Monthly Archives: November 2008


In a lot of ways the United States is not the country it used to be.  In some ways that’s good.  In many other ways, it is not.

Years ago, a lot of what we bought in America was made in America.  For some that was a mark of pride.  When I was young, “Made in Japan” meant inferior quality; cheap; junk.  Now General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are begging the government for billions of our dollars to stay afloat while Toyota, Honda and others keep churning out cars that Americans are interested in purchasing.

We don’t make much here any more.  Most consumer products are made in China.  I looked up “Ikea” in a Swedish dictionary the other day and discovered that it translates to “Made in Malaysia, Viet Nam, China, and Bolivia.  Paper napkins made in America.”   At least there’s still a market in this country for recycled paper.

Furniture?  Nearly all overseas.  Why is that?  It’s because of cost, primarily, but I think there is more to it than that.  Generally, I think we’ve become a “throw-away” society.   We buy water in plastic bottles instead of going to the faucet.  We throw away everything.   And we don’t think about what we’re doing.  We think we’re saving money.  We’re not.

Computers (just one example of dozens) have a market life of way less than a year, and American consumers think nothing of paying a thousand dollars for a computer on which they play games, perhaps watch a movie or two, check their email, and write a blog.  Three or four years later the computer is either being recycled or sitting in a landfill.  But it’s no longer doing what the purchaser paid for.  That’s about $250 for each year of use.

Furniture is no different.  There isn’t much demand for well-made furniture that is designed and then built to last for generations.   Most likely, that’s because a lot of consumers don’t know the difference between well-made items and what they buy at Target or their local furniture stores.   But there is a difference.

There are still people in America who know how to choose wood carefully, use tools wisely, and create useful items.  But there are not as many as there used to be, and it is very difficult for these people to make a decent living doing what they do.  Is it unreasonable for such a person to charge $30, or $40, or $50 per hour for their time?  Sure, to the “average person” that’s a lot of dough.  But go back to the computer example for a minute.  Remember the $250 per year?  Do the math.  Use the same calculations on a table, or a chest of drawers that is carefully crafted.  Built well enough to last thirty years, or sixty.  By the standards of computer longevity that table should cost $7,500 or $15,000.  When it only costs half that, or a quarter, you would think that hand-crafted furniture should be flying out the doors of our shops.  But it’s not, of course.

So we find our satisfaction in the craft, in the doing.  We find it in our time in the shop, where we clean, we putter, we sharpen, and we work.  We try to do it better each time at the bench.

The good news is this.  In this day of Ikea and Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club and Costco there are still good things to be found in America.  And craftsmen who know how to make them.


Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon.  He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.

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Craig’s List

Like a lot of woodworkers, I use Craig’s List a lot.

These days I’m looking for a nice old American cast iron glue pot for hot hide glue.  And whenever I use Craig’s List I get there through SearchTempest.

This is by far the fastest, easiest way to search for your next acquisition on Craig’s List.  Here’s how it works:  You simply go to SearchTempest, enter your search terms as you normally would, and fill in a few blanks specifying your home zip code and how far you want to drive to see your goodies.  This neat automated search site does the rest.  The best part is – once you get the search criteria dialed in the way you want, save the search by bookmarking it in your browser.  The next time you open the link the search runs automatically and your results are there for your review.

It’s a terrific time saver.

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Hand Tools

My first memory of using a hand tool comes form my grandfather’s basement.  He had a small workbench tucked away in the corner, just behind the basement stairs.  He had a block plane or two, two cornering tools that would put a nice little radius or a small chamfer on the edge of a board.  There was a hand drill, plus the usual assortment of wrenches and pliers.  A woodworker he was not.  But something about those few tools for wood drew me downstairs nearly every visit.   Okay, so there was also the case of small 7-Up bottles under the stairs, and the pliers that seemed to work almost as well as a bottle opener.

I first learned about wood grain then, although I didn’t realize it.  I discovered that those cornering tools worked in only one direction along the edge of that wood.  Pull them along in one direction and a thin shaving of wood spiraled from the tool.  The edge was smooth.  Pleasing.  But shift into reverse, move in the opposite direction, and…good grief, what have I done here?  Where there was a nicely rounded edge, now there is carnage.  Chunks of wood torn away, splinters everywhere.  Nothing pleasing about that!  So, back to the original direction, repair the damage as much as possible.  Not as nice a the first attempt; a few craters remain behind, but better.  I never did figure out why this happened, but I learned to pay attention with that first pass of the tool.  If it worked the way I knew it could, I kept the tool moving in that direction.  If I felt the tearing beneath the edge, STOP and reverse course.

That was a long time ago.  I was about ten years old.  Between the small sense of discovery there, and the scent of a fresh shaving of pine, I think the hook was set.

The 7-Up didn’t hurt, either.


Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon.  He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.

Categories: Woodworking | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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