Adding veneer to a project is a time-honored way to add visual interest and to extend the supply of beautifully-figured wood. Plus, wow, is it ever cheap to use, instead of springing for a whole board of an exotic looking species.
The only problem with veneering is that it takes a little bit of know-how with different techniques. Whether you want to work with a modern vacuum veneer press or use traditional hide glue and a veneer hammer, the process can be intimidating at first.
So, this week, let us know have you ever worked with veneer, and what your thoughts are on it.
I just returned from the second annual Weekend with WOOD, an educational conference provided by the folks at WOOD Magazine in Des Moines, Iowa. While I only had two sessions to teach, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to sit in on other classes. I was too busy taking tours and chatting with staff and other woodworkers. But I had a blast and I do feel my time was well spent. Here are some of the highlights.
My own class was focused on the basics of oil-based finishes as well as how to apply a simple varnish finish. What you see here is the typical class size. Because the event is held at the Meredith campus (WOOD’s parent company), they can only fit so many attendees into each room. While this makes for a cozy and intimate experience, I have to say that it makes it a little awkward to find your classes. For instance, to attend my session you would need to go down the hall, take the third door on the left, head down two flights of stairs into the basement, hang a right, and it’s the second room on the right. Of course, there was ample signage that made this process much less painful than it could have been. All of the classes were full so attendees were clearly able to get where they needed to be without much trouble.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was the tour of the Meredith facility. What many folks don’t realize about our favorite woodworking magazines is that they are usually owned by very large parent companies. Oftentimes their “personalities” and content choices are largely dictated by the rules of the mother ship. In the case of WOOD, the mother ship is a behemoth! The amount of space dedicated to sets and props for publications like Better Homes & Gardens was mind-blowing! From the looks of it, they must have one guy who’s only job is to build fake walls! And yes, that is the one and only Steve Ramsey (below) from Woodworking for Mere Mortals who appears to be contemplating his options in second-hand stemware. By the way, the view of downtown Des Moines was remarkable!
The WOOD office and shop spaces were pretty awesome too, featuring past and future projects scattered around the building. Here’s just a small sampling of what we saw.
As we continued our tour, we had the opportunity to see the area where WOOD designs and builds their projects. Picture this: a typical cubicle jungle with a fully-functional wood shop in the middle. We’re talking heavy duty tools and a fully-functional dust collection system. From what I understand, the sound isolation is really good and the folks working in the office aren’t disturbed by the shop noise.
I also learned some interesting facts about their production process. Apparently, all of the projects are built in the office-shop mentioned above. When it comes time to take photos, the project is carted down to the basement for the photographic treatment. I suppose this wouldn’t be so bad if you’re just taking pictures of the finished piece but this process is done for ALL of the photos that appear in the magazine, including the in-process shots!
And perhaps even more interesting is how their stage-shop does double duty. One side is built to look like a classic woodworking shop with lots of tools and wood paneling. This area is used for the more advanced projects. For the beginner/entry-level projects, they use the other side of room which is made to look like a typical DIY’ers garage or basement space. Pretty cool stuff!
I’d like to thank the folks at WOOD Magazine for the opportunity to teach and attend. For those of you who attended my sessions, it was awesome getting to know you and I hope you enjoyed the experience as much as I did.
Most of today’s lumber you can buy is pretty narrow when you compare it to the stuff pulled out of the virgin forests more than 100 years ago.
Entire table tops could be made from one board. That’s what makes wide boards such as these two 16 ” wide cherry specimens I had in my shop a few years back something very special.
When it comes to using them, there are two schools of thought. One is to use the board as is in all its glory. The other us to rip the board into smaller widths and glue it back together to reduce the likelihood of warping.
As a woodworker, I often find myself learning about other skilled trades that complement my woodworking either by necessity or just for fun. Throughout my woodworking career, I have dipped my toes into many different skills, such as: upholstering, machine refurbishing, metal machining, leather work, resin casting; and the list goes on. Most of the time, I have been forced to educate myself in these related areas because of a project I am working on, but on some occasions I am just inclined to extend my skills and knowledge.
In many cases, the topics I want to learn about are interesting but aren’t important enough for me to actually take action on. Some are things that I am definitely going to do, but just haven’t known where to begin. Blacksmithing has always been on the “definite” list because the skills are totally practical and helpful to my woodworking. Not only will I have a better understanding of metals, which can help tremendously in the sharpening arena, but I will be able to make tools and even hardware for my woodworking projects.
The Spark That Lit The Fire
Although I have always wanted to learn more about blacksmithing, I somehow assumed that it would be really complicated or expensive to dive into. Where would you even begin? I know that there are some schools out there that you can learn blacksmithing at, but who has the time or money for that? Especially since it would be more of a hobby than anything. There is also the fact I don’t know anyone where I live who is a blacksmith. So, it remained on the list of things to do… someday.
That all changed when I ran across the following YouTube video that Tim Charles from A Slice of Wood Workshop created showing how to make your own anvil out of a piece of heavy railroad track. Check out how he just whips out an angle grinder and turns a random piece of metal into a functional anvil.
Tim’s video reminded me that there are many ways to skin a cat, and you don’t necessarily need to shell out a bunch of cash when you begin a new adventure. It turns out that Tim has only been smithing for about a year, and he is already producing some really awesome work. He forges iron in his backyard with a fairly simple setup and limited set of tools proving that your skills and motivation produce your end results, not a bunch of fancy tools.
After doing a little research online, I found quite a bit of information to help me get going, and I even found a local blacksmith in Reno who holds an open forge twice a week. Open forge is pretty awesome, and it allows beginners – literally zero skills – to not only learn about blacksmithing, but also get hands on experience.
Before I begin, I have to add a little disclaimer that I am definitely no expert when it comes to blacksmithing. Honestly, I’m a complete novice in this area. I have tried it once, and I am definitely not a natural. I can, however, share resources and some basic suggestions on what you need to get started.
Blacksmith Websites, Organizations, and Communities
The best (and probably safest) way to get started is to find other people who actually know what they are doing and have the necessary equipment. There are actually tons of resources available at the click of a mouse such as websites, schools, clubs, professional blacksmiths, books and videos, and more. If you are serious about getting into it, the best way to ensure that you will follow through with it is to get involved with others who are doing it already. They will help to motivate you to get out there and start forging.
For a great overview of getting started, I recommend checking out Anvilfire.com. They have an entire page on their website dedicated to getting started. It answered all of the questions I had, plus it answered some questions that I hadn’t even thought about yet.
ABANA – The Artists Blacksmith Association of North America ABANA offers a wealth of information to help you get started. Their website has a ton of information to help you learn more about blacksmithing, metals, tools, etc. They also have a listing of all the ABANA local chapters around the U.S. The first step would be to take a peek around their site and get in touch with your local chapter.
As with woodworking guilds and clubs, they usually have regular meetings that are often held in members shops. This is a great way to dip your toes in to see if you enjoy it without having to spend a lot of money. With just a little digging I found a local artist, Brett Moten, who offers an open forge night for people just like me who want to dig in and learn about blacksmithing.
Brett operates Infinity Forge in Reno, and he is a local member of the California Blacksmith Association (we don’t have a chapter in Nevada). My first night at his open forge, there were three newbies there with zero experience. Brett showed us how everything works and even gave us projects to work on right off the bat – nails and wall hooks. In one night, I learned how to operate the forge, draw the metal out, proper hammer techniques, hot cutting, twisting, scrolling, and much more. If you can find a local artist in your area, definitely stop by if they have open forge nights, you won’t regret it!
iForgeIron.com iForgeIron.com is an online community and forum dedicated to the topic of blacksmithing. You will find a wealth of information and people who are willing to help you get started. Everything from tools, welding, safety, machinery, and everything in between.
Tools of the Trade
If you’re like me, you won’t be satisfied using other people’s tools for very long. I will definitely be going back up to open forge night at Brett’s shop to continue learning, but I’m the type of person who only gets so much out of the allotted time available during open shops and classes. Therefore, I plan to setup a forge at my own shop to practice whenever I want and for as long as I need.
I used to think that it was going to cost a small fortune to buy the necessary equipment; however, the truth is you can get started for well under $1,000. I initially assumed that I would need to build a massive brick oven forge, buy a ten thousand pound anvil, and amass a whole slew of random tools that I would have no clue how to use, let alone identify.
In reality, a small and inexpensive set of tools is all you really need to get started. I have put together a list of the bare necessities that you would want to have to get started.
Anvil The anvil is somewhat similar to the workbench in woodworking. It is what allows you to shape and form your workpiece. Something in the 75-500 pound range is the optimal weight, but you can get by with lighter if you have to. Bringing it back to woodworking, I would consider it along the same lines as workbenches. Sure, you can start out with a split top roubo made out of maple, but you will get woodworking done on a solid core door on top of saw horses.
It can be somewhat difficult to find a decent used anvil, and it’s by far the most expensive item on the list, unless you build your own from scrap. You can buy a brand new one, but it’s really going to cost you. The truth is, anything made from decent steel will suffice if you are just starting out. As Tim showed in his video, you can make your own anvil. Railroad track works, but you can just as easily piece together an anvil out of steel from a scrap yard or an I-beam. Buying an anvil will set you back a few hundred dollars, but if you take the time to make your own, you can be up and running for much cheaper.
For more information about anvil selection, check out this article by Jock Dempsey on Anvil Fire.
Forge The forge is what heats your steel up so that you can work it. This is probably the most important thing that you will need, but luckily this one is pretty easy to piece together out of spare parts and scrap. Of course, you can buy one new, but that will definitely be much more expensive. You can build a simple forge out of an old car brake drum, some pipe, and a cheap blow drier. There are lots of videos on YouTube showing how to put one together, and I also found an article on Anvil Fire that covers building a break drum forge.
One thing to keep in mind is forges can run on different types of fuel. The two most common are coal and propane, but you can also use oil. I know nothing about oil forges, so I won’t even go into it. Propane is by far the easiest to use, as it turns on and off quick, its cleaner burning; but it’s much more expensive than coal. Coal burning forges are easy to make, but it may be more difficult to find a source for buying coal depending on where you live. This is where getting to know others in your area will benefit a beginner.
Vise A good vise will help out a ton with your work. Vises are used in many different ways, and generally, the heftier vise the better. You can get by with smaller machinist vises, but they will not hold up to the abuse of hammering on them. To get started though, just find the beefiest vise you can get and make sure it is secured to a sturdy bench.
Like most tools, the quality of vises ranges drastically. I can’t say that I have enough knowledge about the subject to really provide much help. Again, there are lots of resources out there to help you understand what to look for in an anvil, but again you don’t need perfect tools to produce good work.
Vise Photo by Penny Mayes [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hammer Of course, most importantly you need to be able to shape the metal you are working on, so you will need a hammer. You can pick up a hammer at the local hardware or big box store that will work, but don’t pull out your claw hammer and expect to get good results. One of the most versatile type of hammer that you can use is a cross peen hammer. Generally, a 1.75 to 3 pound hammer will work fine. My main word of advice is to make sure you don’t start out with too heavy a hammer. At open forge, I started out with a pretty heavy hammer, and I ended up dropping to a lower weight pretty quickly.
As with any hobby, you need to play it safe. Blacksmithing is simply not something I would categorize as a safe hobby, but with a little safety practice I wouldn’t classify it as extremely dangerous either. Number 1 on that list is safety glasses – you definitely don’t want any hot sparks from your work and even from the forge landing in your eye. Ear protection is also pretty useful since the clanging of metal on metal is pretty loud. One other thing to keep in mind is that synthetic materials will melt to your skin if it gets too hot or lights on fire. Wear cotton instead. Also, leather aprons and gloves can be helpful, as well as proper footwear such as steel toed leather boots.
Like woodworking, blacksmithing comes with a healthy list of dangers. Make sure that you put safety first if you decide to give it a try. You are dealing with a very hot fire, sharp metal, and pounding on heavy objects. Keep your fingers out of the way, keep your fire controlled, and as Tim told me… “Even black metal is hot metal.” If you are looking to start something with less risk, there is always knitting (although you gotta watch out for those sharp needles).
Miscellaneous There are tons of miscellaneous tools that are very helpful to the blacksmith. Many of which, you will be able to add to the toolbox as needed. In the beginning, however, it will be very useful to have a pair of needle nose pliers and something that you can use as tongs. The metal you are working gets pretty hot, and having something to grab the smaller pieces with is often necessary. Vise grips can work fine as tongs and will get you started, but you will quickly learn that they are really too short to be highly useful.
Luckily, there are number of tools that many people already have that can be highly useful when working metals. One of the first things I noticed during my first shot at blacksmithing is that there’s a lot more to it than merely swinging a hammer. In some cases, the workpiece will gain nothing by heating it up. In those cases, you will need items such as files, measuring devices, and and pliers. You’d be surprised to learn how many tools you already have that can be used in a blacksmith shop. One other somewhat important item to have on hand is a quench bucket. This one’s pretty simple – a bucket filled with water to cool the workpiece with.
As with woodworking, there are a lot of great resources available for those interested in learning more about blacksmithing on the internet, but one place to look (that we often don’t even think of anymore) is the library. Just about every resource I have found has a list of suggested books, and the California Blacksmith Association even has a lending library available for free to members. When I spoke with Tim Charles about where I should look to find out more about, he suggested checking out Mark Aspery’s books and videos as well. Aspery has a website where you can pick up his books, and he even has a YouTube channel.
So, if you’re interested in learning and starting blacksmithing, you’ll find it is not very hard to get going. If you are lucky to have a local group to join, you’ll be able to get started without even having to purchase tools. If you would like your own setup, you’re probably looking at a few hundred dollars to get up and running.
You may find, as I did, that you are absolutely horrible at blacksmithing the first time you try it. Keep trying and you will get better. Learn from others around you with more experience, and you will start to make some amazing things. I’m hoping to be able to make my own tools, furniture parts, and hardware some day. Thanks to Tim, I’m already on my way!
There are few sources of woodworking know-how as rich as the many woodworking magazines published around the world. From magazines that appeal to a wide woodworking audience to specialized titles that focus on one aspect of the craft, there’s something to suit everyone’s woodworking needs.
Each edition is loaded with shop tips, projects, background articles and plans for easy-to-build jigs. The writers and editors have a great opportunity to strut their stuff and provide valuable information for their target audience. If you subscribe, this wisdom comes right to your mailbox as each edition rolls off the presses. Month after month.
Their strength – frequency of issue – can also be a weakness. After all, by the time you get a chance to read through the magazine, scheme in your mind what you would like to build and find the time to do it, the next edition is just about ready to ship. And, the process begins all over again.
This week, we want to know approximately how much do you build and incorporate from each edition of woodworking magazine you receive. Do you build everything you possibly can from each issue, or do you find yourself just trying to keep pace?
When I get into the woodworking groove, the last thing I want to do is slow down and wait. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I have to do when it comes to glue ups. Sure, you can do some work on those other parts of the project that aren’t in the clamps, but I am like a kid waiting to unwrap his birthday presents when I see a part of my project sitting in the clamps.
Today, tell us just how long you let your yellow (carpenters) glue-ups sit in their clamps. Are you someone who rushes to strip the clamps off or can you wait for a good long time before you take the pressure off?
I periodically receive emails from aspiring woodworkers who are looking to start a new woodworking business. Most of them say something like,
“I see you’ve been successful in your business and I too am looking to start building furniture for a living. Do you have tips or advice for someone just starting out? I really don’t like my current job and I’m hoping to make a career out of something I love.”
I always feel a bit awkward as I break the news to them: I do not make my living as a professional woodworker. You can read my About and FAQ pages if you’d like more details on my personal situation, but my business is 100% online. Every dollar I make comes from videos, books, dvds, advertising, sponsorship, and teaching engagements. The only client projects I take on these days are the ones I actually WANT to take on. So there’s a bit of a misconception about what I do that leads folks to believe I run a successful custom furniture business. The simple reality is I don’t.
In the past, I did run a custom furniture business. It was called Marc’s Wood Creations (because that just rolls off the tongue) and I would build anything a customer wanted. The cool projects were very few and far between as most folks just wanted odd-sized/cheap cabinets. None of these jobs paid well and I kept my doors open by taking on refinishing work, working part time in a refinishing shop, and collaborating with another local woodworker on larger commercial projects. In the end, most of my jobs would net me about $10/hr if I was lucky. At one point, I even had to find a 9-5 job just to make ends meet until the woodworking business picked up again.
I eventually made enough money to satisfy the portion of the bills Nicole couldn’t handle. At this point, I had already established a relationship with my mentor David Marks and we collaborated on a little side business selling veneer cut-offs and walnut burl bowl blanks sourced from Northern California. I also taught woodworking classes to locals in my shop for a while. In spite of working my butt off, I was just barely getting by.
In an effort to boost business, I came up with the idea to start filming my projects. The goal was to show clients just how much work went into their furniture so that perhaps I could start charging what I felt my time was worth. That was back in 2006 and at the time, there wasn’t much in the way of woodworking video content online. In fact, The Wood Whisperer was officially the first woodworking video podcast. Credit goes to my buddy Matt Vanderlist for being the first audio podcast hence his nickname “The Woodworking Podfather.” Much to my surprise, my videos were proving more attractive to woodworkers than they were to clients. In fact, the clients didn’t seem to care. So within a few months of launching my first video, I came to realize my future was in online education and not furniture production.
This is why I feel I am in absolutely NO position to dispense advice to people who are looking to start a woodworking business. I can certainly share my personal experiences in hopes that you’ll be able to glean something from it, but I will never be able to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Not to mention, there are so many variables to consider: your shop, your skill, your target market, your competitive edge (if you have one), your family, your motivation, your business acumen, and the viability of your products, just to name a few.
There is actually one small piece of advice I can give you, assuming you’re coming at this as a career change. In fact, most inquiries I receive are just that: a person who’s not happy in their current job and they’re looking to turn their passion into dollars. For this person, I recommend doing what I did when I started out: hold down a solid job while building the business on the side. My day job served as something of an insurance policy and it wasn’t until I had more work than I could handle on nights and weekends that I took the plunge and quit the corporate world. While this method doesn’t provide you with any real guarantees, it will give you at least some additional confidence that you’re making the right decision. Furthermore, you can use your steady paycheck to purchase the tools and other things you might need for your business to run smoothly.
What if you can’t drum up enough business to fill your nights and weekends with work? You keep your day job! Depending on your life situation and tolerance for risk, you might be willing to take a chance. But don’t be foolish about it. If it isn’t a viable business, your love for the craft won’t save you and it certainly won’t pay the bills. For many, woodworking as a hobby while receiving a steady paycheck IS the best-case scenario.
Part of the problem here is that folks tend to make assumptions about me and my fellow bloggers and podcasters. Whether you know it or not, the vast majority of people producing content online are holding day jobs in completely separate fields. Their writing/videos are a hobby almost as much as woodworking is. Some of them are able to derive a second income from their efforts and the whole thing supports their woodworking. But very few of them are professional woodworkers who make a living solely by producing furniture and goods for other people. These folks do exist and some of them blog about their adventures, but most of them are too busy working long hours to take the time to document their efforts online. Why do you think some of the biggest names in woodworking start their own schools and regularly produce books and DVDs? Because teaching people how to woodwork is generally easier and more predictable (many times more profitable) than doing the woodworking yourself.
By example, here’s a small sampling of woodworkers I know personally who are making a living as professionals. Notice that most of them have links to their blogs which are either minimal, unpopulated, or dead. Dorset Custom Furniture is probably the one exception and how Dan has enough time to write such great blog posts while running a successful woodworking business, I’ll never know.
Dorset Custom Furniture – Dan and his family craft amazing stand-alone pieces and built-ins on a scale most of us can only dream of! KALA Studios – Kaleo is an old friend of the show who builds his unique furiniture designs in the DC area. CK Valenti Designs – Chris is a Phoenix-area local who crafts amazing designs in both wood and metal. R Jones Woodworks – Another Phoenix area local, Ron’s bread and butter is CNC work. He’s the guy that makes all of the templates and push sticks we sell in our store.
Of course I’m not recommending that people leave their blogs empty, quite the opposite in fact. If you want to talk about how good content marketing can be for your business, that’s a discussion I’m willing to have. My point is simply that running your own business is a potentially all-consuming endeavor. Should you succeed, your biggest challenge won’t be how to fit all the work in, it’ll be how to make time for the other important things in life like family, friends, and *gulp* vacation!
Ultimately, I would hate for someone to make any career decisions based on my or any other online personality’s perceived success. Running a woodworking business is a tremendous amount of work and has all of the same challenges found in any other business. Just because you love the subject matter doesn’t mean you’ll automatically know how to design a successful business around it. The work may hold a deeper meaning for YOU but at the end of the day, you’re making a widget and selling a widget. To do that successfully you need good old fashioned business know-how, determination, and even a little luck. So I guess that’s another piece of advice: treat your business like a business. Take some business courses. Learn what it means to be a business owner well before you are one.
While most of this article is intended to be a splash of cold water for some, I should be clear that I’m not being negative for kicks. I’m just trying to be painfully realistic and honest. I’m also trying to make sure folks understand the reason why I won’t dish out “pearls of wisdom” whenever asked. It certainly isn’t because I’m hoarding all of the good ideas for myself. A smart person knows what they know. A wise person knows what they don’t know and isn’t afraid to admit it.
So what about our up-and-comers looking to make a career in woodworking? First and foremost, learn to ask for advice from the right people! Speak to career counselors, local successful business owners, and take some business courses. You’d be surprised how little woodworking is involved in starting and running a successful woodworking business. Of course the woodworking knowledge is essential as well, but it’s actually the easiest part of the game (in my opinion).
So to sum up: I went to school for biology, started to get my MBA, became a woodworker, and now I’m essentially a dancing monkey on YouTube. What the heck do I know about running a successful woodworking business?!