The Work of One’s Hands




I finished the blanket chest. After nearly a year, a few dozen hours of actual work, a ton of self-doubt and self-loathing, and plenty of trial and error, it is done.

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for a while know that I’m really, really, really bad at getting stuff done that I say I’m going to do. Like for serious, it’s terrible. I originally started this blanket chest last year to give as a wedding gift to friends of mine who were getting married last September. Needless to say, it didn’t get done in time, and continued to not get done because of a bunch of personal stuff that was only exacerbated by my failure to finish the chest. But I pulled myself out of that funk and got it done. And now, I’m going to share it with you, dear readers, in all its hand-made glory.

BOOM! There it is!

BOOM! There it is!

Doesn’t look like much from the outside, does it? It really isn’t anything that special. It’s made of 100% clear white pine (which costs a bundle; I’ll go with #2 next time and just get the least knotty stuff I can if I make one for myself), finished with boiled linseed oil and paste wax, and held together with nails. However, when you get into the details, it’s a bit more complex than it looks.

Nail and glue joint locations are actually important.

Nail and glue joint locations are actually important.

First, let’s look at how this thing is put together. This is the front of the chest. You can see if you look at the picture above that there is a glue joint in the front panel running from side to side about 4 inches from the top. There’s actually a glue joint in every panel used to make this chest. The pieces were glued up and then cut specifically so that the glue joints would be in places where maximum strength was assured. While the location of the glue joints for the front, bottom, and sides wasn’t that important, for the top and back it was. The panels are all about 16″ wide, made up of a 1×12 and 1×4 board glued together. The stress on the back and top when the top is lifted could theoretically cause the glue to eventually fail. Because of that, I placed the glue joint towards the front of the top and towards the bottom of the back. That way the joints would be as un-stressed as possible when the top is lifted. You can see the glue joint in the top panel the in the next picture:

3 of the key design elements of the chest: Cleats, nails, and rabbets. Boot jacks are just for show.

3 of the key design elements of the chest: Cleats, nails, and rabbets. Boot jacks are just for show.

As the caption says, there are 3 other important design elements exhibited here: The cleats, the nails, and the panel rabbets. The cleats are the strips of wood nailed to the ends of the top panel. They serve a dual purpose: keeping the lid from warping and helping keep the lid from splitting apart. They’re not glued in place, however. They, like the carcase of the chest itself, are nailed. Specifically, with clinched nails. The nails are driven in place and then bent over to hook them into the top of the lid. This keeps them place even if the wood shrinks and dries over time. The lack of glue allows for the wood to move as the humidity changes, which is critical to keep the lid in one piece.

The rest of the carcase is the same way: It’s nailed together, with no glue except in the panels. As in the lid, the nails allow for the wood to move as it dries and the humidity changes over the course of years. Were the panels glued together, even with screws, there would be a high chance of the glue failing over the years, or of the panels cracking.

The last key element is the panel rabbets. The front and back, as you can see, are a bit thinner on the ends than the rest of the wood used in this project. That’s because there are rabbets cut  on the ends and bottom of each panel to allow the case to more easily be fitted together prior to nailing. This makes the case easier to clamp up and makes the joints more rigid. What’s not visible is the dadoes that were cut along each end board for the bottom of the chest to fit in. In this way, the bottom is secured both with nails and with the dadoes. It’s quite sturdy, all in all.



So let’s get to the next important part: Hinges. I used a set of locking hinges from Lee Valley. I forget the exact part number. They’re nice and easy to install. No mortising required, just screw them in place and you’re good to go. I used 7/8″ No. 8 screws and didn’t drill pilot holes. Pine is soft enough that you really don’t need them. I did have to re-do one side, though, when my measurements didn’t quite match the shape of the board. Oops. But it worked!

Screws, pistons, and other modern contrivances.

Screws, pistons, and other modern contrivances.

You can also see that my rabbet cuts were…less than flush. I did every single cut by hand. Every. Single. One. Next time, I’m going to use my router (which I didn’t have when I did these panels). I wanted to do this one completely by hand if I could, though. I wanted to know that I had the skills if I ever ended up needing them.

This project was a wonderful learning experience for me. I built a beautiful piece of furniture for some dear friends that will hopefully last them for many, many years; I learned a ton of new hand tool skills; and I think most importantly I started the process of rebuilding my self-esteem that’s been dangerously low for most of my life. I think this last picture sums up my feelings upon completing this chest pretty well:

Heck yeah, I'm awesome.

Heck yeah, I’m awesome!

So until next time, keep on pluggin’ away. Happy brewing!


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Collaboration is good!

I’ve started collaborating with a bunch of good friends on a new side project, Hot Glue and Hope. My first post there is up today. In it, I show you how to make a cheese board using only hand tools that you can give as a gift or keep for yourself. The best part is that you can do it in only a couple of hours. Go check it out!

Happy reading!



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Side Projects and Procrastination


As I mentioned last week, I am absolutely terrible at getting projects completed on schedule and on time. I inevitably wait until the last possible second to start something, and usually wind up with an inferior product because of it. Sometimes that’s not the case, but more often than not it is. My greatest offense in recent months has been a large blanket chest that I started last August as a gift for two friends of mine who were getting married…in September. That chest is still incomplete as of this writing. How did it come to this? How has it been nearly a year, and the damn thing still isn’t done? Quite simple: Side projects and procrastination.

In the beginning…

Last year I was just getting started with my forays into woodworking. I had refurbished a few hand tools, learned to properly use a hand plane (or thought I had!), and was well on my way to acquiring all the tools I’d need to be able to make some amazing stuff. I felt good about life. Then I started looking for a house, where I could have all the space I’d ever need to make said amazing stuff. Great! Of course, the house hunt took time, and the work space I had in the house I was living in was shared space, so I didn’t always have use of it when I might want to. That’s part of living with other people, and it’s a normal part of life. I also had a lot of other things going on in my life. But that didn’t stop me.

The Decision

When I found out that my buddy Chris was getting married, I decided that I wanted to make him a wedding gift that would be useful for many years. A blanket chest seemed an obvious choice. Sturdy, large, and practical, they also can look very nice when properly made. I found plans for one online that could be made (they said) entirely with hand tools. This was an important thing to me at the time, since I lacked any power tools that would be remotely useful in building something so large. (Not actually true, I own an electric drill, which could have been used, but I didn’t. More on that later.)

I read the plans, made my list of things to buy, and headed out to make the purchases.

The Purchases

I went out to my local home center and purchased several boards of clear 3/4″ thick white pine. Knowing what I now know about lumber, I probably could have gotten this for MUCH less money had I taken the time to just go to a local sawmill or lumberyard and bought it there. Sure, I’d have had more work to do in milling the boards down to size before I could use them, but I would have saved upwards of half the cost! I also ordered 2 different kinds of cut nails from Lee Valley, one in black oxide finish and bulky, for actually putting the chest together, and a pound of smaller, unfinished ones, to be used for attaching the battens and any molding that I would put on in the end (which didn’t happen, but we’ll get to that). I also ordered some hinges. The parts thus assembled, I got to work.

It Begins…

I took the boards I bought and glued them together along the edges to make larger panels that would form the sides, bottom, and top of the the chest. The ends were made from shorter lengths of the panels. Prior to gluing, I had to use my jointer plane on the edges of the boards to get them smoothed and straight for gluing. A couple of days and much Titebond III later, I had my panels.

The particular design I was making called for cutting rabbets on the ends and bottoms of both side panels to give the ends and bottom of the chest something to latch on to, helping with both stability after construction and increasing the ease of actually putting the chest together in the first place. To make them, I used a combination of a backsaw, chisels, a cheap shoulder plane, and a router plane for final clean up. Calling them “ugly” would be a massive understatement. They were awful. Rough, uneven, and out of square. But they were rabbets! I then used my backsaw, chisel, and router plane to cut the dadoes in the end panels. With all the joinery cuts completed, and still a month before the wedding, I figured I would have plenty of time to finish it. Boy, was I wrong.

Life Happens

Of course, me being me, lots of little stuff happened that prevented me from getting the chest done in time.

Okay, that’s a lie. I was lazy and didn’t work on it. The idea of putting such a huge piece together, all by myself, was intimidating. I’d never used cut nails before! What if I screwed up? I’d have to start over! What if I drilled wrong, what if I didn’t cut the molding right, what if, what if, what if?

I was paralyzed by that fear of failure. So much so, in fact, that I put the boards away in a stack and didn’t touch them again for almost 6 months. They stayed essentially put until spring. I kept giving Chris excuses, kept on apologizing. And Chris, being the awesome dude he is, just grinned and nodded. I’m pretty sure he figured he’d get the chest about the time he was getting ready to retire, and he was okay with that. He’s known me long enough to know how I operate, so I don’t think he was surprised when I didn’t have the chest done in time for his wedding. I know that I was disappointed in me, though.

Getting Into Gear

So early this spring, when I was finally moving into the house I’d bought, I deliberately put the boards out in the basement where I would have no choice but to look at them. They would be a constant reminder that, “Hey, you’ve got work to do!” And they were, but they didn’t have quite the effect I’d intended. Mostly what they did was take up space and cause me to curse the fact that I still hadn’t finished that damn chest. Finally, I got fed up and took the three hours one evening to put the whole case together. It required a lot of drilling (by hand, because I wanted to make this as much by hand as possible), hammering, clamping, and holding awkward positions, but I got the case together. (See my last post for a bit more about this whole saga.)

The Last Bits

Once the case was together, I sanded it smooth. No hand work this time, I used a power sander for sake of efficiency. Then it sat for another two weeks while I worked on some commissioned pieces and didn’t spend much other time in the shop. The only thing left to do was the lid. So last night I finished it. I chamfered the edges with a block plane, cut two battens out of a piece of 2×12 (using my band saw and planer to cut and mill them, because screw it, I’m running out of patience for this project!), then drilled the holes and nailed them to the lid. I clamped them on at first, then once the nails were driven I clenched them over with a few more hammer strokes. That way, even without glue the battens aren’t going anywhere, and seasonal wood movement won’t hurt anything. The pieces can all move freely, so hopefully nothing will crack.

Once the lid was finished, I sanded it, too. Then I went over the whole case and lid again with 2 more sanding passes. I had started with 80 grit, then moved up to 120 and 220 for the final pass. Once every surface was sanded, I pulled out my gloves, a rag, and my can of boiled linseed oil. Thirty minutes later, the lid and case were gleaming with a beautiful caramel glow. I put the rag outside on concrete to cure overnight after getting it wet with water (BLO can catch fire if you don’t have some way of removing the heat made by it curing). Then I showered and went to bed, exhausted but feeling incredibly good about myself.

Tonight I’m going to put on a second coat of oil. I might put a third on tomorrow, depending on how I feel about the color. After that, I’ll give it two days to cure completely and put a couple layers of paste wax on for the final protective coating. Since this will probably go in a bedroom of someplace else where it won’t take much abuse, I don’t expect it’ll need a polyurethane finish. I promise to post some pictures when it’s done. Until then, it’s still a top secret project.

Happy brewing (and building!)


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Sawdust is Therapeutic

The ultimate hand tool: The Stanley No. 8 Jointer Plane. 10 lbs of cast iron heft and hubris.

The ultimate hand tool: The Stanley No. 8 Jointer Plane. 10 lbs of cast iron heft and hubris. Seen here before I restored it to its original polished glory. Also seen here: The entropic hellhole that is the top of my workbench.

Over the past few months I’ve been doing a whole lot of work around my new house. Painting, putting up trim, installing towel racks. You know, those things you do after you buy a house to make it your own. On the plus side, this has meant that my house is now much more home-like and a lot less “all one awful beige color throughout.” On the minus side, until this past week I had spent very, very little time doing anything that I would consider “fun” work in my shop. Thankfully, that’s changed.

I’m a craftsman at heart. Sure, during the day I get paid to do math and write reports as an engineer, but my favorite days are those when I actually get to spend time in the lab or in a manufacturing plant actually DOING stuff. I’m the kind of person who needs to have their hands dirty and something tangible to show for the work they’ve done to be truly happy. That’s why over the last week I’ve finally made some time in my shop to actually get some real work done.

I have a large backlog of projects at the moment, something that I’m sure many of you understand. So many things to do, so little time, and all that. The problem I have is that when my backlog gets too big, I start to get overwhelmed by everything that I “have to” do. Suddenly, all those projects go from things I *want* to do to things I *must* do in my head. Since they’re things I must do, and obviously haven’t, I feel like I’m letting myself and my friends (who are inevitably the ones I agree to do projects for) down.

As anyone who’s ever been in this situation knows, that feeling of letting people down is the worst. Thing. Ever. Sure, there are worse things that can happen to you, and worse feelings, but when you’re in that black pit of why-did-I-agree-to-do-all-this-now-I’m-a-failure, it’s pretty hard to imagine anything worse. So what’s to be done? How to get yourself out of that funk?

Simple: Get back in the shop and MAKE STUFF.

No, really. It is that simple. The cure for the procrastination blues is to just. Start. Working.

Okay, maybe it’s a bit more complicated than that, but not much. Start off with something small and manageable. Something that you can get done in an evening for immediate gratification. In my case, I had a blanket chest that I’d started working on almost a year ago for an old friend. It was supposed to be a wedding gift for him and his wife. The wedding was ten months ago. I had thought to get it done quickly and have it for them. I was wrong. The work took longer and was more difficult than I first thought. So I put it away for awhile. But as the pieces sat in a stack in my basement for months, mocking me, that chest became a symbol for all the other things I had yet to do. So I finally set aside three hours last week and just put the case together. Drilled the holes, drove the nails, and trimmed the ends of the case flush. And at the end of the evening? I was hot, sweaty, and exhausted.

It felt amazing. I was excited, happy, and wanted to stay up for hours to keep working. But I went to bed, because it was almost midnight. The next day I did more work, and then I’ve kept doing work in my shop over the next few days since. I’m still not done with all the work on that blanket chest, but it’s very nearly done. Since then I’ve worked on a few other small items that people have asked me to make (and that I’m even getting paid for!), and have a lot of them in the shop now. They stand as encouragement, and testament to what actually putting excuses aside and DOING something can do for your mood and self-esteem.

I’ve got a lot of work left to do, that’s for certain. And I need to make sure I keep working at it in small bites. Otherwise I’m liable to fall back into my funk of self-defeating self-loathing. So if you need me I’ll be in the shop, making some more sawdust. It’s the best form of therapy I know.

Until next time, happy brewing (and sawing!).


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In Which I Yell At (Most) Florida Republicans

I’m going to rant a bit. I spent a couple hours tonight brewing what promises to be a rather tasty IPA, and I’m tired. I sit down at my computer to do a little reading before bed, and this story pops up.

Okay, Florida…



Let’s say, just for sake of argument, that I’m in a mood to be charitable with Florida Republicans tonight (Protip: I’m not, except for State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. He’s fighting this bill. I’m shocked, amazed, and quite pleased. That’s a conservative I can support! At least regarding this). At best, SB 1714 is a flagrant example of more burdensome regulations that they’re always decrying. At worst, it’s flagrant cronyism and pandering to special interests who’ve lined their campaign coffers with cash via PACs (beer distributors and large beer producers in particular).

It does not benefit consumers in any way whatsoever to force small producers like brewpubs to be forced to go through distributors. All it will do is force brewpubs to raise prices for consumers, to the detriment of their sales and bottom lines. In every other state that I’ve been to that has brewpubs, they’re allowed to sell their products directly to consumers on-site at said brewpubs. HOWEVER, if they want to sell in liquor stores, then they generally have to go through the same 3-tiered distribution system that every other producer uses to sell to the general public.

Personally, I think this system (being able to sell direct only from their own location) is just fine. They (the brewpubs) have gone to the trouble of setting up shop in-state, employing locals, paying local taxes and permit fees, etc. I think they deserve a bit of a break for that. Of course, if AB-InBev decides to build a multi-million dollar brewery down the road, then they should also be able to sell directly to consumers-at that brewery only. Distribution to liquor stores would still be through independent distributors. Here again, it’s only fair.

Republicans constantly claim to be the party of business, but also to be looking out for the best interests of their constituents. In this bill, their true colors are revealed. They certainly do care about their constituents. It just turns out that their constituents are the large corporations willing to pay big dollars to support their re-election campaigns. Ideas of fairness, equity, and the value of small local businesses over large chains doesn’t enter into their thinking at all. And their platitudes about the “free” market are as empty as the growlers in Florida brewpubs soon will be if this bill becomes law.

People of Florida, call your state reps and senators. Let them know that SB 1714 is unfair to local businesses, bad for the Florida economy, and bad for innovation in the craft beer market. If the big breweries are afraid of the little guys beating them out, maybe they should actually engage in, oh, I don’t know, making a better product instead of attempting to rig the system.

Because after all, isn’t that what capitalism is supposed to be about? Support fairness, Florida. Reward investment in local economies by small, independent brewpubs. Kill SB 1714. Keep craft beer flowing in Florida!


P.S.- Someone go buy Sen. Latvala a beer. I don’t know much about his other political views, but he’s on the right side of this one in my book, and it seems like his heart is mostly in the right place.

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Thoughts on Brewing and Religion


You see that Corgi? That look of pure, unadulterated joy and excitement? He knows he is about to be thrown his ball. He is excited for his ball. He wants his ball. He’s bouncing off the floor repeatedly, begging for his ball. “OH EM GEE GIMMEH TEH BALL!!!!!1!” he shouts!

That is how I feel this afternoon. Tonight, for the first time in quite awhile, I will be brewing beer. Not for myself, but with some friends. There will be beer made. There will be beer consumed. And there will be good times had.

For me, the act of brewing is almost a religious experience. It’s the same ritual every time. Sure, the exact particulars vary from batch to batch, but the overall steps are the same. First, the grains are selected and ground, then mixed with hot water and allowed to steep. Then, while the grains steep, more water is heated for sparging. The grains are sparged and drained to extract the sugar, and the resulting wort is put on the burner to boil. Once boiling, the hops are added at specific times, along with any other special ingredients or finings that may be required. Then the beer is cooled and the gravity checked. Then comes the most critical step: The Adding Of The Yeast. If not done right, this step can go horribly wrong and the beer will be bad. But, if done right, the beer will be wonderful. If every other step is done right, from sanitizing to hop additions, the beer will be at least drinkable (there is, after all, no accounting for taste).

I get a great deal of satisfaction from drinking a good beer, regardless of whether or not I made it. Knowing the care and work that go into making a good product, especially as an engineer, helps me to appreciate them on an entirely different level than I think I otherwise could.

Now, with all that said, I’m going to go home, make dinner, and then go make some beer.


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Life Lesson: Don’t Close On A House In December


Good news: I found a house, put in an offer, and had it accepted.
Bad news: It took 2 months longer than expected to go to closing.

You may be asking yourself why this is bad news. I had 2 extra months to save up for the house and get my finances in order. How could this possibly be a bad thing? One word: Taxes. Allow me to explain.

Because I did not have quite enough money saved up to put down the full 3.5% of the purchase price for an FHA mortgage, as well as pay closing costs, I decided to pull some money out of one of my retirement accounts. What was the harm? I thought. I’ll have them take out a bit extra to cover the taxes, and all will be well. I might have to pay a bit extra come April 15th, but that’s hardly reason to panic. Besides, I’ll get some deduction for my first month’s mortgage interest, closing costs, PMI, and the like. It seemed like a great idea at the time.

Then, of course, reality set in, and it set in hard. Despite all my careful planning, and assurances from the bank that they could have the mortgage fully approved in sixty days, a few days before my scheduled closing I received word that there was going to be a delay because HUD (Housing and Urban Development) had decided to audit my loan. Not audit me, but the bank’s loan process. Seems they do this to about 10% of all FHA-backed loans since 2008. This made everyone at the bank turn into panicky little squirrels, running around desperately clawing for any and all information they could possibly request from me, up to and including not one, not two, but THREE appraisals for the house I wanted to buy (I only had to pay for the first one).

This caused the sale of the house to be delayed until after December 31st. In fact, it was delayed all the way until Valentine’s Day. But none of the delay past the end of December actually mattered, because up until then I could have put the money I took from my retirement account back in and wouldn’t have had to pay ANY additional tax, since the contribution would have completely offset the withdrawal. I might have had to pay a few fees to the company I have the account with, but tax-wise I would have been fine.

However, the bank decided that they weren’t going to send my loan package off to HUD to be audited until they felt they had all their ducks in a row, which of course required the aforementioned 3 appraisals and a good bit of back-and-forth between the bank’s underwriters and the appraisers they used. The worst part was that they couldn’t give me an accurate date for when they would actually have the loan approved. This mean that I had to continually re-schedule the closing date. Six times. Yes, you read that right. Six times I had to move the closing date.

The first time it happened, in December, we (my real estate agent and I) didn’t even receive any communication from the bank until the mortgage commitment date had come and gone. Then he called the bank and found out what happened. This continued through January and part of February, before the bank FINALLY informed us that the loan had been sent to HUD.

Or so we thought.

As it turns out, the loan had only been AUTHORIZED to be sent. It wasn’t actually sent for another week after that. This meant another delay to the closing date (this was #6). At this point in the process, the seller we were working with (who had been remarkably patient, largely because they had 2 other properties in similar situations) started to get upset. Neither their agent nor mine had EVER heard of a situation where 3 appraisals were asked for by the bank, and both made this known. Fortunately, once HUD had the loan package it was approved within 5 business days and we got the closing scheduled for Valentines Day. I signed a bunch of paperwork, wrote a check for just about $7,000, and took the keys to my new house.

Fast forward to last week, through just shy of two months’ worth of moving stuff, hauling furniture, and installing appliances. I sit down to do my taxes. Pulling together all of my paperwork, and dealing with my change in jobs (and increase in salary, for which I’m very thankful), my eyeballs bugged out of my skull when I realized how much money I would owe the federal government. I was going to have to pay, and pay dearly, for taking money out of a retirement account early.

Before I panicked too much, I did some quick math. Fortunately, I already had more than 90% of my tax liability covered, so there wouldn’t be any underpayment fees. At this point, I made a very tough decision: I filled out the paperwork to file for an extension on my taxes. I’m going to take the extra couple months to make sure I’ve covered all my bases as far as deductions, credits, etc. are concerned, as well as save up the money I need to pay the balance of my taxes. I’m also going to have to pay interest on the tax that I haven’t paid up until now, but if my math is right, that’s going to max out somewhere around $50 by the time I have to file in October (and I hope to file well before then!).

The lesson here is that if you’re going to be doing anything that can have an impact on your taxes when you buy your house, and by that I mean anything other than buying the house itself, put off your closing until after the start of the new tax year if at all possible. That way, if your closing is delayed, you won’t take the tax hit nearly as bad, since the deductions from your house and mortgage will help offset. Of course, the better plan is to just have enough cash saved up so that you don’t have to do anything that will affect your taxes. I’m going to remember that for next time.

All that said, I’m still glad I bought my house. It’s been a wonderful experience these last two months, and having a place that I can truly call my own is something I wouldn’t want to give up. Now I just need to get my workshop finished, brew some beer, build more furniture, and…

Well, you get the idea.




Postscript and disclaimer: I’m not a tax professional. None of this is tax advice or legal advice. Don’t take it as such. Financial professionals are highly trained people, and well-worth taking the time and spending the money on if you’re going to make a big purchase like a house. My financial adviser warned me about taking money out early, and he was right. So make sure you get competent advice! (This means not getting your advice from an angry engineer on the internet, mmkay?)

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