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Good Wood

One of my distractions is the construction of furniture for me, my family, and friends. I have a small-but-respectable wood shop in what would be our garage/basement. My current project is two benches for my sister. These are designed to compliment a dining table I built for her several years ago. Sally moved to a new house with a smaller dining room. Benches make more sense than chairs and they stow out of the way.

I have always enjoyed working with wood and, over the years, I built a diaper changing table, a small stool (still in use), and a couple of train sets (for myself). This was all facilitated by a used radial-arm saw that I got on long-term loan from my dad. He bought it from a laid-off Boeing employee in 1970. When I moved from Seattle in 1983, the saw went back to his house. For more than fifteen years in two states my woodworking was limited to what I could accomplish with a hand-held power saw. My son Matt was better with the saw than I was and he crafted a rather decent set of speaker boxes for his car stereo system.

When I returned to Seattle and took up writing, I needed a table for my office. I reborrowed the radial arm saw and found a set of do-it-yourself plans. I had not a clue as to the relative merits of wood species so this table was a combination of fir, poplar, and pine. No matter, it just had to be functional and fit the space. I took the trouble of fitting it with corbels and slats to match the mission-style computer desk I bought retail. The new table didn’t turn out too badly and I am writing this from that first project.

Next my ambition turned to a stereo cabinet for the living room. From commercial plans I built a cabinet out of oak and oak plywood to match other pieces. Never mind that I didn’t have a proper router to finish the edges or to make rabbets. And never mind that I did the project in a tiny one-car garage.

Imagine my amazement when I had the saw blade sharpened. Cutting wood no longer threw off clouds of smoke and the cuts were nice and free of burns. A sharp blade – what a concept.

A pen pal on the web was in the process of upgrading his woodworking equipment. I scored many tools from him including the key to any good shop, a table saw. Add to that his joiner, his thickness planer, and a chop saw abandoned by our remodeling contractor. I was in business. All my birthday and Christmas wishes included either tools or gift certificates. The big breakthrough came after we remodeled and my tiny garage became a proper-if-low-ceilinged, shop with lights and plentiful electrical outlets.

I made tables and stools and bookcases and things I can’t remember. Outdoors is a garden shed and an arbor. My most consistent client is my sister-in-law who needs specific kinds of cabinetry for her pet boutique and grooming salon. She designs specific pieces that have to go into very tight places and I get to build them and she pays for the lumber. If you are going to have a distraction, find someone to buy you lumber. Naturally the earlier pieces for the store are not as good as later versions.

The shop itself is a showcase of my work. I have a router table, a workshop hutch, a unit on wheels for two tools, and, the centerpiece, a solid-maple workbench. My only limitation now is room in the homes of everyone who has commissioned pieces.

I still have all my fingers although one slip with a chisel did require several stitches.

I am largely self taught with credit to Norm Abrams and The New Yankee Workshop. I bet I have built twenty-five of Norm’s projects. The benches and dining table mentioned above are his. I taped dozens of his programs when they came on at 4 a.m. on cable and I have every one of his books, even the ones out of print.

There are two areas I hope yet to master. One is turning things like table legs on the lathe, and the other is building chairs, particularly Windsor chairs. Chairs are challenging in that all the angles are not 90 degrees (unless you are Frank Lloyd Wright) and they use lots of mortises and tenons that must be very precise. The Windsor chair requires lots of turnings and carvings plus steaming some pieces.

Here is an album of things I have done.

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