Saturday, May 18, 2013

Why Phillip Lowe should be sainted...

I ran across an interview today of Phil Lowe on Fine that became surprisingly controversial. Typical to most internet articles I run across, the comments afterward seem to take things to the extreme, hypothesizing attitudes and making statements about the person in question that were a far stretch from the actual article. But something about this one really frosted me. Not only did many of those responding to the article take Mr. Lowe's statements out of context, but also took to criticizing him for the way the author decided to spell "vise" - as if Phil had some influence on the way the article was spell checked. It was totally ridiculous. Now, I don't know Mr. Lowe personally, nor have I taken any classes he's taught. I did take the post-article firestorm personally, however, and for reasons you might not first think of.

Apparently, Mr. Lowe has a bit of an aversion to block planes. He believes - and I'm sure with some significant knowledge of his craft and the tools used - that block plane origins were primarily designed for carpenters to do light trimming on the job site. They were especially useful for when you only had one hand free, such as when standing on a ladder. He also feels that since the furniture maker has a bench and vise (or "vice", if the alternative spelling offends you) that a bench plane is better suited for the work they do because they can use both hands on the plane. It was stated that Mr. Lowe makes this point in his classes by insisting that if anyone wants to use a block plane in his class, then they should use it one handed while standing on a ladder. I know you can see the horror inherent, in such a teaching technique.

Now, you may think I'm full of sympathy for the poor students that must endure such block plane oppression. On the contrary, I feel sympathy for Mr. Lowe and am embarrassed for the internet woodworking community. Here you have a master craftsman and teacher being ridiculed by what is obviously a bunch of armchair, weekend woodworkers who think they know better. I personally use a block plane on occasion, but, I did see a video of Phil a few years ago showing him using a #4 smoother to flush up dovetails and dados in a fashion that many would use a block plane for. Well, I tried it out myself, and found that having the extra mass of a bench plane made the cuts I was attempting much easier and potentially more stable. It gave me a new perspective on how to use some of my planes and I was thankful for Phil's video. The same can be said for Frank Klausz's "3 minute dovetail" video where he bangs out some decent, workable dovetails quickly with two rather large frame saws. His statement " if they don't fit right away, get a bigger hammer" was funny, but it also disarmed the notion that dovetails HAVE to be so exact in every situation. I believe with that statement, he was trying to lessen the mystique and level of "expertise" of hand cutting dovetails that typically hinders amateur woodworkers from trying to make them when they first start out.

Woodworking was a relatively untouchable hobby for most people not that long ago. To truly learn the craft, most had to rely on previous generations or, if they were lucky, be able to spend time in a cabinet shop as an apprentice. Now we have this huge internet woodworking community that allows the average hobbyist to learn from masters of the craft, free of charge. The problem with the internet is that the anonymity it affords sometimes breeds a false sense of expertise and lack of respect for our teachers and each other. My point that I have been fumbling around trying to make is that we should be thankful for masters like James Krenov, Sam Maloof, Frank Klauz, and yes, Phil Lowe for taking the time to share their knowledge, often free to thousands on the internet. When those masters share that knowledge, we should give them the respect they have earned through years of the craft. Then, filter the info for ourselves, give their suggestions a try and see if they work for us. Finally, we need to stop taking ourselves and the craft so seriously. Most of us are simply hobbyists and we are all taking this journey together. Share your knowledge freely, but remember that everyone has different experiences to contribute and your opinion isn't the only one that matters. True craftsmanship is a blend of technical skill and art, and you can't be successful without balancing daring ingenuity with time honored techniques.

Many of us grew up with the desire to work wood but thought it would never be accessible to the average Joe. Thanks to Phil and other true masters of woodworking for sharing their knowledge and time honored techniques so freely, enabling us to be successful in our woodworking pursuits.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Woodworking Safety Day: Sometimes safety is in the tool you chose to do the job

   This is going to ruffle a few feathers...

   In honor of Woodworking Safety Day, there's been a number of great posts discussing ways we can be safe and protect ourselves in our shops. One point I would like to contribute is that in some cases, the tool you chose for a particular job can make that difference. Now, we all have our favorite tools to use and confidence in a tool is really important. But, sometimes the simple nature of how a tool is designed and how it performs might make it less safe than another tool for a particular job.

   For example: mortising with a router. I know there are a few gasps and cynical looks with this suggestion, but hear me out. Routers are top heavy, and balancing a spinning bit as you plunge down to make multiple passes on a piece of 3/4 stock can be unnerving. It can also be dangerous, and we do our best to support either side of the piece, take our time, and hope we don't rock it slightly and chew up the sides of the mortise. The bit can be difficult to see as well, and the first time I did it I really screwed up the mortise. What could be a safer way to do it? Well, a hollow chisel mortiser is nice if you have one, as are mortising chisels, but you could simply hog out the mortise with a forstner bit on the drill press. Even if you finish the mortise with the router, you can get a decent start on it with the forstner bit and take those initial couple of shaky router passes out of the picture. It may take a little more time, but it can certainly make the job safer. How about cutting a tenon? If the idea of running a tall, thin piece of wood on its end over a table saw blade makes you a little nervous, why not try it on the band saw? The point is, there is always more than one way to get the job done, so why not consider all options and go with the safest choice?

   Ultimately, you should use the tool you feel the most comfortable with. However, if you find you have to use a handful of jigs to accomplish the job with that tool, maybe there's another tool that is better suited for the job and will make the task safer in the long run.

Ok... I'm going to go duck for cover now :)


Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A fresh start for Fresh Shavings...

   Well, here we are, almost 3 years since my last post. That's how my hobbies go sometimes - I might not hike a trail or pick up one of my guitars for years but I eventually get back to it. The truth is, between work and life obligations I was short on time... and woodworking inspiration. But here I am reorganizing the shop, finding time again, and finding new inspiration.

   One thing that I had problems with was how the shop was set up. When I first moved the shop to the basement, I had located it in a cozy back alcove. As my tool collection grew, I felt my space needs were greater and I moved the shop area to another part of the basement. Based on the influence of so many professional and hobbyist shops, I was looking to put the table saw front and center and needed to relocate the space to accommodate the design. But, it just didn't feel right. Over the years I have pulled away from the table saw, partially because my saw is relatively inadequate for fine woodworking and because my attitudes about the way I prefer to work wood have evolved. I also have fond, youthful memories of spending time with my grandfather in his dinky little garage shop and I think that those early years imprinted a great deal more than I had originally thought. I guess I just underestimated how important it is for me to "feel" good in a work space.

   So, there's some shop workstations, cabinets, wall organizers, and a workbench to build. Then, I have a couple of home projects in mind before an eventual guitar build. I would also like to revisit the hand plane tune up video. I've had so many great responses to that video, but the filming quality was pretty awful and the live format made it too long and difficult to follow.

I would like to add that it's been great getting back into The Woodwhisperer chat room and rekindling some old friendships. It's nice to know that you can pick up where you left off that easily. If you haven't checked it out, I suggest you do.