Port Townsend School of Woodworking
Preserving the Tradition


Sitting Down to Write and Finding a Vise


Writing, like contemplating dovetails, is an interesting conundrum.  

Don’t hit the “next” button yet, I have a point to make.  Writing requires that one selects a subject and understands how to stay on the mark.  Absent concentration, I can fill your email with forwarded responses to my ramblings that suggest my fingers and keyboard have caused mental disequilibrium.  On the flip side, there are people who wonder why I don’t give up sawdust and turn to journalism for a living.  Tough question. Both are equally rewarding, but I like being able to heft a finished product at the end of a day.  Digits on a laptop just don’t offer the same tangible reward. Perhaps the reason many of us continue to hide out in lumber yards and hardware stores in our spare time.

All of which brings me back to the great “Northwet.”  As a fair number of you know, when the rain comes in and wind blows—it hit 60 mph a couple weeks ago—there are really only two good places to hide.  The shop, or out helping those in distress.  I admit to spending a lot of time in the latter.  Our breeze blew all roofing off the boat/tiny house shelter at the Community Boat Project.  So at 8:30 in the morning, a phone call went out to a collected lot of erstwhile mariners and carpenters.  Took us four hours, but the shelter is intact and students are back working a collection of projects.  Remarkable what can be accomplished with a few hand tools and lot of experience.  (I am not admitting to being old…just saying…)

As for the shop, having finished my new collection of clamps and now fully committed to the office desk, I began contemplating a means of creating slide-in drawers.  Which led back to my dreaded adversary, the dovetail joint.  Someday I will sit down with this team at the Port Townsend School of Woodworking and learn how to cut a dovetail joint without generating emotional angst, but for the moment I sketch layout points for a Japanese saw on my own volition.  What fails to meet specifications makes great firewood.


So there it is blowing great gusto and roof is back on at the Community Boat Project. Ipso facto, I am out of excuses for not going after the dovetail joint problem.  Here’s where being a wooden boatbuilding student gets you in trouble.  In the world of wooden boat crafting a first rule is always cut outside the line.  Be it with a band, Japanese, or table saw, keep the line.  Hard to do with a router, but again, keep the line. A simple reason for this gospel.  It’s a lot harder to add wood back to a plank than shave it off with a plane or sandpaper.  Keep the line.  (Hint, hint…if you are working with a dark hardwood, this rule allows employment of a Sharpie—just remember how thick the tip is on your marking tool…all that ink needs to go before there is a quality finished product.)

Fifty minutes later, there we be.  A set of joints that allow me to assemble a pencil box. All by cutting down the middle of a line and employing a sharp chisel. Set up dado blade on table saw and an inset bottom is ready for gluing and clamps.  But now I am left mulling...what made this task so daunting was lack of an appropriate leg or bench vise.  Time to get back to shopping on-line for more shop toys.   Just when you think everything is perfect in a shop, a new challenge arrives.  This was just such a moment. All of which makes Amazon Prime a great resource.  Now I just have to figure out how installation will render appropriate leverage and sighting to produce sharp angles and tight joints.   

A long way of saying, sometimes it takes a windstorm and time atop another person’s roof to realize your shop is quietly missing an essential bit of equipment.  In this case, it was not a power tool or sharper saw, it was that most quintessential item found in every handyman’s tool kit, a good bench vise.  Just as modern writing requires an “enter” key, a craftsperson looking to render wood into a new function needs a “stop” option—that truly functional bench vise.  Oh, and it makes dovetails “easier”…well, until Tim and his wizards make me a lot wiser.   

Eric Anderson is a retired Air Force officer who can be found puttering in his shop when not scribbling on the keyboard.  A new resident of Port Townsend, he is an avid sailor, struggling carpenter, and would-be writer.