I put in four solid hours of woodworking today. I put in about four solid hours of raking leaves on Saturday. And I put in about two solid hours of electrical work in my garage on Friday night. After a long work week, I was kind of hoping to relax this weekend, but that didn’t happen. Still, I’m glad that I put the time in, because I got a lot accomplished, namely, I finished the construction portion of my display cabinet project.
I started off the day’s woodworking with the back panel of the cabinet; I had picked up the 1×8 material for that portion of the project on Friday afternoon. I cut the boards to length, but I did not need to touch the width, as I was making the panel with three boards and added together their width would be a nearly perfect fit.
Firstly, I arranged them in what I thought was a pleasing lay-out, I then marked the front faces and the “tongues and grooves”. Last week I sharpened my LN #48 plane just for this task. If you aren’t familiar with the tongue and groove plane, it does a nice job, but you really need to be careful with it. The plane can wander, and that’s not necessarily a design flaw, but because it will follow every little bump, hollow, or bulge on the reference face of a board. I took my time, as well as made an incredible mess, and finished the boards in short order. Once the panel was assembled I only needed to take a few passes from each end with the smoothing plane to get the final width needed.
The next task on the list was beading the two “tongue” boards. I had planned on a bead for the back panel from the beginning, and because I am only using three boards, I decided to use the larger 3/8 bead because it is more bold. Before I started I sharpened the beading plane yet again, because I wasn’t taking any chances. Speaking of which, 3M makes a flexible sand paper which does a very nice job of sharpening curved profiles. In this instance, I cut off a piece of 3/8 dowel and wrapped a piece of the paper around it. It worked well.
Thankfully, the beading process went without a hitch. In fact, it took me longer to get the beading plane set than to actually make the two beads. To finish it off I used the same flexible sandpaper I had used to sharpen the iron.
Obviously a beaded tongue and board panel is the traditional way to dress up the joint, and it serves the purpose of masking any discrepancies in the joint itself. I just happen to like the look, and I think it fits this design nicely.
The last task of the day took far longer than I thought it would. I needed to lay out and mortise the bottom of the cabinet to receive the bottom trim board. The mortise lay out and chopping took no time at all, but making the trim board was another matter. In fact, I took few photos of the process because as the kids say “Sh*t just got real!”
I made two boards, one arched and one straight. The arched board did not look right. It just didn’t seem to match the look I was going for. I installed the straight board (which admittedly was there as a backup in case I messed up the first one) and liked the look better. In the meanwhile, it took me a good hour to get the board fitted with tight shoulders and no gaps. But the real conundrum came after.
I dry assembled the case to make sure that everything was okay, and I began looking at the arched board which serves as the top of the cabinet. Like the bottom trim board, I also made two arches: one bold and one more gently curved. The gently curved board seemed to fit the concept better, but once the case was fully assembled something seemed off. I had an extra board left, so I cut it square and put it in place at the top of the cabinet. Though it looks a bit more bland, I also don’t think it looks bad. I called in a second opinion and that second opinion agreed with me. So the squared off top is what I’m leaning towards. Considering the case is still only dry-assembled I have some time to think about it.
Next week will consist of the tedious task of prepping the case for finish. For the finish, I am going with a three-pronged attack: Wood Conditioner, Mahogany Gel Stain, and Mahogany Bri-Wax. Next weekend will be a busy one, but I am hoping to at least get the back panels stained, and with that the case fully assembled, glued, and nailed.
With that, I will be able to call this a completed project. It was a fun build, and even more enjoyable because I had very few miscues. The good news is that once this cabinet is finished I have the perfect location in my house for it. The really good news is I already have my next project lined up, and I will begin the drawings for it this week.
I’m not a woodworking expert, and I’ve never claimed to be a woodworking expert. But I do like to think I know a little bit about the hobby (notice I didn’t say “craft”). Like most people who woodwork on a somewhat regular basis, I have picked and/or developed a few tricks along the way. And just to throw my resume out there in case you think I’m just some madman looking to lead you astray; I have had three woodworking tips published in two separate woodworking magazines. So if you don’t want to take my word for it, maybe you will believe a magazine editor or two. And just for full disclosure, the following tips are just observations I’ve made over the course of five years of woodworking, though I do like to think that what I am about to tell you is a little more than just my opinion.
Most woodworkers use a coping saw at some point, even if you are a woodworker who mainly uses power tools. Most woodworkers also will note that coping saw blades are about as durable as dry-rotted shoelaces. I’ve found that when using a coping saw, the “fine” blades seem to break most often. Why? I’m not sure really. Maybe they don’t make enough kerf. In any event, in my experience they do break far more often, so I don’t even bother using the fine blades; I stick with the medium and coarse cut. They cut more quickly, they last longer, and because most coping saw cuts need to be refined with other tools, I can’t see the need for the cut to be “fine” 99% of the time anyway. On a side note, the Home Depot sells an inexpensive 5 pack of blades (Husky brand) which are American made, and they are as good as anything else I’ve ever come across.
Everybody has an opinion on sharpening, and everybody thinks that theirs is the correct one. I use a fairly common system: Diasharp, water stones, and leather strop. Sometimes I will use sandpaper, but that is most often for curved or profiled irons. What I don’t recommend is the so-called “ruler trick”. I’ve found two things out after trying this trick: one is that it is no faster than traditional sharpening methods; two is that it needs to be done nearly every time you sharpen to get it to work correctly. If you flatten the backs of your chisels and plane irons properly the first time, you will not have to do it again for a long time after. That isn’t the case with the ruler trick. The ruler trick is an unnecessary extra step that does not make your steel any sharper and, in my opinion, can actually make sharpening more difficult over the long term. There is one “but”, and that is with router plane irons. The ruler trick makes sharpening a router plane iron far more easy, because you are essentially turning the flat into the bevel, and making the bevel the flat. I didn’t come up with this; I saw it on the Popular Woodworking blog once and tried it, and it really does work.
While we’re on the subject of sharpening, I will also say that I do not care for micro-bevels. Micro bevels do not hold up for the most part, and once again I’ve found if you properly set-up your tools when you first get them then you will have no trouble honing them later. That being said, I do use a micro-bevel on my smooth plane, because it takes such a fine cut to begin with. I also use it on my paring chisel as well as my 3/4 chisel (which I use a lot for cleaning out dovetail sockets) But for the grunt work I leave the micro bevel off my tools. In my opinion sharpening the full bevel makes your edges more durable.
If you happen to have trees on your property, in particular sugar maple trees, you may notice some large branches on your lawn around this time of year. I normally break these branches and bundle them up for the township to collect, but at times some of the branches are too large to just stomp on. I have a basic bow saw, but I’ve found that an inexpensive Japanese style Ryoba saw does a much quicker job of cross-cutting branches than a bow saw does. Just for an example, this morning I found a branch at least three inches in diameter and about twelve feet long. I had it bucked up into foot long pieces in literally less than two minutes. Ryoba saws are, in my opinion, easier to grip than a metal bow saw, they are also far sharper, and they are much lighter and less fatiguing if you happen to have more than just a few branches to saw (as is the always the case with my lawn). And if you’re worried about it having trouble with wet/green wood, don’t. I’ve never had any problems in that sense whether the board was bone dry or still green.
So as I said at the beginning of the post: I’m no expert. But I do feel safe in giving you all my opinion here. I’m letting my experience do the talking here, not just my wacky outlook on the wide world of woodworking.
Last week while working on my cabinet, I came to the conclusion that it needed to be resized. The decision was an easy one to make, as my real world test assembly trumped my “on paper” proportional drawing. So on Sunday morning I started to demolition/reconstruction.
The most unfortunate part of the cabinet resizing was the fact that I would be losing two of the dados I worked so hard to make. I won’t bore anybody with the details over sawing dados (I covered that in my last post) Let me just say that because these dados will be visible, they needed to be air tight. It took me several hours, but I did manage to get my dados finished, nice and tight and how I wanted them. While sawing dados by hand is not necessarily difficult, it is VERY difficult to keep those dados perfectly in line with both case sides. As I’ve said many, many times, woodworking is all about proper and accurate lay out, plain and simple. Without accuracy I don’t care what methods you are using, because they will all fail.
For this case, just 1/16th of an inch off and it’s un-level, out of square, and generally ready for the burn pile. That all being said, I don’t think I will be sawing dados on a large case by hand next time I work on a cabinet such as this, at least if those dados are going to be visible. Don’t get me wrong, I got the job done, but it ate up my entire morning, and when you’re like me and you a very limited window with which to woodwork, every minute counts.
The fun part was next. Firstly, as I mentioned, I did resize both the height and depth of the cabinet. I removed 10 inches from the height and just ¾ of an inch from the depth. I then added the dados for the case back to hold the back boards. For that I used the newly sharpened moving fillister plane. Afterwards I cleaned up all of the dados with the newly sharpened router plane. It then came time to add the subtle curve to the top of the case, and for that I turned to my lovely wife for guidance.
I have an adjustable French curve, and with my wife watching and scrutinizing, I moved the curve back and forth, tracing lines until we came to a shape that seemed pleasing to her. Once that was finished, I clamped both boards together and sawed them with a coping saw. On a side note, I have an Olson coping saw, and it does a nice job. However, I had used some Craftsman saw blades (fine cut) which all snapped. I then took the original coarse blade that came with the Olson and that worked just fine. After about 20 minutes of rasp, spoke shave, and sandpaper work the curves looked pretty good. It then came time to saw out the arches at the case bottom.
For the arches I once again clamped both boards together, used a compass to outline the arc, marking both sides for accuracy, I then sawed a kerf down the center. The cut was finished off with a coping saw. Because the radius was tight, I could not use a spoke shave to clean up the cuts, so I used the rasp along with a small sanding drum attached to a cordless drill. The sanding drum did a nice job, and I finished it all up with some light hand sanding.
After that was finished I did a test assembly and happily everything looked good. I nearly called it a day, but I decided to put in a little work on the top shelf backer board. There is nothing fancy going on there, just a gentle arc to add some visual interest. I marked the arc using the adjustable curve, and rather than using a saw to cut it out, I used a chisel and some strategically placed saw kerfs. To finish it off, I used the spoke shave and some sand paper.
An interesting construction feature of the top shelf (at least to me) is a tongue I added to the shelf back to receive both the backer board as well as the three boards which will make up the back of the cabinet. I will likely glue the backer board to the shelf tongue. The tongue and grooved back boards will obviously float. Speaking of those tongue and grooved boards, that should be the most enjoyable part of the project. I will get to use my LN #48 plane as well as the 3/8th beading plane. The final addition will be an arch for the bottom of the case, which will be attached with stub tenons.
If all goes well and the stars align, I should have the construction phase of the case finished next weekend. If the planets align I may even have the case assembled and ready for finish; it really all depends on what my family has planned for me. Either way, I’m happy with how this project is progressing. The minor changes I made in the case dimensions have made a huge difference, and for once one of my mistakes turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
The other day a (non-woodworking) neighbor came into my garage while I was sharpening and commented on my workbench, in particular the new leg vise I just completed. He seemed fascinated by the fact that it was possible to make a vise, though I told him that I only made the chop and ordered the actual hardware; he was impressed nonetheless. But I think he was most impressed over the board I used for the chop itself, as he remarked over it several times. When I told him it was just a 2×10 from the Home Depot that I planed down and sanded, he wondered if I had ever made furniture from two-by lumber. I told him that I hadn’t, but it did get me to thinking.
The truth is, I sort-of had made a piece of furniture from construction material. A few years back I built a plant stand using some (fir?) which originally had been a floor joist. It was rough sawn, and not fully dimensioned like two-by stock from a home center, but it was definitely construction lumber. I had no problems with the material, and it certainly worked easy enough, and because it was older, it had already dried. Though I didn’t really care in particular for that plant stand after the fact, the material was just fine.
When I made the chop for my leg vise, I picked through the lumber rack at the Depot for about 5 minutes and selected 3 or 4 boards that looked the best. The board I chose was flattest, but any one of them would have likely worked, as they were all clear and had nice grain. In fact, had I chosen to do it, I could easily have ripped down (2) three-inch wide boards which were nearly quarter-sawn from several of those boards; perfect for making a very nice face frame. My point being I could have purchased four two-by’s for a very reasonable cost and with just a little effort turned them into some nice material for woodworking.
Strangely, maybe serendipitously, I saved a few of the cut-offs from the leg vise because the grain was so nice. Last night, as I was sharpening, I planed one of them lightly just for the hell of it, and liked what I saw. It then occurred to me that the leg vice chop was all the proof I needed. Looking at that chop, I could easily see that board used in a piece of furniture, more importantly, I could see an entire piece of furniture made from the same.
Right now, the only thing holding me back is storage space. If I am going to make an attempt to build furniture from construction lumber, I’m not going to go about it piecemeal. I would go to the home center or lumber yard, pick out at least half a dozen or so boards, and saw and plane them to rough size for drying all at once. But I don’t have the space to allow that much lumber to dry, at least not if I want to woodwork in the meanwhile. So if I do this I’m hoping a member of the family with a lot more space than I comes through for me.
After I finish my current project I may just give this a go, as I think this could be an interesting experiment. I know I’m hardly the first person to use construction lumber for furniture making. But I have never seen anybody attempt to make “fine furniture” using only two-by stock. I’m not trying to be a trend setter. Woodworking material is expensive, and seemingly getting more expensive by the minute. I once thought tools were the biggest expense in woodworking, but it seems that wood has easily surpassed that mark. So If I can figure out a way to cut a few corners yet not skimp on quality, then I’m going to attempt to make it happen in any way possible.
If you’ve ever played team sports, or have been in the armed forces, you may remember the brief but strange period when you first begin when nobody has gotten a uniform yet. For those first few days, especially in the military, you don’t really feel like a soldier, but a group of guys in sweat pants, sort of pretending… Then comes that magical day when you get issued your uniforms and suddenly it’s no longer a mob, but an army working in unison, or at least that’s the theory.
When it comes to woodworking, there is no official uniform, but there does seem to be a transition from “pretend to serious” and for me that transition started when I obtained my first high-quality woodworking tools. For whatever reason, when I got my first good table saw, my first hand plane, and my first set of woodworking chisels, and I began to use them, there was a shift in the way I approached the hobby of woodworking. I’m not saying that you cannot woodwork without “real tools”, my first few projects were done at first without a table saw, and then with a portable tabletop version, and a set of three Craftsman butt chisels. As my desire to woodwork grew, so too did my desire to work with higher quality tools. And when I got those tools and began to use them they made me want to improve. In short, they inspired me.
In a (very friendly) exchange I had with a commenter, I made the assertion that high quality tools make me a better woodworker. As I said in other posts, there may be many woodworkers who can go to your typical home center (of course there is a group of woodworkers out there that advocate only high end tools, and I’ve had my run-ins with them several times) and purchase a set of jobsite butt chisels, a basic handsaw, and a circular saw and make some very nice furniture, but I’m not one of those guys. How do I know? Because when I walk into a Lowes, I don’t get inspired to create, but when I attend a tool show like I did last weekend, seeing all of those world class tools made me want to make world class furniture. And that desire didn’t stem from wanting to own all of those tools, not in the least. It came from seeing high level craftsmanship.
As a former musician, I can remember like it was yesterday purchasing my first good quality guitar. Anybody who has ever played music whether as a hobby or a profession will tell you that there is a world of difference between playing a good instrument and a cheap instrument. A cheap instrument can easily hold you back, when a good instrument can easily propel you forward and make your playing improve dramatically. Why then should it be any different with woodworking tools? As I’ve mentioned many times before, when it comes to woodworking tools, there is a group of woodworkers (growing larger every day it seems) which feels that buying a high quality plane, or chisel, or what have you, is somehow cheating, or doing some sort of disservice to woodworking as an entity. Why? If making furniture with the most inexpensive tools you can find is your thing then so be it. There’s nothing wrong with that in the least. But if you are like me, and when you see a well-crafted, well-tuned, and beautifully designed tool, and that tool inspires you to improve, and create, and enjoy the hobby, what in the world can be wrong with that scenario?
Many woodworkers at some point find themselves enamored by the siren song of old tools. Old tools can be great. They have a history, they were often well made, they are often less costly than a new tool, and many of them simply look cool. Old tools can be an appealing choice to a woodworker looking to build up his/her tool set. In fact, quite a few woodworkers swear by old tools, and will not even bother going the new tool route; their logic being: they were well made, there’s still a lot of them to be found, and with some work they can be turned into a high quality tool that will last a life time. If you happen to be a woodworker who subscribes to the “old tool only” philosophy, and you’ve never attended a woodworking tool show, I would suggest that you stop reading right here.
Last Saturday, my wife, daughter, and father-in-law accompanied me to the Hearne Hardwoods open house in Oxford PA. There, you could not only browse through a world-class selection of hardwood lumber of every species imaginable, you could also get your hands on tools from Lie Nielsen, Matt Bickford, Daniel Schwank of Redrose Productions, and Blackburn tools among others. And after 30 minutes or so of using these tools, you will find yourself never wanting to purchase an old tool again.
I spoke to Matt Bickford briefly, and he mentioned something that I have also written about before: If you’ve never used a high quality and well tuned new tool, how in the world can you know how to restore an old tool? In my experience, the answer is: You Can’t.
I enjoy old tools as much as anybody; I own several, and I even detailed my own restoration processes of some of those tools right here on this blog. And while I can’t say that I will never purchase an old tool again, last weekend may have just pushed me back to the dark side of new tools. And one more thing, the argument can no longer be made that new tools are not as aesthetically pleasing as the antiques, because they look as good, or in many cases better, than most old tools I’ve come across. I was particularly impressed with both Bickford’s and Dan Schwank’s planes. In fact, after a half dozen shavings with Dan Schwank;s panel raiser, I nearly plunked down the money right there to put one on order. (My daughter was much more impressed with his spill plane).
As far as the Lie Nielsen tools are concerned, most woodworkers are aware of how good they really are. For my part, I had my sights set on either a tenon saw or a low angle block plane, because those are both tools that I could use. I messed with the tenon saw for a while and it worked great, and even my unskilled ass was able to saw a pretty respectable tenon without a marking gauge or even a pencil. The tenon saw was absolutely beautiful, and obviously well made, but it was also larger than I am used to working with. I have a Spear and Jackson (old tool) small tenon saw that I’ve used for quite some time, and though it probably needs another sharpening (it was also the first saw I’ve ever sharpened) it does a nice job. So instead I went with the block plane, the main reason being the only working block plane I have is one I made from a kit from Hock Tools. The kit block is actually a great little tool, with it’s Hock iron (easy to get razor sharp), it serves as a handy trimming tool and well as a nice option for cleaning up localized rough spots, but it can’t trim end grain, and the iron isn’t wide enough for working on edges (for the most part). I’ve used the LN 60 1/2 before, so I already knew just how good it is, but I did give it a test run at the show, and even my daughter was able to make some “curlies” with it. So I placed the order for the plane as well as a cap nut screw driver. The screw driver came home with me, the plane arrived at my house 4 days later.
Last night I gave the block plane and some other tools a honing/polishing. The iron was very sharp out of the box, so it really only needed to be polished. There was a very slight hollow dead center of the bevel that I left as it was. I polished the back, which took around five minutes solid, so that it was “shiny” across the whole front. I gave the plane a test run and it worked brilliantly. I have a new theory on sharpening and honing which is to spend a minute or less on each honing of the bevel, but that will be for another post.
So my trip to the tool show was a success. I got out of there without dropping a fortune, got to meet some top notch tool makers, and got to play with some of the best woodworking tools in the world for a little while. It was fun, the brick oven pizza was awesome, and I know what I want to ask Santa for this coming Christmas. I just wish I had a little more time and a lot more money, because if I did you all would be looking many more new tool photos right around now.
I can say without shame that I am not a furniture designer. I know that I’ve written before about how I rarely follow woodworking plans, and that is true. But while most of the furniture I make I do technically design myself, I usually base it off of previous design elements. My current project is no exception.
For this project, I wanted to make a narrow, somewhat unobtrusive cabinet that would sit nicely in a corner, hold some framed pictures, possibly a few little odds and ends, maybe a trophy or medal (ahem). So I measured a few possible locations in my house, narrowed it down to two, and came up with the dimensions accordingly. And while I can’t claim to be overly concerned with proportion, I did make an attempt to make this cabinet proportional, as in the shelves are twice the case width, and the height is three times the shelf width. I’ve found that those proportions are usually pleasing. So with all of my careful planning it was only natural that something went horribly wrong.
Sunday morning I burst into my garage all ready to go. My stock was already initially prepared, my tools were sharp, and my work space clear. The first step was to make the dados to hold the shelves. I normally like adjustable shelving, but in this case (both literally and figuratively) I want all of the shelves static because it will allow me to incorporate decorative hardware into the design. I have a dado plane that I’ve restored, and that was the tool I had hoped to use, but I’ve been having trouble with the wedge, and the practice dados didn’t turn out as nicely as I would have liked, so I used a saw and chisel.
Because there are ten dados in this case, and because some family was stopping by for a visit, I knew I wouldn’t have time to do all ten, so I concentrated on the top and bottom set. To make the dados, I used a knife to define the cut, used a chisel to make a knife wall, used a carcase saw to get the depth, chopped out the waste with a chisel, and cleaned it all up with a router plane. It wasn’t fast work, but it didn’t go too slowly either, and I had the four dados finished in about an hour. To my credit, the dados turned out nicely. The fit was good, and the one real mistake I made was going to disappear when I rabbeted the case side for the back panels. But when I did the test fit something didn’t seem right.
****before I go on, I just want to say that if you are cutting your dados with hand tools and you need to mark a knife line, the only tool to use is a 12 inch combination square. I tried a square I have from Woodpeckers, as well as a try square, and both were almost useless. The combination square, with it’s “triangle” shape and thin blade is by far the most steadfast and accurate way to go about it****
After our company left, I brought my lovely wife into the garage with me and I assembled the case. My wife held it up and I stepped back to get a proper perspective, and right away I knew the case was just too tall. I wanted this case to almost disappear into a room, and instead it was towering over my wife (to be fair she is only 5′ 1″ tall). In any event, it just didn’t look right to my eye. Of course I didn’t yet curve the case sides, or add any of the decorative trim or features which will certainly lighten the look of the case, and my wife suggested that I should possibly do that before I made any rash decisions. But I don’t think it will make much of a difference, and in doing that it may only cause me to do the same work twice. So I’ve decided that I will shorten the case by ten inches. The good news is the bottom dados are salvageable; the bad news is that the top dados are not.
Unfortunately this is going to negate most of the work I put in on Sunday, but I feel it has to be done, because I know I’ll regret it completely if I don’t. I’ve never been the person who has taken the easy way out. I’m not saying that taking the easy way out is necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes the easy way is also the best way. But in this case the easy way out is really just the lazy way out. Whatever I may be, and whatever bad qualities I may have, being lazy isn’t one of them.