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Measure twice, cuss once

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  • Measure twice, cuss once

    This was in a farm magazine I recieve and enjoyed it thought I would pass it on to you guys and gals.

    Measure twice, cuss once.
    2/7/2008 2:24:04 PM
    John’s World
    by By John Phipps

    I am proud to call myself a woodworker—a person who likes to use expensive tools to turn costly lumber into sawdust. Next to golf and cooking, woodworking is one of the most gadget-happy hobbies on the planet. This is primarily because of our long-held fanatical belief in the ultimate great lie: True craftsmanship is only one power tool away.

    Woodworking is a congenial affliction, proceeding in four identifiable stages, although sufferers have been known to exhibit symptoms from all stages simultaneously.

    The first symptom is the information period. Woodworking programs on TV and wood magazines fill the victim’s hours as a prelude to justification for the later steps. Home improvements, furniture, toys and heirlooms are imagined pouring out of a shop into your family’s life. But first we’ll need some…tools.

    In fact, the hunting and gathering, the care and feeding, the arrangement and housing and the constant fondling of tools can become a hobby itself. Indeed, the biggest project many of us produce is our workshop. Financing this avocation leaves us even less time for its actual practice.

    A stocked shop, however, is never enough. Sooner or later the most absorbed woodworker wants to actually, well, work with wood. Thus begins the second phase of this advancing obsession: finding and acquiring raw materials to supply the legions of tools in building the hundreds of carefully cataloged project plans and videos.

    Once the basic (not to mention expensive) tools, such as serious saws, joiners and planers (see, even the words are fun to say!), are installed to prepare rough lumber, the focus turns to uncovering secret sources of authentic lumber. Many lucky farmer–woodworkers have discovered small forgotten sawmills tucked away down dusty roads that are operated by colorful characters who are clearly running on fewer than the normally required digits.

    Outings to track down these wood sources in hopes of scoring a cheap pile of quartersawn white oak for pennies per board foot (similar to a hectare but harder to calculate) become day-long adventures worthy of epic recounting at manly gatherings. The too-frequent result is succumbing to the buying-in-bulk impulse—which explains the new utility trailer hitched to your truck.

    Plus, happy hours are spent comparing grains, muttering about “spalting, bird’s eyes and burls” and lamenting the woodpiles that got away.

    OK, now we have shops that are filled with wood-shaping appliances, sheds stacked full with rough lumber and magazines and videos of ideas and instructions, so the next logical step is to…get a lathe.

    This is the terminal stage of woodworking. For those who are unfamiliar with the lathe, it is a cunning device where the wood moves and the tool remains still. It would be like farming with a tractor that stayed put as the farm moved underneath it.

    This quality is irresistible to the senior craftsmen who find moving around a lot less exciting than it used to be. We can stand at a lathe like statues for hours with chips and shavings flying through the air. It is addictive, and men who have been given lathes by a thoughtful spouse have been known to disappear into the shop for months. Not that this was the spouse’s goal, mind you.

    Still, along the way woodworkers have come to grips with the best and worst in themselves. Most of us discover the high-efficiency, get-it-done habits of our occupation are distinct handicaps when mastering a medium as nonindustrial as old trees.

    Worse still, after the measuring and marking, the hewing and hacking and the gluing and clamping, the cruelest twist of all is revealed. As you stand gazing in astonishment at the artifact that you—with your bare hands and enough electricity and steel to supply Bolivia for a week—have created, you discover you are only half done.

    Finishing wood takes patience, cleanliness and method. Or, as I see it: 0 for 3. If we could construct a vat to dip wood projects like sheep, we would weep with joy. But alas, we are condemned to apply molecule-by-molecule mysterious chemicals in noxious cocktails hoping for a look that will somehow hide flaws and reinforce glue. Only after this trial-by-solvent is complete can we deliver the cradle for our expected grandson in time for his graduation.

    I don’t claim to be an artisan, but there are rewards for all. And as Jan puts it, “At least I know where he is and what he isn’t doing.”
    John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of “U.S. Farm Report.” Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit or

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