I know, I know. I started this series and then totally lost track of it. It needs an update and a fresh coat of finish. Fortunately, a few chats about getting started in woodworking inspired me to put some more work into my ridiculous woodworking manifesto.
This is Part 5 of Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking.
I’ve been woodworking my whole life, but this merger of science, conservation, woodworking, and the environment began with what remains one of the most popular articles on Southern Fried Science: How to build a canoe from scratch on a graduate student stipend. That was my return to serious woodworking after almost a decade and one fun way to celebrate passing my prelims.
So what do you actually need to get started woodworking?
You really don’t need nearly as much to get started as the woodworkers of YouTube may lead you to believe. Sure, as you progress you may want a really nice sander, you may find a domino joiner appealing, you might want to drop $1000 on a full set of nice hand planes, or maybe you start investing on milling machines.
But, at the beginning, you need something that cuts and something that connects. My freshman year of college, David Shiffman and I started a ridiculous company that recovered used lofts from dumpsters and dorm rooms at the end of the year, stored them over the summer, and then sold them back at a steep discount to incoming students as a recycled alternative to building a new loft. They had character.
We had exactly two power tools between us. A corded Skil drill that I paid $20 for and didn’t even have variable speed, and a very old corded jigsaw from a brand that doesn’t even exist. A hammer, a cheap handsaw, and the screwdriver that came in my truck’s spare tire kit rounded out our arsenal. We disassembled, rebuilt, and modified thousands of lofts using those tools. It really doesn’t take much.
Creating a piece of functional, practical art that can last for generations is a radical departure from the current trend of disposable fast furniture made of particle board and held together with camming nuts, cheap dowels, and that one textbook that you can never read lest your bookcase collapses under its own precarious weight. Stores like Ikea have done an impressive job making attractive, modern furniture accessible and affordable, but it has done so at significant environmental costs.
Walk into any woodshop and you find a shelf full of chemicals. Solvents, paints, varnishes, lacquers, oils, glues, and a host of other exotic and not so exotic solutions are a staple of the craft. These compounds are used to join, clean, prepare, and finish most woodworking projects, as well as maintain your tools. Do any amount of woodworking, and you’ll almost certainly accumulate a shelf of assorted, half-used, chemicals of your own.
What’s almost certainly not present in most woodshops, especially hobbyist woodshops, are the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for these chemicals. MSDSs tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the hazards associated with commercial chemical compounds. For many common woodworking products, the MSDSs are pretty intense.
I’ll be completely honest here. I have never had MSDSs in my workshop. It was only while doing the background research for this article that I realized I needed to pay more attention to the assorted chemicals involved in the craft, and started compiling all the potential hazards. I suspect that the vast majority of hobbyist woodworkers are the same.
Woodworking chemicals contain irritants, release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are cut with heavy metals, and are often just plastic. They can be bad for your skin, bad for your lungs, and bad for your brain. When produced, disposed of, accidentally discharged, or as they break down through regular wear, they can release harmful compounds into the environment. If not disposed of correctly, some of these products will spontaneously burst into flames.
For almost a decade, I’ve dreamed of building an off-grid solar system to power my woodworking, provide reliable back-up power for my home, and reduce the number of 2-stroke engines in my life. This was finally the year where I had the time and resources to do it.
My workshop isn’t big. The 12-foot by 16-foot shed houses not just my tools and workbenches, but also all our yard and gardening supplies, storage for assorted seasonal gear and decorations, and a pile of robot parts. So I needed a compact system that still delivered the amps.
Building a small off-grid solar system is simpler than you might think. Building a small off-grid solar system that can run power tools is a bit more complicated.
Every few years, I turn an analytical eye on my hobbies, assessing the lifecycle of the materials I use, the sources of inefficiency, and, most importantly, how the practice of the craft aligns with or deviates from my personal environmental ethic. In other words, I do a sustainability audit on my recreational activities. For the last year, I’ve focused on understanding and improving the environmental impacts of my woodworking.