Friday, December 14, 2012

Holiday gIfts for all ye procrastinators

Social media—man, that can suck up a guy's time FAST! The thing that's been occupying my time lately is creating a new FaceBook "book" site. Please visit it. And "LIKE" it as long as you're there. It has a couple of dozen simple projects, tons of tips, lots of amazing wood photos and a section labeled "Times of the Signs" that will let you print out things ranging from an inspirational quote to a WET PAINT sign. Click here to get there:   Spike's new FaceBook page

Below are  beauty shots of some of the projects you'll find there—just in time for the holiday season. Even if you've procrastinated. Let the sawdust fly!

Crescent Moon Wine Bottle Rack
from "Ridiculously Simple Furniture Projects."

(Photography by Bill Zuehlke)

Wine for Two
from "Ridiculously Simple Furniture Projects"

(Photography by Bill Zuehlke)

And for the woodworker in your life—a sandbox!!
From  "Woodworking FAQ: The Workshop Companion"

Friday, October 26, 2012


What do woodworking and Maya Angelou have in common? Not much. But after seeing her speak a few days ago in Minneapolis, I have to jot down an impression or two.

Maya at her 82nd birthday party

         The curtain opens and there sits 84-year-old Maya Angelou. Her 6-foot frame rests comfortably in the chair. She has no notes or prompts; just a head full of stories and a keenness of mind that makes one think old age must start at 85 or beyond. She begins by belting out a few lines from an old blues standard. The packed house is enthralled. People laugh, cry, clap, whistle and shout "amen." And it only gets better.

Maya receiving the Presidential Award of Freedom

         One of the lines from the song exclaims, "When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine any more, God made a rainbow in the clouds." And that was her theme for the night: A look at these rainbows that helped make her—and all of us—who we are; people who love, support, teach and guide us in, sometimes, unexpected ways even in the darkest, cloudiest of times. 

         Maya's rainbows didn't come easy. She was shuttled between parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles while growing up. At the age of 8 she was raped. She told her brother about it and her abuser was found dead a few days later. Convinced her voice had killed him, she went mute for 5 years. It was during those five years Maya developed her keen sense of observation and a love of writing and literature.

         She had a child at 17 and made ends meet working as a streetcar conductor, cook and prostitute. But the rainbows in her life—and an indomitable spirit—drove her upward. She became a dancer, singer, actress, author, playwright, teacher, poet and speaker. She challenged those in the audience to think about the rainbows in their lives and how they could become rainbows in the lives of others.
         Her other theme was the need for courage—a trait Maya does not lack. Without courage, all other traits, strengths and aspirations lay dormant or, at best, underutilized.

         The takeaway from the evening was clear: Think about and thank those who have been rainbows in your clouds. And use your courage and strengths—whether it's woodworking, wisdom or time—to become a rainbow for others.

Friday, October 5, 2012


I spent part of last weekend at a delightfully old house (Arcola Mills), watching a pair of delightful young-at-heart men (Jim and Mike) build the parts to a delightfully old piece of furniture (a Windsor chair) using delightfully old tools and techniques (riving tools, draw knives and shaving horses.)

         The morning was full of one-line zingers that stuck in my brain. One was, "If you want to be a woodworker, you first have to be a metalworker," referring to the notion that you need to have sharp plane blades, chisels and other tools to get any woodworking done.

         Another great line came after Jim and Mike used a riving tool and shaving horse to rough out a chair spindle. "Yep, after a day of doing that, people didn't head to the gym."

         Another interesting notion was proposed: When folks moved from the old country to the new country they were usually allowed one chest to bring on the boat. GIven the sparseness of space, and the necessity of tools most people just brought the metal parts of their tools with them. The handles, plane bodies and other wooden parts were crafted upon arrival.
         The main thrust of the day was cranking out parts for a WIndsor Chair. Spindles were crafted, legs were turned and hoop for chair backs bent.
         While turning legs Mike began musing about "bodgers." There were a unique breed of men that turned chair legs for chair builders. Rather than hauling wood into a shop, then over to the chair makers, they found it more efficient to simply set up shop in the woods. They had their pole lathes, riving tools and planes in the great outdoors. It wasn't unusual for a bodger to crank out a gross (144) parts in a day. No need for the gym indeed.

  Bending the hoop back was another highlight. Jim had a steamer concocted of PVC pipe, tubing, an old gas can and a propane burner. 

After steaming the wood for 15 to 20 minutes, Mike and Jim bent the back over a form. I won't way their motions were like those of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, but—given the 30 seconds they had to get the hoop out of the steamer and into the mold—moved in exact harmony to get the job done.

 It was a thing of beauty—both in the making and in the final product.

For more information about Mike's woodworking school, visit
For more information about Arcola Mill, visit

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Kat and I are back from a four week-long vacation: We spent one week in London, one week in Rome, one week sailing the Isles of the Aegean Sea and one week recovering from jet lag and reverse culture shock. I'm just emerging.

A confessional from a church in Rome: Extraordinary craftsmanship using hand tools

         Travelling is one of those activities where there's a lot of Yin and Yang (which, by the way, translates from the Chinese words "shadow" and "light.") It's both invigorating and exhausting. It's relaxing and tension-filled —like when you think you're stranded in Istanbul. It's good to get a break from the day-to-day routine, yet you realize you sort of like that routine. Sometimes being immersed in other cultures make you think the American Dream isn't all the dreamy, while other times you feel there is truly no place like home.

Salvaged from an ancient shipwreck, these clay amphoras were designed to cleverly stack in the curved hull of a boat

         When I travel, I usually keep one eye open for amazing things crafted from wood; jewelry boxes, cathedrals, chairs—everything is fair game. I found lots of amazing wood things—more on that in later posts— but the thing that struck me on a more general level was the incredible craftsmanship and artistic eye our ancient relatives brought to things both great and small.
         I've included a few outstanding examples.

The design and proportions of the Celsus Library in Ephesus blew me away. Built in 117 AD, it once contained 12,000 scrolls (making it the third largest library in the world at the time). The city is surely a testament to our changing world; once a seaport, it's now 6 miles from the sea.

Monday, August 13, 2012


Kat and I just spent a fabulous week cruising around Montana and Idaho. We got to spend precious time with our daughter Maggie, granddaughter Anna and son-in-law Mace in Missoula. (The Saturday morning farmers market is beyond compare.) We spent a couple of days with Kat's sister, Ruth, and husband Craig in the hinterlands of Idaho. And we got to spend a few days reveling in the beauty of Priest Lake, great conversation, great companionship, long hikes and some mediocre card playing with our good friends Dan and Gretchen.

Stuck in between all of this, we spent two nights in Sand Point, Idaho at a place unlike any other we've ever visited. The name of the place was Talus Rock—and the place is part bed & breakfast, part farm, part commune, part spiritual retreat and totally cool in its construction and conception.
                                                        Talus Rock Website

Talus is the labor of love of Bruce and Heather Pedersen and their children Kipling, Rio and Selkirk. The profits from Talus go to lots of great organizations including the Orphan Children's Choir which brings together kids from around the world to create a touring choir.

This plaque tells a lot about the place and the people that reside there.
 If you're anywhere near Sand Point, you gotta stay there. The post and beam structure was crafted from beams from a couple of old structures from the area.

Even entering the front door to the place is a sort of spiritual experience—especially if you're a wood junky. Check it out.

Unique place, unique people, unique wood, unique experience.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


I’m wrapping up work on book #4, The Backyard Homestead Guide to Building Projects, which will be published by Storey Publishing next year. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have work I love, a wife that offers unconditional support and an editor that gives me lots of free rein.

         The book involves designing and prototyping lots of new things. I’m pretty comfortable with projects that are wood-based, like yard sheds, garden carts and raised bed gardens. I’ve worked with wood for 30 years and have a workshop full of tools and a head full of successes and failures. But some projects involve, what for me is, uncharted territory—like the flowerpot smoker. The only woods involved are the hickory chips that invoke their sweet smoky aroma. And it was here I encountered the sweet smell of success, and a small “eureka” moment.

The flowerpot smoker prototype
A flowerpot smoker is crafted from a couple of flowerpots, an electric hot plate, a small grill and a few other odds-and-ends. I cobbled my prototype together from information on the Internet, bought a 5-pound brisket, brined it overnight and began experimenting.

The meat of the matter

My cooking skills are pretty much limited to things containing the words eggs, pasta and stir fry. In other words, I’m a raging culinary rookie. I’m not at all like my daughter Maggie who can whip up a gourmet meal with one hand tied behind her back and the other holding sweet little Anna. (Read her award-winning Kitchie Coo BLOG for her thoughts on food, love and life.) I don’t have a storehouse of information or a backlog of successes to guide me through new projects. Four hours after switching the smoker on, I shredded the brisket, added a little barbecue sauce and took a bite. Wow—it wasn’t just good, it was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted? Why? Because it was flavored with the sweet smell of success.

The sweet smell of success!!

It made me realize that the success I felt as a rookie cook is akin to the success others feel as rookie woodworkers who have just crafted their first birdhouse or outdoor bench. That brisket put me back in touch with the thrill of crafting something beyond ones comfort zone for the first time. And that feels pretty darn good.