The best of Toolbox

By Steve Maxwell

Photo by Stockbyte/Thinkstock

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I’ve spent almost half my life writing Toolbox columns for every issue of Canadian Home Workshop since 1992, and although I’ve enjoyed creating every one of them, a handful of topics are special. They cover the most important ideas I’m asked about whenever enthusiastic woodworkers come to me for advice on how to develop their skills. After writing more than 175 Toolbox columns so far, the essentials you’ll find here are some of the most important.

Master your sharpening skills
I’ll always be grateful that Canadian Workshop magazine gave me my start as a writer. (The Canadian Home Workshop name wouldn’t come for another six years.) My first article appeared four years before I began writing my Toolbox column; it taught a method for quickly sharpening chisels, plane irons and carving tools using a buffing wheel. I’ve since covered the topic again several times in Toolbox because it’s so valuable. Instead of rubbing tools back and forth on an abrasive stone by hand, the process involves holding tools steady against a spinning felt wheel that’s charged with a fine abrasive. It takes only about 60 seconds to transform a dull but properly ground tool into an astonishingly sharp implement. Done correctly, the edge is so keen, it’s scary. Quickly creating cutting edges that are sharper than razor blades is still a fundamental skill for doing the best work with wood. And the buffing wheel lets it happen in minimal time.

Slow down when sanding wood
Woodworking success is about doing the right things, in the right order, in the right way. That’s why successful projects are nothing more than the total of a series of smaller successes that build upon each other. Sanding is a perfect example of this. Starting with coarse sandpaper, then using progressively finer grits, seems obvious enough in theory but is often done poorly. Over the years, I’ve devoted several Toolbox columns to the sanding method I find works well. Start with a 100- or 120-grit abrasive in a belt sander, then move to 120-grit in a half-sheet sander. A quarter-sheet finishing sander with a 180-grit abrasive gets you almost all the way, with a final hand-sanding in the direction of the grain using 220-grit paper.

Tweak your tools
Every successful woodworker needs to be part mechanic. This is not just true today, with our workshops being filled with power tools, either. Mechanical skills always have been an important part of woodworking. Just try coaxing an antique wooden plough plane to cut properly, and you’ll see what I mean. All this is why I’ve devoted many Toolbox columns to tool adjustment over the years. What are the most important ones? There are five: get your jointer fence square to the bed; set the 90° angle stop on your tablesaw so it’s accurate; tweak your mitre gauge or cross-cut sled so it cuts absolutely square; wax the bed of your thickness planer; adjust your chopsaw so it cuts 90° in both mitre and bevel directions.

Invest for the long term
Choosing woodworking tools and gear is something I’ve often covered in Toolbox, and the process is a lot like hitting someone with a snowball as they’re running. Unless you aim way ahead, you’ll always miss. Your equipment and tool needs as a woodworker are always moving forward too, especially if you’re a beginner. That’s why you should always buy better than you think you need. Much better. I’ve never regretted the great (and sometimes costly) tools I’ve invested in. My only tool regrets have come when my snowball fell way behind the results I was aiming at. You need to buy for the ultimate woodworker you want to become, not the woodworker you are now. Also—and this is crucial—always let actual needs guide your tool investments. Struggle for a while with a process or situation, then use the insights you gain to invest in gear that actually meets the needs you face.

Beware of enthusiasm
If it weren’t for enthusiasm, none of us would haul ourselves off the couch and make good things happen in the workshop. That’s why enthusiasm is essential. But enthusiasm also has a downside: it can get the better of you in subtle ways, especially when things aren’t going well in the shop.

Let’s say you run out of the ideal size of wood screws. Don’t let your enthusiasm to complete the project tempt you to make do with what you have on hand. The same advice applies when the glue bottle runs out, a board splits annoyingly or you realize that you have to change the design for a project that’s partially built. While enthusiasm is useful, don’t let it be your guiding principle. The pursuit of quality is much more important. Learn to stop, back up, wait and then, move forward.

I plan to keep writing Toolbox columns as long as there are people who want to learn to make good things happen with wood. One thing is for sure: I’ll never run out of topics. Woodworking is too full of fascinating challenges for that ever to happen.

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