The Inside Track with John at Do It Better Woodworking
We’re excited to start a new series on our blog featuring builders and bloggers! For our very first one, we reached out to our friend John over at Do It Better Woodworking, and he was happy to answer a few questions for us.
When and why did you start your blog? Tell us what it’s about.
I started my blog sometime around the beginning of 2018, I think it was February. My wife and I had just recently bought a house, and we wanted to finally own a nice bedroom set. After looking at the pricing for cheap, veneered MDF bedrooms sets (still well over $1,000!) I decided to look at building one.
Finding DIY plans was easy; they’re abundant. I don’t even remember why, but I found myself researching the plans more and more and started to realize how flawed they were. They were simple, sure, but the materials were low quality and the construction methods meant they’d wind up in a dumpster in a few years anyway.
If I was going to commit that much time to build something, I wanted it to last. When I realized there was a dearth of information on how to make DIY style plans the RIGHT way, I started DIB Woodworking, which means “Do It Better”.
What made you decide to collaborate with Osborne for your projects?
I think Sarah actually decided it for me! I built a dining table about a year-and-a-half ago, using the extended Old World Pedestal. I knew nothing about Osborne except they had the only pedestals I liked that were of any quality.
I was looking at the website one day, pricing out a job for a friend, when I noticed the table leg kit I was looking at had links to a blog site. I sent Sarah an email, offering to let her link to my free posts on how to build an Old World Pedestal table using traditional joinery, and she asked if I wanted to take on some more challenges.
What’s your favorite project you’ve done featuring our products?
Hands down, the ebonized walnut coffee table with the acrylic and brass legs. It’s so elegant, funky, and deceptively simple to make. You could make the whole thing with a circular saw, drill, and a trim router if you really wanted to.
What do you like most about woodworking? What do you like the least?
It’s my favorite way to relax. In my career, the work is challenging and requires a lot of thinking, planning, and analyzing. In that way, it has a lot of similarities with my woodworking hobby. But, like most people’s careers, you often get home from a day at work and there’s no tangible “progress.” I love being able to finish a day at work, spend time with my family, then work on something in the evening that I can see concrete progress on.
My least favorite part is dealing with the mess. Scraps, saw dust, clamps all over the place. I am not, naturally, a very organized person in my spaces. It takes a lot of effort for me to remember to keep a safe and clean work space.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about woodworking? Any tips that changed the way you work?
I think it’s Roy Underhill who says that woodworking really hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years: it’s all still wood, iron, and the way those two materials meet to form an object. When you start to understand the way the wood behaves and the way tools were built over the last few centuries, you start to understand how simple the whole process is.
The other quote I love is from Christopher Schwartz (I think he may have received it from someone else, but it was through him that I first encountered it). Every piece of furniture you build is either a box or a platform. There are about 1,000 variations, but that’s all they boil down to. It really forces you to simplify the way you look at form and function.
My tip to beginners? 30% of woodworking is practice, 30% is patience, and 10% is talent. The other 30%? Reading. Honestly, most of the techniques I use and the understanding I have for woodworking is from voraciously reading blogs and books on the subject. There’s only so much time you can spend in the shop (especially if you don’t have a limitless budget for wood). Learn about joinery, design, proportion, and technique from books then put it to practice in the shop.
What advice do you have for someone who’s new to woodworking?
You can build 80% of all furniture projects you could ever dream of using a set of chisels, garage sale hand-saws, a mallet, and a hand plane. That’s all you need. Now, I use tons of power tools in my woodworking, because I’ve been blessed with the space and resources. But don’t ever let anyone make you think that owning another specialized power tool will make you a better woodworker. And don’t ever think that a simple jig from your home center can do it all.
There’s a fantastic, old contemporaneous book written about an 1830’s apprentice at a woodworking shop in London called “The Joiner and the Cabinet Maker.” Looking at the tools he uses, and the things he makes, you realize how simple the craft is. I try to point this out in my blog whenever possible; I use a mortising machine, but you can use a chisel. Or, where I use a powered jointer you could use a yard-sale #5 stanley plane instead.
How do you go about planning your projects? What does your process look like?
It really depends on the project. For a custom commission, I let my imagination go free and think about what I want it to look like; then, I start thinking about joinery and finally planning the build.
For my Osborne builds, I try to think about it a little differently. I still start with an overall idea of what I want to build, but then I try to make the plans more accessible. For example, in the acrylic coffee table project, I made the sides 3.5” tall because that’s what you could get 1×4 oak, maple, or pine dimensioned as from Home Depot or Lowes. I chose a plywood top because you wouldn’t have to worry about owning a jointer to make a wide walnut top.
I showed a (quite uppity) woodworker one of my puzzle table photos once, and he said it couldn’t be considered “fine furniture” because it used plywood. I think that’s nonsense. Plywood has its place, and it makes a project like that table more accessible to the average woodworker. It also allows the use of pocket screws for some of the joinery which, where appropriate, is a big time saver.
Where do you go to find inspiration for your projects?
Often, the client is the one that inspires me! The puzzle table came as a request from a friend. When she asked me to build one, I said “Ok, great! Now, what’s a puzzle table?”
I don’t have a pinterest account (at least not one I ever look at). I see a ton of projects on Instagram, Reddit, and in Popular Woodworking. Absorb everything you can in old projects to learn sense of design, proportion, and flow.
Do you have a preferred wood species to work with? If so, what is it and why do you prefer it?
I love oak, I think it really receives a bad rap; all those old 80’s suburban kitchens in a “golden oak” stain really turned a lot of people off. But here’s the thing: oak is strong, abundant, inexpensive, and easy to work. It stains like a dream too. Red oak and I are fond acquaintances. I have a love hate relationship with white oak; it’s an amazing wood, really. But it’s tough as nails to work sometimes (the famous naval ship, “Old Ironsides”, had a white oak hull off which cannon balls would simply bounce).
What’s next for you and DIB? Where do you see yourself and your blog in the future?
My workload continues to shift more and more to custom furniture; often, I am reluctant to share too much of a build process on these because I know the client wants something truly unique. That’s why I love working with OWP; it brings me back to where this whole thing started for me: helping make the craft more accessible to others in a way that teaches them correct material and joinery techniques.
I hope the blog continues as long as my woodworking continues. As I try new things (Windsor chairs, anyone?) I hope to share those along the way as well.
We really want to thank John for taking the time to answer our questions, as well as being our very first Interview with the Builder! Thanks so much, John, and we look forward to continuing to work with you on these amazing builds in the future!