Podcast Episode 002 – Tim Ewald

Three episodes – I think that means we’re here to stay! And I could not be more thrilled to welcome on to the show my coworker of many years and my close friend Tim Ewald.

Tim and I have spent many hours talking about woodworking, our shared hobby. So it’s no surprise that we chatted a lot about his latest projects. But, as seems to be the pattern with the show, we spent a lot of time talking about the meaning behind the work, which I find fascinating. And very much in keeping with the notion of exploring the intersection of making and learning.

Tim shared some photos of his projects with me, and I’m posting them here with his permission – scroll down to see them. I think you’ll agree he does lovely work.

I hope you enjoy the show. As always, feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you thought. And if you feel like sharing the show with someone you think might like it, I’d appreciate it.

Listen to the podcast on this page or download it here. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or via RSS.

Things mentioned on this show

This episode is also available on YouTube. View it there for a transcript and subtitles.

Pictures of Tim’s work

Video: Cutting Plywood with a Track Saw

I’ve been working on a longer video showing my progress on the electronic leadscrew, but it’s not going very well, due to the fact that I’m still relatively inexperienced at YouTube video production. I’ll get it done, but it’s taking a while. So I thought I’d do a quick video in the meantime.

This past weekend, I had to cut up some plywood to make some Cornhole boards, and I figured it would be a good chance to show off one my my favorite power tools: my track saw.

I talked about track saws in my “Getting Started with Woodworking” post. I think they are fantastic tools to have in your arsenal, particularly if you – like me – don’t own a table saw. They’re accurate, safe, easy to use, and have excellent dust collection. I personally have the Makita, since it had the best price/performance characteristics at the time given my requirements. My brother and a good friend of mine have both since purchased one as well, and are similarly happy with them, but I understand the Dewalt and Festool are also very good.

Anyway, it’s a short video at just under five minutes, so have a watch. And, if you feel so inclined, please like and subscribe – doing so gives me a better sense of what people are interested in and helps steer the types of content I create. Thanks!

Things mentioned in this video:

One of Those Days

Not meant to be detachable. That’s my spare board with the port still attached.

There’s an old saying that goes, “A bad day fishing beats a good day working.” I’m not much for fishing, but substitute in “shop” and you’d have a statement that I’d agree with. Most days. Sunday was not one of those days.

Of course, for me, the bar is a little high. I really like my job working for Kevel, where I work with good friends and excellent engineers under humane conditions. (Check out our Employee Bill of Rights. I can attest they are not just words.) Still, I look forward to getting time on the weekends to work in the shop.

Which is why this past Sunday was a little frustrating. I had hoped to finally finish the electronic lead screw I’ve been working on for many weeks. And I made progress. But at the end of the day, even though I overcame the set of problems I started out with, I was faced with yet another set of puzzling issues. On top of that, one of the times I was programming the microcontroller, I forgot to unplug the USB cable before moving my laptop, and managed to rip the USB port clean off the board. D’oh.

But of course this is all part of the process. When I figure out why the motor isn’t turning the way it’s supposed to, I will have learned something, and I’ll have learned it the hard way, so it’ll probably stick even in my sieve-like memory. I even have a spare board, and I’ve already a longer USB cable to prevent that particular mishap from occurring again. Plus, I’m going to try to solder the connector back on the broken board. Since I have done almost no surface-mount soldering, that should be educational, too. (If you have any advice on how to do this properly, please leave a comment below.)

The sign on my shop door.

I have a sign on my shop door that says “Slow”. It’s meant to be an admonition to enjoy the process. I have a tendency to focus on output at times, and since this is a hobby, I’m never able to put enough time into it to keep up with all the things I’d like to do and to learn. So it’s good to have that reminder that “slow” is okay. An hour in the shop or in front of the computer is an hour I should enjoy, whether it produces a finished object or not. But some days that’s definitely harder than others.

Rescue mission required

Sunday did have one amusing highlight. As I was recording for an upcoming video on the YouTube channel, I caught sight of a toad, caught in the window well outside my shop. Noticing him meant I was able to go out and rescue him. It was a little moment of levity that I’ll probably leave in the video when I edit it.

How about you? Have you had challenging days in your creative endeavors? How have you dealt with it? Leave me a comment and let me know. Cheers!

Podcast Episode 001 – Rob Stenzinger

I had so much fun on the first one, I decided to do it again. This time, I talk with my close friend of many years, Rob Stenzinger. We talk, as always, about making and learning, and also about getting in touch with our inner yoga spirit horse coaches.

Listen to the podcast on this page or download it here. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or via RSS.

You can find Rob on the web at interactive-storyteller.com. His links page has all the places on the web he can be found – social media, GitHub, etc.

Things we talked bout:

In the spirit of Rob’s excellent advice to “talk to the people you’re making something for”, I’d love to hear from you about this show, future guests you’d like to hear me interview, or anything about the whole Get Smarter and Make Stuff media empire. Thanks!

This episode is also available on YouTube. View it there for a transcript and subtitles.

Podcast Episode 000 – Paul deGrandis

I’m back! After a break of over four years from my last podcast – the Cognicast (still going strong I’m pleased to see) – I’ve decided to jump back in. The idea of the show was just too good a fit with the concept of the site to pass up: just ask interesting people “What are you learning?” and “What are you building?” and let them talk.

So I was thrilled to do just that in this first episode with my guest Paul deGrandis. His answers to those two questions were fascinating to me, as I knew they would be. I think you’ll agree. We talked about robots, naval architecture, and espresso machines. Oh, and I manage to get the name of my own show wrong.

I’m still working on getting the show submitted to the various services. And there seem to still be a few kinks to work out with my setup. So if the above player doesn’t work for you, download the show here. For now you can subscribe using this RSS URL.

I hope you enjoy the show. I had so much fun I’m definitely going to be doing more of these. So please have a listen and leave a comment telling me what you think. And, hey, if you feel like helping out, I’d really appreciate it if you’d share the show with anyone you think might enjoy it.



This episode is also available on YouTube:

Video: Electronic Leadscrew Update

Silkscreened Control Panel

Following on my post the other day describing my progress with James Clough’s Lathe Electronic Leadscrew project, here’s a video showing a bit more detail. It covers the same ground but in video form – hope that’s useful. Have a look, and if you feel like it at the end, click like and subscribe. Thanks!

A Podcast, Maybe?

So I’m thinking about making a podcast. It would be, unsurprisingly, about 1) getting smarter, and 2) making stuff. But what it would REALLY be about would be me talking to interesting people about whatever the heck I like.

I used to host The Cognicast when I worked at Cognitect. I did about 120 episodes before I moved on to work at Kevel. It was mostly about Clojure, a programming language, although two of my favorite episodes were about depression and about dyslexia. If I do the Get Smarter and Make Stuff podcast, it would definitely NOT be a programming podcast – that’s way too narrow to encompass the idea of this site – but programming topics would definitely come up from time to time.

I’m not totally sure I’m going to do this, since podcasts are a fair bit of work, and quite frankly I was burned out when I stopped hosting four years ago. But I think perhaps I’ve recovered enough, especially with a concept to organize the new show around that gives me so much freedom to talk to interesting people across a huge range of topics.

Anyway, what do you think? Good idea? Interesting? Would you listen? Leave a comment. I’m especially interested to hear from my Cognicast listeners. Thanks!

Project Update: Lathe Electronic Leadscrew

Silkscreened Control Panel

I realized it might be interesting for some people to read about what I have on the bench. So this is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of project updates.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I am a huge fan of James Clough. His YouTube channel is full of consistently excellent videos. I first encountered him when Quinn of Blondihacks (another awesome YouTuber) mentioned his lathe electronic leadscrew project. I had a watch of James’s video series and realized I wanted to build one for myself.

So what is it? To explain that, we need to understand the function of a leadscrew (also written “lead screw”) on a metal lathe. Basically, its job is to advance the carriage – and with it, the cutting tool – at a fixed rate with respect to the rotation of the spindle. For operations like turning to a diameter, this is often a ratio like 0.005″ (five thousandths of an inch) per revolution. You can advance the carriage by hand using the hand wheel instead, but by coupling it to the motor shaft, not only is it less tedious, but you get a very smooth advancement of the cutting tool and hopefully a better surface finish.

18-8 Stainless Steel Fully Threaded Rod, 1/4"-20 Thread Size, 24" Length,  Right Hand Threads: Fully Threaded Rods And Studs: Amazon.com: Industrial &  Scientific
Thread cutting FTW

And that’s convenient, but where the lead screw really shines is when the relationship is something like 0.050″ of advancement per rotation, rather than 0.005″. Why? Because 0.050″ is 1/20th of an inch. And if we use a 60ยบ cutting tool that advances 1/20th of an inch per revolution against a piece of stock that is 1/4″ in diameter, we can cut standard 1/4-20 threads.

Of course you can easily buy 1/4-20 threaded rod at the home center, so by itself this is no big deal. But what if I need something that’s got a half-inch of 1/4-20″ threads on one end and five millimeters of metric 8M1.25 threads on the other? You could, of course use a tap-and-die set to do this, but even someone with Tool Acquisition Syndrome as bad as I have it (see my shop tour to witness the extent of my problem) isn’t going to have taps and dies in all the combinations you’re likely to come across. For instance, Whitworth threads are a thing.

Change gears are a pain. Messy, time-consuming, fiddly.

So it’s useful to be able to turn threads on the lathe. And my lathe, the Grizzly G0768, can indeed do so. However, it is a low-end lathe. And low end lathes control the rotational relationship between the spindle and the lead screw via change gears. (Nicer ones use a set of levers.) These are sets of gears in the headstock of the lathe that connect the spindle to the leadscrew, and in so doing set the rotational relationship between the two. There’s a chart on the lathe that shows you the combination of the two or three gears you need for the set of rotational relationships the lathe supports.

The problem is, changing them is a pain. They’re greased, so they’re messy. Removing them, finding the ones you need, dropping the screws on the floor six times, realizing you put them in the wrong one, finding the correct gears and putting those on, and then setting the backlash correctly so it doesn’t sound like gravel in a clothes dryer takes a skilled operator several minutes…and me a lot longer. And you might have to do this several times to make a single part. Like, you might need 0.005″ per rev to turn down to an overall diameter to turn one end down further, then switch to 0.050″ to thread one end, then flip the part and go back to 0.005″ to turn down, then change again to get to M1.25 metric threads on the other end. Completely reasonable to do so, of course, but frankly annoying enough that I have been avoiding doing it when I machine things.

Enter the electronic leadscrew. The idea here is to remove the change gears entirely, and instead drive the leadscrew with a stepper motor. The stepper motor is controlled by a microcontroller, which reads the rotational velocity of the spindle via a high-resolution rotary encoder. Introduce some sort of control interface and bam! Interactive control of the leadscrew advancement – switch from 0.005″ to 0.020″ (or whatever) at the push of a few buttons in seconds rather than minutes.

(If that doesn’t make sense, check out James’s video explaining the project.)

Do I need one of these? Nope. I could do the change gear thing – I’m into so many things and life with two kids is busy enough that I don’t do a huge amount of machining as it is. And I have a nice selection of taps and dies that means most of the time, I don’t need to thread on the lathe at all. But an electronic leadscrew is cool, and I want to make one. This website could just as easily have been called “get obsessed and make things you don’t need”, and so I am building an electronic leadscrew because it interests me and I want to.

Of course I could do this myself, from scratch. But frankly, I’m still a fair beginner when it comes to electronics and motors. I’m sure I’d learn a lot in trying to figure it out, but I figured I would also learn a lot by assembling James’s kit, not to mention throw a few bucks towards a guy who’s doing great work and get done and on to other projects way faster. And I have what I think is a really interesting project that learning more about motors and electronics will really help with. More on that in the future.

The enclosure makes this easily the neatest-looking electronics project I’ve ever done.

So I’ve been working on it as my main project since before I started this site. I’m now at the point where I have all the electronics assembled and all the necessary cables made. I put it all in a nice enclosure. I even 3D printed a motor mount for the stepper motor, which was a fun little project in and of itself that I might talk about at some point.


It doesn’t work. Despite the fact that at one point I had everything working on the bench – I could turn the rotary encoder by hand and the motor would rotate in sync. Apparently, somewhere along the way to getting everything in the enclosure, I messed something up. I’m not really sure where.

And that’s my status: machine not working. But hey, that’s expected. As it says on Evan of EvanAndKatelyn‘s shirt:

Love this shirt

At one point I thought it was the microcontroller, because I couldn’t even get a simple “blink the LED” program to run. So I ordered new one. And that one wouldn’t run the blink program either. At which point I realized that I had a bug in the program. (Software: it’s always the software.) What’s doubly amusing about that is I previously made basically the same mistake with the interface board, and bought a second one of James’s kit. So I now lack only a motor to make a second one of these, something I have absolutely no use for, owning only the one metal lathe. (For now. Send help.) I find this highly amusing. But also convenient, since now I can use the second interface board to make sure that’s not the problem. And on it goes.

So that’s all for now. I hope that was useful or at least interesting to some of you. I have a video in the works that will show my progress to this point – I just need to finish editing it. I will, of course, post further updates as I go. If you feel so inclined, leave me a comment and let me know what you think. Thanks!

Video: Shop Tour

New video out! This was the one I intended to be the first for the new channel, but editing took a while so I decided to post the melting aluminum video first instead.

Nothing too special here, just a look around my very, very crowded shop. But It’s one of my favorite places in the world (unsurprisingly) so I wanted to share it.

Have a watch, and let me know what you think here or in the comments to the video. Thanks for reading and watching!

Getting Started with Woodworking

I get asked from time to time how to get started with woodworking. Specifically, how to get started in woodworking if you want to work like me: with a decreased utilization of power tools. Read this post for more information on what this means and how I came to it. For a few suggestions, read on.

Oh yeah, that’s the stuff – bird’s eye maple

First of all, the main thing to do is just to start. It really doesn’t matter if you have fancy tools or stuff you picked up at the home center, eastern or western-style saws, construction lumber or highly figured bird’s eye maple. Picking up the tools and making big pieces of wood into smaller ones is the most important thing. Really. It’s definitely more important than agonizing over whether you have the “right” tools or the “right” project to get started on. (At some point I need to write about how the word “should” is one of my least favorite in the English language.)

Second, in the long term you’re going to need to know what you want to make. Are you interested in furniture? Boxes? Wood turning or carving (each of which are arguably whole different disciplines)? High end stuff? Rustic? Generally when I ask people this question the answer I get back is some version of, “I don’t know I just want to woodwork”. Which is fine for now – there are plenty of baseline skills you can acquire while you figure it out. But over the long run, you’ll probably gravitate towards one type of work or another – unless you’re like me and you try to do absolutely everything – and it will affect the tools you buy and the way you work.

But okay, you really just want some suggestions to get started. Sure, no problem. I think no matter what you want to do, there three basic skills and a few simple tools that will get you going and make you smarter about woodworking no matter what your final path: sharpening, planing, and sawing.

05M0920 - Veritas Mk.II Deluxe Honing Guide Set
Nothing wrong with using a jig

Sharpening is the gateway skill for hand tool woodworking. And even if you envision yourself with a Norm Abram-like shop full of power tools, knowing how to use hand tools will make you a better woodworker. And hand tools work best (work at all, arguably) when sharp. So learn to sharpen!

I think there are only three secrets to sharpening:

  1. It doesn’t really matter what method you use. Water stones, oilstones, diamond, sandpaper, whatever. They all work. Pick one. I suggest sandpaper in a progression of grits – try 400, 800, and 1600 – glued with spray adhesive to whatever fairly flat 12×12 tile you can find.
  2. Use a jig. Some people will say this is cheating. This is nonsense. You can work your way up to freehand if you want to. I haven’t yet. But you’ll get good results right away with a jig. I like the Veritas one but it’s a little pricey. There are cheaper options that I have heard work well but that I haven’t used myself.
  3. Sharpen each grit until you can feel a burr all the way across. A burr is a tiny, almost microscopic peel of metal that shows up when you’ve thinned the edge all the way down to sharp. When you feel it, move on to the next (higher numbered) grit.

Is there more to it? Yes, of course. There always is for the fundamentals. But if you do the above you’ll be years ahead of where I was when I started. You can start with this and you’ll get tools that are sharp enough to do good work.

Oh, and sharpen often. The more you do it, the easier it gets, and dull tools will not give you the correct feedback you need to get smarter about the craft. Sharp tools will teach you more.

Veritas Low-Angle Jack Plane
The Lee Valley Low Angle Jack Plane

I find hand planes to be a joy to use. There’s something really satisfying about making dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of little curls of wood, leaving a glossy-smooth finish that requires little or no sanding. Even the sound of it is pleasant to me. They do, of course, require a little bit of learning.

For starters, you need to know what to get. Planes come in a bewildering variety of sizes and shapes. Wooden bodies, metal bodies, infill planes, plow planes, plough planes (are those the same thing? (yes)), bench planes, block planes, jack planes, numbers one through one million, bevel up vs. bevel down, etc. etc. etc. It’s overwhelming to the beginner.

What you wind up owning over the long term will fall out of the work you choose to do. But here, at the beginning, if you don’t have a good idea, I will suggest two planes: the Lee Valley Low Angle Bevel Up Jack Plane and the Veritas #4 Smooth Plane. These are fairly expensive, but you will absolutely not regret buying them. If you need to shave a few bucks, I think you can get away with a much cheaper #4 (warning: I have not used that one). It’ll probably require investment on your part to get it working, but I’ve used cheap smoothers and gotten good results from them.

The jack plane, on the other hand, you should just buy. For one thing, I think it’s good to own at least one really good hand tool, just to give you a sense of what the possibilities are. But the word “jack” in the type name is short for “jack of all trades”, and it’s true. You’ll be able to use the jack plane for jointing (straightening) edges, flattening faces, and, perhaps most importantly, shooting.

Basic shooting board design: shelf (pink), base (yellow), fence (blue), and cleat (green)

Shooting is the process of shortening a board while simultaneously making the ends flat and square. This operation happens on the end grain of boards, which is the hardest direction to cut, and the jack plane’s low angle makes it very good at this task. You’ll need to build a shooting board to make this task easy, but that’s an excellent beginner’s project. Be wary of the more complex designs on the internet. You only need to attach four pieces of wood together – a shelf, a base, a fence, and a cleat, attached as shown in the picture above. Use any material. Plywood is a good choice. You need to make the fence and the end of the base square to each other, as the plane will follow the edge of the base, so the squareness of your result depends on this setup. Using screws to attach the fence to the base means if you mess it up you can adjust it later.

If you want to go one farther, the next plane I’d recommend would be a plow plane, like the Veritas Small Plow Plane. Plow planes are the tool you use to make a groove on the edge or face of a board. You’ll want this when you start making frames, which is a common operation for almost any sort of casework. But you can get by without it – you can saw or mark the edges of the groove and clean it out with a chisel. It’s just a lot easier with a plow plane.

Awesome. Now sharpen your blades and make some shavings. Oh and hint: get the O1 blades for your jack plane. It’s a slightly softer metal as compared to the A2 or fancier PM-V11 steels, so it dulls faster, but it’s easier to sharpen. And at this stage you want to have practice sharpening.

My Makita track saw is one of my favorite tools.

Obviously, you’ll need a way to make large boards into smaller boards. This is the place that people often reach for power tools: table saws, circular saws, and the like. And, frankly, so do I. Cutting seven foot long rip in an inch-and-half thick board takes a lot of muscle power. I enjoy it for a while, but there’s a limit. So for long cuts made with the grain (called a rip cut), you might want to consider your powered options. Personally, I dislike table saws. I much prefer a band saw for almost everything I would use a table saw for. Knowing how to use planes here is key, as the finish off a band saw can be a bit rough, but it’s the work of moments with a hand plane to bring it to finish quality. I also have a track saw, which in my opinion is both better and safer than a table saw when it comes to breaking down sheet goods (plywood).

For crosscutting, however, I almost always cut by hand. Even through thick material, cutting a single board to length is generally the work of moments. Even if you include shooting it afterward to get the length absolutely perfect, it almost always takes less time than setting up for a cut on a miter or table saw would be.

A simple bench hook: base (pink), split fence (blue/orange), and cleat (green).

If the work is small, it’s usually more convenient and accurate to cut using a bench hook. This is another very simple beginner project. If you leave space on the back side of the fence, you’ll be able to use it with either Western style saws that cut on the push stroke or Eastern style saws that cut on the pull stroke.

As for what saws to get, I think you can go a long way with just three very affordable options. For crosscutting large stock, I love this saw. For less than $30 it is outstanding at knocking boards down to width rapidly. Then, for joinery, I recommend a cheap eastern-style pull saw, like this one. With those two, you’ll be able to do almost everything you need for your first several projects.

You’ll notice I don’t have a recommendation for a rip saw. There are two reasons for that. First, ripping by hand gets old fast. Second, I don’t actually own a rip saw that I like very much. I bought one I can’t find the link for but really, it was sort of disappointing. It helped to set the teeth, but I still reach for it extremely rarely.

The other reason is that this is a place where power tools are my go-to option. You can do most of the rips you’ll need with a circular saw and some sort of edge guide – spend a little time learning to plane and you can take the resulting cut down to exact dimensions easily. Or, if you want to upgrade, look into getting a track saw. Track saws are like circular saws, but they ride on a track to make getting safe, accurate cuts super easy. They even have excellent dust collection. For cutting plywood, they’re unsurpassed. But they’re a bit pricey, and you definitely don’t need one to get started.


I’ll probably get a lot of flack for this one, but just go buy some chisels at the home center. I’ve got nice ones and not-nice ones, and I can’t really tell the difference. You might be able to once you’ve used them for a while, but at the outset of your woodworking I just don’t think it matters that much. You’ll want at least 1/4″, 1/2″, 3/4″, and 1″ widths, but those shouldn’t be hard to come by. The main thing is to keep them sharp – dull chisels not only don’t work as well, but are more dangerous, as they are more likely to slip.

Get Started!

OK, you’re all tooled up! Now what? Well, make something, even if it’s just practicing cutting dovetails in a piece of scrap, birdhouses, or whatever. But maybe you don’t have anything in mind. In that case, I would suggest making a workbench. Simple ones that will last you for decades can be made in a weekend, and they will make everything you do afterward that much easier. A great place to start is The Naked Woodworker, by the dryly hilarious Mike Siemsen. The video will take you step by step from not owning any tools to having a functional workbench.

An alternative approach would be to read The Anarchist’s Workbench. It’s hard to go far in hand tool woodworking without encountering Christopher Schwarz, who has written extensively about his experience and philosophy in woodworking. (If you want to know about the curious title, there’s a FAQ.)

If neither of those is your cup of tea, you can also try The New Traditional Woodworker, by Jim Tolpin. It’s a good intro to woodworking with mostly hand tools, and it includes a number of projects aimed at improving your shop. It’s a curious fact, but if you’re anything like me, something like half of the things you will make in your workshop will be FOR your shop.

But really, JUST MAKE SOMETHING. And, hopefully, in so doing, get smarter!

Did any of these suggestions ring true to you? Do you think I’m way off base? Have ideas about what you think beginners might benefit from? Drop a comment below. Thanks!