I Had a Bad Day…

…But it’s better than a bad year or worse still a bad decade. Last week I invaded my wood storage. That’s wood I’ve gathered at different points in pockets of madness and good deals or good choices. Most of it I have had around for a decade or more and less but I lose track in the whole scheme of finding bits.

Mesquite I have had since the mid1990s to the mid 2000s. Pieces left over from the cabinets I designed for the White House. Some pieces were full-width, waney-edged boards in ten different woods; rough-sawn and then planed too all add to the complication of remembering where this or that came from. It gets moved a dozen times in searching for the exact project piece and soon the web gets bigger. I recently decided to bring my planer out of mothballs to surface plane the wide surfaces at least because the mass would take me many weeks.

Using my under and over would break the tedium and muscle work for me, freeing my time for developing the idea for the future furniture I will be designing for filling a home. My age is starting to tell on me. Whereas a few smaller pieces for a single piece is not so much a problem at all, truing up the wood for me to select the grain and wood type I want or need for a particular piece is more difficult to do in its rough-sawn state, especially when it ages and gets covered in dust. Imagine the thought of having to true up foursquare 75 or a 100 pieces ranging from 3 to 8 feet long, 4 -24″ wide. That definitely becomes a very different animal.

The issue for me as it is for many woodworkers is the time it takes to true up rough sawn wood. Removing twist, cup, crook and so on and then to thickness it down to the necessary parallel thickness can be a serious undertaking as many of you are finding. On top of that of course there would be squaring one faced to the other. It is a time consuming process and the machine was created to do such donkey work for us. This may sound as though I’m changing my mind and telling everyone to buy a shop full of machines. I’m not. I have always owned a surface/thickness planer and with good reason. 20 students needing 40 pieces of trued and squared wood for six days of projects translates into 800 pieces all dimensioned to within fractions of a millimeter. In my month long classes the issue was multiplied many times. The machine does indeed become the essentiality; it’s the only way, otherwise either I or the students would spend all their time doing that and not project building.

Moving into my new sphere has made me think more about the future. Whereas I am not and would not generally advocate an amateur woodworker intent on making a single piece or even a few pieces go out and buy several machines, my situation is a little different. I just had too much rough sawn and untrued wood to think I have enough time left to surface plane so much and still be making furniture. But once this wood is indeed milled down, I will be scrapping four machines and not replacing them. I haven’t used them for years. My love for working by hand has increased through the years and not decreased. If I need ready planed wood I can buy it or hand plane it from here on. I can also have it milled for me. It’s good for my physical workout and my general wellbeing to hand plane and saw as much as I can and have time for. It’s what I will continue to do in the years to come. If I do get to an age when strength becomes an issue I may change. For now it’s hand work that spurs me on. I plan to keep a mortise machine even though I have not used one in almost a decade. Keeping one in the background to see if I need it seems like common sense to me. I have never used a mortise machine on any of the pieces I have made for woodworking masterclasses and what you see me make is doubled by the prototypes I make behind the scenes. I am thinking that as time goes on I may indulge myself and use a mortiser for my prototypes. I will never use one in the videos even when off camera work is going on on the actual filmed work. I just have to face the limitations on the hours in my day.

The title of this blog? It took me 16 hours over two days surfacing and thicknessing the wood I have. Ten sacks of shavings later were the result. I am just under half way through the pile. I was reminded of the weeks and months spent milling wood in the past for mass-making some of my designs. Add it all up and it comes to several years. I never want to go back to those dark days.

For the past twenty years or so I have made a piece and sold a piece. In the last 10 years much of my work came from rough-sawn wood I planed and trued by hand. This period gave me the greatest pleasure of all. When time or age or strength or illness become an issue then there is nothing wrong with using the machine as your donkey. For me, now, the bandsaw is my donkey. With the right instruction, the gaining of experience, the bandsaw is a joy to use and hand sawing for dimensioning is most likely some of the most demanding work.

26 Comments

  1. Will on 28 May 2019 at 6:32 pm

    That does sound like a lot of tedious work, though I have to say I read this title and expected to hear that you had found a bad mold infestation or had a fire in your shop. All’s well that ends well perhaps?

  2. Patrick Sadr on 28 May 2019 at 6:43 pm

    Paul,

    What is to become of the shavings in the sacks? Will they be consumed? Recycled? Knowing you, I imagine so……

    • Paul Sellers on 28 May 2019 at 8:05 pm

      They go into chicken coops and runs to keep the pens clean and that means clean eggs too.

      • Ismail Nuri on 4 June 2019 at 3:37 pm

        The mesquite makes good BBQ smoke for flavoring.

    • Brendan Gallagher on 31 May 2019 at 10:25 pm

      Many years ago a busy cabinet maker would have an apprentice or two to do the grunt work for the craftsman. As a hobbyist woodworker I clearly can’t afford an apprentice! So I regard my planer thicknesser and bandsaw as my apprentices, so I can spend more time creating with hand tool joinery.

  3. Robert Flowers on 28 May 2019 at 7:01 pm

    At my hardwood dealer, they will plane and join the wood for me at no charge. I will say i have been a customers of Rick’s for over 20 years, but i have never heard of him charging anybody.

  4. Phill on 28 May 2019 at 7:03 pm

    from one old donkey to another: I hear you!

  5. Mario Fusaro on 28 May 2019 at 8:00 pm

    I whole heatedly agree with you, Paul. If I had to do as much as you, I too would resort to the mechanized helper. I am 67 with heart trouble and when I have to run through several pieces, I can feel it.

  6. Keith M on 28 May 2019 at 9:07 pm

    do you also use a power jointer? scrub one face? or do you go straight to the planer?

    • Paul Sellers on 29 May 2019 at 8:21 am

      As I said, my planer was in moth balls and I either bought wood in planed or hand planed which was the majority of what I did for the projects I have built of WWMC. But I have scrubbed down one face to near true and than passed it through the planer to skim the opposite face and then flipped to trim up the scrubbed face and that is very efficient too.

  7. Adriano J. M. Rosa on 28 May 2019 at 9:38 pm

    Hey, do not forget me!
    I think I’m going to be here for another eleven or fifteen years, maybe twenty but who’s counting?
    Today was a bad day, tomorrow will be worse! Age does not forgive. Cheer up!
    “Be healthy and bake the oven seven days a week,” as my father used to say.
    Thank you for being here and letting me share your teachings.

  8. ajens on 28 May 2019 at 10:13 pm

    Yes, what a title of that blog, but it’s all right to worry a little bit, though. And then again: Willie Nelson sings in a song “Bad breath is better than no breath at all…”

    So: Having a bad day just means, that you’re alive. And staying alive means it’s possible to get more good days…

  9. Jeff Rogers on 29 May 2019 at 2:37 am

    Most of the wood I use comes from 1) pallet lumber, or 2) saw mill that is rough planed with 1 straight edge. I use a hand plane to get rid of twist/warp, but once something is flat enough, it goes to the bench top thickness planer. All my edges are hand planed to get final width and make square for glue up. I see the thickness planer as an essential when not getting 4s wood.

    • Alex on 29 May 2019 at 3:14 am

      I don’t own any such machine and have never seen one in use and I have a question about the lumber we can get here at the big box stores (Canada), e.g. Home Depot, Lowes etc. The regular SPF I’ve been using all comes “more or less straight” but it has rounded edges and the quality is such that things are rarely actually straight on any given by-8.

      Is that how things come out of those thickness planers and is that considered “S4S”?

      In building Paul’s workbench I used only such wood and it took me months to plane it all down and build the workbench. Seeing Paul plane in his videos was almost relaxing. It took me a good hour probably to do some of the things Paul did in a few minutes. I didn’t mind it, because I love planing (I could just plane it down to zero if you let me :)).

      • Keith on 29 May 2019 at 2:24 pm

        the boards at lowes are not high grade, not milled with care, dried too quickly, shipped, stored improperly, and already picked through. its hard to find one that is actually true. i usually expect to have to true them up. when I get s4s from the local lumber yard they face joint and everything is dead square and often (usually, hopefully) pretty stable, although sometimes you never know what any board will do after ripping.

      • Paul Sellers on 29 May 2019 at 3:57 pm

        S4S = square four sides. Whereas the process of drying is always kiln for the big box stores, it does not end there. The staff at these entities receive a few minutes instruction for people who had a few minutes instruction who had a few minutes instruction….. Not one of them had any interest in any of it and had no concern for the producer or the end user. stacking out of wind, wet, unprotected seems very normal as does untarped loads going across the states from state to state a few thousand miles. One day the wood can be in the rain for eight hours and then in the sun the next day. Cut the steel straps and the spring is sprung. Just the reality of the “You can do it! We can help! brigade.

        • Alex on 30 May 2019 at 12:46 am

          Thank you Paul and Keith above for the explanations!
          I may have to find some time to go by the local lumber yard I found on Google Maps for my next (outdoor) project. I don’t have the same amount of time I had for building the workbench, although I did enjoy all the planing very much.

          • Keith on 30 May 2019 at 4:57 pm

            I worked at home depot for a summer in the section with boards. I was told to pull a certain amount of cull lumber (damaged, warped, split) each week and add it to a discounted pile. I asked, what if there isnt that much to pick out? I quickly realized you could fill the cull cart daily if you were picky. You have to assume these are for home owner DIY projects and will not be used on any fine furniture. i think 100% of the pine boards were at least cupped.



    • Paul Sellers on 29 May 2019 at 8:18 am

      I do understand that it’s different strokes for different folks. My research shows that for the majority of woodworkers it is not an option nor considered an essential and for several good reasons. I would not consider a planer an essential beyond my given reasons and especially if someone plans to make one piece of furniture or even a few pieces in a given year. The best part of making is mastering wood and tools and then the workout aspect, both physical and mental. What suits one is not good for all. Runners don’t grab the taxi or the bus part way because it is quicker and easier, they want the challenge and the workout too.

  10. Steve on 29 May 2019 at 9:02 am

    I would do the same without hesitation. I don’t think we’re trying to replicate the 1600’s where everything was done by hand because nothing else existed . I can’t run to a planer but have no qualms about asking my wood yard to dimension a piece of hardwood to basic size. I know I could just about do it but I don’t need to and have many other demands on my time.

  11. xavior on 29 May 2019 at 9:20 am

    Nice memory. By look of things, theses collections might be priceless. Wood preservation down here in the tropics is such a nightmare. From weather to wood pests, everything is against such an undertaking. The polythene storage seems very cool

  12. Joe on 29 May 2019 at 4:19 pm

    Hi Paul,

    What you did makes complete sense to me.

    So far no machine tools in the shop. The three things I want to get are:
    excellent dust collector
    bandsaw
    planer jointer combo

    I have dimensioned wood by hand and I can do it. It just takes a lot of my time and right now I have very limited free time and I’d rather spend it working on joinery. For now, I just buy S4S or have a local place mill up wood to slightly oversized dimensions for what I required.

  13. Wayne Bower on 29 May 2019 at 11:28 pm

    No argument here. When I arrived at the Heritage classroom for Paul’s hand-tools 101 dovetail techniques and candle box, it was immediately clear that somebody had dimensioned a bunch of 3/4” pine to 1/2” and I harbored no notions that it had all been done by hand otherwise the cost of the course would have doubled.

    The walnut table class later in the curriculum taught us enough about hand planing, draw-knifing, beveling and shave-horsing to prove to ourselves that we could do it, along with some serious mortising, but nobody made us sign a pledge that we wouldn’t use a planer to shorten the prep time in order to maximize the real fun afterwards.

    But it’s still fun to grab a plane and prepare a board by hand and watch the facial expressions and hear the comments from those who have never seen it done before, especially truing up the end grain. Never mind watching their wonderments watching a dull blade restored to sharp and shine in only a few minutes.

    You were long-gone before I was there, Paul, but nobody has forgotten who made it possible. Thanks again from all who benefitted.

  14. Fraser Murray on 4 June 2019 at 11:50 am

    Maybe you could do an annual “planing course” where you get 10 or 20 students to learn how to use / sharpen a scrub plane / smoothing plane / winding sticks, etc, and they then have a few rough sawn slabs each to plane down for you in return for your expert tuition! I’m sure you could find plenty of willing “donkeys” who would be honoured to work for you.

  15. Ismail Nuri on 4 June 2019 at 3:41 pm

    An old cabinet maker in Sweetwater, Texas told me that mesquite had a lot of silicon in it and was hard on tools. Have you found that to be true?

    • Paul Sellers on 4 June 2019 at 4:14 pm

      It’s absolutely true, but even so it is not too much trouble. Just sharpen up half as much again as when working oak.

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