Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blame it on The Schwarz

It all started innocently enough. Years ago, back when my "shop" was still the utility part of the basement filled with as much lawn care equipment (including the mower) as it had woodworking equipment, I bought a couple of Stanley chisels. You know the kind, clear yellow plastic handles with black ends; dull as a post when I got them.

I thought sharpening them meant grinding an edge on them at some (mostly) arbitrary angle and using a coarse oil stone like the one I'd seen my dad use on his lawn mower blade when sharpening it. In the dim recesses of my brain, there were memories of shop class in high school where there had been hand tools, including chisels. And if I'd bothered to think back I'd have remembered those chisels were much sharper than the ones I had. In fact, they were so sharp the shop teacher was careful about letting a bunch of half-wild teenage boys use them for fear we'd chop off a digit or two (for good reason).

Fast forward a few years and I finally managed to evict the mower and all the other lawn and garden tools to the newly built garage. My interest in woodworking was growing and I was funding my tool purchases by tackling home improvement projects that paid for the tools we bought. Drywall on the ceilings meant new trim and that led to a compound miter saw. Building a play set led to some power hand tools. A cedar privacy fence funded the six inch jointer and thickness planer. Rebuilding some of the breakfast room netted a biscuit jointer (my least used power tool) and a more powerful hand drill.

At this point, I was thoroughly reconnected with my junior high and high school woodworking, and was starting to build a shop of tools. I was a dedicated Normite and set out to collect as many power tools as I could, lusting after the twenty or so routers Norm would reveal when pulling open a drawer to pick up the one already set up for his next task. But by this time in the arc of "The New Yankee Workshop", Norm had begun showing bits and pieces of hand tool work in his shows. So I dutifully went and bought a set of paring chisels, some marking tools, and even made a jig or two.

About this time, a friend of mine who is a professional cabinet maker and designer began mentoring me. He had old hand tools on display at his house, and while he was busy showing me the amazing Lionel train layout he was building in his basement, I was learning more about old tools. I thought a hand plane might be useful to do some final fitting of joints and was fascinated by a Yankee screwdriver he had. Almost without knowing what I was doing, I acquired some starter planes and a few other odds and ends (including that Yankee screwdriver).

I'm sure that would have been the end of it. I'd have continued trying to use my dull chisels now and then, wondered how Norm got such good results, and gone back to my power tools and sandpaper in puzzlement. I doubt I would have ever played with those clunker planes I'd bought from my friend as 'starters' for a tool collection (he still insists I'll become an old tool collector).

If only I hadn't taken out a subscription to Popular Woodworking magazine. That's when it really started.

At first, those Schwarz articles on hand tools and hand tool techniques were an odd curiosity thrown in with the articles and ads with power tools of every shape, size, and description. Hand skills didn't hold a candle to a 36" power sander, or a 20" bandsaw. So I continued to acquire shop tools that would fit into my small basement shop. The first (and biggest) purchase was a Unisaw, followed by a band saw and eventually a drill press.

But along the way those hand tool articles were creeping in. I found myself reading "The Workshop Book" and told myself I was just figuring out how to make the most of my small shop space. I subscribed to the Popular Woodworking blog and The Schwarz whispered into my ear more frequently. Then I found myself reading "The Workbench Book". But I didn't have any work holding to speak of and told myself it was for all those hand power tools.

I kept telling myself I could stop any time, even as I acquired water stones and learned how to properly sharpen my chisels and plane blades. All the while The Schwarz was telling me about hand saws, and chisels, and marking knives in words that whispered to me in my dreams. When I found myself slaving over sandpaper on plate glass fettling the bottoms of block planes, I reasoned they were small and I'd already bought them so I'd better not waste the money. Surely it wasn't because of that Schwarz article about fettling (or was it a blog post?). I should have known when I began buying card scrapers and marking gauges that something was up.

Somewhere along the line, the subscriptions to my power tool oriented woodworking magazines lapsed. Popular Woodworking and Woodworking Magazine and Fine Woodworking were all that was left. I knew something fundamental had changed when I realized I was skipping over the power tool articles and ads to read about fleam and rake angles on saws, or oogle a Brese hand plane or a Benchcrafted bench vise. I found myself buying hand tools that cost as much or more than power tools I used to long for. I bought a dictionary of woodworking so I could figure out what Schwarz was talking about when he wrote about "fleam" and "rake" and "winding sticks".

I denied the truth even as I bought Schwarz's workbench book, and "The Handplane Book", and five or ten other hand tool books. I spent hours reading and daydreaming about a Roubo-style workbench, even though I knew it was overkill unless I planned to regularly use hand tools. I pointedly ignored the implications of my copies of "The Art of Joinery" and "The Joiner and Cabinet Maker".

Finally, I couldn't pretend any more. I realized it the day I went up to rave to my wife about how I'd finally gotten a truly good edge on my Stanley #9 1/4 block plane and showed her the see-through shavings it was producing. She humored me and smiled at me in the same way she does when I talk to her about some obscure technical aspect of my day job (computer software). That's when it hit me. I'd become a hand tool woodworker. I struggled with it for a while, then finally admitted it to my woodworking friends and even to my family. They looked at me kind of strange, and my woodworking friends teased me a bit, but that was about it.

Only, it hasn't stopped there.  I knew something fundamental had changed the evening I was driving back to St. Louis from Cincinnati. I'd driven five hours each way and spent money for a hotel just to attend the Lie-Nielson hand tool event held at the offices of F+W Publishing (the publishers of Popular Woodworking Magazine). Then in March I took a weekend workshop from Frank Klausz and was inordinately pleased with the box I built with hand cut dovetails. I was even more pleased with how much I learned from Frank (a truly amazing talent in woodworking). I regularly haunt eBay hand tool auctions. I even squeeze out time for the occasional estate sale, hoping against hope to find a #602 bedrock in a box of "stuff" marked "$30". I recently acquired a Stanely #78 rabbeting plane and just used it to cut rabbets in the sides of a shadow box I'm building for my mother-in-law. I've drug my feet for weeks, not cutting the grooves for the back of the shadow box. I was hoping to snag a Stanley #50 or similar plow plane on eBay at a price I can afford (no luck). I'm signed up for Woodworking in America in October and have mapped out how I can take every single class on hand tools and hand tool techniques being offered.

It's happened. I've become a "Neanderthal" of woodworking. I prefer to use hand tools and will turn to them for all but the worst drudgery (unless I'm terribly late getting that shadow box done and push comes to shove). And if anyone asks me why, I just tell them to blame it on The Schwarz.

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