(Not a) Christmas miracle

Die Hard is my favourite Christmas movie. It doesn’t seem to make other people’s lists, but there is no better modern parable about Christmas miracles.

I’m thinking about it NOT because of a miracle, but because of the flaming mess my wife’s Christmas present has become. I’d already put some thought into a fun gift, but I wanted to make her something, too. Should have made her a box, but she’s getting tired of the idea. She has always wanted a wood comb. How hard could that be?

Too many tools evidence of muddled thinking

I looked online for some ideas and how-tos. Everything required machines I do not have. Plus useful advice like “if you use a dovetail saw, try to keep the kerfs straight.”

Trial and error it was. Emphasis on the latter. I had a vague idea of what I was shooting for. Teeth need to be along the grain, same with handle. Two pieces. Maybe 7 teeth?

After tiring of sketching, I went hands-on. I like trying something out without knowing what I’m doing. It’s how I learn. I can test ideas and scrap them, or go in a different direction. The important part is that I don’t worry about the end goal. It’s the process. When I mess up and have to chuck a piece I’ve been working on for an hour into the trash, I’m not as put out.

This project is really stretching my brain, though. I worked out angles on scrap until I settled on 90 degrees to be shaped later. Then I was vexed with waste removal. No coping saw. 1/8 of waste. Apparently an important piece of my saw wandered off during our move from the US, and I haven’t used the thing in 8 months so I didn’t know. Can’t go buy one here. And so on.


On my second attempt at the teeth I was beginning to see somethings I liked. And then I went against the grain and ruined it. Had to start over. On the third attempt I felt like I might have it. Then I split the damn thing in half.

Beginning to see a comb in there

The comb in the trash and Christmas is 6 days away. My wife may not get a finished product. But, through all the trial I’ve got a lot more ideas and a much clearer sense of direction.

Given sometime with pencil and paper I think I can nail this. Fourth time’s the charm.

Or fifth.

Yippe ki yay.

The boxes are never finished! Except these two

Been doin’ a bunch of “stuff” the past few days . Errand stuff, dad stuff, watching Carolina get it’s ass handed to it stuff. Mostly fun stuff but I’ve been all over the place. And that has required some driving through Santo Domingo. I have lived all over this planet and the driving here may be the worst I’ve seen.

I had a minute here and there to mix up some shellac, melt down some paste wax, and finish two boxes. Since the first box ended up more Pollock than polish, I grabbed another box I’d been using for stuff and shellacked that, too. The first one had a bunch of runs, streaks, etc, due to crap technique. But, once I got the hang of loading the brush and applying it in back and forth strokes, the second attempt seemed better. I was getting excited and had to stop myself from going on a shellacking spree. Yeah, that’s a thing.

Box 1 with some messy finish
Box 2 done up a bit better

I really liked the paste wax. The recipe was easy to follow, but having never used it before I had no idea where I was going. As my perceptive 19 month-old told me, it looked like kaka. (Yeah, kiddo, you got 10 words, 9 are Spanish and the other is kaka. Thanks.) But, once I wrapped it up in some cheese cloth, wiped it on and polished it out, the box looked great. Immediate satisfaction.

But man can you see every tool mark, scratch, and ding with the finish on! I’m working on yet another box, and trying to keep that in mind. Such is the learning curve.

The second box is made of jequitiba, a South American hardwood I can buy around here for about $2 a board foot. It is quite pale, almost grey unfinished, and I was excited with how it came out with a coat of BLO, three coats of shellac and wax. It is apparently a stable wood and I’ve found it easy to work. I think I’m going to be using a bunch more of this.

Which means I have to go to the lumber yard. Which means I have to drive through the city. I don’t do emoticons, but imagine a pissed off looking one here.


While my thoughts on flattening wood may eventually be formalised in a philosophical treaty on the place of man in nature (low), just some quick thoughts today.

I buy all wood at 1 1/4″ and generally need it between 3/4 and 3/8. It is what it is, and I’m getting used to dimensioning. I have found that about 70% of the wood I use, of several different types, re-warps after flattening. To avoid the heartache of getting close to finished width then having to plane way more off to deal with re-warping, I’ve slowed the process.

A few variables should be noted that affect the wood. Everything I can buy is being stored in open air warehouses. No climate control. Being right on the Caribbean humidity is high. Always. Forever. The end of the world will come and it will still be 85% humidity here.

Additionally, I’m not entirely sure how this wood was ever dried in the first place. With my remedial Spanish I know it’s kiln dried, but that only means so much.

Lastly, my “workshop” is the converted maid’s quarters built by the owners of our house. We have no maid to quarter, and so I get it. No climate control, really. A dehumidifier helps keep things around 50% humidity.

It’s an understatement that moisture is a problem. (sounds like the start of an adult diaper commercial)


Case in point, the small board above was flat yesterday. Birthed from a warped board, it has returned to form with the penciled corners marking the high spots. This board is headed to 1/2 inch width, with a bit more than a 1/4 to go.

I’ve started to leave the boards some time to get it out of their system. It’s showing some promise. I’ll flatten one side doing as little work as possible to do so. I then take some big bites out of the other side with a scrub plane. Then it sits getting the best airflow it can in my shop.


After a few days, I’ll check and fix the flat side, then take a few more bites from the other. Once the flat side has held flat for a few days, I’ll do the finally dimensioning work. I have two pieces holding after using this approach.

I’ve also taken a note from jointing to flattening faces. I find it tedious to slowly plane down high spots, and I’ve started to create a hollow as I cross plane the wood. The cross grain planing is pretty reliable to give me a flat(ish) board from side to side, and the hollow works between each end. Once I’ve carved a belly, I then mark the high spots and bring them down.

I don’t know if that explanation, or the technique, make sense, but it appears to be working. Wrote more than I intended…

Between good enough and psychosis

Events, too banal to detail here, conspired to keep me from sleeping last night. So, I’ve spent most of the day either staring into the middle distance or trying to finish a box with shellac.

In finishing the box today I realise how much I have to learn, and practice. I stopped myself from letting drips ruin it. Yeah, this box is already consigned to a dusty life in the workshop, but it’s still worth trying to make it as well as I can.

For whatever reason, I keep thinking of the Japanese artisan who makes a bowl every day and then destroys it, hundreds of times just to internalise the process. Not sure if that’s real or just orientalist hokum, but the idea of doing something so much that it becomes your nature is fascinating.

great, now throw it at the wall

While it may be tedium to the journeyman, it’s something that hobbyists miss out on. It takes a hellofalot of self discipline to make the same thing repeatedly just to hone a skill. But, who doesn’t get a bit…what’s the word, jealous?…when you watch a master craftsperson free hand dovetails.

I’m on track to make several iterations of the same box. Which is step one to making other boxes. Maybe I’ll get bored, maybe my wife will find me sitting atop a mountain of tiny boxes giggling to myself. Not that she’d find that out of place.

Dunno, just the crap running through my head today as I feel like cold shit warmed up.

Good enough for me

Greg Merritt posted a good piece yesterday on Integrity vs. Compromise. It was compelling to me because I’m trying to reset my approach to work with a focus on getting to a level of craft that I can be proud of.

I have been rushing to do work in the shop for the last year, and that has meant a lot of wasted effort and minimal or short sighted planning. More often than not, this requires some level of compromise. Either finding a make-do solution to salvage a piece that is just a bunch of mistakes glued together, or worse, lowering my own expectations of what I wanted to accomplish so that they match what actually came out.

As a beginner woodworker and hobbyist, I know that some of this is part of the learning curve. I’m ok with humility, but I’m not ok with lowering the standards of what I think I can do.

A few things led to this rushing around. Mainly a lack of time. Many weeks I had maybe 3 hrs of shop time, so I pushed to get done what I could when I could. Another part of that was the enthusiasm to try every project as soon as possible. Distracting. Halfway through a box and thinking of a stool. Learning basics of shaping wood and worrying about dovetails.

With my shift back to working from home I have a lot more time. And I am trying to break some bad habits. In doing so, I’ve sat down and thought out the skills I want to work on and then linked projects to those. For the near future those skills are going to be dimensioning wood from rough stock and dovetails. I’ve got a whole slew of boxes that I want to work through, and I’ll probably repeat a few to get where I want.

The whole point of woodworking for me isn’t to make stuff. It’s to make things as well as I can.

Resawing and the damage done

This weekend I took some time to start prepping for the next box(es). I’ve got a fair amount of pine sitting in the workshop, but I was curious as to how some other wood I have would work. What set this forward was finally figuring out the board foot price that I pay for pine here. Low grade stuff is cheap, but it is miserable. After some looking, I found some decent quality pine from the USofA, but it ran me $5 a foot. There is a variety of South American hardwoods available here that cost much less.

I picked up a piece of amburana (also called Brazilian cherry, whyIdon’tknow). It’s a hefty hardwood with lots of interlocking grain, but it’s not incredibly hard, and I was curious if it would have any of the compression that pine does with dovetails.

My boards are all 1″ thick. Actually, closer to 1 1/4″. I hate to waste, and was feeling froggy enough to try some resawing. I cut to rough length and got the board 3 square. Then laid out my saw kerfs. There was a bit of twist. This will be important later.

Saw kerf
gauge line deepened with tenon saw

I winged it on this, trying to replicate what has worked for me before. The amburana wasn’t as difficult as cherry, but didn’t just melt apart like mahogany, either. Pretty much anything is going to be a workout with a handsaw, though.

one third down
a third of the way
the line
a closer view

The sawing took about 10 minutes, mostly with me being careful to track the saw kerfs. I do my best to start and keep going as far as I can along one line. While I’ve read that it’s good to flip the wood from time to time, that always seems to start a new kerf on the inner wood, and leaves some pretty gnarly marks inside. Maybe that’s just my crap technique.

both sides, only one nasty snag line

With the two sides in hand, I was pretty pleased that I’d only gone off about 1/16 from top to bottom. But heartache was in store. Remember that twist? I checked the flat side again, and man, was it twisted. Again. And, being a dumbass, I’d left myself with only about 1/8 of extra board to clean up. With the 1/16 that I’d veered off, this made further clean up an exercise in futility.

Oh well, what the hell. It was good practice. And it answered a question I’d had regarding whether it’s more worthwhile to resaw or just grab the scrub plan. In this case, scrub plane. This wood isn’t so precious that I want to save every sliver. And with the twist, it just doesn’t make sense. The scrub allows me a bit more control, and overall I think it’s less effort. It is certainly less heartbreak.

A lot of meh and then some perspective

Yesterday I was fired up to work on the dovetailed box since I’d managed to get the sides and ends ready. A few practice cuts, and then I dove in. And cut one crappy dovetail. Followed by a second. I took a break, did some stuff, and came back and cut an acceptable dovetail that I then botched with overzealous cleaning. The last one was no better than the first. Evidence of the carnage below.

Mind the gap

Looking at the “box” at the end of the day I was feeling pretty meh. Whatever excuses aside, I’d done some miserable work. And then I got some perspective. I’d just gotten to practice cutting dovetails 4 times in a day. The most I’d been able to do in the last year was 1 a day. And it wasn’t a complete loss. I now have a few boards for practice ready, and I’d worked on my muscle memory for the task.

This morning I took it slow, cut one practice dovetail after warming up and cutting yesterdays failure into practice sized bits.

Pretty tight with minimal clean up

And with some confidence coming back I kept the slow and steady pace and cut the first tail of another box.

good start

Perfect? No. But that’s not what I’m going for. At least not today. I try to keep in mind that focusing on where you want to be sometimes just reminds you of how far you have to go. Healthy perspective can come from realising just how far you’ve gone so far. Doing better than yesterday, and even yesterday was better than some of the butchery I’ve committed before.

Smaller and smaller

Yesterday I got more shop time than I’ve had in the last few weeks. I was able to make some good headway on dimensioning the boards for 2 boxes.

Sometimes it makes me feel a bit insane the amount of time I spend making big boards into smaller boards. For instance, this project requires sides that are 1/2 thick, 2″x12″. The ends 2″ x 5″ (or thereabouts). I live in the Dominican Republic, and there are no big box stores that sell s2s, s4s, or any other type of pre-dimensioned stock. I searched through the lumberyards – nada. Even finding pine of decent quality pine required a few trips. I may end up foregoing pine for some of the relatively inexpensive hardwoods available here.

Anyway, the point being that whenever I want to do anything, I start with pretty large, thick boards. In this case, the boxes are starting from 8′ of 3/4″ x 9″ lumber. I’d managed to saw to rough lengths, and I’d left them wide so that I could flatten and dimension the bigger boards before making the final cuts. So, 2 sides to a board, 4 ends to a board, you get the idea. I find that much easier to work with then thin boards when planing them down.

ready to rip
Pine boards cut to rough length, planed to thickness, ready to rip

I could bitch and moan about the time spent dimensioning the wood, but in the end it is a good skill. I’m getting much better at it. I only find it aggravating because I want to practice things like dovetails, but the more I focus on this as a worthwhile skill per se, the better I feel. It is also an opportunity to practice sawing and planing, among other things. In the grand scheme of things it’s pretty damn worthwhile. Now if I can just keep reminding myself of that.

Ripped and jointed boards alongside my make-do contraption

One think I really do like complaining about, however, is jointing. F**k me, I kind of suck at it. Doing it freehand, I am constantly getting almost square, when a single pass seems to throw it out of whack. I’ve practiced enough that sometimes I get it. Other times, fugazi. So, I went and bought me Veritas’ jointer fence. What a difference, and what a time saver. While I want to get to the point that I can do without it, I also don’t want to spend half a day getting a single piece square. Of course, after rip cutting, I was left with boards with one squared edge and one jagged edge and 2″ wide. The fence is just a bit wider, and so I couldn’t finish them in the vise. It took me longer than I care to admit to figure out the work-around (above). It worked, but man, my hands.

Starting with boxes

My attempt at serious progress in my woodworking, and this blog, start with boxes. Small chisel and pencil boxes in pine based on Paul Sellers’ designs, and working up to making Chris Schwarz’s schoolbox. Down the road this will all lead into a tool chest, design TBD.

What started as a distraction a year ago with whittling while I was a stay at home dad had, uh, grown. Monstrously. I thought I’d pick up whittling again. Did some as a kid and liked it. Seemed like a good hobby while the kiddo was napping. But that was the first rabbit hole. It tripped quickly into carving and joinery.

But, lack of time, space, experience, etc meant slow going. I’d guess I got about 4 to 5 hrs maximum in the first year. Enough to get a bit of blood on my teeth and hungry for more.

Now I am fortunate enough to be able to dedicate a few hours a day to woodwork. The kiddo is out of the house part of the day, I have a bit more space (much better than in the middle of the living room in a n apartment), and a very flexible schedule as a freelancer.

And on that note, there is a pine board in the shop waiting for me to break it down.