Amazing woodworking school offers an inner journey

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Along with Sam Maloof, George Nakashima and a few others, James Krenov introduced America to the idea of the artist-woodworker. His books inspired a generation to approach wood furniture in a profound and organic way, and the cabinetmaking program he founded in northern California has turned out some of the most masterful makers worldwide. A couple weeks ago I traveled on assignment to a school northwest of Vancouver, where one of Krenov’s most talented and devoted disciples is carrying the legacy forward in an incredible way.

As Krenov was winding down his career at College of the Redwoods, he was being discovered by maybe his most faithful follower. Robert Van Norman, who was teaching shop class to at-risk kids in Saskatchewan, had read “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” Krenov’s first and most influential book, and like many was inspired to follow a similar path. He took a chance and called the iconic Swedish-American educator out of the blue.
Known to be alternately crusty and warm, Krenov was nothing but encouraging to Van Norman and they struck up a friendship, talking often as the younger man left teaching and began working with a German cabinetmaker.

But the work was commercial and unfulfilling, off the pure path Krenov had described, so Robert left to make original work. He did commercial cabinetry jobs at first, but soon found that his spec pieces were beginning to sell, like this beautiful double rocker.

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Van Norman lived in a series of homes and shops as he built a name for himself, while his ever-supportive wife Yvonne ran a home-cleaning business and helped raise their young family.

Where the story gets really amazing is when Robert fell one day on the ice and permanently injured his back and legs (he recovered but has chronic pain). Looking for answers he re-read the foreword to “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook,” in which Krenov mused about one day turning to teaching, when he was too old for “hoisting big planks” and other rigors of full-time furniture making.

Van Norman decided to visit Krenov at College of the Redwoods, to finally meet him in person after 12 years of phone conversations. At the school, Robert and Jim hatched a novel plan. Already an incredible craftsman, Van Norman would attend the school for just one year instead of the usual two, with the intent of becoming a teacher in the master’s mold.  It took a tremendous family effort for Van Norman to attend CR, but he did it, and halfway through his year, they were already giving him CR students to teach.

When Van Norman got back to Canada, he took a few unfulfilling teaching positions , eventually ending up at Rosewood Studio near Ottawa, as the school’s “resident craftsman.” His wife and kids made the move too.

The school was a good one, but still not deep-dive program Van Norman was imagining, and he knew the only solution was to start his own. At the same time, Krenov was aging and being forced into retirement, and the cabinetmaking program he started at CR was changing direction slowly. He was captivated by Van Norman’s venture. In fact, Krenov donated every one of his machines, tools, and workbenches to Van Norman’s school, as well as his entire archive of slides and photos, many never before seen.

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In Robert Van Norman’s own shop, he has many of Krenov’s own machines, his workbenches, and his entire archive of slides and photos.

In Krenov’s words:
“It makes me happy that this small school intends to return to the traditional. To the values and no gadgets methods which have nourished our craft for a very long time. Dedication, a simple logic in what we do and how we do it. For some, there is a lure; mysteriously elusive wood, tools that follow one’s intention, an awareness that our craft is an intimately timeless education. If you feel even a bit of this… persevere. Enjoy. The journey may change your life.”

What is just as beautiful is the place the Van Normans chose for the school. Northwest of Vancouver, B.C., in a remote section of coastline only accessible by ferry, they found the little town of Robert’s Creek, perched along the Inside Passage, Canada’s vast coastal waterway.

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There he and Yvonne bought a little homestead, adding a big mortgage to help build the school. In 2005 their perfect little building opened its doors with a beautiful bench room and nicely outfitted machine room, everything they needed to educate 10-12 students at a time. They have been full from the beginning, drawing students from 37 countries, most inspired by the same books that captivated Van Norman so many years ago.

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the-machine-room-is-beautifully-outfittedthere-is-time-and-space-to-immerse-yourself-in-your-workThe story gets even more touching then. Krenov was much older now, losing his eyesight and realizing he would have to stop making cabinets. So Robert asked him to give weekly lectures to the students, over a speaker phone. He gave 300 hours of one-hour lectures to the students at Inside Passage, an hour a week, and they were legendary, ranging from the how to the why.

When Jim died in 2009, Robert was devastated, and couldn’t bear to hear Jim’s voice for a couple years. Then he started using the lectures again, in a beautiful way.

On Friday mornings at the school, Van Norman gives the floor back to Krenov, combining  snippets of the lectures with photos of Krenov’s work and a short Q&A. It is every student’s favorite part of the week.

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Students gather every Friday morning for a dose of inspiration and advice from the master himself.

It hasn’t been easy for Robert and Yvonne, but their little school is the embodiment of Krenov’s philosophy and techniques, with Robert’s gentle manner and innovative ideas taking Krenov’s pure path ever higher.

For the whole story, and a lot more pictures, see my upcoming article in Popular Woodworking magazine, and go to the school’s excellent website.

Welding, pt. 2: Adding wood to metal

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I worked with an expert welder for an upcoming article for Woodcraft magazine, titled, “Welding for Woodworkers.” And that’s what I covered in my first blog. Now my part kicks in: adding a wood top to our steel frame, along with some finishing touches for the overall table.

Just as I thought, dealing with metal is simple compared to wood. Abrasive pads remove the last traces of high heat, plus any scratches, and a coat of paste wax is all the finish you need, evening out the sheen and providing a bit of protection from finger grease and corrosion. There are awesome plugs that you just bang down into the ends of the steel-tube legs with a rubber mallet, and they come threaded for adjustable feet.

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As for adding a wood top, that’s woodworking, and takes a bit more time. I went with Port Orford cedar, a hard cedar that grows only in the Pacific Northwest. It’s got nice organic character that goes well with the steel below.

I milled up two thick pieces to make a 1-1/2-in.-thick top, to match the thickness of the steel frame parts. Than I added a little rabbet around the bottom edge to create a thin shadow line that separates wood and steel.

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After prepping the surfaces, putting a nice roundover on all the edges, and adding a few coats of polyurethane, attaching the wood top was a breeze. Kari Merkl had already drilled holes through the upper frame pieces before welding the frame together, so now I just drove long screws through those into the top. The cedar is pretty stable but there is enough wiggle room in the screw holes to allow for any seasonal wood movement.

That’s it, a mixed-media table in the modern style! For the whole story, including a variety of different pieces made with similar techniques, see my upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine.

Embrace the imperfections in the wood and welding.jpgthe-steel-and-wood-work-well-together

The Willie Wonka world of Judson Beaumont

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I don’t know a person who doesn’t love Judson Beaumont’s furniture when they see it. From tables and cabinets that melt and explode, to doghouses shaped like campers, the ideas are original, playful, joyful and and seemingly endless.

Long before I met him at a trade show, I was a huge fan. We were there to judge a student furniture show and hit it off instantly. Jud is compact and effervescent, like his furniture, and we had a blast appreciating young people’s work, and then bar-hopping and cracking wise that same night.

We never met again until last week, when I had the chance to drive up to his workshop in Vancouver, B.C., on assignment for Popular Woodworking magazine. I was looking forward to getting inside the Chocolate Factory.

Jud found his old industrial building almost 30 years ago, when he was a young art-school graduate with some furniture success already under his belt. He took a corner spot on the second floor, unboarded the windows, and went to work.  Over the years other artisans followed his lead, and today the place is chockful of over 200 of them, cross-pollinating each others’ work and lives, trading skills and ideas. Jud recruited his current casting/molding expert from the floor below.

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One thing I love about the building is how the owners and occupants have welcomed talented graffiti artists to decorate the exterior. Art is art.

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Inside his two giant workrooms, I found a small army of young assistants, busy bringing Jud’s creations to life. No Oompa-Loompas, because they come and go over the years, but talented and committed to Jud’s vision.

Like most of my favorite furniture makers, Jud designs first, free from constraints, and then figures out how to build it. It’s not better then being schooled in traditional furniture making methods, just different.

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So how he builds is not precious. Nail guns, plywood, and glue mostly, with the finished surfaces being where he spends his effort. He just does whatever makes sense, as long as the finished project is sturdy and impeccable looking in the end.

That means he can work quickly, focus on designing and finding clients, and rely on (somewhat) lesser skilled workers to do the heavy lifting.

I also found out that the seemly effortless designs are exactly the opposite. This is critical information for would-be designers, so listen up: It takes a hundred weird sketches and wacky experiments with the tablesaw and glue to come up with just a few workable ideas, and Jud has spent 30 years of Saturdays alone in his shop, just playing. Playing with a purpose.

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The sketching is critical he said, and you’ll get better at it the more you do. But you need to see ideas in real 3-D too, so miniature and full-size models are just as important. Dozens of false starts and funky attempts line the walls and windowsills of his shop. Some miniatures are so cool that they end up being sold.

If you do all that, and do it for decades, experimenting and building endlessly, you might get to travel the world like Jud, having children in Hong Kong dress up like your furniture and dance for you.

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For more about this real-life Willie Wonka, check future issues of Popular Woodworking magazine. The magazine tends to stick to traditional forms and methods, so I can’t wait to see what readers think. I can’t imagine them not appreciating Judson Beaumont.

Welding is easier than you think, pt. 1

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I’ve been spending time with a local welder, Kari Merkl, working on an article for Woodcraft magazine, called “Welding for Woodworkers,” and I’m psyched to see how easy and affordable it is to get into the craft. Today’s small, user-friendly welders can join all sorts of steel parts, and then who knows what you might build: sleek furniture, junkyard sculpture, a tiny house or a tricked-out trailer.

I haven’t welded anything since a brief intro back in trade school 30 years ago, but I’ve always wanted to add welding to my arsenal. So I jumped at the chance to find a local expert and see what it takes to get started. Kari has been welding professionally for 16 years and teaching for 6, which makes her uniquely suited to break it down for beginners like me.

Watch Woodcraft mag for the full story, but here’s a taste of how easy and fun welding can be. I’ll do the basics first, then talk about adding wood parts in a later post. But keep following this blog because I plan to get my own rig and start building stuff with steel. If you’ve already beat me to it, let me know!

So welder first. You’ll be welding mild steel, specifically “cold-rolled,” which comes in lots of tubes and shapes with good dimensional accuracy and a nice, smooth finish. Other metals are harder to held and more of a next-level thing. But mild steel can do a ton of stuff, and be painted, power-coated or just protected with wax.

So for mild steel, MIG welding is the answer, at least for most of you. It’s the best combo of affordability, portability, affordability, and short learning curve. MIG stands for Metal Inert Gas, which just means the welding gun directs a stream of argon gas (with some CO2) into the welding zone to shield it from impurities in the air. Makes for much cleaner welds. But MIG is just a form of wire-fed arc welding, in which the work is grounded and then the welding wire touches the work, completing the circuit and instantly heating the wire and surrounding steel into a molten state, so it can bond together in a little puddle.

So there is a simpler wire-fed method, which forgoes the gas for flux instead. The flux is in the core of the welding wire, and creates a little shielding plume when heated. The weld isn’t quite as clean as MIG can do, but it’s still very effective.

Bottom line, you can get a gasless wire-feed welder for under $300 and for another $150 or so you can have a unit that does MIG, too! Here’s a great one that does both, from a very reputable company, Hobart.

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Voltage and the feed rate are controlled separately, as they should be, and the unit comes with the spool gun (with a few extra tips), some flux-core wire, and the grounding clamp–everything you need for flux-core-wire welding. If you add the tank of argon gas at some point, you can do MIG.

You will also need to prep your shop environment. If you can’t work in a separate room with nothing flammable for about 12 feet in every direction, you can shield the welding area with plastic welding curtains, as Kari is doing here:

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You’ll also notice the grounding clamp attached to a steel table, which in turn electrifies the workpieces being welded. You can also attach the clamp to the parts themselves, if you are welding on a concrete floor for example, or just put a steel plate atop your woodworking bench. The solid wood is spark proof too, but be sure there is no sawdust in sight or anything flammable, including open trash cans. And hang up those shielding curtains where needed!

You’ll also need some safety gear, like Kari has on, all thick cotton or leather, with a welding helmet.

Other than some practice and basic know-how, this is all that stands between you and welding! OK, you do need some way to cut metal, and your woodworking tools won’t work. Your wood-cutting bandsaw is way to fast for metal. So you’ll need a small metal cutoff saw (just over $100) or a horizontal bandsaw ($300-$400 new) designed for cutting metal.

Now to the basic technique. First of all, welding introduces tension and a lot of heat, so you need to distribute that heat and tension as you go or you will distort the assembly you are …assembling.

Basically, you get the parts squared up and clamped in place (there are cool welding clamps of this, or you can use any steel-jawed woodworking clamps) and then you first just make small tack welds at all the joints, moving systematically sound the assembly. Then you return to point A to make full welds. This balances the forces as you go, and lets the heat dissipate in each spot before you return.

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Mark used some cool magnet clamps to hold the parts in place squarely while she tacked all the joints together. This leg assembly got joined later to another one to complete the table base.
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You work your way around the assembly tacking one area at a time.
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Then you return to each area to do the full welds. This equalizes all the forces in the assembly as you go, and lets heat dissipate.

As for technique, it’s best to take a class and do lots of practice but here are the basics: you cut off the wire at about 1/4 in. away from the tip of the gun, tilt the gun about 60 degrees to the surface and pull it along ahead of the weld, trying to keep the tip of the gun about 1/8 in. off the surface. The tilted gun lets you see the weld area as you work.

 

You also need to swirl the tip of the gun as you go to create a wide, strong bead. Welding is a dance of sorts, between voltage, wire feed rate, and your own motion, as you move the molten puddle down the weld, and that dance takes practice. But you can do it!

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This is the angle and height you should keep the spool gun at, and this is about how wide a good weld should be. You can see the swirling action in the weld.
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A wire brush cleans say the slag off the weld, and 3M pads can do the rest of the polishing. A couple coats of paste wax completes the job. Then the frame is done!

Kari says the hardest part for beginners is learning to see the entire weld as you work, training your brain to see a bigger circle through the lens in the white light, and also just getting comfortable with the sparks, sound, and light. But she gets beginners to nirvana all the time, so you can do it too.

 

After spending a couple days shooting photos at her studio, I’m positive I can weld. Still I’m going to one of her classes this weekend to try it for real.

Stay tuned for part two, where I show some of the finishing touches to a welded frame, and how to add wood to it to make a nice coffee table.

Nick Offerman: The best friend any woodworker could have

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Sitting in my adopted hometown, Portland, OR, on New Year’s Eve, I’m reflecting back on the path that led me here, and where that path might lead. One amazing friend comes to mind: Nick Offerman, who played that mustachioed, wood-loving libertarian, Ron Swanson, on NBC’s best comedy of the decade: Parks & Rec. I’m lucky to call him my real-life buddy.

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He’s on my mind for two reasons. For one, I just read his foreword to my upcoming book, “Build Stuff with Wood,” (Taunton Press, fall 2017), which he sent right on deadline for my review. It’s awesome, of course, and just another in a long series of kindnesses from Nick. If you know him at all, from TV or YouTube or Reddit, you know he is a prince of a man.

The other reason I’m thinking of Nick is that I just happened across a video shop tour I did with him at his LA woodshop about six or seven years ago. I was shocked to see that it has almost 1 million views. That’s all about Nick. My side of the screen is a charisma-free zone.

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Nick’s shop is symbolic of his whole life. It is the home of six or seven young woodworkers who get an amazing shop to work in, and an income making some of the awesome Offerman Woodshop products, as well as space and time to build their own careers and commissions. In return they kick back a little to overhead, and Nick just tries to break even. You can read about the people, projects, and whole vibe in Nick’s wonderful new book, “Good, Clean Fun,” which I had the honor to help edit.

Anytime I can pay Nick back somehow, I leap at the chance. Fact-checking his latest book was a welcome opportunity.

I first met Nick when he was a guest on the Martha Stewart Show, and I was a talking head in the audience.

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Nick is a super-fan of Fine Woodworking magazine, and said he was star-struck about meeting me at the Martha Stewart Show. That was crazy talk, and I told him so.

We became fast friends, and he soon appeared on the cover of Fine Woodworking magazine, which I was the editor of. No puff piece, mind you, but a hardcore how-to article about a killer router jig he uses to surface big slabs.

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Soon Nick was the subject of a how-to article in FWW. He appreciated the fact that he had to earn his way in with killer content, just like everyone else. 

Later, I visited his shop to do that video tour, and even later, he convinced the producers of Parks & Rec to write me and some other real woodworking people into an actual episode of the show. You can see my short but powerful second of camera time here. Strangely, LA never came calling again.

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Nick invited me and the best woodworker he knows, Chris Becksvoort, to be on the show. Lucky for us, the show has an oddball vibe. The cast was as friendly as they are talented, including the gold-tressed Ms. Poehler.

And now Nick is writing the foreword to my book. You should all have friends like this guy. Until you meet him in person, you can soak up his spirit in his many great books, all at this same link on Amazon, or go see one of his stand-up comedy/storytelling performances at a theater near you. When you meet him, thank him for making woodworking cool again.

Hanging in Nick’s shop is the first cedar-strip canoe he built. It’s name is Lucky Boy. I think one of the keys to life is to find ways to feel fortunate. That’s my resolution for 2017.

Screw-on legs will turn anything into a table

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The traditional way to add legs to a table is first to connect the tops of legs to a series of rails, creating a separate base. The top then attaches to that. That type of base demands high-skill joints like mortises and tenons to connect everything. Lucky for us, there are much easier answers these days.

A variety of companies now sell self-supporting legs that simply screw onto any top you have, be it a wood slab, butcher block, old door, old workbench top or whatever. In my book for beginners, “Build Stuff with Wood,” due out next fall, I show four of these leg systems. Here they are, attached to a variety of tops.

You can imagine the rest of the possibilities, I’m sure. By the way, to find out how I surfaced and finished the beautiful walnut slab that I used for two of these tables, go here.

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Ikea sells legs like these for $16 a set! You can buy them in four colors. I harvested mine from a beat-up old Ikea desk we had.
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I made a thick top by screwing and gluing together two pieces of plywood, trimming the edges, and rounding them with a router, and then screwing on my Ikea legs. Quick and easy! By the way, I finished this tabletop with spar varnish to stand up to the elements.
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The table came out great. Go here for the full how-to.
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I matched the umbrella to the chairs and table legs to create this outdoor oasis.
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These mid-century modern hairpin legs from Rockler.com are not cheap, but they are gorgeous. You can get a two-wire or three-wire version in various lengths and finishes. 
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Check out the finished desk. To find out how I surfaced and finished that gorgeous walnut slab, go here.
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Here is another amazing screw-on Mid-Century Modern leg set, from tablelegs.com. You buy the cleats and legs separately and they are unfinished. These are walnut, coffee table size legs, but they come in all different sizes and woods. I applied an oil-based polyurethane finish.
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Be sure to choose cleats that are shorter than your tabletop is wide. The cleats and legs simply screw on.
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This coffee table is just as nice as the desk. Wish I could have kept it this way but we needed the desk more.
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And last but not least is this plumbing pipe hardware, which I used to make a beautiful coffee table.
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Find out more about this project here.

 

 

New machine is a joint-making marvel

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I spent part of last week in nearby Oregon City, shooting photos of the PantoRouter, helping its U.S. distributor get the word out about this wonderful new joint-making machine. Based on the pantograph principle, which transfers a pattern and changes its scale, the current version of the PantoRouter began as a DIY project in a Canadian woodshop and ended up as a collaboration between passionate people in three countries. The result is the fully-featured commercial product you see here.

Mathias Wandel developed the first PantoRouter, offering plans and creating a YouTube channel that went viral (not Kardashian-level viral, but woodworking scale). The project attracted the attention of Kuldeep Singh, an Indian guy who happens to live in Kyoto, Japan, and signed on to develop a commercial version. That’s where my new Oregon friend Mac Sheldon came in, collaborating on the final details and then marketing and distributing the product here in North America. Sheldon continues to add templates and capabilities as he learns what woodworkers want most from the PantoRouter.

Without the deep pockets of a big tool company, it’s a labor of love to bring a machine like this to market, and I’m really happy these three guys persevered. I’m also happy to have met Mac at my local woodworking guild.

I’ve seen all the joint-making machines out there. For example, I edited and shot a full tool test of all sorts of mortising machines l when I was at Fine Woodworking. After working with the PantoRouter for two days, I’m pretty blown away.

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The PantoRouter is intuitive to use, and the templates make it foolproof.

The key is the mortise-and-tenon templates, which come with the basic package. The pointer on the PantoRouter, actually a small bearing, first rides the inside of the template to make the mortise, with zero wiggle room, and then rides the outside to form a perfectly matching tenon. With various bearing and bit combos, you can make matching joints of almost any thickness.

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There is no wiggle room when mortising, meaning you can’t mess up.
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The bearing rides the outside of the template to make the matching tenon, and any hand wobbles go outward, meaning you can’t mess up the tenon either.
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What you get is perfect-fitting joints in minutes.
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What is really cool is that each template has slightly tapered edges, which lets you move the bearing in and out to make tiny adjustments to the fit of the tenon, for a perfect press-fit right off the machine. No sanding or planing.
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Among the many templates are vertical ones for M&Ts across the grain.

Not to get too deep here, but because the ratio of movement between the guide bearing and cutter is 2-to-1, any inaccuracies are reduced by half. The only downside to the M&T templates is their fixed widths. Sheldon is working on templates that have variable width, but for now the templates only make M&Ts that are either 1-1/2 or 2-1/2 in. wide.

That said if you use the tapered pin (included) instead of the bearing guide, as shown below, running it in one of the slots on the aluminum extrusion, you can make mortises of all lengths and arrays, meaning you can crank out matching mortises for slip tenons. It works great!

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Another cool way to use the PantoRouter is to run a tapered guide pin in one of the slots in the extrusion, as shown, using the templates simply as stops, letting you make any length or array of mortises. This is killer for slip tenons.

There are more thoughtful features than I can cover here, but here are just four more great ones:

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To center the template on the thickness of your stock, you just sit the workpiece on a stop and bring the template holder down onto it as shown.
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To set the cutting depth, you touch the bit to the workpiece and then set the depth stop using a simple scale. Note that the whole router carriage rides on round rails.
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The new dust collection shroud comes off in seconds for setup, goes back on just as fast, and collects almost every bit of router mess.
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The new T-square will be standard in the $1,500 package, making workpiece setup even quicker.

Mortises and tenons are far from all this machine can do. There are templates for excellent box joints, plus fixed and variably-spaced dovetails, all with the same foolproof bearing-guided system.

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There are templates for both 1/4 and 1/2 in. box joints, and they are as foolproof as the others.
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You simply use a spacer that is the same thickness as your bit to set up the second workpiece, and the fit is amazing.
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Last but not least, there are templates for dovetails with fixed spacing, and also for variably spaced joints, and all of them cut both pins and tails with a single template.

Like Wandel does for his DIY version, Sheldon makes all sorts of custom joint patterns (the ones for sale are in tough HDMW plastic), such as butterfly keys, S-curves, dog bones, and much more, which you can buy from the PantoRouter site . He accepts custom orders, too.

If you are as geeky as Wandel clearly is, you can make your own templates or have them made at a local CNC shop. The PantoRouter website has a calculator for the offset for various bearings and bits. The pantograph principle is the key, and the possibilities really are endless.

Best of all, the collaborators keep improving the machine. A while back they built tilt into the table for angled joints, and Sheldon recently developed a T-square fence that makes workpiece setup even quicker. Next up are those adjustable M&T templates I mentioned.

Not much new really happens in woodworking, and I have a feeling the PantoRouter will be making headlines for years to come. It’s about $1,500 for the package that includes everything you need to make M&Ts, box joints, and dovetails, including three top-quality Whiteside solid-carbide, up-spiral bits. All you need to add is a standard router motor. When you consider that the similar JDS MultiRouter is $3K and Festool’s larger Domino machine is over $1,000 and only does mortises, you see the value of the new machine.

Trust me when I say this machine makes great joints quickly and accurately. Click through some of the PantoRouter videos to be convinced. That and more, including various packages and accessories, are at the official website:

https://hybridpantorouter.com