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TECHNOLOGY

Woodworkers on the Web Unite . . . Virtually

September 19, 1998|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Getting wired has taken on a new angle for woodworkers.

It used to mean setting aside that sheet of sandpaper and plugging in a power sander. Or maybe turning on the electric saw when doing it by hand was just too much work.

Now, many hobbyists and professionals look to the computer to make the job easier. Dozens of Web sites have been created in recent years by enthusiasts enamored of every wooden thing their colleagues can fashion.

With names like Amateur Woodworker, Woodweb and the Electronic Neanderthal, they explain which woods to use and what steps to take, whether making a simple salad bowl or a complicated armoire. Many are heavy with photos and have sections detailing common problems and ways to overcome them.

The better sites have bulletin boards or chat rooms where woodworkers can ask for help, brag about their accomplishments or just gab about anything, from mahogany and lathes to Monica Lewinsky.

"We don't usually get into politics, but a few days [President] Clinton's problems with Monica got into the mix," said William Harris, a San Clemente businessman and avid woodworker.

"Mostly, we toss out our needs and get great feedback. . . . You develop relationships with some of these people."

Harris, who often uses his handle "Woodluvr" when signing on to Woodweb (http://www.woodweb.com) and other sites, said these grainy destinations have proved useful by cutting down on the time to complete his latest project.

Instead of going to resource books, calling other hobbyists or muddling through with a hit-and-miss strategy, Harris just tosses out his problem and often gets almost instantaneous responses.

"It surprised me when I first got on," he said. "Some people are on [the sites] a lot [and] are eager to share their expertise. I wanted to know the best wood stain for a chair I was making, and I got the answer in minutes."

Besides, hooking up with fellow enthusiasts keeps Harris inspired. "Everybody is interested in what you're doing. . . . If you start to get lazy [about finishing a job], you just sign on and get motivated again."

Harris found the stain information he needed in the "Finishing and Abrasives" section of Woodweb, one of several areas where people can post and get suggestions from the site's experts or other woodworkers. Other spots are "Lumber & Plywood," "Tooling," "Adhesives" and "Cabinets."

Sometimes, the problems can be pretty mysterious. One visitor in late August said the sofas he made in his shop suffered from "a bad odor." He said the wood he used was called Suma Uma, an exotic from Brazil. "The smell," he added woefully, "is intense."

Woodweb's "Wood Doctor" (also known only as Gene) wasn't sure, but he linked the stink to a bacteria that shows up in trees from Latin America, and some from North America, such as Southern pine and oak. He had no solutions, but he did recommend avoiding woods cut from especially damp areas and older trees most likely to carry microbes.

Another site that Harris and others visit is the Amateur Woodworker (http://www.am-wood.com/). The destination regularly spotlights a project or two, the most recent focused on making a CD cabinet or picture frame.

"It's really step-by-step, down to the tools you'll need, so they make it pretty easy if you follow closely," responded Gladys Herron of Chicago, when asked in an e-mail what she liked best about the Amateur Woodworker.

"The people are nice too. . . . It's just fun to connect with them there."

This site also follows the adage that all work and no play make Woody a dull boy. There's a game section, which probably will only appeal to people so into wood that they dream about grain patterns and soft piles of sawdust. In one, visitors are asked to identify a group of tools, some obvious, others less so.

"I never go there," Herron said. "I'm too busy working on their projects."

Another frequently visited location is the Electronic Neanderthal (http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~alf/en/en.html), a place for true enthusiasts. This simple site is dedicated to the history and lore of tools, especially antiques.

There are lots of facts, many with photos. How old is the oldest tool? Two and a half million years, according to a story published at the Electronic Neanderthal about Rutgers scientists excavating and uncovering a group of stone tools near Gona, Ethiopia.

Beyond articles like that, the site lists other Web pages with a similar bent and tells visitors where they can go to see and buy antique tools.

Perhaps the most comprehensive site for tools, both ancient and new, is the Museum of Woodworking Tools (http://www.antiquetools.com). The opening page has a diagram of a museum, and you can go to different rooms to see the various implements. A chat room allows visitors to discuss their use, and any project they're involved with, in real time.

The This Old House site (http://www.pathfinder.com/TOH) is notable for completeness. It's connected to the PBS program of the same name and offers a bulletin board and many other features, including the Encyclopedia. This encompassing section has high-resolution photos accompanying detailed advice on the home and garden, with many of it relating to woodworking.

Harris recommends it. "Real good because everything is under one roof," he said. "Anyway, if you like the show, you'll probably have fun revisiting the projects they've shown there."

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