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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
There are more thoughtful features than I can cover here, but here are just four more great ones:
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.
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.
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:
At a friend’s house recently, shooting promo photos for a tool that he distributes, I ran across this carved hawk, called otaka poppo, part of an ancient craft from the Yamagata prefecture in Japan. Like lots of woodworkers, my friend is curious about just about everything. He flies planes, fishes for salmon, and rides his bike on weeklong trips. As the traveled the world on business, he collected handcrafts wherever he went, and these amazing carvings are just treasure he brought back.
One of the many things I love about Japanese culture is how far back the handwork traditions go, from sushi to woodworking blades to temple-building, and how alive they still are today, in their original form.
Otaka poppo means hawk toy. A quick web search revealed that the lord of the town of Yonezawa had these made by local farmers when they were stuck indoors during the winter, and they soon became a source of income. Today these figures are the most popular souvenir of the region.
The same technique used to make the hawk is also used to make chickens and other figurines, as seen here. Each one is amazingly carved with a single blade from a single branch of wood. The beautiful Japanese burst characters give the name of the craftsman and the amount of experience he or she has. Experience is respected.
What I love about this craft is the obvious skill and precision that only comes from hundreds of hours of practice. It reminds me of the figures I saw people in West Africa carve, when I was in the Peace Corps. They worked on the ground, using rudimentary tools with amazing skill.