Mrs. Woodworker knows nothing about woodworking. Mrs. Woodworker knows everything about woodworking.
The other day, I was agonizing (ah, the trials of being a craftsman) whether to go with the 6mm wide, 40 mm long tenons (those “plugs” on the bandsaw in the picture which help join two pieces of wood together) or the 5mm wide, 30 mm long tenons for some kitchen cabinets I was building (see our post about making cabinet panels if you’d like to make some). In general, you want to use a tenon that’s about a third the thickness of the material you are drilling into. In this case, the material was 3/4 inch, or 19mm, which means a 6mm tenon would be about right, but the tenons would be a bit long for certain mortises (the holes the tenons go into) and go all the way through the face frame of the cabinet if I wasn’t careful. I could have offset the mortises by cutting 15mm into one piece and 25mm into the other side, but that would require great care to make sure I didn’t accidentally punch a mortise all the way through by having the depth setting wrong on the mortising machine (Festool Domino). Given that the cabinet had 38 tenons, that was 38 opportunities to make a mistake. Sometimes failing is good, but not when you are at the end of a long project like this.
In trying times like those, it’s sometimes wise to consult a higher power: Mrs. Woodworker (substitute The Husband, woodworking mentor, etc. depending on your particular situation). Mrs. Woodworker would tell you she knows absolutely nothing about woodworking, but her advice has proven to be remarkably prescient over the years. In this case, I asked her advice and her eyes quickly glazed over when I said “mortises” and “tenons.” When I was done speaking, and she said “remember the other day when you quit for the day because you said you were getting tired and stupid and didn’t want to make any mistakes? Shouldn’t you find a simple approach in this case, so you don’t accidentally make a mistake?” Brilliant! The answer was clearly to cut down the 6mm tenons from 40mm to 30mm, to idiot-proof the process and prevent mortise cut-through.
Lesson learned: Do what your spouse/significant other/partner tells you.
I am so thankful I crossed paths with my pal, Steve Patoir, in Afghanistan. He was a stark raving mad lunatic about some tools called Festool (check out their website at festoolusa.com) which I had never heard of. I figured when I got back to the States, I’d give them a try and boy, am I glad I did. I’ve been using Festool almost exclusively now for 2 years and they are worth every penny (that’s a lot of pennies, more on that in a minute).
If you are just starting out in woodworking, let me give you a few thoughts to ponder. As Steve says: “a cheap tool, is an expensive tool.” Why is that? Because if you buy a low-budget tool you don’t really want in the first place, you’re going to end up replacing it anyway. In addition, it’s probably not going to last very long or do the job that you need it to do. You need to think in terms of decades when you are buying tools. Is this tool something you will enjoy using for the next 10, or 20 years? If it frustrates you because of the way it’s designed, you’ve got the wrong tool.
So why are we such Festool fans? Let me give you a few reasons:
Precision. Once you’ve worked with the Festool mortise and tenon machine (Domino), sliding compound miter saw with laser (Kapex), and table saw equivalent (Track Saw), you can easily work within the millimeter precision window. Festool has designed their gear to be incredibly easy to use and incredibly precise. I’m still amazed and overjoyed to see that the cuts come out perfectly every single time. When you are making something like the cornhole set we profiled in another post, precision is not quite so important, but when you are making something like a picture frame, it is very important.
Interoperability. It wasn’t until I had built up a core group of Festool that I saw how interoperability equalled speed, which is crucial in a woodworking business. You can quickly switch the dust collection hose and power cord from the dust collector to each power tool in seconds. For example, on the gun cabinet project I found myself quickly transitioning from cutting pieces with the Track Saw and Kapex to cutting mortises with the Domino in no time at all.
Dust collection. I go overboard when it comes to shop safety. Why poke your eye out if you don’t have to? Always wear hearing protection and eye protection. In addition, all the dust floating around your shop can kill you (in the long run). A dust collection system will keep all that floating crap out of your lungs and keep them healthy. Festool has a great system that screens out fine particles and is easy to use. Also, having the vacuum automatically turn on when you trigger the power tool is pretty slick.
And most importantly: Joy. Those German designers have thought about just about every situation a woodworker will encounter in using their tools. Steve and I are still swapping stories about some ergonomic tool feature we had overlooked. I absolutely love using these tools (also see our post about the gulag and craftsmanship joy) in the shop.
So you may be saying “Jerry, that’s great but Festool is really expensive!”. You know what? You’re right. I saved up my deployment bonuses to buy my tools and my super sister bought me one of the more expensive Festool as a welcome home present. You may not be so lucky, so consider buying one per year (or every other year if necessary) to spread out the pain. I would NOT advise using a credit card to finance tool purchases. Try to grow your hobby or business organically (more on that in one of the business-related posts which will be rolling out soon). If you are going to go the Festool route, start with the smaller Domino. You will use it a LOT and using mortise and tenon joinery to eliminate metal fasteners will set your work apart. Then I’d get the TS55 Track Saw (the 55 means it can cut to a depth of 55mm) when you can afford it.
Do I only have Festool? No. I’m a big fan of Harbor Freight tools (harborfreight.com) because they are inexpensive and durable. If you have an edge that’s not going to be visible to the client and will not sacrifice the quality of your joinery, then a HF tool may do the job. For example, I have a HF bench top bandsaw. You are never going to use a band saw to produce a finished edge on a piece since you will always be filing and sanding that band sawn edge. Along those lines, I’ve got a HF bench top drill press which does the trick just fine.
The bottom line is it’s important to think about exactly what you are going to be doing in the shop then the appropriate tool that will allow you to do that task quickly and with precision.
For the experienced woodworkers out there. What are your favorite tools and why?
Why Did I Write This Blog? I wrote this blog to share some woodworking wisdom gained over the years and also lessons learned from starting my own woodworking business in 2015.
But first, let me give you a bit of backstory. In 2014 I finished up a year-long deployment to Afghanistan. We were extremely busy when I was there, but a situation like that gives a person some time to think about their future, especially since we were away from our families. At that point in my career, I had been in the military for 25 years and was approaching one last assignment before retirement. With our military pension, I knew we were not going to starve and that there was a golden opportunity to try something new. I kept thinking “if money was no object, what would I like to do as the next act?”
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is woodworking. Ever since my first Industrial Arts class in middle school I’ve enjoyed making things. Our itinerant lifestyle and postings all over the world have made it difficult to set up a permanent shop and outfit it with quality tools. We have been in one spot here in Northern Virginia for a while which has enabled me to carve out some space for a shop and to invest in tools.
Another thing I’ve always wanted to do is start my own business, which I did with Traughber Design in 2015. The commissions have been steady and the business has a bright future. Writing this blog may help some other budding entrepreneurs out there get started on their dream business. We’ve learned a lot about things like pricing our work and will share those tips. In addition, I’m ramping up this woodworking gig part-time as my career winds down. I’ll share some insights learned about how to manage that transition.
Last, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special shoutout to Kevin Hanson. He was the catalyst who pushed me to attempt the first commission, the black walnut gun cabinet pictured above. The cabinet was from a plan I purchased from Wood Magazine, was a challenge, and great confidence builder.
So that is why I started his blog. I hope you like it.