I have been known to take up a hobby or 37. At 42, on the cusp of 43, and well into the ‘balding’ years, I have decided that, in lieu of a midlife crisis, I would take up woodworking. Don’t get me wrong, a new car and a 27 year old with huge, firm, hands would be wonderful; But I can’t afford the 27 year old, and I am not into cars that much.
In the summer of 2009, I went to an arts festival in Des Moines. The gentleman, who won best of show, did so with some amazing etched clay bowls. I am not sure why those clay pots inspired me to take up wood working, or if they were the only inspiration, but shortly thereafter I found myself living in the thriving metropolis of Martelle Iowa. I had my first ever basement.
Without a lot of money to buy all that one needs to build furniture, I started with magazines. The first one was called, “Start Woodworking”, from the editors of Fine WoodWorking. I read tips on tools, ideas for projects, stories about great woodworkers, and I began to formulate a plan. I would start with a workbench, the workbench on page 24. The editors of the magazine did a good job of designing a project with the beginner in mind. They even provided a DVD with instructions that were really helpful.
The bench took several months to complete, though the plans were designed so that one could complete it is a weekend. I would guess that I spent 5 hours of thinking about building the bench, for every hour of actual working on it. I thought about what I needed to complete each step, but I was always only focused on the next step. The first step was to buy the 2×4s, 4×4s, 3/8“ threaded rod, and a miter saw. Not an electric miter saw, a cheap manual one. I could afford it, it would cut, and I didn’t at all care about how long it would take to make each cut. I also discovered in the garage and old hack saw that I could use for cutting the threaded rod.
With the wood cut, I decided I wanted to sand my lumber. The next purchase was a small Black and Decker ‘Mouse’ sander, some 80, 120, 180 grit sandpaper, and a cool looking level that I didn’t need but it was shiny and I was powerless to NOT buy it. The next few weeks found me sanding each piece a bit each day. Barely into my first project I was already getting addicted to the process. The feeling of the construction grade lumber in my hand, after it had been sanded, gave me the slightest glimpse into the beauty of working with wood. I thought about how it must be to run my fingers across a piece of glass smooth mahogany or birds eye maple.
The plans required that I route a 3/8 inch groove into the stretchers. Before I read this magazine I didn’t even know what a router or a stretcher was. Each new term learned, each skill set explored, opened up the possibilities that developing woodworking skills offers. And each discovery brought the reality home that care needs to be taken to master each aspect of woodworking. So before I could move on to routing I needed to do a bit of research. This is how one turns a 2 day project into a 2 month quest.
I read reviews and comments. There are many good routers to choose from and I decided to go with the Bosch 2.25 hp router with both the plunge base and the fixed base. I bought 3 bits. A 2” Spiral Downcut CL 2BB and a straight 3/8” by Amana Tools, and a 3/8” Up Spiral bit by Freud. I have come to the conclusion that Freud and Amana Tools are the two best out there. Admittedly Amana makes 2 levels of router bits, and I can’t speak to their low end line, but the high end bits have been a joy.
With the router in hand, I had all the tools required to build my workbench. Each step was approached with a sense of confusion and fear. The first time I used the router I was filled with trepidation and pizza, as it was after dinner when I gave it a try. I spent close to 40 minutes setting up a guide for my router. Pieces of 2×4 clamped with 2 24” and 2 36” Jet clamps on my make shift workbench, allowed me to position the router to route. I had read that it is best to take several small passes for safety. Since I was already a bit scared that the router would spin wildly out of control and drive itself into my spleen, leaving me bleeding and generally disappointed, I decided that small passes were a good idea.
It worked as advertised. My first 2 passes made a wonderful 3/8” grove in my wood. I was filled with pride and sure that I was well on my way to being one of the greatest woodworkers of the last 700 years. My second board didn’t go as well. I had tightened the collet on the router, though apparently not enough and it had slid up slightly. This had produced a slight up ramp for the groove. My ego needed this set back and I retightened it and decided that I was the greatest woodworker in my basement at that moment. This was good enough for me.
The rest of the project required gluing 2 pieces of ¾ “ ODF together to form the top, drilling some holes in the 4×4 legs, and attaching the 9” Jet vice. The only difficult part was installing the vice as it didn’t come with instructions, but my own insecurity about getting it right, made me take it at a glacial pace. When I flipped the bench back over and put a piece of wood in the vice, I almost wept with joy.
At the end of the quest I learned several things. 1) When marking wood to be cut or drilled, avoid doing it while watching college football. My bench still bears the scars of several errant holes. 2) Drilling holes with a hand drill, so that they are straight, requires a bit of practice. 3) High quality drill bits are much easier to use than really old, worn out, dull, bits. This likely applies to all tools, the better the quality, the better the results. 4) Fostner bits are cool. 5) I love my workbench, with its shiny red Jet 9” vice. 6) The journey before me is perhaps the most exciting one I have undertaken in my lifetime.
-- Brian Meeks, http://extremelyaverage.com