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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Random Acts of Woodworking

Ever Give A Selfish Gift?

One of my closest friends cannot perform even the simplest of repairs on his house. Without the slightest trace of exaggeration, he cannot tighten a screw, hang a picture, or replace a light bulb without help. Quite understandably, he has no tools. I mean, what would be the point? Him owning a screwdriver or hammer would be a bit like me owning a harp. In my talentless and tone-deaf hands a harp would be useless, and maybe even dangerous (at least to the hearing of others).

Yet I feel compelled to bring some household survival skills to my buddy. I try to show him things, coach him, and let him do a few simple things under a watchful eye. I know that, with patience, he can acquire some basic skills.

To assist, I want to build a basic toolkit for him as a gift. In the zeal of what I thought was a good idea, I bought a tool bag similar to my "go-bag" and then re-considered, since a store-bought bag is less personal and less thoughtful than something I could make in the shop. So I will soon be building a toolbox. I'm noodling out the design right now. The question is, what should I get for him as a basic starter set of tools? Hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, of course, but what other tools are essential for a homeowner? Help me with your suggestions, please.

Oh yes, some of you will say this is a self-serving gift. I get him tools, teach him a few skills, and pretty soon I will no longer be getting the calls that inevitably start, "Are you busy?..." Well, I prefer to think of self-sufficiency as a gift in and of itself.

Up On The Roof

"And if this old world starts a getting you down
There's room enough for two
Up on the roof..."

Probably best known as a James Taylor song, "Up On The Roof" was actually written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin and first recorded by The Drifters in 1962. It was James Taylor's version though that was playing on a loop inside my head as I climbed the ladder.

You see, we have had a few cloudless, windless, mid-seventy degree days recently, just perfect for getting up on the roof and doing some "housely" chores. Mindless work, actually; cleaning gutters, re-flashing the chimney, caulking, and the like --- perfect work for humming a tune and letting the mind wander.

Through the months of remodeling the house, then the garage, then the barn, with still more to do, I complained repeatedly about the "unhandy" man who made my subsequent work on the house so difficult. So much I complained, that a number of people have asked, "If it was so bad, why did you buy that house?" Fair question...and one I asked myself a few times during particularly frustrating times. But all I had to do to jog my memory was get "up on the roof."

What woodworker would not love all these trees, this forest, this vista...if this doesn't make you want to get into the shop…

"And all my cares just drift right into space
On the roof, it's peaceful as can be…"

Air & Vacuum Isolation

The stairs to the upper level in my shop were designed, at least partly, to make the best use of the space under the landing. The air compressor and a shop vacuum have been installed. Finally I got around to installing an air filter and coupling and a through-the-wall fitting for my shop vacuum hose. Now I need to build the access door and the noise of these units will be significantly contained.

Figure 1 - Quick-connect air hose and a thru-the-wall
source of air for the shop.
Figure 2 - Need to vacuum up? Just connect a hose, flip
the switch, and go. The vacuum inside the enclosed
stair landing will be much quieter, is more
convenient, and saves space.

Speaking of Doors...How Did THAT Happen?

This is a bit embarrassing. For a couple of years in my old shop, my shop-built router table was fine. There were a couple of "cutesy" design things I tried, however, that did not work exactly as I had planned. For example, thinking that air make-up holes in the door to the router cavity would be unsightly, I tried hiding them behind the handle. Well, two small holes never provided enough make-up air for a dust collection system, and in addition to the whistling and sucking sound, more chips stayed in the cabinet than made it to the dust collector.

Figure 3 - A lame (and unsuccessful) attempt to flatten a warped
door. Note the tiny air make-up holes hidden behind the door pull.

On inset drawers and doors, I take some personal pride in a tight, even gap around the edges. In this instance, they were a little too tight. It seems the storage pod that held all my equipment for several months was watertight, but not resistant to the humid weather. Drawer fronts swelled and the door warped. A couple of the drawers would not open at all, and one required some major surgery. All drawer fronts needed to be planed and re-fitted. The door will have to be re-built.

Lamely I tried for a "quick fix" and clamped the door to a flat surface to take out the bow, but you all know how much luck I had with that...zilch. The real source of the problem was "operator error." For a door of this size, I used boards that were too wide in the glue-up, making the warp an eventual inevitability. I will use narrower boards for the re-make, and cut additional air make-up holes. Maybe I can at least put the holes in a pretty pattern?

The Small Things Count

Figure 4 - Just like a kid with a new toy...
my tired old cup warmer is in the background.

Sometimes all it takes is a small thing to make a great day into a super day. You see last winter, toward the end, I noticed that my many-year-old coffee mug warmer was getting tired. It simply was not keeping the coffee as warm as I would like. After painstaking research (coffee is very important to me) I finally chose a new warmer and placed my order. The UPS driver must have thought me crazy, since I was eyeing him like a kid eyes a shopping mall Santa Claus. I tore into the package like a kid, and could not wait to plug it in. All the reviews said this one was "the one" and gets really hot. They were not exaggerating. I am finally ready for winter woodworking.

The Tale Of The Tape

Over too many years to remember, I have become preternaturally attached to this old tape measure, but alas, it is time for it to retire. The sliding lock will not hold the tape anymore, the numbers are irreversibly worn, and there are chips and cracks and bends in all the wrong places. But it has been so nice. Its weight is perfect. It fits over the pocket of my jeans like a Mom-made sweater. It is so comfortable I forget it and wear it to the grocery store sometimes. It fits in my hand like second nature, and I am so accustomed to its eccentricities that I never mis-measure anything. I know exactly how much to ease a cut depending on whether it was an inside or outside measurement. And I fear I will never find another that I like as much.

By last count, I have seven tape measures. One I ordered recently looked like a viable replacement, but it's not. The one I bought locally in a big box store before that did not work out either. The special tape measure that came from a woodworking store suffered the same fate. Like the girlfriends or boyfriends that come along after losing the love of your life, not one can stand up to the harsh comparison.

So, I have given up. I am destined to be a tape-measure-widower forever. And while I am sure to reflexively reach for my empty jeans pocket a few thousand more times, I will get by. In fact, I intend to build my next project a cappella (without measuring accompaniment). Yep, the old fashioned the Egyptians, or the Etruscans...WTM (without tape measure). Maybe I'll still wear the old thing, just for looks…

Next Month

Figure 5 - This old bench has an enlarged top, a shop-built base,
wheels added, and added bracing in the back. But, it's time for
something new and better.

In a small shop, everything needs to have a place, and everything needs to be kept in its place. Anything that can serve double (or triple) duty is a space-saver. This old store-bought workbench has been modified, repaired, customized, and moved so many times I lost count. It makes a fair assembly table, provides some additional storage, and serves as a desk when I want to draw or noodle. It holds parts at times, sometimes sub-assemblies, sometimes a collection of junk. It rolls, but not too easily. It is a little rickety with age and sags a little here and there. Sitting in front of it, trying to use it as a desk, involves contortionist moves not good for a person of my age. It's time to finally part with this old friend and build something new, better, and more versatile.

Join me next month as I continue to tune tools and skills and reenter the woodworking world by building a combination desk/assembly table/mobile work station/storage unit. I think you will like the design! Click here to get a preview video and an overview of the design criteria.


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Steven Johnson is recently retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at

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