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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Art deco beer

I am actually out in my shop today working on the entertainmnent center. I've decided to take a cue from the Golden Gate Bridge and go with a (sort-of) art deco style. Here's what I'm working on:

But more importantly, my beer isn't getting really cold. Let me explain:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Entertainment center and SketchUp

After an immense amount of help from readers, watching countless how-to videos, and mostly just spending a lot of time experimenting, I am beginning to get a grasp on SketchUp. I really like it and can feel myself improving and getting faster. It's pretty nice to be able to move elements of a project around without having to get out a new sheet of paper or doing a lot of erasing.

The entertainment center is giving me a lot of SketchUp practice. Bear in mind, this is a really crude drawing, but it's my first attempt. After a lot of evolution, I have boiled it down to a design that I kind of like, and is very minimal. The idea here is that a small shelf on top will hold the TV, and the two lower shelves will hold the components. The rear support (leg) is for cord management. I think I'll include a power strip inside. I might turn the front legs, but for this illustration, I've just got cylinders.

I haven't included any joints that will hold the backs of the shelves into the rear support. (It took me long enough to get to this point!) I'm thinking possibly dados, or even just small cleats beneath. But it's the top shelf that I'm not sure how to deal with. It needs to support the TV, which is pretty light...maybe 30 pounds, but I don't want front legs (dowels) that would interfere with the components on the large shelf.

So right now, the top (TV) shelf is just magically floating there. Any ideas (in the real world, with actual wood) how I can make that shelf sturdy enough to support the TV, yet only attach on one side?  I suspect that's not really practical.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A window blind rainstick

You've probably heard me say before, "I'm not green, I'm just a cheapskate". While people often find that quip amusing, it is meaningful to me. I try to use every part of the buffalo that I can. Repurposing wood is both practical and frugal.

Many people give new life to old wood pallets. I like to scour Craigslist for free stuff — old desks, shelves, chairs, whatever — that I can take apart and salvage their once-beautiful woods. A little sanding, a few passes through a planer, and even the most horrific-looking wood is as good as new. Not only is lumber (and paper, I might add) a renewable resource, but it recycles well. It's what woodworkers have always known and practiced without having to announce it on bumperstickers or eat tofu.

I was delighted to see that Philippe Chretien came up with the clever idea to reuse some old window blinds and make his own rainstick!  I love how long the rain sound lasts in his version. Also, Phillipe has posted detailed instructions on Instructables.com. Rock on Philippe: a true Mortal woodworker.

If you've made some cool new stuff out of old stuff, let's see it! If you haven't signed onto the Mere Mortals Facebook page yet, head on over. I recently figured out how to let users upload their own project photos. (Yeah, I'm a little slow on the learning curve.) There are already a whole bunch of pictures and great ideas. Show us what you've got!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Google Sketchup for Mortals

I want to thank everyone who has helped me out with Sketchup. I can't believe how many of you flooded me with tons of great advice, links and info. I'm starting to make sense out of it now. Mostly, I just need to practice.

I'd like to introduce guest blogger Mike Lehikoinen (Pickering Mike) who wrote up this completely awesome and straightforward tutorial to get us started. Please visit his blog: Ramblings of a Novice Woodworker  and drop him a line.


Answering the Challenge - A Mortal look into Sketchup

Not too long after I took the plunge and started woodworking, I re-discovered Sketchup. I had explored it once before without any tutelage when trying to plan out my renovations. Before long, anything I drew became something that came out the business end of a spaghetti factory. The desire was there, but knowledge of the concepts was eluding me something fierce. Return to my foray into woodworking and it wasn't long before I stumbled upon Sketchup for Woodworkers where Rob created some free online tutorials. That got me started. Furthering my education was Bob Lang's videos (both through Popular Woodworking & his own published pdf book). While Bob covers the basics quite well, he quickly gets into the more advanced and leads you down the merry path to what is empowering 3D drafting. Which is great if you are totally OCD about your plans like me.

Taking a (if I can borrow the term) 'Mere Mortal' look into Sketchup and answering Steve's challenge, here are the top 5 things I recommend to make sketchup a great 3D tool for planning while keeping it as simple as possible. For Mac users, I apologize now as I have no clue on how to use one. I tried in the Apple store, but I couldn't even get a store employee to show me how to use one. So my instructions are geared for Windows users. The Sketchup for Woodworkers videos are geard for Mac users as that is what the author uses.

1. Get your settings calibrated first. If you are using the settings for Architectural planning, it will quickly become tedious. This breaks down into a couple of simple steps:

• Choose the template for woodworking (inches or millimeters) - This screen comes up when you launch Sketchup or you can choose it in the Preferences window (located within the Windows menu):

• If you choose the Inches template, you will want to set your units to allow up to 1/64” increments. This is done through the Windows – Model Info menu

• You also want to have some more tool buttons available. Use the View – Toolbars menu to select the tools. For beginners I recommend keeping it simple.

 • Finally, I recommend having the Instructor open (through the Windows – Instructor menu choice). The instructor is a very useful and powerful teaching tool that I wish I knew about when I was starting Sketchup. Try selecting different tool buttons and see what happens in the Instructor window. I think Google should have it open by default upon installation for new users. It can get in the way, but simply clicking on the title bar of the Instructor window will cause all but the title bar to collapse and you can move it out of the way.

2. Lines, faces and objects - The Instructor will only get you so far. To progress to the creation of objects – in the woodworker’s case, boards – one must understand objects. In Sketchup, objects are made up of faces and lines. One simply cannot have an object without them. A basic board consists of 6 faces and 12 lines. When you create a rectangle and use the push/pull tool to raise it into 3 dimensions, Sketchup does not know that you want it to act as a solid object. What you have drawn is 6 faces that share 12 lines. You have to tell Sketchup that you want it to act as a 3 dimensional object:

• Triple click on a face of the board. It will highlight all 6 faces and 12 lines.

• Right click on a highlighted face and click on Make Group. You have now created a 3 dimensional object that will not change when you try to move it. If you need to make a change to the object, double click on it to enter edit mode for that object.

Okay, okay, I hear everyone saying that Components are much more powerful. Yes, they are, but I don’t recommend playing with components until you master the basics. You have to learn to walk before you can tango.

3. Learn your navigation – Play with the rotate, pan and zoom commands until you feel comfortable with them. I use the mouse wheel as it’s the fastest way in my opinion. Spin the wheel to zoom and click the wheel (and hold it) to rotate. To pan, use the rotate sequence while holding the shift key. Navigation through pan, zoom and rotate are key to mastering the basics. Draw a simple box and practice these skills around it. If you lose sight of the box, use the Zoom Extents (through the Camera menu) to bring it back into the centre of your view.

4. Use your number pad for setting dimensions – Trying to use your mouse to pinpoint your lines to the exact length that you want them to be is fool hardy and frankly a waste of time. When you are using any of your drawing tools (or the tape measure, see next tip) type in the dimensions after you have set (clicked) your first point. I can never figure out which dimension is the x or y or z dimension, so I exaggerate it in one direction to see which way Sketchup is leaning. In the pic below, the first dimension is the x dimension. Making a ¾”x 6”x 36” board, I would type 6,36 [enter] then use the push/pull tool, click on the face move the mouse in the direction that I want the board to grow and type 3/4 [enter].

5. Sketchup tries to help – Whenever you are drawing, measuring or laying out, Sketchup tries to help by snapping to inferences it thinks will help you such as the centre point, a corner etc. Use this helpfulness to your advantage and don’t try to fight it. Hard to demonstrate without a video, but play with it a little while drawing or measuring and you’ll see what I mean.

With these skills alone, I hope they can help make the steep learning curve a little more manageable. There’s so much more to Sketchup than these tools though. A truly advanced Sketchup user will only draw half of their project. The other half is done for them through what seems to be a limitless supply of tools. If you want to see more, I highly recommend Bob Lang’s Woodworker’s Guide to Google Sketchup 7 which is available through http://www.craftsmanplans.com/ . If you prefer a free resource, then visit http://www.sketchupforwoodworkers.com/ and click on the tutorials link. While not as comprehensive as the Bob Lang pdf book (which incidentally has videos embedded within), it’s a great primer.

Cheers and keep Sketching!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Google Sketchup. Help!

I guess the theme this week has something to do with pulling myself into the 21st century.

For those who don't know, in my real life I am a graphic designer. I've been working with the "holy three" for years: Photoshop, Illustrator, and (more recently) InDesign. I can say with confidence and pride that I know these programs inside and out. I'll crank out a tri-fold brochure in record time. I'll put together a 20' trade show exhibit under any deadline. Need an 80 page catalog? No sweat. Shenanigans? I can make you a photo of Barack Obama shaking hands with Rush Limbaugh while getting swallowed by a shark. (Wow, there's an image to conjure.)

What's the common denominator here? Yeah, they are all two-dimensional media and I am becoming antiquated. Despite my recent (ahem) 3D video, designing in 3D has been a serious lapse in my self-education.

Well, as part of the Steve Improvement Program (SIP), and at the urging of countless people who are way more with the times than me, I have finally decided to start learning Google Sketchup.

I've been fooling around with it for a few hours now and am totally frustrated. (Frustration: another mini theme for this weekend.) I've watched a number of the video tutorials, all of which are well produced and have a very soothing lady's voice narration, but I am still floundering. I am stuck in a 2D world in the 20th century.

An appeal for help!

So, you Sketchup masters, help! Hit me up with your absolute killer basic suggestions for beginner Sketchup users. What is the most basic advice you can offer? What is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you started. What was your "aha" moment? Hey, you like to write? Write up an "Absolute Beginner's Guide to Sketchup", or "Top 5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Sketchup", or something, and send it to me — zrammedia(at)gmail(dot)com — and I'll post it here as a guest blogger entry. You'll be read by countless (3 or 4) people and live in digital infamy. And you'll be my hero. And you'll have good karma for the rest of your life.


Update: I decided to remove the Nails video I posted yesterday. My appologies to those who were offended by it. I should have thought that through a bit more!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Designing the TV stand

Well, I've been spending the entire day working out the design for my entertainment center/TV stand. Haven't cut or even bought a single piece of lumber yet. You know, woodworking really is the easy part.

Here's what I've been working on today in Illustrator:

Doesn't make a lot of sense? Well, it's a top view combined with a front view. Nope, doesn't make a lot of sense to me either. I've measured all my components and figured out how big this needs to be, but still run into problems. This is totaly frustrating.

I keep reminding myself to keep it simple.

Well hell. Why should I spend the day in front of a computer when I could be cutting wood? Not sure. But what I do know it that when I have a frustrating day, nothing soothes my soul better than my favorite little 30 second tune from my teenage years. THIS is keeping it simple. Yep, '80s punk. Crank up the volume!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Entertainment center. Like, the 1980s are over.

About a month ago, my TV finally gave out. It was a state-of-the-art 27” unit. Well, top-of-the-line for 1989, but I got over 20 years of use out of it. When we got the TV, we also bought a beautifully chic entertainment center; they were all the rage back then.

Ours was an enormous knock-down monstrosity made out MDF with a wood grain laminate. It had a large glass door that eventually broke, so I removed it. It had shelves to hold my VCR, phonograph and 5-disc CD changer. Doors at the bottom held my record collection. A long thin door on the right held my CD collection.

My new TV looks great, so I figure it is finally time to put the 1980s to rest and build a new entertainment center, one that looks like it belongs in this century. And I hesitate to call it an “entertainment center”, but rather a TV stand.

I think they key to bringing my living room into 2010 is to keep the design as simple as the LCD TV itself. With all the miniaturization of electronics, we no longer need to show off a bunch of components and media. I want the TV to be the centerpiece. To this end, I have finally separated with my phonograph. I ditched the VHS player. I have begun transferring my CDs to MP3s and got rid of my CD player. (If I need to play a CD, I can use my small DVD player.) I am left with the DVR, a small DVD player, and a receiver. Oh, and my son’s Wii, but that’s pretty compact.

Getting with the times

I don’t want a top. No matter how hard we try, the 20” deep top on my ‘80s monster has always collected layers of clutter. In that vein, I will make the new stand only as deep as my receiver. The whole unit should only stand about 20” high.

I want the unit to have a lighter feel to it. It doesn’t need to support a 100 pound tube. Lifting it a few inches off the floor with legs should help. Eliminating doors should also reduce its bulk.

I want to design it around the few audio components that are necessary and reduce the amount of unassigned shelf space. Again, it seems junk is drawn toward empty shelf space.

I have a great surround sound system, but I want to incorporate the left, right, and center channel speakers into the stand. Then I can get rid of the individual speaker stands.

Those are my initial thoughts on the TV stand. I hope to get started this weekend. If you have any thoughts, let me know.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


I've been toying with the idea of making a rainstick for a while. Traditionally, these are made with bamboo shoots or cacti and have nails driven through their walls. Or I guess even more traditionally, thorns. They can be filled with beans, pebbles, lentils, rice, etc. The configuration of the baffles and the object sizes determine the unique sound of each rainstick.

I didn't want to drive a bunch of nails into mine, so I simply cut out a bunch of chicken wire hexagons and slid them onto a half inch dowel. The body is quarter inch oak plywood and each strip is beveled at 30 degree angles.

I puzzled over how to glue six long strips together, until I came up with the idea of laying them out with masking tape. It worked great.

I used rice as a filler. The sound is really nice and can be controlled by the angle at which the rainstick is tipped. Enjoy the project.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Zen and the art of unitasking

How many windows are open on your computer right now? Are you giving your full attention to any of them? As you read this, is you mind wandering to Facebook? If you are in your office working on a spreadsheet, do you find yourself bopping over to Twitter “just for a sec” to check in? Do you get calls from a co-worker right when you are in the middle of writing a report and open up a new window to respond to his or her question and then try to get back to your report, only to find yourself checking your email along the way? Do you believe you’ll never get everything done unless you eat lunch at your desk? We all do it. It’s called multitasking. But we have the power to overcome it.

Studies have shown that multitasking is not all it’s cracked up to be. The funny thing is that when interviewed, people believe they are more productive when they are juggling several tasks, when in fact multitasking reduces productivity by distracting us. For one reason or another, we have all become proud of our “ability” to multitask, often to the detriment of our work. Even worse, it is affecting how we relate to other people.

A new movement of sorts is beginning to spread: unitasking. It’s not really a new concept, but it’s one that might actually encourage us to better ourselves. The idea is simple: to reduce or eliminate the myriad of distractions that surround us. Of course, the number of tasks that we need to accomplish remains the same, but we approach them from a different perspective. We organize jobs and tackle them in an orderly manner.

Woodworking: the model of unitasking

Woodworking provides us with a perfect opportunity to unitask. For starters, it removes us from one of the biggest sources of distraction: the internet. For the most part, the very nature of building something with wood requires us to proceed in an ordered manner. It’s pretty hard to apply trim to a dresser before building its framework.

And yet, multitasking has become so pervasive, even expected in today’s world that I sometimes try to apply it in the woodshop. For instance, maybe I am faced with a bunch of repetitive cuts and decide to take a break from them and move over to drilling a bunch of holes into which the cut pieces need to fit. While drilling, I start to think it might be a good change of pace to begin routing out some moulding. Oh yeah, I have a TV in my shop and Norm Abram is on. I get drawn into watching “just a few minutes” even though I’ve seen it before. It doesn’t take long to see where this is heading. At the end of the day I haven’t accomplished any one task, but have many unfinished pieces that I will be faced with tomorrow.

Unitasking 101

If you are like me and are simply tired of trying to do everything at once, take action to improve not just your woodworking, but to seek fulfillment in all of your activities.

Encourage personal technology brown-outs. I’m far from a luddite; I embrace technology and believe it has the power to enhance our lives. It certainly shouldn’t complicate life. Before you get on your computer, figure out exactly what tasks you wish to accomplish. Email? Open your email program, read and respond, then close it. Facebook? Twitter? Blogs? Catch up with your stuff, one site at a time and do not go back to it. Avoid clicking on outside links until you have completed reading the site you are on. Don’t open multiple browser windows or tabs. It’s too easy to start clicking back and forth and never completely read anything.

Create an email folder for non-essential messages and drag your Aunt Polly’s email into it. In other words, that forwarded email recommending you view the latest funny viral video on YouTube. Or mark it for later reading. This will keep you from aimlessly surfing, until you have finished the stuff you really need to get done. When you have completed everything you have to do, reward yourself by catching up on those dancing hamsters.

Free your inner woodworker

In the woodshop, make a list of procedures you need to accomplish and put them in the order you wish to accomplish them. Maybe mount a whiteboard somewhere. Don’t begin a procedure until you have crossed off the previous one. Make the list for the entire project: don’t make a list of what you want to get done in a given time period.

If you encounter a problem, deal with it immediately. It’s probably tied to the task you are working on, so just think of it as part of that same procedure. Try not to put in on the back burner.

Let others know you are prioritizing. People respect honesty and directness when they understand you are engaged. If someone enters your shop with a request for you to do something, (i.e. “Honey, can you mow the lawn?”) politely tell them you will, after you complete the task you are working on. The lawn won’t become a jungle if it has to wait a little while longer. I find it very difficult to get back into a procedure if I stop midway through. I feel like I have to rebuild my momentum.

Unlearning multitasking

Of course there will always be times when we must multitask. It’s unavoidable. Obviously professional woodworkers will be faced with time-contraints and be in a more critical environment, but even they can gradually build a unitasking approach. I like to think of unitasking as a technique to strive toward to help us stay focused. It’s similar to woodworking: we know what we want and slowly gain skills that allow us to obtain it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Beer camp!

Any of you with kids knows that we are in the midst of summer camp season. Of course actual camping rarely takes place in these camps. My son is involved in  rehearsals for Midsummer Night's Dream. Though that's not a camp per se, but an actual production, it does occupy five days a week.

However, he is also in a bowling league. Today, while observing him and the other bowlers, I happened upon this drink coaster:

Finally! A summer camp for me!

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Build a Connect 4 game

I've been fussing with this project for a week now, trying to come up with a good way to pull it off and a design that was simple enough to actually make sense. Sadly, I had ignored the most crucial part — wood choice.

I began cutting wood yesterday. I wanted the game to be lightweight so I pulled out some quarter inch scrap plywood from my stock.

I was a bit worried that the plywood may not be able to withstand the boring of 42 holes. Well, it wasn't. The top layer of veneer peeled off almost every hole. I thought I could correct the problem by sloshing on a bunch of wood filler into the torn areas. Damn. This is a lesson in doing things right the first time.

This morning I went over to the lumber yard and picked up a sheet of MDF. It cost $21, but I have tons left to use for future projects. It worked like a dream.

So woodworking purists, this project will make you cringe. It's made completely with manufactured wood. Horrors.

I gotta tell you, I have become an MDF convert. Look, if you are building something utilitarian — something that you'll slap a coat of paint on — go with MDF. Yeah, yeah, yeah...it ain't exactly like making period furniture, but you'll have fun in your shop.

Here's my PDF template of the Connect 4 game if you'd like to try one out yourself.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More on the woodworking plan rip-off

As a follow-up to my article about the woodworking plan CD scams, I Googled and searched YouTube a bit more. Man, a search for "woodworking(the numeral 4)home" on Google yields about 284,000 results. It's kind of funny, because next to the search there are several ads for the same "14,000 Woodworking Plans" CD. They all sell the same CD, but are in competition with each other. I would make a wild guess that there are thousands of sites set up selling them.

I really wonder who the guy at the top is? All of the sites claim it is John Metz from Wisconsin. I suspect this is a fictitious name, but someone is making a lot off of this.

Interestingly, that same search, but narrowed to sites within the past few days (since we've been spreading the word), now has sites set up about  "how to detect woodworking scams"...which, of course tell you that there are scammers abound...but the safest thing to do is buy the 14,000 plan CD! Wow, these guys are quick. In fact, if you Google "woodworking scams" guess what sites show up? Yep. Woodworking(4)home.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Working wood is the easy part

Since I've started posting videos on You Tube, and since I've started this blog, viewers and readers have come to expect content. Fair enough. And I try to come with a new project every week. But the fact of the matter is — and I hope other non-commissioned woodworkers will attest to this — it ain't easy to come up with ideas. Well, put more specifically, the ideas are easy...figuring out how to do them is hard. Or, if you will, cutting and assembling wood is easy: inspiration is hard.

So with all intentions, I headed out to my garage this morning to build something out of wood. I have the notion to make a cool wood version of the classic "Connect 4" game.
 Well, I spent a lot of time staring at my son's actual version and fussing with ways to improve it. You, know, make it out of wood. Yeeeah...

I decided my shop was a mess, hauled out the ShopVac and began tidying up. No shop that has actual work taking place should look this clean:

I organized my "very special" cut-offs that I will never use into their own dedicated box:

I even put all of my enormous collection of a/v wires and connectors into their own box:

Then I vacuumed all the cobwebs out of every corner. Even up high:
I found a 1 1/8 inch dowel that might work for the game pieces. I examined it for a long time:

Eventually I cut a 1/4 inch thick disc out of the dowel to use for my Connect 4 game:

Yep. Looks good. Then I calculated that I need 42 of them. Hmmm. The game will need — maybe — holes. I bored a hole! Now progress is happening:

And well, between that and working out in the yard, that's what I accomplished on this holiday day off. One hole and a disc.

Woodworking is easy.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The chair, the fair, and simplicity

This week is the Marin County fair and I can finally report on my little walnut chair I wrote about a while back. I was stunned to discover that I won first place and best of show! Hoo yeah! That's a $150 prize to spend on, well, most likely more wood.

You may also remember my "Glowing Gobel" decorated chair. Well, it didn't fare as well. "Honorable Mention". I guess the memory of poor George will continue to live on in obscurity. Well I got a green and white sympathy ribbon.
Last winter I made a flower arrangement out of old CDs. to enter in the "Trash to Treasure" competition. I really liked the way it turned out. I was actually kind of surprised that it came in fifth place. That's worth a yellow ribbon (without a rosette!) and I think ten dollars. Anyway, heating up old CDs is fun: try it out sometime! 
Finally, I entered a food competition. Yeah, cooking is my other favorite hobby. Well the fair had a "Fun with English Muffins" event. I took home first place! I called my recipe "Ho Chi Muffins". Ha. They are Vietnamese inspired muffins and the essence of simplicity. My presentation sucked...I totally forgot to bring a platter and ended up using a tin tray. I guess the professional chef judges were actually more interested in flavor.
My totally lame muffin presentation:
The panel of judges:
Judges in deep deliberations: 
And the heated competition: 
The Marin County Fair is always is a fun, and typically bizarre Northern California experience. Being the "Greenest Fair on Earth", they actually have people stationed at the trash cans who make sure you put your waste into the "correct" colored receptacle! Let's see, there's green waste, landfill waste (those are the black bins, i.e. evil.)  Hang your head in shame if you use one of the black bins. There are bins for bottles and cans, plastics, compost, etc., etc., etc. It's all so confusing to be politically correct. But it's just not the 4th of July here without going to the fair!

Simplicity trumps all

Now, if I could stop being so self-indulgent and draw a conclusion that readers might actually find useful, it has to do simplicity. In retrospect, I fully understand why my chair and my muffins won first prizes. They were extremely simple. Even though the chair was one of the most challenging projects I have ever made, the design itself...just five little pieces of wood is appealing.
For the English Muffin competition, some entrants had recipes that were two pages long. The fact of the matter is that the competition was sponsored by Thomas English Muffins so I'm sure they want to see toppings that compliment the muffin, not obscure it. My Ho ChiMuffins have six elements, all fresh. The mint grows wild in my backyard.

The lesson here is that whenever we get into a design and building conundrum, we need to just take a step back. Think about what we are really trying to accomplish. Are we trying to impress people by the number of complicated joints we use on that mahogany box, or are we trying to make something that the recipient will adore?
Oh, and if you want to try out my muffins, here's my recipe:

All you’ll need: 
  • English muffins (split)
  • Shredded carrots
  • Shredded lettuce
  • Finely chopped peanuts
  • Fresh mint leaves
  • Popcorn shrimp
  • Hoisin sauce
Toast an English muffin and allow it to cool. Spread a thin layer of hoisin sauce. Sprinkle on the chopped peanuts. Add the shredded lettuce, followed by some shredded carrots. Arrange a few popcorn shrimp and mint leaves on top.
And that's the LAST I will say about my walnut chair!

Finally, finally one of my favorite bands is one that has stood the test of time because they never change the core of who they are. They are the epitome of simplicity. And they have fun doing what they do. Ain't that what woodworking ought to be? Yeah man, AC/DC. It's a long way to the top.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Fight woodworking scams

Have you bought woodworking plans online? Do you know where they come from and who is selling them?

You don’t have to search long to find countless web sites hawking “thousands of woodworking plans on one DVD” for under $50. Gee, what a bargain.

In the May 2010 issue of Wood Magazine, Tom Iovino wrote an article about this very subject. Tom shelled out 49 bucks to see what he would actually get on that DVD. First off, he counted around 6,000 project plans compared to the 14,000 advertised. About half aren’t even full plans, but merely drawings without any instruction. Many are simply repeated.
It gets worse. Many are just copied directly out of magazines and books. Important elements of projects are missing. A number (okay, I’m going to guess most) are downloaded from reputable web sites and dumped onto the disc.

YouTube woodworking scams

Recently I’ve received a large number of “video response” requests on my YouTube channel. Normally, these are videos from people who have made something similar to the project in my video and want to show it off. It’s a great way for people to get their stuff seen.

Thankfully, I have my channel set to require my approval on all video response requests. Lately, the requests have been nothing but spam. Quickie videos, with nothing but text, gaudy colors and poor font choices, trying to get people to buy $49 DVDs containing “over 14,000 plans”. There is no effort put into them at all. One guy actually has a channel set up that shows episodes of The New Yankee Workshop — titles and credits removed — and plastered with his web site address!

Strangely, I started to notice that all of these hack YouTube channels point to different web sites, yet the sites are identical. After a little poking around, it didn’t take long to figure out what’s going on here.

How it works

The web sites — which contain no woodworking info other than one long ad for the DVD — all have a link to their “affiliate program” explaining how you can sell the DVDs too. Aha…it’s a “multi-level marketing” scheme.

I suspect the pitch goes something like this: "No experience necessary. You don’t even need to know anything about woodworking. We’ll show you how to set up your own web site just like this one. You get to keep 75% of the profits. We’ll even show you how to become a Ebay master seller! Be a star on YouTube! People will flock to your site! Get others to become affiliates and make even more $$!"

It’s one thing for suckers to get drawn into pyramid schemes, but quite another when the core product is most likely comprised of stolen material. Look, designing woodworking projects is a creative endeavor that takes a lot of time, patience, money and testing. Coming up with detailed plans with accurate instructions, cutting lists, and technical drawings takes skill and hard work. It’s akin to an author writing a book or a musician composing a song. They deserve to be paid and not have hacks stealing plans and reselling them.

How to detect woodworking scammers

  1. If the deal sounds too good to be true, yep, it is. For sake of illustration, imagine that a legitimate plan goes for $3.95. 14,000 should run you $55,300. In the case of 14,000 plans for $49, each plan costs $.0035. And that’s about what they are worth. Imagine that a real, legitimate woodworker was selling his plans for .0035 cents each. If he sold 10 a day, he would earn a whopping $100 in, well, just a little over seven and a half years.

  2. Take a close look at the web site selling this stuff. Does it offer any other woodworking info? Does it offer advice or tips? Are there articles? Is there discussion? Is there any level of user interactivity? Does it have links to useful woodworking resources? Does it have anything about woodworking on it at all, besides one long ad for the DVD? Probably not. In fact, most are simply one long page that seems to scroll on forever. Check out the domain. One sent to me lives on a .tk domain. That’s the domain for Tokelau. Nope, I’ve never heard of it either. Plus, these sites really look cheesy, like they were designed circa 1999. And they use a lot of exclamation marks.  

  3. Look for an offer to “become an affiliate”. This is a typical multilevel marketing appeal. By getting others to sell something, you get richer. It’s not technically a pyramid scheme because there is an actual product involved, but you’ll make more money by recruiting others and NOT selling the product yourself. 

  4. On YouTube, plan scams are pretty easy to spot. Of course if a user uploads Norm Abram videos, strips the credits and adds his own URL to the video, that’s a pretty good hint! Some of these guys set up a channel and upload videos that look like nothing more than PowerPoint presentations. Screen after screen of text pitching the DVDs and directing you to a web site. I have a feeling most of these guys have no idea how YouTube works, but think they can make a fortune really quick. It’s probably in the “affiliate” instructions. Check out the channel page of the video you are watching. It probably has little or no personal identity or flair. And for God’s sake, if you are a plan scammer don’t ask me to post one of your lame-o videos on my channel!

Fight back and spread the word. Things you can do.

Professional woodworkers are busy actually creating and do not have the money, resources or time to constantly battle this stuff. However, there is a way to fight back without lawyers and judges, and it won’t cost any money. I am doing it right now by getting the word out and increasing awareness of woodworking piracy. It is nearly impossible to stop people from selling pirated material. Efforts to end scams need to need to focus on buyers.
  1. Buy from reputable woodworking plan sellers who resell plans with permission and compensate the designers. If you are in doubt, ask.
  2. Buy individual plans at a time. I mean really, can you make 14,000 projects? If you want to do some fine woodworking, be prepared to pay an honest rate for plans.  
  3. Buy directly from the designers themselves. There are lots of guys selling their own plans on their own web sites. You'll get a fair deal. Plus, a lot of times you can talk directly to the designer if you need help. 
  4. Design your own stuff! Get involved in woodworking communities, online or off. Sign up with LumberJocks.com. If you need help with something and post your question, you'll get help from real guys all over the world in a few minutes. 
  5. Most importantly, spread the message that woodworking piracy is not acceptable. Spread it through your social networks. If you buy a plan from a reputable seller, reward them by Tweeting about your experience. Tell your friends on Facebook about the issue. Write an article on your blog. Post links to legitimate plan sellers.  
Remember, woodworking plans are designed by real guys with skills far beyond mine who put a lot of time into creating and testing them. By purchasing pirated plans you are robbing someone of his livelihood.

Where to get legit woodworking plans

Do not buy woodworking plans, videos or DVDs sold on Ebay. I’m sorry to make this a blanket statement, but there is just too much pirated stuff to possibly weed out the good stuff. Ebay has become nothing more than a magnet for shady dealers.

I have compiled a list of reputable woodworking plan web sites. Prices will vary depending on the plan you want. Many are free. But think about it; if you want to build an armoire, you are probably going to spend hundreds of dollars on wood and supplies. A few bucks for a decent plan will go a long way. And the guy who actually did the heavy lifting designing and testing it will be compensated. It’s a win-win situation. And that’s a real bargain.

— Steve Ramsey, WoodworkingForMereMortals.com

This article is freely distributable without modification. Feel free to copy or link to this article. Tweet it or post it to Facebook. Send it out on carrier pigeons. And feel free to  link to my list of reputable plan sites. You can also download a printer-friendly PDF of this article.