Woodworking 101: Handtools, try-squares, and try, try again

I don’t think I realized how much of a ‘builder’ or ‘tinkerer’ I am since I left grad school. Now that I’m transitioning out of doing my own research and doing things with my own hands, I find myself jonesing to make and build. I think it is a part of my nature, my mother even tells me so by recounting stories from my childhood where I would spend hours building puzzles, making art, and playing with Erector sets. I’m older now, yet all of this still excites me. Strangely enough, my engineering job keeps me away from doing much tinkering, so I decided to branch out…

It all started when months, after living in an apartment with hardly any furniture (I’ve put off buying any because IKEA puts me off, and the fine furniture I admire puts my wallet off), I thought it might be nice to build furniture of my own. I naively signed up to take a woodworking class at the Oregon College of Art and Craft; it was a 10 week class focused on hand tools, and taught by a really passionate instructor, Sterling Collins (you can see his professional work here). The class started off slow (at least in my own mind), I mean, we did spend an entire class learning how to sharpen chisels, but I’m glad I got to get started in the craft with hand tools as opposed to power tools. I feel like I was able to gain a solid appreciation for the craft, an intuitive feel for the wood, and I think there is something beautifully primitive in being ‘one with the wood’. Don’t get me wrong, it is tough work, my arms got quite the workout initially, but over time, this was an incredible experience.

Practicing sharpening chisels.Way more important than I ever would have thought!

One of things I really enjoyed about the class was that we actually made a try-square (a measuring device)…by using our hand tools! It was challenging to get the angle to be flat and a perfect 90 degrees, but it was such an accomplishment when all was said and done. I learned how to use a saw (it takes more skill than you’d think), how to carve a mortise to a tenon, and how to put pins in for added stability. 




Finally, I used a coping saw to add a bit of flair to the end of the try-square. This try-square was made after this model. I’d been reading a lot of literature on hand-tools (what’s worth buying, techniques, etc), and Chris Schwarz books and ethos have really spoken to me. He has written much on the beauty of making one’s own tools and he is a strong advocate of using hand tools. He is apparently visiting Portland in April, I’m hoping to find time to make it to one of his workshops!

Until then, I suppose I’ll admire my finished try-square 🙂



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