This year has thrown us through a loop and being stuck within our four walls eventually catches up with us all. Some of my hobbies are no longer safe and a new one needed to take its place. For me, accentuating the positive meant learning a new hobby. Finding the tools, information, time, and raw materials for making something I wanted, but didn’t need, was key. This is my adventure.
Balancing Need vs. Want
Over my lifetime, I’ve collected many, many tools. For the first part of my life, I needed to get tools as required by a first-time homeowner. When I had a roof leak, I needed to get a circular saw, a roofing nail gun, and a compressor. When I had a pipe leak, I needed a blowtorch, solder, and pipe cutters. When I needed to move an outlet, I needed wire strippers, a multimeter, and lineman’s pliers.
Part of acquiring those tools was also learning the skills necessary to use them efficiently and safely. Again, this was because I needed to complete the tasks. It does you no good to move an outlet if you just end up tripping the breaker (been there) or electrocuting yourself (done that). If you’re on a similar journey, you end up with an assortment of tools in cases, organized into individual toolboxes, or thrown in a bucket or drawer.
When we talk about hobbies, it’s something completely different. Those are things someone wants to learn. A hobby should be distinctly separate from what pays the bills. If you’re a computer programmer, programming in your free time isn’t a hobby, it’s just unstructured work. That may be different from learning a new programming language, but it’s still adjacent, and I wanted something without a keyboard. Since my day job is in technology, most of my hobbies have little to do with computers. In fact, two of them are pre-industrial revolution: traditional archery and blacksmithing.
The Status of My Existing Hobbies
In March, for the safety of everyone, my bowling leagues were disbanded, the smithy was closed to non-essential personnel, the archery lanes were shuttered, and tabletop role playing games are hard to play without people around said tabletop. Like many of you, my people-centric hobbies were cancelled for the foreseeable future.
Choosing a New Hobby: The Process
It turns out six months was about all I could take. I had already read those (comic) books I’d been putting off, I listened to everything of value on my podcast list, I cleaned off my DVR, and even finished building shelving in, and organizing, the garage.
For me, I needed something else, but it needed to be something with a relatively low barrier to entry.
For my wife, she dove into baking. She’s always been a phenomenal cook, but baking was something with which she struggled in the past for one reason or another. Dana is an instinctual cook—she knows what needs to be added to give a dish the last little something. But with baking, there’s a mix of both science and culinary mastery. While many find this appealing, for her it was more of a struggle. Learning the way ingredients interact under heat in an oven is different than on a cooktop.
Like everyone else this year, we tried our hand at making sourdough from a starter and read/watched many things on the internet about how to do it well. Some would say too many. There was so much conflicting information available, when the bake was successful, it felt like pure luck. Nevertheless, she persevered, and Dana has since become an excellent baker (as both our Thanksgiving spread and my waistline can attest). I still needed to find something for me.
Finding a new hobby for myself took longer. I thought back to what I loved to do and what was required. For baking, Dana already had the tools necessary: the oven, a stand mixer, some silicone baking sheets, and several others I’m sure you have in your own kitchen. What she needed was the raw materials, the information, and the time to perfect it. When I sought out my next new hobby, I decided to follow her approach and work with the tools I already had at hand. Since I had done a small number of carpentry-type things over the years (like building the shelves and workspace in the garage), I had a collection of tools. Since I had also organized my garage, I knew where they all were (this is important) and with that, I settled on woodworking. Precision woodworking is different, but akin to general carpentry. With the tools in hand, I needed to reserve some time, and all I needed was the information and raw materials.
Turns out the decision to do woodworking may have been a self-filfilling prophecy of one kind or another. Last year's December Writing Challenge was ELI5: Explain (it) Like I'm Five and I selected Day 21: Routing. The first line of my post went something like this:
Today we'll discuss routing as it pertains to computer networking and not woodworking. We can talk about the woodworking angle another day if desired.
Looks like today is that day.
Collecting the Information
Getting information in the form of instruction on YouTube and getting materials on Amazon are two phenomenal resources when taking up a new hobby, but each comes with their own caveats. It’s incredibly easy to find someone doing a thing on YouTube, but are they an expert? Even more important, are they the best resource for what you have in mind? The only way to ultimately determine if this person’s instruction is right for you is to pay close attention to how they work and with what materials and tools. It’ll take some research and a little creative deduction, but you should find what you need—even if it’s information cobbled together from multiple sources.
Amazon has a similar, but distinct, issue. Ultimately, it’s a storefront and they want to sell you things. If you’ve ever seen the “You might also like” section, you know what I’m talking about. I could go online and outfit a whole shop just from the internet, but I wanted to start mostly with what I had tool-wise. After all, a hobby should not be a vocation—at least not to start. I told myself I’d use Amazon (and other online shops) only for the raw materials whenever possible.
The First Real Project
I decided I wanted to start small and, for me, the ultimate decision was an end grain cutting board. I came to this choice because I knew it would challenge my skills while still providing something we’d use. We already have a similar-style one already that belonged to Dana’s grandfather and we use it nearly every day.
To say Pop’s cutting board is an essential piece of equipment in our kitchen would be selling it short. If we had a second or third, I am sure they would also get used, so that informed my decision. If it comes out great, then it’ll be used, and if not, then we still have the one we need. This is a perfect definition of a hobby—something I wanted to do but did not need to do.
Finding the Teacher
There are dozens of videos on how to make this cutting board, but most of those people had professional shops (band saws, drum sanders, planers, jointers, miter stations, the works) and I was working with a few entry-level electric tools (miter saw, table saw, orbital sander, etc.). I needed instruction on the basics of woodworking and I found them from a guy named Rex Krueger and his Woodwork for Humans series. He does everything by hand and teaches you the basics: sharpening and setting up a hand plane, smoothing, gluing up, and other techniques. I was even going to make his $30 workbench (in the low Roman-style), but the how-to video was recorded in the year 3 BC (before coronavirus). As of today, lumber prices have gone way up, so it’s probably closer to a $75 bench today. I elected to save that for a future project. The true lesson here is to check around and, if necessary, select details from multiple sources for your instruction.
Finding the Raw Materials
Finding wood to work with can be difficult depending on where you’re located. For a project like this, I needed some more decorative woods and pine wasn’t going to cut it. If you’re located near a Woodcraft, you’ll have no problem finding whatever you need, but I’m not allowed to go there unchaperoned. I drool too much over their tools and Dana nearly has to physically drag me away from the exotic wood stocks. Searching elsewhere, you can occasionally strike gold on classified-style listings, but I felt that was pushing my luck considering the state of the world and recommendations for social distancing.
What I finally ended up doing was ordering square turning blanks from Amazon. If you aren’t familiar with the term, they’re the raw materials used on wood lathes. I don’t own a lathe (but I want one) and, by design, they’re uniformly shaped. I ordered one set each of black walnut, cherry, and maple. Each set contains four 2”×2”×8” sections of wood. When they arrived, I double-checked the dimensions with my caliper and saw the dimensions were close to being true. One thing that’s nice about turning squares is they’re almost always without twist, which is important when gluing along the long dimension.
Looking at the three species of wood side by side by side helped me decide on my raw materials. I decided to use the black walnut and cherry for this project because of the rich colors and contrast each wood would provide. The maple looked good with a decent color, but ultimately didn’t “pop” enough against either of the other woods.
If you want to understand what I did step by step, you’re welcome to read through it all. Just expand the spoiler tag to read the entire process.
Preparation of the Raw Materials
The first thing I did was trim down each of the blocks to 1¾” square. It sounds trivial, but it required me to make precise cuts on my entry-level table saw. I watched a few more videos on how to make my blade 100% true to square and made my passes. After the cuts, I made sure the corners were square with my mechanics square and was overall pleased with the outcome.
After cutting, I was left with a bunch of small strips of the woods. I took one of each and applied the cutting board treatment to them, so I could see what each species would look like when assembled next to each other.
The walnut turned a lovely dark brown, the cherry had subtle red undertones, and the maple had a lovely pale blond feel. I decided to go with the walnut and cherry because they would show a vibrant contrast. I chose to use all eight turning blanks blanks so when the strips were flipped, I would have a checkerboard pattern. If I chose to use an odd number, it would have lined up with cherry/cherry or walnut/walnut together. My raw materials have been selected.
The next step in assembly was gluing all the parts together in an alternating pattern. I used Titebond 3 for two reasons—first, it’s a food safe glue and second, because I already had some from a previous task—ergo, it was free.
For gluing wood and having it appear seamless, you need to make sure the surfaces mate as perfectly as possible. People online have said getting a joint to disappear is easier between two drastically colored wood species, so that worked out well for me. I stacked the blocks horizontally on my workbench, test fit them, and then rotated each of them to put the intended glue surface facing up. Because I needed to have complete glue coverage, I used one of the thin sheets of scrap from the initial cuts to spread it out the glue. I enjoy working with this glue because it’s got a few minutes of play before it begins to stick. This is important for clamping.
The last step in this first glue up is clamping everything together. When I started the project, I had four bar clamps, two smaller (about 12”) and two larger (about 36”). I grabbed my larger clamps and affixed them to one side and then grabbed one of the smaller to put on the opposite side. But because I forgot how arithmetic works (8 blocks × 1¾” each = 14”), my small clamp would not fit. Thankfully, this brand of clamp can be quickly joined with another of the same and I was able to span the gap. I cleaned up the excess glue as much as possible, and now we wait for the glue to dry. Note to self: buy more clamps.
Using the Hand Plane
The glue up resulted in no gaps and the wood looked fantastic, but there was some drift on each large surface where some blocks were slightly higher or lower than its neighbor. This can be sanded down but sanding can result in divots and high marks. It’s significantly better to shape this down with a hand plane for an absolutely flat surface.
Using a hand plane, in theory, is an easy process: drag the smoothing plane across the surface and shave off slivers of wood as you go until everything is perfectly flat. The problem is using a plane was foreign to me. Knowing I was outside of my depth, I went back to YouTube and watched a few videos until I know how to set up the plane. There were several steps in getting it ready: making sure the steel is sharp, the proper placement of the chip breaker, the angle of the cutting edge, the sizing of the mouth of the plane, and a few others. For being a simple tool, dialing it in was a lesson of its own and was an educational use of my time.
I took a piece of scrap wood I had laying around the garage, clamped it down to my workbench, and started making wood chips. After a little playing around with the adjustments, I got the tool where it needed to be—I was taking nice even shavings across the board. Then I moved onto the cutting board blank and planed one side. When happy with it, I planed the other side. I did notice the walnut was much more partial to chip-out and gouging—I took note of this for later.
It wasn’t a quick process. Part of that was due to my inexperience with the tool and the other part of it was inherent to the task itself. If I owned an electric planer, this would have been quick work, but I wasn’t ready to financially invest in a specialized tool. My thought process was this: if I determined woodworking wasn’t for me after a handful of projects, I didn’t need another tool taking up space.
Ripping the Blanks
Once everything was lovely and flat, next up was rip cutting the full blank perpendicular to the original glue up lines. First, I had to trim off the waste on each end grain to give me square surfaces, then I needed to decide on the width of each rip. The resultant block of the first glue-up is 7” × 14” × 1¾”, giving me a few options. Determining where I wanted to go from here took some time and thought.
The ultimate size of this project will be determined by the rip cuts I make. For example, if I go with ½” cuts, I’ll have 14 blanks with a 1¾” width, making the final dimensions of the project 7” × 24½” with a ½” thickness. After doing some calculations on the whiteboard in my living room (I’m sure no one’s shocked I have a whiteboard in my living room), I decided on 1” cuts. That’ll yield seven blanks for a finished dimension of 7” × 12¼” with a 1” thickness. The larger 1” cuts allow me to have more surface for gluing and will add to the project’s longevity and rigidity.
Poor Planning and Pivoting
My table saw is a Skil 3310 I've had for years. It's a perfectly serviceable table saw, but it may be the tool I have the least experience within my garage. It’s also the tool I show the most respect to because of the possible danger. About 18 months ago, my father took a chunk out of his thumb with his table saw. He’s fine now after a few stitches and healing, but I didn’t want to donate my own blood to this project.
When used correctly, and checking things at least twice, this tool works well, but that doesn’t mean I can’t screw something up by being dumb. In this case, I “forgot” I don’t have a large table behind my table saw to catch my pieces. Immediately after my first 1” rip cut, the block slid right off the back of the table saw’s surface, fell directly on the floor, and I groaned inwardly at my stupidity. The result was one walnut corner chipped out and one of my glue spots popped open.
I was hoping for a 100% clean break because I could re-glue the one part, but that didn’t happen. You can see some of the cherry still sticking to the walnut. There was no chance I could re-glue this. I set this piece off to the side to keep as a reminder of my poor planning sample piece where I could experiment on finishing touches.
Then my saw bound up on a second piece because I was putting too much pressure on the fence and not enough downward pressure on the table surface. I was down to five blanks. The project was dwindling in size, but it’s ok because now I know several things not to do. Learning to fail isn’t the same as failing to learn, I reminded myself.
The Second Glue Up
Now that I have my remainder blanks, I arranged them in such a way where I could see little to no gapping. If there’s a small amount of light in a specific place, I can probably pull it together with the clamps. I drew a cabinet maker’s triangle to keep my orientation.
Finally, I trimmed down any glaringly high spots with the hand plane. Same process as before: turn them on their sides, spread glue evenly, clamp it up.
Since I’m clamping on a smaller dimension, I can use my shorter clamps. I also picked up another set of bar clamps between the first and second glue up. I used a total of five clamps to hold this piece together (not pictured).
To ensure there were no gaps, I held the board up to a light—both before and after the glue up. This also helped identify places where my edges are a little wonky. I planned on a final edge trim anyway, so seeing this “in the light of day” helped me determine the width of the cut.
For the surface, I planned on using my smoothing plane again, but with the tear out I was seeing at the edges and the way the walnut was gouging, I decided to sand the final surfaces. There are pros and cons, but since I was getting close to the final stages, I figured I’d try my luck and see where it went.
I already knew this sanding was going to take a good while, therefore I elected to use my random orbital sander. I started with 60 grit on the tool and then moved up to 80, 120, 150, and finally 220 grit. Going up slowly was the way to make the best finish and remove any of the glue residue slowly. Since I had to sand both sides, I needed a way to keep it stable without marring the edges too badly. I took some scrap wood to protect the edges and clamped it down to my bench. Then it was time to make more sawdust.
Cleaning Up the Edges
If it wasn’t apparent from an earlier picture, painter’s tape is, and always has been, my friend. I used it all over the place to prevent tear out and to mark lines to follow. I decided to take off about ¼” from each side. This reduced my overall width and length by ½” but I decided it was better to have a good edge than a ragged one.
I clamped it down one last time to finish it up with hand sanding at 220 and 320 grit by hand. It was probably overkill, but I wanted my first project to shine.
I was nearly there, so I went to look at the original cutting board again.
Notice the rounding over of the edges? That’s called a chamfer and it is used in all manner of woodworking projects to prevent splintering and to soften hard edges. It’s most apparent in square wooden legs for tables and chairs. I needed to chamfer the edges of my cutting board so bumps and dings wouldn’t result in chips.
This was an ideal time for me to go back to my sample piece I messed up set aside earlier. Most chamfers are cut in with a block plane or a trimming plane. I only have a block plane, so I tried it on my sample piece.
Wouldn’t recommend. Zero stars. On the walnut it’s chipping more than cutting. Option number two was to try the same thing but with sandpaper. It would take longer but should be gentler on the wood fibers.
That looks much better. I needed to sand the twelve edges to a uniform angle, and I’d be ready for the final step.
After hitting all the surfaces and edges one last time with a high grit sandpaper, it was time to clean and prepare it for use with food. I cleaned the wood with mineral spirits and shop towels and let it dry completely before putting on the protective coating.
I used a commercially available butcher block conditioner and followed the directions on it for preparing a new surface. It was applying, letting set, and wiping off 3 – 4 times for an initial base layer. Then it’s only maintenance every couple of months after.
My best guess at the total time invested in the manual labor is somewhere in the eight- to ten-hour range.
If I had to sum up what I learned over the life of this project, it’s this: with the proper information, tools, raw materials, and time, anything is possible. As a technologist and student of project management, I found this out years ago, but I’m always amazed how these themes keep coming back up in my life.
There may not be a better time to try out a new hobby than now. Take all the skills you needed to learn and put them towards a craft you want to learn. Personally, I’m already looking for the next project and I think it’ll be a larger cutting board made from the maple and some new purpleheart to replace one we have that’s failing. Do we need it? No. Do I want to do it? Yes.
This was my small adventure in taking up a new hobby and I got through with my fingers intact and no trips to the hospital. What I want to know is what you’ve done with your idle hours, maybe you’ll inspire someone to pick up their own new hobby.