Modern Woodworking Myths

Workshop overview
I have been deeply enjoying the modern revival of hand tools and classical woodworking techniques. I have been a fan of Roy Underhill since the beginning of his career. And Chris Schwarz is  a fantastic spokesman for this movement. However, as with all things, when they gain a certain amount of popularity many things get taught as fact that are at best a matter of opinion if not an outright myth. I am going to try to explain a few of my favorite myths and trends surrounding hand tool woodworking.

  1. The too slippery bench
    • I have heard lots of variations on this one. I have even seen a guy on YouTube take a toothing plane to his freshly minted benchtop so that he can avoid the perils of the “too slippery benchtop”. One of the reasons people don’t want to use film finishes on bench tops (my next myth) is fear of slipperiness. Seriously, I am 55 years old and built my first bench at 13 and never had a mishap due to benchtop slipperiness. Now, I would not want a bench with a formica top or anything ridiculous like that but within reason, smooth is good, because what I have had is little things hiding on my bench that have scratched my work. Smooth makes these pesky little scratchers easier to see and to feel. That is why I cringed at the thought of cutting thousands of little junk catching crevices into an otherwise beautiful benchtop with a toothing plane. I love a silky smooth benchtop because beside being nice to touch, and a benchtop is something I touch a lot, it is also very easy to check for cleanliness with a simple swoosh of my hand. If your work is slipping around you are not clamping it correctly or you have a poorly designed bench. Simply making your benchtop less “slippery” will not fix any of the real problems with design or technique.
  2. No film finishes on bench tops
    • This one is a bit more understandable to me, but this is nothing like a rule. I have been using a bench with a spar varnish finish since 1985. This finish made it very easy to clean up glue drips and since I do not have a hardwood benchtop the spar varnish (especially 30 year old spar varnish) adds a lot of toughness to the top. I recently scraped the finish off stopping just short of the wood’s surface. The benchtop was in remarkable shape for its age. I looked it over, checked it with a straightedge, and threw a coat of BLO on it and called it a day. It is hard for me to criticize a finish that did so well for so long.
  3. The 30 second sharpening technique
    • As tempting as it is to think there is a magical sharpening technique that makes sharpening easy and quick and painless, in my experience there is no such thing. The only thing that will increase your speed at sharpening is practice, and of course not waiting too long between sharpenings. Sometimes it does take only 30 seconds to restore an edge, but don’t count on it. That 30 seconds does not take into account care for your stones, occasional regrinds, nicks, or very dull blades. But don’t worry, sharpening does go quicker with practice and make sure that whatever system you end up going with, you use it for long enough to really get good at it. For me just getting a new stone throws me off for quite some time until I get the feel of the new stone. So use the same tools and practice until you get good with them. Personally I am a hand sharpener because to me the best sharpening system is the the one with the fewest gadgets and tricks. To me the skill is the thing, because the skill will easily transfer to other tasks. Getting good with a jig that holds your blade at the perfect angle is of no use when you need to sharpen a molding plane or a carving gouge.
      • My best advice on all of this:
        •  Sharpen a little bit and often. I think in the long run, this is the fastest and least annoying way to sharpen. Whatever way you ultimately decide is best. Eliminating annoyance is very important. Because if sharpening is annoying or overly-complicated you won’t do it as often as you should.
        • Practice, Practice, Practice…
  4. I need a lot of planes
    • (Oh wait that is actually true)
  5. Bench height
    • There are lots of people out there pontificating on the “correct bench height” or something similar. Many books have been written and many videos have been made. The best advice I ever read on this came from Jim Tolpin’s book. I think Jim gives great advice generally and his discussion on bench height is no exception. In my experience the best height for me when doing general work is around the height of my wrist from the ground. [Updated 3.14.16] Jim Tolpin also recently created a video about calculating bench height which is very, very good, it is based on his recent work with whole number proportions in design from his book By Hand and Eye. I once watched a video by Paul Sellers which I thought was a very sober discussion of the topic as well. He was saying his bench was 38″ high, but then he mentioned he was around six feet tall. Well let’s just say I am not, and leave it at that (lot of bad high school memories there). After doing a bit of basic math I realized that functionally my bench was roughly the same height as his. Before we go any farther let me explain how I really determined the height of all my benches and it turns out they are also all (but one) at my wrist height. I have a small shop (12’x24′), I own a table saw and a compound miter saw, and sometimes I use sheet stock. The table saws height became the standard for my wall length CMS bench as well as my hand tool bench. This way my hand tool bench doubles as an outfeed table for my table saw and my CMS bench becomes a very sturdy outrigger for supporting sheet stock when I am trying reduce 4×8 sheets down to workable sized pieces. So the correct height for all my benches is 34 1/4″. There you have it, the correct answer for bench heights. (kidding) I also have a 30″ and a very small 38″ surface. Both of which are very handy for specific tasks. So my final advice is this, don’t let anyone pull your chain, your bench(s) must fit you, your work, and your shop or they are wrong.
  6. Hating on Boiled Linseed Oil
    • Boiled Linseed Oil or BLO is the second finish I learned to use on wood. I don’t count paint because I consider paint an insult to fine woodworking. You might as well use MDF if paint is the final destination. Just my opinion, I know paint is a trend that comes and goes and now I guess I need to learn to use Milk Paint. sigh. Anyway I was taught about BLO in 8th grade shop class. Mostly because it was basically impossible to screw it up and it could be done in a dusty shop with and bunch of kids messing around. Now I know BLO is not the be all and end all of finishes far from it. Especially if you wish to get paid for your work. A good BLO finish literally takes forever, you are never really done. But there are certain applications for BLO that nothing I have ever used can match.
      • Hand tools – Infinite repairability and a tactile sense that nothing else can match make this the ultimate tool finish as far as I am concerned. And if they get scratched or start looking dull and lifeless you just put on another coat and it will take on the most satisfying glow of any finish I know. Plus if you miscalculate and find you need to use that tool one more time before the end of the day you just pick it up and use it. no harm, no foul. Try that with any other finish beside maybe wax and see what happens. And wax makes me uncomfortable because other finishes are effected by it. BLO is compatible with most things (not water based I assume but then I don’t really like water based finishes for wood either).
      • Bench tops – BLO is the only finish that just keeps getting better year after year. I have 2 benches turning 30 this year that have had countless coats of BLO applied over the years and they really have that awesome deep glow and silky feeling that I absolutely love. It does not make your benchtop too slippery (see notes above) and it is infinitely fixable. And the best part is that you can re-coat it naturally every time you finish something else (with oil) on your bench. Whatever dribbles or is left over you simply rub into your benchtop. It’s a win, win.
      • In combination with turpentine and spar varnish – this finish has been a real workhorse for me over the last 40 years. I have written a more detailed article about the application process for this finish. I actually make it in 3 flavors depending on the characteristics I am after. I use a 3 digit code on my containers to keep track of them.
        • 111 – This is 1 part Spar, 1 part Turpentine, 1 part BLO. This is the classic homemade oil finish it works well but dries a bit slow. But it does dry unlike BLO by itself.
        • 221 – This is one I use a lot – 2 parts Spar, 2 parts Turpentine, 1 part BLO. This is a very thin deep penetrating finish with a proportionately higher content of varnish making it an excellent sealing finish. It dries within 24 hours and within 3 or 4 coats sanding lightly between gives you a sheen and texture that is warm and soft with no surface build up. It is like very smooth richly colored wood. You don’t notice the finish at all, just the beauty of the wood.
        • 122 – I will let you do the math on this one. This has the slowest drying of the three but has enough spar in it to help it really set up. I usually just use BLO instead of this one. But it is useful in it’s place.
  7. Metal Bench Dogs
    • This is my personal rant. I think I understand historically why they would put metal teeth on bench stops and so forth. But I have to admit to being puzzled at why this trend has continued. I do not own any bench dogs that have not at some point been at least grazed by an edge tool. Every time one of these little mishaps occurs I find myself thinking, if that were a metal dog I would be sharpening this tool now. Then I smile and continue working with my nice sharp edge tool. Now I see two main reasons why people use metal bench dogs.
      1. That is what  everyone sells – since wooden ones can be made for virtually nothing by anyone. No market there.
      2. To withstand the earth shattering pressures applied by modern tail vises, etc. I would say, don’t use that much pressure it will only distort and/or damage your stock. Plus, if you have to put that much force into holding something, there is probably a better way to hold your work.
      3. The only metal dog that makes any sense at all(but I still don’t use them) is the old time dog with teeth on the top that is designed to keep your work from riding over the dog. Learn good technique with your planes and be more thoughtful when flattening your work and this will not be a problem in my experience.
    • Personally I use a full width wooden bench stop that is height adjustable and as simple as oatmeal, and it has the added feature of directing most of the chips off your bench and on to the floor which is where they belong. I usually do not have to secure the work at all. When I do, a batten or small wooden benchdog or even a holdfast will do the trick.  I also have a V notched piece of MDF that I use to hold smaller stock for edge work. No clamps, no dogs, no expensive vises. I feel I need to give Jim Tolpin proper credit for this little gizmo since I adapted it from a picture is his book as well. Once I made this I could not imagine being without it. It is on my benchtop as much as my bench hook.
    • Plane stop
    • What benchdogs do I use? – Mostly the worlds simplest wooden bench dogs. A piece of 3/4″ dowel and a scrap of hardwood with a hole in it. They sit in my holdfast holes as needed and I keep a box of them under my bench in different sizes and thicknesses. I never find myself wishing they were made of brass or steel.
    • Wooden Bench dog
      bench dogs

      Dogs working in a pack

That is my take on current trends in woodworking. Sometimes the simplest answers really are the best.

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1 comment

  1. I’m sorry but I have to agree with just about everything you said here 😉 thanks for putting it in words, I made a “temporary” workbench back in 1984 out of cabinet grade PBD and painted it with a polyurethane product meant for concrete floors. I have never had a problem with slippage, I still haven’t made my “dream” workbench to replace it with…
    be well

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