I’ve never blogged, but I thought y’all might find some small humor in this piece. I wrote this over 13 years ago as a way to blow off some steam- it is not entirely all true, I bull shitted a little. I ain’t sayin’ how much, or where. Just that I bull shitted some. I posted it on the rec (rec.woodworking, a newsgroup that preceded forums). I am aware I do not come off looking like the ideal son-in-law. Don’t judge me too harshly, there is always more to a story like this.
If anyone should happen to recognize who my father-in-law is, please don’t tell the family about this. They would possibly not see the humor in this. Hope you do though-
When my father-in-law retired a few years back, he told me how he was going to become a by-god wood worker, now that he would have the time. Going to darn near move out of the house and into the shop. He retired early from a part time job as emergency coordinator for the rural, poor county they had moved to, after doing the 20 years and out thing with the Army. I guess that 20 hour a week job really cut into his free time.
He subscribes to at least 3 woodworking magazines that I know of. Additionally, he has shelves full of books of project ideas, plans, etc. He bought a table saw, mail order, without ever seeing one like it. There was a radial arm saw on the premises when I started dating his daughter, I’ve never seen it used, but I know it works, as there is a hole in the window directly behind the blade. Been that way as long as I’ve been around there. There are cabinets full of who-knows-what hand tools. Yet I had trouble getting him to find me a wrench to use while fixing the wash machine for them on my first visit South, back when I was still trying to make a favorable impression on them.
Most of the components of a nice wood shop are in place. He has a cheap version of a shopsmith rolled into the corner. There is the big cabinet table saw (green, made in China), a generous sized work bench, with a nice wood top peeking out from the piles. There is a band saw, I’ve seen it, tucked under the stairway. One thing that seems to be missing is projects. There are a few around, but not many. It is also missing signs of sawdust. These folks are not so tidy that they would run around with a shop vac after every saw cut. And they don’t have a dust collection system. I have not seen stacks of wood scraps, either. I seem to accumulate them rapidly, and I am strictly a part-time, short-time, seasonal player.
Something else that is missing is any sort of quality in the work we have seen. I believe this is limited by his lack of basic understanding of woodworking tools.
He mentioned to me he was having trouble making a certain cut with his band saw, he wasn’t sure just what was wrong with it. He showed me a sample, it was apparent he was trying to turn too sharp of an inside corner, he was trying to turn almost a sharp 90 degrees in a 2×4. When I tried to explain that he needed to come at the inside corner from 2 directions, I got a real blank look, so I sketched it for him, once we finally found a pencil in his shop. I think the light bulb turned almost all the way on! His problem was compounded by the saw not cutting true, he had not set the table to cut a true 90 degrees to the blade. That part of my explanation he never did understand I am sure. Like he hasn’t figured out that his particle board table saw fence isn’t much good since it warped. He has no dehumidifier in a concrete floored out-building, in Georgia. The table is rusted bad, too. I mentioned it once, all he said was that he really liked his saw.
He has other problems with power tools. A couple years back, he remarked that he was looking for a better jointer, the little one he had didn’t work. I asked if he had tried setting the cutter blade heights? All I could get out of him was that the darn thing was just cheap, and wouldn’t work. On one visit up here, he brought it along, he had taken the jointer off the stand, disassembled the stand, stuffed the whole thing in the trunk. I took a good look at, it was a 4 inch model, a name brand, with a separate motor, not too bad looking for what it was, aside from being short, with a layer of rust. He was done with it. I set it aside until this winter, when I needed to edge some oak, and didn’t feel like doing it by hand. Dug out the jointer, waxed off most of the rust, and dropped a few spots of oil on the shaft. It ran real quiet, until I put some wood to the cutters. A little chatter then, not too bad, but I figured it would be fun to see just how nice a cut I could get from his cast-off tool. I took the blades out, after a little more rust removal, I honed the blades, they really weren’t bad, no big chunks or nicks on any of the knives. I put the knives back in, and set their height carefully, with a magnet on top of a cabinet scraper to hold them. First time through I was only off a few thousandths on one blade, I reset it, I remember thinking, hey, not a bad job for my first time ever setting jointer knives. I fired it up, got a real nice cut, the fence was even accurate for 90 degree and 45 degree cuts. I have used it successfully a few times since then. I’m glad to have the tool. Even a small stationary tool is a luxury for me.
I was really puzzled as to why he thought the jointer was worthless. I knew he had a few problems using power tools, but this was darn near a no-brainer. Or was it? Next time in Georgia, I noticed a new planer parked in the corner. I’m not sure he understood the difference between a jointer and a planer. Had he been trying to surface 3/4 inch thick stock on that little jointer? Make it into 1/2 inch thick stock? I remember him asking me once if I knew where to buy 1/2 thick wood. Lots of plans call for 1/2 thick stock, I’ve usually just jiggled a few dimensions to get around my lack of ability when it comes to re-sawing boards. But I am starting to learn that he can’t, no how, no way, deviate from plans.
So, last Christmas, my Father in-law wanted to make some real wood toys for his two grandsons. They are 2 years old now, just 3 weeks apart in age. He did manage to turn out 14 or 15 wooden trucks for each boy, made to a pattern from some magazine. The varnish was still tacky on Christmas morning, they had obviously not been sanded, but he had them packed into two matching Tupperware containers, wrapped and under the tree. I was ‘lucky’ to get the inside skinny from him on what to watch out for when building these toys. Like we needed any more toy trucks around. He complained about the fenders splitting; I had better be careful of that if I tried to build any. The fenders were just too thin for the pine (1×4) he was using. I was about to ask why he just didn’t cut them bigger, wider, when he mentioned that the plans gave him all the shapes. I guess we just couldn’t try modifying those plans, now could we?? I shouldn’t make fun- I honestly don’t think he knows how to use graph paper, or how to transfer patterns at different scales, using a grid. I could try to explain it to him…... nahhh…. more fun to watch him struggle. He was not a willing student anyway, the couple of times I have tried to explain my slant on thing to him.
I wondered why he had made so many trucks, than it came to me- that was what the plans called for. Never mind that they were not all designed at the same scale. I wonder if it ever, at any time, occurred to him to skip a few of the weirder, more difficult patterns, maybe trade some quantity for a little higher quality?
I was starting to wonder what had happened to another project I had caught wind of, I had mentioned something to wife back in October about cutting a few simple blocks for Boy, but she said, better not, her dad wanted to make some for the kids. Come Christmas morning, there were no blocks under tree. Father-in-law made mention of the fact he had just run out of time, darn it, couldn’t manage to get the blocks done. Blocks? Yes, that’s right, no time. Okay, I guess that could happen.
The blocks showed up in Indiana last weekend, when my in-laws came from Georgia for their twice yearly visit. There was just one little problem. They still weren’t done. They needed a little finish work, he said. So I hauled the large cardboard box of rough-cut blocks ‘down cellar’ as Andy Roonie would say. They did indeed need a little finish work. Like- the curved pieces needed cut. All needed the edges rounded over. Nothing was sanded, every piece had saw marks. I looked a little closer at some blocks he had marked on. It looked like the grandsons had done some work here. The Southern pine he used had nice grain patterns, but he hadn’t bothered to work around knots. And there were a lot of blocks. Way more than I would have thought a two year old could use. Especially when I thought about who would have to pick them up.
Than something else clicked- these were made to a pattern I had seen somewhere. Yes, he needed a pattern. For simple blocks. No letters carved in. No fancy decorations. Just plain old wooden blocks. I went upstairs, found the book with that pattern. He had cut the exact number of each shape of blocks called for, no more, no less. I could see now what he was trying for with the curves he had marked on some of the blocks. I spent a few minutes measuring some nail cans, paint cans, jar lids, etc, until I found one with a diameter of 3 inches, the width of the blocks he had cut. I set my square to an inch and a half, started re-laying out the curves. He said whoa, there, I traced that pattern on there special. I said I know, but don’t you suppose the lines were just a little too crooked? Well, he knew that, but how did I know what to do with those curves. I finally found the text which explained how to mark them, most folks would instinctively have known where those curves went, having seen the pattern, but he had to see it in print even after seeing me mark on the actual parts, even after seeing the patterns you could scale out of the book.
I started to mark up a few more for the band saw, but he stopped me. The plans called for 2 of piece A, and 3 each of pieces B and C. I said, sure but you got, what, 18 or 20 blocks here that are simple rectangles, and a bunch of plain square ones, aren’t the curved ones cooler? No, that wouldn’t work out with the plans. Well, okay. I’m not gonna loss sleep over it.
So I suggest that maybe he could (use my tools to) help me finish these blocks? Well, sure, allrighty than, what did I want him to do. Hell, I want him to go back to Georgia. Okay, better keep a civil tongue here. Gee, maybe since the router isn’t set up yet, and you don’t know where I keep my bits, maybe you are the lucky guy that gets to cut out the curves. (I may not meet his high standards for workmanship.) I said, there’s the band saw, go for it. Well, maybe the scroll saw would be better, he says. Less sanding, the blades cut so much finer. I know how much easier it is to cut gentle arcs on a band saw, for me anyway, I suggested he think about his choice. But he wanted to use the scroll saw. Then he informed me that the hold-down shoe (“this here lever thing” were his exact words) was set too low. I said, no it is fine. He said, dammit, that hold down is lower than the stock! He didn’t even have the good graces to apologize when I pushed the wood under the just-right spring loaded shoe.
As soon as he turned to his task, I mounted up a piloted quarter inch round-over bit. I started cutting, he turns away from the scroll saw (it is still running, with the blade still in the work-piece) to check up on me.
“The plans called for a chamfer on the blocks”
I turned off the router, took off my ear protection. ” ‘S’cuse me?”
He said, “The plans called for a chamfer on the blocks. Why don’t we just chamfer them?” I reached over and switched off the scroll saw.
“I don’t have a piloted chamfer bit. Would you like me to set up a fence? YOU can chamfer them if you want!” I would have let him try to get an even edge using my crooked old fence on a bunch of 3 by 6 inch blocks. But it was already 8 o’clock at night, and besides, he still had all his fingers.
“But, the plans…...”
“You know, you could have at least cleaned up the long edges, before you cut the blocks to length.” I have no idea if he has any piloted router bits, I would guess not though. Otherwise, most any way you could knock a corner off, would be easier with a long board. Tip the table saw blade to 45, is the easy way. “Now you have all these 3 inch edges to deal with.”
That shut him up long enough for me to turn back to the router table, hit the switch, put my earmuffs back on and start making sawdust. He finally turned back to the scroll saw. He had refused the ear protection I offered him. I even offered him the new ear plugs!
There was that hang-up about ‘plans’ again. Last year when he was up to visit, he asked me for the plans to some bird feeder poles I had in the back yard. I had used 3/4 inch conduit, borrowed a bender from work, and whipped up a couple in minutes. If you’ve ever done any commercial wiring, as I did for a month or two in the 70’s, you would understand how easy that is. I didn’t even have to cut to length- the stock 10 footers worked out about right. I just drilled a hole in the end, screwed on a little eye bolt to hang the feeder from. Plan’s? Not hardly.
I tried to explain that to him. That it had more to do with the size of your feeder, and your conduit bending skills. He looked crestfallen. “No plans?” No, sorry. “Well, how did you know how to make them?” Look, this feeder is about a foot wide, we want a little clearance, say 6 inches, so we kick out the last part a foot…... stick a couple feet of vertical length in there, than 2 gentle bends back to the centerline of the hook….. I’m pointing this all out while we are standing in front of one. I can see it isn’t going to sink in, so I offer to bend up a couple the next time I visit, if he’ll find a bender we can borrow. That was the last I heard of the pole thing, but I did see a store bought one in their yard last Christmas.
After he finished the curved cuts in the 8 blocks that required it, per the plans, he started wandering around the shop. I turned off the router, it was time to put a drop of oil on the bearing anyway. He wondered why I was doing that. Lessee, 25000 RPM, half inch ball bearing, running for 20 minutes non stop- Oil?? Why oil it? Geesh.
I pointed him to my new bench-top sander, asked that he put the childproof lockout switch back on the nail when he is done (which he never once did). So he started sanding while I went back to routing. The only further glitch we had was when I was finishing up with much of the routing, and had to interrupt him to sand the outside corners of some 3/4 inch blocks, I think there were 4 called for in the plans. I explained that the router bit would be likely to chip out if used on the short edge, better to sand a radius first, rout the other edges second. I don’t think he understood, but he didn’t argue. Right after that we had to take a break, you ever try to get a 2 year old to sleep when there are power tools running right under his room?
An hour later, I got up from the living room floor (he plopped his ass down in my lazy boy every chance he got) and said, well, back to work, Boy is sound asleep now. I went on down, finished up some routing, than I put a sanding drum in the drill press. Still no father-in-law, oh well, I’m better off without that much help. I take a look at the curves he had cut with the scroll saw- yes, the cut was nice and smooth, unfortunately they were so wiggley, it took me almost half an hour at the drill press before the parts looked anything like they were supposed to. I had a couple more passes to make on the router, still no father in-law, so I figure I’ll sand some more. As the pile of sanded blocks got bigger than the pile unsanded, I began to get tired. I head up stairs for the night, just in time to say goodnight, the in-laws are heading off to the 2nd story. I have other plans for the next day (I always try to make other plans when we get visitors from the South), so I explain that the big pile is rough sanded, the little pile is not. I figure, what he does from there is not my worry.
The next evening, I get back from kayaking, I carry my wet- dirties to the basement, and sneak a peek at the blocks. They are lined up like so many soldiers on my work/saw table. I went back down after dinner to check the wash machine, and went in to take a closer look at the blocks. That was when I noticed he hadn’t bothered to wipe the saw dust off the table’s wooden top. Hadn’t put down any newspaper either. Which maybe was just as well, because he had varnished the blocks on all sides. They were basically glued in place with varnish. I moved them all around a little bit, enough to break them all lose from the table. The couple of blocks I had bothered looking at did indeed have saw dust stuck on the bottom. It was also obvious he had done no further sanding, either rough sanding to the blocks I had set aside, or finish sanding to any of them. They are all rough feeling, the varnish had raised the grain.
On the way to the zoo Sunday morning, father-in-law asked me what I had used to paint some inset panels on a toy box I made for Boy. Was it anything toxic? I said, I can’t imagine what it would matter, he is not too likely to lick the damn panels, and I’m pretty sure paint is not toxic to the touch, no matter whether it was oil base or latex in the first place. But I allowed as how the red panels (I used different bright colors in removable panels, they can be re-painted if he thinks it looks childish, someday) were of an oil base. He offered the suggestion that perhaps I should put a coat of varnish over the red paint. I could use some of what was left from the can he had found on my paint shelf. The varnish he used on the blocks. I didn’t say a word. Which you might not believe, if you know me, that I would sit there and keep my mouth shut. But I did.
Is oil based varnish in some way less toxic than an oil based enamel paint? I suppose is it possible that a block would find its way into a kids mouth quicker than an inset panel. Awww.. it doesn’t matter. Boy is past chewing on things, anyway. No finish is toxic when dry.
It only got weird one more time all day Sunday, as regards the blocks. He asked me if I had any rags. I told him where to look. When we got home from the zoo, I took off on a bike ride, towing my favorite two year old riding partner in his trailer. That got me out for a couple more hours. By the time we got back home, I had managed to forget about the blocks. Took wife to a movie Sunday night, since we had baby sitters handy.
We got home late, woke up early Monday to see them off, while I ran off to work. Just before I left, he handed me a slip of paper with some dimensions written on it. He said, “Those blocks are finished, all they need now is the box to hold them.” I said, my project list is pretty well filled right now, and besides, Spring is sprung, I won’t be spending much time in the basement for the next 6 months. He gives me this look, like, I dunno, I guess he thought if he was going to make up all these beautiful blocks for my kid, the least I could do is rush right down there and create a nice box to hold them, right to the plans, of course.
Monday night, I went down downstairs for final damage assessments. The blocks were stuffed in the cardboard box they started out in. There was a rag sitting next to a mostly empty tin of neutral shoe polish. ( Why did he put shoe polish on them? Is that a military thing?) A clean paint brush was sitting there, but I couldn’t find any can of mineral spirits around- how much you wanna bet that went down the drain? He had made a half-hearted attempt to sand something, because there was a 6 inch disc folded up, with a few scrape marks on it. I guess he couldn’t find my sandpaper sheets. I took the box of blocks upstairs. I will have to scrape varnish globs from my work table, but it was getting a little nasty looking anyway. He had also left a utility knife and scratch awl sitting on the table. Not a smart move with a two year old in the house.
Now we have a set of blocks. I had told wife about the saw dust stuck on them, she looked through the box, kept saying, well, his heart is in the right place. I said, they’re just blocks, fercrissake. She says, why do they feel rough? I thought she was going to cry. I said, you could get rid of a lot of that if you sand them, then re-varnish.
But I don’t much feel like doing that for some reason, at least not this week. And they have shoe polish on them, I guess. I am concerned about the second coat of varnish not sticking to that. Boy didn’t seem too interested in them anyway. I probably should play with him, with the blocks, one of these days. We’ll see.
Postscript- 14 years later-
He ended up making a plywood box to hold those blocks, paid more to have it shipped here then what he paid for the wood.
We had a little girl 11 years ago, father-in-law said, well, will she need some blocks, or do you still have some? I said, we are good on blocks right now, thanks.
The in-laws sold the farm a few years back, the shop tools had to go, no room at the Florida retirement village for them. He never really did progress much beyond those blocks. When they were cleaning out the barn he kept trying to give me books, plans, kits, and wood. He had a whole pile of pine 1×10s he got a deal on. I later found the receipt for them. Is 2 bucks a board foot a good deal? Not around here. I passed on most of his tools, then we found someone willing to take the shop stuff for a flat price, to include everything that wasn’t nailed down.
He did give me a lathe a couple years ago, a crapsman that someone tried to sneak into the retirement village. I learned a little with it, then upgraded to my present Delta Ironbed with a good deal came my way. The year after that, he handed me a box of carving tools someone tried to sell at the village thrift shop, he thought that was how a fellow could make all those curves on a lathe. That’s okay though, by that time my son was taking an interest in carving (probably so he would have an excuse to own pocket knives). He carves with them to this day. And I still have the little 4 inch jointer. But the old man stays out of my shop now, he no longer considers himself a woodworker. And I don’t get along with them any better than I did 14 years ago.
The blocks are still in the attic, can’t give them away, can I?
-- Dan V. in Indy