Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dunno how I forgot this one...

So, a few weeks ago, we got a new-to-us big bandsaw... a Yates American Y-36. The wheels on this thing are 36" in diamter. It's huge... something like 9.5' tall. We had to take the upper wheel and guard off of the thing to get it into the building, and still had to take the door off of the freight elevator to get it through.

It's an enormous thing of beauty, and it runs almost silently, which is a real testament to the way they used to make things back in the old days. My 2 year old powermatic screeches on startup, and rattles in use. It works, but not as well as the Y-36 does.

According to Mike, the guy who sold it to us, the saw used to belong to the Pratt and Whitney pattern shop, but since then, it's had a few owners. Mike is a professional rigger, and moves large and heavy objects like this saw, so he's been the one who went to get it every time a shop closed, and sold it to the next guy. Hopefully this isn't a bad omen for our shop... but in any event, I'm glad to have it around.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Bird's eye view.

So, life in the shop is moving into a hapily productive phase. Things are all in place for the most part, and while there are still final details to attend to, like doors between machine and bench room, we have what we need, and we're moving forward.

Locals are on notice that there will be a shop-warming/ "wetting-in" of the place in the near future. Of course, a shop warmining implies a warmer shop, which is an issue, but we'll figure it out soon enough.

First on the list of things for me to work on is a new bench. I have had a laminated slab of butcher block sitting around waiting for, oh, almost 2 years now, and it's high time I got around to putting it to work. I also have a kit for a fancy twin-screw vise that I bought on sale when I worked at a local woodworker specialty store, I'd say about 3 or 4 years ago now. I've been sitting on it, not needing it, or not having time to put it together... and now I've pulled it out, too. Part of the reason I'm building the bench is because I've had all these parts sitting around. But another reason is that I've really been wanting a new bench for a while. At the old shop, I was using a huge Sjoberg bench that I bought when I first moved into my old shop building. It's huge, heavy... and warped. I'm pretty sure that the manufacturer used really green wood when they built it.

Anyway, the result is that when I want a flat surface to clamp something to, I can't use that bench. If I'm gluing things up, and I want them to be flat, I have to clamp to a flat surface. So, that bench is out.

In the shop now, I've been using an old bench that I built before I went to North Bennet. It's good enough for most things, and it's very flat, but I've learned a lot since I built it, and there are some new details I want added in to the mix.

It's basically a refined version of the old bench. Construction details are the same, but the details will be different, and I'm taking it to a higher level of finish than I did with the old one.

I'll take more pictures of the new bench when I go back to work after the holidays. Since this I've varnished it, and I'm in the process of trying to understand how the vise goes together. It has an 8 page instruction booklet, so there's a little more to it than just bolting it in place. But I have faith that it will be very cool when all is said and done.

Merry Christmas and Happy Buckets to all.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A quick look back...

I found the memory card from my previous phone, and I found this picture on it. I took this the day we first looked at the place.

We've come a long way.

Just about there...

Thursday afternoon we sanded the other half of the floor. As before, it was very necessary. The machine room floor was a nasty brown color, from who knows what, and any time we had to get down to work on something, we came up nasty. We didn't sand every square inch... Some of the machines were simply too heavy for that to be practical. So, we moved what we could, and sanded the rest.

I was told Thursday night that Chris and Don would finish sanding and put another coat on the floor, and that I didn't really need to waste an hour each way on the train just to come in and lay a coat of finish down.

Tomorrow, I'll go in, and I anticipate that we'll spend our time putting everything back that we moved out of the way. After that, whatever small details remain will get wrapped up, the new band saw will get a blade put on, and I imagine that Chris will get his big jointer sand blasted and re-assembled soon.. There are a few small racks for things that need to be installed, and we're wanting to put up a partition betweent he two lathes. That aside, it's essentially a functional shop now, or it will be once it's all back together again.

Time for me to start working...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Now What?

SO, someone pointed out to me that the blog was easier to read when I was dealing more with why I was doing things, and less about the detailed descriptions of what was happening.

Truth be told, it's an ongoing issue for me. It's very easy to get wrapped up in the details and forget what I was working towards in the first place. And now that the shop setup is winding down, I'm having to take a step back... or many steps back... and evaluate where I am, and what comes next.

That's not to say that things haven't been happening in the shop, or that I'm hopelessly lost in what I thought I was doing. Things are still being put together, and I do have an idea or two of what happens next, but this is the real challenge of woodworking for me; I have to run a business. I'm not working for someone else anymore.

When Chris, Don, and I first got this thing going, I said my best estimate was that we'd be up and running around new year's. They said no way would it take that long. We're about a month early, and there's still a little bit let to do, but I think it's a good time of year for the setup to wind down. I've learned a lot, and managed to get a good handle on how to organize myself, and my work. And the new shop was conceived as a solution to many of the other problems I was having before. But knowing what didn't work before doesn't necessarily mean that I now know how to make something that will work in the future. I'm still trying to figure out where some of the other failures were in the last shop, and how to address them in the coming months and years.

There are three weeks and three days left in the year for me to sit down, contemplate where I am, where I'm headed, and how to get there from here.

If only I could dig up the map with my iPhone, this would all be so much easier.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Odd note...

For those who are curious, all of the new shop pictures to date have been taken with my iPhone. The camera in that thing is pretty good... but clearly the daytime pictures have turned out better. The pictures in that last post were taken tonight, and the fluorescent light isn't doing anyone any favors. This picture, on the other hand, was taken a few days ago, in broad daylight. For a phone, I think the picture quality is pretty good.

A place for everything... almost.

So, this week, we got our hands on some used pallet racks, and we set them up for plywood storage. We'd planned for a while to set up some sort of rack to handle this kind of thing, and to designate part of the bench room as materials storage. We got the lumber rack up weeks ago, and finally got it secured recently. And I got a bunch of lumber moved from pallet storage to lumber rack storage. I think it still needs to be arranged to be more accessible by species, so I don't have to juggle a huge pile to get to the boards that I want. But it's no longer on a pallet, which is progress.

Chris is starting to wind down his adventure with the table saw, but he's ventured into a whole other world with his jointer. He's taken it completely apart, and he's going to strip it down this weekend and repaint it. The table saw needed new bearings, which he got, and pressed onto the shaft. He'll have the saw up and running sometime next week, I'm sure. The jointer... we'll see what happens there.

My space has started to settle into a workable configuration. I rearranged it a little bit, and from here on out, the major work that needs to be done is on a detail level, getting things put away, sorted out, and so forth. I also need to look into things like filing cabinets, to be able to put things away that need putting away. I've worked out a design for a new bench, which will be fun to build, I think. Nothing ground breaking, but it'll have a few new things for me to get used to, and it'll be narrower from front to back, which will make some things easier to get done, I think.

Tonight, Don and I came close to wrapping up construction of the frame for the third of what will be three assembly tables. Two of them will be 4 foot square, and the frames for those are done. They still require tops and shelves, but the frames are assembled and mobile. The third one will be 4'x8', and it's overbuilt, so that we can use it to move heavy loads of lumber from the loading dock, onto the elevator, and up to the space, in a pretty easy fashion. To date, we've been loading plywood onto pallets in an offset kind of way, and trying to get the pallet jack, which has 4 foot forks, to move a stack that's 8 feet long... with limited success. Previous carts were undersized, and difficult to control. This table is big, with casters that are rated for heavy loads, and large wheels to make it easy to cross the seam between the floor and the elevator. It's not fully assembled yet, we ran out of lag bolts. But it's getting there. When they're not being used, the assembly tables will be stored under the bottom shelves of the plywood rack.

The end of shop construction is in sight, which is good news. There are still a few big projects to be wrapped up, but the major stuff is almost done. Soon, there will be industrial lighting in the machine room, too, and then we'll be able to put the outfeed table for the table saws in place. The radial arm saw station needs to be shimmed, and surfaced with masonite. The floor needs to be sanded and refinished, too. But ductwork is just about complete, and we'll soon know for sure if the dust collection system is up to the task of taking care of such a large shop. But even if we do need to get a bigger cyclone system, it won't be too long until everything we need is up and running. After that, it won't be long before the kinks are worked out of various small systems, and we'll be ready to start getting profitable work done. It'll be a good feeling.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Current State of Affairs

So, I finally got around to taking pictures today. Basically, the shop is kind of a mess. We're in an in-between stage. We've gotten a lot done, and the shop is almost there. We still have a list of things to get done, but the big things that will provide functionality are almost finished.

Tonight, Don and I broke down a stack of plywood and 2x4s that was sitting across sawhorses, and had become sort of a workstation on its own. Originally, it was a pile of materials to work from, but it just sort of settled in for a while while we were working on benches and work surfaces to be used around the shop. So, it's been there for a few weeks. Don and I had gotten the frame close to wrapped up for a large outfeed surface for our table saws, and realized that the pile on the sawhorses had diminished enough that we could dispense with the whole thing entirely. And like that, 32 more square feet of workspace cleared up, and the shop opened up a little more.

But even though things are coming so close to being workable, it's still largely a contingency-based arrangement. For instance, the current chop saw station is actually arranged on top of my table saw. A saw used as a space to use a saw... the irony of it. A couple of scraps are nailed together to provide support for long pieces hanging off of the chop saw, and a couple more scraps are nailed together, and they get strap-clamped to the extension table to allow accurate repetitive cuts. All of this cobbled together improvised work is happening on top of a Saw Stop table saw, which is a great and accurate piece of equipment in its own right.

My space in the bench room is a mess. I have a small bench out to work on, the desk I'm using for general organization and officey type stuff is on the floor, and there's an auxiliary bench set up to hold various things as work is being done. And I have wall shelves mounted, and some other things in place. But there's still some tweaking to be done, and I think some of the big things will get rearranged a little bit.

Ductwork is almost complete in the machine room, which is good. We're hoping the dust collectors we have are strong enough to do what they need to do, because otherwise we'll need to get something bigger to service the whole shop. This is a hard thing to contemplate, since we already have to lay out for plumbing to be done in the finishing room, because of the loft.

This is the loft. This is the reason we need a plumber. Before, we just had the office, and it had a drop ceiling. The ceiling tiles were made of a material that would dissolve if it got wet, which means the general sprinkler system would dissolve the tiles, and put out any fires that were in the office. But now that we have the loft in place, the plywood that's there will get in the way of any water coming down, so we need sprinklers inside the room. It'll be a great storage space up top, but we hadn't really considered the sprinkler thing before, so that's going to cost us a goodly chunk of change.

Bit by bit though, it's all coming together.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Missed a week in there somewhere...

So, it's been a couple of weeks. Last weekend I was in NJ, helping my best friend get hitched. Great time had by all. :)

No pictures this week, because I'm retarded, and haven't taken any. I'll try to get a few put up on Monday. Basically, we've moved into the bench room, and the nice clean floor now has stuff on it, like benches and work tables. We also put up a loft on top of the finishing room... and promptly got noticed by Jim, who pointed out that we might need to get sprinklers inside, once the loft was up. The way it was before, it was an office, with a drop ceiling, that had dissolvable panels, in case the sprinklers went off. So we made a few calls, and it looks like we're going to need to get sprinklers installed in the finishing room. It's the right thing to do, but it's going to be expensive. Oops.

And another thing... while Chris was sawing panels for the floor for the loft, I noticed that the nice new floor got slippery pretty quickly with dust on it. We're still talking about redoing the floor in the machine room... but I think that if we do, we're going to have to mix some sand in with the finish. It won't go down as easily, I don't think, with sand in it, but it'll keep the floor nice and grippy... which is important when you're standing at a machine.

Harvey has been notably reclusive this week, and we're starting to wonder what he's up to. Normally he hangs out on the peak of (what I'm guessing is) the elevator shaft of the building across the way, and we can see him up there looking around at his demesne. But lately at dusk there have been huge murders of crows flying by, and he just hasn't been in plain sight. It's possible that the pair has migrated away, but this late in the season...? Who knows. Maybe they just moved to a different building that has a more convenient heating vent. I just did a quick bit of research... turns out Peregrines were taken off of the endangered species list 9 years ago. Still, it's good to see them around.

What else is going on...

Chris took one of the armatures out of his Oliver table saw. When we fired it up this week, it made an awful sound, turns out it had a bad bearing. So Chris dismantled the motor for that arbor, and pulled the bearing off on Friday night. I was impressed... it's a huge bearing. Certainly bigger than the wheel bearings on my pickup truck. Chris' saw is a really impressive piece of work in general, and I have to say, I'm a little envious. I'll put up a post about that later this week, even though it's not my saw, so I feel a little weird writing about it. Still, it's part of the shop, and I think it's cool. And really, Harvey doesn't belong to me either, but I don't feel bad writing about him.

We've in the final stages of setting up shop. We're putting up ductwork for dust collection. Wiring of the space is almost complete, we're just waiting on HPS lights for the machine room, since it's still really dark as the sun goes down. This afternoon I dropped in and transferred my lumber from a pallet, up onto the lumber racks that we stabilized on Friday. And I put some shelves up by my space in the bench room. We have a small list of things that we want or have to do, but it's a shrinking list. It's looking like the shop will be up and running in the very near future.

Then I get to start building things again.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Shiny new floors, and moving a little farther forward

So, to the left is a picture of Chris and Don sanding the grime from the floor. It's a pretty good shot to show how grimy everything was. If you click on the picture, you'll see a few details. First, there's a clear demarcation between the unsanded, darker surface in the foreground, and the clean surface that's left behind. Chris is working the belt sander. Don is behind chris, pulling a dolly that has a shop vac to collect all the dust raised by the belt sander, and a drum that's hooked into the vacuum hose to separate out the bulk of the waste, to help keep the vac from filling up.

To the right is the new, finished floor. Night and Day, I'm telling ya.

Speaking of night and day...

This is a picture taken, at night, from the very far end of the machine room. Well, technically, it's a ways back from the machine room, into space that is currently unoccupied. You can see darkness around the edges of the picture. You can see the lighting provided by fluorescent lights in the machine room. And you can see the bright yellow square that is the door. We had high pressure sodium lighting installed in the bench room, and wow... those things are incredibly bright. Wonderful, white light. So, given the gross disparity, we're now thinking about getting some installed in the machine room, too. The amount of light these things give off is amazing. It's like daylight.

As I was leaving that night, I took a quick shot of the river, off to the left of the building. It's a fuzzy picture, but you get the idea. There's a bridge to the left, crossing the Merrimack, and another mill building across the river. Casting a shadow to the right is the building across the parking lot from us, where Harvey the peregrine falcon lives... with his mate, I found out today. It's not one falcon, it's a mating pair.

How cool is that?

Friday, October 31, 2008

Two steps forward

So, just as I was feeling like the new place was starting to feel settled, Don and Chris brought up a very good point. The floor was just plain grungy. Dirty, filthy, nasty. And something had to be done about that.

I was reluctant at first to consider sanding and refinishing the floor in the bench room. So much work, you know? But we did, and it looks really good. The only problem now is that we're going to have to do something about the machine room, too, since it's become pretty clear that we're tracking grunge from the machine room onto the nice new bench room floor, every time we walk through the door. Moving pallets and piles that are still piled up is pretty easy to do. Moving large machines around is something else entirely. I'm really not looking forward to moving heavy equipment around in order to repeat this procedure.

From Failure we learn

So, the old shop is officially no more. What you see here is the shell that remains, with a bit of conduit sticking up where my table saw used to be.

It's a weird feeling. This was my first shop. It was originally supposed to be a 2 year lease... and a much longer-lasting enterprise. The up and coming lab space was part of the reason I'm leaving, as was the solitude that I mentioned in previous posts. But at the end of the year, it feels like this shop was a failure for me. As I was packing up pallets of lumber and plywood and bits and pieces, there were so may unfinished projects that were sitting on top of each other. In some cases, it was lumber that was to have been one thing, on top of lumber that was intended to be something else, and half-finished jigs and fixtures... so many fits and starts and thrashings around. It's been a learning year, that's for sure. And while I learned a lot, I didn't actually finish very much. So, in a sense, I'm closing the doors on a failed enterprise, while simultaneously setting up a new one. I'm changing some of the things that I knew contributed to my having a hard time, but I'm very much aware that there are other possible factors that I haven't identified yet. The lease on the new place will run for 3 years. A lot can happen in that time.

The quote that comes to mind is from a recent favorite movie of mine. "From Failure we learn; Success, not so much." The challenge for me right now is to allow the failure part to sink in, so that it's appreciated properly. Blindly going forward with my chin up and a can-do attitude is all fine and good, but I really need to figure out a few more things to make sure that this next try doesn't end the same way.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

So much stuff...

So, after loading all this stuff into my shop, and getting the shelving set up, etc... it was decided that we should sand the floor... at least, in the bench room. I have a feeling we'll end up tracking in the grunge from the machine room, but whatever, it'll probably be helpful to have the place looking nice.

Anyway, point of the story, all the stuff you see in the picture is now on the other side of the wall... so we can sand the floor tomorrow. It still boggles my mind that I managed to collect so much stuff over the past year. And I'm pretty concerned that this is simply going to be a bigger fishbowl for me to grow into.

Chris laughed at me last night. I showed up late with my final full pickup truck load of stuff. Among other things, I drove up with 2 barrels full of ductwork for the dust collector. The pipes are mostly 4 feet long, and have an elbow or some other attachment mounted on the end, making them around 5+ feet tall in the barrels. Clearly this was going to be an awkward load, so it took some head scratching. What I finally opted to do wa to set up my little giant step ladder in the back of the truck, and lash it securely. Then I tied the ductwork to the ladder, and lashed everything in place. So the resulting construction was enormous, standing 5+ feet out of the bed of the truck, and looked pretty crazy going down the road. Chris was surprised that I hadn't been pulled over. Honestly, I am too.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Plodding along.

So, the second big move day came and went with very few issues. There are pallets of boxes and lumber and tools sitting around the shop, which is entertaining... it's amazing how quickly the space fills up. I can say that I've driven my fill of rental trucks for a while... those 26' Penske trucks are pretty simple to operate, but driving a big truck is still a pretty stressful thing, and there are some pretty air-headed people on the highways sometimes.

The big wall has been taped and filled with joint compound, and we'll paint it sometime soon, I'm sure.

All that aside, I'm starting to get antsy. The economy has its issues, but the bottom line right now is that it's time to start making money, and moving forward. That requires a functional shop space, with workable tools, and a steady head to wrap around everything that needs to be done. I won't lie, the last go around with the space in Medford was pretty rough. With noone around to bounce ideas off of, I was pretty aimless, and it was really hard to be productive. There were a lot of things I didn't get figured out right away. And between running a business, learning the differences between one-off and limited production work issues, as well as how to manage projects effectively and balance my time... it was a really rough year. As I was filling pallets with materials and tools last week, it was impossible not to notice just how many projects got started, but not finished. It's a real ego-bruiser, and a wake-up call. I've been in business for just over a year, and it's been a rough year. I might have had an easier time working for someone else. But frankly, even with all of my failures this year... all of them were learning moments. And as stressful as it is to do this kind of work and make it pay, I can't really picture many other options.

I have a few ideas that have been dormant for a while now, and a few more that need developing. I think I'm going to spread myself out a little bit, and do a few different kinds of work. In addition to furniture, I have ideas in mind for toys and puzzles. And maybe for some entry-level basic furniture that I can market to smaller, local chain stores.

But eventually it all comes back to where I am right now, and what needs doing next. Clean out the old shop, and get the new one up to speed... and get ready to start running when the ground is under my feet again.

Friday, October 17, 2008

End of week 3

So, as things are now, I have one more big truck load of stuff to go up to the new place. I still have a few big power tools to move, and I still have piles of smaller stuff that's on the way out. I figure this Thursday I'll rent another truck, and have another go at it. But this trip will be different from the first one. The first time, everything had casters, or mobile bases. This time, it's mostly boxes, chunks, bits and pieces, and a big stack of lumber.

BUT, I'm still pretty lazy, and I have one big advantage, working out of industrial spaces, that I wouldn't have if I was moving an apartment or a house... loading docks. The joy of these miracles is that I can rent a nice big box truck from Penske, and roll everything right onto the truck.

"But wait," you might say. "You said you didn't have casters on everything."

This is true, I don't. I have pallets, and a pallet jack. And I have to say, there's something fundamentally satisfying about loading up a pallet full of boxes. No, I don't yearn for days of yesteryear, working saturdays at the grocery store, and breaking down the weekly order. It's just that, I know that I won't have to lug any of these boxes anywhere. No lifting, no dragging, no schlepping, no stairs, no 2-man carries, no pizza party, no hassles. Pallet jack lifts the whole pallet up, I wheel the thing down the hall to the elevator, down to the truck we go, and roll it onto the truck. My only regret is that we don't have wider hallways and a second pallet jack so that we could have races. I still have to pack and unpack the boxes, but that's less of a hassle, I think.


All that aside, the place is finally starting to look like a shop, which is nice. There's still a lot of work to be done, but all in due time.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A few more pictures.

Things are slowly moving forward. The wall is up, machinery is slowly trickling in. Wiring is getting close to being done. We still need to build doors to finish separating the space. And after that... well, there are shelves to build, lumber racks, counter tops... there's still plenty to do in order to turn it into working, functional space that will accommodate and assist in productivity. I think it's going to turn into a longer project than the other guys had in mind... but one thing at a time.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Fits and Starts and Harvey

The truth is, the new place has been moving forward in fits and starts. i think the original idea was first spawned sometime in July, and the lease didn't finally happen until this month.

For the past 2 weeks, we (Chris, Don, and I) have been building a dividing wall to separate the space into two areas, one will be the bench room, one will house the machines. The basic idea is that the noisy dusty stuff will happen in one room, and the quieter stuff will happen in the bench room, where we'll be free to breathe without dust masks on.

By "the past 2 weeks," I mean, a few days last week, and a few days this week. Chris and Don both live in the area, and they have had other things to do for the latter half of each week so far. So it took us basically a week and a half to get the wall put together. But it's up. Mostly... it still needs doors to fully separate the space.

One side note about the shop... there's a peregrine falcon that lives on the side of the mill building on the other side of the parking lot. For no apparent reason, I've decided his name should be Harvey. We heard about him from Jimmy, who takes care of the building maintenance, and is also doing our electrical work. He said that he found the next on the other building.

Jimmy also had a recent story that happened in our space shortly after we started negotiating with the building management. He was working with his assistant, and the pigeon was perched up near the ceiling on something. Jimmy told his assistant to watch, as he poked a stick at the bird. Jimmy said that if the bird got onto the stick, that would mean that he's tame. Well, sure enough, the bird was tame, and had a band around his ankle, and Jimmy's pretty sure it was a homing pigeon. So, he took the bird in hand, walked over to the window, and let it go. Around this time, he realized "Oh, shit... the falcon!" He's pretty sure that's why the pigeon decided to hide indoors in the first place.

We have no idea if the pigeon actually made it home or not. But it's a pretty cool story.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Clean slate

So, the shop is moving to a new, undisclosed location. Tufts University owned the last place I was working in, and they've decided that it's going to be turned into a shiny new lab space for their sciencey people. They're not sure when, but they now have the money to make this plan a reality.

Well, it might be a while until they get the whole plan together. But I'm not going to wait around until they do and be the last guy in line at the loading dock.

So, as of Oct 1 the lease started on the new place. Of the space you can see, we're renting about half. If you look at the green and white pillars that break up the windows, our space goes down two more pillars from the left side of the picture. Altogether, it'll be about 3500 sq ft.

The shop will solve a few problems I've been dealing with lately:

-Loneliness. My first shop was pretty good, as first shops went. But it was specifically designated as a one-man space. When I was going to school for woodworking, we had 40 woodworkers on the same floor, every day. Lots of people to talk to, harass, and listen to. That, and I was still working at a woodworking retail store, so I had co-workers to spend time with, and customers to mistreat. It was great. But leaving the store and starting up my own shop, I went from all that, to nothing... just me. It took me a while to figure out how much of a problem that would be, psychologically... and what a potential problem it could have been, safety wise. I'll be moving into the new shop and sharing it with two classmates from school who are good friends of mine. It's not the same as interacting with a school full of people, but it's better than yelling at the walls.

-I needed a little more space to work in. My first shop was around 8-900 sq feet, for just me, and it was functional, but a little cramped after a while. Part of that had to do with the fact that the layout wasn't everything I could have hoped for. Over the course of my first year, I've learned a lot about what I like and don't like in a shop, and how the layout of the shop can work with, or work against, the way I like to do my woodwork.

-Layout! I'll get the chance to do this all over again, knowing now what I didn't know then. There's a proper work flow that my old shop lacked. Basically, there were times when I'd spend half of my time walking from one side of the shop to another, like a bumblebee. And I'd rather be spending my time working, instead of bumbling around. Of course, with almost 4 times as much space to bumble in, the shop layout had better be good.

-Separation of machines and bench space. Machines are great for the quick and dirty stuff, but they make a lot of noise and raise a lot of dust. In my own space, there really wasn't room, or need, to divide up the space. But that meant that I was walking around in the cloud of dust created by whatever machine I'd been working with, even when I was finally working at the bench. Now I'll be able to step out of the dusty area. And with 2 other guys, the wall will provide a nice sound barrier, so I won't have to listen to screaming machines while I'm doing (bang, bang, bang) quieter work at the bench.

-A commute will probably do more good than harm. I found out the hard way that working very close to home was a problem. At first, I'd go home during lunch, and end up wasting a lot of time. Later on, I'd get caught up in something at home sometimes, and it was easier to do that, knowing that work was only 5 minutes away. "I'll just get this done and go to work. It's not like it'll take me any time to get there... " Live and learn. The new space isn't quite so close.

So, stay tuned, I'm sure there'll be more news on a regular basis.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The good, the bad, the ugly

Good news: This week I'll be wrapping up a commission, 2 tables for the woman who received the letter I posted a couple of months ago.

Bad news: It took a little longer than I thought, but that's ok.

Good news: Tufts University received a huge amount of money from one of their donors. I love my Alma Mater, and it's great that they have such generous contributors.

Bad news: The new research lab that Tufts has planned will be built in the building that my shop is currently located, so I'll have to find a new shop at some point

Ugly: It's not really clear when this is going to happen, and news has not been forthcoming. People in the building have known for some time now that something was coming along, because the leases that they've been offered have been getting shorter and shorter, without much in the way of explanation. The news about the labs to be built was posted on the Tufts website, and they say they'll have an architect in the next 2 months. But there are people who have already seen drawings for the proposed labs. It's all rumor at this point, and noone really knows anything. My lease runs through next summer, so in theory this won't affect me for a while. But it's still something to have to worry until we all know whether or not Tufts is going to let us stay that long, or if they're planning to buy out our current lease contracts. I'd like to be able to plan the future, but at present I don't have a way to do so. I just know that things will change in the near future.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bit by incremental bit.

This week the shop has been quiet, as I've taken time to attend to other issues, like getting ready to take new pictures of the work I've done, recovering from vacation, and re-working some of my organizational techniques. Not a very exciting week in the shop I'm afraid. The only wood related project that came to completion involved putting a new handle on a chisel. It made me happy, but it's not exactly earth shaking in its implications.

On the other hand, I did receive a deposit on the commission for the woman who received the letter outlined in an earlier entry. Two tables, due in about 3 weeks.

Lastly, I finally found time to attend to some of the mess in my basement, which is going to be the backdrop for all of the work I'll be doing for a book I'd like two write. The downside... I'm probably moving out in a few months, so I'll have to get a new basement cleared and set up for work. But still, Im not going to complain. Progress is progress, no matter how small.

3/30/8 JW

Sunday, March 23, 2008


It's been an interesting month. Not very good for blogging, clearly.

The desk is still in process, derailed by other projects. I'll have it done in 2 weeks.

No, really.

In the meantime, I've been up to the following:

-In preparation for a class, I decided to design a pair of portable router tables. The class is very heavy on the router table work, and it's just easier to have a few extras for different steps, and leave them set up for the day. The designs worked out well, and the tables performed very well in the class. In addition, they were less expensive than most others, since I was able to get two complete tables out of one solitary sheet of plywood, and add in a few design features that I found to be useful. I'm pretty happy about those.

-I taught a class on building a frame and panel blanket chest. In essence, it was a kit class, the students didn't really build their chests from scratch. I milled up the lumber, and cut the parts for the kit. They got to run molding with the above mentioned router tables, cut joinery, drill holes, and see how it all goes together. We glued everything up, and did a few other things, and they got to go home with fully assembled pieces, that still needed scraping and sanding and finishing. Not bad for a weekend class.

I got a bit of a hard time from one of my friends at the store, who says I should charge more for lumber, and for my time in processing and milling everything up. He has a point, but I think I have a better one. I told him that for me, this was actually serving as boss training. Some classes are basic woodworking fundamentals courses, and they're great for the people who are taking the course. In this case, I got to try my hand at getting two guys with very little experience to actually build a fully assembled piece in two six-hour days. In a production shop environment, I'd need to be able to design pieces that could be built by my employees successfully, in a fairly small amount of time. I think I managed to do that in the class. So, everybody wins. The store (ideally) makes money, and keeps their customers happy. The students learn, and get to bring home a nice piece of almost-done furniture. I get to learn more about teaching people, about designing furniture, and I get paid to do so. Not too shabby.

-I built a similar frame and panel chest for my girlfriend, Ariel.

As I may have said, one o the joys of production work is that it doesn't take too much longer to push more wood through the machines, once everything's been set up. This was no exception. I knew in advance that her birthday was coming up, so when I was milling up wood, I milled up some extra, with a few modifications. The most obvious change is that her chest is five feet long. There were a few other minor modifications, but there's also a great story.

I routed out big recesses to hold lid cleats inside the lid, to help keep it flat. This went more or less ok, but I had to do some fussy fitting to get the cleats in place. Eventually everything is drilled, and screwed into place, and I fit the lid to the top of the chest, and surprise, the lid is too big. Board is too wide, need to rip it down to a new width. That's fine, I think, because part of the edge molding that was done was a bit wonky, so I'll rip off of the front edge, and spin it around, everything will be cool.

Notes on terminology for non-woodworkers: Board width is measured across the grain. This can be confusing in a story like this, because the length of the board is oriented with the width of the chest. The chest is five feet wide. The board is 5 (plus) feet long, but 15 inches wide. Because the board was too wide, it was sticking way out in front, and had an overhang of something like 3 inches or more. So it needed to be ripped down: Ripping is woodworker-talk for cutting a board in the direction of the grain to remove some width from the board... or rip into two boards. Back to the story...

After ripping the board to final with, I noticed that the cleats, which I'd inset into the board, were evenly spaced, but the layout was offset. The one on the let was 2 iches farther in from teh end than the one on the right.

Hm. That sucks. What the hell am I going to do now?

Author's note: There's a simple fact to bear in mind when reading stories like this about work that has gone awry. Pretty much every woodworker's tool chest is equipped with a selection of well used, and well honed vocabulary that we instinctively pull out in times of need. And while this was clearly one of those times, these words failed, as always, to actually repair the damage that had been done. (Despite a virulent effort on my part.)

I pondered, and pondered. As I thought about this, I ran a new molding along the new front edge of the chest. I fit the lid to the box again, and the lid cleats, which had fit so well before, are now hitting the front of the carcase, because the lid is spun around. Turns out I ran the molding along what used to be the back edge, so the lid cleats, which had been perfectly spaced from the back, were now spaced from the front. Well, crap. I shifted it back, because, I just want this thing done. Fine. The lid is a bit farther back than I wanted, but it works.

The only thing I could come up with to help the offset cleats is to use the larger space on one side for something decorative. I was already late on this present, the lid is not going to plan, and really, the only thing I can think of to make light of all of this is to go for sappy points, and carve a big heart with our initials in it. Yes, I lose dignity and manly points for doing so, but I'm hoping that it will make up for the goof with the cleats, and the fact that this thing is, by this point, a week late if it's a birthday present. I take the lid off of the chest, and lay it down to do the carving. I do a quick heart and initials pencil line to follow, grab a carving tool and a wooden mallet, and go to work.

10 minutes later, it's 9PM, the initials and heart are done. The lidless chest is oiled and ready to go, all that's really slowing me down is the lid, which I can now oil and throw on the chest, and have done with it.

Wouldn't you know it? The lid was off the box, and I didn't check the orientation. After all the hassles fitting the cleats into the mortises, ripping the molded lid, and running a new profile, and all the other hassles, I carved the heart, and the initials, upside down.

SO, I had to make a new lid.

That was a week ago. Last week I spent cleaning up the shop, and getting ready to go back to work. I went on vacation on Thursday, and while I tried to make the first half of the week as productive as possible, it really didn't work out that way. The shop is clean, and as a reward for myself, I took half an hour to make a very pretty scrap of figured wood into a handle for a chisel.

This week I'm going to spend some time marketing and trying to shake out some work, and next week I'll get back to the desk. I'm also going to try to schedule blogging as one of my weekly (or more frequent) activities.

Happy Sunday, folks.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Been neglecting this thing...

I have to say, this whole small business thing is a lot of work. If it was just the shop, I think I could handle it. If it was just the woodwork, I think I'd have a swinging time. But no... this is supposed to be a business. There's supposed to be a bottom line, and marketing, and sales, and some sort of direction. But on top of that, organizing production is a brand new thing.

This past week I got a lot done on the first intended piece designed for production... an easily transportable computer desk with a few neat ideas involved. Instead of building only one, though, I figured I'd try my hand at running three of them through the production process. In theory, this shouldn't be too much more work. Most of the time spent is invested in setting up a machine for one given cut, and the actual cut doesn't take very long. This is the joy of working with industrial machines. And I've noticed one thing already: Prototyping is a bitch.

NBSS taught me a lot about custom woodworking, but when you're only working on one piece, it's a little easier. If you have to fudge an angle, or modify a dimension, it's guaranteed that this modification will only affect ONE sole piece of work.

But if you're building three separate, but identical objects, then any mistakes you make on one part gets amplified by three, because all of the parts usually get run at the same time, and mistakes on one will be made on all of them. What that means is that any room for minor tweaking and fudging has to be done three times. This prototyping process has revealed one critical component of production work: Precision is devastatingly important. Parts made in the same process are identical to the point of being interchangeable. If one of them is off, has to be fixed, or worse, has to be remade, then the time spent to fix that part is multiplied, in this case times three. Cost for replacement parts, if replacements are required, is also multiplied by three, because chances are good that if I've screwed one of them up, I've screwed them all up.

I always figured that prototypes were a sort of rough draft, where all the bugs got worked out, I'm now beginning to understand that design flaws are not just in the design of the product, but in every measurement for every cut. Everything has to be set up right, or there will be one or two parts on every single desk that won't fit right, in exactly the same way. When time is money, and you're trying to earn more than you spend, little boo-boos like that can really cost me a lot of time. And, in some cases, a lot of materials.

That said, as much as this has been a pain in the neck so far, doing three desks has given me the opportunity to build one, ponder the results, and then build another with the corrections made, and I'm assuming that by the time the third desk is done, everything else will make a lot more sense.

So, we'll see. One other thing I've learned... this is probably why not very many people get into the production furniture making biz. Producing a new design is more than just figuring out what it's supposed to look like. Getting everything in place to be able to produce, and reproduce, and reproduce in quantity, is a lot more involved than I originally thought it would be. Custom work is always a little more interesting, because it's out of the ordinary, and there are always challenges to be met. But I think it is also going to prove to be more fun, because I'll still be able to fudge my way through things if I have to, without having to spread the corrections across an entire production line.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why I enjoy building custom furniture

I get to write letters like this:

[names have been changed to protect the innocent]

Dear Jane,

I want to thank you for your time this morning. It was very kind of you to welcome me into your home, and I appreciate that. And while I think it falls into another kind of category, I want to thank you for welcoming me into your project. One of the joys of building (or commissioning) custom furniture is that you’re allowed to design and have built exactly what you want, the way you want it built. I realize that this can be hard sometimes, and very intimidating, because the visions in our mind’s eye aren’t always as thoroughly detailed as we’d like.
If the image you have in your mind is of a wooden table with wrought iron legs, I’d like to help you flesh out that image, and help you fill in some of the details. I liked the sketches you had for the legs, and I feel like I owe you an apology if you felt like I was dismissive of the idea. It didn’t occur to me until now to ask or offer this, but if you’d like, we can sit down again (at your house, or mine) and play with the details a little more. I can sketch out variations on the design you showed me for the legs, with different curves and proportions, both on their own, and with a mocked-in top. That way you can see how different proportions work against each other, and with the table. It’s hard to offer a concrete “I want THIS,” sort of answer sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I can’t provide some options for you to choose from. It’s easier sometimes to figure out what you like or want by ruling out the things you don’t like or want, or which ones you like more. And once we have a better idea of what that is, we’ll have an easier time with the wrought iron guys, because I can give them a full size working drawing of the curves you decide on, for both tables. It gives us a better working position if we can give them all the details when they’re commissioned for their part. Please let me know how your meeting goes with them.
In a similar vein, I can come back with some corrugated cardboard pieces once your chair comes home from the upholsterers. We can cut the cardboard up to play with the angle for the wedge table, and figure out what shape you’d like it to be.
My hope is that we can arrive at designs that you really like. The way this is supposed to work is that with your inspiration, and my perspiration and know-how, we come to a design that really makes you feel good about the process. I’d really like to be able to build tables that are genuinely yours. If I build them, I’d rather deliver something to you that is made from your own ideas and decisions, instead of something you had to pick out of what was offered. I’d like you to be able to be proud of these tables, and happy to see them in your home.
Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.

All my best.



This is the joy of the custom furniture builder... and of my life as a builder and educator. I get to help people to create elements of a life that they envision for themselves. For clients, I am the hands and the process that helps to manifest their ideas. As an author, or a teacher, I help people understand how to care for and use their tools to pursue a life or hobby where they are empowered to shape and craft the world around them as they wish to shape it. I get to be the link between the idea and the realization of people's desires. I get to help them find their way to making something that's theirs.

It's a nice idea that all men are created equal, but the truth of it is that we all have different strengths. I get to be the guy who helps people figure out what they want, and helps them to get it. It's a pretty rare gift, and I think it's pretty cool.

Happy Wednesday.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The forest, and the trees

As I said, this Blog is going to be one thread of three. The others will come later. This one pertains to business, philosophy, life, and why I enjoy building the things that I do.

Today will be a pretty odd entry, and it's just as much a confessional as anything else. It's about details, and the bigger picture.

I love building things because I'm predisposed to see into the details, and to solve the puzzles of how things are supposed to go together. I really enjoy working with wood, because it has its own rules. It's not a static or predictably plastic material. It bends in certain predictable ways, and moves in unpredictable others, and the process of building a good piece of furniture is also a process of helping the piece as a whole to exist as a stable unit, or as a compilation of stable parts. Every board in a drawer is capable of warping, cracking, and moving towards something less useful than it was. The geometry of the drawer is such that each board restrains and stabilizes the others, and enables the unit to move forward... and this is really cool to me. As the seasons pass, the boards will swell and shrink a little bit, but they'll all swell in the same direction, so none of them are acting against the others. And the process of cutting the joinery requires a quiet mind and good concentration skills, or you'll end up paring wood and correcting badly made cuts for hours.

It's very easy for me to get into these details, and to wedge my head firmly into a problem-solving, particular puzzle mentality, sometimes to the point of distraction. But I've discovered in the process of moving forward with the business, and the shop, and trying to design and move forward with individual projects, that there are so many details to keep track of, that it's almost impossible to keep them all in my head. And it's very hard to get a solid grasp on the bigger picture, such as the direction of the business. I get so wrapped up in how I'm going to solve a particular problem on a particular piece that sometimes it's hard to even conceive of how this one little problem will affect productivity, or profitability. I've had a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.

The most recent example was a picture frame for a friend of mine who makes stained glass pieces for a living. It was a round frame, made of ash, which isn't terribly expensive, and I bid way too low to make it profitable. I was so wound up in how to put it together, how many pieces, how to shape it efficiently, etc, that it wasn't until it was done that I realized my mistake. I based my price on those charged by stained glass supply places online, which was my first mistake. Online supply places can charge a lot less; I only charged him $70 for the frame. And in a way, that seems fairly reasonable, because it was just a frame.

But it also translated into roughly 3 solid days of work. Or, $23 a day. It was money, and it was the first paying job that went through the shop, and the best case scenario is that for 3 days the shop was able to pay for itself, and I had a couple of bucks left over. Not exactly a recipe for success. But the frame was round, and the stained glass piece fit into it perfectly, which is also good. But it was still $23 a day.

I've had to grow up a little bit, and get organized a little, and rework my thinking a lot. I'm not saying this to show that I'm growing up, or that I've figured everything out yet. I'm saying it because it's one of the challenges I'm facing as a businessman.

Well, that, and facing the idea of myself as a businessman.

Maybe this is weird to read. I'm sure relatives will read it and go "duhhh... you're one of the most disorganized people we know. Remember 5th grade when you lost your assignment book every week?" But the point of writing it all down is for other people to read, outside of the family, to hopefully learn from my experiences.

In a way, this Blog will be, in part, about setting up a small business. These are the mistakes and challenges that I face, and they'll be picked apart in here. I get a lot of questions when I tell people that I'm striking out on my own and trying to make a business work. It's hard to encapsulate all of the challenges I face in one simple answer. I get questions about everything from "how hard is it," to "How do you find your clients... how are you going to make this pay," to "Can you help me learn how to sharpen? I can't figure this out." So I'm going to try to write everything here, for posterity, whatever that means, and to get it all out of my head, so I can get back to work. Friends and family, are all very well familiar with watching me amble along in a scattered fashion, trying to figure this out. And a lot of them are familiar with those questions... and with my sharp tool fetishes.

... you can see what I mean with my detail problem. I was going to try to expound on how I was making the transition from "nutty student woodworker," to "organized (HAH!) businessman with some sort of vision." Instead I got caught up in worrying about my audience, and it devolved pretty quickly into a ramble.

These are the challenges I'm currently facing:

I need to be both nearsighted, and farsighted. I need to see the forest, and the trees. I need to understand how to set goals, instead of pile up lists of tasks to be done. It's a new thing for me. Every project has its quirks, and details to be concerned with, in the effort to carry the project to completion. But broader topics haven't been my concern.

My roommate Seth put it best. He explained to me that goals have priority, not tasks. At work, he says he has 10 tasks at any given moment that all have #1 priority, because very few people are going to give you something to do, AND tell you that it's not really important. Goals provide the criteria to make decisions about which task has a higher priority.

I'm working on understanding the process of setting goals, so I can see where to steer the ship that is my business. I'm having to work at it, because I'm so task-oriented sometimes. I'd rather be working with wood, and concentrating on the task at hand. I'm not used to worrying about where it's supposed to take me, or how it's going to impact my ability to pay rent in the future. But I guess that's one of the differences between being a worker, and being a boss. I've already learned that it's very hard to work for myself, because my boss is an organizational train wreck, and he's not always sure from day to day what he wants me to do. But he does need to get his shit together, and figure out where the ship is headed. Once he's figured that out, I'll have a better idea of what I'm doing. And I think that transition is in process.

I'm trying to see both the forest, and the trees, so I can keep from getting lost in the woods, as a woodworker.


I promise: Next time, no stupid metaphors.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

9:08 AM on a Wednesday

First post.


My name is James Watriss, and this is my blog. I'm a custom furniture builder, and aspiring woodworking author. In coming months there will be content here on the furniture I build, and at some point, there will be companion blogs that talk about the details of woodworking techniques, and the content of the upcoming book.

In essence, the three separate threads will expound on philosophy, practice, and education, because I see these as the three pillars of my business. The philosophy guides my work. The work is the physical manifestation of that philosophy. And writing about what I do, and what I've learned, will hopefully contribute to the craft, and to a wider community.

About me:

I graduated Boston's North Bennet Street School about a year ago. I spent some time in a shop with other woodworkers, and moved out last July, and opened the doors of James Watriss Designs last August. The first few months were spent in getting set up, and working around delays in getting set up, and now the shop is ready, and it's time to bring the word to the people. I'm in business!

About the woodwork:

North Bennet Street School (NBSS from here on) is a very intense place to go to school, with emphasis on hand skills, machine know-how, and not settling for simple, boring work. I have a passion for beautiful wood, and fine design, but the fuel for the fire lies in the design process, and figuring out how to get all the elements to come together in the shop. Cutting dovetails is fun, fitting joinery together is rewarding, but no two projects are ever the same, and every one is a puzzle.

North Bennet taught me several things, but the most important lesson I came away with was this: A good artisan makes the best use of any tool at his disposal. Anyone can push wood across a table saw. And as technology has advanced, it's been shown that anyone can push a button on a CNC machine, too. But not everyone can come up with an idea worth building, or replicating. And not everyone can design a process to bring that idea into the living, breathing, material world. Automated and powered tools have demonstrated the ability to duplicate, but not necessarily to create, or to have an eye for art. It's equally possible for someone to make ugly, misshapen things on a CNC machine, with equal speed. It takes more than production capacity to make something beautiful.

About my writing, and desire to teach:

I can expound at length about the deficiencies of modern education in the US. I can offer opinions on our ability as a country to produce some of the highest level technology in the world, and our inability to produce a comparable number of trained and competent engineers. I can lament the downfall of shop and art classes in schools, and the inevitable lack of hands-on learning that has resulted. Mathematics is taught in a vacuum, separate from the Physical Sciences that math was designed to describe and explain. And science in schools has been placed paradoxically in opposition to faith.

All of these are reasons to be concerned, but discontent and despair are not reasons to teach. There's really only one reason that makes sense, and matters to me:

Woodworking is fun. And the process of making things is rewarding.

Evolution has gifted us with a brain, and opposable thumbs, and an inherent desire to create and make tools. It doesn't matter if you're renovating your house, or working with napkins and sugar packets to take the tip out of a cafe table: The ability to work with our hands is the grace that allows us to improve our lives, and make our world a better place. Thousands of years ago, humankind started with rocks and fire, and learned how to make metal. Now we have airplanes and cell phones and skyscrapers and computers. Maybe you're the next Frank Lloyd Wright. Or maybe you're just trying to get the silverware drawer in your kitchen to slide smoothly. There's something satisfying about working with your hands, especially when it can make your day to day life a little bit better.

But not everyone knows how. Many of us were taught that some of the most fundamental implements, and anything with a sharp edge, are not useful; they're scary and dangerous and have no place in schools. There's a dearth of information, and a fair amount of disinformation. (Boy is that an oxymoron) And that's getting in the way of people doing things that are fun and rewarding.

I want to change that.



Hyperbole and lovely rhetoric are all fine and good, but for the purposes of this blog, this is only day one. There's a lot to do, and a lot to write, and while I could do this all day, I have work to get done.

It's now 10:28 on a Wednesday, and I'm signing off.