Great gifts for woodworkers

As editor of Fine Woodworking I saw thousands of woodworking tools and gizmos come and go, but a few stand out as must-haves for any aspiring woodworker. Together they form an awesome holiday gift guide. Treat yourself, or treat a friend.

Each of these tools is not only affordable but also guaranteed to take your craft to the next level. Now that’s value!

Here are my favorite holiday woodworking gifts, sure to bring a smile to the faces of young makers and old grizzled vets alike.

Protect your ears and eyes

There are tons of gizmos for this, but you simply must protect your ears and eyes from power tools. Eyes are obviously priceless, but a lot of people on’t know that hearing loss is cumulative. That means all those roaring tools and pounding hammers take their toll, and the damage simply adds up over the years. So you wake up in your 40s or 50s and realize you have a big problem.

Here are two of my favorite new devices for protecting eyes and ears. There are lots of glasses and goggles, and if your glasses are polycarbonate, you can probably get by with just those. But here is a new set of German goggles that will make you the envy of your local makerspace.


The tinted lenses are not available right now, but these goggles are still awesome-looking and effective, and a great deal at under $20.

And finally, you can’t beat these high-tech earmuffs for comfort and convenience. They are not quite as effective as full earmuffs that sit on your head, but they will do the job for most power tools.

SensGard earmuffs sit comfortably around your neck until you need them, and then they are just as easy to pop on top of your head and in your ears.

Called SensGard, they use a proprietary air chamber to muffle loud sounds but let in soft ones like voices. What I like is that they can just sit around your neck until you need them. There are ear plugs on headbands that do the same thing, but ear plugs are a pain to stick in your ears.

SensGard has small soft cups that are easy to place over your ear openings and comfortable to wear. When you want to hear your boom box again, you just drop the headband onto your neck.

Best of all, Home Depot has these for under $20!


Protect your lungs too

These ingenious rubber adapters fit almost every power tool, old and new, connecting them to standard shop vac hoses and doing away with dust.

While we are protecting eyes and ears, why not protect your lungs, too, for a safer 2017! For some outdated reason, a lot of tool makers still don’t provide dust ports that connect to standard hoses. That means you are stuck with that useless little canister they attach to tools. Not only do those not work, but for tools like sanders, they actually make the tool work worse because the wood dust gets in the way of the abrasive action.

Attach a shop vac to you sander and the paper starts lasting way longer and working way better, and better yet, the dust disappears instead of ending up all over the shop and down in the deepest regions of your lungs (wood dust is a carcinogen in big amounts BTW).

This ingenious adapter set is Rockler’s gift to the world, one of many clever problem-solvers you’ll find at It fits all vac hoses and almost every tool in the shop, going on and off in a jiffy. I especially like it on my miter saw and sanders.

The standard set can be purchased for larger, standard hoses or the smaller Festool hoses. Both types screw down into the hose, where they stay. Then the rubber end attaches to the tool.


Greatest.  Sanding.  Block.  Ever.

The Preppin Weapon fits your hand perfectly and holds a long piece of sandpaper for fast action.
The paper goes on and off in seconds, and is held tight and taut.

Everyone hates sanding but there is no more foolproof way to get surfaces buttery smooth and ready for a beautiful wood finish. Enter the “Preppin’ Weapon,” which is a steal at under $20 on Amazon. Born in the auto-body world, it grabs a long 1/4-sheet of sandpaper quickly and securely, and sits beautifully in your hand as it works its magic. The ergonomic shape, quick paper clamps, the spongy bottom, and the long, effective shape simply can’t be beat.

The work goes fast and the results are beautiful uniform as you work your way up through the grits to 220 or beyond. Combine it with my shopmade sandpaper slicing jig and take your sanding game to a ridiculous level!


Struggle with sharpening no more


Combined with almost any sort of sharpening stone, the Veritas Mark II honing guide will guarantee razor sharpness.

Traditional handplanes and chisels can be amazing weapons, but only if they are razor sharp. And the only reliable way I know to get there is to use a honing guide. And the best one I know BY FAR is the Veritas Mark II. Get the standard set.

This guide not only holds almost any woodworking blade perfectly, and also tools smooth and level. But best of all is the little setup guide that attaches to the front to set the honing angle. Check the top of this page for a video on how the setup guide works.

Trust me, you need one of these if you want to use hand tools. By the way, I would combine it with a coarse diamond plate or a bench grinder for forming the edge, and a set of waterstones in the 1,000. 4,000, and 8,000 grits for honing the secondary bevel. Grind at 25 degrees, hone at 30. That will work for almost every chisel and handplane you will ever buy.


Add machinist precision to your work

A lot of people take on traditional joinery and use only traditional tools to execute it. That is a mistake. I couldn’t live without my dial calipers, which you can get for a measly $22.50 (!!) from There are digital versions that can switch between fractions and decimals, but I like the simplicity of the decimal version. Once I’m working with thousandths of an inch, I don’t bother converting back to fractions usually.


Get the six-inch version of dial calipers, which is plenty big enough for woodworking tasks.


Want to know exactly how big something is, like a dado or screw and then size your shelf or drill bit to fit it? Grab the calipers. Planing a shelf to fit a dado, or a tenon to fit a mortise? Grab the calipers. Trying to plane a board to the thickness of some others? Having trouble reading those tiny numbers on the side of a drill bit? The answer is always the same.

They can take inside and outside measurements, and they read in .001 of a inch, which is more than enough for the finest woodworking. There is even a depth gauge on the end for reaching down into holes and mortises.

Why struggle with tiny ruler marks when you can know exactly what you are dealing with? Once you have one of these, you’ll be kicking yourself for not having one sooner.


Lie-Nielsen has all the block planes you’ll ever need

You may or may not ever use a big smoothing plane to prepare your wood surfaces for finishing, but you will darn well need these two block planes. Start with the a small standard block plane, like this one from Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. This little $100 plane should be the beginning of any hand tool collection. It is beautiful and cuts wood like butter. And like all Lie-Nielsen tools, it comes tuned up for action. Just give the blade a light honing and go.

Edges, end grain, corners, whatever, this plane will handle it all. For starters, use it to break the sharp edges on all of your projects for a finished look and feel. You are a true craftsman now.


Imagine your favorite woodworker unwrapping this beautiful tool on Christmas morning.

When you are ready to tackle real joinery, you’ll be making mortises and tenons. Make the mortises first, and plane the tenons to fit. You can shape the tenons however you like–tablesaw, bandsaw, handsaw–but leave them a little thick and then plane them for a piston fit with this rabbeting block plane, also from Lie-Nielsen.

This rabbeting block plane cuts all the way into sharp corners, meaning it is amazing for fitting tenons to mortises. The little round part, called a nicker, cuts the fibers in the corner for amazingly clean results.

Some folks use traditional shoulder planes for the job, but this plane is wider and helps me do most tenons in one pass. And it still trims the shoulders of the tenon even with each other.

The secret, and the reason it is called “rabbeting,” is that the blade extends all the way to the edge of the tool, meaning it can cut all the way into the corner of a rabbet, or trim the entire face of a tenon right up to the shoulder. A normal block plane won’t do that.



Easy wood floor for any workshop

After a few hours on a concrete floor, your feet, ankles, and legs start to suffer. And if you know your dogs will be barking in your workshop, you’ll spend less time there building things.

There is a quick, easy answer. If you want to warm up a concrete slab, put a spring in your step, and get the whole job done in an afternoon, DriCore panels are for you.

What I love most is how thin a DriCore floor is–under 1 in.–meaning you won’t steal valuable headroom under low ceilings. Yet it has all the benefits of the real thing: great insulation value, a moisture barrier, excellent strength and durability under a heavy machine or workbench, and the forgiving bounce of wood. It will be friendlier to your feet and friendlier to your tools, and just warm up the place.

To beautify and protect the floor you can stain or paint it. At minimum, you should roll out a couple coats of polyurethane. As for availability, you can pick up the panels or have them delivered from almost any Home Depot.

The secret to the system is the anatomy of the panel. They are 2-ft.-by-2-ft., so they are easy to carry around yet they cover a floor quickly. On their edges are tongues and grooves that fit together snugly but require no glue to keep them joined for life. And on the bottom is a bumpy plastic layer that acts both as a moisture barrier and an air gap, adding to the insulating value (R-17).

I’ve known about DriCore since my days at Fine Woodworking, but I spent a recent day at a friend’s shop, helping him install his floor, and we learned a few tips and tricks. Scroll down for the basics. There is also a how-to video here with lots more info.

The tongues and grooves fit together snugly and need no glue.
The top is durable chipboard and the bottom is a bumpy layer of tough plastic that helps the panels lay flat, and creates both an air gap and a moisture barrier.
Start by laying out some panels to see how they will work. You need to stagger the seams as you go from row to row, without having any pieces that are 3 in. wide or less, so it takes a bit of planning. Often you’ll need to cut the first piece in the row to get the rest to work.
You put 1/4-in. spacers against the wall when installing the floor. You’ll remove them later, to give the floor a chance to expand and contract with the seasons.
We quickly learned to install the panels with their tongues facing the wall, because it is easier to bang on the groove side. Always protect the edge with a 2×4 as shown.
When you reach the wall, you’ll need to make a cut. A tablesaw works great, but a circ saw or jigsaw also work fine. Be really careful when deciding which edge to cut off. We paid the price for rushing a few times!
The process goes quickly, slowing down only when you get to the end of a row and have to do some measuring and cutting, and then some prying against the wall to get the last piece to join its mate!
A jigsaw is especially helpful for notches and curves when working around obstacles.
In an afternoon you have a flawless floor in a big room. Roll out a few coats of polyurethane to protect and beautify the wood, wait a couple more days, and roll in your equipment! You can also stain or paint the surface.




Finest furniture in Texas

I was in the Lone Star State recently to judge the Texas Furniture Makers Show at the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center in beautiful Kerrville, TX. I’ve judged the show twice before, back in my previous life as the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine. With my new woodworking book on the horizon, they asked me to be their guest once again.

First of all, the Texas “hill country” is one the most beautiful places I’ve been in the world–and unknown to many outsiders. Secondly, Texas knows how to make fine furniture.

The Kerr Arts Center is housed in the old Kerrville post office, and is as charming and professional as can be. If you don’t know how open and welcoming Texans are, well then you’re just missing out.

You can go on the show’s website to see who won prizes this year, but here are my personal favorites. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me.

A few determined, art-loving citizens turned the old Kerrville post office into a gorgeous arts center, complete with huge galleries, a thriving gift shop, meeting spaces and more.
This is just one of two big gallery spaces, which host a wide variety of shows.
Leo Litto of Austin won Best in Show for this sleek tray table made of pearwood and sapele veneer. He made it out of love for his dad, who was gravely ill in the hospital and surrounded by inhuman machines.
Every inch of this table is flawlessly designed and sculpted.
The top looks like a tiny ocean.
Jim Wallace, a local woodworking hero, took the People’s Choice award with his jaw-dropping “Oz” cabinet. The laser-cut marquetry is inspired by the movie.
The cabinet opens to reveal a Technicolor world, just like the film did.
My personal favorite at the show (I’m a bit different) was this desk and chair inspired by The Jetsons, a 1960s cartoon that presented that old-timey Tomorrowland view of the future. It’s called “Educating Elroy” and it was crafted mostly from MDF and PVC pipe by Jody Fletcher of Seguin, TX.
Fletcher used a regular mirror, a two-way mirror, a ring of LEDs, and a Lexan disk to create this endless tunnel into the future.
Lou Quallenburg, who usually takes home awards with benches and tables made from live-edge slabs of mesquite, is continuing his foray into sculpture, and took top honors in the art-style category this year.
When the heart broke during sculpting, Lou learned about a Japanese technique for making repairs and embracing them, by highlighting the fix with gold dust. “Broken Heart” was born.
Barry Bradley made a bold departure from his earlier, more traditional work with “Fenced In,” which has a steel base that invokes barbed wire, and a mesquite top. The judges rewarded his courage and creativity with top prize in the Texas style category.
I love the ebony butterfly key and how it matches the ebony-toned epoxy used to fill cracks, and also the texture Bradley added to the edge.
My trip included a visit to the gift shop, where I found these amazing bowls, sculpted from Manzanita burls by my fellow judge and dear friend Danny Kamerath.
This table by Spider Johnson celebrates one of Texas’ finest troubadours.I love it.


Use your skills to improve the world around you

My new Portland neighborhood is a great place for walking. There are side trails and staircases between houses, all leading to a giant field around the local school where people walk their dogs, run on the track, etc. But Portland is also a wet place much of the year, and we rely on homemade bridges and walkways to get through the muddy spots.

So recently me and my neighbor (Chuck, musician and Christmas-light king) teamed up to replace a rotting section of walkway. It took about $50 of pressure-treated wood and deck screws to make a new section, and the moment it went down, joggers and school kids were using it.

Chuck also stapled down some asphalt shingles on nearby wood bridges, which get mossy and super slick in the winter. The gritty shingles are a cheap and effective fix.

Bottom line, it feels good to put some sweat equity into the place you live. Word went around that the new guy in the neighborhood is already fixing things up, so my street rep is solid!

Chuck and I spent about $25 each for some pressure-treated 4x4s and 2x4s and a box of deck screws. Then I measured for the length and width, chopped up the pieces, and started drilling and screwing the crosspieces. A thin piece of wood gave me even spacing as I went.
Chuck helped with the installation. We dug out the old rotted section and dropped in the new one. Moments later we also put a stone under that little bridge in the foreground, to level it. Build your world!

Modern fence, pt. 3: Cover the edges and you’re done!

In this last stage of my DIY fence, I wanted to cover the screwed-down edges of the corrugated panels. You could leave them showing, but that’s too industrial looking even for me. We wanted the steel panels to be surrounded by clean wood edges on all sides.

My brainstorm here was to leave the panels a bit short at the top and bottom, and then rabbet the back of two more 2x4s to fit over those bumpy panel edges. I had to use the tablesaw for that task, so if you don’t have one you can ask a friend. Or just design the fence to work around it. One way to do that would be to attach the 2×4 rails and just screw the steel panels to the back of them. Let your neighbors look at the screws, or those lazy buggers can build their own fence!

As for me, I like the doubled-up 2x4s at top and bottom. It makes the fence stiffer and stronger.

The tablesaw cuts are pretty deep, so you definitely need a push stick or two to keep your hands safe, but the boards tend to guide themselves through the cut, believe it or not. If you have a riving knife on your saw (by splitter wouldn’t work for this) then definitely use it for some added peace of mind.

After the from boards are notched, you just cut them to length and attach them with long deck screws. That’s it! You still need to build some gates, but those can be as easy or hard as you like. Check the final photo for the easiest approach to gate-making: the Adjust-A-Gate kit available at all home centers.

And in a future post I’ll show how to make a super-custom gate in a Japanese style.

But let’s finish up that fence:

This is where we left off. I intentionally left the panels short at top and bottom for the next step.
To notch the back of the trim rails, which are just more 2x4s, I first made a 1/2-in.-deep cut at the centerpoint, more or less. Measure your panel overlap to figure this out.
This tall cut completes the 1/2-in. deep rabbet that fits over the edges of the steel panels.
Definitely use a push stick at the end of the cut to keep your hands away from the blade.
The idea is that the notch is just big enough to fit over the panels while letting this 2×4 rail end up flush with the one behind it. The next step is remeasuring the distance between your fence posts and cutting these rails to fit between them.
The bottom rail went on first. I drilled clearance holes in it for long deck screws, which went into the fat part of the board (not the notched part), and I felt underneath when attaching it to be sure the bottom edge of this rail was even with the one behind it.
When attaching the top rail, again with long deck screws, this time I reached up top to be sure those edges of the two rails were even with each other.
Last of all, I used my reciprocating saw and a long blade to cut the tops of the posts even with the top rails, completing the clean look.
For my back gate I used the awesomely easy Adjust-A-Gate hardware from my local home center. This is the lightweight consumer version, but there is also a heavier contractor version for heavier gates. The hardware expands and contracts to fit a wide range of openings. You just attach a couple 2×4 pieces to it, and then your fence boards (or metal panels!) to those. The wire and turnbuckle keep the gate from sagging, and the kit comes with the hinges and latch too! I added a string so we could open the gate from the inside.



Modern fence, pt. 2: Rails, panels, repeat

With the old fence down and the posts set by the fence company, I was ready to go to work on the rest. With more than 20 sections to build, it was going to take a few days, but the process was straightforward and I settled into a comfortable rhythm.

This stage was pretty simple actually. The trick was locating the first rail, either up top, level with an adjacent fence section, or down low a certain distance from the ground (and level). There are a bunch of ways to do this, including using a laser level, but I mostly used a normal level set on a board on the ground and my eyes. With one rail set, the rest was easy.

To attach the rails, I used two kinds of standard brackets from Home Depot, and then I just screwed the corrugated panels to them. The wood is all pressure treated. The posts are 5x5s (actually about 4-1/4 in. sq.), and the crosspieces are 2x4s.

I got the corrugated, galvanized steel panels at my local metal roofing and siding supplier. Super nice people, happy to deal with homeowners or whomever. The panels come just over 2-ft. wide so you can overlap tham by one bump and still get 2 ft. of coverage with each one. The metal company will cut them to any length you need. Be aware that the panels are about 10 lbs. each, so 80 of them were a big load for my light pickup truck! You can also pay to have them delivered. That’s what I did for the 80 2x4s I needed from the home center.

So here’s how I handled stage 2. In the next and final stage, I’ll notch some additional rails to cover the edges of the panels and the rows of screws, for a clean final look.

Setting the location of the first rail is pretty critical. Sometimes I started with the bottom one, in this case setting it a certain distance above a railroad tie at the border of my yard. Other times I started with the top rail, eyeballing the top of a nearby section to make level marks on the posts and set the top brackets. The brackets by the way, are standard fence rail brackets available at hardware stores and home centers. You can attach them with special nails, but I went with deck screws for extra strength.
Once I was sure the two brackets were level with each other, usually by just setting a level nearby and eyeballing it, I measured the distance between them.
Here I am cutting the first rail to that distance I measured, cutting it just a bit short to allow for the heads of the screws that stick out inside the brackets.
I used a big hammer to convince some of the rails to drop in. I like a snug fit!
Then I drove a screw into the back of each bracket, but not the front. You’ll see why shortly.
All of the corrugated panels are cut to the same length (I went with 5 ft. 9 in.) so I needed my rails to be the right distance apart (about 5 ft. 5 in.). To guarantee that spacing, I just cut a 2×4 to that length and used it to mark the upper bracket locations (or the lower ones if I started with the top rail).
The top brackets went on my pencil marks. By the way, I set all of these first rails even with the back of the posts, so there would be a nice step (called a reveal) between the front of he rails and the front of the posts.
Insurance! One of my smartest moves was using this additional angle bracket at the front of each rail-post junction. I just didn’t trust those little fence-rail brackets. I’ve seen a lot of rails pull right out of those, in my old fence and many others.
More deck screws. They stick out a lot, but they are affordable and super-strong.
The next move is to snap a chalk line halfway up the top rail, to locate the top of the fence panels. I used a screw to locate the end of the line.
Here is a cool thing about the panels. You can stack 4 or 5 of them and drill them all at once for the attachment screws.
I just used my toe to jack up the panel to the chalk line, and them drove special screws that the metal company sold me. That said, deck screws would have worked too. It was quick to drive screws into the holes at top and bottom of the panel.
The next panel just fits over the last ridge on the first. Line up the ridges so they look good, line up the top edge with the chalk line, and drive screws. Takes only a minute per panel at this point so you feel very productive!
Because the fence guys were so careful with the distances between the posts, I didn’t often have to make a custom cut on the last panel, but it’s not really hard to do. I threw the panel on a pile of 2x4s with one on top to keep it stable, loaded an abrasive cutoff wheel in my circ saw, and just followed a chalk line I had snapped on the metal. Be sure to wear ear and eye protection–real goggles not just your glasses.
Abrasive cutoff wheels are cheap and fit right onto your circ saw.
The last panel goes up and the section is done! Progress feels good! You might need to drill different holes on the last panels, depending on the overlap with the previous ones, or you can just spin the screws against the metal until they make their own holes.

Modern fence, pt. 1: Farm out the big dig

Here’s the opening for the main gate. I love Japanese design so I left these posts tall and created my version of a traditional torii gate. I’ll cover that DIY later. Just deep lag screws, really. Plus that big bandsaw cut on the top timber. You might need to find a woodworker friend for that!

Like almost everything else around your house, you can build your own fence. You will save a ton of dough and get exactly what you want. In my case, I pictured a funky wood-metal combo, with corrugated steel panels surrounded by pressure-treated posts and rails. It took some problem-solving (which I love) and about a week-and-a-half of work, but I saved about $6 grand. Those are great wages in my world!

Our old fence was a wreck. Portland rain and rot takes a toll, and our fence was an embarassment. So job one was leveling it and getting rid of a huge pile of debris. As you know from a previous post, I have a fire pit, so the old cedar fence boards would not go to waste. But pressure-treated posts have nasty chemicals in them. Those went to the dump in the back of my pickup. That said there are lots of services that will pick up your construction debris, leaving you giant bags to stuff it in.

It took a day to take down the old fence, chop up the cedar, and dump the posts. Then I was ready to go.

Aside from the initial design concept, my other smart idea was to farm out the post work. From a past deck project, I know how brutal hole-digging could be, and I didn’t mind leaving the spacing and alignment to the experts too. So I asked around, found a fair-minded outfit called Rick’s Custom Fencing, and waited for the arranged day to arrive.

Setting the posts was going to be a tricky business, due to the corrugated fence panels. They are 2 ft. wide each, and I knew I wanted to set them between the posts with no gaps. They can overlap as needed, but the ripples only fit together a certain way, basically in 2-1/2-in. increments, so the posts could only be certain distances apart or I would end up having to cut a lot of the panels to custom widths as I installed them, which is do-able but still a PIA.

I met up with the guys in the morning and told them the deal. They could have rolled their eyes and blown me off, but they were awesome. They totally understood what I was after, but just to be sure, I wrote the possible spacing dimensions on a scrap of 2×4 and put it where they could see it all day! They nailed almost every space between every post, all while setting each one plumb (vertical) and rock-solid in concrete.

Their work cost me about $2,400, for 160 feet of fence with posts set roughly 8 ft. apart, and a few extra posts for the gates. But it was a bargain considering that they would have charged roughly $10K for the whole fence.

With the posts up, the rest was easy. Stay tuned for part 2!