The Unexpected Journey

An idea is a point of departure and no more. As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought.
— Pablo Picasso

It’s funny how projects can take on a life of their own.  I’ll start a project with a picture in my mind of what I need and what activities will be required but, once work begins, the project almost always branches off in unexpected directions.  Eventually, the project concludes and I’m left with a result that is not at all what I intended, and yet the shadow of my original concept is there if I squint hard enough.

I just spent the last few weeks working on a home improvement project that morphed and changed many times throughout the process.  What started out as a simple plan to paint the living room quickly expanded to multiple rooms, had me cutting into drywall, doing electrical work, repairing plumbing, and shampooing carpets. The project was supposed to only take “a few days of work,” but instead ended up taking me weeks of nights and weekends to complete. The end result is so much better - so much grander - than my original concept that sometimes I can hardly believe that I’m the one that did it.

Woodworking projects are no different.  If you’ve never tried it before, come up with a simple concept and just start building.  Figure out the details as you go.  The project will lead you down paths that you never intended, and you might just surprise yourself with the end result.  It’s a lot of fun that you’ll miss out on if you only spend time building someone else’s plans.


The Hunt

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
— Alan Turing

I spend five hours per day commuting for work.  Yeah, you read that right.  Most of those hours are dead time spent sitting on trains; I can’t do any actual woodworking, but it leaves me an enormous amount of time to read, listen to podcasts, and watch video.  Some day, when I write my epic autobiography (There and Back Again… A Commuter’s Tale), I’ll tell you all about the trials and tribulations of being a public transportation monkey, but today I’m more concerned with the woodworking content that I consume during those hours, or rather, the way my attitude toward it has changed.

Years ago, when I received a new issue of a woodworking magazine in the mail, I would sit down as soon as possible and read it cover-to-cover.  I would then carefully file it away for a while before pulling it out to read the whole thing again, and again, and again.  I might have every magazine issue from the early-to-mid-2000s memorized.  I subscribed to quite a few magazines back then, but whenever I passed a news stand, I couldn’t resist scanning through to see if anything new had popped up.  These days, however, my list of subscriptions is much smaller and when a new issue arrives, it can sometimes sit for days before I even pick it up.  Instead of reading it cover-to-cover, I’ll skim through the issue looking for any articles that might hold my attention.  When I put it down, I rarely look at it again unless I’m searching for something specific in my woodworking archive. The same is true for books, podcasts, video, and internet content.  I’m choosy about the books I buy these days, I listen to a handful of woodworking podcasts, my video viewing is limited to a select group of content producers, and I can’t remember the last time I visited a woodworking internet forum.  So, now that I have a seemingly endless amount of time to consume content, I’ve lost interest.  What happened?  Who or what will save me from the snooze-fest of Serial season 2?

I’ve seen this topic discussed before, and the conclusion is almost always, “your skills have outgrown the content.”  I suppose that’s somewhat true, but not universally; there’s plenty of woodworking topics out there that I know little or nothing about.  I think my interests have just become more focused.  When I was brand new to woodworking, my brain was a sponge.  I indiscriminately absorbed as much information as possible.  As time went by, however, some topics started to lose relevance.  I obsessed over cabinet saws until I bought one, and then I started skipping all those articles.  Workbench design was the most important thing in the world to me until I built one and then I lost interest.  The latest “Router Shootout!” means nothing to me because I already have all the routers I need.

Thirteen years have passed, and I still find interesting articles in the popular magazines.  There’s a lot of repetition, though, so they don’t always hold my attention.  I’ve settled in with my preferences in podcasts and video content.  Sometimes something new catches my eye (or ear, depending) but my interests have narrowed enough over time that I’m no longer a “consume all available woodworking content” kind-of-guy, even though I have my commuting dead time to fill. To be honest, I miss the old days when everything was new and exciting.  I have to work a bit harder to find content that matches my interests, but it’s out there, and the hunt is always fun.


A Woodworking Archive

To grow interested in any piece of information, we need somewhere to ‘put’ it, which means some way of connecting it to an issue we already know how to care about.
— Alain de Botton

Whenever I start a new project, I always find myself digging around in my old magazines, books, and Internet bookmarks.  There’s always a need to research for design inspiration, information on a new technique, of just for general construction details.  Unfortunately, digging through all of the woodworking information that I’ve compiled over the years can be a slow and painful process.  I decided to remedy this problem by building myself a searchable electronic woodworking reference archive.

Initial Setup
I had a few requirements for my system:

  1. Must be accessible anywhere and on any device.
  2. Everything I put into the archive, no matter the format, must be searchable.
  3. Must have a simple, preferably effortless, method of adding new content to the archive.

Fortunately, these days we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to tools that can fulfill these three requirements.  I chose Evernote, mainly because I already use Evernote for other note-taking needs.  You don’t have to use Evernote, though; there are many other great options available.  Check out Google Drive, Microsoft OneNote, and NeverNote as alternatives.

So what did I do to prepare Evernote for my new woodworking archive?  Not much, really.  I simply creating a notebook in Evernote called “Woodworking,” and then I took a break and went out for lunch.

Adding New Content
A woodworking archive isn’t worth much if it has no content. Over the years, I’ve amassed a sizable collection of magazines.  These physical magazines have great information in them, but I can never find the article I’m looking for.  Well, during the holiday season, I found some amazing deals on electronic collections of magazine back issues that I just couldn’t turn down.  I picked up the complete catalog of Fine Woodworking, Popular Woodworking, Woodworking Magazine, Woodwork Magazine, and American Woodworker.

Unfortunately, I don’t have many woodworking books in electronic form.  When I buy new books, I try to buy both the physical book and an electronic copy as a bundle.  I like to have the physical book for actual reading purposes, but having a searchable electronic version is a huge bonus.

Finally, web content is the largest growing segment of my archive.  Blog posts, videos, images, and audio files can all be organized, tagged, and uploaded to the woodworking archive for later access.

Uploading physical files was easy to automate.  I created some sync folders on my hard drive and assigned Hazel rules to monitor them.  Whenever Hazel sees a new file appear in one of the sync folders, it creates a new Evernote note in my Evernote “Woodworking” notebook, uploads the file to that note, tags it appropriately, and then moves the physical file over to my backup drive.  These rules took care of all of my existing magazine back issues and books.  When I get a new issue of a magazine or a new book, I just drop the file into the appropriate sync folder and magic happens.

Adding web content to my archive is even easier via Evernote’s web clipper.  Any content of interest in the browser can be clipped to Evernote and tagged properly, and it even automatically records the source link in the note for later reference.  The web clipper works on computers, phones, and tablets.

Using the Archive
At the most basic level, having all of my content in Evernote allows me to access it from anywhere on any device.  That’s useful, but the real power here lies in Evernote’s advanced search capabilities.  Evernote uses OCR to make everything searchable.  All of those PDF files of my books and magazines that I uploaded?  I can search inside of all of those files.  Text in image files?  I can search that, too.  The custom tags on my notes add an additional level of search-ability, as well.

My setup in Evernote is just one of dozens of possible ways to implement a searchable woodworking archive.  I’m offering it here as an example because I’ve gotten a lot of value from it in the short time that it’s been up and running.  I’ve compiled images of inspiration pieces, quickly created a list of relevant articles regarding a new technique that I’d like to try, and I’ve even dug up some interesting reading that I wouldn’t have been able to find any other way.  I’m sure many of you have just as much, or more, woodworking information scattered around on your computer. It’s time to organize it and put it to work.


Buy Your First Tool First

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
— Confucius

Dear novice woodworker,

Starting out in this hobby is like standing at the edge of a sprawling valley.  Your path runs downward and splits off in all directions, providing limitless possibilities.  Choosing some tools is the first fork that you’ll encounter as you walk along this path.  If you turn to the woodworking community for tool recommendations, you’ll hear the phrase, “buy your last tool first.”  This well-intentioned, but misguided, advice is repeated in podcasts, forums, magazines, and blog posts by experienced woodworkers who have forgotten what it was like to be a newbie.  They look back along the path they’ve traveled and see a straight line; the forks, twists, and turns that they encountered along the way are hidden by the mists of time. 

“Buy your last tool first” is such a popular phrase because when an experienced woodworker looks back at their tool purchases, they see that money could have been saved by avoiding the “starter tool” purchases and jumping straight to the “wish list tool.”  This type of data mining paints a false picture, however, because it advocates making important decisions based on the isolation of a single variable (cost).  Take a step back for a second and sanity test the “buy your last X first” formula by applying it to other areas of your life.  Did you buy your last house first?  Did you buy your last car first?  What about your mobile phone?  Are you still rocking the iPhone 1 from 2008?  How about your television?  Computer?  Lawnmower?  Mailbox?  Mattress?  The real problem with the “buy your last X first” formula is that it’s built on three erroneous assumptions:

  1. Your interests will never change or waiver.
  2. You have unlimited funds available.
  3. Technology will stop advancing once you complete your purchase.

The word “woodworking” represents a group of diverse disciplines: turning, timber framing, furniture making, trim carpentry, carving, etc.  Until you dig in and build something, you have no way of knowing where your interests will lead you.  A 20” stationary planer is an impressive machine, but I guarantee that you’ll have a serious case of buyer’s remorse when you discover that you’re primarily interested in turning.  Beware of anyone who advises you to “buy your last tool first” because you can always sell it later.  This advice comes from people who are looking for a screaming deal on a used tool.  Selling a large woodworking tool is a pain in the neck, and you’ll lose money on the transaction.  No one is going to pay you anything near retail for a second-hand tool, even if it’s lightly used. My recommendation is to buy an inexpensive tool first, learn to use it properly, and learn what you do and do not like about it.  Build some projects and discover where your true interest lies before dropping a large amount of money on the ultimate power tool.

Speaking of money, do you have enough to outfit an entire workshop with wish list tools?  If so, please shoot me an email because I want to be your friend.  If you’re like the rest of us 99%-ers, however, I’m guessing that you have a fairly strict budget for your brand new hobby.  One of the reasons people are hesitant to jump into woodworking is the erroneous belief that it requires a massive upfront investment to get started.  The “buy your last tool first” mantra just feeds this myth.  You can do great work with a small investment in some simple tools.  As your skills grow, you’ll become more educated in what tooling is important for your work and what can be left behind.

I bought my 3 HP Delta Unisaw back in 2005.  It’s a powerful cabinet saw and I love using it.  At the time, I remember thinking, “this is the last table saw I’ll ever need to buy.”  After all, cabinet saws had remained relatively unchanged since the 1920s.  Why would I need to buy another one?  And then, in 2006, riving knives became standard equipment on new saws, and Sawstop appeared on the market.  New technology ushered in desirable safety features that suddenly made my saw look like a stepping stone instead of my “final tool.”  Does this make me love my current saw any less?  No, not at all.  But it does open up the possibility of upgrading sometime in the future, so be aware that even when you think you’re buying your last tool, you might not be.

So what now?  Don’t worry if you feel overwhelmed; we’ve all been there.  It’s time to jump in with both feet and get started.  Buy your first tool first, build something cool, and let’s see where the path leads you.


Why, Revisited

I found a wonderful quote from Roald Dahl today where he describes working in his writing studio.  In this quote, he restates the description of my own experience in my shop from the post "Why?" much more eloquently than I ever could. 

You become a different person, you are no longer an ordinary fellow who walks around and looks after his children and eats meals and does silly things, you go into a completely different world. I personally draw all the curtains in the room, so that I don’t see out the window and put on a little light which shines on my board. Everything else in your life disappears and you look at your bit of paper and get completely lost in what you’re doing. You do become another person for a moment. Time disappears completely. You may start at nine in the morning and the next time you look at your watch, when you’re getting hungry, it can be lunchtime. And you’ve absolutely no idea that three or fours hours have gone by.
— Roald Dahl