At the end of U.S. History, our teacher gave us a challenge worth 5 extra points on our next test.  We had to be the first one to come to him with an answer to an obscure frontier history question (I can’t remember the question).  Immediately as the bell rang, I made a b-line to the Library and its reference section – specifically the encyclopedias.  I gladly arrived late to my next class, because I had made it to the U.S. History teacher with the right answer before any of my classmates had.

Today of course, everyone would just whip out their smartphones and snapchat the teacher a picture of the answer with a screenshot.

In woodworking, a reference surface is everything.  In a modern shop, it is usually the bed of the jointer from which flat boarjointer planeds come.  In a traditional shop, it’s the sole of the plane.  This flatness is what everything gets referenced from.  A reliable source of information that transmits throughout the entirety of the piece to be built.  If the reference is flat – the piece will be accurate.

In our lives, we all measure ourselves compared to something.  For some of us it’s our parents’ lives, for some it’s a childhood hero or even a friend we are always trying to best.  The problem is that each of these will mislead us.  While they may be good people – they aren’t perfectly true.

The life of Christ is the only sufficient reference for us.  Every other comparison will lead us astray, even if it only starts as a small degree of error.  The encyclopedias were references because they had been tried and found to be accurate.  Christ has been tried by generations, and those who have used Him as a reference guide have made the most beauty with their lives.

The problem has been as G. K. Chesterton put it, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”  Don’t let difficulty keep you from achieving something of true worth.  Hold the life of Christ next to yours.  Where are you a bit off…in need of truing up?  Keep referring back to Him, and your life will turn out beautifully.

*Picture taken from Lie Nielsen’s website depicting their no.8 Jointer Plane:



Tough and Tender

Tough and TenderWhen forging an axe head, there needs to be a specific shape that is designed to function for a desired task: a massive, fairly blunt shape for a splitting axe; a sharp, light shape for trimming purposes (think a hunter’s axe) or a compromise for the American Felling Axe design which, well, fells trees.  The length and shape of the handle should also coincide with that task – imagine a splitting axe head with a hatchet handle 😉

This is all rather obvious to the casual observer, but the axe head itself also needs to be constructed of two different types of metal.  The bulk of the head is of a relatively soft steel to be able to provide mass, but be malleable to absorb the vibrations of the blows without shattering.  This head is split while red hot to accept a high-carbon steel for the blade of the axe.  This is very hard and will hold a good edge…but is brittle, and would shatter without the benefit of the softer steel’s sandwiching of it.

There are more details of course such as wood grain and Rockwell hardness, but suffice it to say, that there is more than meets the eye with the making of a good axe.

This is also true of the people you meet.  They have been shaped for a purpose, and no two of them are exactly the same.  They have been forged by different fires and designed for different functions.  They also have a mixture of toughness and tenderness – one protecting the other.  Many a hardnosed CEO is wrapped around his granddaughter’s little finger, and many a tenderhearted elementary school teacher can whip 30 kids into line better than a drill sergeant can a platoon.

The trick is knowing when to be which.  A CEO whose employees had him wrapped around their fingers wouldn’t last long – or the company wouldn’t; and a granddaughter would certainly not flourish in the presence of a hardnosed, no-nonsense Grandfather.

The beauty of a human being is that we can shift gears based upon the needs of the moment.  A splitting axe is good for splitting…not for trimming; but people can wield either one based on the need.  The axe is a tool…you don’t have to be.

The same Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus, that called Simon Peter “Satan” and drove the moneychangers out of the temple.  He not only told the adulterous woman, “neither do I condemn you, but go and sin no more”; he also told the spiritual leaders of his day that they were “whitewashed tombs”.  He was able to embrace little children at the end of a long day while being angry with his disciples.  He was adept at matching himself to the situation.

Are you adept at wielding your different personas, or are you smashing everyone with a “splitting axe”?

Tough and Tender.  Neither is sufficient.  Both are necessary.

Photo Credit to:

Living Seasonally

The crisp crunch of leaves in the early rays of dawn, the rise of a brown trout as it’s dorsal fin crests the water, the infectious laughter of children as they careen down the sledding hill and the explosion of flavor from a cherry tomato popped into the mouth while tending the Summer garden.

Seasons come and go, and return once again in the dance of life.  “For everything there is a season…” as King Solomon once said.

While in the big picture, seasons of life refers to being a child, raising children and finally meeting ones Maker; I would like to speak about living seasonally within the context of a rotation of life throughout a year.  I share this with you as a concept of the good life, not as a template for you to necessarily follow – rather as a principle for you to interpret in the context of your own life.

My rotation starts on April 1st, April Fools Day, as I stand in a near-freezing WNY stream trying to trick a trout or two.  The afternoon is then given over to starting seeds for the coming year’s vegetable garden.  This inauguration of Spring begins the season of Fishing/Gardening, which will then dominate my “leisure time” throughout the coming months until October rolls around.

As September draws to a close, the season of Harvesting/Hunting begins.  The garden is preserved through freezing, dehydrating and root cellaring.  My beard begins to grow from a goatee to a full beard fit for bowhunting.  My leisure time is consumed by walking through the woods and climbing trees.  As the temperature drops below freezing, we slaughter and butcher a steer, a hog and whatever deer I was able to harvest.  By Christmas, our 3 deep freezers, pantry and root cellar is full to bursting (we raise about 30% of our fruits/vegetables and butcher about 90% of our own meat).  There is a wonderful sense of contentment that comes from having plenty from the works of our own hands…and a sense of the sacred act of eating and sharing a meal with friends.

As Winter locks us in, my heated woodshop becomes my place of creativity and respite.  Planes get sharpened, shavings are made and furniture is the by-product.  This past year, cutting boards, tea shelf, a canoe and a cherry homework table were on the list.  As the snow piles up outside, I listen to jazz, drink coffee and pile up sawdust.  Nothing is wasted: off-cuts become kindling for the wood fire, plane shavings become tinder for same and sawdust gets layered with kitchen scraps in 5-gallon buckets in the corner of the shop for next year’s garden.

Each year I cut a better dovetail, grow a better garden and walk more silently through the woods.  The balance of the familiar and constant change, of inside and out of doors, of growing and harvesting and of constant purpose for my “leisure time” brings joy, balance, health and a sense of constant discovery.

Is it easier to live life vicariously?  Where money is the only thing you make, spend and save?  Where your free time is consumed on a couch with a bag of chips?


Each day would be easier, but life itself would be far more difficult.  The meaninglessness of being bored while being constantly entertained is a much more trying life to live.  The tug of a trout, the thrill of the hunt, the taste of truly fresh food and daily using furniture I have made myself is a far more fulfilling life!Salmon_edit

A Handcrafted Life

father and son


My second son, Caleb, wanted to spend every moment I was in my woodshop with me.  He was constantly looking for something that he could bang with a hammer, cut with a saw or tighten with a screwdriver.  On the one hand – nothing is more gratifying to a dad than a son wanting to be like him.  On the other hand, nothing is more frustrating than constantly having to tell your four year old that he just isn’t big enough to hit, cut or screw whatever it is he was attempting.  

Solution: I got him a cut-off 2×6 and pounded a bunch of large-headed nails into it about 1/3 of the way in.  He then gleefully pounded away at the nails.  This was a short-lived success.  That’s when I decided that he needed a workbench of his own.  Under the guise of seeing how big he was getting, I measured the height of his hipbone, his reach and his spread.

I built him a workbench that was as deep as he could reach easily, as wide as his spread and as high as his hipbone.  We then outfitted the workbench with a pegboard back, some hanging baskets for tool storage, basic tools and his very own nail apron.  He was ecstatic!!  So was my wife…until he started banging away in the playroom  🙂

Caleb’s bench fits him.  It is a horrible workbench for me, but for him – it is exactly what he needed.

Life is a lot like that workbench.  When we try to make ours look like someone else’s, we are constantly frustrated, inefficient and ineffective.  When we build a life that fits us though…it fits, it just fits.  

God knows you and every little detail about you.  He knows how far you can reach and what kind of tools to put on your pegboard.  Stop fighting his handcrafted fit for your life, and let him – the Master Craftsman, build you a life that fits.  “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13, NIV)


Ways to Save

Español: Mantequilla de maní

Español: Mantequilla de maní (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Turn waste streams into revenue streams.  This is the hidden profit that is already there, you just have to take advantage of it.  This could be something as simple as upcycling (finding a new use for an old product – my personal favorite is old peanut butter containters as hardware storage in my workshop) to something as complicated as a new product line.  Take all your kitchen waste, place it in a worm bin – presto worm tea, a terrific foliar fertilizer for your gardens – and it’s organic and free.

2. Buy quality whenever possible.  A word of warning: expensive does not necessarily mean quality – it could simply be the name that you are paying for.  Research actual customer reviews of the products you are looking to purchase – this honest feedback will tell you far more about the product than their glossy brochures.  This also does not mean that you should always buy new either.  New to you can be the best bang for your buck, and it’s better for the environment as well.

3. Take care of your stuff, and it will take care of you.  A proverbial saying that brings “A stitch in time saves nine” to mind.  Paint your house – it’s cheaper than replacing all the siding.  Change the oil in your vehicle – it’s cheaper than replacing the engine.  Vacuum your carpets – it’s cheaper than replacing them (dirt plus traffic = sandpaper).

4. Coupons…but only what you were going to buy anyway.  You are not saving any money at all if you buy things you don’t need.  You are in fact, wasting money.

5. Deep freezer.  This is an upfront investment that will pay you back year after year.  Food is far cheaper when it is in season locally.  Buy it in bulk and freeze it.  This is also true of buying your beef from a farmer.  You will wind up paying ground beef prices for the entire animal.  Filet Mignon for the price of ground beef…sign me up!  But you have to have a way of preserving 450 pounds of meat at a time.

6. Friends are better than funds.  This one is worthy of its own separate post, but suffice it to say here that a community of friends will own more collectively than any individual in the group will.  You have a canoe.  I have a power-washer.  We have a canoe and a power washer.  Share.  It was true in kindergarten and it remains true today.  He who hoards has no friends.  He who shares has both stuff and friends to enjoy it with.  Trust me.  Life is better this way.

7. Grow it.  The single scarcest commodity on the face of the earth is time.  One seed of corn costs about a penny.  Three ears of corn will set you back at least a dollar.  The difference is time.  Live your life according to the seasons.  There is a season to plant and a season to harvest.  This not only applies to food, but to all of life.  Think retirement account.  Invest early and let time do its work, while you do yours.

8. Pay up front, not down the road.  This is a corollary to point #7.  If you pay up front – you save the interest.  Go into debt, and you pay for someone else’s planning ahead.  Cash is King!  If you can’t afford it, you don’t need it.  Save up the cash, then purchase the product.

9. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  ‘Nuff said.

What are some of your favorite ways to save?

Tablesaw, Bandsaw or Workbench: Your Spiritual Gift(s)

Bob's New Table Saw

Bob’s New Table Saw (Photo credit: milletre)

In woodworking circles, there is always a debate over which tool should be the centerpiece of your shop: The tablesaw, the bandsaw or for handtool aficianados – the workbench, usually with a 3″ thick hard maple slab top upon a similarly bulky trestle leg setup.

Those in favor of the tablesaw cite its unparalleled ability to make repeatable, accurate rip and cross-grain cuts, not to mention dadoes, rabbits, tenons, etc.  If you want square, you want a tablesaw.

Those in favor of the bandsaw cite its unparalleled versatility from resawing firewood into lumber, lumber into laminates, rounded cuts or even straight cuts (once drift is accounted for).  This is of course not to mention the greater safety of the wood being forced into the table instead of being shot off of it like the tablesaw.  If you want versatility and safety, you want a bandsaw.

Hand tool gurus love their workbenches!  These heavy, flat, square pieces of furniture excel at holding your workpiece for sawing, planing, drilling, routing, assembling and finishing.  If you want to do handtool work, you want a workbench.

In fact, let’s be honest, the real argument isn’t about what should be the centerpiece of your shop, but rather which kind of woodworking you should be doing (which is in fact a ludicrous argument to get into).  If you primarily do cabinetry, for which you need repeatable, straight cuts – a table saw should be the centerpiece.  If you do woodturning, furniture-making or sculpture-based woodworking – a bandsaw should be the centerpiece.  If you do primarily hand tool work, whether cabinetry or sculpture – a workbench should be the centerpiece of your shop.

The question therefore is not which is the best centerpiece tool, but rather what kind of work do you want to do?

This same principle applies to the Church as well.  The Apostle Paul said that there are many gifts but one Spirit, and again that Christ is the one that apportioned the gifts to us based upon His good pleasure, and yet again that those parts which are hidden are worthy of double honor.  If your gift is giving then do so generously, if your gift is preaching then do so in accordance with your faith, if your gift is hospitality, etc.

We have been gifted by Christ, our Savior for that kind of work which he desires for us to do.  There is no best gift, no right gift.  Let Christ, the master craftsman shape how you work by the gift he has given you, and don’t look up to or down upon another based upon the type of ministry they have been called to perform.  After all, who doesn’t want kitchen cabinets, a rocking chair and beautifully handcrafted pieces in their life?

How to get started

Japanese-style joinery at Wagner Creek EcoNest...

Japanese-style joinery at Wagner Creek EcoNest in Talent, OR (Photo credit: Derek Severson)

Nothing is more foundational to joiner-based woodworking than being able to create a flat surface.  You cannot have square joints, square corners, square projects without first establishing a flat reference surface from which all measurements are made.  In machine work this is performed with a joiner, a tool with two flat beds that are the depth of cut of the joiner knife away from being in a perfect plane with one another.  The board is then held against the infeed table and fence, pushed across the rotating knives of the tool, and received onto the outfeed table.  When the entire length and width of that face has been surfaced by the tool, it is flat and in a single plane.  If you skip this step and move on to the planer, you will have two perfectly parallel surfaces on opposite sides of the board, the second one perfectly paralleling every twist, undulation and imperfection of the first side.  The joiner must come first, only then will both sides be flat and parallel.

The second thing the joiner performs best is to make adjacent sides square to one another.  Flatten a face, then make an adjacent edge square (90 degrees) to it by holding the reference face against the fence of the joiner as it passes across the spinning knives until the entire length and width of the edge has been surfaced.  Take the board with its flat face against the tablesaw surface, with the square edge against the fence and rip to just fat of the final dimension, return to the joiner and clean the matching edge up of all saw marks until final dimension is reached.

Everything starts with the joiner.

Have any heroes in your life?  Any people you look up to and admire?  Any one you want to emulate?  DON’T!

Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly have mentors in my life, and other imperfect people that are better than I am in certain areas.  I certainly could improve by becoming like them in their areas of strength, but they should never be my reference.

Jesus Christ is the only adequate reference for the human experience.  He alone lived life without the twist and taint of sin.  He alone can I parallel without fear of marring the  work of the master carpenter in my life and the lives of those around me.  He alone can give consistent guidance in how to be human in this out-of-joint world.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV)