Tools Part V: Table saws

There’s no way to get around the fact that table saws are expensive. If you’re buying new, you’re looking at around $500 for a decent contractor style saw, up to several thousand dollars or more for a high end cabinet style saw. Can you buy used? You bet, and you can save a significant amount of money doing so, and even come up with some pretty good deals. But you need to be really, really careful when buying used because it’s easy to end up with, frankly, a piece of junk that may look good but is really completely worn out and will require expensive repairs before it can even be used. But I’m not going to get into used equipment in this, I’m going to stick with new saws.

Of course the first question is do you really need one? These things are big and expensive, so can you get along without one? That’s a question only you can answer, really. I’ll just say this – if you’re doing any kind of semi-serious woodworking, the table saw is pretty much the workhorse of any woodshop. It’s used for cutting boards to length, ripping boards to width, trimming panels, framing cabinet doors, making tenons, dadoes… The list goes on and on. If you think you need one, you probably do.

So let’s say you’ve decided you do need one. Before you max out the credit card, there are a few things you need to think about before you ever buy one. Things that most people don’t seem to think about until it’s too late.

My now 15 year old Jet. Observant readers will note that the blade guard is missing. I took that off because I had the throat plate out so I could take photos of the arbor under the table. Normally you never, ever take off any safety equipment on a saw. Never. Not if you want to keep all of your fingers, that is.

First thing to think about is the amount of space you have. These saws are big. They take up a lot of floor space. That’s my 15 year old Jet saw in that photo up there. It is 3 feet deep and 5 feet wide. So it is physically large. Plus you need enough clear space around it so you can work safely. If you want to rip a 6 foot board, for example, you need at least 6 feet in front of that saw, and 6 feet behind that saw, in order to slide that board through the saw. So you really need a minimum of at least around 14 – 15 feet. Cross cutting isn’t quite so bad. You’re almost never going to try to cross cut a board more than a few feet long.

Now most of us don’t have a lot of space to work in. I certainly don’t. My shop is a spare room down in the basement. It’s a good sized room, but if I didn’t have my big tools on wheeled bases so I can move them around there is no way I could fit everything in that room and still have room to work. Wheeled bases like the one on the left under my saw can be really helpful. But they do have drawbacks. They have to be sturdy enough to handle the weight of the tool, which can be hundreds of pounds. They absolutely must have lockdown levers you can work with your foot like mine do because you do not want that tool moving when you’re using it. So they can help, but you’re almost always going to be better off if you don’t need to add wheels. These tools ideally should be bolted directly to the floor because that makes them safer to use and helps to reduce vibration. But most of us don’t have ideal conditions, so you do what you need to.

Big honking motor.

The second thing you need to be concerned with before you buy a saw or any big piece of electrically powered equipment is your electrical service. Can the electrical service in your home, garage or wherever handle the load that will be placed on it by that saw? Look at the specifications of the motor on my saw in the photo up there. It draws 18 amps. But the average electrical circuit in most houses is only rated to handle 15 amps. Go look in your service panel, the circuit breaker box of your house. Chances are good that all the breakers, except the ones feeding an electric clothes dryer, central air system or electric stove, are going to be 15 amp. So just plugging that saw in and turning it on is going to exceed the rating of the average household electrical circuit. If you try running that saw you’re probably going to be tripping the breaker on a regular basis and in extreme cases even causing the wiring to overheat.

My house was completely rewired from top to bottom when we bought this place and we installed separate service panels specifically to feed the garage and my workshop so they could handle the extra load. I have 20 amp circuits feeding the outlets in the shop, not the normal 15 amp, so it can handle this kind of thing.

So before you buy a table saw or other big power tool, make sure your electrical service can handle the load. If necessary talk to a professional electrician about improving the capacity of your system. If heating up a cup of water in your microwave makes the house lights dim, you really, really need to talk to someone about doing some upgrades before you try to bring in a big power tool. I’m not telling you to rewire your whole house, but having a separate 20 amp circuit run to your work area is something you should consider if your equipment is a power hog like mine.

The third thing you need to be concerned with is just getting the thing home and into your workshop area. These saws are big and heavy. How are you going to get it delivered to your location? How are you even going to get it off the delivery truck? How are you going to get it into your workshop? How are you going to get it assembled? Getting my equipment into my basement workshop was a royal pain in the butt that involved hand carts, in one case a cart used to normally transport big vending machines that I had to rent with a powered stair climber built into it. And that’s not counting the bruises, strained muscles, smashed fingers and considerable amounts of foul language.

Sidenote: 120V versus 240V. If you look at the motor up there, you’ll see it can be rewired to run on 240V instead of 120. A lot of tools in this classification will have motors like that. Some will even require 240 only. Why? I won’t go into the technical details but generally speaking a motor runs more efficiently on 240 and there are advantages to going that route. But do you need to? Probably not. First you almost certainly aren’t going to have a 240V circuit in your house, and having one added is going to cost a significant amount of money. And second, you probably don’t need it anyway. Unless you are running a commercial production shop or something like that, the average woodworker isn’t going to need to jump to 240V tools.

SO let’s get on with this and talk about actual saws. Choosing a saw can be a bit overwhelming because there dozens of different types and brands on the market, each with it’s own advantages and disadvantages.

There are three basic types of table saws; contractor saws, hybrid saws, (which I think is actually a ridiculous and misleading thing to call them) and cabinet saws. To confuse things even more, I’m seeing what are really hybrid saws being marketed as contractor saws, and hybrid saws that look like cabinet style saws. I really think that classification system should be scrapped entirely and we should be using things like the saw’s capacity, but let’s ignore that.

contractor style table saw

Contractor saws are generally smaller, more compact, and often come with folding stands and wheels to make them easier to move around, and you’ll often find them at job sites being used by, well, contractors (duh). Once upon a time contractor style saws were, well, to be brutally honest they were almost all pretty much junk. But wow, have things changed in the last twenty years or so. Oh, the really cheap ones are still pretty much junk. But the better quality contractor saws are now damn near as good as the other types of saws. They’ve become more powerful, much better made and genuinely good. If you look at the major brand names and the higher priced models, well if I didn’t have my Jet I wouldn’t mind having one of these. The only real drawbacks are that they are still a bit less durable because they have to be light weight to be more or less portable. And because they have to be small, they don’t have the capacity of the full sized table saws. But that smaller size and lighter weight can be a genuine advantage for those of you who don’t have a lot of room for a saw. And the smaller capacity can be gotten around by building your own stand with infeed and outfeed extensions, side wings, etc.

Makita, DeWalt, Delta and a few other manufacturers make some pretty darn nice contractor style portable saws. They’re definitely worth looking at, especially if you have a tight budget. But as with any of this equipment, research, research, research! Get online and read reviews, evaluations, get on YouTube and look at the videos. Make notes about things you like and dislike. After all, even these “cheap” saws are going to set you back around $400 – $500 or more for a really good one.

Cabinet style saw. Generally you pay through the nose for this style saw and, frankly, for 95% of us the extra cost just isn’t worth it.

I’m going to do something I probably shouldn’t and toss the whole classification of cabinet saws out the door and forget about ’em. Why? Because cabinet saws are big, heavy, and securely bolted to a concrete floor once they’re put in place. They take up a lot of room. They often require 240V power. They generally require a fixed and high power dust collection system. And they’re expensive. You can expect to drop at least $2,500 or much, much more on a decent quality cabinet saw. And I think that’s utterly ridiculous because that saw isn’t going to work any better for the average woodworker than a $1,000 saw will.

And let’s just junk that whole “hybrid” classification too while we’re at it because it’s just silly and I have no idea why people started using that term anyway. And no one seems to actually adhere to the mostly nonexistent standards of that classification system anyway.

Note the wheels used to raise/lower the blade and change the angle on my saw. On this saw they’re separate, but on some there is only a single wheel with a lever that switches between angle adjustment or height adjustment. Which do you want? Doesn’t matter in the slightest as long as it works.

No matter what you call ’em, this style saw is a full sized table saw with a pretty hefty motor, usually 120V but often the motors can be rewired for 240 if you want, good sized tables that will handle just about any normal sawing job you need to do. And generally it has an open frame holding it up like my Jet up there in that photo and not a fully enclosed cabinet base, although as I noted, some are now coming with enclosed cabinets. It’s going to have a 10″ saw blade, a tilting arbor, hand wheels on the front and/or side to raise and lower the blade and to change the angle of the blade, a pretty good quality rip fence, a miter gauge that is most likely a piece of junk and should be replaced with one that is actually accurate and safe, and, of course, safety gear designed to keep you from cutting off bits of your body while using the saw, like anti-kickback devices, a riving knife, shield over the blade, etc, and a flat (hopefully) machined heavy steel or cast iron table with side wings to support larger pieces of wood.

Speaking of safety, I’m going to be talking about SawStop saws at the end of this just to give you a heads up

And no matter which brand you look at, they are all basically pretty much the same. I’m sure DeWalt, Jet, Delta, and the other major brands would argue with that, but when it comes right down to it they are. They’re all going to have similar features, have similar build quality, similar capacity, similar size, weight, everything. Personally I have a lot of Jet equipment, and I like it a lot, but I’m not going to tell you to run out and buy Jet because Jet’s saws aren’t going to be any better or worse than those being sold by Delta or Shop Fox or the other brands. And they’re all going to cost about the same as well, with no more than a couple of hundred bucks differences in price between saws with similar specifications.

So I’m not going to recommend a specific brand or even a specific model. Instead I’m going to talk about what you need to look for, and the things you may need to add or replace once you do buy it.

Stuff you should look for

The table should be nice and flat, well machined, and smooth so wood will slide easily over it. If it has table extensions as my saw does (those white plates on either side of the plain metal table) they should be absolutely flush with the surface of the main table

When the angle of the saw blade is set to 0, the table should be at exactly a 90 degree angle to the table. This is easy to check. Just raise up the saw blade and put a square on the table and butt it up to the blade. If it isn’t you should be able to do some fiddling to get it to that point. Hopefully you won’t have to.

The hole in the table the saw blade comes through is called the throat, and the removable plate that fits around the blade is the throat plate. It should be perfectly flush with the surface of the table, and there should be some way to adjust it to make sure it is flush. If you look at mine, you’ll see the throat plate has leveling screws recessed into the plate itself to allow it to be adjusted. If it isn’t perfectly flush with the table you can have the wood catching as you slide it through the saw and that can be dangerous.

The arbor. It may look simple but there is actually a lot of engineering in that design and if anything in there is off, it’s going to cause you potentially serious problems, ranging from the blade wobbling to excess vibrations.

The arbor is the shaft that the blade itself is bolted to which, in turn, is mounted on an assembly that permits the arbor and blade to be raised and lowered and tilted. The arbor should look and feel sturdy. There should be absolutely zero play when you try to move it, especially not in the bearings nor in the lifting and tilting mechanisms. Reach in there and grab the saw blade (carefully) and try wiggling it back and forth. The saw blade may flex, but ignore that. If the arbor, the bearings, the shafts, anything under there wiggles, moves, shifts position, makes clicking noises, anything that doesn’t seem quite right, avoid that saw like the plague. If any of that equipment down there isn’t absolutely perfect, you’ll never get that saw to work right.

The threads on the shaft should look relatively, oh, robust, shall we say? The pulley on which the drive belt rides should be perfectly square to the shaft itself. If it isn’t it is going to cause vibration problems.

Oh, and how easy is it to get at that arbor? You’re going to have to change that blade sooner or later. You may also want to swap the blade out for specialty blades as well. So you want to be able to have relatively easy access to the arbor to replace the blades.

Then there is the safety equipment. All saws will come with at least the minimum, which is some kind of splitter or riving knife to keep the wood from pinching on the blade, anti-kickback devices of some kind, and a shield over the blade.

You would think that the most dangerous thing about a saw is that spinning blade, and it is indeed very dangerous, but what can be even more dangerous is what is known as kickback. When the fibers in wood are cut, this can, oh, disturb the balance of forces in the piece of wood, so to speak. Internal stresses that were balanced before, become unbalanced when the fibers are cut, causing the wood to move, and squeeze around the saw blade, pinching against it. This can cause the wood to be launched at high speed directly back at the person using the saw. This isn’t just painful, it can literally be lethal. Some years ago a guy at a factory in Fond du Lac got killed when a piece of wood kicked back on the table saw he was using. So when I tell you that you never, ever take the safety gear off your saw, I mean you never, ever take the safety gear off your saw.

If you look at that photo up there you’ll see what looks like a wing with teeth just to the left of the throat plate. That’s an anti kickback pawl. There are two, one on each side. I would much rather have a riving knife, but that wasn’t generally available when I bought this saw. Riving knives are now considered to be one of the best ways to avoid kickback, and if you can get that on the saw you’re looking at, do it.

RIp fences on modern saws are generally pretty good, certainly more than adequate for anything you or I might be doing.

The rip fence: Once upon a time, when you bought a table saw generally the first thing you did was throw away the rip fence it came with and bought a good one. Seriously, they were often that bad. Fortunately those days are long gone, and the rip fences on modern saws, at least the better saws, are generally pretty good, even outstanding, and possibly nearly as good as the aftermarket ones.

Unless someone sets the saw up for you, you will almost always have to fiddle with it to get it properly aligned and square, but that’s generally not a difficult job.

A couple more things about rip fences. First, many, like mine, have distance indicators that supposedly show you the distance between the fence and the blade. Mine even has a dopey little magnifying lens built in and a “micro adjustment wheel”. And, well, yeah, don’t rely on any of that guff to actually work. Just get out your handy tape measure and actually measure the distance from the fence to the blade. Remember the old adage: measure twice, cut once.

Second, some people, even people who really should know better get freaked out when they find out that the back end of a lot of these fences don’t lock down when you push down on the locking lever. The front does, but the back doesn’t, and actually it will flex a bit if you push on it hard at the back. They believe this makes setting the distance between the blade and the fence inaccurate somehow. And wow, some of them get weird, even a bit obsessive about it and think this is the most horrible thing ever, and because it isn’t locked down their cuts aren’t going to be accurate.

And I suppose it would be a problem if there were any actual pressure against the back end of the fence. But there isn’t. Or shouldn’t be.

Think about it for a minute. The only thing you should really care about is the area of the fence that lies in front of the blade and the point at which the wood is in contact with the blade. That is what controls the distance between the fence and the blade, not the back of the fence. The back of the fence doesn’t do anything except provide a smooth route out of the saw for the wood and keep the board straight. It has nothing to do with the actual cut. There should be very little force against that fence in any case, and most of that force is going to be before and at the point the cut is actually being made. That is where accuracy is an issue. Not at the back end of the fence after the cut has been made.

If that fence is deflecting, then you do have a problem because it shouldn’t be. If it is, that means there is something mechanically wrong with your fence or its lockdown mechanism, or you are pushing the wood against the fence with way too much force. That fence is there to be a guide. Period. You shouldn’t be putting any kind of significant pressure against it as you guide the wood through the saw.

In fact, there are valid reasons not to lock down the back of that fence, IMO. The primary one is safety. There is no such thing as a perfectly aligned saw. If that fence is locked down tight at both ends and can’t give a bit at the back, and the saw blade isn’t absolutely, perfectly, 100% aligned with that fence, and the wood isn’t absolutely straight with perfect grain, under the right circumstances it’s going to cause the wood to bind up between the back of the blade and the fence and this is not a good thing. Having a bit of deflection at the back of the rip fence can be a good thing.

Now that being said, some saws come with fences that do lock at both ends, and you can get a lot of aftermarket fences that do, and people like them and even think they are absolutely necessary. I think they’re wrong, but well, hell, I think so-called “american cheese” should be banned because it is neither American nor cheese, and that hasn’t happened yet, so there you go. And don’t get me started on “Canadian bacon” or “English muffins”…

Oh, wait, I’m getting off topic, aren’t I? What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, saws. Let’s see, where did I leave off… Okay, I finished that up, what’s left? Oh, miter gauge.

A miter gauge is a special device you use to measure those funny hats that bishops wear…

Typical piece of junk miter gauge similar to what most saws come with.

Oh, all right, I admit it, that was a really horrible joke but I couldn’t help myself. A miter gauge is, well, one of these things over there on the left. It’s a type of guide. You butt the hunk of wood up against it and then push it forward into the saw. It sits on a long rectangular shaft that slips into a groove ground into the table of the saw. In theory, it keeps your wood at the proper angle as you feed it into the blade. Normally you keep it locked at 90 degrees, but you can adjust it so you can make angled cuts as well.

Note that I said “in theory”. That’s because most of these are, frankly, junk. They’re usually way too small to adequately support the wood you’re trying to cut, hard to adjust, the angle settings are inaccurate, and they are just generally not very well made all the way around. I mean, come on, look at mine over there. The pointer is basically a roofing nail they soldered into a hole and bent over for heaven’s sake.

Don’t worry, though, I’ll talk about miter gauges in detail when I get to the “optional stuff” section of all of this coming up soon.

Very soon, I hope, because you’re probably getting just as bored with this as I am by this point.

Now I was going to show you a picture of the on/off switch on mine saw but I seem to have lost it… Oh, wait, there it is. Here we go, that’s it over on the right. I will not pull any punches here. That switch totally sucks. It isn’t the “Start” button that’s the problem, it’s that “Stop” button. It’s in an awkward position. I have to fumble around for it if I’m not at the right angle to directly see it. It’s wobbly and I have to fiddle with it to get it to work. It’s potentially dangerous, even, because in an emergency you need to shut that damn saw off RIGHT NOW because you need to pick up the finger you just cut off and get to the ER so you don’t want to have to be standing there fumbling around trying to find and then push the damned button. You want a nice, big, easy to find and easier to push OFF button. Granted I could retrofit this thing with a much better kill switch, so to speak, but, well, I’m lazy, I’m cheap… Well, you get the idea. Most modern saws come with much better switches than this one has. Or should.

Dust. Lots and lots of dust…

Finally let’s talk about dust. Table saws are really good at turning very expensive wood into great, heaping piles of sawdust, and you need a way of dealing with it. One of the advantages of cabinet saws is that most of that dust is confined in the cabinet where it can be easily sucked up with a dust collection system.

Dust collection on saws in this class is pretty much, well, to be honest it’s pretty much a joke. Mine makes an attempt at it. It has a plastic plate that bolts to the bottom of the saw body with a big hole in it to attach a vac or dust collection system. But since the whole back end of the saw is open (has to be because the motor mount and belt run through there) I get dust flying everywhere whether I bother to hook up the vac to the port or not. True, having the vacuum on helps a lot, but it still chucks a lot of dust out the back. It isn’t as bad as, oh, a big power sander or a lathe, but these saws do produce a significant amount of dust and you need to be prepared to deal with it. Breathing this stuff is most definitely not good for you. And if your shop is inside of your house, it’s going to get everywhere. Be prepared to change your HVAC system filters a lot. A dust collection system would be nice, but most of us don’t have the money or space to stick in an expensive dust collection system. I certainly don’t. My dust collection system is a big shop vac and a 21 inch fan in the shop window sucking the stuff out of the house before it can get into everything.

There are a lot more things about table saws I could get into but these are some of the important things and I imagine you’re getting just about as bored as I am by this time, so let’s get on with this.

Money, money, money… So much money…

So, what is a decent table saw in this class going to cost? Well if you thought that spending $500 on a contractor style saw was bad, you might want to go take a lie down before I drop some of these prices on you. When I bought my Jet about fifteen years ago, I spent somewhere between $500 to $600. That was a lot of money. Well, still is a lot of money. My model saw isn’t made any more, but to get one with capabilities you can expect to pay somewhere between $1,100 to $1,500. A Jet in the same class as the one I have looks like it is selling for over $1,400. Yeah, that $500 contractor style saw is starting to look a bit better, isn’t it? I knew these things had gone up drastically in price since I bought mine, but it wasn’t until I started doing some research to write this that I realized that they’d doubled in price in the last fifteen years. Ouch.

Can you get cheaper ones? Sure. Should you consider the cheaper ones? Definitely. But be very, very careful out there.

If the price sounds too good to be true, it is. Stay away. I’ve seen saws with silly, even ridiculous brand names that I’ve never heard of before selling for just a couple of hundred bucks. There is a reason why that saw is selling for $700 less than a Delta or Powermatic or Shop fox or the other well known names, and that reason is that it is a piece of junk. You cannot make a 10 inch table saw of any kind of decent quality and sell it for $200. I’m sorry, you just can’t. Even if you find reviews online claiming that these things are the best thing ever, don’t believe it. Stick with recognizable brand names and buy from reputable retailers. Delta, Shop fox, Rigid, DeWalt, Jet, Grizzley, Milwaukee, Bosch, SawStop, Powermatic all make pretty darn good saws.

What about used? You can get some really good deals on used table saws, but be careful. You can pick up a real gem at a good price, or you can get burned. But do your research first. There are forums and articles and videos galore out there with advice on what to look for when buying used, so go do some digging.

Oh, one final note before I move on. I want to talk for a minute about so-called benchtop saws. If all you’re doing is, oh, cutting up 2″x2″ square bits of wood to make pen blanks or building HO scale models, one of these might be useful, but generally speaking they’re utterly useless for any kind of serious woodworking.

Options

Now, let’s talk optional equipment and addons and other goodies people will try to sell you after you have a saw. Let’s get back to that crappy miter gauge first.

This one is sold by Woodcraft under their brand but is actually made by Incra.

Like I said, most of them aren’t worth much. If you’re doing work that requires accurately cutting angles and doing it safely, you’re going to want an aftermarket miter gauge like the one in the photo over there on the right. That is an Incra 1000SE. I’ve had it for a lot of years now but it is still in production. It is very, very accurate, easy to use, extendable, with built in hold down. The thing is just nice. Everything is adjustable so you can fine tune it to ridiculously tight tolerances. If you make fine furniture, picture frames, do cabinet making, anything that requires very accurate cuts, you need to consider throwing away the miter gauge that came with the saw and getting something like this. Kreg makes one that’s just as good as Incra’s and sells for a bit less.

And I’ll warn you right now it ain’t cheap. That thing is selling for around $190 right now. And you probably don’t need one as elaborate or accurate as this one is. I make furniture and picture frames and boxes and other things that require highly accurate cuts. I’d still encourage you to look into upgrading the miter gauge, though. There are much less elaborate versions that are significantly better than the ones most saws come with that sell for under $75.

Freud dado blade package. I should point out that dado blades are illegal in Europe. Apparently Europeans can’t be trusted with sharp objects? I know the UK was considering banning points on knives a few years ago. I wonder about people sometimes. I really do.

Dado saw blades: Well, first what’s a dado? Basically it’s a groove cut in a length of wood that will make a place to stick another piece of wood, like cutting slots in the carcase of a bookcase that the shelves will sit in. Rather than trying to chisel all that stuff out and probably screwing it up (I know I would) you get out your trusty dado blade, put together a stack with the right blades and shims to get the proper thickness, bolt it onto your saw, run the boards through, instant slot. Neat, clean, fast. Well, sometimes it’s neat, clean and fast. In actual use it’s a bit more difficult than that, but if you need to cut long grooves in wood, a dado blade comes in very handy. That’s my Freud in the photo up there. A set like that costs around $130 – $140. Do you need one? Heck, I don’t know. If you need one, you need one. If all you need to do is cut a slot in two boards, get a cheap one. If you need to make a lot of dadoes, get the more expensive, better quality ones. They’ll make a better cut with less chipping.

If I need a throat plate to accomodate a special saw, I just make my own.

And if you do get a dado blade, you’re going to need a different throat plate for your saw because it ain’t going to work with a 1/2 inch stacked dado cutter. You don’t need to buy one, though. You’re a woodworker, remember? Make your own. I do. All you need is a bit of hard maple (oak or ash would work too), a thickness planer, a jigsaw or scroll saw, and some sandpaper. Get a nice bit of hardwood. Use the thickness planer to shave it down to the thickness you need. Slap your existing throat plate onto the board and trace out the outline, then cut it out with a scroll saw and sand it down to get the fit right. Lower the saw all the way down. Slap the new throat plate into place, move the rip fence over the top of the new plate to hold it down, and with the saw running very slowly raise the blade up to cut through the new plate. Instant custom throat plate. Well, okay, not instant, but you get the idea.

Push sticks – Do I really have to tell you that you do not want to get your fingers anywhere near a saw blade spinning at about a gazillion RPM? I don’t? Good. You need push sticks to hold down and push the wood you are cutting. I buy ’em, make ’em myself, whatever. They’re easy to make, but they’re also really cheap to buy. I must have a dozen or more laying around because I keep misplacing the darned things. I have some I made for specific uses, like cutting larger panels that have fancy hand grips. Of course I couldn’t find them when I wanted to take a picture.

Stuff people will claim that you need but you really probably don’t

Special drive belts: If you start scrounging around on the internet or through woodworking magazines and the like sooner or later you’re going to run into an “expert” who will claim you need a special drive belt for your saw, specifically something called a “link belt”. They will claim that your standard V-belt is an abomination that is causing nasty vibrations, thumps and bumps and, oh, heck, I don’t know, probably causing the ice caps to melt, tuna to go extinct and my hair to fall out for all I know. Personally I think it’s a crock. I’ve used saws that were equipped with belts like these and I didn’t notice any difference at all in vibration, noise or anything else when compared with similar saws using normal V-belts.

Expensive aftermarket rip fences: Go back and read my comments about rip fences earlier. Most modern table saws in the price range I’m talking about here already come equipped with pretty good fences. I don’t see any need to “upgrade”. If you’re saw has a poor rip fence, by all means look into replacing it. There are good ones out there. Again, do some research.

Anti-vibration gubbins that bolt to your blade or arbor or on the legs of your saw: For a while I was seeing these things advertised all over the place, but it seems to have faded a bit in the last ten years or so. The claim was that your saw blade is a weak, wimpy thing that shakes and rattles and vibrates and is hurting the accuracy of your saw. Yeah, sure it is. If you have a decently made, good quality saw blade, no, it isn’t. And if you have a cheap, crappy, badly made saw blade, these things aren’t going to help in any case. Basically the ones I’ve seen are little more than big washers that do literally nothing. Clamping a big steel washer to the side of your saw blade is going to do nothing to balance that blade. And since the majority of the blade isn’t supported by that thing, it is still going to flex and shake if it isn’t well made.

Specialty jigs: There are a lot of companies out there who will gleefully sell you all kinds of jigs that are supposed to make life easier for you. I have to be honest and admit I’ve fallen for it and bought some of them. Learn from my mistakes. Most of them aren’t worth it. I make a lot of mortise and tenon joints for furniture, and I went and bought one of those things over there on the right, a special jig for making tenons. I dropped, oh, heck, it was probably around $130 or so on that sucker. Does it work? Uh, well, sort of? To be fair, yeah, it does. But here’s the problem. It takes so long to get it set up, takes so many test cuts to make sure the depth and width is set properly, that by the time I got the thing set to accurately make the actual tenon, I could have cut a half dozen of them using just my dado cutter and miter gauge. Seriously.

That’s the biggest problem with these jigs for making speciality cuts, they work but often are so fiddly and take so long to get set up that you’re better off not bothering and doing it by hand, especially if you only have to make a few cuts like that.

Of course on the other hand I did drop over $400 on my mortising machine and I wouldn’t give that up for anything. But if you’d ever had to make dozens of mortises the old fashioned way with a drill, wood chisels and a mallet, you’d know why.

SawStop saws:

The last thing I want to talk about are SawStop saws. I will say right up front that I like Sawstop saws. A lot.

The SawStop system consists of an electronics package together with a gadget that is something like the disc brake system on a car, only more so, and a drop system. Electronic sensors constantly monitor the saw. If it senses that you just shoved your finger into that saw blade, it instantly stops the saw and drops the blade down through the table. The demonstrations are undeniably impressive. They usually take a hotdog or piece of raw chicken and just barely touch the blade and Bang! It happens so fast that the saw just barely nicks the sausage or chicken before it stops and drops.

The system is, well, damn, it’s impressive. Look at the brief demo below.

I have worked with SawStop saws and they are very, very nice. We had them at the school district in the high school technical/engineering department. They are very, very safe. They work exactly like they show in that video. The merest touch of skin and BANG!, the saw shuts down virtually instantly.

But you’re going to pay for that safety. The cheapest one I’ve seen is $1,400 for their portable job site style saw. A “contractor” style saw goes for $1,700 (All things considered, that’s not really that bad of a price), and the cabinet style saws can run over $4,000.

So the safety system is impressive, but how does it work as an actual saw? Like I said I’ve used these things and they’re very good. The quality all the way around was well above average. They were accurate, powerful and pretty much top of the line saws.

Would I buy one? In a heartbeat. That’s how much I like them. If I personally was shopping for a table saw, the first one I’d be looking at is one of the Sawstop saws, probably that “contractor” style one for $1,700 or so. If I ever need to replace the Jet I have now, it will be a Sawstop that takes its place. No, I am not getting paid to say that. I like the saws that much.

The system isn’t cheap, obviously. If it does trip, the guts of the thing have to be replaced. There is a cartridge type thing you have to replace that will cost you about $70, plus the saw blade will have to be replaced. So let’s say it’ll cost you about $200 total to replace the cartridge and blade if it trips.

And it does have false alarms occasionally. We had it trigger when trying to cut pressure treated lumber, green lumber, things like that. But the false alarms were very rare. If I had one I’d buy a spare cartridge or two to have on hand just in case.

And here’s the thing you have to ask yourself, how much are your fingers worth? Spending $200 to replace a cartridge and saw blade is a hell of a lot expensive (and less painful) than a trip to the ER.

That’s it for now. Next time thickness planers and jointers and whatever else I can shovel in before I get bored.

Autumn is here

Well, okay, not according to the calendar. But as far as I’m concerned the seasons change not by the actual date but according to the weather conditions. We got hit with a hard frost the other day and that pretty much brings the growing season to an end for a lot of our plants. So that means it’s autumn no matter what the calendar may say.

And while it may be chilly outside, we’re still getting a new central air system put in tomorrow morning. Our old air conditioning system is probably pushing 25+ years, if not a bit more than that. It’s actually a bit amazing that it lasted this long. But it has a freon leak now, and while they could probably repair it, we’d still have a 25 year old AC system that could fail at any time just when we need it most. This is as good a time as any to get it done. Probably the ideal time, really. The air conditioning season is over, the heating season hasn’t started yet, so the company has the time to do it. So we might as well get it over with now so we’re ready when the heat comes next summer.

Gads, it’s going to be an expensive fall, though. The AC is going to run us $3,200 (this is a big house). The contractor just called and said our new windows and doors are now ordered so he’s going to be rolling in sometime in a couple of weeks to do that, that’s going to be over $7,000. Ouch. Still, it all needs to get done. Especially the windows. One window on the north side of the house is literally rotting away and won’t survive a winter and the exterior door is nearly as bad. So once that’s done we’ll be ready for cold weather. And we got a taste of that already as you can see from the frost covered grass below.

It got cold. The remote sensor for the thermometer is out on the front porch which is pretty sheltered, and that said it got down to 32 F so that means out in the yard and gardens it got well below 30. The grass out in the yard was white with frost before the sun came up and the roof was covered with frost, so it was pretty cold out there for a fairly extended period of time overnight.

This is the time of year when we’d normally have so many pears we didn’t know what to do with them, so it seems odd not having the tree any more. While I do miss having fresh pears, I don’t miss having the tree, to be honest. It collapsing and having to be removed wasn’t really a bad thing. If it were still there the whole area would be covered with a thick carpet of fallen pears, and those would be covered with bees, wasps and, well, it could get nasty out there. MrsGF and I would no sooner pick up 5 gallon buckets full of the things, and the tree would drop a few hundred more.

We’re already talking about what we’re going to do with that area. Now that it isn’t shaded out by the tree we can grow just about anything out there and we don’t have to worry about finding plants that can handle shade. We’re thinking about putting a raised bed out there or expanding the existing garden that was being shaded out by the tree that we had in flowers.

The frost brought an end to the tomatoes, of course. But that’s not a big loss because they were already well on the way to winding up anyway. The peppers are still doing fine, though. They aren’t as fragile as tomatoes are and are in a sheltered area that didn’t get hit with the frost.

The raised beds did very, very well again this year. Building those was the best thing we’ve done in the garden over the years. We cut back on the number of tomato plants drastically this year and still had more than we really needed. We planted onions around the outside edges of the raised bed and that worked out beautifully as well. The onions did really well. We didn’t have to buy a single onion all season. Just walk out to the garden and grab one. I am really going to miss that. I’m going to miss the flavor even more. Like just about everything else we grow the flavors are much more intense than the produce we get from the store.

We took a break and drove all the way to the lakeshore between Manitowoc and Two Rivers to have a picnic. Cold down there along the lakeshore, but wow, it was a beautiful day. Had a very pleasant afternoon down there. With Wisconsin’s infection rate now totally out of control and the county we live in having one of the highest infection rates in the state, opportunities to do anything are a bit restricted so just getting out and about was nice.

I haven’t talked about the virus and how it is effecting our lives because, well, you get enough of that everywhere else, don’t you? Still it’s very frustrating. This was supposed to be more or less under control by this time. Instead the number of new infections is hitting new records almost every day here in the state. It’s completely out of control here. ICUs around here are at full capacity and they’re trying to find beds in other hospitals in the state and, well, it’s scary. MrsGF and I are both in one or more high risk groups so… Well, you know. To top it off I pretty much have virus like symptoms all the time. I have upper respiratory allergies so I always have congestion, watery eyes, stuffed up sinuses, a slight cough, etc. Basically I have almost all of the early symptoms of the virus all the time except the fever. Sigh…

But enough of that. How about a rose instead?

Yes, we still have flowers despite the frost. Some of the flowers are pretty resistant to cold weather and are still doing fine, and we have a potted rose up on the front deck that’s still in full flower.

Let’s see, what else…

I’m going to take a stab at resin casting, which ought to be interesting. I’ve gotten reasonably good at wood turning and am now looking for a way to expand on that a bit by doing stuff like, well, this-

I doubt I’ll ever get as good as this guy, but what the heck, why not give it a try and see what happens? I’m rather impatient to give this a try. I have just about everything I need except for the resin and that should be here this week. I hope. More about that when it actually happens. A lot of the videos you see make it resin casting look easy. It isn’t. I expect my share of utter disasters as I get started with this.

And once again the importance of proper safety gear was proven to me rather dramatically when this happened:

Ouch, that could have been nasty. I was turning a bit of white oak when the tool got caught, hard, on an imperfection in the wood. Not only did the force snap the tool in half, it hit so hard it actually bent the tool rest on the lathe and I have to get a new tool rest. The metal part of the tool snapped clean out of the handle, splitting the handle in half, and flew up and hit me square in the face. If I hadn’t had the face shield on, well, it would have been nasty as I said.

MrsGF and some family members have once again been suggesting I try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out. And I suppose that some of it is good enough that it might be marketable. But there are so many issues with trying to sell stuff and, well, is it worth the effort? I used to run my own business so I know a bit about all of the permits, red tape and tax issues that go along with operating a business legally. Emphasis on that word, legally. A lot of people try to slip under the radar, thinking that they’re too small and insignificant for the government to bother going after them if they try to ignore all of that. But do you really want to take that risk? Heck, even zoning can be a problem. You may be turning out some really neat stuff down there in your work room in the basement or that spare bedroom, and no one is going to bother you because it’s a hobby. But if you start selling it, well, now you are a business, a manufacturer, and a lot of communities have very strict zoning ordinances concerning manufacturing. Zoning boards are often very unforgiving. They don’t give a fig if all you’re making a few pens and selling ’em on Etsy. You’re making and selling stuff commercially so you are a manufacturer. Period. Things can be even more strict if you’re in a home owners association.

And then there’s pricing your stuff. I did a scrounge around Etsy the other day looking at the various vendors selling bowls and, well, either they’re losing their shirts on every sale or something funny is going on. I found one person selling 6 inch wide, two inch deep “hand crafted solid black walnut” bowls for $20. Seriously? You add up the cost of the wood, sand paper, the finishing materials, add in a bit to cover the cost of the tools, the lathe, etc., and you’re already losing money at that price. And that isn’t even beginning to add in the cost of Etsy’s fees, bookkeeping, filing taxes, or the maker’s time to produce the bowl. So yeah, either the maker is losing his shirt on every sale, or there’s something unethical going on. I did some quick estimates and I’d figure that just to break even I’d have to sell a bowl like that for about $35, and that would be essentially doing all the labor for free. And he’s running them out for $20?

So the thing is, even if I’m only turning out a bowl a week or so, it’s just not worth the hassle to try to go commercial and sell this stuff.

That’s all for now. I’m working on the next part in the tool series. That’s going to be covering the big stuff like table saws, jointers, planers and other big ticket items. I’m having to do some serious research because I’m not really up on what’s going on in the market right now. I’ve owned all of my big power tools for at least 10 – 15 years. One of the good things about big ticket items like this is that while they’re expensive, generally speaking they’ll last you a lifetime, so you only need to buy them once. Hopefully.

Sidenote: I rarely look at the viewer statistics but I did notice an interesting thing the other day. It seems a lot of my readers are from India. On a lot of days the number of visitors from India outnumber even those from the US. India is one of the most amazing places on the planet, so I’m delighted by that. I don’t understand how they found this goofy blog, but I’m thrilled they come and read this.

Tools Part II: Hand Tools For Cutting and Keeping Them Sharp

Making just about anything out of wood means that you are going to need to cut the wood into the correct size and shape for it to be useful. For centuries the only tools carpenters had for cutting and shaping wood were hand saws, wood chisels, and hand planes. And those three hand tools are still essential today. While I use power tools whenever I possibly can (I may be crazy but I’m not stupid) I still use good old fashioned hand versions of those tools all the time.

I’m going to keep this as simple and cheap. You can spend thousands of dollars on hand tools, a lot of them speciality items that you’re probably never going to use or will use only rarely. What you really only need is one saw, three different size chisels, and one or maybe two hand planes. All of the ones I’m going to recommend are reasonably cheap, except for the one hand plane, and you can probably get along nicely without the expensive one. Yes, I have a lot of speciality tools, and I have some tools that are pretty damned pricey, but when it comes down to it the ones I use most often and couldn’t live without are these few.

Saws

Note how the teeth are bent out from the blade. This creates the kerf. Both the bend angle and the grind angle determine if the saw is a rip saw or a cross cut saw.

Saws are a basic tool that have been around since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. They have evolved a lot over the years but it is basically a metal blade with a series of teeth cut into the edge. The teeth are set at a specific angle and ground in a specific way so they not only cut wood, but also drag the cut wood out of the kerf (the slot left by a saw as it cuts through wood). Without the teeth being set and ground properly, the saw would become jammed in the kerf. The set of the teeth (how far out from the blade of the saw they extend) determines how wide the kerf will be. How the teeth are set and ground also determines if the saw is for ripping or cross cutting. A rip saw is designed to cut with the direction of the grain, while a crosscut saw cuts across the grain. Don’t worry about that, though. You don’t need to have two types of hand saws. I certainly don’t. If I have to rip a board lengthwise I’m going to use my table saw or a circular saw with a guide, not a hand saw. Trying to rip a board down the middle with a hand saw is not something most people want to do. But I will grab a hand saw to whack off five inches of a 2X4 that’s too long rather than go trying to find where I left my circular saw.

So you’re ready to get a handsaw, you run down to the local hardware store, and you grab one of these over there in the photo on the right because, well, it’s a saw, right? A good old fashioned more or less generic Stanley saw. And it will work. Not very well, but it will work. But all things considered, a saw like this will probably work reasonably well for you.

But there is a problem with that saw. The same problem shared by all western style saws. As I said, they don’t work very well.

The problem with western style saws is that they cut on the push stroke. Think about that for a minute. You’re wielding a tool made of a thin, floppy piece of metal, and trying to push it through a piece of wood. What happens? If the saw binds in the kerf or if you move the handle of the saw just a tiny bit left or right while pushing, the saw binds up, comes to an abrupt stop, and the metal blade bends. If you’re lucky that’s all that happens and when you pull back the blade will straighten. If you’re not lucky, you now have a permanently bent saw. This is not a good thing.

Then I discovered Japanese style saws a few years ago and the only thing I use my western style saws for these days is hanging on the wall and serving as a home for spiders. The Japanese saws are simple, elegant, razor sharp, cut on the pull stroke, and generally are so much easier and nicer to use that I haven’t touched one of my western style saws since.

My favorite is from a Japanese maker called Suizan. This one is has a blade a bit less than 10 inches long, has coarse teeth on one side and fine on the other, is razor sharp. It is my all around utility saw here in the shop and the one I use almost all the time. It is a joy to use. It’s not that expensive, either, about $39, and the blade alone can be bought for about $20. Can you get them resharpened when they start to dull? You probably could, but at only $20 for a replacement blade I suspect that having one resharpened would cost more than buying a replacement. Just chuck the old one in recycling and bolt on a new one.

Speciality Saws

Dovetail saw. The only thing I’ll say about it is that you don’t need one, and if you do need one, don’t buy this one because it’s a piece of junk.

I’m going to mention these saws even though you most likely aren’t going to need any of them. At least not unless you’re a really, really high end carpenter turning out very detailed, complex projects. If you’ve done any research at all about woodworking you already know that there are a lot of speciality saws out there like tenon saws, dovetail saws, “gentleman’s” saws, back saws and I don’t know what all else. What about those? Just pretend they don’t exist. Seriously. Oh, they have their place. If, that is, you’re working someplace like Colonial Williamsburg where you have to abandon modern technology and are trying to recreate the past. In the real world, the one you and I live in, no, you don’t need ’em. Do you know when I last cut a dovetail by hand? Maybe twenty years ago just to see if I could do it. If I have to cut dovetails for a joint I use a jig and a router. And as for the other speciality saws? Don’t need ’em. Look, I build full sized wardrobes, cabinets, boxes, chests, make my own hardwood panels for tables, build bookcases, tables, arts and crafts furniture, have made hundreds of mortise and tenon joint and all that fun stuff, and I have never needed one of those speciality hand saws.

Chisels

So, why do you need chisels? See that chair over there on the left? That’s one of mine. There isn’t a single screw or nail in that chair. It’s put together entirely with mortise and tenon joints. A lot of mortise and tenon joints. And while most of them were cut with power tools, the final fitting of the joints was done using wood chisels. Whenever you’re trying to fit bits of wood together you’ll find situations where you need to trim just wee bit off to get something to fit, and often the best tool to use for that is one of these:

Now the set with the wooden handles I have is darn near 20 years old at this point, and back then I paid about $120 or so for those, a pretty hefty chunk of money back then. These are Woodcraft brand and I just looked and they don’t seem to carry these any more. A comparable set I did find over there though was going for… Wait, seriously??? $230??? For a set of six chisels? Well, I suppose with inflation and all that, that’s something I should have expected.

What I’m about to tell you would probably give some woodworkers a stroke, but forget about fancy matched sets, things like “Sheffield steel” and “hand forged” and all that guff. You don’t need a fancy boxed set of over priced chisels. You don’t need six, you could probably get away with two, a one inch and a half inch, and maybe a one-quarter inch. For most people those three are all you’ll probably ever need. Of all the chisels I have, the 1 inch and the 1/2 inch are the ones I use about 95% of the time.

And here’s another thing. One of those chisels up there is not like the others. Way off on the left is that nasty looking one with the black handle. Guess what? The reason it looks nasty is because that one lives on the workbench and gets used for everything. It’s a Stanley brand, looks nasty, has a cheap, dented and stained plastic handle, and I paid a whopping $1 for it at a garage sale. Yeah, a buck. And guess what? It works just as good as the high end Sheffield steel ones to its right. Oh, it doesn’t feel quite as good in my hand, it looks awful, but it holds an edge almost as well as the expensive ones. And because it was so cheap I’m not afraid to whack it with hammers, use it to open paint cans, scrape glue or whatever.

So don’t get all goofy about chisels the way some people do. Just go get yourself two or three cheap Stanley’s off the wall at the local hardware store.

The woodworking “elite” will have a fit about this, but when it comes down to it a chisel is, well, a chisel. What matters isn’t the brand, what the handle is made of or any of that. What matters is if it can be sharpened easily and can hold an edge while being used. Period.

But I’ll be honest, I still love those Woodcraft ones and I think they are much, much better. But whether that is because they really are better, or I just think they are, well, I’m not really sure.

Sidenote: I talk about the Stanley brand hand tools quite a bit in this because it is a brand just about anyone who has ever been in a hardware store will recognize, not because I have stock in the company or something like that. I know a lot of people badmouth Stanley hand tools and I’m not sure why. They’re cheap, usually of decent quality, and generally better than the more generic brands that seem to pop up and then vanish almost overnight every few months.

Planes

The other cutting hand tool I want to talk about is the handplane.

Planes get complicated real fast because there are dozens of different types of special purpose planes out there. But you really don’t need to worry about any them. While there are some really neat speciality planes, generally when it comes to those speciality needs you’re going to resort to using power tools like a router, shaper, jointer or planer. But the two most basic types of hand planes can be very useful.

A hand plane is, well, basically it’s a wood chisel held in a special frame. The frame holds the plane iron (the cutting bit) it at a specific height and angle so it doesn’t cut too deep and helps to direct shavings up away from the throat of the plane and out of the way of the cut. It lets you smooth off high spots on a piece of wood, trim the edges of a board, trim the edge of a door that doesn’t fit, shave off sharp corners, that kind of thing.

The one on the bottom is my favorite. That is a Stanley block plane (sheesh, there’s Stanley again). Block planes are a bit different from a standard bench plane (that’s the one with the wooden handles in that photo). The blade is set at a lower angle, with the bevel up, and it is designed to cut end grain easily and do light touch up work, take off sharp edges, and work across the grain instead of with the grain. It’s small enough to use with one hand, fairly lightweight and easy to use. This one lives full time on my workbench and it gets used a lot. I use it for cleaning up tenons, knocking off sharp edges and things like that.

They’re handy and reasonably cheap. Dear lord, don’t buy into the hype and pay a hundred bucks or more for one of the fancy ones block planes!. The Stanley works quite nicely, thank you very much, and you can get one for about $30 off Amazon. Yes, you’ll need to do some tinkering with it to get it to work really well, although out of the box is generally isn’t horrible. You’ll definitely need to sharpen the blade and perhaps flatten it. And you may need to flatten the sole of the plane. But that’s easy enough to do with some wet/dry sand paper glued to a sheet of glass. And there’s no need to get obsessive about it and get out your micrometers and all that. Close is good enough for a block plane.

If you do get a plane, I recommend you go out on the internet and look at a short 7 minute video at Fine Woodworking’s website about how to properly “tune up” a plane. (https://www.finewoodworking.com/2013/09/26/handplane-tune-up-tips) Most hand planes will need to be checked over and have some work done to them before they work really well. It isn’t that hard to do, doesn’t take long, and that video goes through the basics pretty well. If you know what you’re doing you can take even take a not very good hand plane and make it work at least reasonably well.

The other plane up there is my Wood River #4 1/2 bench plane.

So, what’s a bench plane do, and do you need one? Basically this is what you’d call a smoothing plane. It’s used to smooth the surface of wood, take down high spots, smooth rough areas and things like that. The #4 is the most common size, usually about 9″ long and with a blade that’s about 2″ wide. I find the #4 a good, all around size. But I prefer the 4 1/2 personally.

So what’s with the 1/2 bit? The 4 1/2 is longer, about 10″, the blade is a bit wider, and it is considerably heavier. I work with mostly hardwoods like white oak and ash, and since I build furniture I work with some lengthy pieces of wood. The 4 1/2 is heavier, meaning it’s easier to keep enough downforce on it to keep a cut going even in hardwood. It’s slightly wider so it covers more territory. And the way I have this one set up and tuned up I have virtually zero tearout. It is smooth and slick and cuts through hardwood like butter, peeling off shavings so thin you can almost read through them. I love this plane. I used this plane to smooth down a white ash table top that was two and a half feet wide and almost four feet long. If it can handle that, it can handle anything.

But do you need one? While they can be nice to have, probably not. Not for a newcomer to woodworking. Nor is something like this an impulse purchase because this is the most expensive hand tool in the whole bunch. The Wood River up there currently is selling for about $200. Granted the Wood River is a high quality hand plane. There are more expensive ones on the market but I did a lot of research before buying this one and the Wood River line of hand planes is just plain good across the board. (oh, wait, that was a pun, wasn’t it – plane, plain. Feel free to wince if you like.)

What about the cheap ones? You can pick up generic bench planes for not much more than that Stanley block plane. But almost all of those aren’t worth the effort it would take to recycle ’em. I have a few of those cheap models, and no matter what I do to them to try to properly tune them up, they’re so badly made with such poor tolerances and poor materials they’re pretty much hopeless.

What about used planes? Well, good luck in finding one at a decent price. Old hand planes have become collectors items, and collectors have driven the price of old planes through the roof. If you do find one chances are good it’s been used hard and will be in bad condition and won’t be good for anything except as a display piece.

In my opinion you probably won’t need a bench plane unless you start to get into building high end stuff. For most of us, all you really need is that $30 block plane.

Sharpening Stuff

Sooner rather than later you are going to need to sharpen this stuff. Chisels get dull, plane irons get dull, saws get dull, and when that happens they don’t work well and can even be dangerous. A mentor of mine once said that more people get hurt by dull tools than sharp ones, and he had a very valid point. Unfortunately nothing seems to generate more hot air, bluster and nonsense than the topic of sharpening. Entire books have been written about sharpening, there are hundreds of hours of video floating around out there, and to be frank, a lot of it is pure nonsense. Some people get ridiculously obsessive about sharpening, often to the point where I don’t see how they ever actually get any work done because they’re spending all their time trying to get the perfect edge on their tools rather than actually doing any work.

Saw Sharpening

I don’t recommend sharpening saws yourself. It requires special tools and skills and generally isn’t worth the effort. Use a sharpening service. Or better yet start using the Japanese style saws like the Suizan up there and when it goes dull just recycle the blade and buy a new one. As I said before, $20 for a replacement blade is probably going to be cheaper than trying to get it resharpened. And the blades last a long, long time.

Chisel and Plane Sharpening

This is something you can do for yourself, and you’ll have to do it because chisels and plane irons get dull pretty quickly depending on what you’re doing with them.

There is a lot of silly stuff floating around on the internet about sharpening, and most of it isn’t worth bothering to read or listen to. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a subject where people get more weird and obsessive than sharpening. This is going to irritate a lot of people, I imagine, but when you find these guys talking about getting mirror polish on the bevels, sharp enough to shave with, and all that guff, it’s just that, guff. It doesn’t matter! The goal isn’t producing a chisel or plane iron that you can shave with, it’s creating an edge sharp enough to cut wood and staying sharp during a reasonable amount of use. I’ve seen Youtube videos of guys spending twenty bloody minutes to get the perfect edge on a chisel. But guess what? The very first time they actually use that chisel the edge is already starting to dull and it doesn’t cut wood any better than my chisels do. And it takes me maybe 30 seconds to sharpen mine.

Don’t get me wrong. Sharpening your tools is incredibly important, and it’s something I have to do so often that I have a workbench setup exclusively for that purpose. And you’ll notice that there isn’t a single leather strop, expensive sharpening stone, exotic honing oils or or diamond hones or any of that other stuff sitting around there. Just two power grinders, the Rikon with the white abrasive wheels for my lathe tools, and the Work Sharp sharpening wheel I use for chisels and plane irons.

Let’s look at a really bad drawing of the parts of a chisel.

Thought I was kidding when I said it was a really bad drawing, didn’t you?

When sharpening a chisel (or a plane iron) there are three things we’re concerned with; the angel of the bevel, the cutting edge and, believe it or not, the back side of the chisel. You’d think that the only important thing when sharpening a chisel is getting that cutting edge sharp. But that’s only one third of the whole process. All three of those determine how well the chisel will cut wood. Sounds complicated but it takes me a half minute or less to do it.

Here’s a short video of me down below sharpening my $1 garage sale special Stanley chisel, and doing it in less than half a minute. How? I cheat of course. I use a machine. In this case it’s a Work Sharp sharpening system. And yes, it works just as easy and fast as it shows in the video once you get it set up. I admit it isn’t cheap. It goes for about $200 over on Amazon. But the darn thing just works. I don’t know how much time and effort this thing has saved me in the years I’ve owned it. I’ve had this one for, good grief, must be ten years or so now. It is one of the very few sharpening tools I own that actually lives up to its advertising.

Let’s see if this video thingie actually works and take a look at me actually sharpening a chisel, in this case my beat up old $1 garage sale Stanley.

dear lord that shop is a mess!

Egads, looks like it did upload the video. Okay, let’s go through this.

I blackened the backside of the chisel and the bevel to make it easier to see what actually happens. First I put the back of the chisel flat down on the sharpening wheel and hold it in place to make sure the back of the chisel is perfectly flat. Once I do that, I put it in the guide underneath and slide it up onto the underside of the wheel, which also has an abrasive on it. The guide holds it at the correct angle for the bevel. Then when it was finished sharpening I got a piece of scrap oak and sliced some end grain to see how sharp it was. Which was pretty darn sharp. It doesn’t slice through end grain like a hot knife through butter, but it’s pretty darned close to that. You couldn’t shave with that chisel, but I don’t want to shave with it, I just want it to cut wood, and it does quite nicely, thank you. And it took – what? Less than 20 seconds to sharpen it?

But, GF, you say, I don’t want to drop $200 just to sharpen a chisel. Good for you. I don’t blame you at all, and you don’t have to. You can do it by hand with a piece of glass, some wet/dry sandpaper and one of these.

As the label says, that’s a honing guide made by Veritas. It, along with the gadget to help you set the correct bevel angle, will set you back about $70, or a bit less if you shop around. When set up properly it will hold your chisel or plane iron at the proper angle. Then you get out a piece of glass, stick some wet/dry sandpaper to it, and use the guide to hold the chisel properly while you move it back and forth across the sandpaper. You start with maybe, oh, 240 grit paper, and work your way up to 1,000 grit. That should give you and edge that’s more than sharp enough for general woodworking.

It works reasonably well, and I sharpened chisels like this for a long time before I got the Work Sharp rig.

That’s it for this time. In part 3 I’ll look at tools where the prices do get pretty high pretty fast, power tools.

Tools Part I (Yes he’s bored again and you’re going to suffer for it)

Let’s talk about tools for a while. I had a few questions from people interested in (you can ask questions in the comments or email me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com) about woodworking tools, so I thought this was a good time (OMG I’m sooo bored…) to talk about what you need, what the prices are like, things you should look for, things you should avoid, etc.

(Disclaimer: I should point out that I do not get free stuff from manufacturers or vendors, I don’t accept advertising, I don’t get paid for anything I publish here. Every tool, piece of equipment or other supplies that I mention in these posts was purchased by myself, with my own money. My comments are based totally on my own experiences with any products I mention. I only comment about products I have actually used myself. )

When talking about tools things get complicated because it is such a general category that it can include everything from the tweezers you use to pull slivers out of your hand all the way up to massive power tools. To complicate things even more, there are tools you need just to keep your other tools operating properly. I’m going to try to keep this as simple as I can, though.

And I should point out that tools can get expensive real fast. But generally speaking you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money. Most of those super expensive tools are basically intended for people who have more money than brains. But I’ll get into that as I talk about more specific types of tools.

So, let’s get on with this, then.

First Of All Protect Your Ass Yourself

I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Woodworking is dangerous. But then so is, well, eating breakfast, as far as that goes. Do you have any idea how many people end up in the ER from breakfast related injuries, or even killed? So much for that “most important meal of the day” BS. (That “most important meal” nonsense was started by a cereal company, by the way.)

So the first thing I want to talk about is safety gear to keep you from ending up in the emergency room.

First of all there is eye/face protection. You’re working with sharp tools, power tools that spin at hundreds or even thousands of RPM, wood that shatters and splinters, and while an eye patch may look good on a pirate or Commander Fury, in real life it isn’t much fun.

Those safety glasses you see people wearing on This Old House and home improvement shows are better than nothing, but they’re entirely inadequate for anything except a direct frontal impact. They have minimal side shielding, fit loosely, and generally do little to protect your eyes from stuff coming in from the sides. And stuff will come in from the sides. I guarantee it. What you need is something like this:

They give protection all the way around, seal tight against the skin, are not only impact resistant but dust resistant as well. Uncomfortable to wear? Yep. But would you rather be uncomfortable for a few hours or lose an eye? Yeah, thought so. They’re also cheap. You can usually get decent quality safety goggles for well under $10.

Now I do wear those goggles up there sometimes, but they don’t protect the entire face so what I personally prefer, is this:

This is a full face shield from Honeywell Safety Products. This is generally what I wear. It can be easily worn over prescription glasses, protects the entire face, not just the eyes, and is far more comfortable to wear than the goggles are. And it’s easy to wear it over the top of most respirators, although it’s a tight fit over the top of a cartridge respirator. And it’s not real expensive. You’re going to pay under $40 for one like this. You can get better ones than this, at a higher price, of course. Some even come with air filtration systems, but those are a bit awkward to wear and damn they’re expensive.

And speaking of respirators…

Protect Your Lungs

Working with wood generates dust, a lot of dust. Just about everything you do with wood makes dust. Whether it’s sanding or sawing or wood turning, it is going to make dust. And while a lot of people seem to be under the impression wood dust is generally harmless, it isn’t.

Now I know that “the state of California has determined that (insert product of your choice here) can cause cancer” warnings have turned into pretty much a joke, but in this case they’re right. Long term exposure to wood dust does seem to be linked to an increased risk of cancer. It is also linked to asthma attacks, chronic lung impairment, life threatening allergic reactions and other nasty stuff. To make things even more interesting, some types of wood are literally toxic.

Now you can have the best dust extraction system in the world (and let’s face it, most of us don’t have any kind of dust extraction system except maybe a shop vac) but you’re still going to get ultrafine particles of wood floating in the air and ending up in your lungs unless you wear a respirator of some type.

Just about every hardware store carries (or did carry before the pandemic hit) paper masks laughingly called “respirators” or more generically, “dust masks”. Most of those are, frankly, just about worthless. They do little or nothing to remove the very fine particles of dust floating around in the air. The “gold standard” when it comes to paper type respirators is, of course, one of these:

That’s a N95 respirator, and that’s what I used to wear before they became unavailable because of the pandemic. Yes they were expensive. But no where near as expensive as having your lungs ruined. Now you can’t find them anywhere, and if you can find them for sale chances are good they’re counterfeits and/or insanely expensive. (I would really, really like to know why, some 8 months into this pandemic, protective equipment is still in such short supply that it still needs to be rationed.)

What I wear is this:

That’s a respirator from MSA with replaceable filter cartridges. It provides better protection than even an N95 mask, and, believe it or not, these masks and cartridges are still generally available. And they aren’t that expensive, either. A quick peek at Amazon tells me the masks, without cartridges, are going for about $15. The cartridge filters are not cheap but not as bad as you might think. Depending on the type of cartridge they’re going for under $20 or so for a pair. And the cartridges last for much, much longer than the typical N95 paper mask does.

Is it comfortable to wear? Not really, but at the same time it isn’t horrible to wear, either. And you do get used to it and hardly even know you’re wearing it after a while. I’m used to it and it’s nowhere near as difficult to wear as some of the safety gear I had to wear for enclosed spaces training or even when painting cars. To be honest I hardly know I have the thing on once I have it in place. (Needless to say I have no respect at all for the little cry babies who whine about ‘but it’s so hot and uncomfortable’ when they have to wear a light weight surgical mask in a store. I’d like to see what they’d think of having to wear full air gear including 100+ lb. air tanks, full face mask and a protective suit.)

Whichever respirator you wear, you have to wear it the right way. It isn’t going to do you any good at all if you don’t have a good seal against bare skin. (As one of my instructors once said, if you can smell anything, you’re already dead. He had a rather warped sense of humor.)

Speaking of surgical masks, will one of those protect your lungs? Those might be better than nothing but they aren’t very good for this kind of thing.

Ewwww! It’s Sticky!

Let’s talk about glue. A large part of woodworking is attaching one piece of wood to another. And often the best way of doing it is to glue those suckers together.

Now there are dozens of different brands of wood glue out there, and I’ve tried pretty much all of them over the last twenty or so years. To be honest, there’s really not much difference between the name brands as far as performance goes. But the one I’ve used almost exclusively for years now is Titebond. The company makes different types of glues, but my favorite is Titebond III Ultimate wood glue. The stuff just plain works if you follow the instructions on the bottle. I’ve never had a glue joint fail as long as I used reasonable care and followed the instructions. It’s easy to use, has little or no odor with no toxic fumes (unlike CA adhesives), is reasonably easy to clean up and it just works. Best of all it’s reasonably inexpensive.

Clamps are your friends.

The drawback to most wood glues, including Titebond, is that the wood needs to be clamped for an extended period of time. Hours. Generally I’ll leave it in the clamps for at least twelve hours before doing anything that would put strain on the glued joint

That means, of course, that you need clamps. Lots and lots of clamps. Someone once told me you can’t have too many clamps and for me, at least, that seems to be true. Don’t get too obsessive about clamps. Some people get a bit weird when it comes to clamps. Most of us don’t need anything fancy. For most of us a clamp is a clamp is a clamp, and as long as it’s fairly easy to adjust and doesn’t bend when it’s under pressure, it’s going to be good enough. I have everything from cheap hardware store junk all the way up to the pricey Jorgenson brand name clamps, but in the long run they all do the same thing, clamp stuff together. I do prefer the ones that have the squeeze handles for clamping instead of the screw type. Those are much easier to work with. But in the long run, they’re all still clamps.

What About CA (cyanoacrylate) Adhesives?

CA glues, or “super glue” or “instant glue” or whatever you want to call them, are the ones that bond virtually instantly (well, actually they really don’t bond instantly). And it is really tempting to try using them instead of having to clamp up joints for hours using normal wood glue, isn’t it? Just slap on some CA glue, stick the wood together, and bang, it’s done.

But CA glues have some issues as they say.

Now I’ve experimented extensively with CA glues over the last few years, especially after watching Youtube videos of guys slapping together bits and pieces of wood with one type of CA glue or another and then chucking it up on a lathe and whacking away at it with a bloody great roughing gouge while spinning it at about a gazillion RPM. To say that doing something like that would make me a wee bit nervous is an understatement. While I’ve never had a Titebond wood glue joint fail on me, I have had multiple CA glue joints fail. Enough so that I don’t trust the stuff to be able to handle any significant sheer forces. So my experience with CA adhesives in general is that while they have their place, they generally don’t work well with wood.

But that being said, I have had good luck with Starbond CA glues. I use it with wood turning projects for things like stabilizing cracks in bowl blanks, reinforcing weak wood and things like that. It works amazingly well for that. Especially the very thin consistency stuff. Saturate the bad wood or crack with the adhesive, give it a shot of accelerator to cure the glue, and away I go without having to worry about the crack causing a piece to shatter or a bit of punky wood wrecking an otherwise nice bowl blank.

There are three problems, though, that are shared by virtually all CA type adhesives.

First of all the stuff is expensive. That little 2 oz bottle of Starbond black medium up there costs almost as much as a whole quart of Titebond III. A quart of Titebond III is about $19. That 2 oz bottle of Starbond Black in the photo up there sells for $15. And you really need the accelerator as well, which will set you back another $14.50. So while Starbond works really well, it can be prohibitively expensive if you use large quantities of the stuff.

The second problem is it is still a CA based adhesive, so that means it gives off some very nasty fumes, as does the accelerator. If you’re using more than a few drops of the stuff it is recommended you do so only with very good ventilation or wearing a respirator.

The third problem is that it has virtually zero open time. Literally zero open time if used with an accelerator. What’s open time? That’s the amount of time you have before the adhesive begins to cure and you can no longer move the two pieces of wood to position them. With a glue like Titebond, you have many minutes before the glue begins to setup so you can move the pieces around to get them positioned properly before you put on the clamps. But with CA glues like Starbond, there is literally zero open time, especially if you’re using an accelerator. You apply the adhesive to one piece of wood, apply the accelerator to the other, slap them together and they are immediately bonded. You’d better make darn sure that you have those pieces positioned properly the moment you put them together, because that’s it. Once they touch, they’re bonded.

I’ve bored you long enough. Part II (if I ever get around to writing it) will look at hand tools for cutting wood; things like saws, wood chisels and lathe tools, an how to keep them sharp.

Things are pretty slow here at the moment. We’re cleaning up the gardens, the temperatures are plummeting (it’s 42F right now out there), I’m waiting for supplies and equipment so I can start experimenting with resin casting (that could either be a lot of fun or an utter disaster, but I’ll talk about that when the time comes). I’m still trying to learn morse code. I just got a new RaspberryPi 4 computer that will probably become the new computer for a digital QRP amateur radio setup using the FT-818. We’re waiting for the contractor to set up a time to get a bunch of windows and doors replaced.

Wait, that’s slow? Sheesh…

Iowa sees most dicamba damage since 1960s

One very scary thing that turned up in the news the other day was a report that virtually all non-dicamba resistant soybeans in the entire state of Iowa have been damaged by drifting dicamba based herbicides. (Source: Iowa sees most dicamba damage since 1960s | Crop | agupdate.com) The damage is the most expensive since dicamba was first introduced back in the 1960s. This isn’t just scattered spots. According to the article it seems that every single soybean field that wasn’t planted with dicamba resistant beans is showing various degrees of damage from drifting herbicide

This is exactly the kind of scenario some farmers and environmentalists feared when Monsanto first introduced its dicamba blend herbicides and dicamba resistant soybean seeds. The fear was that Monsanto would have a literal monopoly on the sale of soybean seed because if you didn’t plant their more expensive seed, you risked your crop being damaged by herbicide drift from the fields of other farmers. The company, of course, claimed this was false, that its herbicide was safe, and there was nothing to worry about. Yeah. Right…

You may recall that the EPA was forced to rescind its approval of Monsanto’s (now owned by Bayer) dicamba blend herbicide because it violated its own procedures and ignored data indicating serious problems with it. So why is the stuff still being used? Because it was ruled that farmers could continue to use any dicamba based herbicides they still had in stock, and because the EPA isn’t actually in control of what herbicides can be used on farm fields, the individual states are. And, of course, the court ruling applies only to two of the three dicamba blends being used with soybeans. So dicamba is still available and can still be used, depending on the rules of individual states. And the court ruling only applied to two of the three major types of dicamba blends on the market.

Granted, this situation is a bit extraordinary in that a “perfect storm” of conditions came into play that permitted the herbicide to vaporize and drift so badly in Iowa. But the basic problem is that despite all of the restrictions and conditions that apply to the application of these products, they are still vaporizing and drifting over long distances. It seems that there are simply no conditions under which there isn’t a significant risk of the herbicide getting out of control and damaging not just non-GM soybeans but other plants as well.

Foxconn Update. No Viruses Allowed.

Since I’m already in a bad mood, let me rant a bit about this whole Foxconn fiasco. I’ve talked about this before going back to 2018, with a couple of brief mentions being tossed into other posts. Basically the situation is that no one seems to know what the hell is Foxconn is up to, not even Foxconn. Anyway, I thought that with the factory supposedly to open in May, this would be a good time to revisit the whole thing.

If you want some background on the situation click that link up there and it will take you to the original item I wrote back then. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (hums ‘Singing in the Rain’ and a few other showtunes)

Ah, good, you’re back. Let’s see what’s going on now, shall we?

The basic answer to that question is that no one seems to know what the hell is going on down there at the Mount Pleasant site. They’re building a factory. Maybe. I think. But what that factory is going to produce is anyone’s guess. No one knows. Certainly not the town of Mount Pleasant itself which borrowed so much money to upgrade the infrastructure around the facility that the inhabitants of the town will probably be paying off that debt for generations to come. Channel 12 in Milwaukee tried to do a story about what was going on with the town a while back, only to have the president of Mount Pleasant literally hide behind a door to try to avoid having to answer reporter’s questions, and their reporter being thrown off the factory site by local security.

Not even Foxconn seems to know what the hell they’re actually building down there. A half dozen different stories about what the company is going to build there, if anything, have come from company spokespersons since this all started, and none of them have anything to do with what the company said it was going to do when they signed the original contracts.

The latest that I heard before the pandemic hit was that they were going to make…

Wait for it… You aren’t going to believe this.

Drum roll please….

Coffee machines for airports.

Seriously. They were going to make, they claimed, automated coffee kiosks for airports according to a story in Milwaukee Business News.

Now that story has changed as well and now the company claims it’s going to make – ventilators for hospitals?

Look, I don’t care how “nimble” a company may be, but… Come on, this is all BS. I’m sorry, but it is. What the hell, exactly, is going on in that building down there in Mount Pleasant? You can’t build a factory specifically to produce flat panel displays, and then suddenly, overnight, decide you’re going to make coffee machines in it. Or then turn around and claim that within just a few weeks you’re going to take your alleged coffee machine/LCD display/whatever factory and start cranking out hospital grade ventilators. Making changes like that would require retooling the entire factory, reprogramming robots, building or buying new equipment, retraining employees. You’re looking at months of lead time plus tens of millions of dollars to retool and, no, ain’t gonna happen.

Well, not that they have many employees to retrain. The 13,000 employees they were going to hire seems to only be about 550.

But let’s ignore all of that for a moment and take a look at the other buildings the company bought here in the state..

Since the company signed the deal it made a huge PR stunt out of buying buildings in Green Bay, Eau Claire, Racine, Milwaukee and Madison. The one in Milwaukee was to be it’s “Wisconsin headquarters” and the others were to be some kind of “innovation centers”. There were big press conferences and media events to publicize the purchases, with the company announcing grand plans for – for something. It was never made clear exactly what they were going to do with the buildings, but it was going to be really, really important.

And absolutely nothing has been done with any of the buildings. At least nothing related to Foxconn itself. It’s been a year or more since the company bought them and they are still sitting empty. The company’s “Milwaukee headquarters” is a seven story building, and it is completely empty except for a bank that leases the first floor. The Eau Claire building is completely empty, and has been since it was acquired. The Green Bay, Madison and Racine “innovation centers” are occupied only by the businesses that were leasing space in them before Foxconn bought them. No renovations, no remodeling, nothing. No signs of Foxconn doing anything, not even any sign of actual Foxconn employees anywhere at any of the sites.

So what the heck is Foxconn actually doing? What will it be doing in the future? No one knows. Not even Foxconn.

Misc. Stuff

How stupid are we? Pretty damned stupid, if some of the stuff I saw recently is any indication. Let me explain. I wanted to get one of my sons a stereo system as a combination Christmas and housewarming gift because he was moving into a new apartment over the holiday. I haven’t bought any audio equipment in decades so I did some research and finally decided on a fairly nice and relatively inexpensive receiver, turntable and speakers. But along the way I stumbled across something that can only be described as a world where rationality doesn’t exist. In the world of audiophiles, things like logic, physics and rationality quickly get tossed out the window, it seems.

The lowly power cord is one example. It’s a simple thing, a power cord. You take some copper wire, wrap it in insulation so it doesn’t electrocute you, put a plug on one end to plug into your wall outlet, put another plug on the other end that goes into your equipment, and there you go. The only things you need to be concerned about are the insulation being good enough to protect you, the gauge of the wire being heavy enough to carry the current, and the plugs being well made and attached well so they aren’t a safety hazard.

Unicorn pubic hair harvesting. Artist’s (Artist? Ha!) rendering. No unicorns were harmed in the production of this blog.

But apparently all these years I’ve been wrong. Apparently every single thing I’ve ever learned about physics, electricity, electronics, atoms, electrons, everything, is just wrong. Apparently if I want the best “listening experience” the worst thing I can do is use an inexpensive power cord. I need to spend hundreds of dollars (or more, some of the cables I saw were selling for up to $5,000 for a six foot long electrical cord) for “special” power cords, with “special” connectors, made with, oh, hell, I don’t know – Made with hand harvested, free range, organic, artisanal copper atoms, lovingly caressed with special quantum crystals, and then sheathed in insulation woven from the pubic hair of virgin unicorns. (Hmm, unicorn pubic hair harvesting – there’s a phrase I never thought I’d see in a blog. Or anywhere else for that matter.)

I learned other things as well. Did you know that wire is directional? Apparently electrons only want to flow in one direction along a wire. Wow. I had no idea. I also learned that I need to “burn in” cables. All of your cables need to be burned in, or broken in, a process similar to breaking in the engine of a new car. You need to use those cables for hundreds of hours before you’ll get the best listening experience. And if you don’t want to take the time to do that yourself, you can send them off to companies who will burn them in for you. For a fee. Or you can drop $1,000 – $2,500 to buy a fancy box with many connectors on it that will do it in just a few hours.

I learned that you can’t just run your $1000 per foot speaker cables along the floor. Oh, no. That would be too – too common or something. You need to buy $350 each cable clamps to hold your oh so special cables up off your oh so common and dirty floor.

I need to buy “quantum stickers” at $100 a pop. A lot of them. And stick them on every component in my amplifier and on my cables because they will – well, I’m not sure what they really do, to be honest, but they do something, as confirmed by several dozen glowing reviews from Bob and Stacy and George and others. And, well, come on, Stacy wouldn’t lie to me, now would she? Of course not.

One company sells, for about $150, what for all the world looks like a small block of wood with a logo laser etched on it, and claims that if I glue that sucker inside of my amplifier, many special “nanocrystals” embedded in the wood will do something that will align some kind of quantum field and do mysterious quantum things to the components in my stereo and make it sound better. And all just from being glued to the case! I know it’s hard to believe, but Peter down in the comments section says it made an astonishing difference to the sound.

Wow. Amazing. I need to get me one of them right away.

I could go on and on about things like $1,500 power strips, $250 outlet covers to put over the outlets in your wall that somehow “align the magnetic fields” or some nonsense. “Power conditioning” gadgets selling for thousands of dollars that are supposed to somehow filter out – something that will degrade your “listening experience”. Several places will sell you gadgets for several hundred dollars that will “demagnetize” your CDs.

And all of it is surrounded in sciencey sounding technobabble about quantum this and nano that and aligning quantum fields and… Oh dear lord I can’t stand it any more. Let’s talk about…

Picard

The internet immediately exploded into a tsunami of hype the moment CBS announced it was making a sequel to Star Trek Next Generation starring Patrick Stewart. But when, after all of the Star Trek fanboys came back from changing their trousers, it was learned that CBS would only be showing it on their new streaming service, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but never mind about that, I want to talk about the whole Star Trek thing and Picard because CBS recently made the first episode in Picard freely available on YouTube.

Now the first question that came to mind when CBS did that was, well, why release the premiere episode for free on YouTube? The series has been streaming for a while now and the whole Picard thing was, if we are to be honest, a blatant ploy by CBS to try to force people to subscribe to its streaming service. They apparently believed that there were so many ST fans out there that they would subscribe to the service in great hordes. So the only thing that I could think of is that they were doing it because Picard hasn’t been doing anywhere near as well as they thought it would and they’re trying to pump up the viewership numbers.

Despite the fact I used to be a Star Trek fan, I wasn’t all that interested in Picard. I expected it would be a cheap ST ripoff being produced solely to draw subscribers to a streaming service. I was a fan of STNG when it first came out, and since it’s available on Netflix and Amazon video, I decided to take another look at it a few months ago, hopefully with a more impartial frame of mind than I had when it originally came out and, frankly, it was – unpleasant.

Now I knew there were going to be awkward moments in STNG when I watched it again. The show is now 33 years old, for heaven’s sake. The first episode aired back in 1987. I expected it to look dated, and it did. Often badly so. But what I hadn’t expected was that it would be actually painful. Plots were full of holes big enough to fly a galaxy class starship through. The show was self contradictory, often ridiculously so. It was preachy and holier than thou, especially during the first season. The aliens were, frankly, ridiculous for the most part. And every time Wesley Crusher appeared I kept hoping Picard would strangle the little weasel with his own intestines. And how many times did someone pull a deux ex machina out of their asses to save the day by ‘rerouting the plasma stream into the auxiliary conduit’ or some similar sciencey sounding gobbledygook? I found myself hoping the Borg would win and bring it to an early end.

I started to feel that STNG was the onset of dementia for the ST universe, Voyageur took it into the nursing home, the movies shifted it into hospice care, and finally the abomination that is J.J. Abrams drove a stake through it and turned it into just another SF shoot-em-up.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like SF shoot-em-ups. The new ST movies are fun. As long as you forget about the whole Star Trek universe that existed before Abrams came along and take them at face value.

Wait, I was supposed to be talking about Picard, wasn’t I? Sorry, I get easily distracted. Let’s get on with this.

There Will Be Spoilers. You Have Been Warned

Do I really need to say that? I suppose I do lest some poor lost soul who hasn’t seen Picard or hasn’t seen the hype and nonsense on the internet comes along.

First, this is a Big Budget production. Capital “B”. The cinematography, set design, CGI, everything about it is pretty much top of the line. It is beautifully filmed and edited by some of the best craftspeople, editors and videographers out there.

Unfortunately, the sound absolutely sucks. At least on the YouTube video. Seriously sucks. Volume levels go from hardly audible when normal conversations take place, to ear splittingly loud when something important happens. I had to keep one hand on the volume control through the whole thing.

But on with the story…

Picard is an elderly, angry, depressed, disenchanted man, living on the family vineyard, suffering from dreams/hallucinations and, after the first scene at least, I started to wonder if he was suffering from dementia. He lives on the vineyard with a dog and two Romulans who seem to be his employees/friends.

Switch now to Boston for no apparent reason, where we find a young woman with her boyfriend, who apparently hasn’t heard of The Hair Club for Men and has hair made of bad plastic and the usual “he’s an alien so he has to have a weird face” syndrome. And that hair… I’m sorry, but I just can’t get that hair out of my mind because, I swear to God it looks like they glued coffee beans to the poor guy’s head.

See what I mean about the hair? Look closely. Those are coffee beans. Seriously. They glued coffee beans to the poor man’s head.

They’re sharing a romantic moment when three masked assassins teleport into her apartment, immediately kill the boyfriend, start beating her up, put a bag over her head and…

And then she turns into super-ninja, taking out three trained assassins in less than a minute.

And as she cradles the head of her murdered boyfriend, coffee beans and all, she is thinking of – of Picard?

Roll credits…

And it’s just so contrived, so overly dramatic… Stewart’s performance seems forced, uncomfortable, awkward. Now I know the fellow is like a gazillion years old, but come on, the man is still a good actor, but this performance certainly doesn’t demonstrate that ability. The only time he shows anything that looks like real emotion during the entire 47 minutes is during the brief interview with a reporter that they had to shoehorn in in an attempt to try to explain WTF happened that screwed things up so badly during the last 20 years.

And then we go through a lot of maudlin stuff where Picard visits some kind of museum where all his stuff is being kept for no apparent reason except, of course, to be all poignant and try to remind people that this is the real Star Trek, not the abomination created by Abrams I suppose.

Meanwhile the girl is sitting huddled on a street somewhere, calls her mother, who tells her to “find Picard”, and she does in a sort of computer hacking scene to make sure we know that she is “special”. And she meets him again and he tells her she’s Data’s daughter and then in a dramatic action scene straight out of a bad kung fu movie, her and Picard get attacked by more masked assassins, she kicks ass, and then one of the assassins kills her by- by spitting on her????

But she’s Data’s daughter. And Data’s offspring can only be twins because, well, because of “reasons”, so there’s another one of her, somewhere… And before we roll credits and shut the episode down, we find her twin is living quite happily with the Romulans, who apparently have moved into an old Borg cube…

What? Seriously??? Where did I put that face palm graphic…

Clutter Your Life

Well, hopefully the insomnia isn’t back, but it’s about 4:30 AM, I’ve been up since about 3:45, and while I’ll probably crash and burn by 10, I’m wide awake now. So while the snowstorm blows and blusters outside I’m down in my snug little corner in the basement with my Alexa thingie sitting there on the shelf offering to show me how to make Chia Pudding (shudder) and telling me it’s going to snow all day and I want to talk about uncluttering of all things.

That’s what we’re supposed to be doing, aren’t we? Uncluttering. Especially us old farts. Instead of sitting around doing whatever it is us old people are supposed to be doing – maybe sewing our own shrouds and waiting to die or something I guess – we should be uncluttering.

Run that term through Google and you’ll come up with about a gazillion hits. “Ten Principles to Help Anyone Clear Clutter”. “10 Ways to Unclutter your Life”. “The Joy of Less”, “Unclutter and Unburden”. The basic premise is the same – we should be getting rid of all of the stuff we accumulate because it will be, somehow, “good for us”. The premise of all of them is that we don’t need all that – that stuff. We don’t need the books and the clothes and the magazines and the knicknacks and the dishes and the souvenir mug from Wall Drug and the pictures and everything else we own, and pare it down to just what we need to merely survive…

I suppose this trend has been driven, in part at least, by the occasional news story about hoarders and television shows about the nightmares discovered in the homes of hoarders. And the usual suspects have climbed on the band wagon to screech at you that if you have a single souvenir mug or refrigerator magnet or have a book you haven’t read in years, well, OMG you’re a hoarder and you’re sick and you need an “intervention” or something.

And if that doesn’t scare you into decluttering, they try to guilt you into it. “Just think of your family!” they whine. “They shouldn’t have to go through the pain of having to clear out all the stuff in your home after you’re dead! Think of the pain that will cause them!”

I normally don’t use language like this, but, well, fuck that. It’s BS. All of it. It’s like “mindfulness” or any of the other trends that seem like a good idea on the surface and have been quickly taken over by loonies and scammers and others out to make a quick buck. (Did you know there are books and classes out there to teach your dog “mindfulness”?)

Take a look at some of the “clutter” in my house.

There’s a battered, stained, beaten up looking Tom Swift Jr. book, part of a series of SF books written for kids back in the 1950s. It looks like it should have been tossed or recycled long ago. But that book is part of my life, my history, my memories. My mother would occasionally talk my father into abandoning the never ending chores associated with the farm long enough to go up to Green Bay, a major excursion for us back then. We’d stop at a department store that had a large book section, including a lot of kids’ books like Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Tom Swift books. I remember the trips, the store, stopping at Krolls afterwards for a hamburger… Interestingly, Krolls is still around and it’s right next door to the clinic MrsGF goes to for her knees and, amazingly enough, the hamburgers taste just as good now as they did 50 years ago or more

Hanging on a nail out in the garage is an old, battered cane made from white oak. It was my father’s, and his father’s before him. It was never used as a cane, it was used for sorting cattle. Every time I pick it up I remember walking into that barn, hearing the cows gently mooing at me in the hopes it was time to be fed, remember the smells, the warmth of the barn on a -30 degree winter day…

Back on my dresser is a statue of a dog, a collie. It isn’t anything special, probably didn’t cost very much. I should toss that too, according to the unclutter people. But my favorite uncle gave me that for Christmas when I was, oh, ten, eleven years old. He was a nice fellow. Gentle, kind, smart, successful. Every time I see it sitting there I think of him and my aunt, remember his voice, remember the times we visited.

No, I’m not going to “declutter”.

And I’m glad my mother and father didn’t before they passed on. Going through their things was a journey back in time, back through my childhood and even before I was born. My father apparently kept every receipt, every bill, every bit of paperwork concerning the farm that he ever got. Sorting through his papers after he died was an excursion into time, a trip into the past, a reminder of what life had been like going back almost to the time he bought the farm from his father.

We sorted through the toys of our childhood, even old homework that our mother had kept, old Christmas cards, ancient photos going back more than a hundred years. Going through all of that brought back a flood of memories that were full of joy and pain and sadness and surprise… It was difficult sometimes, yes, but it was an experience I also will always cherish as well.

We are human beings. Our brains work in funny ways sometimes. A smell, a sight, an object, can trigger memories so vivid that it is almost like we’re experiencing those events all over again. Objects, even silly, otherwise worthless things, become important to us, are even cherished by us, because they trigger those memories within us.

So if you tell me I need to “declutter”, I’m going to tell you to do something anatomically impossible to yourself because you’re telling me to erase my life, erase my memories, erase my past.

Borden Dairy Files Bankruptcy

Borden Dairy Company filed for bankruptcy. Borden said it had debts of $500 million and assets of only $100 million. It employs over 3,000 people. This doesn’t mean the company will completely go out of business, and the statement said the company will continue operations as it works out a way to get its finances straightened out.

Interestingly, Borden was listed as one of Forbes 2019 “Most Reputable Companies” back in May, where it was listed as number 16. Obviously Forbes didn’t look at the company’s actual finances when making up that list.

When companies like Borden and Dean Foods goes under, the pundits and the companies themselves are quick to point the finger of blame at anything and everything. The articles I’ve read about the Borden’s bankruptcy and the earlier Dean Food bankruptcy blame the decline in the consumption of milk, the increasing popularity of plant based “milk”, changes in diet, dietary fads, major retailers like Walmart building their own milk processing facilities, etc. They blame it on everything except the real reason, the company itself. Or, rather the management of the company. The company itself was unable to adapt to changing market conditions, and that is what drove them into financial failure.

Yes, consumption of liquid (drinking) milk has been declining. But this is a trend that has been going on for decades. They can’t claim that they were blindsided by this. Walmart made no secret of the fact that it wanted to build its own milk processing facilities. That was known for years before they actually did it. The growing interest in vegetarian and vegan diets that reduce or even eliminate the consumption of dairy products isn’t new either. This is a trend that has also been going on for years now. The same is true for the increased interest in grain and nut based “milk” products.

That Bordens and Dean couldn’t make it is due entirely to the failure of their own management teams being unable to adapt to changing markets.

I’m sitting here in eastern Wisconsin, just 20 miles or so south of Green Bay, and I’m surrounded by dairy companies that are doing pretty darn good. Over the last few years I’ve seen at least a half dozen major expansions by large processing companies, mostly cheese makers, including some multinational corporations. And they’re all doing pretty well. Why? Because they’ve been able to adapt to a changing market.

Dean and Borden failed because they didn’t adapt to an ever changing marketplace.

Catching Up

It’s been a while since I talked about what has been going on in the ag industry. And I’ve probably been babbling far too much about radio and other non-farming/gardening stuff lately anyway, so let’s take a look at the ag sector. And I’ll slip some radio stuff in at the end that you can ignore if you want.

USMCA (NAFTA 2.0) Passes the House

As I mentioned in a previous post the trade deal to replace NAFTA is finally done and being considered by Congress.. The House has passed one version of it now, with some minor changes, but it has yet to be dealt with by the Senate. It’s not likely it will get passed this year yet (it’s already Dec 21 as I write this) and considering what is going on in D.C., it’s anyone’s guess as to when the Senate will be taking it up. Despite all of the hype coming out of Washington, right now the agreement looks like it is going to be at least as bad as the original NAFTA was. There are some improvements in the protection of workers in Mexico and environmental protections, but other than that, it doesn’t really make many changes. It’s basically NAFTA 1 with a bandaid on it. The claims that it will create jobs for tens of thousands of people and boost the US economy are completely unrealistic. This is another of those deals where the only people who benefit from it are the big corporations and a handful of special interests, but that’s par for the course with agreements like these. The original NAFTA wiped out tens of thousands of jobs, drove a lot of US manufacturing into Mexico, and disrupted the Mexican economy, especially in rural areas. This one probably won’t be as disruptive, but it isn’t going to help much. You can go look up the analysis of the treaty yourself, but right now it looks like it is going to have little or no positive effects on the US economy, and might even be worse for us than the original treaty was.

Trade War Update

It looks like things might finally be calming down a bit with China on the trade front. The administration has been claiming agreements have been made and that China is going to start buying massive amounts of soybeans and other agricultural products from the US. And, well, no, they aren’t. At least not the quantities that they’re claiming in D.C. Some of the numbers I’ve been seeing are simply ridiculous. Things are getting better, yes, but don’t look to China to start importing massive quantities of anything from us. There might be some buys, yes, but I suspect most of those are going to be little more than token purchases with few exceptions.

China lost half of it’s entire pig production because of African Swine Fever. It seems to have finally gotten the outbreak under control, but it’s going to be years before things are close to normal. Most of the soybeans China had been buying from the US was going to pig feed. So it’s unlikely it will be making massive soybean buys to feed a pig herd that doesn’t exist any more.

One thing that has improved hugely for US agriculture is China increasing the amount of pork and chicken. Because of ASF China’s lost half of its pig production, which has caused food prices to increase and there is a shortage of protein. So China has increased its buys of US pork and it recently granted permits and licensing to Tyson to sell US chicken in China. While this will certainly help the pork and chicken producers in the US, this is going to be a temporary bump that will only last until China can rebuild it’s pig herds.

African Swine Fever

ASF continues to be a major problem not only in China, which lost over half of its pigs, but also throughout South East Asia. Serious outbreaks are going on in Vietnam and the Philippines. In Sumatra it’s killed about 33,000 pigs. It’s also been found in North and South Korea, Mongolia, Cambodia, and Myanmar, as well in eastern Europe and parts of Africa. Some people feel it’s only a matter of time before it hits Australia despite it’s extremely strict regulations. For some reason people keep trying to smuggle pork from the ASF contaminated countries into other places. Smuggling is an ongoing problem in the US. We confiscate tons of sausages and other pork products from these countries that airline passengers try to smuggle through in their luggage, and even whole shiploads of pork from them. Australia confiscated 32 tons of pork products just from passengers and mailed packages alone in the last half year, half of which was contaminated with the virus. The virus itself hasn’t been seen in the U.S. yet, but it is in the wild pigs in Europe which is making everyone over there more than a little nervous. The US has a pretty good wild pig population, and while they aren’t a big issue (yet) here in Wisconsin, the DNR has issued an advisory to hunters with just about any kind of hunting license to shoot wild pigs, no “season”, no bag limit, just shoot ’em. They’re a huge problem in a lot of states, causing massive amounts of damage. Plus they carry a lot of diseases. If ASF ever gets into the wild pig herd here we’re going to be in trouble.

It was a Rough Year in the Midwest


That’s not one of my photos over there. MrsGF’s surgeries and other things kept me from getting out with the camera, but that is pretty much how it looked around here this year, especially at harvest time. Water everywhere. We officially had the wettest year ever. According to one report I read the longest dry spell we had without rain was three days. That sounded a bit odd to me so I started digging through some of the weather data and it isn’t far from the truth.

By anyone’s standards, it wasn’t a very good year for midwest farmers. Almost non-stop rain made it difficult to get anything done. There were delays in planting, delays in harvest, reduction in yields, all because of the wet weather. Around here there are still a lot of soybean and corn fields that haven’t been harvested at all because of the rain.

Corn prices never broke $4, although soybean prices weren’t horrible. But on top of relatively low corn prices, we had propane shortages which made getting the corn dried difficult and expensive.

The only bright spot was that milk prices finally came up to a fairly decent level for the first time in years. Class III milk is currently sitting at over $19 on the commodities market, but it doesn’t look like it will stay there much longer. January and February prices are down to $17 on the futures market.

Housing Issues

As if farmers didn’t have enough to worry about, finding employees continues to be a major problem both here in Wisconsin and in the ag business throughout the country. And as if that isn’t bad enough, an increasingly serious problem is where the heck are your employees going to live even if you do find some? This is a problem for almost every employer around here, not just farmers. Chances are good that employees aren’t going to be able to afford to live anywhere reasonably close to where they actually work. There is virtually zero housing in this town that would be affordable for the average low income worker. And it’s not going to be getting better any time soon. The town is putting in a new subdivision, and is quite proud of itself for doing so, but it isn’t going to actually help the average factory or farm worker around here because all of those new houses are going to be in the $180K to $250K range. What we really need are apartments that rent for about, oh, $500 – $600 a month, not houses that will have $1,500 to $2,000 a month mortgage payments.

What’s happening here is that we have a larger and larger population of people who live here, but don’t actually, well, live here, if that makes any sense. Yes, their houses are here, but their entire lives are up in the Fox Valley area about 20 miles away (the cluster of cities and towns up in the corridor that runs from Appleton, Neenah, Menash, and extends up to Green Bay). They can’t afford a house up in the Fox Valley any more, but they can afford one here. So while this may be their residence, their entire lives are centered around the Fox Valley. They buy groceries there, go to restaurants up there, meet their friends up there, do all their shopping up there. So they may live here, but they don’t actually live here. They don’t patronize local businesses, don’t send their kids to school here, don’t participate in local social events, and aren’t really part of the community.

So not only do we not have housing that is affordable by the average person bolting together snowblowers for $14 an hour, we have an increasing percentage of the population of the town who aren’t really engaged with the community at all. Their residences are here, yes, but they live their lives up in the Valley. They almost totally disengaged from the community they live in. And as a result we no longer have a clinic, no longer have a real grocery store, no longer have a pharmacy… Well, you get the idea.

It’s especially difficult for the immigrant community who make up the majority of labor in low paying jobs like farming, manufacturing (they like to talk about how well manufacturing pays – yeah, right. Starting wages at the snowblower place are about $12.95 an hour with no benefits and technically they don’t even work for the company, but for a “temp” agency.) They’re glad to get the jobs and the employers are glad to have them because they can’t find anyone else to do the work. But where are they going to live?

The Move

I’ve been talking for a while about moving all my electronics gear, the radio equipment, etc. down into a new shop/radio shack in the basement so MrsGF can take over our shared office so she’ll have room for her own projects. She enjoys sewing, making things, and would like to do quilting, but her existing workspace is a tiny, virtually unheated room upstairs, and there isn’t the room for it up there. Plus its cold in the winter up there. And even with her new knees I don’t want her to have to go up and down stairs a lot. So she’s going to be taking over the office area and I’m moving into the basement.

Now that she’s pretty much recovered from the 2nd knee replacement, I’ve started moving the “big stuff” down there. I have my primary computer down there now (I actually have space for the drawing tablet now!), the big TS-990, the antenna tuner, etc. Much to my surprise, I actually remembered how all of the cables hooked up and when I fired it all up everything actually worked! First time that’s ever happened.

I still need to do a lot of work down there. I have walls that still need to be painted. I still don’t have the electrical straightened out. I need to add at least two outlet boxes on the wall by the computer and radios, plus I need a 240V outlet there for the amplifier. Not sure why because I haven’t used the amp in years, but would be nice if I could.

I didn’t show it in the photos because it’s a huge mess at the moment, but behind me and to the left of that photo is my work bench which is covered with misc. parts, test equipment, tools, bits and pieces of RaspberryPi computers and accessories and breadboards where I’m testing radio circuits intended for the receiver I’m building. And that leads us to…

Update On The Great Radio Fiasco Project

Nice soldering technique she’s got there… (This image is somewhat infamous. Can you see why?)

I bet you thought I conveniently ‘forgot’ about that project because I am the seventh laziest person in the state (hey, I’ve gotten better, I used to be third). I haven’t, though. I’m still puttering along with this thing, even though I haven’t even fired up a soldering iron yet. Mostly I’ve been doing research. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Considering that radio has been around for like a gazillion years, someone, somewhere, must have already published plans for a radio receiver that I could steal (cough cough) borrow, right?

I had some basic criteria in mind when I started this. First it had to be as simple as possible, something that just about anyone who, unlike the young woman in the photo up there, knows how to use a soldering iron without suffering third degree burns can put together. Second, it had to use easily available parts, stuff the average person could get from Amazon or one of the parts suppliers like Mouser. Third, it had to be cheap. I want to encourage people to experiment and build stuff, not blow the family’s entire grocery budget for the month on exotic electronics parts. Fourth, it was going to use “old school”, so to speak, construction techniques and components. No printed circuit boards, no ICs, no SDRs, no surface mount devices, etc.

And fifth and possibly most important, it had to be a genuinely useful radio receiver that people could actually use. There are dozens, even hundreds of plans out there of various types for things like crystal radios and one transistor receivers and other nonsense that… Well, okay, so they might work, under absolutely ideal conditions, with a great deal of fiddling around, and if you live right next door to a 100,000 watt transmitter. But in the real world none of those actually work very well, if at all.

Anyway, I’m looking at various ideas and sketching some things out and doing some experimenting, and hopefully in a short (short? Ha!) time I’ll have something to show for all of this. Hopefully something that actually works. What’s been discouraging is that the schematics and projects I’ve found often contain such basic, fundamental mistakes that it makes me believe that the author never actually built the project himself and just, well, stole it, to be blunt, from someone else who also hadn’t actually built it either. I’ve been seeing things like electrolytic capacitors installed backwards, emitter and collector pins on transistors reversed, wrong pinouts shown on ICs like opamps and similar basic errors that should have been caught if anyone had bothered to actually look at the schematics.

And that’s it for now.