Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tool Review - Wixey Digital Angle Gauge

One of the most valuable tools in my shop is my digital angle finder. Wixey makes the one that I chose for my angle-finding duties. It can be purchased through the site, on, or a variety of other sites for approximately $40 as of this posting. One bonus for buying through the Wixey site is free shipping.

The thing that I like most about using it is that the surface that it is being used on does not have to be level to begin with. To use it push the power button, place it on the reference surface (such as the table saw table, workbench top, or drill press table) and hold the zero button. This zeros the angle out. Then place it against the object that you want to find the angle for such as the table saw, drill press, or the project being assembled on the workbench.

One of the creative ways that I have found to use this is to clamp my miter gauge to the workbench, zero out the Wixey angle-finder, then hold it against the miter gauge bar. This enables me to obtain more accurate miters thus tighter joints and a more attractive finished product. If my miter gauge was not the cheap one with an aluminum bar I would not need to hold it in place while I lock in the exact angle.

The Wixey angle gauge features two small, but powerful magnets on the bottom to attach to any ferrous metal surface. The buttons are also easy to access and the digital display is easy to read. The one area that I found lacking is a back light on the display. This would make is easier to read. However, considering a shop should have adequate lighting to begin with, this has not been a very big drawback.

The Wixey angle finder reads 180 degrees and reads out to one-tenth of a degree. The accuracy is +/- 1 degree. The size of the unit is also very nice because the blade on a saw does not need to be raised too high to get a good angle read. The unit is two inches tall by two inches wide and about an inch and a half thick. The unit has an auto-shut off to preserve battery life. I store mine on a metal shelf in my garage where it has been subjected to 100-degree summer temps and –20-degree winter temps for 9 months now and the battery is still good.

The verdict – if you want to take your joinery and cutting accuracy to the next level a digital angle finder should be on your wish list. There are a few other brands out there, but I would recommend Wixey. They are a trusted name in digital measuring devices.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Google SketchUp

I have recently been working with SketchUp, an intuitive offering from Google used in the design of architecture, landscape, woodworking projects, and more.

I started my design experience in my senior year of high school. I took a mechanical drafting class where I learned to draw out plans with a T-square, architect rule, and drafting pencil. That was very educational. I got to use my visual creativity with the geometry that my geometry teacher promised me I would use “somewhere in life.” Fast-forward two years to my sophomore year in college where I took a class that taught AutoCad.

It was only then when I realized how humbling hand-drafting plans really was. I thought the world could not get any easier than throwing down lines and arcs with the click of a mouse, setting up accurate angles with a few strokes of the keyboard, and dimensioning out the whole plan with a few simple commands. Then I discovered SketchUp!

While I am just learning the ins and outs of this program I am constantly amazed at the ease of use and interface, yet the power to manipulate objects and turn 2D surfaces into 3D shapes with the very powerful push/pull tool. Everything is done on an X,Y,Z axis, each of which is assigned a color. When using the line tool the line will change to the color of the axis that corresponds with the plane the line is on. That is a mouthful and sounds way more fancy than it is. Simply stated the program helps align the direction the line is going and gives the user an easy and quick reference to see.

There are a series of tutorials that have been set up on YouTube, presumably by the folks at Google, to teach the software. There are easy to follow lessons and within a few short videos has the user building their first design – a chair.

Google offers both a free and fee version of SketchUp. While I am more than impressed with the free version, I can only imagine what SketchUp Pro has to offer. With the price tag of almost $500 I will have to keep imagining, as that price seems prohibitive for all except those running a serious woodworking business. Google does offer a page that compares the offerings of each version and it does seem that a business could easily justify the expense based on the presentation options available in SketchUp Pro.

The verdict – If one could not already tell, Google SketchUp is the cat’s pajamas and will have its users producing publication quality project plans in no time! Well worth the minimal time to learn and entertaining enough to spend the time to master, especially during the cold winter months when being in the garage is not all that appealing!

Basic Shop Safety

It has been said before and I will reiterate it here again, “Safety is not an accident.”

There is a standing joke with those that know someone that does woodworking. It is said many different ways but to the effect of, “Still have all your fingers?” While that is funny in conversation, it is not when your digits are inches from a blade with so little indifference for what it cuts. One little slip and it is off to the hospital, hopefully with something on ice to be reattached. I say this not to be gruesome. It is a harsh truth that needs to be thought about before touching a switch on any power tool.

Please read the manuals that come with your power tools. It may not seem very macho to read directions, but neither is the need to be cared for due to an otherwise avoidable error. If you have questions on the proper use of the tools seek the advice of someone at the store where you bought it or another fellow woodworker since fewer people at the store actually know what they are selling or how to use them.

Safety glasses are the single most important accessory a craftsman can wear. Without sight it will be very difficult to design and build future masterpieces. There are always small projectiles flying off blades, shapers, and sanders. It is also important to remember safety glasses when working with paints, finishes, and the various other chemicals that are crucial to shop work. Also, if you cannot see, it will be difficult to enjoy future posts on this blog! There are many styles and sizes of safety eyewear including standard safety glasses, prescription safety glasses, goggles, and even tinted safety glasses. Go to your local hardware store or optometrist to select the best eye wear option to fit your needs.

With newer technology a lot of tools are starting to run smoother, more efficient, and therefore quieter than their predecessors. This does not reduce the need for sufficient ear protection. According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health a noise level of 80 dB for 25 hours can cause hearing damage while at 110 dB hearing damage can occur in as little as one minute. This is a small range and one in which most power tools operate. The good news is that ear protection does not equate to a wad of foam or wax shoved into the ears anymore. Today’s hearing protection includes one size fits all foam protectors as well as earmuffs. Now, while earmuffs do not sound exciting to wear, there are many options and prices to choose from. There are a lot of companies that make muff-style hearing protection. Peltor makes a passive muff available for less than $25. At that price there is no excuse to not wear hearing protection. AOSafety has a model for less than $75 that has an AM/FM radio with preset options built in. It also has a jack for plugging into an external media player. Noisebuster has muffs that actually reverse the sound that is coming into the muff so that it cancels out the sound before it enters the ear canal. This model is available at the time this article was written for around $150.

Clothing is one area that is usually not considered when working in the shop. If it makes us feel comfortable it is the right clothing, correct? Wrong. While that favorite sweater may feel warm, the sleeves are apt to be caught on the moving parts of a tool and cause serious injury. The key here is not to wear baggy clothes, push up sleeves, and remove any and all jewelry including watches and rings. Here is an excuse to make a nice jewelry box to keep those in while working in the shop. Also, long hair can get caught in equipment so it is advisable to pull hair back and keep it away from moving parts.

Last but certainly not least I want to focus on the shop itself. Now I know that the guards and built in safety features are all still installed on your tools, right? Right? Well, they should be. We are all guilty that one, myself included. While looking for where the safety guard for the table saw was stashed in order to reinstall it, look around for any clutter that may cause injury. Tripping, slipping, and falling are injuries that happen easy enough and take little effort to minimize the risk of. Proper dust and debris management is very important not only to safety but to ensure a proper finish on the projects being built. Keep a shop broom and dustpan near by and keep the debris off the floor. Saw dust on a slick garage floor is a recipe for an accident. Again, I am guilty of this one but do at least make an effort to keep the dust away from where I am walking.

So there you have it. With this information, understanding how your tools work, and an ounce of common sense you can enjoy many years of rewarding, major injury-free woodworking. Happy Crafting!

You Want to Set Up Shop...So Where Do You Start?

There are a few different schools of thought when it comes to equipping a new shop. Few are better than others. Here is some advice I would impart on someone looking to get into the art of woodworking.

There are many tools one will need while partaking in the rewarding past time of woodworking. The most important tools are those given to you at birth. That said, safety is key when working with any tools. For more on this visit the Shop Safety post.

Of course one will need at least a minimal set of hand tools including but not limited to:

Tape measure (25 ft recommended)

Claw Hammer

Screwdriver set (not just a driver with interchangeable bits)


Compound Square (in addition a framer's square is convenient to have)

Clamps - spring clamps, quick grip clamps, and bar clamps. One can never have too many clamps; start a collection.

Once these minimal tools have been attained it is time to get down to business! I would recommend starting with a quality circular saw. Some would say to get a good table saw. I dispute that on the basis that I completed a lot of projects before owning a table saw. It is a sizable investment to purchase even an entry level table saw. Dust management, an edge guide, and laser guiding are all things to consider when choosing a circular saw. The next tool that I would purchase, at the same time as the saw if possible, would be a router.

There are a few things to consider when choosing a router such as power, collet size, variable speed control, etc. One may also want to consider a combo kit. A combo kit includes a motor, a fixed base, and a plunge base. Stay tuned for router reviews.

A pair of sanders is the next purchase to be made. Now that the minimum required tools have been bought and projects are pouring out of the shop too fast for hand sanding it is time to upgrade from hand to electric. Consider a random orbital sander and a half-sheet sander to start with. Dust collection is the key. Down the road consider a belt sander, but for now an orbital sander and sheet sander with good dust collection is a must.

It is now time to move up to the big time. It is time to invest in a table saw. Notice the term invest. There are expensive saws, cheap saws, and saws that are ridiculously priced. I recommend starting in the $400 - $600 range. I will cover table saw options and things to consider in a later post.

Of course there are other tools beyond a table saw to consider. This is just a recommendation of how to start outfitting a shop from scratch.

Have a good one and remember, Safety is not an accident!