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My Woodworking Journey

I’m here at the end of one journey and the start of another. The first was unplanned, meandering, frustrating at times, but led me to the one I’m beginning now. The difference is this journey involves planning and dedication.

My first experience with woodworking began in junior high school. Oak Crest Junior High in Beach Park, Illinois had an optional woodworking/shop class. I remember learning how to use a lathe and other power tools. We also worked with plastics and resins. These days, I can’t imagine schools would allow kids younger than 14 to work with such dangerous tools and materials. I made several terrific wood and plexiglas lamps which I gifted to my parents and grandmother. It’s a shame they were lost long ago.

At the time, I didn’t exactly fall in love with woodworking, nor decide to dedicate my life to it. But it did become one of the many facets of my overall desire to MAKE. I spent most of my free time constructing and fixing things. Erector sets, Radio Shack electronic kits, model cars, and balsa wood planes were my passions. I would haunt garage sales to find old broken radios and phonographs that I took home to fix, then resold to make some money.

The next era in my first journey occurred because I became interested in theater. First in high school plays and musicals, then through a couple of community theater groups, I discovered how much I liked building larger things. I quickly became proficient at set design and building. There were a number of theater productions where I  designed and was in charge of building the set interior and exteriors (The Importance of Being Ernest, The Fantasticks, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Music Man stand out in my memory of proud achievements).

By the late ’80s, I’d given up my pursuit of theater, mostly due to settling down to have a family. In the first house I owned, I used a few power tools, but only to work on the house and build a tree house for the kids. Then I discovered a new passion for crafting dollhouse miniatures using a miniature table saw and hand tools. My daughter wanted a dollhouse, so I bought a kit at Hobby Lobby, and as is my nature, customized the heck out of it. Then I started making miniature furniture and found I was GOOD at it. I haven’t crafted miniatures in well over 20 years, but I hope to get back to that one day.

Finally, when my second wife Betsy and I purchased a house together, I began to convert the garage into a true workshop like I never had before. I started out with a small table saw, miter saw, drill press, routers, sanders, and dabbled with a small lathe.

The next stage in my woodworking career came when I actually started making money – and it’s all thanks to the game of cribbage.

As a kid, my mom and dad taught me to play cribbage at the kitchen table. This began a lifelong love for the game, which I taught Betsy. We became obsessed with this old-fashioned playing card and pegging game and started building an impressive collection of vintage cribbage boards. Although we found a lot of variety in the boards,  I began to note a lack of originality in the woods used and definitely the quality. So one day I decided to start making my own.

Using exotic woods I bought largely from eBay and other online sellers, I crafted quite a number of great boards. Almost all of them involved using my drafting skills to lay out the design in pencil on the wood. I then routed out the inlets with a Dremel rotary tool and a routing jig. After hand cutting the inlay material with X-Acto knives and painstakingly gluing them in, the most tedious task was drilling all the holes. I used a standard drill press with hand made fences and jigs to drill hundreds of holes after drawing the patterns onto the wood. I got really good at this, but it was nerve wracking work as drilling a hole off by only a 32nd of an inch can be obvious. And more than once a careless mistake led to scrapping a board I’d already spent many hours working on.

One of my early cribbage boards

Despite little setbacks, I was on my way to a profitable business selling cribbage boards. Starting on eBay and eventually setting up my own website, I sold dozens of unique and custom cribbage boards, some for several hundred dollars. I eventually burned out due to the extraordinary amount of time and some of the frustrations along the way. It didn’t help that I was getting more and more requests for custom boards that I didn’t have the means or desire to produce. One day I just stopped making them.

I didn’t do much woodworking for a couple of years until I discovered Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining. Sears started selling one of these computer controlled routers, which was among the first on the market for home use. I actually went as far as ordering one for around $1,200. Then I started seeing reviews by early adopters, changed my mind, and cancelled it. A year or two later I came across plans for a do-it-yourself CNC machine using wood and off-the-shelf electronic parts. With many years of expertise working with electronics, I jumped at the opportunity to get into CNC routing.

My first CNC Router

That part of my journey took around three years. First I spent a few months building my first machine. The electronics part was fairly easy, but putting together a tool that had the precision necessary to do what I wanted was elusive for awhile. I stalled out once or twice, rebuilt most of it several times until I finally got good enough at using it – to build a completely new version of my own design! What I am using now may not look like a typical commercial CNC machine, but it does terrific work. After it was finally finished I spent weeks learning how to use it to cut the inlets and drill holes for cribbage boards. I produced a number of great boards with much better quality than those I crafted years ago. As of this writing, my new and improved boards are for sale on this website.

My CNC Router Mark III

I didn’t want to plunge right back into selling cribbage boards because there were other ideas I wanted to pursue and didn’t want to get bogged down in production. I continued to upgrade my workshop and improve my skills. Then I discovered 3D printing, which led to the last year and a half of my odyssey.

My first 3D Printer

I’ve been purchasing tools and parts from Micromark.com (The Small Tools Specialist!) for nearly 30 years. One day nearly two years ago, I was looking through an email from them advertising sales and clearance items. I noticed they were discontinuing an “Anifibot Prusa i3” 3D printer kit for under $300. The Prusa line of 3D printers is an open source platform that has revolutionized this technology for hobbyists and small workshops. I considered dabbling in 3D printing for years, so I bought one.

Needless to say, this part of the journey was initially daunting. With a steep learning curve and initial lack of proper directions (and a major part that was defective), it took me a couple weeks to put this together and get it working. Then it took me a couple more months just to get it optimized and modified to the point it was useful for something. One of the first major parts I printed was the new router mount for my CNC machine that you see in the above picture. Of course, I also spent a lot of time learning to use Computer Aided Design (CAD), 3D modeling, and “Slicing” software.

Initially skeptical about this venture, Betsy embraced it wholeheartedly when she saw some of the samples I was printing and the creative aspects became apparent. This  resulted in creating our line of Animal Ice Cream Bites© and Gem Skulls. Although I eventually got this little printer working quite well, it had a couple of major drawbacks: it couldn’t print pieces much larger than what could be contained in an 8 x 8 x 8 inch cube. It also couldn’t use advanced printing materials, such as nylon and carbon fiber.

My Ultimate 3D Printer

I began to consider moving to a bigger and better machine, but most of the machines that did what I wanted cost $4,000 or more. After some weeks of research, I used my newfound skills using the CAD program Fusion 360 to design my own machine. The next step took three months of intense work that involved learning several new skills including some metalworking. The result is the machine you see above. I used the first 3D printer to make parts for the new one, then used the new one to reprint better versions of its own parts. Those are Mahogany doors on the front.

So now I am beginning my new journey in woodworking and becoming a maker. My next piece, which I’ll complete soon, involves all my skills: CAD design, woodworking, CNC routing, 3D printing, metalworking and electronics. Watch this space … it’s coming soon!