Road Trip: Portsmouth!

In which the secretary of the board faces off with the table saw at the Port City Makerspace

In The Breakfast Club, Anthony Michael Hall’s character makes the unfortunate calculation that taking shop will give him an easy A. I personally found shop not easy but TERRIFYING . Concerned that my elephant light wouldn’t turn on when I pulled the trunk? Nope, I was too busy worrying my creation would electrocute me. At every station I chose my project not by how cool it was, but by how few power tools I would have to touch (preferably zero). I’ve managed to chip away at this fear a little since leaving school, largely from my husband informing me that if I wanted our deck finished before there was a foot of snow on it, I needed to grow a spine, learn to use the chop saw, and start handing him the 2 x 4’s he needs.

Now that I am volunteering with Making Matters, a group that wants to make serious tools accessible to the public and teach them to use them… I find this flaw in my character pathetic. So I decided to do something about, starting with an Intro to Woodshop class offered at the Port City Makerspace. In the space of three hours, my two classmates and I would be making simple but attractive cutting boards, thanks in part to a generous corporate donor who had given them some African Mahogany stock. We began with the planer, which ground our board down to a uniform thickness, followed by the jointer, which made both edges perfectly flat. With both tools there was a fence to guide the board along and no need to have one’s hands anywhere near the blade. So far so good… out communal board was certainly looking precise and I hadn’t done anything dumb. Well, except for bring safety gloves to the class; splinters were unlikely to be an issue from the mahogany. “You need to be able to sense what is going on between the wood and the machine” explained Jeff, our very patient teacher. For that, I needed bare fingers.

Safety is a clear priority at Port City!

Next up, the table saw, which brought our board down in a with-the-grain pass to the desired width. OK, this is where things could have gotten pretty scary; table saws figure predominantly in some of the more ridiculous action TV from my youth. But dismemberment is extremely unlikely at the Port City Makerspace, because they now have a SawStop! The saw featured an electrical signal that would shut the system off the second it detected it was about to touch a conductive substance. Like fingers. For applying needed pressure to the end of the board to finish a cut, there were multiple pushing tools available depending on the size of your board.

We moved on to my old friend the chop saw, which was being used across the grain to separate our long board into three future cutting boards.. Yay, familiar ground! Nothing for them to teach me here…

“You need to push forward into the wood while you cut.” Jeff advised me kindly. “See how it didn’t cut all the way through?” He snapped the board and made a quick pass over the belt sander with it, taking off the offending nub. This is as good a time as any to mention that everyone else in the class was a total novice and other minor mistakes were made here and there. Like too slow a pass on the routing table, resulting in slightly burnt wood. Or a failure to check on the progress of the drill press, which was fitted with a Forstner bit to allow us to make perfectly round holes to hang our boards from. Keeping going with the drill press right through the board into the wood underneath… wait, Jeff was prepared for that one having us work with scrap wood underneath, which also helped prevent tearout on the other side. But making small but correctible errors together seemed to help everyone relax and really start enjoying working with the wood.  Using one of scores of different bits available on the router table gave us smoothly beveled edges. “Use of the routing table could be its own class.” Jeff said with fervor. Actually, he said that about the table saw too. He confided to us how he simply loved teaching, and wished his schedule allowed more time to coach others on all things woodshop.

Several swift passes through the drum sander saved all kinds of hand-sanding time. And was much less dusty thanks to the ventilation system. A specialized machine called a spindle sander softened the inside of the hanging hole.

The final touch was application of linseed oil, used for a safe rich finish for a future food-touching item. Jeff actually suggested we start our video cameras rolling for the immediate, dramatic dark sheen the oil brought out in the mahogany. 

The author’s cutting board in all its glory.

While I’ve got some ways to go to master all these tools, I do see new possibilities opening up for me when MakingMattersNH opens its doors. Perhaps I will be that polite but firm voice telling you everyone needs to have an orientation with the table saw before they can use it.

Port City Makerspace offers a steady stream of classes which are open to members and non-members alike. Sandra May, our board secretary and guinea pig, is now trying to talk herself into a welding class.

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