Saturday, June 30, 2018

Review: 52 Boxes In 52 Weeks, By Matt Kenney

52 Boxes In 52 Weeks, The Taunton Press, $24.95, 224pp, May, 2018

Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by the publisher for review.

This is a wonderful design book by Fine Woodworking senior editor Matt Kenney. It's the result of a challenge he set for himself to practice his design skills: design and build a small box every week for a year.

The boxes are largely simple in construction, using a limited set of techniques, since the construction process was not the main point of the exercise. Instead, he explores a wide range of shape, proportion, materials, and decoration.

The idea is that like any other skill, practicing design allows you to refine it, analyzing what you like or don't like about each iteration. That also broadens your perspective as you explore the limits to a wider degree than you might otherwise.

The end result is a collection of boxes with different appeal to different tastes. Reproducing these boxes would make great gifts. They are beautiful, with a clean, spare design.

But more to the point, Matt wants to encourage you to explore your own design space. This was his result, his personal aesthetic. Yours may be different.

Design Principles

He follows several design principles, outlined in the introductory chapter.

First is proportion. He says this is critical. Good proportions result in intuitive beauty. Poor proportions can turn even the finest project clunky.

Second is simplicity. These are not heavily adorned. He limits them to just a few distinguishing design elements.

Third, he ensures that all elements are in proportion to the scale of the box.

Fourth, he develops the details, thinking about every little one from the joinery to the widths of rabbets and the amount of shadow line and reveal.

Fifth, he chooses the wood carefully, including its grain and imperfections. Every little knot or wave in the grain is meant to be where it ended up. Design is intentional, not accidental. Wood is a natural medium with natural variation. The design challenge here is to make use of that variation.

He further utilizes the grain by making it continuous all the way around each box. That provides a natural flow and continuity rather than a jarring transition. Achieving continuous grain is one of the few technical descriptions in the book.

Sixth, he adds a small degree of color. He uses milk paint to add to the natural wood color, sometimes harmonizing with it, sometimes contrasting.

The book itself follows this. The various page elements adorning the text and photos pick up the color flash of each project.

Finally, he softens the inside with a carefully fitted piece of fabric. The proportion of the pattern and the color must complement the scale of the box and the color of the wood.

These provide the parameters for the variation in design.


In general the construction techniques are simple, but a brief chapter on box-making techniques details the following:
  • Resawing to achieve continuous grain.
  • Crosscutting and mitering.
  • Lids that don't need hinges.
  • Stable bottoms with various decorations.
  • Finishing with shellac and milk paint.
Several of the box projects include specific techniques such as wedge-shaped sides, drilling out round interiors, fitting lifting strips around a lid, and making pulls, feet, and bases. The most detailed one shows the steps for making kumiko, a Japanese decorative lattice.

One thing to note is that these are mostly small boxes in thin stock, so the work requires precision. I had the pleasure of watching Matt work on several of these when we happened to be demonstrating at the same Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Events. Watching him fit the joints and dividers, carefully shaving them on a small shooting board, was fascinating.

Building boxes like this will not only improve your design skills, it will improve your fine hand skills.

The Boxes

The remainder of the book shows several pages on each box individually. Matt describes what went into the design and what he was trying to explore with it, then describes how he constructed it.

This portion of the book opens with a two-page spread showing all the boxes. It's especially nice to let your eyes range around this layout to compare the variations. Different things will jump out at you.

There are flat boxes, wide boxes, short boxes, tall boxes, divided boxes, stacked boxes, and boxes with drawers. Each features just a couple of design elements of color and fittings.

My favorites were the divided boxes. I like compartments. I guess they appeal to my sense of organization.

It's interesting to come back to this spread after having read through all the box projects individually. That changes what jumps out at you.

One of my favorites, a flat divided box made primarily of cherry, with a green milk-painted lid in the center.

As Matt notes, the idea of the milk paint and fabric may put some people off at first, but seeing them used with the other design elements, all in careful restraint, is convincing.

I would never think of hiding cherry under paint, yet the warmth of the wood and the green milk paint in the photo above complement each other nicely, contrasting with the dark kingwood pulls. The result invites you to lift the lids and see what they contain. It's just beautiful.

These projects all have a delicate, graceful elegance. Some may appeal more to you than others, but they would all make wonderful gifts. The book is an excellent starting point for exploring and refining your own design aesthetic.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Review: Woodworking With Hand Tools

Woodworking With Hand Tools: Tools, Techniques and Projects, The Taunton Press, $24.95, 240pp, April, 2018

Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by the publisher for review.

This is another gorgeous book. It's an anthology of 33 hand tool articles collected from the past 10 years of Fine Woodworking magazine, by the following authors:
  • Christian Becksvoort
  • Brian Boggs
  • Tom Calisto
  • Dan Faia
  • John Reed Fox
  • Chris Gochnour
  • Garrett Hack
  • Andrew Hunter
  • Matt Kenney
  • Philip C. Lowe
  • Tim Manney
  • Jeff Miller
  • Norman Pirollo
  • Timothy Rousseau
  • Matthew Teague
  • Vic Tesolin
  • Bob Van Dyke
They all do excellent work. Phil Lowe and Garrett Hack in particular are a couple of my woodworking heroes, whom I've been following for years.

The book is divided into 3 parts, with excellent photography to capture the fine details. In addition to western style tools, there are several articles on Japanese tools. It's an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning or expanding hand tool woodworking skills.

In general, the articles cover the details of fine work after the parts have been roughed-out and dimensioned, although there is one article on rough stock preparation with Japanese tools that applies equally well to western tools.

Most of the authors use a combination of power and hand tools in their day to day work. They typically do the rough work of breaking down lumber and getting it close to final dimensions on machines, then shift over to hand tools for the final dimensioning and detail work.


Part One contains 14 articles on tools. In addition to a general article covering an essential hand tool kit, they cover squares, gauges, and calipers; and scrapers, specialty planes, chisels, and small handsaws. Three of the articles cover sharpening: card scrapers, cabinet scrapers, and using diamond sharpening stones.

Vic Tesolin's article "4 Planes for Joinery" is my favorite in this section. These specialty planes are invaluable for fine tuning precise joints.


Part Two contains 12 articles on techniques. They cover general tool use techniques, stock preparation, fine fitting and cleanup, mortise and tenon and dovetail joinery, and custom moldings and scratch stocks.

My favorite in this section is Phil Lowe's "4 Chisel Tricks". This article changed the way I made tenons when I first read it in the magazine.


Part Three contains 7 articles on building tools and jigs used in hand tool work. They cover building custom handsaws and scrapers, specialty grooving planes, a cutting gauge, bench jigs for precision planing, a Japanese tool box, and a shaving horse.

In this section, my favorite is Norman Pirollo's article "4 Bench Jigs for Handplanes" (I guess the reason my favorites follow a theme of 4 is that they reflect versatility!). These jigs are critical to efficient and precise work. I always tell people the shooting board is the precision secret weapon for hand tool work.

While I've called out a few personal favorites, all of the methods shown in all the sections are excellent. They reflect their authors' long experience with the craft.

The layout is easy to read and follow. Here Phil Lowe explains how to sharpen and use a cabinet scraper.

Closeup photos capture details of the tools in use. Here Chris Gochnour shows how to tackle concave and convex curves with a spokeshave.

What's great about a book like this is that no matter how much you know, there's always something new to learn. It might be an entirely new way to tackle a task, or a subtle refinement of a method you already use.

These increase your versatility, allowing you to adapt to the situation when things aren't going as expected.

In my case, this book finally gave the best explanation I've seen for why to burnish a card scraper on its flat faces, and the result of that step. I joke that I collect scraper sharpening methods the way other people collect baseball cards. This was a refinement of my current method, and it worked wonderfully when I tried it.

There were several other instances like that where just one or two photos were sufficient to add to my repertoire. Each increment in technique like that improves my capability.

The key to making these skills work is to practice them. In fact, the first article on techniques covers a set of skill-building exercises.

It's useful to take the methods outlined in all the articles and first try them on some softer wood that won't fight you so much, then try them on the harder woods you plan on using for actual projects.

This book is an excellent compendium, covering a broad range of techniques.

We're very lucky in New England to have a rich concentration of these excellent instructors. Through membership in the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) and participation in Lie-Nielsen Hand Tool Events and open houses, I've had the privilege of meeting and watching 6 of the 17 authors, particularly Phil Lowe. I've incorporated a number of their techniques into my work.

As a bonus, here's a video of Phil showing the cabinet scraper sharpening method in his article. I recorded this for him at one of his SAPFM demonstrations.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review: How To Whittle, By Josh Nava

How To Whittle, The Taunton Press, $19.95, 144pp, March, 2018

Full disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by the publisher for review.

This is a gorgeous book. It features 25 projects that are a mix of functional and decorative items, carrying on a centuries-old tradition.

Josh Nava is a hand carver in Nashville, TN, and is the co-founder of Suburban Pallet, which specializes in hand-crafted goods made from repurposed timber.

Whittling may bring to mind sitting around the campfire or on the porch, carving on some fallen twigs with a pocketknife to pass the time. The end result may be a memento to keep or just go into the fire.

The items in this book are of a more permanent nature. This is what I know as treen or treenware, treen meaning "of the tree". Treen was common when everyday household items were carved from wood.

The book starts with a 20-page chapter on techniques, covering choosing wood, tools, sharpening, safety, knifework, preparing blanks, and finishing.

The projects are covered in 112 pages, 3-5 pages each. It ends with a page on resources, and an index.

One of the points Nava makes is that whittling is a very accessible craft. It requires few tools, and the work is done in green wood, using mostly found material.

The results are beautiful and practical, useful for decades. Whittled items show a distinctive faceting that lends a rustic elegance and reveals their handmade provenance. These are personal. Meanwhile, making them teaches you properties of wood, elements of design, and hand skills.

"Green woodworking" means using freshly cut or fallen wood that hasn't yet been processed or dried. I'm familiar with it from the books of Drew Langsner, as well as demonstrations by his protege, Peter Follansbee, and the work of Robin Wood.

Nava does a wonderful job of distilling this into a concise, easy to follow book. The projects provide enough coverage to give you a wide range of capabilities.

This book will have you scouring the neighborhood and countryside for fallen trees and branches. Wind storms will mean good harvest days. Here in New England, there's ALWAYS someone who has something down.

It's a good way to use urban timber, so you might want to check with tree services and municipal maintenance departments for material.


The tool list is short:
  • Knives: used for medium and fine shaping. These are somewhat specialized, particularly the hook knife. They're not common pocketknives.
  • Small hatchets and hand axes: used to prepare blanks (that is, preparing tree trunk sections or branches to the rough blanks that will be shaped into objects) and for rough shaping.
  • Folding saw: sufficient for most harvesting.
You can find the kniveshatchets (including some very fine ones) and saws online, with a variety of commercial and custom products available.

Remember that this is for green wood, possibly some fairly large branches, so a longer saw with coarse teeth is best; he recommends 10-14".

Robin Wood covers some information on where to obtain knives and axes. While it is somewhat dated, you have the benefit of experienced opinion.

As with any tools, investing in quality items will avoid heartache later, so beware of buying the cheapest based on price alone.


The skill list is similarly short. For knifework, Nava goes through five cuts that he uses throughout the projects. To prepare blanks, he outlines five general steps.


Nava opens each project with a page showing a photo of the finished item and a list of materials and tools.

This was my favorite item. Look at the gorgeous faceting of that fork.

He covers each project in a series of steps over the next several pages, using clear captioned photos. The writing is very easy to follow. The whole process has a wonderfully relaxed, organic feel to it.

The layout is easy to read and follow.

Whether you use the item yourself, give it as a gift, or sell it, the user will always be reminded of the person who made it. That's the personal connection in such handcrafts.

One thing I like about this is that you can use almost any wood. That means if there's a cherished old tree at a family house that you remember growing up, if some of it comes down, you can turn it into something that the family can continue to use for decades.

It's also a completely portable style of woodworking that offers great satisfaction. A small canvas bag of tools can go with you anywhere, and you can leave behind works of art and function.

If you sell your work, this is something you can do at fairs and craft shows. With your wares displayed for sale in front of you, you can be working on more the whole time. Then it's production and demonstration as well as commerce.

This also offers an opportunity to engage an audience and pass on the craft. You can let people try the tools after a quick lesson on safety and technique if you're comfortable doing that.

This is a wonderful book that will give you hours of enjoyment.

Psst: Don't tell my wife, but I ordered the set of Mora knives, the Marbles camp axe, and the 14" Silky Bigboy 2000 with extra large teeth that I linked above. This looks like fun!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Limor Fried Is My New Hero

Meet Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit.

I'm cross-posting this to both my woodworking blog and my software engineering blog (under the LearnToCode label), because even though there's no woodworking in it, this is all about building stuff, so it bridges the worlds. It's the maker ethos.

If you're interested in learning to code, and building the stuff that you're coding on, this is for you. This is all about working on embedded systems, from the hobby level to the professional.

I admit to instant and total nerd-crush. Limor Fried, who goes by the name Ladyada online (for Lady Ada Lovelace, The First Programmer) is the founder of Adafruit.

Adafruit is a small electronics manufacturing company in Manhattan, NY, that focuses on teaching electronics to makers of all ages. You can read about them here.

Electronics is another of those hobbies that I wanted to pursue as a teenager, but never could due to lack of funds. Fortunately I've advanced beyond that impecunious stage of life, and seeing this has fired instant obsession (hence the shopping list below!).

I'm familiar with that feeling of obsession settling on my shoulders. It propelled me into hand tool woodworking, turning into a book. It propelled me into violinmaking. It propelled me into boatbuilding.

Each time, the pattern is the same. I buy a bunch of books, watch a bunch of videos, dig through a bunch of blogs and forums, then buy a bunch of tools and start playing. Last year it propelled me into small engine repair and oxy-acetylene welding after I found Taryl Dactyl (yes, blog posts will be forthcoming).

Now, in my copious free time (that's a joke, son), I'll finally be realizing that dream to get my hands dirty with electronics.

I owe this to Matt Pandina, whom we recently hired at work. It quickly turned out that Matt is a maker and likes sharing information. He has some nice stuff on Google Groups under the moniker artcfox (in fact, one of his articles was coincidentally the answer to the embedded systems programming problem I use when interviewing candidates!).

He made a comment about how Adafruit is doing manufacturing in Manhattan, and I asked, "Who's Adafruit?". That was all it took. Thanks, Matt!

I was tickled to read Fried's favorite quote in the Entrepreneur Magazine article about her:
“We are what we celebrate.” —entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen.
Kamen is one of my other heroes. She whose hero is my hero is my hero!

I managed to score his autograph at the 2015 MassMEDIC conference. I was at the 2015 Embedded Systems Conference (ESC Boston), which was being held concurrently at the Boston Convention Center.

When I saw Kamen listed as keynote speaker, I scooted down early and got a chance to talk to him and tell him I wanted to work for him (he probably gets a lot of stalker geeks like that!). Came close the following year, but logistics didn't work out.

Electronics Learning Resources

On the business side, Adafruit sells kits, parts, tools, and books. That's pretty cool (along with being able to pull off a manufacturing operation in Manhattan). But what's truly spectacular about them is their online learning resources.

Fried is a big proponent of open source, sharing the knowledge. So the Adafruit website is chock full of information. There's also an extensive YouTube channel.

You'll also finds lots of cross-pollination with others in the maker community. There are magazines, blogs, and videos by the score, by independent makers like Matt, and by larger organizations.

I've just barely begun to scratch the surface. This is great, because I know how to program embedded systems, but I don't know much about the components that go into them and connect to them. It's the combination of hardware and software that really makes something work.

Pretty much everything I know about digital electronics I owe to Forrest P. Mims 35 years ago. Now, after that brief hiatus, I can take the next step.

Basic Electronics Lab Skills

Step into Collin's lab!

Among the resources is a series of very accessible quick guides and videos by Collin Cunningham. Of particular interest to the electronics beginner such as myself is this set of basic electronics lab skills (you can scan through all these for quick grok of the big picture by setting the speed in the YouTube window settings (the gear icon) to 2x, then come back and watch at normal speed for a second pass):
  • Soldering and Desoldering: how to solder components together properly, and how to pull them apart for salvage and rework.
  • Surface Mount Soldering: how to solder surface-mount components.
  • Multimeters: how to use a meter for basic measurements.
  • Oscilloscopes: how to use an oscilloscope for advanced measurements and waveforms.
  • Hand Tools: the basic hand tools used for assembling and disassembling electronics.
  • Schematics: how to read schematics (no, they're not Greek!).
  • Breadboards and Perfboards: how to combine the parts on a schematic into a functioning circuit.
  • Ohm's Law: understanding the relationship between voltage, current, and resistance.
Once you have these skills, you are unleashed. Just like hand tool woodworking, it takes a little investment in tools and equipment, and a little time practicing with them.

These form the basis of the shopping list below. And of course they lead to lots of other interesting videos, like Collin's videos on the basics of various components:
There are also a number of other introductory Adafruit written guides by various contributors (as well as oceans of more specialized and advanced guides, check them out!):
Shopping List

These are the tools, equipment, supplies, and books to do the work. With the exception of the oscilloscope, these are all links to the Adafruit shopping pages. Prices as of April 8, 2018.

Tools and equipment:
Consumable supplies:
Finally, here are some additional random useful items that they don't carry, all via Amazon:
Total cost: $1269 for everything (I ordered 2 spools leaded solder and 1 leaded Chip Quik, no lead-free items, 10 DC barrel jacks, and all the screwdriver/tool sets, since you never know which tips and shanks will fit, and some cases need special access tools to open), with free shipping from both Adafruit and Amazon. Plus they threw in a free half-size breadboard and a Circuit Playground Express.

Back in my teenage days, $10 was a major expenditure, and $100 was simply inconcievable. This is starting to add up to some real money, but it will leave you armed with the tools, knowledge, and skills sufficient to launch a career.

The really nice thing is that Adafruit provides a curated list of things to choose from, so you're getting the benefit of their experience and recommendations, all guided by that maker ethos. That was a big plus for me.

Bridging three centuries of maker technology.

Once I've gone through some of the books, I'll pick out a selection of microcontrollers to play with.

You can read about my first use of these tools, since I needed them almost immediately.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Veterans Program Update

The class covers the use of tools like these: handsaws, handplanes, and chisels.

Updated December 19, 2020: Thank you to the people who have participated in this and who have helped spread the word on it. The pandemic of course means that I can't offer this currently, but I had decided to stop before that, due to lack of interest.

I'm very pleased to announce that my free hand tool woodworking class for veterans and active duty personnel is now part of Ayer Shirley Regional School District Community Education, and will be conducted at the ASR High School in Ayer, MA.

For details on registration, see the ASRSD Community Education classes page and page through to the Hobbies section. The class is Woodworking For Veterans, 7:30PM to 9:30PM for 12 Wednesdays from March 21 to June 13 (no class during April school vacation week). Space is limited to 4 people per 12-week session. All tools and materials provided.

For details on the what and the why of the class, see my original description of the JOTMOST program.

A big thank you to Dennis McGillicuddy, Vietnam veteran, for putting in the time and effort to find a public venue for the class. Thanks also to Pat Russell, Community Education coordinator, and Steve Tulli, technology teacher at ASR High School for making his room available.