I find it hard to use the words “woodworking” and “controversy” together in the same sentence, let alone as the subject and it’s adjective. Woodworking, as a rule, is not a controversial topic no matter how many people try to make it that way. Of course you can find hundreds of woodworking blog posts explaining why you must do something a certain way, or why you should never use this tool, or why you should always sharpen just like this! You will then find hundreds of responses on why the post is correct, or incorrect. But lets face it, woodworking is boring. Woodworking books are boring, woodworking debates are boring. They just are, I am sorry to say. Woodworking is not the NFL. I don’t high five my wife after sawing a nice tenon. Now, I am NOT saying that the act of woodworking is boring. Woodworking is like learning to write a novel, the final result may be great, but nobody wants to spend their time watching an author learn about sentence structure. I also have a theory that woodworking books have to be boring for them to work properly, but I’ll save that for another blog post.
As it were, one of the few woodworking topics that actually stirs woodworkers from their slumber is the addition, or subtraction, of a tool tray on their woodworking bench. I can’t understand why this topic is so heavily debated, but like it or not, it is. If you happen to mention that you are adding a tool tray to your workbench, you could possibly get dozens, if not hundreds of woodworkers telling you not to do it. Generally the reasons are always the same: Tool trays collect clutter, and/or, tool trays take away valuable bench top territory. I’m hear to tell you all now that those reasons are lame, or piss-poor as my dad would say.
As I was working on my current project over the weekend, I found myself really wanting a tool tray, yet again. Because much of what I did on Sunday involved hand tools, in just a few minutes my bench top, the place where I was woodworking, became filled with tools and debris. You might tell me that I should be working out of a tool chest, which would help keep the bench top clear of tools. Well, I do work out of a tool chest, a rather nice one I might add. The tool chest does not help, if it did I wouldn’t be writing this post.
So, I’m going to take a few minutes here and debunk the top ‘anti-tool tray’ myths and point out just how lame they really are.
Myth 1-Tool trays collect clutter!
This is the big one, the Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and both Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster have more credibility. Before anybody jumps down my throat, let me explain. Do tool trays collect clutter and debris? Absolutely, positively! Does the rest of the bench top collect clutter and debris? Absolutely, positively. Does the floor around your workbench collect clutter and debris? Clutter, sometimes; debris, absolutely! Here is the deal: Woodworking generates clutter and debris, and it has to collect somewhere. If I’m at the workbench, wouldn’t I rather have a place to collect some of the clutter, tools, and other items that you need at hand, but not necessarily in the way? That, people, is where the tool tray comes into play. Tool trays keep your tools right where you need them, but out of harms way. Tool trays keep your tools from getting knocked onto the floor. Tool trays keep your tools from damaging the board you are working on. Tool trays are a good place to sweep shavings and such until you have a chance to clean them up later. Tool trays are a GREAT place to keep hardware like screws and nails and bits handy. Tool trays keep you at the workbench and not digging around your tool box. And clean up? Ever heard of a shop vac?
Myth 2-Tool trays take away too much bench top area.
Let’s, for arguments sake, say that the average workbench top is twenty-four inches wide. Let’s also say, that the average tool tray is eight inches wide. If my abacus is correct that leaves sixteen inches of useable bench top space to woodwork with. In my experience, sixteen inches is more than enough width for woodworking. When woodworking with hand tools, I’ve found that very rarely do you use more than the front twelve inches of the bench top; I can see that just by my top’s physical appearance. Every ding, dent, and smudge is located along the front half. The way I see it, most amateur woodworkers don’t work with boards more than sixteen inches wide. Even so, a tool tray usually will not affect a wider board regardless. But what about project assembly? Well, workbenches are fine for assembling drawers, or fitting small parts, but they suck for full scale assembly, and they should because that is not what they are meant for. Workbenches are for clamping and sawing, that is it. Trying to assemble a large project on a workbench is a lesson in frustration.
Myth 3-A tool tray will take away too much mass from the bench.
My current workbench is on the smaller side. It is 6 feet long, 2 feet wide, and 33 inches tall. I would estimate that it weighs in the neighborhood of 225 pounds, give or take. I am 5ft 11in tall and I weigh around 200 pounds, and I cannot budge my workbench unless I try. I’ve never had the bench jump during planing or sawing. In it’s current configuration, if I removed a portion of the bench and added a tool tray, I would probably subtract around 25 pounds of weight. That loss of mass will not affect the functioning of the bench in the least. I know that because I’ve worked on benches the same size as mine that had a tray and they worked just fine. In fact, if I added a proper maple bench top like I would like to, the bench would actually gain a good amount of mass, even with a tool tray. Workbenches do NOT have to weigh 400 pounds to work correctly. They just don’t. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a massive bench. If you want one then go for it. What I am saying is that you don’t need a massive bench.
I know I’ve touched on this subject before, but my experiences over the weekend brought it back to mind. If we, as woodworkers, want to look to history and tradition for guidance, doesn’t the fact that many traditional benches had a tool tray tell us something? They work, that’s why they were put on benches in the first place! If I am reading the reasons rightly, the main reason to not have a tool tray is because they need to be cleaned. That is absolutely ridiculous. Woodworkers spend hours sharpening their tools, oiling them, aligning them just so in their chests or cabinets, but don’t want to take about thirty seconds to run a shop vac over the workbench top? Does that make any sense? Now again, I am not telling anybody that doesn’t want a tool tray that they are fools for not having one. However, I am saying that if you do want a tool tray, and you believe that it will be an asset to your woodworking, then by all means do it and don’t pay attention to the foolish reasons telling you otherwise.
When I arrived home from work early this afternoon I had already gone over in my mind the sequence of events that would signal the start of my blanket chest project. First thing would be to set up the garage, that mainly being get out the table saw, set up the shop vac, and lastly set up the router table. Before I go any further I would like to say that I do not like using a router, but they come in handy at times, especially for mortising. Anyway, I had planned on crosscutting the chest legs to width first, laying out the mortises and using the router table to cut them, and finally making the stretchers and sawing and fitting the tenons. Like the best laid schemes of mice and men, my day didn’t go according to plan.
I crosscut the legs to size quickly and easy enough; the miter gauge on my table saw has a stop on it that makes repetitive crosscutting pretty simple. I then used my marking gauge to lay out the mortise on each leg. I tried to select the nicest face for the visible portions of the legs, and laid out the mortises accordingly. Again, I had the lay-out finished fairly quickly, but when I went to install the 1/4″ spiral bit into the router things took an unexpected turn. Firstly, I don’t use the router very often, and I’ll admit that I don’t keep it and it’s accessories as organized as I should. When I built my tool chest, I used the router to clean up the hinge mortises, and when I did that I removed it from the router table. This afternoon, when I went to return it to the router table, I could not find the mounting hardware anywhere. After a twenty minute, foul-language filled search, I decided that I would simply chop out the mortises by hand.
Chopping mortises by hand isn’t so bad when it comes down to it. I have a very good mortising chisel that I keep sharp, and mortising pine is hardly a workout. I wanted to make the mortises just a hair over 3/4 inch deep, so I used a piece of blue masking tape to mark the depth on the chisel. The task went very quickly, nearly as quickly as using the router table, with a lot less noise, mess, and chance of screwing up. I use the Paul Sellers method, which is take small bites to define the wall, and then have at it. The chisel did a great job and the walls of the mortise were straight and clean. In fact, even the bottom of the mortise turned out nicely, though I used a regular 1/4 inch chisel for that part. In less than ten minutes the mortises were ready to go, so I turned to making the chamfers on the outer side of the legs.
Since I already had the chisels up and running, I decided to make the stopped chamfers using a chisel and spokeshave. That operation unfortunately didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. While it wasn’t all that difficult to do, getting uniform results was, so I decided to use the electric router with a chamfering bit for the clean up. I only needed to take a fraction off of each leg, but my bit is somewhat dull sit it left some burn marks that I will have to sand off later. With that finished I used the table saw to chamfer to bottoms of each leg, and then I started on the rails.
For the rails, I cross cut a 1×4 to 21 and 1/2 inches and then used the table saw to define the cheeks of the tenons. I wanted the tenons to be 3/4 inches long by 1/4″ wide. I made a test tenon with a scrap board and then did the real thing. Once the tenons were sawn I ripped the board into two 1 1/4″ wide rails. I used a handsaw to finish up the cut and then I cleaned up the edges with a smooth plane, and used a chisel, router plane, and shoulder plane to get a good fit. That probably took me as long as any one task I attempted today, which was probably around thirty minutes or so. With the rails fit I lightly chamfered the edges of each one with a block plane.
Though my plans didn’t go completely perfectly today, I finished what I wanted to finish. All in all I spent around three and a half hours woodworking, including set up and clean up. Funny thing is that much of what I did was by hand. I enjoy working by hand; it’s a space saver and not nearly as noisy. I even had the iPod cranked up. My favorite part, as always, was mashing out the mortises which is instant stress relief. Tomorrow I should be able to get the sides assembled and ready to go. Maybe my lovely wife will even do a little bit of sanding for me. With the hard part out of the way, the rest of the chest should go together quickly. It was a pretty good day today, and I almost felt like one of those real woodworkers you always hear about.
Tonight after work I completed my final sketch/design for my blanket and/or toy chest project. I’ve come up with a final dimension of 23 inches deep x 46 inches wide x 28 inches tall. I’ve added one new design feature that wasn’t included on my original sketch, and that is panels. But the truth is that the chest will not be paneled, and the rails and stiles will just be decorative 1/4 inch thick strips. Why include panels as fake as Pamela Anderson’s rack on a perfectly good and simple design? If you must know it is because of an episode of The New Yankee Workshop I watched online just the other day.
Though this chest isn’t an Arts & Crafts design, I was hoping to incorporate some A&C design elements. On the New Yankee Workshop episode, Norm built a replica of a Stickley original desk which just so happened to incorporate panels in the design. Since my chest design looks somewhat like a squashed desk, and since I really like Arts and Crafts furniture, I thought the faux panels may be a nice touch, and also do something to set the chest apart. So I drew up another sketch which included the fake panels, and on paper it looks like it may just work. Of course, Communism, friends with benefits, and the Phillies outfield also seem like they should work on paper. So before I commit to the idea completely I’m going to mock it up and see what’s what. Another option would be to just make the chest using actual panels which is a proven design element. I considered that, and while it wouldn’t really change the dimensions or overall look of the chest all that much, it would more than double the material cost if I wanted to do it properly; I’ll pass on that. If this one turns out okay, my next chest will get all the bells and whistles.
So the design is set and I have the material ready to go. I plan to begin on Saturday afternoon (I have work in the morning) starting with the legs. I hope to get the mortises finished, along with the chamfers on the feet and on the leg sides. Sunday morning I hope to get the side panels dadoed and ready to receive the chest bottom. I am guessing at around two hours each day. With those operations completed the rest of the chest should go together quickly and painlessly, on paper. If this chest build goes well I will have a proven design under my belt for future use, and more importantly it will get my wife off my back for the time being and give me the trump card I need to build my Arts & Crafts side table without any grief. That all sounds like a good plan, on paper.
At long last I picked up some of the stock for my next project: a storage chest. I picked up the material for the legs and part of the stock for the case sides. At the lumberyard, I inquired about some wide planks, sixteen to twenty inches, and I was told that they didn’t have any in stock, but that I would get a phone call if some became available. Because I am neither a professional woodworker or carpenter, I don’t have dealings with a lumberyard on a regular basis, so I’m not sure if that phone call will ever come. In any event, they did have twenty-inch wide edge glued panels in stock, and because this chest is somewhat of an experiment, that is what I purchased. The stuff is nice and flat, and also clear. I’m not sure how well it would stain, however. My wife believes that I should wait until it’s completed to decide on the finish. That may be a good idea, but I’m not too keen on staining an edge glued panel, clear or no. I have an idea that the grain patterns will be muddled, though maybe gel stain could correct that problem at least somewhat.
In other news, along with just finishing up Salem’s Lot, I’ve been reading through two woodworking books that I recently purchased from Amazon: Making & Mastering Wood Planes by David Finck, and Tool-Making Projects for Joinery and Woodworking by Steve A Olesin. Though I’m not sold on making my own tools (as an amateur woodworker) just yet, the topic has intrigued me somewhat, especially the making of wood planes. Thus far, I’ve completed three wood planes; two were from kits and one I made from scratch. I’ve found out a few things during those projects: I enjoyed making the planes; a decent woodworker can make a serviceable plane at home, and making a truly world class plane is not easy. The last one bothered me for a moment or two, but then I realized that as long as the plane works then it really doesn’t matter all that much. Of course I would love to be able to make a plane/work of art or two. But at the moment I don’t have the tools or the time to dedicate to it, not to mention the fact that there is quite a bit of furniture that I would like to make in the meanwhile. Still, a shoulder plane featured in the book by Steve Olesin really caught my eye, and I can see myself making an attempt at it once my first chest project is finished.
While we’re on the subject of books, I’ve said before that I’ve yet to read a woodworking book that really blew me away. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no such book. While I do enjoy reading woodworking books the majority of the time, I know that like in music, theory can only take you so far. That being said, much of what I do know about woodworking I first learned by reading a book or two. It is good practice, especially for a guy like me who only gets to woodwork a few times a month. I’ve considered two books for future purchase, both from Lost Art Press: By Hand & Eye, which is a furniture design book, and To Make as Perfectly as Possible, which is a translation of the 18th century masterwork by famed French woodworker, Andre Roubo. A book on design sounds interesting because I prefer to design my own furniture, or at least take tried and true designs and make them my own. The Roubo book I’m still not really sold on, at least as a woodworking book. I’m sure that there is good information in it, but for me it would serve more as a history text than an instructional one. In any event, the Lost Art Press books are such good quality/nice looking books that it is difficult not to purchase them just for that reason alone.
So I am still in the hunt for a paradigm altering woodworking text, though like I said, I really don’t believe that one exists. In my opinion, woodworking is finite mathematics, and the toughest equations have already been solved, and more importantly those equations cannot and need not be altered any further. That is why I believe that the classic furniture styles: Queen Anne, Federal, Shaker, and Arts and Crafts among others, have endured for such a long time; they don’t need any changing. Of course there is modern furniture, or contemporary as it is sometimes known. Well I don’t care for contemporary furniture, not even a little. I’ve seen wood furniture made to resemble rubber, or plastic, or built into shapes that bring to mind lego blocks. I cannot wrap my mind around taking the natural beauty of wood, which most woodworkers are trying to highlight, and trying to make it look like something else. That in a nutshell is why I believe that there aren’t any woodworking classics waiting to be written; they already have been!
I purchase woodworking books as reference points, and hopefully to pick up a trick or two, but I’ve found that really and truly learning to become a better woodworker only begins in the books. Trying to copy the old styles has been a key for me. Just like making a plane has helped me understand how they really work, trying to make Arts & Crafts furniture designs of my own has helped me become a better furniture maker. The A & C style came to it’s pinnacle probably a century ago, and that is all I really need to know. That book has already been written, I just need to keep on reading it.
I’ve always considered chests the work van of the furniture world; they do a great job of holding things, but essentially it’s a large box that looks like a large box. Traditionally chests were painted, or decorated with ornate carvings and/or mouldings in order to take some of the blandness out of them. Because I don’t like ornate mouldings, and I have no carving tools or experience using them, in order for me to decorate a chest I either need to paint it, or change the design slightly more to my suiting. So today, I sketched my initial idea for a toy/blanket chest for my daughter’s bedroom.
If the drawing seems a bit familiar to those of you who read this blog on a somewhat regular basis you would be correct in that assumption. I basically took a page from the Arts & Crafts handbook, along with the sideboard table I desperately want to build, and came up with an idea for a chest that I believe would work like a traditional chest should, but at the same time please my sense of furniture proportion. I haven’t as of yet come up with any final dimensions, but I am leaning towards a chest 30 inches tall, 47 inches wide, and 23 inches deep. Before I commit to that I need to take a few more measurements in my daughters bedroom to be sure that the space allocated for it will be sufficient.
As far as construction details are concerned, I will use dado joinery for the case, probably along with a few pocket screws to basically act as clamps. The two decorative bottom stretchers will use mortise and tenon joinery. I will more than likely add stopped chamfers on the legs to soften them and keep the corners dulled, and the lid will have a traditional cove moulding to set it apart just a bit. I’m trying to work out a way to get some decorative head cut nails into the mix. Because the case will be held with dados and glued to the legs, I cannot technically use nails. But a few strategically placed nails could be used for decorative effect, possibly something similar to the ebony pegs used in the Greene and Greene style.
While I don’t think anybody would consider this design an Arts & Crafts piece, I honestly believe it could be in the spirit of it, with just a few of the right touches added that is. While I don’t anticipate this being a technically difficult build, I also don’t think it will be quick and easy. The little details that make all the difference will take time to do correctly. There will be some hand plane, spoke shave, and chisel work; I will probably use a router to make the cove on the lid, and the decorative stretchers will need to have tenons added as well as delicately rounded over to offset them from the square legs. Right now I’m going to guess at around 20 hours of bench time including prep work. The finishing time will vary depending on the choice, either paint or stain. The only real choice I have left to make is which material to use. It will be either birch plywood or edge glue panels, with the legs and the lid being pine either way. The plywood is maybe more cost effective, and certainly more stable, but I won’t make that decision until I know for sure what I am actually spending.
So this chest will be my next project. I need to make one more drawing, which I will do after I take my final measurements. With those measurements I can transfer the proportions to the graph paper, and that will give me a good guideline during the actual build. I have a very good feeling about this one, and I think it’s going to turn out nicely. In fact, I have a strong feeling that once it’s finished my wife is going to try to claim it for her own. I’ll try to remind her that I also have an idea for another chest (not Kate Upton’s unfortunately). That second chest may be her Christmas present, and getting the opportunity to build it may be mine.
I finished the carpentry portion of my bedroom remodel project late Saturday afternoon. I worked my day job until noon, arrived home around 12:30, and started working at 1 o’clock. It took me more than five hours non-stop but I got it finished with a migraine for good measure, but fortunately the room turned out nicely. Luckily for me, I will not be the one painting it; I am not a painter, and if we had the money I would hire somebody. So the job of painting the room will belong to my wife.
Speaking of my wife, the latest issue of Popular Woodworking magazine happened to arrive in the mail on Saturday as well. There are times, not often, but there are times my wife will pick it up and read through it. Don’t get me wrong, she couldn’t care less about tool reviews and sharpening angles, but sometimes a piece of furniture will catch her eye and she will mention it to me, or not. This issue peaked her interest not because of the cover photo, but because of an article on a traditional 6-board chest. The article was written by Christopher Schwarz, and to his credit it is a good article. I am not an overly big fan of chests (unless it’s the one on Kate Upton), but I also have nothing against them. But this article happened to be timely because my wife has been wanting me to make not one, but two chests for some time. One chest would be for my daughter’s toys and the other would serve as a blanket chest. “It only needs six boards!” is what my wife proclaimed, “you could do that!” My wife’s back handed comment notwithstanding, I do agree that we need the chests. While the chests in the article were all nice, if I do decide to go ahead with this project I will probably change the plans to my suiting. Building two chests seems like a lot of work, and it probably is, but I have an idea.
The first chest, which will be for my daughters toys, will serve as somewhat of a prototype. Home centers sell edge-glued panels relatively cheaply. For around $100 I could purchase the material needed, and the best part is that my wife would paint it. Building and finishing a piece of ‘fine furniture’ to hold my daughters toys is like wearing a tuxedo to cut the grass. The thing is going to get used and abused and more than likely covered in Hello Kitty stickers. Painting it will be quick and painless, and it should hold up much better than a stained finish. Once the first chest is built I can take what I learned from the construction and apply it to the blanket chest, which would be made of oak or possibly walnut.
So does all of this mean that my table project is off? Absolutely not! I also plan on making an original ‘sideboard’ of my own design to compliment the table. The chests will be useful projects, and also ever so slightly keep my wife off my back. Over then next week I will work on the design and drawings and see what I come up with. Some of you may be thinking that this is all just a devious little plan of my wife’s to keep me from making the Arts & Crafts side table. That is definitely a possibility; after all, this is a woman who once got me an iPod and pair of Bose headphones for Christmas and got angry every single time I used them. Still, she is right, we do need the chests, and according to my wife I’m good enough to make them. Who can argue with that?
I don’t look at my blog statistics all that much to be honest. But one thing that really does interest me is the number of different countries around the world that had at least one person view what I write. Just now, I noticed Estonia, Thailand, Germany, Colombia, Australia, and the good ole’ USA among others. I did a little further checking and found that since I’ve been writing this blog I had readers from 81 different countries on all of the continents, including Greenland. To know that people from all over the world have a little bit in common with me is truly an amazing thought. So, I would like to send out a warm hello and thank you to everybody here, and all around the world, who thought enough to take a bit of time out of their busy days to read my little blog. It’s really an honor knowing that it means something to you all.