10 January, 2013

The Handyman

It is quite unfortunate that the skills of the "handyman" are almost gone in our modern world.  Fathers used to fix their own cars and lawnmowers, Mothers used to sew and knit clothes for the families, people used to sharpen their own saws, build toy boxes for their kids... the list goes on and on.  It doesn't help any that a lot of tools available to us these days are, quite simply, crap.  It may seem that I'm wandering off the "handyman" subject, but worry not.  Everything will be tied up quite nicely in the end.  Hang in there.  Hand saws for example.  What does the average Joe do when he needs a hand saw?  He goes to the big box store or the hardware store and buys a saw.  I've certainly done this myself because I didn't really know any better.  My father taught me about tools when I was a child so I knew there were cross cut saws and rip saws.  Each was used for a specific task; cutting across the grain and cutting with the grain.  As I wrote that last sentence, I realized that a lot of people have no idea what wood grain is.  That's sad.  Anyway, the rip saw my parents gave when I was a child (a long time ago) had become dull and I needed a new saw.  I had just moved into my home and finally had a garage to use as a woodworking shop.  I had been breaking down long boards into rough length with a circular saw, which worked well, but I thought it a pain to drag out an extension cord and then have to put it away when finished.  So, I figured I would just run down to the hardware store and pick up a cross cut saw.  I was a little confused when I got there.  There were no rip saws and no cross cut saws, just "hand saws".  They had teeth like you would find on a Japanese style pull saw and those teeth were hardened.  I picked out a 26" saw with a wood handle that was labeled "finish cut".  I get a good laugh these days when I see the "finish cut" or "fine cut" labels on those saws.  The saw works well enough; it cross cuts and rips but does neither of them as well as a saw filed for ripping or cross cutting.  This new saw also had a handle which was designed for what is called a "four finger grip".  The four finger grip is all sorts of wrong, but we'll get into that later.  First, I need to write a little about my own journey through woodworking.

Dad is responsible for me being a woodworker, mechanic and handyman followed closely by my grandfather.  As I am apt to mention time and again, Dad and Grandpa taught me about tools and their uses as I worked alongside them.  One Christmas, my parents gave me my own desk.  A rite of passage in our family.  All of my siblings were given a desk at some point and my turn had come.  My parents, however, thought that a desk alone was enough, but a child want's something fun for Christmas.  Getting a desk is akin to receiving a sweater.  Practical, but not fully appreciated at the time.  So, Mom and Dad also gave me a few other things that year.  They got me the rip saw mentioned earlier, a small claw hammer, a try square, a tape measure and a huge box of wood scraps from the local lumber yard.  The desk was cool (I still have it), but the tools stole the show.  Save for the tape measure, I still have all of those tools.  Immediately I was down in the basement making all sorts of crappy things.  No glue, no real joinery, just butt joints and nails.  I was in heaven.  I was also experiencing some of my first disappointment.  Dad had a block plane and one wood chisel.  Both were dull as can be.  The chisel was sharpened on the grinder and the plane iron?  I didn't think to sharpen it at all.  Consequently, my experience with those two tools was not good.  My, how things have changed.  Bad experiences aside, I knew what my tools were and knew how to use them.  Something too many children these days lack.  Enter the "New Yankee Workshop".  I watched that show regularly until it ended along with "This Old House" and any other home improvement show that I could watch.  When I was in my mid-twenties, the building bug struck again.  I started paying more attention to Norm Abram. I would have also watched "The Woodwright's Shop" hosted by Roy Underhill but my local PBS station didn't have it in their programming.  Before the "Big Moment!" I had built a few things that were somewhat noteworthy.  My parent's basement got wet whenever the rain got too heavy and consequently my drum set would get wet and require a lot of maintenance.  I went out and got a sheet of cheap plywood and some 2x6s along with a box of common nails, some hooks & eyes, and some plastic furniture feet.  I built my own drum riser.  The power tools available to me at the time were my Dad's old table saw, jig saw and what I loving referred to as the "suicide drill" (electric, either on or off - no variable speed and a LOT of torque).  I had to cut the plywood into thirds in order to get it into the basement and then cut the 2x6s to length in order to make frames for the plywood to sit on.  A circular saw would have been ideal for that job, but I didn't have one nor did it cross my mind to go and buy one.  I went down to the basement and got the tools my parents had given to me many years before.  They had been hanging on the nails where they had always been.  I measured, marked, cut and nailed with those simple tools.  My drum riser turned out well.  In fact, having sold the drum set years later, the riser remained in the basement and eventually was left for the new homeowners when Mom sold the house.  I hope they found a good use for it.  The next thing I did was for some friends.  We had begun using their old barn as a car/tractor shop.  The two piece walk-in door (I think they're called Dutch doors) was all rotten and was in dire need of replacement.  The original door had been made by my friend's grandfather and was, of course, not something one could buy in a store.  A new door would have to be made to fit the opening.  My friend and I didn't so much as bat an eye.  We went to the lumber yard, got some boards, nails and built a door.  It's still there and doing quite well.  Clenched nails and all.  It was all simple skills with a very basic tool kit of saw, hammer and tape measure.  Stuff we had learned as kids in Cub Scouts and/or school.  Not exactly fine joinery, but butt joints, nails, screws and glue can build an awful lot of stuff.  Then came the "Big Moment".

The two previously mentioned projects had reignited my long dormant interest in woodworking. I started watching the woodworking and home improvement shows on PBS more often.  Then I saw "the" episode of the New Yankee Workshop that set me on my path.  Norm built a big table for a portable Delta Sidekick table saw that made the portable saw much more useful.  He also built a couple of saw horses for the whole works to sit on while in use.  Like a lot of Norm's projects, he gave just enough information for a person to build without having to order the "measured drawing".  I never got the table built, but I did buy that specific brand and model of table saw and made two saw horses.  That led to building a lot of what I call "Norm drawers" and a lot of frame and panel things.  Then I started buying woodworking magazines.  I have always been a voracious reader and a very curious person.  Whenever I needed to learn something I bought magazines or books so I could teach myself.  The time I started buying woodworking magazines was about the same time Chris Schwarz started at Popular Woodworking.  Though I preferred Popular Woodworking, I bought every woodworking magazine that was on the stand.  With the exception of a few years living in an apartment, I haven't stopped learning and building.  Like a lot of woodworkers, I was a power tool person.  I didn't know any other way.  Besides, the previous experiences with Dad's dull and poorly set block plane didn't help things.  It also didn't help when my brother decided to "help" me.  I had designed and built a nice box with a little drawer for a friend's black powder pistol.  Rabbets, nails, grooves and dados, but it had a sliding top and I was darn proud of it.  My brother wanted to help me trim the lid to length.  He took his #4 smoothing plane, which was not sharp, put the lid in his vise and proceeded to run his plane across the end grain.  You woodworkers out there can figure out what happened.  For everyone else, a dull plane does not cut end grain.  I ended up with a huge chunk of wood that had to be glued back on.  I was pissed.  That was not helping to reinforce hand tool usage.  So, I kept drinking the kool-aid and used power tools for everything.  Bought a crappy dovetail jig and router bushing kit so I could make high-falootin' dovetailed drawers.  It did not work well so I kept using rabbets and dados.  However, the magazines were starting to show a small amount of articles on hand tools.  I eventually bought a Record #4 smoothing plane (because I didn't know any better) and a set of fairly decent chisels.  The plane started not as a good experience, but not a bad experience either.  The chisels were a similar situation.  My problem was knot knowing what "sharp" was.  I had Dad's old oil stone and that was it.  I simply couldn't get the plane iron and the chisels sharp enough with that old stone.  So, I didn't use edge tools very much.  Years later I eventually found a sharpening method that worked and the light went on.  By this time I was a home owner.  I had a new Delta contractor saw, a second-hand chop saw, a hollow chisel mortising machine, a biscuit joiner, jig saw, sanders... I had a miniature version of Norm's shop.  I ventured into hand cut dovetails with horrible results.  I tried a bunch of different saws from the box stores and they didn't work for shit.  I didn't know any better.  Through the monthly writings of Saint Schwarz, I began learning the difference between good and bad tools.  The tool acquisitions continued.  A marking gauge, a dovetail marker, a honing guide, I rebuilt what was a shitty butt jointed and screwed table into a fairly decent workbench.  Then the shit hit the fan.  I bought Saint Schwarz's book "The Anarchist's Tool Chest".  I had kept up with his blogs and kept learning about hand tools but never really crossed the threshold until "The Anarchist's Tool Chest".  I decided to add a jack plane to my collection.  By then I knew I would never find a decent jack plane in a big box store so I signed up at Ebay.  I picked out an old Craftsman jack and won the auction.  I cleaned and oiled all the metal bits, ground a radius into the iron and honed it as good as I possibly could.  I took a board, put it on the bench, clamped it down and (as I learned from Saint Schwarz) pushed that jack plane ACROSS the grain.  Oh.  My.  God.  I instantly realized my workbench was in a bad way.  Within a couple of weeks I had a tail vise, bench dogs, dog holes in the bench top and a shooting board.  I flattened a board and then planed it to a specific thickness.  Everything, and I mean everything, fell into place.  A whirlwind of tool purchases followed.  Jointer plane, router plane, decent block plane to replace the home center piece of shit I already had, tongue and groove plane, hand drill, decent Disston panel and back saws...  I learned how sharpen saws and started sharpening my new-old saws.  As winter settled in, I moved to what I call "Winter Wood Shop", i.e. my basement.  I've built quite a few things with only hand tools.  I have never felt such satisfaction before.  Just a few years ago I would have laughed at the idea of building stuff with only hand tools.  I would have thought that it was impossible for mere mortals to be accurate enough with hand tools.  After all I had tried cutting dovetails many times with mediocre results.  But after making a few changes in the work bench and acquiring a small amount of decent tools, not to mention simply know the difference between good tools and tool shaped objects, made all the difference.  My projects still aren't all that great, but they're worlds better than they had been. The core of it all is the skill set I acquired as a boy.  Those skills have been the foundation everything else has been built upon.  Finally(!) all the skills I've learned have come together and I can see how they're all integral with one another.  It's the most wonderful feeling in the world when the smoke clears and everything falls into place. 

I would like to say the last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place and I'm completely independent, but that's not true.  Though I rarely have to call on others to do things for me, I still have a lot to learn.  I still don't know how to replace windows, replace water heaters and furnaces, rewire a house etc.  But, I'm proud to be a "handyman".  I enjoy doing things for myself and I also enjoy passing the things I've learned on to other people so they too can gain some independence.  Most people used to have these skills, but they've disappeared in recent decades.  With people like Saint Scwarz, Roy Underhill (who's been carrying the banner for hand tools on his show for 30 years and counting), Peter Follansbee, Megan Fitzpatrick, Robert Lang, Glen Huey and so many others, the "do it yourself" skills are making a comeback.  It's about time, too.  It's also great to see people paying attention to these skills and thinking that they have value in our modern age.  Now, to get a tool chest built, and finish that bookcase for my sister... and those cabinet doors for Mom's kitchen... a new work bench....

I suggest you get some tools and start building your own stuff.  Don't make it complicated.  Start with simple tools.  A decent hand saw, a hammer, a chisel or two, a tape measure, a couple of screw drivers...  Make your own tool box.  Build a saw horse or two.  Replace your own lamp cords.  Sharpen your own lawn mower blades.  Watch videos, read books, magazines and blogs.  Learn.  Don't set your expectations too high.  Believe me, I built a lot of crap and made a LOT of mistakes before I started getting better.  Most importantly, pass what you learn on to other people, especially kids.  We'll all be better for it.

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