Approximately three years ago my furniture making career reached an impasse: I haven’t had a need to make full size furniture.
Unless you happen to be Jay Gatsby, chances are your house cannot hold and does not need forty plus full sized pieces of furniture. Well, I am not Jay Gatsby, and my house no longer has room for the furniture I would like to make. So for three years and then some I’ve had to carefully pick and choose what I build and don’t build…yes, I have whined about this before.
My wife once suggested that I make things that I can sell, which would satisfy my urge to build as well as keep our house from becoming overloaded with wooden chotskies. I’ve made several attempts, mainly small boxes, but problems always arose when it came to pricing up these little “gems”. When I added up the cost of materials and labor, well…it just didn’t add up. I really don’t care how “handmade” something is, because regardless of how much time and care and effort was put into the building process, the object being sold is only worth what the market says it is worth. I simply could not justify selling a small dovetailed box with a sliding lid for $150, but that is what it would have had to sell for to make it worth my while.
So just over a year ago I went another route.
A few years back while visiting a national park I purchased a small, slant-lid writing desk..the original lap-top as it were. I forget exactly what it cost, but it was roughly $75 or so with tax. In truth it was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but I am a big supporter of the National Park Service and its partner, Eastern National, so I didn’t mind ponying up the money. The desk was/is made of pine, stained in walnut, and constructed with basic butt joints and dadoes. It was pretty nice, though a little too small to hold some the things I would have liked to keep in it. It held up rather well, and not too long ago I gave it to my dad. But to get back on track, I had an idea to make a “better” version of that box using free pallet wood, and selling them for $75. My prototype turned out fairly well, but prepping the pallet wood took far too long, if I remember correctly, just planing, jointing, and gluing up the panels needed took more than 3 hours, far too long to make it worth my while. Considering that the actual construction of the desk would take at least 3 hours, not including applying and touching up finish, I would have had to charge a bare minimum of $140 just to make $20 per hour, and that’s not even including materials like glue, stain, wax, and hinges, or the time spent retrieving usable boards from pallets. The version of a little desk I had purchased at a National Park gift shop for $75 would have needed to be sold for $200 or more just to turn a modest profit. Which is just not feasible in my opinion. So, I gave the prototype to a friend as a birthday gift and shelved the idea.
Fast forward to the present, I had been looking for a small project to keep me busy, and replacing the writing desk that I gave to my dad seemed like a decent idea. I also decided to revisit the notion of making these for sale, but this time using pre-prepped boards, my reasoning being that the cost of the boards would offset the time spent culling them and prepping them from pallets. I wanted to use a hardwood for the prototype, so I decided to go with maple. Of course, none of the local home centers had half-inch thick maple boards in stock, but they all had my “favorite” red oak, the hardest and most brittle wood you will likely find outside of a real lumberyard.
To keep from being long-winded I’ll skip all of the unnecessary construction details….we all know how a dovetailed box is made. I began the project last weekend in the hopes that I would finish the bulk of the work on Saturday and complete it on Sunday, but soon my back was bothering me, and when you’re pushing 50 and your back starts talking to you it is a good idea to listen to what it’s trying to say.That being said, the prep time for the home center boards was not much better than the pallet wood. I suppose had I used a table saw it would have gone more quickly, but it still wouldn’t have removed the need for match planing and smooth planing/sanding. I needed to glue up two panels, one for the lid and one for the base. The base was an utter waste of time. When I cut it to final length and temporarily attached it to the box I felt that it looked way too clunky, so I replaced the base with a piece of ¼ inch oak plywood that looks much better. Concerning the lid, I dressed up the endgrain on the sides with oak strips attached with dowels and glue, and I was pleasantly surprised how nicely it turned out, not to mention the simplicity. And speaking of oak strips, if I were to make another one of these boxes the lid would be constructed with ½ inch oak plywood and dressed up with strips, which would eliminate any glue ups and save hours of prep time….I know this because I did it in less than 20 minutes as an experiment after the fact with a piece of scrap ply.
Regardless, the box turned out pretty nicely, not my best work but hardly my worst, as I am fond of saying. There was only one minor error during the construction. I purposely used hinges with removable pins because I knew that I would be removing and attaching the lid several times as I was working on it, and I did not want to continually remove the screws. I had the idea of the pin “heads” facing each other so they could tapped out from the outside, theoretically keeping a hammer and nailset away from the center of the lid and reducing the likelihood of a ding. The idea worked just fine, but the hinge faces look slightly different from front to back. It’s not noticeable until the lid is open. I actually attempted to just flip the hinge, but in doing so it made that perfect gap that I had strived to attain go slightly askew, so I’ll live with two hinge faces that are a not completely symmetrical. I used a very traditional finish: BLO, which I let dry for 4 hours, and two coats of Minwax premium softwax, a new product (to me) that I was quite impressed with..the application was simple and it left a nice, matte finish. Overall I am very pleased with how this project turned out. It looks exactly how I expected it to look, and because I made it to my own specifications, it fits exactly where I want it to fit, and it holds all of my geeky reproduction documents, many of which are not traditionally sized.
I’m not sure how to gauge this project. For an experienced woodworker I would definitely call this an ‘advanced beginner’ project, which I understand is an oxymoron. For somebody at my level I would consider this project at the intermediate level. Yet, while I enjoyed this project, it’s quite possible that a lot of people out there have no interest in making an 18th century style writing desk. But, it fits in with the theme of my little home office perfectly, and we are supposed to make for ourselves, aren’t we?
Back in April, I found myself in a situation that I hadn’t been in for more than 30 years: I was not waking up every morning and driving to work.
Like most people in my home state of Pennsylvania, I found myself in a “lockdown” that began in the latter half of March, continued through the entire month of April, and lasted well into the month of May. Though my industry was deemed essential, when construction was shut down across much of the state there was little I could do while sitting in an office, so for nearly 7 weeks I worked from home. I suppose I was lucky that I could work from home, but under the circumstances there was even less I could do there than had I continued to physically be at work. That all being said, the lockdown brought with it, in my case at least, an unprecedented amount of free time.
I did what many people did at first: home improvement projects. I edged all of the flower beds on our lawn, I painted bedrooms, trim, and every interior door in our house, I fixed a crack in the driveway that ran into the garage, I repaired my air compressor (I had been wanting to do that for years) I cleaned out the shed, etc….I could easily go on all day. While all of that time was productive and well spent, I didn’t necessarily find it overly enjoyable; a feeling of satisfaction came more from finishing stuff that needed finishing, and having the time to finally get to all of it, rather than from the work itself.
Yet, while many people reported feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and depression, I found myself feeling just fine for the most part. Sure, there was concern for the health of my family and friends, and concern regarding the future of my job and the company I work for. And like many people, I missed, and still miss, the little things, like having breakfast on Sunday morning at our local café. And I really miss visiting museums and our National Parks, many of which (in our region) are still either shut down or under heavy restrictions. But not once can I say that I felt lonely or depressed, whether my family was with me, or I was alone.
I’ve known that I’ve been an introvert since before I knew the definition of the word. I enjoy being alone, I have a small group of close friends, I think much more than I speak, I communicate better “on paper” than I do verbally, I hate big parties, I generally learn to do things by watching, I enjoy activities (such as woodworking) that require little to no interaction with others, and I think far more clearly when I am alone. If you researched the traits of an introvert I’m sure you would find that most of what I just wrote would be on the list in some way, shape, or form. This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions to the rule. I can be on a crowded beach all day, I love the outdoors in general, I love doing volunteer work, and I am happy when I see a lot of people at a place such as a National or State Park. I get along well with my co-workers, and I’ve played in working bands for years and loved the energy of being on stage in front of a big crowd.
Having an introverted personality is not a detriment in the least. And during the current Covid lockdowns, it was something of a blessing, because when everything was shut down, and a lot of people despaired, one of the first thoughts that popped into my head was: ‘I can actually dedicate some time to woodworking again.’
Having a workbench, some tools, and a small but fairly well-organized workspace in my garage, just a few steps away, was all I really needed to get away from the madness of the world. My mind was never more at ease than when making something at the bench, or cleaning up and sharpening tools, or as strange as this may sound, just being in my little “workshop”, moving this and rearranging that. Like Woody and Buzz Lightyear were there for Andy, woodworking was there for me, waiting patiently for my return without any bitterness.
It’s been said that true friends are always there, and though they may not see or speak to each other for months, or even years, once they are together again it is as though nothing has changed, and they can continue an old conversation without skipping a beat. Aside from my immediate family, I can say with certainty that only two people in my life meet this criteria. But if the hobby of woodworking was somehow embodied into flesh, as strange as that visual may be, I would add him/her to the list.
During the past six months, when what we perceived as normal was turned upside down, and when what seemed real became surreal, woodworking has been a constant, there for me when I needed him, like a reassuring tap on the shoulder, a familiar feeling of unconditional acceptance, and a comfort, knowing that my old friend is waiting for me, just a few steps away, ready to continue our conversation, no matter the hour, whenever I feel the need to talk.
I’ve been watching the YouTube channel of Thomas Johnson for several years now. For those of you who may not know who Thomas Johnson happens to be, he is a professional furniture restorer based out of Maine, and he has probably several hundred free videos detailing everything from finishing furniture to carving table legs to match the original. He is extremely talented, and more importantly, I find his show both informative and relaxing to watch.
I also like Johnson’s workshop, not because it is in a rustic barn filled with antique tools, or a modern shop with all of the latest equipment, but because it is a real, working furniture and restoration shop. Johnson has hand tools, power tools, antique tools, and newer stuff. His exhaust system is a box fan framed in plywood. He uses old kitchen cabinets and labeled cardboard boxes to store things. His workbench is a table that has been beat to hell. He uses a band saw when it is the obvious choice, or a table saw, or a hand saw, or all three. There is no pretention at all. Johnson’s stuff is there to do one thing only: earn him a living.
I’ve said many, many, many times before that I don’t have a real workshop, I have a 6ft x 12ft closet sized space at the back of my garage, and floor space is at a premium. During the Covid19 two-weeks to flatten a curve, let’s find a cure, let’s never go outside ever again past few months, I believe I finally came up with the optimal layout for the space I have. I actually posted about it a month or so ago.
But there is one problem: my table saw takes up too much room.
During the past few months I have been woodworking more than I had in years. Most of the projects I’ve undertaken have been small in scale. I’ve found that my table saw has seen very little use during the making of these projects, and when it has, it was for no other real reason than: “why not, it’s there.”
There has been no need to back my wife’s car out of the garage to cross cut on a table saw three boards that are less than a foot long and 3 inches wide each. Or to rip down a board of similar size. All of that I can do, in general, with hand tools. The table saw, at 58 inches wide x 38 inches tall x 32 inches deep, takes up approximately 15 square feet of floor space and roughly 50 cubic feet of total area…that is a huge amount of real estate considering that my allocated work space is less than 100 square feet in total.
So am I turning into one of the “kill your table saw” folks that I used to talk about with thinly veiled contempt a few years back? Maybe, but probably not.
I have said this before and I will say it again: a table saw is the single most important machine in a professional furniture shop, and for use in the carpentry trade it’s not too shabby either. The means to quickly and accurately mill up wood are crucial to a professional tradesman, and it can quite literally be the difference in earning a living or not. Watching Thomas Johnson’s videos has reaffirmed this belief.
I want to get rid of my table saw…..Yeah, you heard me correctly. This is not a philosophical statement; it is a statement of ergonomics. The space that my table saw takes up in the garage can be used for other things both woodworking and non. And unlike in Thomas Johnson’s shop, I don’t need a table saw to earn a living.
This isn’t to say that I am swearing off the table saw completely, but I need to find a space for it, and that space may be in another person’s shop. I unfortunately don’t have one of those magic rooms that Harry Potter uses to store stuff for a later date. I’ve considered moving it to my garden shed, but at well over 200 lbs, moving the beast across a lawn would be no easy task. So for the first time ever I have considered the very real possibility of selling my table saw.
I have had a table saw of some kind for 20 years. I could not have renovated my house without one. I have built more than a dozen pieces of furniture, that are still in use, with a table saw, the very table saw I want to send away, in fact. The tool has been an old friend I will admit. But all of the stuff I am thinking about and planning on building during the upcoming months is relatively small in size. I have no plans to make any large scale furniture for the foreseeable future. So while I enjoy nostalgia as much as the next guy, I think it may be time to say goodbye, and hopefully not regret it.
****I HAD A DIFFICULT TIME UPLOADING PHOTOS-SORRY BUT WORDPRESS WAS NOT COOPERATING****
I can’t say I’ve been a huge proponent of shop made tools. Like many woodworkers who have been at it for a little while, I have made my fair share of woodworking tools, from planes, to bow saws, to spoke shaves. All of those tools work just fine, but of the roughly dozen or so tools I’ve constructed over the years, I can say with all honesty that only the bow saw was truly worth building. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like any of my “homespun” tools or that I didn’t enjoy making them, because I do and I did. But of those tools, only the bow saw performs consistently better than its manufactured equivalent. For instance, the jointer plane I built works nicely, but a Stanley #7 is better. That’s just the way it is with no apologies. But, sometimes I do get one right.
Marking gauges have always bugged me. A decent gauge is expensive, an inexpensive one is useless, and regardless of price I could never seem to find one that I enjoyed using. I messed with the Tite-Mark at a woodworking show or two, and it was okay, but while I am the last person who will argue over spending money on a good tool, I found the price of it absurd.
I own two gauges: one a traditional Marples, the other a knock off Tite-Mark which I have no idea when or where it came into my possession. Unlike the Marples gauge, I didn’t purchase it, so I am assuming that it was given to me. That being said, I don’t like either gauge.
The knock off gauge is uncomfortable and difficult to adjust. The Marples gauge, which also works as a mortise gauge, is okay, but just okay. My biggest issue with it is the marking pin will no longer stay sharp. I’ve filed it many times and it will perform nicely for a few passes and then leave ragged lines. And like the knock off gauge, it is not necessarily easy to adjust. There is no friction between the gauge fence and the dowel that holds the marking pin. It is either loose or tight, and I’ve tried a lot of different methods to introduce friction from shims to cotton balls, but none seemed to work.
A few months back I was watching a woodworking video featuring England’s second most popular woodworker, and he had quite a few shop made gauges set on the tool well of his bench. I decided that if I couldn’t find a gauge I like then maybe I should try to make one. With several projects in between, and with work, home, and everyday life taking up their customary places in my routine, it wasn’t until last weekend that I finally got around to my first attempt at making my own marking gauge.
****I TRIED TO ADD A PHOTO OF THE PROTOTYPE BUT IT WILL NOT UPLOAD****
For the first attempt I used a scrap piece of cherry for the fence, and a 5/8 inch oak dowel to hold the pin. Here is something many people may not know: it is not easy drilling a perfectly perpendicular hole. I used an 18v drill and a Forstner bit to make the hole, and it took three attempts ( and three fence blanks) to get that hole straight enough to work. I was doing everything correctly, including using a square, but the hole was still just a hair off, which is enough to throw everything out of whack. In fact, I was so upset that I actually researched this “phenomenon” and found out something that I already knew: the larger the hole (5/8 inch isn’t large but it’s enough), the more torque needed. The more torque needed, the more opposite torque produced…or something to that effect. Either way, the almost imperceptible wobble of the drill trying to spin in the opposite direction of the bit will throw off your hand, and conversely the hole you are making.
Regardless, I eventually drilled a useable hole, I then drilled and tapped a hole for a lock bolt (3/8 because I had a 3/8 bolt handy). It was ugly but this was just a test. I then shaped the fence block to my hand, and let me say it looked like hell, but it was comfortable. Lastly, I shaped the dowel by planing flat spots on it. These flat spots would allow it to slide, but still leave enough friction to keep the fence tight enough to adjust without sliding away at the slightest tap. I decided to use a cut brad nail as the marking pin and it was a good choice, the nail sharpened nicely with a regular file. I made around two dozen test lines with the gauge and it worked rather well. So with my prototype working I ordered some decent 1/4-20 brass thumb-screws and this afternoon built my first “refined” gauge.
It is my hope to build 4 or 5 of these gauges each pre-set to sizes I use most often. With that in mind, and with my birthday approaching, I decided to go out and purchase a bench top drill press at my local hardware store. I had owned a drill press for years, my father-in-law gave me his Ryobi around 15 years ago, but eventually the chuck sheared off and the repair was not worth the cost. While I enjoyed having the press because it really come in handy, and not just for woodworking, I didn’t purchase a new one because I have limited space in my garage. But because I will need a drill press for an upcoming project, and because I know it will drill consistently straight holes, buying it was an easy decision.
Making the new gauge did not differ much from the prototype, it just went far more quickly. I used the same materials: cherry with an oak dowel. I used the Marples gauge fence as a template to shape the new fence, and I used a handsaw and afterwards a sander on the drill press to add a slight curve. The only difference between the new gauge and the prototype was sawing a recess for the ferule of brass thumb-screw to fit inside.
Once completed I sanded down the fence and dowel to 220, and used BLO and a coat of wax to finish it off. From rough wood to finish applied it took just around an hour.
The gauge works nicely. It is easy to adjust, much more adaptable than a tradition gauge, and it doesn’t look half bad. Most importantly, it makes crisp lines. The best part of this tool is I can easily saw off the marking pin if it is damaged or won’t sharpen correctly and just hammer in a new one. Or I can easily just make extra dowels, either way it is an easily adaptable and repairable tool.
So score one for shop made tools. I can say without a trace of hyperbole that this is the best marking gauge I’ve ever used. I am definitely planning to make more, and I think I may even get a little fancy on one or two of them, but I won’t make any promises.
Most woodworkers who take their hobby fairly seriously enjoy using old (or traditional but new) tools; I think I can make that statement definitively. Some woodworkers use old tools because they have to, some because they enjoy it, and some, like myself, do it for a combination of those reasons. However, when it comes to using those traditional/old tools to make furniture, I’ve never been completely sold on hand braces and hand drills.
I don’t mean to imply that I don’t like hand drills/braces, because I actually think they are pretty cool, but when I use hand tools it is because many times they are better suited to the work I do, such as scroll work, dovetail joints, chopping mortises, or making tenons. But I haven’t really come across a situation, as of yet, where a hand drill or brace has been the clear choice over a battery operated drill in a furniture making capacity. Hand drills and braces are no more accurate, easy to operate, or even ergonomically suited to most woodworking or carpentry tasks than their battery operated counterparts. Of course if you run out of power, or if you have no way to easily charge your batteries, the previous statement falls on its flat on its face. In fact, most electricians I know, myself included, always had a hand brace with them, just in case. But for the most part, an electric drill gets the job done.
But, sometimes you need to go old school.
Last month I needed to drill a large hole in an even larger fence post. The 18v cordless drill that I generally use possibly would have worked, or it possibly would have smoked the motor. I do own a large, plug in rotary hammer from my ‘lectric’ days, but considering the fence post was around 90ft from the nearest receptacle, and considering I really didn’t want to unwind and string together 2 extension cords to make just one hole, I decided to go old school. Then, something weird happened, something that has never happened to me before, the hand brace broke.
The brace I was using was an old , 10 inch Stanley. It came to me beat up, and truthfully I never did anything to repair or restore it. But as I was using it, the drill slipped, and one of the jaws fell back into the chuck. I unscrewed the chuck and saw that the spring which holds the jaws had broken. It may have been because I was pushing too hard, but the spring did have some rust on it, and that likely didn’t help matters. Regardless, the brace was unusable. Thankfully, I had made it almost completely through the fence post, so I was able to finish it up by using an electric cordless.
This “incident” led me to reevaluate my brace stock. Besides a large corner brace, the only other brace I had (up until last week that is) was a Stanley 923 6INCH brace that was so rusty I could not get it to open. Admittedly this was my fault, it was given to me in somewhat rough shape many years ago and I just never did anything with it. So before I did anything else I planned on getting the 923 up and running again.
I have cleaned up braces before, but for this one I wanted to really go in depth and get it both looking and working great, and that meant taking it apart completely. Since I’ve never completely taken apart a hand brace, I turned to the holy grail of restoration knowledge: YouTube. I’m sure that some of the happy few who read this blog have seen the plethora of videos on the Tube usually featuring a pair of disembodied hands that make very deliberate, Marcel Marceau-like motions while repairing everything from tools to video games. I found one such video for repairing a hand brace so I decided to give it a shot.
Once again, I did not take any photos of the restoration process, and I really wish I had, firstly because the brace turned out nicely and I wish I had kept a detailed record of the process, and secondly, because when reassembling the 923 I forgot to reinstall the little stop washer that goes under the top knob and keeps it from spinning off. After 2 days of soaking, scrubbing, soaking, and grinding, I simply forgot where that seemingly innocuous part was supposed to go and it drove me crazy when I couldn’t remember, so a parts photo would really have come in handy. Luckily I eventually figured it out. Not only does the brace look nice and work great again, the only original part that needed replacing was a cotter pin that holds the ratcheting mechanism to the chuck, and luckily I have an entire box of those on standby, just in case.
Since I got the 6 inch brace up and running, I decided that I should probably have a working 10 inch brace, if for no other reason than to have it, because you never know. A coworker of mine, who attends auctions frequently, very kindly gave me a Stanley 945 last week. It was in pretty good shape to begin with, so rather than completely taking it apart, I took apart everything that was looking iffy and gave it a solid once over, and it turned out pretty nicely. While I was in a cleaning mood, I even cleaned up a small bowsaw that I made around 5 years ago, giving it a fresh coat of wax and replacing the twine.
So once again, I went against my own advice and spent hours, over several weekends, restoring old tools. Was it worth it? Maybe. I was especially happy to get the 6inch brace restored, because it was a rusted out mess, and it has a back story that I won’t bore anybody with. But as far as usefulness is concerned, I’m not completely sold on the idea that braces are absolutely necessary tools for making furniture. I am certain that anybody in the building trades could and should keep one handy, even in this age of a seemingly endless array of electric hole making tools that are portable and powerful. But, in my opinion, if you are an amateur getting started in out in hobby woodworking, don’t feel the need to go out of your way to find and restore one of these braces unless that is something you enjoy doing. While a small hand-drill may come in handy at times, it is unlikely that a brace is needed on the vast majority of furniture projects that a home woodworker takes on, and 99.99% of the time, a 12v or 18v cordless drill will do the job just fine.
Over past the weekend I finished off the pipe box I built the week before by painting it a “colonial” blue. There’s not much to talk about except the fact that I almost messed up.
Initially I wasn’t going to prime the box, but I did anyway, but in doing so I made a mistake; I painted the box interior where the drawer sits. It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just did it. That wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t also painted the drawer sides, which was a conscious decision. It dawned on me after the second coat that I might have made a big mistake, and it turns out I almost did.
Yet in the end it all worked out. After the second coat of paint dried I applied a few coats of furniture wax. The wax did a nice job of bringing out the paint and shining up the box. Actually, it did too nice of a job. I didn’t necessarily want this box to look brand new, but the paint and the wax gave it an almost factory finished appearance. I was going for rustic charm. But, I also needed to sand down the drawer sides and the box interior so the drawer would glide smoothly again. Once those parts were sanded, I very lightly gave the box a few rough spots by with some 600g sand paper, and that seemed to help the box appear, in my opinion, just a touch less “new”.
Generally, I’m not a fan of furniture with built in character, as I feel that character should be earned after years of use, but in this case I wanted to give it a little head start. This box will likely never hold a pipe or pipes. And I can’t imagine that many hands will be placed on it each day as it would have in the 18th century.
So, with that being said, here are some photos:
This was a truly enjoyable project. There were very few hiccups, and that was probably because I built it in my head a dozen times before I actually started. The first attempt, which ended in disaster, was a real blessing in disguise, and it made this build go much more smoothly.
I may attempt to build another one of these at some point, but I will probably use a wood such as maple, and give it a natural finish. And that one will definitely hang in my living room, and it will definitely have a pipe or two in it.
Those close to me know that I am very passionate about history. My collection of historical “stuff” has grown dramatically during the past few years, and though it sometimes bugs my wife and kid to no end, the historical memorabilia I’ve accumulated is perhaps my proudest possession. I’ve always been fascinated with documents and maps in particular, even the cheesy ones on “aged” parchment paper you will find in museum gift shops. But my favorites are those that I reproduce myself. I have re-created probably hundreds of colonial era broadsides, newspapers, and letters from Congress among many others using a computer program containing historical fonts, bordering, and so on. I’ve have spent many, many hours..in a labor of love..copying these artifacts from books and photos, being very careful to match as closely as possible the size, spacing, and layout, and if you’ve ever looked at an 18th century broadside or newspaper you will understand what I am talking about. Setting print during that era was a real art, and the printers did their utmost to maximize the page, and in doing so gave even simple announcements real character that hasn’t been matched since.
I also enjoy period furniture, with the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries being my favorite era. I’ve never really attempted to build furniture from that time frame because quite a bit of it is out of my skill level, and because it just wouldn’t work in a 1960’s split level house. But the small “accessory” pieces are a little more forgiving, both in scope, and in décor. With that in mind, last year I met a very talented woodworker at a Colonial style May Fair who specializes in the period pieces I like. I’ve been following his work ever since, and a few weeks back I ordered a wall-box from him with a painted finish. I want to take some of those labor intensive documents I made, wrap them nicely, and use the box to hold and display them. So while I was waiting for it to arrive I decided to make my own.
My first attempt ended in disaster. I made it from 3/8 inch thick cherry, and though in appearance it had some charm, the box itself, made with no joinery except nails, split as soon as I tried to attach a clamp. It was a lot of wasted time, spent mostly in stock prep, but I learned a few things. So after settling in on a new design, I got back to work over the past weekend using 1/2 inch poplar.
I knew that my first attempt failed from the lack of any real joinery. So I decided to make a “Pipe Box” instead, which is basically a wall box, meant to hold pipes, with a small drawer to hold pipe tobacco. The drawer would allow me to use dado joinery to stiffen up the box. With the help of Chuck Bender, who was nice enough to take a few photos with measurements for me, I settled on a basic design, and when the wall box I ordered happened to arrive just as I was beginning the project, I used it as something of a template.
I won’t get into the boring ins and outs or a step-by-step description of the entire project, but I do want to talk about the “hand work” involved. Whether or not you enjoy using hand tools, they are a necessity more often than not, in particular with period furniture. When making this box, I used a power tool once, which was to make the groove for the drawer bottom, and I only did that because I made the groove on a single, 36inch long board, which I crosscut into sections later. I did not purposely avoid using the table saw; trust me I would have used it if it would have saved time. But this was a true hand-tool project, with the rest of the box was made using a hand saw, a coping saw, chisels, a rasp, a mill file, a block plane, spoke shave, and a jointer plane. The aspects of this project that made it worth building really could only be accomplished with some very traditional tools. I’m not a crusader by any stretch, but for this project it felt “right” doing it the old fashioned way.
Another aspect of this project I would like to touch on is the use of cut nails. I don’t often use nails, but they seemed to be the best option to both keep the box clamped as the glue was drying, as well adding mechanical fastening to the box. An additional bonus regarding the use of nails was they helped to keep the pieces aligned. I pre-drilled each nail hole before gluing. And during glue-up I pushed the nails through the front piece and they worked as a guide, which kept the glue up perfectly straight. As far as the bottom board, I nailed that as well, and in keeping with the colonial theme I had going, I shaped it with an 18th century round-over plane.
Regarding the drawer, that was constructed with simple dado construction and a few more nails, once again used more for clamping than for structure. The drawer bottom was made with a scrap piece of 1/4″ thick oak. The drawer front was cut from the same board that I used for the rounded front face. I wanted to keep a grain match, which was a stupid idea considering I had planned from the get-go to paint this box. The drawer pull is a traditional ring-style sold by Lee Valley; I have quite a few of them laying around. I wanted it to be dark, so I sanded it down and used gun-blue to darken it. Attaching the drawer front to the drawer box while keeping everything aligned was a bit of a challenge, but I managed to get it done with some trial and error.
After the drawer was fitted I was pleasantly surprised with the overall weight and feel of this box. It is solid, and heavier than it looks. If you find yourself in a historic home or a history museum chances are you may see a similar style box. Some of them appear flimsy; well this box is not flimsy in the least.
Next weekend I will paint the box, a gray basecoat and a colonial blue top coat. I think once that it dries I will sand it with a 600g abrasive and apply a few coats of wax, which from what I gather would have been a finish used on such a box during the 18th century.
I really enjoyed this project a lot. It had a lot of the aspects that make me feel like a “real woodworker”. And I also like the size. As I’ve mentioned probably many times before on this blog at one time or another, I have little room in my house for any more full size furniture pieces. But unique projects, such as this one, help add character to a home, and they don’t take up much space. My little home office, which I’ve been renovating since Covid struck, will likely be the home for this box. But who knows? Maybe my wife will take a liking to it and it will find its way into the living room. I won’t know for certain until it’s painted, though. Wherever it ends up, I’m glad I made it.
Last week I wrote a post concerning the clean up/restoration of three chisels that I’ve had for years. One of those chisels in particular, a Greenlee paring chisel, gave me a hard time. Not only was the metal aspect of the chisel in rough shape, the handle needed help as well; so I mentioned that perhaps one day I would repair it. And in the interest of not half-assing the restoration, last weekend I decided to get it done.
While most of the chisel handle was in decent shape, it felt horrible in hand, so initially I had sanded it down and finished it with shellac and wax. That certainly improved the look and feel, but the top of the chisel was still an issue, which was cork/leather padding attached with a 3/8 dowel. The padding was uneven and rotting away, but thankfully it was easily removed. I then toyed with the idea of just rounding over the top and calling it finished, but the handled felt a bit too short to be comfortable. So I sawed off the dowel, which was too short to reuse, and decided that a dowel might be the repair answer I was looking for.
I have a pretty good stash of oak and maple dowels in my garage. Whenever I go to a home center, I will check out the dowel rack, and if I find some nice and straight dowels, I will purchase them. They are inexpensive and handy to have around, so I have perhaps two dozen dowels, oak and maple, ranging in size from 1/4 inch up to 1 1/2 inch. I went with an 1 1/4 inch dowel for the repair.
Because the top of the chisel was already nice and flat, I only had to saw off a flat piece from the dowel, just over 2 inches in length. So I drilled a 3/8 inch hole roughly centered into the dowel end and sawed it off with a cross cut saw, and it wasn’t flat. I repeated the process and it still wasn’t flat. I like to think that I am pretty good at sawing straight and square, but it took me four attempts to get that dowel sawn correctly. At this point I was pretty frustrated. But after that things went much more smoothly.
I drilled a second hole into the top of the chisel handle, made an attempt to line up the grain somewhat, tapped in another dowel, 3/8 inch oak, glued it up and put it into a clamp to dry overnight. The following morning I clamped the chisel handle into a wood handscrew and used a block plane and spoke shave to blend it all together. The tricky part was chamfering the round top. Like any woodworker who has ever used a blockplane, I’m pretty decent when it comes to creating chamfers on straight surfaces, but on round surfaces I’m still learning, so that part took a while to get to a point where I was satisfied. I then gave the entire handle an overall sanding, removing the shellac I had applied last week.
To finish it off, I didn’t use shellac because I did not have a brush that I was willing to sacrifice, so I applied a coat of BLO, let it dry for a few hours, and over the course of the past few days I’ve applied four coats of Alfie Shine soft wax, waiting 24 hours between each coat. Alfie Shine doesn’t give the instant shine that shellac does, but in a few coats it creates a subtle glow, and it feels great on the handle, and it smells incredible believe it or not. I will likely apply two more coats, with the final buffing completed using a powered buffing wheel to give it a really nice appearance.
This was hardly a perfect repair. The new handle top does not match the color of the original, but it does feel much more comfortable in my hand with the added length. And the repair feels solid, and I believe it will hold up for a very long time. As I had said in the original post, if I didn’t have the free time I very likely would not have gone to the lengths I did to get this tool up and running again. All told it added up to more than 6 hours of work, which is not including drying time, clean up, etc. Last year at this time I was working Monday-Saturday, close to 60 hours a week not including commute time, and at that point I would never have even considered spending so much of my precious down time fixing up an old chisel. This year has been different, or at least the past six weeks have been. So with things at work already ramping back up to speed I knew that if I didn’t get this finished now it probably wouldn’t have gotten done, and that was not going to fly
Too many times in life tasks are started and not finished, and I did not want to add to that pitiful list. Finishing something to completion, no matter how difficult, or tedious, is an important life lesson to learn, and one that a person my age should already know. But I am guilty of slacking off at times just like the next person. In this instance, however, I finished the job that I started, and I feel far better for it.
With construction reopening this past week in my state, I knew that this would be the last week where I had a fair amount of free time to burn, so I wanted to get as much done as possible, and that included yet another little dovetailed box.
I didn’t plan on making another box, not really, but I found a piece of rough sawn cherry that I had laying around, and after a bit of measuring I determined that there was enough wood there to build a box the same size as the last two I made.
I have a personal connection to that piece of cherry. My wife’s uncle, who unfortunately passed away before we were married, was an accomplished woodworker. Happily I got to know him fairly well, but sadly we never talked shop, because at that time I had never even thought that one day I would enjoy making furniture. He milled his own wood from trees on his property in upstate Pennsylvania, and there is still quite a bit of it. My Father-in-Law, in a nice gesture, gave me a fair amount of rough sawn cherry and ash that I have stashed away for an, as of yet, unknown project. One of the smaller pieces of cherry I did use to make a little weather station that hangs in my garage, and the leftover piece is the result of that project.
Personally, I do not care for milling lumber, whether by machine, by hand, or a combination of the two. Perhaps if I had a dedicated machine planer with a dust collection system milling boards wouldn’t bother me so much, but I don’t, so I find it to be a messy chore.
The board I had to work with was approximately 23inches long, 7 inches wide, and just a hair under an inch thick. It was not the best board I’ve come across, but there looked to be enough decent wood to work with. I planed one of the edges smooth and straight, and used the table saw to rip them into two boards just over 3 inches wide. I then used the table saw to resaw the boards, which is possibly my least favorite process in all of woodworking. Because I wanted the boards to finish off at 1/2 inch thick, I resawed them to 5/8 inch thick; the mess was awful. To make matters worse, the board had a touch of bowing, and one of them went askew a bit, just enough to make handplaning them to size even more tiresome.
When I got the boards planed down to just about finish size I noticed a slight problem; the piece I was planning to use as each end had a defect that I knew would result in a split at some point. I then had the bright idea to take one of the leftover pieces from the resawing operation and laminate that to the last remaining piece of rock-hard home center oak that I had used on the box from a few weeks back. This meant more hand-planing, and even more of a mess. After I got the lamination glued up, I cleaned up and called it a day.
The following day I did not have a lot of free time, so I used it to get the boards all sized to final dimensions. The lamination turned out fairly well, but because I had just one crack at getting two usable ends out of it I once again dragged out the table saw and used it to crosscut them to correct size. While the saw was out I figured I may as well run the groove for the lid. Generally I would rather do that by hand because the end result is usually much cleaner, but for the sake of efficiency I used the saw, and the result was good enough to proceed. Lastly, I did the dovetail lay out, and here I almost messed up in a bad way, as the new, laminated end boards were just over 3/4 of an inch thick, and the sides were 1/2 inch thick. Thankfully I caught myself before I did anything stupid.
Yesterday, I completed the dovetails and glued up the box. The cherry planed and sawed nicely, the oak, not so much, but I knew that going in; it’s just too hard, and even a razor sharp marking knife had trouble with it. And while we’re on the subject of marking dovetails, in any future dovetailing operation I want to be sure to eliminate any visible marking lines. I don’t dislike those lines, but I think a project looks much more refined without them.
Glue up went well, and I noticed something that I believe to be a good sign. All three of the boxes I just built have the same dimensions, and during glueup/clamping as I measured all three for square the measurement was exactly the same on each box: 9 7/16 inches corner to corner.
Today I completed the lid, which went fairly well, but fitting it was time consuming. Just like the oak box, I finished it with 6 coats of furniture wax, which I like because it is very subdued and easy to replenish.
As much as it pains me to say this, the oak box from a few weeks back is my favorite of the trio. As difficult as that wood was to work with, it was very clear and straight grained. I don’t dislike this box, quite the opposite. I’m still not sure how I like the lamination, but it does provide some visual interest. And another unforeseen benefit came from using wider boards at each end (due to the lamination) which makes the dovetails stand out a bit more, yet the box still keeps the lighter appearance due to the 1/2 inch wide side boards.
So this may be the last woodworking project I complete for some time. If it is I’m glad this box was it, because it does fit into the décor of my little home office. Perhaps I will have some free time to use, but considering that I am already working more than double the hours next week than has been the normal for the past five, I think that I will be quite busy for the next few months. Still, it was fun woodworking and blogging again. And it is even better to know that if the country ever gets locked down again I have everything needed to keep me busy just 30 feet away in the garage.
When people find out you like to woodwork, sometimes they give you stuff. I found this out years ago, and wrote about it many times. It seems that nearly everybody had a father, or grandfather, who left behind some woodworking tools that have been collecting dust. People are happy to get rid of those tools, and I think that is because they feel that the tools are going into good hands when they are passed on to a woodworker.
For years I happily accepted those tools, but now I will very rarely take them, and if I do it is to restore them as best I can and then give them to someone else. I’ve had literally hundreds of these tools pass through my hands, and thankfully I have sent many of them to better homes. But I still kept a few, and this past weekend I finally got around to restoring one of them. And while I was at it I decided to work on a few others that needed some attention.
With my home state still on lockdown, the past few weekends have been dedicated to yardwork and woodwork. So without any projects planned I began cleaning and sharpening every tool that looked that it could use the treatment. The first tool I started on has a bit of an interesting (to me) backstory.
Back when I first got married PBS was running a documentary called ‘Alone in the Wilderness’ which detailed the story of Richard Proenneke’s move to the Alaskan Wilderness where he built a cabin and its furnishings, among many other things, with hand tools. I was immediately obsessed, and over the years I have purchased every journal or bit of information that the NPS has offered. Nevertheless, while I never built my dream log cabin in the woods, back in 2004 I considered making log furniture for the back yard. There was a company that offered kits needing “only a few tools”. One of the tools needed was a chisel. Richard Proenneke used a gouge chisel, so I went to the local hardware store and they actually had one, so I bought it. Perhaps it could be said that this gouge was the first purpose-driven woodworking tool purchase I ever made, but considering that I never actually made anything with the tool and it sat untouched in my garage for years I can’t really make that claim.
The gouge sat, rusting away. When I purchased the tool it was not all that sharp. I tried to sharpen it with a stone I used to sharpen pocket knifes but I had very limited success; so I basically forgot that I had it for more than 15 years. But on Saturday I decided to make that gouge a working tool that looked like a proud woodworker owned it. The first thing I did was clean it. I used sandpaper,150g up to 600g , with 3in1 oil as the cleaner/lubricant. That did a nice job clearing up the rust, which thankfully was only on the surface. I then sharpened the tool, which was not easy.
To practice, I sharpened up the two small gouge chisels that I actually do use on occasion. But this gouge is a lot larger and much more awkward to sharpen. I progressed up the chain: coarse then fine diamond stone, 800g water stone, 8000g water stone, then leather strop with honing compound. It took a while, more than an hour, but afterwards the tool was sharp. When I was done sharpening I lightly sanded the handle and added a very thin coat of wax. I then went over the tool steel with 4/0 steel wool once again using 3in1 oil as the cleaner/lubricant. The end result is a tool that looks and works much better than it ever has before. After that I called it a day, hours of yardwork and sharpening had worn me out.
Sunday was cool and rainy, a perfect day for tool maintenance, so the next tool I turned to was my 1/4″ mortise chisel. This is yet another tool that rarely sees use, but that isn’t because I have forgotten about it, but because I haven’t made any large furniture in several years. But, the tool does still serve a purpose, because it fits perfectly in the grooves of the small sliding lid boxes I’ve been making, and when I used it a few weeks back to give the groove a final clean up, I noticed that several “teeth” had formed on the blade, so it was time to take care of that problem.
The mortise chisel is perhaps 7 or 8 years old, and it was always well-kept, so it did not need to be cleaned, only reground. And to regrind it I went through the same steps as I had with the gouge, only this time it took around half the time. And, just for the sake of thoroughness, I also gave it the steel wool treatment. And I did remember to take a before/after photo.
I saved the worst for last, the 3/4″ socket chisel, as I knew it would take the longest to restore. I suppose you can call it a paring chisel due to its length and low angle. It was given to me by a coworker I believe, quite a few years back. It was covered in rust, and the back has a slight bow, but, the checked the first 4 inches and it is still flat, so I decided it was worth saving.
The first thing I did was give it an overall cleaning, and discovered that the chisel is/was made by Greenlee. I then figured that I had better take a ‘before’ photo before I really got into it. Next I flattened the back, and it took a long time. I started with 220 grit sand paper and oil, but that wasn’t cutting it, so I went all the way down to 100g. When I got it somewhat decent I progressed up the long line: 150g, 220g, 320g, 600g, coarse/fine diamond stone, 800g Waterstone, 8000g water stone, leather strop, then charged leather strop…and this was just on the chisel flat. The bevel wasn’t in much better shape than the flat, and I went through the entire progression again, but this time I used a Veritas honing guide. At this point my left hand and wrist were burning, and I could no longer take the pain, and using the guide was a smart choice.
Getting the bevel straight and sharp took longer than flattening the back. The grinding was horrible, and I could easily see that at several points in time somebody had attempted to sharpen it with a grinding wheel, as there were several different bevels and the blade front was skewed. After more than an hour, with a few rests in between, I finally got the bevel to the point where it was somewhat uniform and the blade front no longer skewed. Once again I had to use the entire progression of sharpening medium that I own to get it correct. But when I got to the Waterstones I added a microbevel. The good news is the chisel is now razor sharp, so sharp it cut me a few times, the bad news is it took hours.
I then turned to the chisel handle. Let me start by saying I don’t like the handle, and I may attempt to make my own. The handle is made of oak I believe, and is fairly typical of a socket chisel handle, but the LN or even the Stanley handles are far more comfortable. Regardless, I sanded and chiseled off whatever remained of the original finish and decided to try shellac for the finish. My 2nd favorite Englishman, Paul Sellers, has several videos in which he uses shellac to restore tool handles, so I gave it a try.
I applied the first coat and waited 30 minutes, but the shellac still felt tacky, so I let it sit another hour. I then lightly sanded it off, applied a 2nd coat, and let it sit for around 4 hours. I’ve seen videos where people don’t wait nearly as long between coats, but it was very cool and damp in my garage, so I’m sure that added to the drying time. Lastly, I applied paste wax using 4/0 steel wool, buffed it with a brush, and called it done.
Before I finish, I have to say that if I wasn’t bored out of my mind on Sunday with nothing else to do I likely would never have spent 4 plus hours cleaning up a chisel. In fact, I wanted to do some more painting but it was just too cold. Not to make this about money, but this chisel wasn’t worth 4 hours of my time. That all being said, it’s finished, and it works, and I am okay with that…just okay mind you.
Some tools are worth restoring, and some tools a woodworker is better off just purchasing new. I have no real use for a paring chisel and I wouldn’t bother buying one unless I had an absolute need for it. The truth is I usually hate posts like this one, because I don’t want to trick some woodworker into doing what I just did (8 hours of tool repair) over the weekend. However, if you are a woodworker who feels the need to restore beat- up old tools, it certainly can be done with a lot of time and elbow grease. I’m hardly a tool restoration expert, so if I can do it, you can too.