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Purposeful Prototypes

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Today, I found a picture on the internet of a simple stand to hold my phone and iPad.

I went down to the shop, took a scrap of 2×6 and cut two angled grooves in it.  Then some planing to make it look a little more interesting and to give it some feet.  Finally, I put it on my night stand and put it to work.

This stand isn’t finished.  Not only does it not have a finish applied, it still has layout lines drawn on the sides, tear out on the front and back, and plane tracks on the top.

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This simple block had some challenges that I hadn’t encountered before.  The angled grooves are something I’ve never cut before by hand,  and I needed a way to figure out how to make the “feet” without what I thought were the proper tools to do the job.

The only angle cutting I’ve done was for some test dovetails.  Cutting the angle while making a long rip was something new.  Then I had to figure out how to get the waste out without snapping off the front corner of the groove.

The feet would have been much easier to make with a rabbet block plane and I could have avoided much of the tear out if I would have taken my time, but perfect wasn’t the point.

There are so many things I want to make.  Things I’m afraid to make because they have techniques that I’ve never done before.  This simple project had new techniques for me and I now know I did some of them the wrong way, or at least, there was a better way to accomplish the tasks.  But, the point of making this was to have a stand to hold my phone and tablet, not to learn the proper way to accomplish a technique.

Too many times I find myself in front of the computer trying to figure out the “right” way to do something and I get paralyzed by all of the conflicting information.

Today, I tried something different.  I made a prototype.  I figured out how to do the techniques that were new to me on my own.  I made mistakes, and figured out how to fix them on my own and now that I have some knowledge, I know what questions to ask and what help to get.

So, if you’re like me and paralysis by over analysis plagues you, make a prototype and live with it for a while.  It may not be pretty, but it will give you that thing or piece of furniture you need.  You’ll learn from your own mistakes and have a better idea how to ask for help, and you might just find that you can make a few tweaks to make the final version better than your initial inspiration.


Good Lighting Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive

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There are so many articles and web forum posts written about how important shop lighting is, and they are all correct.

One of the most vital tools in a hand tool shop is lighting.  The saying is true, if you can see the line, you can saw the line.  With inadequate lighting, it’s very difficult to accomplish even simple tasks.

Lighting in the hand tool shop is not only important to see your layout lines, it’s also one of the ways you determine how flat or square a board is.  Want to know if an edge is square to a face, put a square on the corner, and check for light under the square as you slide it back and forth along the edge of the board.

Raking light shows you imperfections in your surface prep that you may otherwise not notice until a finish is applied.

So, good lighting is important!

Where so many articles miss the mark is what what they consider to be “good lighting”.  Any article that involves “dedicated circuits  or “running wire” is one I’ll pass on for now.  Yes, in a power tool shop  it’s best to have your lights on a dedicated circuit.  You don’t want a breaker tripped by your table saw to also leave you in the dark, but this isn’t a big worry in a hand tool shop!

With hand tools, I need to see my lines and have the ability to set up a source of raking light easily.  A quick trip down the electrical supply isle at the big box store is all I need.

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These simple clip on utility work lights work great and they are less than $10.00 each.  I’ve got mine fitted with a compact florescent bulb that is a little closer to daylight than the cheap tubes that come in “shop lighting” fixtures you can find at the store.

I’ve got 4 of these over my 8 foot bench and they put out plenty of light.  I’ve also got a spare that can be used in a raking position rather easily.

If you are just getting started, grab 4 to 6 of these lights, a plug strip, and a few packs of bulbs.  Don’t worry if you don’t have  floor joist to clip the lights too, there are many creative ways to get the lights to where you need them.  (In my last shop, my bench was against a wall, and I had the lights clipped to a shelf high above the bench.)

Lighting is important, but you can get everything you need from some inexspensive clip on lights, and the best part is, if you ever have to move, the lights fit easily in a box waiting for their new home!

Go light up your shop and GET WOODWORKING!

-Mike Russo

I Have to Start Somewhere, so Here is Post #1!

I could talk about woodworking all day.  I just love it.  The tools.  The projects.  The techniques.  Everything about the craft has fascinated me from the day I watched Norm make a workbench with 2×4’s and plywood.  However, life has always managed to get in the way of having my very own New Yankee Workshop

At the same time I was watching Norm, I was ignoring someone else on TV.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I never could stand watching Roy Underhill.  He seemed like someone that was living in the past and worked so slow.  His show was just as long as the New Yankee Workshop, but he never seemed to finish anything!  Norm could build a  7 foot tall Shaker dresser in 25 minutes.  Roy would just show how to use some silly old tools  and never had anything but a few joints or a finished product already in the background to show for it.

Boy was I dumb!

Had I payed more attention to Roy on the Woodwright Shop, I would have 20+ years of woodworking experience under my belt.  But I stuck to the dream that someday I’d have all the tools that Norm did and THEN I could build cool stuff. Once I had the SPACE, I knew that’s when I could set up shop.

If I would have really watched and listened to Roy, I would have realized that a workbench, and a tool chest is all you really need.  Great things could have been built in my living room!  Just sweep up the shavings, put the tools back in the chest and everything in cleaned up and protected.

When I finally had a place to keep some of the big power tools and set up a table saw centered shop, the noise and dust became a problem.  Then there was moving tools out of the way to get cars in the garage and the need to have an extra accessory or specialized tool to tackle a task.  I could see this path would be a never ending addiction to gadgets and gizmos.

Then I read the Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz.  The idea that having a small kit of high quality tools that all fit in one chest and that chest could roll out of the way was a game changer for me.  By this point, the neighbors were complaining about the noise, my lungs were complaining about the dust, and we were going to move!  Time to test Chris’ theory!


I built the chest using pocket screws and plywood.  It needed to be done FAST!  It was the last thing I used my table saw on as it was sold the day after this was completed.  I don’t miss it one bit.  Now I work almost entirely by hand.  (I do have a track saw and a lunchbox planner as well as a few drills, but that’s it)

Learning to use only hand tools has been frustrating at times, but completely worth it.  Every time I make a mistake, I learn what not to do next time.  I’ve learned to slow down and think.  I’ve began to enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

This year, I hope to be able to expand on the skills I’ve learned and I’m really hoping I’ll be able to share both successes and failures on this blog.  I hope you’ll check in with me regularly.  Not only to keep me posting, but also to force me out of my comfort zone.  2013 needs to be the year I make something BIG.  I’m working my way through some smaller, skill building projects now, but I want to build something that sits in my house for everyone to see, not just things that live in my tool chest or the corner of my shop.

I hope you’ll come along on this ride with me!

-Mike Russo