You want me to hand-cut WHAT?!

It’s the first day of my very first woodworking class. Furniture Construction 1A. I’m jazzed, excited to finally get my hands on some real power tools, not the cheap Ryobi junk I have at home.

Side note: All crappy Ryobi tools have since been replaced, except the drill press with the Amazing Flex-O-Table, guaranteed to make all of your exit holes up to a full 1/8” off from their respective entry holes! I think the drill press knows his days are numbered. I’ve been coming home at night, wistfully sighing over the big floor-standing Steel City drill press with the 6” stroke that is begging me to take it home. Just a few weeks ago Ry’s chuck fell off. Ok, I hit it with a rubber mallet but it would have fallen off sooner or later anyway. But I digress…

I walk into the shop for the first time and behold: The enormous Tannewitz 12” cabinet saw, the 42” (You heard me right – 42”!!) Tannewitz bandsaw, 7.5 HP with a cast iron table bigger than most home shop table saw tops and fer pete’s sake, it has a foot brake to slow it down. Really, without using the brake this thing takes a full 15 minutes to stop on it’s own when you hit the off switch. The giant Porter thickness planer, the Powermatic giaganto-lathe, the 16” jointer that you could land an airplane on! I’m in heaven already, I just know it!

Then at the benches I see my and my fellow students’ names on cards at workbenches. Next to each card are the following: try square, marking gauge, back saw, 1 1/2” chisel, a jack plane and a 1” thick, 2” wide by 8” long piece of poplar. Our task for this first class, and the next one after that, is to square up the poplar, take it down to 3/4” thickness and 1 3/4″ in width, cross cut the board into 2 equal lengths and using the saw and chisels, make the pieces form a 45 degree angle using a half-lap joint. The final joint will be graded with points given, and lost, for consistant thickness of the stock, squareness of the wood itself as well as the inside and outside corners of the half-lap… hoo doggies.


This isn’t how Norm would do it. Where the heck is the radial arm saw with a dado stack loaded up? Sitting there swiping away with a jack plane, trying to get a consistant cut out of a tool that I had never touched before… well, now I know how Sisyphus must have felt. By the time I got home that night I was drenched in sweat and my arms ached for most of the next two days.

Of course we went on from there, bringing in our wood of choice, learning how to read a measured drawing, to use the machinery and eventually producing what turned out to be a very nice Shaker side table. One student asked why we were doing the half-lap by hand like that. The instructor said there were two reasons. One: because even Norm Abram has to use a chisel or a block plane now and again (which became evident when it came time to pare and clean up our mortise and tenons on the side tables) and two, because doing it by hand would make us appreciate that much more the machinery that would do the sweaty work for us.

I got my half-lap done. Actually I made three and handed in my best effort. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, mind you, and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but it was what it should be. Flat, square and the proper thickness. I swore that I’d never touch another hand tool unless it was just a quick clean up with a chisel or something like that.

Fast forward a few years: I just finished building a real cabinet-maker’s bench and I have a shelf in my shop with about 30 planes all in all, some Lie-Nielsen/Veritas beauties, some pre-WWII Stanleys that I’ve rehabbed, a growing family of transitional planes, plough plane, a good dovetail saw… I’m getting ready to build a real honest-to-gosh hanging tool cabinet for them. Got the wood picked out and acclimating (Kentucky Coffee Tree with Ambrosia Maple for the door panels) and the design is looking fairly Greene & Green-ish. In April and June of this year I’ll be teaching a class on the making, tuning and use of wooden bodied hand planes. I’ve been known to get up early on a Sunday morning and spend a couple of hours in the shop with my irons and water stones.

Am I going total galoot? Heck no. I’d take my 18” Jet bandsaw to bed with me if I could get it up the stairs (and if I thought my wife would let me) and when nobody is looking I’ve been known to lovingly stroke the smooth granite top of my table saw while french-kissing it’s dust port. (All together now: Ewww! TMI!) But I would say I have distinct galootish tendancies. There is definitely more than a little Underhill in my psyche.

By the way, as of this writing I now own 4 complete sets of chisels and I’ve been eyeballing a 5th.

“Hello, my name is Allen and I have a problem…”

Published in: on February 2, 2010 at 3:43 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey Allen
    I went through the same course at U,C, back in the 80s, its good to see they are still doing the half lap square I think I still have somewhere. We did a small oriental table when I was there for our second project and we still used in our living room. What Woodcraft do you work at? I live up by Wilmington but I grew up in Cincinnati.


    • Hey Joey,

      Curious to know – was Bob Hutzler one of the instructors when you went through the program? I work at the Woodcraft here in Cincinnati, Forest Park to be specific, next to Forest Fair Mall/Cincinnati Mills/The Ghost Town next to the Bass Pro Shops (or whatever they’re calling it these days.)

      • Their was a couple of younger guys that taught class when I was there, and I think one of them was named Bob. Their was an older man that ran the shop who was missing a couple fingers on each Hand I think his name was Woodie or at lease that we all called him. all classes I took was in the evenings and on Sat mornings because I was working at U.C. as a carpenter during the days.
        I haven’t been to Forest Park in a long time I did a few Kitchen jobs there in 2000 I’ll have stop in sometime. I usually go to the Woodcraft up by Kettering and the Rockler out by Tri-County


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