Recently I had the honor of being featured on Tom Iovino’s blog, Tom’s Workbench. Tom and I had a great conversation and I thought I’d share some outtakes.
Q: Did you ever take shop class?
I did take a wood shop class in Junior High, but I had forgotten about it until you asked. I don’t remember one thing from that class. I never took shop class in high school because the shop teacher was also my wrestling coach and I figured that I had enough of him at wrestling practice. If you met him, you’d agree.
Q: What was your first “real” woodworking project?
I built my first “real” woodworking project when I was young, married, broke, and in college. Our bathroom was small and had no storage, so I built a little over john cabinet. My father-in-law at the time was good with tools and built all the fixtures and furniture for his wife’s retail flower shop. He let me use the tools in his garage including his old table saw. The cabinet was built of pine with two shelves, a towel bar, and a little cupboard for storage. When I graduated and moved out I sold it to the next family that moved in.
Q: What is your shop like?
My shop is in our three car garage here at the house. I share the space with my wife’s car and some household storage, so I get a section that is about 25’ x 20’. I’m lucky that there are no posts so the space is wide open with two big windows for natural light. I bought this house new and when I moved in I had the walls insulated & painted, the floors epoxied, lots of lighting and outlets installed, and a little gas stove installed for heat. I take most of my time off from my real job in the winter, so it’s great to have a warm and well-lit shop to work in. I’ll spend time this winter working on a shop redesign to utilize the space better. I’ve been thinking a lot about the flow of work, materials, and projects in the shop. I’d like to have an efficient setup that allows me to work on multiple projects. I’m getting ankle surgery this winter to repair a tendon split and remove a bone spur so that might slow me down a bit.
Q: What’s in your power tool collection?
Here’s my power-tool list, I’m getting ready to do some upgrades especially for the jointer and planer:
Q: What’s in your hand tool collection?
My first important acquisition for hand tool use was my big Sjoberg’s Workbench that I’ve had for ten years. I also have some quality hand tools from Veritas and Lie-Nielsen and some great old Stanley Everlasting chisels that I got at this year’s Woodworking in America conference. They have been a joy to use and are accurate and fast. Here’s some of the hand tools I use most often.
- Lie-Nielsen progressive pitch dovetail saw
- Lie-Nielsen crosscut saw
- Old Stanley planes that are in various states of being restored
- New Stanley Sweetheart #4
- New Stanley Sweetheart block plane
- Veritas router plane
- Stanley Everlasting chisels
- Tommy MacDonald marking gauge, mallet
- Starrett comination square
What do you hope your readers get from your blog?
When I think about my readers, I put them into different buckets and have different goals for each:
I hope woodworkers are inspired to start their own business & blog, find some of the information they need to be successful, and spend more time in the shop trying new things. Many woodworkers have great build skills, but don’t know where to start when starting a business: S-Corp, LLC, or Sole Proprietorship? How do I get a bank account? How do I get discounts on materials? How do I keep the tax man off my back? How do I define and build a brand and what does that even mean? What is the deal with Quickbooks?
I want potential customers to understand all the advantages of working with small woodworking shops: co-designing their piece; custom dimensions; selecting the materials, finishes, fixtures, and hardware; the quality and safety of the materials and finishes; the ability to make changes during the build; watching the build as it progresses; and even visiting the shop. I would like to see families buy furniture from skilled local woodworkers. I think that’s better for the economy and environment, and those families will get better products as well. And after they understand all of those advantages, I want their business!
Current customers get to watch the progress of their projects with blog updates. I’m only posting text and pictures, but in the future I’ll likely add video. They are participating in the design and watching the work progress from material selection to finishing, they are already writing the story about their future heirloom. All of this adds value to the piece and the customer relationship, and I want the customer relationship to be ongoing and span many years and many projects.
My next target customer is tool and accessory manufacturers. I have a lot of experience building software projects and thinking through user scenarios. Almost every tool I use – cheap or expensive – could be improved. Instead of getting into the tool review business, I’d like to partner with manufacturers to refine their tools before they take them to market. There are so many tools that could really go from good to great with just a little bit more refinement. I can list some examples if you’d like.
Q: Now that you are a member of the online woodworking blogger community, how has that affected the way you work? Do you find yourself building projects or doing techniques specifically for the web?
I haven’t built or bought anything just for the blog yet. I try to only build projects for myself or for customers, and I try to buy materials, supplies, or tools only when I need them for a project. That’s new for me, in the past I would by the popular tools even if I didn’t need them. I’ve been slowly selling off or giving away that stuff. My biscuit jointer is next to go.
The business and website have affected the way I work in some small ways. Because I want to produce content for the web on a fairly regular schedule, I need to set aside shop time every week and also set aside time to update the blog. Sunday night has been shop night for me and I often post later that night. Blogging has also affected how clean and organized I keep my shop. You can’t take pictures or have customers in the shop if it’s messy. I’ve always struggled with keeping the shop clean, and I can hear my Grandpa in my ear telling me to clean up, so I’m glad that blogging helps me put things away.
I do have a reader that has asked me to explain how I build and use my router sled, so I will blog more about that. I’ll build a new router sled to document the process, and I might shoot video as well. All those guys buying straight bit sets of various sizes, including those sized for plywood, are wasting their money. You can create perfect dadoes of any size with just one router bit.
Q: What do you enjoy most about woodworking?
I believe that we’re intended to work hard and enjoy it. But work can get frustrating when you don’t feel like you’re making progress. So I break the work up into steps and work through them. I build software all week, and you can’t hold that in your hand, see it, or smell it, so I really enjoy how woodworking feeds my senses. When the work is flowing smoothly and you’re making progress, nothing feels better. It’s pretty cool to see a pile of rough lumber turn into a beautiful table or chest of drawers. Someday I want to start from a tree.
Q: What do you enjoy the least about woodworking?
I used to hate finishing. It involved too much sanding, filling screw or nail holes, putty & wood filler, blotchy stain, and bubbly or brushmarked top coats. I hated it so much I had to change things up, and that meant either hiring someone to do the finishing work or figuring out how to do it well without all the frustration. So I’ve changed the way I work, with better woods, better techniques (so fewer screw holes and no putty), and a finishing process that works for me. Marc Spagnuolo’s blog and podcasts were really helpful, and now I really enjoy that last step.
So now the part I hate is what I call the Woodworker’s Squaredance. When you have a smaller shop and share it with a car and family storage, and you combine that with a suboptimal setup, you are forced to do the dance. In Computer Science we call this switching cost. It’s the time you spend not doing work, but changing context by moving tools, materials, or the project around. It slows down the work, interrupts the flow, and can lead to mistakes, compromises, and potentially unsafe situations. When I can’t get into the flow, I stop and do something else
Q: What does the future hold for you, Matt?
The immediate future is about refinement – taking small deliberate steps to improve the business, the blog, my shop, and my work. I attended Woodworking in America this year for the first time and loved it. I want to connect more with my craft and understand the history including the tools and historical figures. I want to contribute more to the growing woodworker community. And I want to explore more styles and designs and begin to develop my own style and signature design elements. I’ll be experimenting with new and more unusual materials like Kirei board and I’d also like to try some reclaimed woods, high end woods like those from Artisan lumber, and veneers. Neil Lamens has posted great videos about veneering and now I’m really inspired to look into it. Although I don’t think I’ll be using MDF as a substrate – I hate that stuff.
I am a bit worried about the CPSIA and the impact it could have on small shops. I’ve signed the Handmade Toy Alliance petition and joined up as a member. I hope the laws can be improved to keep customers safe without smothering small business. I don’t want the CPSIA to be expanded and push small shops out of business. We need a woodworker in Congress.
When my skills are ready and I can dedicate the time, I’d love to take on some larger and more detailed pieces. Tommy MacDonald has done some amazing reproductions, and I really like the way he works. I’m interested in the Federal and Prairie styles, they are totally different, but both are very American and very cool. I was introduced to Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie style while working on my first project at Microsoft (a multimedia CD-ROM title called The Ultimate Frank Lloyd Wright). Eventually I’ll develop my own style, but for me that begins with exploring other styles and trying things out.