Two years ago, I set out on a little mission: to build an off-grid solar array that would power my woodshop. This array needed to charge all my cordless batteries, but also drive my table saw, miter saw, circular saw, and the big router on my slab flattening jig. But there was a catch. The entire system could cost no more than one American Recovery Act stimulus check.
It worked. I beat the heck out of that set up and, other than in the dead of winter when it was too cold for the battery, it could handle most everything I threw at it, pretty well. It wasn’t perfect, and it had some issues with overdrawing, but the safety stops I put in place ensured that when I did push it too hard, it shut itself down rather than compromising components. There were limits, though, as I added bigger tools like a bench planer and started hogging through much tougher stock, I began to run into more and more issues.
So here we are, 2 years later, with all the upgrades and modifications that I made to my off-grid workshop to keep things running hard.
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.
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.