buying $149.50 in wood.
And, of course, add in your local sales tax. By me that's 10.25%.
So OK then. It's about a hundred dollars in savings between the high and low parts of the range.
Now let's look at the dollars to be spent on a finish. If you wanted the look and feel of walnut or cherry and actually used those species you're going to need to clear coat them and pretty much be done with it. So figure somewhere around $15-20 for your finishing supplies. That's a quart of your finish of choice, protective gloves, maybe some applicator foam brushes and shop towels to wipe it down. Bump that up to, say, $50 if you're using something expensive like Watco, make the total be lower if you're using, say, Minwax wipe-on poly.
So for a clear coat you're pretty much done in one to three applications of your favorite film finish. No muss, very little fuss. Done, walk away and wait until it's dry to deliver and/or install.
But then there's that poplar. What do you need to do to really make the wood look like walnut or poplar?
Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the rub. And it's a big rub. To really achieve the look of either of these species you need to take a multistep, multi product approach. But too often we see folks having been sold on the yellow can at the big box store, promising that it'll make their wood look just like walnut or cherry. And inevitably what we see are folks who have gone down that route (committing to the main piece without tests done on offcuts first, which is a whole 'nother issue in and of itself!) and they come to us with a frown and a need for a solution because it just didn't work.
At that point we ponder about the solution. What to do next depends on how far down the path they've gone. Some will pipe up for help after the first application of stain when they see what's actually not happening. Some will go as far as top coats, even though things haven't looked right, and then bemoan the situation.
Now we introduce more math. The inevitable solutions we see often times involve some dye ($15 plus time to hunt for it and a learning curve to figure out how to mix and use it), shellac ($20 per quart), then a separate gel stain as a toner ($20 more for that quart) and a final topcoat of your choosing. And there's the cost of all of the gloves, rags, more foam brushes to apply the stain from the can to the piece for wipe-down, containers for the dye, etc. Plus the extra time for the hunt to get it all, the dry times between layers and the opportunity to accidentally booger things up at each successive stage.
But then there's the intangible cost of the time, the learning curve, the uncertainty, the heartburn and the outright fear that comes with the knowlege that you're treading into uncertain ground. Let's not even talk about that bit about 'boogering things up', which can add more time and materials if you need to redo something.
For those who've gone the stain+topcoat route and then ask for assistance, well, now it's recommended that you find a stripper containing a particular chemical formulation and and then to start again with that combination of dyes, stains, shellacs, gels and top coats. AAArrrrrggghhhh!
And for all of this what has been gained? There was about a hundred dollars in maximum cost savings on the front end, but the soft and hard costs on the back end are really starting to add up and eat into the savings. All of the extra finishing products cost money, as does that potential chemical stripper. And in all of that it's very possible that you STILL have not achieved the look and feel of cherry or walnut.
What I'm getting at here is that it's nearly always a smarter savings in time, energy, emotional output and money to go with the real, intended species of wood from the outset.
Or perhaps it was your goal to make this project be as hard as is possible. If so, forgive me for having misinterpreted your intent!
At the end of the day I don't meen to lampoon anybody. And in an earlier version of my woodworking life I, too, figured I could use poplar and the yellow can of stain and be happy with what comes out. But really.... no. Just no. It doesn't work that way.
As with so many things in life there is a difference between a thing's price and a thing's cost. The price - the $47 as opposed to the $132 and $149, look like no-brainers. The COST, however, is a very different thing when you add it all up. The cost is the toll it takes on your mind, your clock, your emotions as well as your wallet. Unfortunately it's all too easy to just look at the price and ignore what the cost will truly be.
Just something to think about.
Anybody who's read what I write (er... isn't that pretty much everybody 'round here?) knows what kind of projects have been shoehorned into - and out of - my humble 2.5 car garage shop.
It's been an interesting ride. I got downsized at the end of '01 from a middle management job in corporate America and haven't looked back ever since. It's been me, making sawdust in my garage, for eleven years this month.
But that's hopefully coming to an end.
No, I'm not giving up the sawdust part. It's time for me to explore bigger offsite space. And it looks like I might have found it, in the form of a portion of a friend's 8000 square foot commercial area.
More could be said, but at this point I'm waiting on the lease and those details. Once it's signed and I've handed over the first month's rent then I've got to do a lot of buildout of the actual space, itself, and then physically move the entire present shop to the new location.
If and when the wheels get put on this thing I'll have upgraded from 500 to 1600 square feet, will have moved 45-50 minutes away - in towards the city center from me - - and the shop will be on the second floor in an old industrial building.
Stay tuned. Lots to talk about, lots to do and lots to share as this (HOPEFULLY!!) comes together.
I've got plenty of time between now and my shop move to ponder all manner of things having to do with tables and benches in the new digs.
Case in point, this thing. I'm intending to build a traditional European cabinet maker's bench, complete with shoulder vise and.... um... well, one of three possible vises to put on the other end. The jury's still out on that one.
Here's more or less what I've got in mind:
The shoulder vise is the one in the foreground. I had a homebrew bench a decade + ago and it sported a shoulder vise. And I've missed it since it went away. So I already have the screw assembly for that.
The tail vise, as shown above, would mean I have to purchase some additional hardware. But if I went with a full-width end vise instead of the traditional tail vise, however, then I'd have my choice in two different vises that I already own.
But what I'm really pondering now is the species of wood that I want to make this bench from. This is going to be a working bench, and for me that means that it's going to take swipes from planes and chisles, maybe get the odd ding from being hit by a still-spinning router bit and generally get gunk all over it. I'm not going to be precious with this thing. I know that about myself.
And so I'm doing some research into what species of wood to make it from. And that means getting cozy with the Janka hardness scale.
OK - so what's the Janka hardness scale? It's a measure of how tough the wood is. People in lab coats take a ball bearing of a very particular size and measure the amount of force that it takes to bury the ball bearing into the wood by half of its diameter.
The more pounds it takes to press that ball bearing into the wood the tougher it will be. And for me, with the workbench project, this means the tougher the wood the longer the bench is going to stand up to my use and abuse!
So the next step is to gather statistical details about different species of wood and their Janka ratings. Here's one such listing in this WIKIPEDIA entry.
Interestingly, everybody seems to just pass that list between themselves. A lot of lists I just found online have the same species listed. So OK, it's a valid listing.
Now where workbenches are concerned you'd ideally like something with a light coloration. The darker the bench the harder it is to spot some things while you're working. Light reflectivity is somewhat of an issue.
But a lot of the light colored woods are on the lower end of the scale. It seems like a lot of the cinnamon to brown colored woods are up on the top end of the scale. Ipe, for example. I can get the stuff in quantity for not a bad price, but it's really dark. Do I want a dark colored bench to gain a very beefy, robust surface toughness?
Or do I go with, say, ash? It's very light in color and has a somewhat middle to lower toughness rating. Decisions, decisions.
I've got about two months before I need to worry about this. There is going to be PLENTY to keep me busy in the new place, and a new bench won't happen until I get a new outfeed table for the table saw, build a fairly elaborate chop saw workstation and get some infeed and outfeed platforms situated for my Performax sander and my DW735 planer.
In the meantime, I'll be perusing this Janka hardness list and will be making a couple of phone calls to various suppliers to see who has what species and for what price.
Lots to ponder.....
For years I've been making do without a traditional woodworkers' bench. Sure, I've got that big 4' by 6' thing that's a blend of table saw outfeed table/assembly table and woodworker's bench. And to cement the deal I even put a woodworker's vise on the thing.
But it's just not the same. Many many moons ago I took a shot at building my own version of a traditional cabinetmaker's bench, complete with shoulder vise and end vise and a row of dog holes down the front edge. It was.... well, early in woodworking life and it really wasn't built particularly well. And when I started getting into serious and full-time woodworking it had to go in favor of other things that I've got going on in the shop today.
But I have been jonesing for years for a replacement, despite the fact that I don't have any room in my present shop for a 30" wide, 7' long bench.
AAAAahhhhh... but all of that is going to be changing soon. With my upcoming move in December comes the ability to finally built a quality replacement.
But... ok, here's the rub. Which kind of bench do I make? What are my actual needs going to be? Do I want a traditional European woodworkers' bench with a tool trough at the back? Or do I need a more modern American version with two rows of dog holes and no tool trough.
And then there's the concept of vises. I've still got the big screw from the old bench, used when there was a shoulder vise. And I've got a repaired and revamped Record #52-1/2 metal jawed vise sitting loose. And they're both in addition to my Veritas quick release front vise. So there are three options, only two of which will make it on the new bench. And I'll 'fess up that I'm thinking that the shoulder vise will make a return and that the Record will go somewhere else.
I've been studying my copy of Landis's Workbench book, as well as a dedicated mag that Fine WW put out a year ago just about benches. The options are legion. Study, study, study.
So at the end of the day what I need to do is to put together my list of "NEEDS" for this bench. It won't have to double as an assembly table, because I'll be building one of those, too. The outfeed table of the table saw will be able to be just that, too, and when not being used to catch boards it will have the luxury of actually being (...**GASP!!**) clean for a darned change.
A woodworker's bench. A place to manipulate boards and small sub-assemblies prior to being taken over to an assembly table. A place to clamp a board down and plane it, sand it, route it or otherwise mess with the thing and where doing so won't jeopardize a project that's halfway in progress.
It's going to be decadent.
Now all I need to do is to select the features that I want in a bench, determine the length and width and plan on purchasing the wood. I've already got all of the hardware.
I'll follow up towards Christmas or New Years with a report of what I've gone with and why.
I've been working in my detatched 2.5 car garage as a full-time endeavor for eleven years now. And in that time I've gotten an awful lot of work done, a lot of projects made, and have made a lot of clients happy.
But all good things, as they say, must come to an end.
A friend recently leased 8,000 square feet in a commercial building and is conducting business quite happily in the new shop. But he's got more space than he strictly needs. In fact, he's heavy by about 1600 square feet. And he knows that I'm bursting at the seams and that I can't tackle some jobs (which I'm prefectly capapble of doing!) because there's just flat-out not enough space in my shop to do some of that work.
So he and I have been.... Oh, I'll go ahead and use the word 'negotiating', over the specifics of me subletting a portion of his shop. I'll be behind my own walls, and essentially will have a huuuuuge fish bowl to swim around in every day. It'll be separate and distinct from his space.
Yet the real benefit is that there'll be a second guy within talking distance. If there's a moment for hashing out a design challenge there'll be another guy to bounce things off of. Likewise, for the times when you need a second set of hands on the other end of a cabinet so you can hoike it up and off the bench and down onto the floor. And then there's always the general health and safety thing of there being somebody else in the area if you get hurt (something we don't like to think about, but in a one man shop that's kind of important).
The upsides are legion.
The downside? It'll be a 40-minute commute (on a regular/good day) each way on a major expressway artery that leads into the city center. Traffic can snarl, weather can do what weather does and in the mix is the big honkin major league baseball field that's between me and the new space. So summer time will be fun with people heading down to the park. Thankfully I'm one exit away from it and people don't point at that exit so much.
I haven't had a commute now for eleven years, since I last had a regular day job. Working from home has had the side benefit of making it mere steps to go from home to work and back.
Of course, by working from home it means that A.) I'm always home, and B.) I'm always at work. There's no separation of the two. And so I work six or seven days a week, I can be found out there at midnight or later and, well, after more than a decade of that I must admit that I'm kinda/sorta out of balance.
But no more.
I'll have to put in a regular work day and then GO HOME, hopefully to have a LIFE outside of woodworking. Gee... I almost can remember what that's like. We'll see how that goes.
But anyway, here's the other thing to share. It's nice to be able to say that I'm upgrading from just under 500 square feet to 1,600 square feet. But nothing beats a picture to illustrate the point.
On the left side of this SketchUp model is my current garage shop and on the right is the proposed layout for the new space. The building actually does have concrete pillars every twenty feet on center. This thing is built to take a LOT of weight on the floor. And so there are those pillars that need to be accommodated. But they're pretty easy to navigate around.
So here you go: everybody's first glimpse into what will be my new world. I'm still getting cozy with the layout in SketchUp, and have another month and a half to live with the digital model and scoot things around before I get in there. This way I won't have to rebuild/move things around eleven times before I'm happy. I can live in the virtual model and puzzle through the logistics of working in there.
Yeah, it is quite a bit bigger, isn't it? The move, itself, isn't going to be pretty. But once I'm in there.... LOOK OUT!
As the president of the Chicago Furniture Designers Association a lot of things seem to fall to me to get accomplished. And that's why I'm mighty glad that I've got a core of five or six other guys who all seem to step up to the plate to help get things done.
Case in point, getting things set up for our impending Distinctive Furniture Show, something that we're going to be putting on annually here in Chicago. Often in the past, as some of you long-time readers will recall, we'd have theme-based furniture shows. One such was the Rising From Ashes show that we put on and then toured around the midwest from 2008 to 2011. In a themed show we all demonstrate what's possible in furniture design and within a narrowly defined set of parameters. With the Rising show it was all about a very specific set of materials, and after that the sky was the limit.
But here, with the Distinctive show, we're doing something a little different. As a breath of fresh air we've invited our membership to trot along.... anything! There was no restriction on material choice, certainly not in style, and really it was a case of anything goes. And let me tell ya: anything actually went!
One of our members has a shop in the Bridgeport Arts Center, and he happens to be the president of the board of that building. And on the fourth floor of that building is a five thousand square foot area that can be reserved for month-long engagements for displays and shows. And so during the month of September we're IT in that space.
This past couple of weeks has been absolutely NUTS with activity. The elves have been busy designing and distributing fliers, taking ads out in the art-minded publications in the city as well as getting the space ready for the show and actually curating the show (placing the pieces, creating groupings, getting the lighting placed and pointed, handling the signage, etc). But it's been worth it!
This is not a county fair type affair. There are no awards. Rather, this is a professional trade association of skilled and professional furniture designers and builders in the metropolitan area. We put on these shows to showcase our members and to maybe do a little business with the people in attendance. And to that end, I'm positively loving being in 2012, where the Square credit card reader works on a smart phone. Gone are the days of that clunky credit card swipe machine and the high monthly access fees. SO nice for a change!
We've been building up to our opening reception, which is this evening (Friday, 9/7/12). It's 9:25 in the morning as I write this and I've got a huge list of things that need to get accomplished before 3:30 this afternoon, when I've got to have everything loaded into the truck and when I head down to the venue.
If you're in the Chicagoland area from now until the 23rd of September please consider coming down to the show. Tonight's our opening reception and we'll have a bigger closing reception on Friday the 21st. Both times you'll be able to scope some really compelling furniture as you have a little wine, munch on some nibblies and hang with some of the coolest cats in the Chicagoland area.
OK.... now where's that list?
OK - let's examine what it is we're doing when we make custom pieces for a client.
Most would agree that what we're doing is manufacturing a THING, and then delivering that THING to the client. OK - makes sense, but it really is not the entire story.
When a client asks you to build something you are not only providing a product but you are also providing a SERVICE. You're taking a thing that exists in their mind and, through your talents and craftsmanship you're servicing a need. You're converting an 'I wish I had...." into a "I now have" set of situations.
And because of this the very real and present subtext of this situation is that you are working on an emotional level in the client's mind. You're not a plumber here to fix the pipes. You're not a cement worker here to pour a new pad for a storage shed. You're an artisan who is going to brinng a new set of distinctiveness into the client's abode. You're changing the way that the client dwells inside their own home.
This having been said, the client experience during your build is every bit as important as the deliverable experience once it's time to bring the item to them.
Involving the client by way of emailed in-progress photos is one way. Checking with them along the build and asking if they have any 'QUESTIONS, COMMENTS or CONCERNS" involves them in the process and feeds some security into what's often times an insecure emotional state about what it is that you're doing for them.
In progress reports, and getting the client involved during the build gives the client a sense of what's going on. They're not afraid that they're going to be surprised (in a bad way) or even disappointed at the time of delivery. Warm fuzzies cannot be underestimated. It builds in-roads with the client and makes you somebody who they want to work with again.
My mileage proves this, as I'm about to embark into a new suite of projects for an existing client. He likes my dedication (to the point of being a wood geek) to his materials. He enjoys that I'm getting him involved, even if it's a sort of virtual peek over my shoulder as I work. I'm transparent to him. He sees the raw materials come to life during the build and he gets to get excited during the process.
And he's not alone. I've had several repeat clients over the last couple of years, each of which has come back to me because I was willinig to make sure that they were comfortable during the process and thus, eager to receive the thing that they ALREAY KNOW is good.
As I head into fall it looks like I'll be substantially working for that same guy for most of Q4 of this year. He's got a raft of projects for me to get into, with some downpayment checks already received, others yet to come based on price tags to be determined when the designs are done.
And he comes to me due to the service. He's worked with several other woodworkers in the past, but now has said that he'll only work with me. And he's got a LOT of projects on the wish-list.
It's what changes you from just being a guy who works in the basement or the garage and transforms you into an artisan who they want to work with again. And the inevitable referrals they shoot your way doesn't hurt, either.
Serivce. It's really what this business of working with wood is all about.
Just a quick note today.
For the last several years I've been involved with awareness efforts (through a furniture show, basically...) of the emerald ash borer beetle and its effects on our urban forest.
Up until recently, at least for me, it's been sort of an academic point. All of the really badly infested suburbs were some place else. They were somebody else's trees at risk.
But no more. The nasty little emerald ash borer beetle has been in my town long enough that the trees are starting to come down.
So because of this:
.... beautiful mature ash trees are now going through this:
This ash is directly across the street from me. It was the crown jewel in the neighborhood. Every fall it turned the most vibrant goldenrod color. It was almost neon it was so vibrant.
But in about ten minutes' time, as of this writing, this tree will be just a stick with no leaves left. I just snapped this photo moments ago. The sound of the tree mulcher is whirring away as I type this sentence.
An estimated 50% of all of the park and parkway trees in my neighborhood are ash. And of that population, they're all infested to one degree or another. Some are completely dead and gone, many are dying and just a handful are showing the introductory signs of the infestation. Within the next 12 months they're all coming down. That's almost half of the mature park and parkway trees in a single neighborhood.
The upshot is that when they say not to move wood from location to location, this is why, folks. The bits of the urban forest that you may think are no big deal to move around (as in: your firewood or other products from your lots or your general areas) contain more than you know.
In our case, in the greater Chicagoland area, we have this problem because some knucklehead (and the state authorities actually know who, interestingly enough....) decided that it would be a good thing to bring home his fire wood from his summer house in Michigan. He brought the beetle from the intial outbreak location to a different urban area. And so the infestation spreads.
Don't let your trees look like the one, above. Keep your firewood and your offcuts where they dropped. DO NOT transport your wood across state lines.
...that is, unless you want to lose half or more of the mature trees in your neighborhood. But I'm sure your neighbors might have something to say about it if they knew.
I've found that for me, at least, woodworking falls into two main categories. The first is when all of the fabrication processes are things that I've done before. And so confidence is high because I already have a well established road map for how to get there from here. And for the most part the piece that I end up coming up with is a bit.... oh, I don't know. Boring? At least to me. The whole route through the fabrication is one big ritual of 'been there/done that'. And so I inevitably get a result that's like one(s) I've gotten in the past. Yeah, it's satisfying on one level, but very much not satisfying on another.
The second category is when I look at what I've got in mind (as in: I look at my sketch or I look at a photo of something I'd like to build and which was made already by somebody else) and I sit back and realize that I've got no immediate idea of how to build the thing. That's when you're flying without a net. You have to invent new ways of getting there, and that's an exciting thing.
To successfully find your way through The New you have to break down the operations into smaller steps and mentally rehearse how they'll go. You have to be prepared to stop and back up if you get stuck or of something looks like it's not working out the way you envisioned. But that's OK. You know the working properties of the material you're using and the mental excercises and the work that you have to go through sharpen your skills.
And it's that second bit that's the most exciting and enticing to me. It's where I get to teach myself how to get there from here. I'm blazing a brand new personal pathway through the thorns and the brambles and the dark scary woods. Lions and tigers and bears, OH MY!
There are still a lot of those types of projects that I have in mind for the 'someday in the future' -kind of timeframes. And a couple of them aren't practical for my small shop, and will - by their very nature - have to wait until some time later in life whenever it is that I'm in a bigger shop. And sometimes I get to work through them in smaller scale.
At the end of the day, the nut of the thing is this: setting goals for your woodworking is a good thing. Setting easily achievable goals keeps you going for a while. But sometimes.... well, sometimes you need to set some outrageous goals for yourself. Sometimes you need to set the bar so high that you have to change yourself in order to get there.
Yeah, a bit philosophical. But this is the pathway to new horizons.
Keep doing what you're doing and you'll keep getting what you're getting. Change what you're doing and you'd be surprised how the view changes!
Just some food for thought!
WOOD editor Bob Hunter and a team of two photographers took the drive eastbound on I-80 today, just to visit lil' ol' me.
The goal: extract a couple of things that I do in my shop that aren't always seen in other people's shops. I'm in a somewhat small space (21' X 23') and as a result I've had to create working methods and strategies for handling certain fabrication challenges.
It was a real trip watching pro photographers geting their stuff into my (newly cleaned and polished!) shop. Light bounce boards, big tripods and RC-controlled/synched flash units came together to capture certain details throughout the afternoon.
They took a lot of shots while they were here, going through a checklist of things while they were here. We jokingly agreed that it's de regeur for the guys shown in the mag to wear protective aprons while in the shop.... so I donned mine and had it on for much of the shoot. At about 83° today, this leather apron was HOT. But we got some cool shots.
At this point in time I have no idea when it is that the article will run. But I do know that I'm going to be joined by at last one or two other woodworkers, each of whom were visited by Bob. Together we'll show off different strategies for handling things in our unique shops. So this is definitely not just me.
It should be a cool article when it does come out. There will be some real-world 'been there/done that' points of view for how we each handle the things that we do within our working shops.
It's always great to spend time with the editors at Wood Magazine. And this time it was really cool to host the party at MY place for a change!!
Cheers, Bob! Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share some of my mileage.
Well... that was an excersize in futility.
Turns out, the village where I was going to move the shop to is somewhat predatory in terms of how they want to live inside your pocket. So strike 1 there.
Strike 2 is that I've now got two repeat clients with a lot more work for me to do for each of them, and who are slow-playing me. They're taking forever to get any decisions made and taking even longer to write downpayment checks.
SO... with a heavy sigh I abandoned the idea of moving my shop out of my garage and into commercial space. At least for this year. We'll see if things pick up speed. If they do then I'll start looking for commercial lease spaces (in other villages besides the one that I had looked into previously!)
The irony is that I'm in process right now of 'rebooting' my present shop. Tools editor Bob Hunter and a photographer from Meredith will be swinging by my shop in a couple of weeks' time to do a photo shoot of me in my shop, doing what it is that I do. The focus will be some of the strategies that I use to get work done in a small shop. No... no spoilers. You'll have to wait for the article to come out in print to read what it is that I'm really referring to.
So... given that the shop has to look like the Idea Shops (at least in terms of cleanliness) that means that the whole kit-n-kiboodle is getting repainted, vacuumed, straightened, I've pitched a whole lot of stuff and I've got a lot of work to do still.
The side benefit is that the shop will be freshened up and will be organized as new again. And that's a very good thing, actually. I'm constantly bumping into pieces, parts, lumber and supplies left over from projects of yore. A lot of it I save because... well... you save that kind of stuff, ya know?
But this is forcing me to make the shop as minimally packed with extraneous crap as possible. And that's going to renew my enthusiasm for working out there again.
Sometimes the Universe seems to look out for you after all. It was a no-go on moving to a new location, so instead she's handed me a reason to fix some of the issues that I'm having with the space I'm in now.
Funny how these things work out, isn't it?
When I first built my 21' by 24' garage in 1994 my wife looked me squarely in the eye and told me that it wasn't going to become a two and a half car workshop.
Well, for the first three years or so it didn't. And then bigger stationary tools started encroaching on the car's intended footprint. By 2001, when I got 'downsized' we finally agreed that the garage could be converted over to shop space as I began my journey into being a full-time woodworker and furniture designer.
During that time I've shivered in the winter (despite a propane burner) and baked in the summer. And the tools and swing needed for raw materials and sheet goods have definitely left marginal room for actual projects. It's a bear to bring in new raw materials during a project and not bump, bruise or otherwise jeopardize a work in progress.
And inevitably there have been jobs that I would have been perfectly capable of building but for the fact that I just flat-out didn't have enough room in the shop. A very (!!!) lucerative dining room table and set of chairs comes to mind. I had to pass on that work due to lack of available square footage.
And so it's finally come time to give serious thought to moving out of my backyard garage and move the whole kit-n-kiboodle to a leased space.
Interestingly it comes at at time when a very talented colleague of mine also needs to get out of his leased space and gain more square footage. We get along great, we don't do exactly the same things (he's got a contractor's licence and does mostly architectural built-ins with the occasional stand-alone piece) and we've already referred jobs to one another.
SO... with a deep breath... I am now beginning the quest to perhaps move out of the home-based woodworking world and venture out to become 'real' during 2012.
The goal is to find... oh, about 5000 square feet or so. We'd build an office/photo booth room, we'd have a genuine built-out spray booth with enclosed finishing room and we'd each have enough fabrication space to do what we each do. I'm hoping that I'll be able to grow beyond my 400 square feet and arrive at about 1200 square feet of my very own. He'd take the balance, with shared resources in the office and spray booth room.
I've guesstimated that as much as 30% of my tiime is wasted waiting for the finishing process to be completed. And with wet finishes in a garage that means that all work has to stop and the only thing that can happen is the actual finishing. It slows down the fabrication calendar something fierce. With an enclosed drying area we could BOTH continue to work while finishes dry and get hard. It means more projects can be completed per month and our productivity (as well as profiitability!) would increase as a result.
Much needs to be discussed, and we'd need to suss out an agreement between us as we search for space for lease.
It's exciting. And it's more than a little scary. I'm used to the convenience of just walking out my back door and *poof* I'm at work. And the dogs are used to being able to be let out periodically through the day. So I'll need to find something close enough to home that I'll be able to pop back around lunch time to let them out.
Stay tuned. It looks like we're going to start putting the rubber to the road during January and... fingers crossed... we'd maybe be in, be done with buildouts and be moved in by the end of Q1 of 2012.
I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. But business is booming, I'm hooked and booked with business until summer time and I've got two forewarders who provide me with business who are aching for me to get into bigger space so that they can refer me more work.
So, to quote Ralph Cramden.... Away We Go.
(wish me luck!!)
Just a quickie today.
I just pulled the trigger on a Fuji Q4 4-stage turbine HVLP system. Not cheap, but all of my research shows that it really is the quietest HVLP on the market, and with four stages I will be able to spray just about anything I want (within reason).
Gone will be the days of clouds of overspray from my air compressor-driven conventional cup guns.
Gone will be the days of realizing that about 30-40% of my finish is IN that cloud, never to reach its intended destination. So gone will be the days of wasting finishing product in that kind of quantity.
I'm postitively aquiver with antici....
Amazon should have it to me in about a week's time.
As a lot of folks here on the forums know, I'm a professional woodworker. I mostly make items on commission, but will occasionally make a speculative piece or furniture for my own house when I have the time (rare!).
It's not uncommon for me to have two or even three projects going in the shop at any one time. When one project is in a glueup stage and can't have anything done to it until the subassembly dries I'll transition over to a second (or third!) project to both keep busy and to maximize my productive time.
When I wake up in the morning I'll get online and start talking about woodworkign here on the WOOD forums. Then it's time to get a second cup of coffee and the dogs and I head out the back door to my detatched garage and I begin work in earnest.
Breaks are spent back online, I usually don't pause for lunch and dine with my wife who returns from her own business downtown late in the evenings. Then back on the WOOD forums and it's generally time for bed.
Am I out of balance? Some would say so. But I'm always at it. Go, go, go. I use my frequent breaks (about ten to twenty minutes per each hour and a half from about 9AM until I stop working somewhere around 7 or 8:00PM) as opportunities to come back with a fresh eye and judge what has been going on during the last work session. And I've learned that this is absolutely invaluable for catching mistakes or also realizing that something more needs to be done before the next steps can progress.
And throughout all of this I'm now working on a backlog of clients' projects. Here we are a week before Halloween and I'm hooked and booked (i.e., deposits have been taken) and which will keep me going until sometime late April or May of 2012. Work, work, work. Go, go, go.
But somehow.... as strange as this sounds, I feel like I'm not hustling quite enough. I'm not moving fast enough. I'm STILL not getting as much done per day as I'd like. My reputation is growing in the Chicagoland area, I'm the president of the Chicago Furniture Designers Association and have recently joined a small businessman's group to network and enhance the How, What and Why of the business side of what I'm doing.
So why am I feeling restless? Why am I feeling like I'm still not getting as much done in the caliber as I'd like to ultimately be working? What exactly is going on here?
I've been doing some pondering on this. I've been looking around at other woodworkers (and other small business owners) that I know to see what it is that they're doing and how well they're doing in their respective market places. I'm paying attention to what successful people are up to.
The recent issue of WOODWORK magazine - which is now just an annual issue which showcases the truly BIG DOGS out there in the woodworking world - has a rerun of an article on David Marks. I've been out to David's northern California workshop three times in the last six or seven years to take classes with him. And as was discussed in the article, his path has also been strange and varied and after 35 years of being in the woodworking business he became an 'overnight success'. Yeah. Three and a half decades of paying your dues will eventually make somebody notice!
In taking classes with David I've learned how to let go and let your work be free of boundaries. He is a walking/talking muse and you get so much more out of his classes than is strictly covered in the class syllabus. And he's a very large reason why it is that I've taken the leap with as many different types of projects as I have. He taught me that there's really no reason why I CAN'T do something. It's just the case that I HAVEN'T yet. And that man hustles like no other that I've seen in the woodworking world. He's a dynamo.
So I've got all of these roll models in business, and in the craft. I've got a very good network of people here in the Chicago area and it's payed dividends in terms of being in shows, having my work shown in front of large crowds and in terms of the connections that lead to my current backlog of work.
And I'm still fretting that I'm not getting 'er done. I feel a very real sense that I'm not hustling quite as much as I should be.
Why is that?
I think one thing is that I am never satisfied with every aspect of a project, there's always something that could have been done better/more efficiently/more elegantly. I'm mindful that I have to take yesterday's lessons and apply them to today's projects.
And I'm also working in so many disciplines. It's a staple of working in the custom, one-off furniture world. I have to be good at a lot of different skills in order to bring compelling designs to an eager buying public. I can't always put out the same table or the same chair all the time. I have to be able to apply what I see at the client's homes, reimagine how the pieces and parts go together, and then design and build a coherent piece of furniture that's unique, and yet will also fit very comfortably into the design sensibilities of their homes.
Design. Build. Furthering my craft. Networking. Client meetings. Delivering exceeds-expectations projects on time and under budget. Goal setting and benchmarking. Improving the shop conditions. Ratcheting up the overall quality of what I'm delivering this year as compared to last year.
At the end of the day what's going on is that I'm not complacent. I'm always kicking my own butt to improve in as many areas as I can. In short, I have a restless mind and a desire to work at the level of a David Marks, of a Gary Knox Bennett and a hundred other nationally known masters at what they do.
I've got to hustle, hustle, hustle. I need to git 'er done. I absolutely need to look back on the year on December 31st and observe that I've improved in measurable ways over where I was the prior January 1st.
I don't think it'll ever stop. At least I hope not. There's so much to do, so much to learn, so much to wrap your arms around in the business of working with wood.
Catch me at the end of 2012 and I hope to report that the view is a little better and that the goals have progressed beyond where they are today!
When I was a younger and less experienced woodworker I'd spend time building a project and would often agonize over some of the smallest details. Well - about like everybody here does.
And then when it came time to the finishing process I bet I was also about like a lot of you - - I'd zip through the finish sanding process and spend as little time as possible slapping a finish on there.
So let's see... spend time building out of expensive woods and then jeopardize the whole thing by spending less than full attention and care in the finish. Hmmmm... sounds like a recipe for success, there, now doesn't it??? (NOT!!)
I've got a couple of pieces sitting in the house that date from that period. And when I look at them now I cringe. HOW did I think that in any universe the slapdash approach to finishing was going to be a good thing to do? I've plans to revisit one large case piece next year to hopefully rectify some of the sins that I committed back when.
Since that time I've learned a few new techniques, I've picked up a couple of new finishing products and I've learned to slow down, to do a lot of prefinishing and to give as much care and attention with the finish as I did with the fabrication.
One of the things that made me turn the corner was a smart-alek comment that a fellow woodworker made to me. He's the kind of guy who goes to annual outdoor medieval festivals, and he brings things with him to sell at his both. He referred to the prospective customers as 'raccoons'.
HUH?, I said to him....
Sure, "Raccoons' he replied to me. They come up to the products and have to touch and feel and rub their hands on the products, regardless of whether or not they have ANY intention of buying.
Hmmmmmmm..... there's something here, methinks.
Tactile response is at least as important as visual response. And to cement that the finish is a 'good' one they need to rub their fingers over the piece to feel for imperfections.
To buy a piece the client needs to see it and be enamored with it. Then they need to feel it to ensure that what they're seeing is the truth. Once those two things meet in the middle only THEN do they consider purchasing.
Huh. What an interesting way to look at the situation.
So I did some experiments. I spend some gonzo hours finishing a couple of pieces which I trotted out to furniture shows last year. And sonofagun, wouldn't you know it? The clients would come up to the pieces and spend time fondling them. In some cases it was almost like they were fetishing the pieces of furniture. The look and feel of a piece of furniture are THAT intertwined.
Since that time I've been spending more time in the shop caring for the minutiae of finishing. I'm applying more steps. I'm laying barrier coats of finish between stains and top coats so that I can manipulate the one without fear of affecting the other. I'm grain filling more than I have been in the past (well, for high-build film finishes only, truth told). And I'm using contrasting colors of filler to fill in bug holes, imperfections and all the other reasons you use wood filler. I'm taking advantage of wood filler's traditional inability to take stain, and I'm using very dark colored wood filler in order to create visual interest. Compare that with the past when I'd use a beige-toned wood filler, pray that it would color dark enough and then have to agonize over getting the filler to look right. It's all in the effect, my brothers and sisters.
Finishing now comprises at least a weeks' time in the fabrication cycle. I've got it budgeted in now. And if I'm done early, so be it. The finish gets time to really cure hard and be even more reliable when it comes time to wrap the piece in packing blankets and to transport it to the client's house.
My results have gotten worlds better. The client reaction is at an all-time high. The raccoons now spend time oohing and aahing instead of finding a problem spot and looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
So the net result here is that finishing is at least as important as spending time getting that mortise and tenon joint to fit right. In some respects it's even more important. The client isn't going to get down on hands and knees and rate you on how well the M&T joint went together.
But they ARE going to rate you on your finishes.
When I was growing up my ol' man used to do paying body and fender work in our 2.5 car garage. He'd work on two or three cars per month and was always in demand. This was in addition to his regular job as a Chicago cop. He was really quite good and his finishes were quite something. And I'd be out there with him, banging away at dents, doing body work, helping to re-hang bumpers and doors and all that kind of thing.
But he did the spraying. I watched and learned a bit at the time, but most of the time I was off doing other things at the time and stayed out of the way when he was spraying.
Fast-forward thirty-something years and we now know that that's a very, very good thing.
We're creamating my dad this weekend. He passed away this past Sunday after a very long bout with, essentially, benzeine poisoning. It's a second cousin to Agent Orange symptoms. They used to put benzeine into a lot of finishing supplies back in the day, and it did a lot of harm along the way.
You see, the core problem really is that my ol' man didn't wear respirators all that often. And he never wore gloves while handling his automotive finishing supplies. But he ALWAYS had his open cup of coffee out there in the garage with him. And all manner of stuff settled into it and inevitably got swallowed.
So that's lung exposure, skin exposure and digestive exposure.
Foolhardy? Can I get a loud YES from the audience? WOW. But that was the 1970's, and he was relatively young, and life was forever, you know? Well, it finally caught up with him. I seem to remember that about the only safety devices he wore were goggles and gloves while welding. Past that... it was just him with no protection.
Dumb, dumb, dumb. Dumb as you can get. Reclkess. Stupid. Insert other adjectives of your choice.
As for me, I never was a fan of lacquer fumes. It irritated the heck out of me. So I stayed away, and stayed away religiously. And when I grew up and built my own woodshop, I made sure to get a really good dual-canister respirator, a good dust mask and I go through a lot of nitrile gloves, keeping chemicals from being absorbed through my hands. It was a reaction to what I didn't like when I was working out there in the garage with him.
It's a shame. But my current safety conciousness is a direct result of his lack thereof.
As I get these things, they can't add benzeine any more. Apparently there were too many stories like this one. But the damage had been done.
My take-away for all of this is that the safety devices that are openly available to ALL OF US need a bit more focus. But while simply having a NIOSH-approved respirator is great, you still need to get canisters that are rated for the finishing product you're actually using! One size most definitely does not fit all.
Wear gloves, and if need be, maybe buy one or two of those Tyvek coveralls (the funny white bunny suits) if you're really going to be working around something nasty.
This stuff builds in your system and it will come looking for you when you least suspect it. The only way to prevent the dark side of the force is to take your precautions before the fact.
I will miss my ol' man. But I won't miss his cavalier attitude towards chemicals.
Hearing protectioon? Check.
Breathing protection? Check.
Body protection? Check.
Covered/closed drink containers? Also check, but in my case it's just 'cuz I like to keep bugs out of the cup So the cover is a bonus.
It's a shame he didn't have a similar checklist. He might still be around.
Thx for reading. Now go check your safety equipment and get a LID on that DRINK you have with you!!
A couple of years ago I was part of a big topical furniture show. And for that show I was tasked with shooting a video for it, highlighting the topic and showing off some of the makers who were in the show.
OK, so the last thing I expected was to become inspired to actually take on a new skill. I thought that all I was going to do was shoot, edit and narrate the video (which I did, and which was a skill I'd developed in high school and early college).
But... a funny thing happened on the way to the wood shop.
It started when I was shooting video and taking still pictures of the work of Celia Greiner. She's a serious hand tool girl, and makes some truly inspired and inspiring furniture and furnishings.
But it was while shooting her video that she whipped out a shop made hand plane and started going to town. And I was rather taken with her technique with the plane and how it was fabricated. She was using it to place a radius edge on a piece of furniture that she was building. Like I said - a true hand tool addict.
And so this photo that I took of her working is the exact moment where I officially raised my eyebrows at the notion of building hand planes. And so in October of '08 I made my first one.
Since then I've made 45 of them. A good many were either sold or given as gifts to special woodworking friends of mine.
In that time I've messed around with a lot of patterns and designs. I've worked with different bed angles, different configurations of irons (both expensive and incredibly cheap), and came to some interesting conclusions.
The first is that plane making is an obsession. I guess that any job worth doing is worth doing repeatedly (no, the ritilin hasn't kicked in yet...).
The second is that they're FUN. Yeah, they can be a tad fussy if you've got to do things like regrind the iron if the edge is not 'ZACTLY at 90° to the sides, or if you're working with an adventurous design. But they really are fun to make.
One of the cool upsides to making a lot of them is that there's no reason why several planes can't share the same iron. I've got two or three different sets of models where the same iron swaps between bodies. That's a real economic boon, since Ron Hock charges north of $50 for his excellent iron and chip breaker sets.
And as I've been making them I've been stretching my legs on the designs. My very first attempt was this plane. This is the first one that I'd made and it's the one that started it all. I call it 'the troublemaker'.
It's not a bad first start. It's made from a single block of sapele and it actually WORKED. FIRST TIME out of the chute!
But I had a lot to learn about some of the finer points. See, with a wooden plane you make your adjustments by tapping on the fore or rear end with a hammer. It's what gives you fine adjustability of the iron in or out of the mouth opening.
But you see, the back end of the plane was made at too severe of an angle. And the hammer tapping made some good sized donkey tracks.
Then the plane making orgy commenced:
OOH... now there's a mistake. See the really Looooooooooong plane? It doesn't work. It looks gorgeous, but it's inoperative. This was the plane where I learned that there is such a thing as positioning the retaining pin too far back. The iron has way too much flex and chatter because the wedge isn't supported well enough. OK, so chalk one up for the shop classroom. I keep it to remind me what not to do!
But I kept coming back to this shape over and over and over (and over and over) again. It's a GOOD shape, but I started getting tired of it.
Once... just once... I deviated from my norm. I had a wild hair one weekend and made this plane:
I really liked what I got. But it's a little squirrely to control. The handle's great. The issue was that front end. It was a little hard to grab and keep ahold of in light of the cheeks around the mouth opening.
So that lead me to version 2.0. And NOW I have something that I think is worth writing home about. This plane is everything I can ask for in a smoother. The hunk of wood that it's sitting on was rough sawn earlier today. Through fettling the plane, making adjustments, planing some, making more adjustments, etc., this extremely figured piece of wood (that sports a knot with some bark inclusion in it ta boot!) is now as smooth as a baby's behind. And zero tearout.
It feels good. It looks good. It shaves little whispers of wood off of the face of a board unlike any other plane I've ever used. It's got an organic immediacy that I can't quite put my finger on.
A second plane followed shortly thereafter, taking advantage of the lessons learned on the one above. This one is destined for a nice gentleman who's ordered a smoother, sight-unseen. Whatever I dreamt up was fine with him. (I really hope he's pleased!)
And so for now, this is the design that I'll be messing with for a while.
It's an evolution. Every couple of months I get a hankering to build a couple of planes. Usually it's after a big fabrication and when I'd like to fuss over a small area instead of fussing over a very large area of furniture.
And it's about as much fun as I know how to have in the shop. It's cathartic, it's rewarding, it's something where I get to use my artistic mind and my engineering mind and... well... there must be something to it. Has to be. After all, I keep doing it over and over and over again.
If you'd like to learn more about the art of plane making you can either wait until the middle of July and read the article about plane making in the September issue of Wood, or you can go to Better Woodworking and look for my video.
Plane making is just plain cool. Pun intended!
Back in 2007/2008 my furniture group, the Chicago Furniture Designers Association, worked with the Morton Arboretum and an urban sawyer, Bruce Horigan. As a group we designed and fabricated thirty-odd pieces of art/furniture from ash, harvested and milled from urban trees that had been infested with the emerald ash borer beetle.
We called it the Rising From Ashes show.
We (well, Bruce, mainly) worked hand-in-glove with some folks at the USDA/APHIS and our efforts were the pilot program in the United States for demonstrating that the ash wood is still good, even if the ash borer is present. Bruce is THE tip of the wedge in the US for this effort, and he and the folks at APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) created the protocols for how to eradicate the bark and the beetles and to render the remaining saw log useful.
We got a lot of publicity, quite a bit of press and the amount of overall attention was pretty humbling.
Here we are in 2011 and the show is STILL going on. Come the morning (Friday, 4/29) my fellow CFDA member, Hal Link and I will be driving a Budget rental truck from the south suburbs of Chicago to the HOLDEN ARBORETUM, located some miles northeast of Cleveland. No, the Budget rental truck isn't 'zactly comfortable. But it's mostly loaded right now and first thing in the morning we strike out for the show.
A lot of pieces from that original show have been sold, but we've got seven or eight of the most iconic pieces with us. What we'll now lack in quantity will be made up for in quality. There's some really cool stuff in this weekend's show.
Interest in the emerald ash borer beetle still gets a lot of press. It's not going away, abatement efforts are having a marginal success rate, but the ash trees in North America are still very much at risk.
And our little furniture show is continuing to be the poster child for what's possible. The trees don't have to be automatically mulched up and forever lost to higher uses.
If anybody is in the NE section of Ohio this weekend, stop by in between the raindrops. We'd love to meet you, and maybe show you a little of what's possible with urban reclaimed ash.
Contrary to popular belief, the life of a professional furniture designer/builder isn't glamorous nor romantic. Nor is it spent in the shop anywhere NEAR as long or as often as you'd believe.
In the beginning stages of the career I was looking for clients and doing a lot of building for my own home. Besides practicing a handful of skills and getting good at things like veneering, I was blissfully in the shop 10-12 hours per day. Clients came in occasionally, and I built a few things per year. I got to sample cost accounting, I learned how to (and how NOT to!) quote a job, and I made friends and shook a lot of hands along the way.
The clients did come my way, mostly as referrals from other business people I met in the industry. I got involved with a furniture design group and quickly worked my way up to officer and board member status, to the point where I'm now the president of the group. That, all by itself, takes a good bit of focus and time. More on this later.
Then things started to invert a bit, and I started building for paying clients far more often than building for myself. And that was when I knew that things were looking very much UP!
Now that I'm in what I'd consider the middle phase of professional woodworking life I'm finding that the view has changed. I'm booked out to the end of the year with projects, and I'm designing and pitching still more. Three clients are tugging at my time and I'm finding that I may have to build multiple pieces in the shop at the same time. Two more people have expressed interest in having me design and build for them and so I've got a wait list going at the moment.
Of course, the furniture designers group also has expo shows periodically, and we've got a new one on the books and an old one that we're trotting out again, all happening in the coming weeks. I'm wrangling the jobs of taking one show on the road to Cleveland (the Holden Arboretum) for the last weekend of this month, and we've got a very involved show with industrial retailer Hafele to happen for the Neocon show at Chicago's Merchandise Mart in June.
Point is - a heck of a lot of my time is spent outside the shop nowadays. Either I'm engaged in the sales cycle of meeting with clients, designing/quoting/pitching those designs, or I'm working on furniture shows and all of the things that relate to that. As for playing my guitars... wow. They're gathering dust these days.
Overall I think it's interesting to find myself entrenched in the business of being in business. I now look forward to my shop time, as that means that I'm only doing one thing at a time. No phone work, no computer work, no engineering head scratching to design a piece, and no extensive internet searches for just the right hardware. I really look forward to the time I get to simply be in the shop fabricating.
But the work is still only enough to keep one person engaged. I don't have so much that it requires a second body, other than having a friend help me when it comes time for deliveries (a second set of hands is mandatory so much of the time!). I'm not to the point where I have so much work to do that I need to be building and pitching all at the same time. So it's still all me all the time, in my office, in the car out to clients' homes or in the shop.
I wonder what it'll be like if I do reach that magic threshold of needing to hire somebody. I think it's comical at the moment, as I'm just working in a detached 2.5 car garage. But there really could be a time in future life when I need to move into commercial space and hire a second body full time. And if that happens then I'm sure the view will change very substantially again.
And all this because I once thought it'd be fun to work with wood as a hobby.
Be careful where you put your feet - you never know where the road you're on may take you!
My Top Ten reasons why having a wood shop absolutely rocks:
10: When the wife brings home a drawer from her desk at work - which is blown up, ripped up and pretty much useless, you get shop time AND look like a hero when you fix it.
9. You can sneer at the mere mention of the word 'Ikea'.
8. Shop aprons are cool. Abercrombie and Fitch will be carrying them any day now.
7. Spouses and children can be told to exit the room - and they go along with it with a smile.
6. Middle age is usually when 'living dangerously' means cooking bacon without a shirt on. So playing with finishing chemicals lets you look like you're living on the edge.
5. Showing off all the neat furniture you've built makes you strut like a peacock.
4. If you do it right, every request for a new item made in the shop requires the purchase of a new tool.
3. The 9:00 PM sounds of your planer and dust collector ticks off that neighbor who insists on mowing their lawn at 8:00 AM on Saturday mornings.
2. If you can draw it you can build it
1. I absolutely love the smell of fresh sawdust in the morning!!