Novice woodworker dad needs a woodworking-related birthday gift
March 4, 2012 7:31 PM   Subscribe

Help me buy my accomplished novice woodworker father a related gift!

My 71 year-old father is a gastroenterologist who never had a hobby until he took a woodworking class 3 years ago. He just gave me a gorgeous walnut pedestal table that's made me swell with pride and gratitude. The walnut came from a downed tree in his friend's back yard. We chucked out our Ikea dining/kitchen table to make room for this beautifully useful thing.

His birthday is March 15 and I'd like to give him something he could use while woodworking. I've already given him a couple of books on projects he could do, and they went over kind of meh.

He still does all his work under the tutelage of a once-weekly instructed class, and he takes a long time to finish a project; my table took more than 2 years of once weekly sessions. All the tools and whatnot are available there, but I'd still like to give him something of his own to recognize that, if he ever wanted to, he could do this at home or anywhere, because just with this one table (actually his second piece), he's made quite an accomplishment.

So, what can I give him that's under, say, $150? A tool, like a plane? Some kind of classic woodworker's tome? An apron or smock, maybe? (Are those worn?) Something I could emboss or engrave? I'm completely stumped. Ideally I could buy this online and have it shipped in time for his birthday since we live a few hours apart.

Help me, hive mind! I want to do something really nice for my dad. He really likes it when I send him Baltimore crabcakes, but I feel like this year, he needs something more to show my gratitude for the table.
posted by ImproviseOrDie to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
What about a branding iron for his projects?

Branding Irons at Rockler
posted by Loto at 7:38 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

My father is a bit older than yours and is an amateur woodworker also. He adores the stuff he can get through Lee Valley tools. They have a website, some gorgeous books and stuff more in the toy range of tools. They also have really cool things like pen lathes for sale.
posted by ottergrrl at 7:39 PM on March 4, 2012

There's a market near me (which won't be of much use to you but read on) where one of the stallholders sells refurbished old tools, from the days when they were made to last, and made beautifully too.

Planes are priced within your range (and about what you'd pay for a decent one from your local harware megabarn). There are some fantastic spirit levels too, that would be the envy of any steampunk - all walnut & brass. Plenty of similar items, like lovely plumb lines & try squares (tri squares?).

The stallholder was full of enthusiasm for the old tools, saying they were just that much better made back then, and any parts that need sharpening etc can be sharpened, just as knives can.

I was wanting to take up woodworking just to build up a collection of these tools - they're really something special. See if you can find any online - "refurbished" or "restored" being your main keywords, I would guess.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:40 PM on March 4, 2012

I was coming in to suggest an old hand plane. I haven't used one since school (high school, that is), but have recently been thinking that I want one of my own.
posted by bibliogrrl at 7:43 PM on March 4, 2012

This looks like a good starting point for finding a nearby restorer.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:43 PM on March 4, 2012

I suggest trying to find a very good tool, like a plane, and maybe a book that isn't how-to but more woodworking philosophy. My cousin is a serious woodworker and put out a book recently called The Anarchist's Tool Chest that has gotten really good reviews from hand tool fans and has been mentioned in AskMe threads before. Duluth Trading company makes a lot of good work type clothes and they have this pretty neat bib apron that you could get embroidered.
posted by jessamyn at 7:45 PM on March 4, 2012

may i suggest looking into shoji. japanese screens, handmade, wood, paper, glue. sounds easy. simple hand tools, become proficient and create works of art.
posted by goutytophus at 7:49 PM on March 4, 2012

nthing old hand tools: they come from an era when they were built for serious, daily use, and they carry their history with them.

Roy Underhill has always promoted the "from forest to furniture" philosophy, and his books are good reading. He's been doing stuff recently with jessamyn's aforementioned cousin (!), which is a nice dovetailing of generations.
posted by holgate at 8:17 PM on March 4, 2012

You might call and ask the folk at Lee Valley what they recommend. They also do a nice smock.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:22 PM on March 4, 2012

In my very limited woodworking experience, I learned that it's really important to keep your tools sharp. He'd probably like a nice set of sharpening stones and a chisel sharpening jig if he doesn't have them already.
posted by scose at 8:37 PM on March 4, 2012

Old tools are great for collectors as display pieces, but if you're looking for something that your Dad will actually use stick with modern tools. The old tools were used by young guys with the physical strength to drive them. If he doesn't already have one a subscription to Fine Woodworking magazine could be one part of your gift. The magazine has lots of tips and techniques for beginners and experts. It talks about tools and fininshing products. A good shop apron is still a standard for woodworkers, along with safety gear.
posted by X4ster at 8:40 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get him a Magic Angle Sculpture by John V. Muntean.
posted by joinks at 8:54 PM on March 4, 2012

2nding a subscription to Fine Woodworking.

His own set of quality chisels would be nice, because if he has to share what the school has they might not be kept as sharp as they could be. You could include a cabinet scraper and a sharpening stone. Lee Valley is a good source for these.

If he wears glasses, how about a pair of safety glasses in his prescription? This might require collusion with his wife/significant other, or his optometrist.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:04 PM on March 4, 2012

Old tools are great for collectors as display pieces, but if you're looking for something that your Dad will actually use stick with modern tools.

In some cases, yes, but I dare say for most hand tools, if you're just grabbing at random and not cherry picking (i.e. Lie Nielsen, et al), in a contest between a pre-WWII tool and something new, bet on the pre-WWII tool. That said, learning the difference between a good pre-WWII tool and one that has been ruined, or something that was cranked out in haste after the war, and winning one on E-bay that's in reasonable shape, and getting it into good working order is probably not something you can do between now and the 15th.

Fortunately for you, not too long ago, someone at a company that was rapidly becomming known for it's garage door openers said, "You know, we used to make really good tools. Let's do that again!"

Of the items they've put out, I'd recommend the No. 92 Shoulder Plane (which makes lots of fiddly joinery go together like a dream), the No. 4 Smoothing Bench Plane or some subset of their socket chisels. They're all solid choices. If you go this route, make sure you're getting the re-released Sweetheart tools.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:10 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, old tools are lovely to look at, awesome to hold, but often a bitch to actually use. Seconding the plane, but you need to know what type he is most likely to use a lot - plane's ain't planes. Chisels might be a better and safer bet - the best quality you can afford rather than as many as you can afford.
posted by dg at 9:13 PM on March 4, 2012

A Starret Square - super useful, extremely well made and something you'll use on every single project you make.

Wixey Angle gauge - again very useful and something you end up using very often.

Or you could just get him a gift certificate to Lee Valley where he can get whatever he actually needs when he figures out he needs it.
posted by zeoslap at 10:42 PM on March 4, 2012

OK, looking at all the "old tools aren't very useful" comments a couple things occur to me.

1) I could probably make a lot of money betting people I could remove planer scallop from oak boards faster with grungy old hand tools then they can with a shiny new random orbit sander.

2) Most people probably have the samel amount of hair on the back of their left and right arm.

3) If you want to be successful and enjoy woodworking, it helps to have the equipment and know how to make your tools sharp. So scorse' recommendation, along with something like this book, is a pretty good idea, though if he's dealing with tools that aren't exactly his, getting them all razor sharp so other people could dull them would get old in a hurry.

Also, Jessamyn's cousin's book is part of the giant pile of woodworking books currently protecting my nightstand from nuclear attack. I enjoyed the hell out of it and learned quite a but it is primarily hand tool focused. However, if he's thinking about setting up his own shop at home, it might be just the thing.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:10 PM on March 4, 2012

There are an awful lot of ways to go with this. If he's working at an all-tools-provided shop, it's likely that the hand tools they have on hand are in poor condition. This is the typical situation in such shops, because edges sharp enough for fine wood cutting are very delicate, and it's not worth it for any one person to spend time sharpening and tuning up a tool just so his classmates can abuse it and make a waste of his efforts. A small, good-quality plane would be a great idea.

The best new planes available right now without tracking down an artisinal machinist and paying a week's salary are Lie Nielsen's. One of their low-angle block planes would fit the bill nicely.

Lee Valley Tools has a line of their own planes. I haven't used any of them, but I would generally say that Lee Valley uses good-quality materials and manufacturing, but the designs tend to be less attractive and sometimes more innovative than is good for them.

In older planes, you're almost certainly looking at a Stanley. This can be a bit tricky, because Stanley's quality has varied dramatically over time. The recent ones (the last couple of decades, at least) are junk, but back in the 60's and earlier, Stanley made some very fine tools. If you're looking eBay, try adding "bedrock" or "sweetheart" to your search string, to find some of the better ones. You probably can't afford a Stanley bedrock anything, but a sweetheart tool (stamped logo includes a heart and the letters SW) is probably within reach. Make sure there are no cracks in the castings, that all the parts are there, and that the blade isn't deeply pitted from rust.

If you can swing it, a combination waterstone like item G on this page would really complete the picture. Without a good sharpening stone, no plane is going to be useful for long.
posted by jon1270 at 3:11 AM on March 5, 2012

To follow up, it looks like Stanley has revived the sweetheart line. I meant to recommend the originals, not the new ones. It's possible that Stanley is stepping up their game and producing some quality tools again, but I'd be very cautious about them.
posted by jon1270 at 3:21 AM on March 5, 2012

Not just a subscription to Fine Woodworking - get the freaking 36 year archive on CD for $100.
posted by klarck at 1:01 PM on March 5, 2012

Y'all are awesome! (And I use "y'all" advisedly, since my dad is a dyed-in-the-wool southerner.)

So many great answers here, thank you. I marked as best the ones I think he'd actually use. I'm particularly excited about the branding iron, since his wife was after him to sign or scratch his name into the tables he's made for me and for her. And it's the kind of thing I could see being a real keepsake both for him and for others even after he's no longer around.

To thank you, here's a photo of my dad and the table he made me.

Cheers, AskMe!
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:07 PM on March 5, 2012

That table is GORGEOUS! I'm totally jealous!
posted by TooFewShoes at 5:09 PM on March 5, 2012

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