The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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This old workbench

Over the weekend I made two improvements to my workbench. The first was a new handle for the leg vise, and the second was a new board jack, or “sliding dead-man”. To be honest, both of these improvements were more for aesthetic reasons than for functionality. Don’t get me wrong, the new handle is longer and therefore offers more leverage, and the new board-jack is wider and offers more spaces for support, but neither additions were absolutely necessary for an increased overall functionality of the bench.

The new handle project is something I detailed in my last post; the board-jack I made on Sunday afternoon. It was a very quick project. I still had a decent-sized section of board left over from making the leg vise, so I used the table saw to cross cut it to width, I planed it square and smooth, and sawed and chiseled out a channel at each end to ride along the rails on my work bench. It took just 15 minutes. In fact, it took longer bore the holes and apply the finish-boiled linseed oil and wax, than it did to make the part. On that topic, I used a 7/8 bit to bore out the holes rather than the traditional ¾ because I thought that I had a 7/8 dowel in my bucket. It turns out that I did, but it was only 6 inches long; so I will have to pick up another (or make one myself) next weekend.

What prompted me to write this post wasn’t a board-jack, however.

After every project, I will generally give the workbench area a cleaning. Most of that involves dust and shavings. My bench has a tool tray, which contrary to popular belief rarely gets dirty. It has a lot of tools, pencils, knives, and other items in it, but that is the reason it is on the bench. When I was taking a photo of the new board-jack, I accidentally snapped a photo of the cleared bench top. I didn’t notice it until I had walked out of the garage and was upstairs about to charge the cell phone. I then went back and took two clearer photos, the reason being to make a point about my tool tray. But as I was doing that, I noticed that my bench looks exactly like the “theoretical woodworking workbench” I have in my mind’s eye. Now, that theoretical bench will very likely appear a bit different from woodworker to woodworker, but at its core it would function the same.


I have a firm belief that a woodworking bench needs to look like a woodworking bench to work properly. Of course you can get away with two sawhorses and a door, or a kitchen table, or what have you. Some people may even thrive on that approach. I can’t and I don’t. I’m a fan of conformity and uniformity, because those virtues exist in nature and in the man-made world for good reason. All good woodworking benches share the same features and they have for a long time. And though aesthetics aren’t always important to functionality, I’d much rather be working on a nice looking bench than two trashcans and an old door.

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So, yeah, it’s important to me that my woodworking bench looks exactly how I think a woodworking bench should look. Making aesthetic improvements to a woodworking bench may seem silly, but it really isn’t. It’s good practice to incorporate both form and function. And while I would never go out and drop thousands of dollars on material for the sole reason that it would make a nice looking workbench, I am going to try to make what I have look as good as it possibly can.



I made a dowel

When I came home from work this afternoon I found myself a little restless. Usually when I work on Saturdays I come home from work and try to unwind, in particular after busy days like today. Today was different. Maybe it was because I had gone to the gym and I was all wound up. Either way, I was full of what my mom would call “nervous energy”.

The first thing I did was clean and wax my table saw bed. That didn’t take long, as I try to keep on top of it to begin with, and since I’ve been using DampRid in my garage that has helped as well. Next thing I did was a little sharpening: a few chisels and my jointer plane iron. That wasn’t enough to ease my unease, and then I recalled an exchange I had with fellow woodworker and blogger Wesley Beal. He had mentioned making tool handles etc. as good projects for the winter months. Great minds must think alike, because back at the beginning of the summer I had purchased some wood to do just that. Today, I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to make a tool handle, but I did want make a new handle for my leg vise.

When I made the new chop for the vice a few months back I had saved some of the cut offs because they had very nice, straight grain. One piece in particular I had felt would make a good handle for the vice. So that was the board I decided to use.

Way back when I took my first ever woodworking class with Chuck Bender at the Acanthus Workshop. After Chuck bored us for an hour by rambling on about “the craft” things actually got interesting. One of the things we did was make a dowel from a board that was out of square. We had to first plane the board square, we then had to turn it into a dowel. At that point, I had never really planed anything, but if I remember correctly, I did a pretty good job of not only squaring up the board, but turning it into a respectable dowel that rolled evenly across the workbench top. Though that was five years ago, I remembered the lesson, and today I put it to use.


The first thing I did was cut the board to length with my home center Japanese Ryoba saw, which I chose for no other reason than I hadn’t used in a while. I then squared the board, used a compass to mark the diameter of the circle (which I copied from the original vice handle-though I made it a hair larger). I then continued to plane the board until I was very close to the arc on all four sides. Before I went any further I drilled in two 1/2″ holes on either end with a forstner bit for the stops.

Making the dowel is fairly easy. It is basically chamfering the corners, then making chamfers which meet the other chamfers, then easing over the edges. All in all, it took around 30 minutes to get the dowel formed and rolling cleanly across the bench, which I’m happy to say it did (Chuck was a good teacher).


I then began the final fitting, which took around ten minutes. For that I set the block plane to take a very fine cut, and gently eased of any high or rough spots. I won’t sit here and tell you that the dowel is a perfect circle, because it’s not, but it is certainly close enough.


For finish, I added a coat of boiled linseed oil, let it dry for a few hours, and then coated it with some furniture wax. I cut off two short pieces of a 1/2 oak dowel to use as the stops, and with that the new handle was finished.

The truth is I didn’t need a new handle, the original worked just fine. I’m not a particularly anal person, but I did want the new handle to match the vise chop, which it now does. And I didn’t do this just for nothing, I made the new handle four inches longer, which will make it a bit easier to use. But the best part was after I attached the new handle, I had a brief sense of accomplishment. I then cleaned up the huge mess, sharpened the block plane to a razor’s edge, and suddenly I was no longer restless.



With my latest project completed, and with the winter fast approaching, decision time will soon be upon me. As I’ve repeated many, many times before; I do not like woodworking during the winter months. The past three or four winters have been particularly cold and long, and everything about woodworking becomes more difficult during those months.

However, I do have a few ideas cooking.

I had mentioned in another post that I would like to attempt to make a project using construction lumber. I think I may have found two that would be suitable. One is a table I happened to see in a magazine called Early American Life. I’ve seen tables such as this one before, but I’m not really sure what I should call the particular style. I sketched it from memory and allowed my daughter to color it in (just for fun). To me it looks similar to a Shaker style table. Whatever it may be called, it is certainly falls well within my skills and tool set to build. And because my wife has asked me to make a project that she could paint, I think this would fit the bill nicely. I’m still not completely settled on the design, though. The table has a drawer, most end tables do, but I’m not sold on the idea of it “needing one”. A table of this size has only the space for a small drawer, which to me borders on useless. It will fill up with half-dead AA batteries and junky pencils with cartoon characters on them. Though a drawer would be a good excuse to practice half-blind dovetails, I can easily get in some practice on those without having to build a table around it. Rather, I think the table will have a false drawer, because I believe it will look a bit bland without one.



The other project is something my wife specifically asked me to build. Firstly, it’s not a piece of furniture; it is basically a shelf that she found on Pinterest. To put it mildly, I’m not very “pinterested” in building it. Bad puns notwithstanding, because my wife rarely asks me to build specific pieces of furniture, and because it seems fairly simple to build, I think I will build it for her sometime in December.

Otherwise, I have one other goal for the upcoming winter, and that is sharpening. For the past few weeks I’ve been sharpening my tools whenever I get a spare moment. I’ll be experimenting with different methods, not that there’s anything new under the sun when it comes to sharpening woodworking tools, but there may be some methods or sequences that work better for me than others. So far, I’ve changed little, and I’m still sticking to the typical diamond plate, water stone, strop method. The first real changes I’ve made thus far is the amount of strokes I take. My chisels seem to benefit from a relatively short sharpening time, with the most time spent on the 8000 grit water stone. The plane irons seem to benefit from more time on the diamond plates. With the strop, I’ve taken to a heavier hand, using more force than I normally would. It has seemed to make a slight difference, but nothing overwhelming.

For this experiment I am trying to use a scientific method, documenting my methods in a note pad  and notating the results. Whether or not it makes a difference is another matter, but it should keep me busy for a little while.

Display cabinet finished.

Some woodworkers love finishing, some tolerate it, some hate it, and some don’t do it at all. I’m in the “hate it” camp, which is a woodworking cliché if there ever was one, and though I like to think that I’m too much of an individual to ever have been part of a cliché, in this case it is accurate.

Now if were up to myself, I would have only two options for finishing: Boiled linseed oil along with a few coats of wax, or sending the unfinished piece to a professional and have them do it for me. Since I cannot afford the latter, and my wife would likely not care for the former (in many cases), I reluctantly attempt to finish projects on my own. In the case of this cabinet, I chose gel stain and Briwax. The results were mixed.

Firstly, before I completely finished the cabinet, I hammered in exactly nine more nails to the back panel. Cut nails allow for movement, we all know this, but when I shifted the cabinet the left board of the back panel popped, just a hair, but enough to throw up a red flag. To be honest, I was a bit cheap, for lack of a better word, when I nailed the back panels in. To fasten the back panels I used clout nails, which are made for that purpose, but to strengthen the installation, I switched to 1 1/2 inch finish nails, and they alleviated any worries. So once I was sure the cabinet was secure, I turned to finishing the rest of the piece.

I have used gel stain in the past, and I have mixed emotions concerning its usefulness. On the plus side it does not run, and it blotches far less than regular stain does. But it is difficult to control the color. I used two coats on the interior, and in an attempt to darken the exterior, I used an additional third coat. That coat did little to add any contrast, and though I may have done something wrong, I get the impression that gel stain will only darken to a certain point. Don’t misunderstand me, I like the color of the finish, but I don’t like the lesser level of control that gel stain offers. And at this point I am hesitant to use it on another large project.

On another note; I enjoyed using Briwax. Fellow woodworker and blogger Greg Merritt advised me that Briwax sets up quickly. He was absolutely correct, so when I applied it I did it in small sections, and let it set for just sixty seconds. It was my hope that the Briwax (antique mahogany color) would darken the cabinet; it did not, at least not measurably, but it did enhance the finish, and add a bit more richness to the overall appearance. For those of you who have never used Briwax, it is not like Minwax furniture wax, it is much thinner in consistency and behaves a bit more like shoe polish. The application, however, is basically the same: 0000 steel wool and a soft cloth to buff it out. I would consider using it as a finish on it’s own, but that is for another project.

When I returned home from work today I carried the cabinet in from the garage (it was just small enough for me to carry without help) and plunked it down in the corner of the living room where I had intended it to go all along. I began to place photos and knick-knacks on the cabinet when my wife entered the room, told me that she didn’t “like” it where I placed it, and proceeded to tell me to move it. I didn’t argue, I instead brought it into our bedroom (which was my plan ‘B’ as I knew that plan ‘A’ would likely need a back up). For at least the near future this is where it will stay.

I did not necessarily build this cabinet to hold books, though a few books will definitely be on there. More so, I built it to hold other items, among them historical documents and speeches. Three of my favorites: George Washington’s address to his troops-Dec 31st of 1776, Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, and FDR’s ‘Infamy Speech’ I have printed out on parchment paper and I plan on framing those for display. I had considered making the frames myself, but instead I will purchase them. While I have nothing against making frames, it is not something I want to do at this time. But for all intents and purposes, this cabinet is now finished.

Finished and "installed"

Finished and “installed”

Without the open door showing.

Without the open door showing.

Book it.

In the world of furniture making, trends come and go just like they do in the world of fashion. Lately, it seems that the trend is leaning towards making chests and chairs. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but being on the verge of completing a display (book) case, I’ve noticed that in the world of “fine” woodworking, the bookcase has become somewhat passé. More than a few times, I’ve read something to the effect of “Beginning woodworkers need to get the obligatory bookcase out of the way before they start making furniture.”

At a glance, I can understand the downward trend. Woodworkers have been building bookcases since printed books have become readily available, and woodworking writers have been writing about them for almost as long. Bookcases can be boring; bookcases can be simple; there are hundreds of how to books at home centers and on the internet that cover thousands of different bookcases. I can understand why most mainstream writers really just don’t feel like writing about the topic anymore. But the problem with following the downward trend is that bookcases are perhaps the most practical project the home woodworker can construct.

All casework starts off as a box, from your basic set of Ikea shelves to a Philadelphia Highboy. While bookcases can certainly be dull, they are also easily modified.  Unlike certain forms of furniture, bookcases can be changed in an innumerable array of configurations. What makes this fact so important is that bookcases are a great project for both beginners and seasoned woodworkers. A beginner woodworker can make a decent bookcase with a circular saw, a drill, a few chisels, a block plane, and some sandpaper. The seasoned woodworker can take that basic case, add crown moulding, columns, or any one of hundreds of design elements which can turn a basic case into a piece of fine furniture. Even more to the point, bookcases are far easier to design using the features of several different furniture styles. Elements of Shaker, Arts & Crafts, Modern, and the Colonial styles can be incorporated into bookcase design by a skilled woodworker. While a table, chair, or chest of drawers may look disjointed and messy if the designer tried to add several different design elements, on a bookcase it seems to work far more readily.

Most important of all, bookcases provide something we all need: storage. Furniture in its basest form is built to hold our stuff. Chests of drawers hold our clothes, chairs hold our bodies, and bookcases hold our books, among other things. Nearly everybody has books, photos, knick-knacks, etc. that need a place to stay. I personally don’t know a single person that couldn’t use another bookcase or two. And on that note, it is my belief that the first piece of furniture a woodworker builds should be a bookcase. I challenge anybody to name a general piece of furniture as practical as a bookcase. And despite what some woodworking writers say, it takes real talent to take a set of shelves and make it look like “fine furniture”. If we as woodworkers can learn to do that, we can learn to build anything.

All in the family

Today, my wife helped me. She helped me a lot. Without her help I would have gotten little accomplished.

Today I decided to assemble the cabinet, and with that I also decided to stain the back panels rather than to try and do that after everything was already put together. My wife, who has much more patience than I when it comes to something like staining, did the grunt work. But before all that could happen I had to sand/plane much of that material in preparation for finish. I’ll leave out the boring details, and I did not take any photos, because if you want to see me sanding then I am both flattered and worried about you at the same time.

In any event, as I sanded those boards, my wife took them and applied wood conditioner. After a few hours we started the staining process. As I said in a prior post, I am using Mahogany gel stain for this project. If you have never used gel stain, you may want to take my advice and not follow the instructions at all. For instance, on the can it says something to the effect of “apply liberally, wait 15 minutes, and wipe off the excess”. I can say from past experience that 15 minutes is around 12 minutes too long. If you wait that long to wipe off the stain, you will need sandpaper to do it. So as my wife brushed on the stain, I stood by with a rag waiting to wipe it down. We got into a rhythm, and the after three back boards we did the shelves, the top board, the inside of the case, and the bottom trim piece. After a few hours of drying time, we applied a second coat, which goes on easier and you can leave on a bit longer, though I still wouldn’t use the time recommendations on the can.

I let the pieces dry for a few hours, took a break, and figured out an assembly procedure. With (8) dados, (2) mortise and tenon joints, and (2) rabbets, this case isn’t overloaded with joinery, but there still is a sequence that needs to be followed. Firstly, I predrilled all nail the nail holes. I used exactly (52) nails, and every one of them was nailed in a symmetrical pattern, so I had to lay out for each pilot hole. I then assembled the case by laying it on its side on top of the workbench, attaching the shelves and trim board with some glue, and nailing the top board to the underside of the top shelf. Once that was complete I assembled the three back panels and nailed them in place. After that, it was a matter of hammering and nailing. Though I’m pretty sure-handed with a hammer, I did have one miscue, so I had to break out the steam iron to fix it. Otherwise, the case went together without a hitch. One really good part about using dado joinery is the fact that if your dados are square, your case will be square. Dovetails may be stronger, but dovetails also have a propensity to compress, or be slightly asymmetrical, which can lead to an out of square piece of furniture. A dado joint does not work that way, and this cabinet is dead square all the way around.

The three types of nails used.

The three types of nails used.

Once the case was assembled I used the new block plane to trim the shelves flush, did a little light hand sanding, and called it a night. Next weekend I should be able to get the case sides stained and a few coats of wax applied. That should call it a completed display case. It’s actually been a fun project, and has turned out even more nicely than I had hoped. I’m most proud of the dado work, as they are all nearly perfect. But I can honestly say that everything has turned out according to plan (mostly) And it should have. This has been my first real furniture project in many months. I’ve had a lot of time to think about every little detail, and aside from changing the overall height of the cabinet, it has basically turned out how I imagined it would. Couple that with the fact that my wife helped me, and I have little to complain about.

Assembled and almost finished.

Assembled and almost finished. Note the front of the shelves where they were planed flush.

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