My latest book, called “Handmade: A Hands-On Guide,” just went on Amazon and I wanted to give you all a taste. While my 2017 book, “Build Stuff with Wood,” is all about making sawdust, this one blows open the doors to a dozen other ways of making things. There is a new handcrafted revolution happening, and it’s breaking down the old boundaries with an explosion of pure creative joy.
A brief history is in order. When the digital era first arrived a few decades ago—with video games and cable TV at first, then the Internet, social media, YouTube, Netflix, and so on—it dealt a crushing blow to the hands-on life. All you had to do was look around your neighborhood to see fewer people working on their homes and gardens, fixing things for themselves, and doing crafts like woodworking.
But the urge to make things by hand is an ancient one, and refuses to die. As best we can tell, homo sapiens walked upright onto the world stage 200-300,000 years ago, with a genetic lineage that extended millions of years before that. That makes modern society a mere instant in human history. We evolved—body and mind—to resist the brutal forces of nature, by hunting, gathering, making and using tools, and mastering all of the materials we could get our hands on. Our survival depended on it.
I argue that much of what makes us truly happy contains echoes of that evolutionary history: love, laughter, cooperation, outdoor living, being self-sufficient, and making things with our hands. For many of us, digital natives or not, these essential experiences are more deeply satisfying than pressing buttons and swiping screens.
Building things unites your body and mind in a single task, forcing you to focus on the moment, slowing your chattering monkey brain to a more methodical, peaceful pace. You were naturally selected to love it.
Like any tool the Internet can be used for good, bad, and everything in between. The whole time it was rendering us helpless, it was also feeding a rebellion. Inspired by the hacker movement and empowered by the Web, a new generation of makers began using digital tools like 3-D printers, laser cutters, microcontrollers, and circuit boards to build things on their own, outside the reach of corporations. Soon they were mashing up their projects with wood, metal, and other building supplies, and a rediscovery of traditional crafts soon followed.
While, admittedly, most modern citizens are still heading toward those floating recliners at the end of WALL-E (a must-see movie for readers of this blog), there are unmistakable signs of life. Etsy has exploded with artisanal goods. Makerspaces and community workshops are popping up all over. School systems are learning that STEM doesn’t stick as well without hands-on experience, and shop classes are making a comeback under hip new titles like “Engineering.”
Whether they call themselves makers, woodworkers, leather crafters, inventors, hackers, or just people having fun, there is a common thread: the desire to build something rather than buy it.
This new maker movement is way more about creativity than perfection, about using whatever, tools, skills, and supplies you have to make something cool. And the old boundaries just don’t matter. Want to mash up micro-controllers with wood and metal parts, do it. Want to dive deeply into a traditional craft, that’s great too.
“Handmade,” out now on Amazon, is for everyone on the outside looking in, enticing them with a wide range of projects anyone can do with simple tools and supplies. Better yet, you’ll be making practical items that will become part of your life. Here is just a small taste.
There are lots of ways to store tools in your shop, from chests to wall cabinets to pegboard. These hanging panels are my favorite system. They are simple to make, they keep all of your essential tools at your fingertips, and they can be easily re-hung in new spots when your workshop layout changes (it almost always does). The keys are the simple french-cleat system used to hang the panels securely on the walls, plus the variety of holders that keep the tools both secure yet totally accessible.
You might think pegboard does something similar, but it doesn’t. It’s not as easy to move around the shop, and a lot of the pre-made holders don’t really hold woodworking tools well. As for wall cabinets and tool chests: The former has doors that you will end up keeping open, turning it into a wall panel, basically, and the latter puts your tools out of reach, which is a total PITA when you are trying to work efficiently.
As for what to hang on the wall, I put everything except my chisels and hand planes. I have a lot of these, and they are easy to store and protect in drawers below my workbench. They are plenty accessible that way, and the holders they would require are a bit over-the-top. But if you use these tools every day, you might want to put them on the wall too.
For this project, I bought two 2×4 panels of birch plywood, 3/4 in. thick, from the home center, though the super-strong French-cleat system will let you hang panels of almost any size. To make the panels look more finished, I put an arc on the corners with my belt sander, then rounded all the edges with my router, using a 3/8-in. roundover bit.
The French cleats are nothing more than a strip of plywood that I ripped in two with a 45-degree bevel cut on the tablesaw. You could do the same thing with a circular saw: Just start with a wider piece, clamp it securely, and run the saw along a straightedge as you make the cut.
One part of the cleat screws to the plywood panels, and the other screws to the wall. To get a really strong grip on the wall, look for wall studs. In my case, I put plywood on the walls instead of drywall, making it easy to hang things anywhere. That’s a great shop tip. As for the cleat that attaches to the plywood panels, be sure to use screws that will almost pop out the front side of the panels, so you get a really good grip. I used 1-1/4 in. deck screws, countersinking them a bit in the cleat so they reached deeper into the panels.
As for the tool holders, this is where the fun really begins. Whether you hang your tools on wall panels like me, or put them in a wall cabinet, some of these holders will work for you. By the way, I had fun making custom holders, and they do add handcrafted flair, but not every tool needs one. I also used common nails and screws and a couple of cool magnetic holders. Check the photos below for the rest of the story.
My first book is out and it’s aimed at anyone looking for easy yet totally useful and stylish projects for woodworkers of all levels. Look to the right for more info. But my second book, due out in fall of 2018, is going to be a whole different deal. Yeah, there will be wood in there, and this project is a good example, but it’s really about every part of the new maker movement, from micro controllers and LEDs to IKEA hacks to a rediscovery of traditional materials like leather, steel, and concrete. What will be exactly the same about both books is how easy and accessible yet brag-worthy and badass the projects will be (that’s the plan, anyway!).
This sweet six-pack caddy is a perfect example. Anyone can make this using simple tools and free wood, but it will add handcrafted style to your life. I sized it to accept all sizes of bottles and cans, from old-school shorties up to hip 22-ouncers, and I spaced the slats to show off the labels. Inside is a separate grid made from thinner oak slats (thanks, Home Depot), which keeps the bottles and cans from rocking and rolling before the music starts. I also added a classic Starr X bottle opener on one end, so I never have to search for one.
This project is so easy to make it could be your very first attempt at woodworking. You’ll need a fat drill bit or hole saw to make the holes for the dowel, almost any kind of saw to cut out the pieces, and then it all goes together with a hammer and nails. I’ll show you a few tricks to make things easier, but you’ll be cracking open your first IPA in no time.
I can’t wait to roll up to my first party with my new creation in hand, packed with an enticing collection of flavors and brews—something for everyone. Despite the simple tools, materials, and techniques—or maybe because of them—it looks awesome. I might use a wood-burning tool to burn an image of Gandalf (LOTR fans, holler) onto one end. Seriously.
Pallet-wood reality check
For decades now optimistic, frugal folks have been exhorting others to build projects with pallets. I applaud their passion and pluck, and I love a free stack of boards as much as the next maker, but I’ll kick off my own pallet-wood project with a caveat: While it’s true that pallets are free and widely available—in the biggest cities and smallest towns—this rough material is not right for every project.
As you might imagine, pallets are built to be strong and not much else. So the wood is roughsawn, full of knots and defects, and varying in width and thickness, even in the same board. Wood species—usually red oak or Southern yellow pine (a hard softwood)—are chosen for strength over style as well. And last, the pallets you’ll find in the free pile are usually outdoors, with dirt and grease ground in.
All that said, a little brushing and sanding goes a long way, and you can clean up pallet boards for all sorts of rustic projects, like outdoor planters, funky frames, a weathered rack for a row of coat hooks, or the sweet tote in this chapter. The key is to lean into the imperfection, embracing it as part of the appeal.
Rustic is the rule. I wouldn’t pull a bunch of boards off a pallet, run them through a planer (if you have one), and try to build fine furniture with them. The sand and grit will trash your planer knives, and, in the end, the low-grade wood won’t look that great anyway. There is no point using gnarly pallet wood when inexpensive boards from the home center will be more appropriate for the project at hand.
Embrace the roughsawn, weathered look, and let your imagination wander. For example, I’ve seen stylized flags made from pallet wood, with the boards turned into stripes by applying a diluted wash of latex paint in different colors.
Where to find pallets
I’ve driven by lots of “free pallets” signs from coast to coast. For this project, however, I was on a deadline, so I scrolled through craigslist to see what I could dig up in a day. I found six Portland citizens begging me to haul away their pallets, so I dug through the sketchy photos to find the best bets. Be aware that some pallets are totally trashed, often with only a few scraggly boards still hanging on.
On the flip side, there are extra-sweet, non-standard pallets around too, with better, smoother, boards in sizes other than the usual thick frame pieces and thin slats. Actually, that’s what I was looking for on this project, something that would yield a 3/4-in.-thick board for the ends of the beer caddy. (That’s just thick enough to let me nail into them but not so thick they look clunky.)
It took some digging and re-stacking, but near the bottom of the dirty pile of pallets I found on my first stop, outside a restaurant in North Portland, there were two winners: a standard pallet with thin slats for the sides of the caddy, and a custom pallet with a semi-clean row of 3/4-in. boards on top. And one—just one—was wide enough to let me make the caddy I had designed.
The easy way to harvest boards
When you lock horns with your first pallet, your inclination will be to start pulling nails, and/or yanking off entire boards. You have encountered another reality of the pallet game: Aiming for strength at all costs, pallet-makers use ring-shank nails that are a nightmare to pull out. I’ve heard tell of pallets joined with staples, making the boards easy to remove, but I haven’t found one of those unicorns yet.
There are lots of ways to defeat the nails—just ask Google—but none are fun, and you’re likely to split or damage as many boards as you save. If you can avoid pulling nails or pounding boards loose from the back side, I say do it.
My favorite way to harvest pallet wood is the simplest: Run a circular saw along the top of the slats, as close as possible to the frame pieces below, and the slats just drop free. You end up with pretty short pieces, but for projects like this one, those are perfect.
If you need your pallet boards full length, there are ways to separate them from the beams below, such as sawing through the nails from the back side, by slipping the blade of a reciprocating saw between the slats and frame. You can also bang the boards loose from the back side. I’ve also seen specially welded pry bars for the purpose.
Build Stuff with Wood, a project book for true woodworking beginners, went on sale this week on Amazon.com. I finished writing and shooting it in 2017, but had to wait all this time until folks could actually see it and buy it! My deep hope is that it reaches its audience, folks out there who are inspired to build things with wood but just don’t know where to start.
Unlike most of the other beginner books out there, this one has projects you can actually build, with basic tools and no previous knowledge. And all the projects are worth building. Most books fall short of one of those goals, presenting projects that are either deceptively difficult or totally uninspiring, especially to younger people.
(By the way, I’ve posted tons of things from the book in this blog, so dig around the site for a sampling of great, tips, techniques, and projects.)
It’s not easy to design cool stuff that you can pull off with no skills and limited tools, then actually use. In many ways, I’ve been preparing a lifetime for this task.
I learned at a young age how satisfying it is to build things, with my first model rockets, bike hacks, and illegal “forts” in the woods, made from scavenged lumber. I honed my skills in trade school, soaked up some engineering in college, then learned how people learn as a high-school and college teacher. I learned to write and shoot photos as a working journalist, and caught the woodworking bug big time when I bought my first house.
I came to Fine Woodworking magazine as an entry-level editor, eventually rising to serve as chief editor for 7-plus years before heading west to Oregon to do things like writing woodworking books for beginners:-) At FWW I learned tons more about how woodworkers learn, and was exposed to a host of amazing techniques that let you do more with less. I created a number of video series for beginners, but ever really got a chance to teach folks with no skills or tools at all.
My mission now is to spread the gospel of making things by hand. We need it now more than ever, as we live more and more on screen and in our heads. If you know anyone who is inspired make things but is still standing at the edge of the pool, please tell them about this book. Same goes for anyone with a few skills but little time, who is looking for quick, easy projects worth bragging about.
True satisfaction is way deeper than temporary pleasure. And building and creating is the surest path I know to that inner sanctum.
Occasionally we stroll through one of Portland’s upscale grocery chains, on the lookout for a funky gift or an unusual snack. This time it was just before Mother’s Day, and my wife spotted some beautiful wall-hung boxes for succulent plants. “$35 a pop?!” I said (so romantic). “I can make three of those for that!” She has heard this tune before, but she has learned to trust me (mostly!).
I love these challenges. The boxes were just rough cedar boards with a few pieces of galvanized metal inside the front face to hold in the soil and let the plants peek out. So off to the home center I went, with only a few days before the big day. I found the perfect roughsawn cedar boards for the job (sold as fence slats), but couldn’t spot any sheet metal I liked for the front. So I decided to use wire mesh instead, backed by sphagnum moss, hoping it would hold in the soil and look cool. Lucky for me, it worked amazingly.
As for the boxes themselves, they couldn’t be simpler. My only trick was making them 11×11 so two 5-1/2-in.-wide cedar boards would cover the back. A tablesaw or bandsaw would be the best tool for cutting the wide cedar boards into the narrower pieces you’ll need for the sides of the box and the strips on top, but you could also do it with a jigsaw, or a handsaw and elbow grease. For those tools, mark a pencil line to guide you, and clamp down the workpiece on the edge of a table or workbench (vs. trying to hold it by hand).
As for chopping everything to length, I used my miter saw, but a jigsaw or handsaw would work there too. Here’s a low-priced handsaw that is really amazing, available at most home centers. It is a pullsaw, meaning it cuts on the pull stroke, so take the weight off it when you push it forward.
You’ll also notice that I used an air-powered nail gun to assemble the boxes, but a normal hammer and finish nails would work fine. You might want to predrill the top pieces to avoid splitting the wood.
The boxes were done by Mother’s Day, as promised, but not quite ready to hang on the wall. The last important tip is to leave your boxes lying flat for a couple weeks after you build them, to allow the succulents to root before hanging them up sideways. I was nervous when I hung the three planters, but it has been two weeks now and no plants have plummeted to earth!
Oh yeah, you’ll also need a mist bottle. Your boxes will need an occasional spray to keep the plants thriving.
Normally I like to do every last thing I can on my house. It saves money, and I just love the work. However, for the big job of replacing all the windows on my house, plus adding all new siding, I hired out the work to a trusted local contractor. But if you read on, you’ll find out how to choose the right materials and how to keep your contractor honest. You might even learn how to tackle the job yourself.
In an earlier blog, I installed a window in my garage, to give me a nice view and some natural light in my workshop space. So it bothered me a little to just watch the work this time! But it was a wise choice. My contractor has better ladders, more workers, and more know-how, and I just have too much work at the moment. That said, watching it happen, I realize that this is a job a lot of people could do.
In the milder climate of the Pacific Northwest, where I live, a lot of houses were built with just a single skin of exterior-grade plywood. No house wrap, and no siding. That’s the deal on the 1979 fixer-upper we bought in 2015. So adding windows is a little bit different than it is on a house with plywood sheathing plus siding. But not much.
Modern windows have a simple nailing flange all around the outside. You just sit the window in the rough opening, make sure it is level, and nail or screw that flange to the exterior walls. Done. In my case, we could simply nail that flange onto the plywood exterior, wrap everything with house wrap, nail trim boards around the windows, and then nail on our siding of choice, bumping it up against that trim.
For a house with existing siding, you would just need to work around that, cutting it back or removing some of it, or just pulling off the trim boards and replacing them afterward.
The problem on houses like mine is that those window flanges are nailed right onto the studs, and then the T1-11 exterior plywood goes on and covers them up. That meant we had to cut off a strip of that plywood around each window to access those flanges and remove the windows.
A word about choosing windows. We were getting rid of the worst possible windows, made of aluminum, another cheap signature of the era of disco and polyester. Terrible looks and terrible energy efficiency. The usual choice these days is vinyl windows, which used to be considered cheap but have gotten way better of late, with most offering the Energy Star rating. That said I went with Marvin’s Integrity windows, for a variety of good reasons. Made of a special type of fiberglass, they offer the best longterm value on the market.
Building experts agree that Marvin’s fiberglass is super-energy efficient and super durable, meaning it won’t warp or crack like vinyl sometimes does. Also, it expands and contracts very little, just like the glass inside the frames, meaning the seals all around that glass will not fail. And last, its mitered corners are crisp and clean-looking, unlike those melty miters on vinyl windows. Last the Marvin Integrity windows are available in a range of colors, applied in a thick fiberglass layer that promises a lifetime of service.
You could go even higher end, choosing windows clad with wood on the inside, but I’ve got plenty of wood inside my house, and I like the clean looks of the fiberglass interior.
Whichever windows you choose, the KEY to a good installation is making sure the windows are level and square, so they will operate smoothly, and then making sure the window is flashed correctly. Flashing is the overlapping layers of metal, plastic, or rubberized material that go all around the window, under your siding, to catch any water that gets under there, and send it down over the house wrap instead of letting it inside the window frame to cause rot and damage.
Anyway, check out the following pics to see the whole process. Next up will be applying the window trim and all the siding. I’ll do a whole blog to explain our choices on that.
With the gate frame done and the 1/2-in.-thick boards for the lower panel ready to go (go here for part 1 of this project), I was ready to assemble the whole door. Soon my awesome fence would have an awesome gate to keep my dog in! (Go here for the fence project.) That cool-looking upper grid would be too difficult to build before the door was together, so I saved it for later. I had a good plan for how to build it and hold it in place in its upper rectangle of space.
The first step for any glue-up is a dry fit, where you put everything together without glue, so you know all the joints will end up nice and tight and you have the clamps you need to get the job done. So let’s get to it.