This Is Supposed To Be Fun Isn't It? (Hobbyist Perspective)

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Blog entry by Lenny posted 07-17-2019 12:32 AM 1738 reads 1 time favorited 28 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I recently posted this Pennsylvania Spice Box project. The project post is here. I want to share some things I learned about myself during this build. I do so for two reasons: one is to vent and the other is to share my experience with other woodworkers in case it is of use to them.
This is mostly about two things. The first is hand cut dovetails and the second, hand tools versus power tools. The spice box called for a lot of dovetails. Steve Latta did his by hand and that’s what is called for in the plans. Having completed the dovetails for the carcass of the box, my thoughts fast forwarded to the 12 drawers I would be making and I was not looking forward to it. The drawers are essentially the last step in the project and there were a number of challenging and tedious processes/steps along the way. After making the first drawer (the hidden one) via the hand cut method I was through with it. This drawer is all poplar and has all through dovetails. The tails and pins are quite small and several pins cracked or broke off completely when I looked at them the wrong way. I resolved to do the rest of the drawers at my router station equipped with the Incra LS positioner. I did the center drawer this way but when I switched to the smaller drawers I ran into hurdles I could not or did not wish to spend the time to overcome so I reluctantly returned to hand cuts.
I understand and get that there is a certain charm and pride that comes with making hand cut dovetails. Personally, I have power tools and jigs (Incra and Leigh) that allow me to make perfect fitting dovetails repeatedly without the time and tedium associated with hand cut. For me, I do not feel the need or desire to say to someone, “Those are hand cut dovetails.” Producing attractive and tight dovetails is good enough for me. No doubt, my position differs from many woodworkers, especially the purists. While I am proud of the hand cut dovetails I created on this and a prior project, I did not enjoy doing them. On the contrary, I would say I disliked doing them and, relative to future projects, I am resolved to go the route of machined dovetails when I can.
Let’s move on to the topic of hand versus power tools. I often tell people I love woodworking. I even say it is a passion with me. That said, and despite the fact that I am delighted with the end result of this spice box, I would have to say I did not enjoy this build. I think the reason for this lies with the fact that there was not enough power tool work in it. Much of my time was spent doing the dovetails, making and using a scratch stock for the first time and doing the line and berry inlay work on the door panel. I found myself yearning to use the table saw, a router, my jointer or planer. In short, I think I am a power tool junkie and find enjoyment in woodworking when using them. So many times throughout the project I was thinking: “I just want to finish this (expletive deleted) project!” How sad to be in the middle of a fine woodworking project and just want to be over with it! To take it a step further, in retrospect, I am quite certain my negative mindset impacted the quality of my work. I found myself saying things like, “That’ll do.” or “That’s good enough.”. That’s a recipe for poor and/or shoddy craftsmanship and concerns me greatly.
If you have read this far, thank you for allowing me to vent. I am interested in hearing comments on both topics. Like most things, I suspect others have had similar experiences.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

28 comments so far

View Redoak49's profile


5271 posts in 3100 days

#1 posted 07-17-2019 01:41 AM

Written from the heart. I do woodworking to enjoy it and projects for the same. If it becomes something else, it is time to move on.

View Oldtool's profile


3240 posts in 3302 days

#2 posted 07-17-2019 02:33 AM

Woodworking isn’t supposed to be anything except what you want it to be.

If you do it for a living, you want it to be productive, efficient, and profitable.

If you want to do it for a hobby, then do what is most enjoyable to you. If that means using machines, so be it. If your enjoyment comes from using hand tools, do that. Maybe a mixture of these methods satisfies your desires to create in a relaxing manner, that works too.

Don’t let the instructions or plans dictate how you take the journey, take the road most enjoyable to you.

Wow!, I sound like a Chinese philosopher. Guess I’ll stop niw.

-- "I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The point is to bring them the real facts." - Abraham Lincoln

View Ocelot's profile


3101 posts in 3750 days

#3 posted 07-17-2019 03:29 AM

Yes. It’s supposed to be fun if it’s a hobby, and if it’s a business, it’s supposed to make money.

-- I intended to be a woodworker, but turned into a tool and lumber collector.

View mdhills's profile


72 posts in 3744 days

#4 posted 07-17-2019 04:59 AM

Final result looks good!

Do you think the wood selection made some processes more finicky?

View Peteybadboy's profile


3486 posts in 3061 days

#5 posted 07-17-2019 10:24 AM

I work when I’m motovated. (it is a hobby). When I feel the way you did I stop. Also, You did a great job on that project!

-- Petey

View Lenny's profile


1700 posts in 4639 days

#6 posted 07-17-2019 10:58 AM

Thanks for the comments. I edited the title to indicate that my comments are purely from the hobbyist perspective. While the professionals certainly MIGHT find the work fun, I get it if they do not. Tom (oldtool), your advice regarding following (or not) the plans is valuable. I did take some liberties on this project. Maybe I needed to take a few more! mdmills, the drawers for this spice box are quite small so the tails and pins are quite small. Poplar is pretty straight grained so while working on a tiny pin, if your chisel hits a spot with the grain too deeply, the wood splits or cracks off. So, yeah in my case the species mattered.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View Dave Polaschek's profile

Dave Polaschek

7640 posts in 1694 days

#7 posted 07-17-2019 11:29 AM

I never follow plans. For me, the fun in the building comes from figuring out how to make the piece that exists in my brain. With dovetails, I’ve gotten much better hand-cutting them with practice, but I sometimes still screw some up. Did that on my recent gouge box, and ended up changing the size of the box by about 3/8” in order to cut off the dovetail I had screwed up. Then everything else adjusted from there.

I also (frequently) don’t use a chisel on dovetails. I saw the angled edges, and then use my small turning saw to cut out the waste. If things are going well, that gets me close enough that I can take one or two passes with a small rasp and get things perfect. Yes, I should be using a chisel, and properly supporting the wood, but I’ve been working a lot with 3/8” thick stock while making boxes to hold my tools, and I got way too many blowouts chiseling out the waste, so I switched to a saw and a rasp. Works for me, and keeps things fun.

If you find cutting your dovetails with jigs fun, have at it. I prefer the hand-cut irregularities in mine, but I also don’t produce work as nice as you’re doing.

As for power tools, I’m a mostly hand-tool guy, but last weekend when I had a rare (for this month) bit of shop time, I fired up the bandsaw and belt-sander to prep some stock in a hurry, rather than hand-resawing and planing. I can work almost as fast with hand tools, but I was working on an irreplaceable piece of American chestnut, and if I screwed it up, I’d be using a different kind of wood. And I was in a hurry because I was running out of weekend. So I used the sander to flatten the bits where the dovetails sat proud, rather than a chisel and plane.

Do what works! If you’re a power-tool junkie (and have them), use them. Unless you want to try something old-school for the fun of it. But there’s no “certifying authority” who’s going to kick you out of the woodworker’s club if you pick up a router after deciding a scratch stock is too slow.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View EarlS's profile (online now)


4536 posts in 3460 days

#8 posted 07-17-2019 11:54 AM

I think your comments capture what most of us (hobbyists) go through on any given project. Some days are great and I enjoy what I’m doing. Other days are frustrating and I quit early. Sometimes things work out like they should and sometimes not. That is why I’m glad I do this for fun and enjoyment. I think the times when I get the least enjoyment out of woodworking was when I make something for someone that is paying me (rarely happens).

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View Lenny's profile


1700 posts in 4639 days

#9 posted 07-17-2019 12:13 PM

Thank you Dave and Earl…great input from both of you. This is quite therapeutic! Earl, I agree 100% regrading commissioned pieces.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

View tyvekboy's profile


2114 posts in 4125 days

#10 posted 07-17-2019 12:49 PM

I do woodworking for the challenges it presents. Each operation is a teaching moment. If something goes wrong I try to figure out what caused it and try and not do it the next time. Having to do so many dovetails gave you a lot of practice and muscle memory so all is not lost in the effort. Hopefully youʻre really good at it now after all that practice.

Another thing that Iʻve learned is that when you have projects that will take a long time … break it up into small projects. Set daily goals to do so many steps towards the finish line and STOP so you donʻt start to hate the project. Iʻve had projects that have taken me as long as 18 months and I enjoyed every challenge it presented.

Another thing that might help get you through tedious steps of projects is a distraction. I use my shop radio. I set it on NPR cause I learn things other than woodworking listening to the various programs. You might like music. What ever takes your mind off what youʻre doing is also helpful.

-- Tyvekboy -- Marietta, GA ………….. one can never be too organized

View Gene Howe's profile

Gene Howe

12346 posts in 4540 days

#11 posted 07-17-2019 01:11 PM

Part of the fun in woodworking is overcoming problems. Most of the frustration in woodworking comes from the same process.I’ve been doing this as a sometimes profitable hobby for fifty years. I find that most of my problems arise due to my own lack of foresight or, inattention. Now, that’s frustrating, for sure. Over the years, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that many techniques and procedures are beyond my capabilities and/or, interest. Hand cut dove tails fall in that quite extensive category.
Consequently and, because I want to continue enjoying the hobby, I studiously avoid tasks that may stretch my abilities beyond my comfort zone…at least all at once. At my age, too much stretching is dangerous. And, because my gait is slower and the stride is shorter, baby steps have become the norm. But, it all continues to be fun. And, that’s what it’s all about.

-- Gene 'The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.' G. K. Chesterton

View GR8HUNTER's profile


8513 posts in 1824 days

#12 posted 07-17-2019 01:12 PM

woodworking is like fishing to me one day its a stringer full next day its all about a nap by the stream .... this works into my shop also somedays I feel like cutting parts some days just gluing them together … and then other days I’m just happy to sit there and think and if ever it becomes boring just walk away then you will come back with a much better mind set :<)))))))))

A very beautiful box BTW :<))))

-- Tony---- Reinholds,Pa.------ REMEMBER TO ALWAYS HAVE FUN :<))

View Ocelot's profile


3101 posts in 3750 days

#13 posted 07-17-2019 02:00 PM

Personally, I have long thought that dovetails are a woodworking cliche. They can make good joints, but when it becomes all about looks rather than function it doesn’t interest me much. Too much of our world is about looks rather than function.

There is a balance, I suppose.

I have read that in some Scandinavian country, babies are provided with a cardboard cradle at the hospital, and generally sleep in it for 6 months after which it is thrown away. Sure, it might be nice to have a cradle handcrafted from teak by grandpa, but the cardboard box serves well enough.

As the dad of 6 who never finished a cradle, I can appreciate the trade-off.

-- I intended to be a woodworker, but turned into a tool and lumber collector.

View sansoo22's profile


1655 posts in 766 days

#14 posted 07-17-2019 02:39 PM

I think its awesome you took the time to do a retrospective of the process you went through to create this project. As a software architect by trade we do these all the time but they get a fancy name like an “After Action Review”...or AAR if you want to confuse the newbies. Taking the time to reflect allows you to learn things you may not have known before. You now know you prefer power tools. Purists might knock you for being a power tool junkie but who cares. It’s your time, your shop, your projects, and your rules.

I get frustrated easily myself. I’ve thrown many of things across the shop, out of the shop, and even gone outside to throw it across the yard. So I tend to sprinkle in techniques I’m not familiar with even if that means changing the plans a tad. For example I’ve never done an inlay before. So I would have swapped the hand cut dove tails for some other type of joinery so I could focus my energy on the inlay. I know the anger tank can only hold so much before it boils over and the poor little spice rack would meet the 4lb sledge. Some call it a character flaw but I am who I am and I’m cool with that. So I work around what I’m willing to put up with while working a project.

Can’t say enough about how cool I think taking the time to reflect on your frustrations is. I think its something we should do more often in general about many things in life. We seem to always be busy moving on to the next thing. Woodworking should be fun even if you are a professional. Not all projects will be as fun as others but you now know what type of projects you prefer.

View Lenny's profile


1700 posts in 4639 days

#15 posted 07-17-2019 02:58 PM

Again, thank you for the obviously genuine replies. This is great dialogue and there are good suggestions/tips here.

-- On the eighth day God was back in His woodworking shop! Lenny, East Providence, RI

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