The Passion & Intricacies of Woodworking

by Derek Brown, OMICRON electronics, USA

From an early age it was always a source of pleasure to build things or fix stuff, but as you will see my real passion is woodworking...

First off, an admission. I am a closet woodworker.
The term ‘closet’ is often associated with keeping something secret, that's not the case here. I consider myself a closet woodworker for two reasons:
1.  My early projects were just modifications to the storage space within closets. It would drive me crazy that in our kids' rooms we would have one long bar for clothes and lots of wasted space. Children's clothes are small, why not two bars? Kids have toys, why not space for these to reduce toy-related chaos around the house
2.   We live in a small apartment in a densely populated area, no garage, tool shed or other such luxuries. As such, I decided to convert another closet into my in-home tool shed. As you can imagine my wife loves that addition to the house               

From an early age it was always a source of pleasure to build things or fix stuff. As a child I would be making all sorts of contraptions with any junk I could find. As an adult and a homeowner there is never an end of things that need repair around the house, from power outlets to washing machines (although taking one apart recently stretch my capabilities). As a father I annoy my kids to no end offering lots of hands-on support helping to build their Legos.

But my real passion is woodwork. For those inclined to work with wood you will know there is a great satisfaction to be found with the process of working rough lumber into something else. The possibilities for what you can create are limited only by your imagination. With a little help from YouTube or Instagram the ideas and techniques of course can be expanded tenfold.                                                           

Woodwork comes in many shapes and forms. You can do a great deal slowly. With just a few decent hand-tools, you can do a lot more, and even faster with power tools. There is a joy to be found with both and a never-ending journey of discovery waiting for you.
As for me, I enjoy both woodworking routes equally.
The sound and feel of a hand plane running over the length oak is unique, the paper-like wisps of wood that result are addictive to produce. Likewise, the gentle ‘thunk' of a sharp chisel cutting out a mortise for a table leg I find utterly satisfying.  (See Figure 3).
With power tools like a table saw or router it's a different world. This is where you need to step up your safety game obviously with appropriate PPE. Wearing glasses, ear protection and a respirator (to protect your lungs from the dust) you are sealed in acoustically from the noise of the machines and dust collectors. (The dust indecently is a risk never to be underestimated). When working with machines you are focused solely on the task at hand, and of course taking great care not to lose a hand, while ripping lengths of wood or making fine cuts on a band saw for example.

For me, it is almost a Zen-like, peace and focus surrounded by noise and sawdust. As a bonus, whilst wearing your respirator you can entertain yourself with endless Darth Vader impersonations. 
Although I have worked on and off for years woodworking, it was only recently that I received some quality time to learn more, and consequently build more.
Living where we do there is no chance of a real workshop at home, but we are lucky enough to have a makerspace for woodworking in our town, imagine a ‘WeWork™ for Woodwork' (try saying that three times fast).

Here I get the chance to learn, build and teach woodwork courses to a growing number of interested people.
The typical first step in the furniture building process for example, after your design is complete and material procured, is called milling.                  
We mill a piece of rough lumber to start to take out the initial imperfections that exist through the cutting and storing process completed at the sawmill. Wood is a dynamic material, over time it absorbs and releases moisture, and in doing so it changes shape, it warps, twists and bows.  The milling process helps remove these non-linearities and brings out the beautiful grain of the wood below the rough sawmill cuts:

  • Step 1 is to run the board over a machine called a jointer. Taking care to align the grain direction and blade direction to avoid tear out, the jointer creates one very flat surface which becomes your reference surface
  • Step 2 is to run the board through a surface planer, here we create a second flat surface on the other side of the board which runs reference to the parallel face we created in step one
  • Step 3 a quick trip back to the jointer, this time using a fence 90 degrees to the blade, we make the first edge of the board square
  • Step 4 we visit the table saw, the workhouse of your typical woodshop. Referencing he square edge we created in step 3 we cut an edge on the last face

Once you have learned the milling process, it's a small step to create your first chopping board, mixing a few different hardwood boards together. Trust me, try this once, you will be hooked.

Refer to Figure A. for an example of a simple chopping board made from maple and oak offcuts.
The type of wood you work with adds another wonderful element to the process. Typically, we are working with hardwoods for this type of work, common domestic woods in North America include Oak, Ash, Maple, Walnut, Cedar and Cherry all of which have numerous varieties. When you work them they all respond differently and often smell fantastic. Sounds strange I know, but true.
There are many sources for these woods too, here I have a clear preference to recycle and re-use where I can. Partially because I feel there are plenty of options out there for material without taking down perfectly good trees, and partially because I am a little cheap.
I had a friend who was forced to fell a wonderful American Elm tree as it was suffering from blight. We broke it down into perfectly decent slabs of wood and let it age naturally outside. After a year or so it has become a great source of material for a range of live edge tables, one of my favorite project types.
Likewise, when it comes to finishes my preference is natural and minimal use of chemicals. Sealing the wood with oil is a great solution here, it's a shameful plug but there is one really exceptional product called Odies Oil that has become a personal favorite.
This all-natural solvent free and food safe oil works wonders on most hardwoods and with some manual effort can be worked into a range of finishes.  Unlike most chemical finishes this also smells great.
You will often find epoxy resin in my work also, adding more dimension and color to the various projects and taking best advantage of the often beat up starting point of the wooden slabs being used.

Figure B is a good example of a live edge table. Live edge means we are using a complete side of the tree maintaining the edges where the bark was once located. The result is a unique table edge every time. There are often cracks (checks) at the edge of the board that originates naturally in the end grain as the board expands and contracts with moisture. These checks & cracks can become an excellent feature to the final design. Using a technique known as a bowtie, we can route out a special shape (bow tie shape) and insert a new section of wood to hold the wood in place and prevent further expansion. Bowties are often made from contrasting colored wood, for example ash on a dark hardwood or in this case walnut to contrast with the lighter elm tabletop.

Figure C (Figure 4) is another live edge table. This one presented another problem often faced by woodworkers. Having worked both sides of this live edge slab to the finished stage, applied bowties and epoxy resin I was left with a dilemma. Which side to hide on the bottom, which side should be face up. After a couple of weeks failing to decide, special legs were created to allow the table top to be flipped over at will.

Figure D (Figure 5) shows a live edge side table made from wormy maple. This is another notable wood to work with, as the patterns and stripes that emerge as you work the wood were created by worms as the tree grew. In this particular case, the slab was badly damaged and was to be thrown out. With a little innovation and the creation of a jig, a new corner was created using a dark blue epoxy resin.
On another occasion, on a visit to a local steelworker who was crafting some table legs for me for an epoxy river table. I noticed in the corner of his shop under a pile of scrap metal a three-inch thick beam of southern pine, it was wet, muddy, beaten up and covered with welding spatter. It was love at first site. Within a couple of weeks, this beam had been transformed into the bench (shown in Figure E) with copper-colored epoxy inlays and poplar legs.

Figures F and G (Figures 6, 7) show a design known as a river table, here a river of epoxy runs through the middle of the slab to create another unique and visually stimulating coffee table in this case. The Cheery table shown contains sea glass collected with my children from the Hudson River in New York, it is embedded in glow in the dark resin for a little extra punch.
Most recently we started construction of a tree house in upstate New York, no doubt this will take a while, primarily because the one thing better than woodwork, is doing woodwork outside in the forest, secondly, being an engineer at heart, it's no doubt going to be over-engineered. (see Figures 1, 2).
Now I will admit my plan was always to sell these creations once complete but for me at least it’s hard to let something go that you have built with your own hands. You will find a lot of my creations around my home or donated to friends where I can visit them often.

There are some great resources available to learn more about the world of woodworking, in addition here are a few recommendations for books to help stimulate your interest and learning:

  • The Minimalist Woodworker: Essential Tools and Small Shop Ideas for Building by Vic Tesolin
  • Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop by Nick Offerman
  • Jim Tolpin's Woodworking Wit & Wisdom - Jim Tolpin
  • Woodworking Basics - Mastering the Essentials of Craftsmanship - An Integrated Approach with Hand and Power tools - Peter Korn

I'm happy to say, despite my Lego hogging antics, my children also get heavily involved in my woodworking world. We make Harry Potter wands from the many hardwood offcuts that come out of the table making process (I'm not great at throwing wood away obviously). Here with some hand saws and hand planes we cut the wand down to the required shape, just a little sandpaper, Odies oil, phoenix feather or dragon heartstring, and we are good to go. It is amazing how many birthday parties you get invited to when you start gifting handmade magic wands.
This article started with an admission, so I will end with one. I am also lucky to work for a great company but must admit one of the key reasons I do so may be linked to the awesome two story wooded sculpture that resides in our development center in Klaus, Austria. 


Derek Brown is the Regional Manager for OMICRON in North America. He started his career as a Protection & Control Applications engineer at ALSTOM in the UK and USA. For AREVA he managed Automation Services and led Marketing & Strategy for its T&D. More recently Derek was the Managing Director for Protection & Control and Substation Automation in North America for ALSTOM and the Projects Operations Director for GE. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and a master’s degree in Electrical and Applied Engineering from the University of Bath in the UK and an International MBA from Purdue University, Indiana, USA & Tias Tilburg University in the Netherland.

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