The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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10 Comments

  1. Wesley Beal says:

    I bet that handle looks a whole lot better than the original – and much much better than a store-bought dowel.

    There’s something about that sense of accomplishment, just working with the wood to come up with what I need, that I find very satisfying. Maybe because I didn’t take up any thing similar when I was a kid, and always figured these sorts of skills where beyond me. Don’t know why, but I do know exactly what you mean about that sense of accomplishment.

    • billlattpa says:

      The new handle definitely fits the bench more. Before I go on, let me stress that I have nothing against “manufactured” at all, but the original handle looked manufactured, and being that the rest of the bench does not…

      But it was fun to make. As I said in the post, making a dowel was one of the first things I ever did at the first woodworking class I ever took. I can’t necessarily call it “nostalgic” because it was just 5 years ago, but it did put me in a nostalgic state of mind.

      Like you said, there are little moments like these that really make me enjoy woodworking. As a kid, I always thought furniture making was so beyond me that it never even really dawned on me that I could make it myself, which is one of the reasons I didn’t begin to attempt it until later in life. This little plane exercise was a reminder that it is indeed possible to do anything with a few tools and some wood.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  2. Greg Merritt says:

    Nice exercise Bill and the new handle looks great.
    I don’t think there are very many of us left who actually know the feeling that your talking about. To take raw materials and simple tools and turn them into something useful, beautiful or perhaps both. I’m a fan of technology and all, but we lack balance. Its a shame too. Working with your hands can be very rewarding. As you well know.

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks. I think we all agree that when you don’t work with your hands, at least a little, you lose something. As a teacher, I love Paul Sellers. I subscribe to his web page, and I subscribe to his methods or ideology if you know what I mean. I don’t care for his blog all that much. Not that I find it insulting or anything like that, it’s just not for me. Yet when he points out the things you notice when you work with your hands-grain patterns, growth patterns, etc I “get it”. I know what he means. To put it “stupidly”, you notice stuff that you never would otherwise.
      That is what made making something so simple as dowel so enjoyable.

      Bill

  3. Wesley Beal says:

    What I enjoy are those times when as you make use something you built, you silently acknowledge to yourself that your creation is doing it’s job. Sometimes you think that it could use this or that improvement, or you’d try a different process next time, which you’d think would be taking something away from that sense of accomplishment, but actually it is still just as rewarding – probably because you’re understanding things better, and better equipped than you were before.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think it’s important too that it turns out as you had hoped, and of course that it works. At first, just attempting to build rather than buy is reward in and of itself, but I believe there does come a point when our projects have to progress to the point of “better than store bought” if that makes any sense. Constant improvement, I believe, is also the key to enjoyment.
      Thanks again.
      Bill

  4. Randall says:

    I know that feeling. In fact I’m experiencing it as we speak. I just made my own flooring transitions for two doorways and got a near perfect color match. Time will tell how long they’ll last being made from spruce lumber but compared to buying them, the sense of accomplishment is unbeatable. Bonus: cost less than $1 cdn each

    • billlattpa says:

      While I don’t necessarily agree with certain philosophies concerning woodworking, making is always better than buying, especially when you can do it better and cheaper. That is one of the feelings in the world.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  5. bloksav says:

    Great looking dowel.
    Small woodworking projects that actually see some use are great stress relievers.
    I have almost completed the “to do” tasks that waited for me at home, so I can start doing some woodwork.

    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      Thanks Jonas! It was a fun little exercise, and took me back to my first ever woodworking class. Planing a board flat, sawing it square across, and then turning it into a dowel. But the funny thing is, I didn’t really do it for those reasons alone. It was a nice board that I knew would make a nice handle the moment it was cut off. I think that is what pleased me the most, otherwise, it would have just been thrown into the scrap pile. Now it will be a part of my bench for as long as I have it.

      Bill

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