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When I finally finished my plant stand project the other day, it ended a somewhat disappointing stretch of woodworking. I think every woodworker reaches a point where he or she builds a piece of furniture that doesn’t turn out as planned, or maybe runs into the woodworking version of “writer’s block”. For me, it was finishing the plant stand with the knowledge that I am planning on taking a hopefully brief break from woodworking this coming summer to finish up some projects around the house. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I won’t be woodworking, but I don’t have any plans to build anything in particular until the fall when then weather cools and conditions for woodworking are improved. Not lost in all of this is the scary thought that my plant stand, for reasons both foreseen and unforeseen, may very well be the last piece of furniture I ever make. It’s not very pleasant to consider, but it did get me to thinking: If I knew I was going to make only one more piece of furniture in my life, what would it be?
The truth is, at this moment I have no idea. I’ve been looking to build a Stickley 802 side table for quite some time. I think it is a lovely piece of furniture that would work well in my house. But had I week to live that wouldn’t be the piece of furniture I would choose to make. I think highboys are awesome, but they are beyond my skills and frankly they really aren’t my taste. I’m not into making chairs, and I have no desire to start. Another project I might consider would be a trestle-style dining table, but since we have a nice dining table already I haven’t really put much consideration into it. In fact, the only thing that vaguely comes to mind would be a card/game table; in the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to make a nice gaming table, but it’s never really been a project that I was willing to go out of my way to build.
So this all reminds me that maybe I have a little thinking to do when it comes to woodworking. While often times my woodworking projects arose from a need, I really think that a woodworker should sometimes make things not out of necessity, but only for the joy of making it. The plant stand I just made is the antithesis of that ideology, and that is possibly why I didn’t really enjoy the project. Sure, it turned out okay, it matches the other furniture in my living room, and it does fill a need. The one thing it lacked was a woodworker that really wanted to build it, and that made all the difference.
I’ve furnished the living room of my house and parts of the dining room, bed rooms, and family room. If I am going to keep woodworking, and keep enjoying it, I need to start making things for me. I like to believe that in making things “for me” I will not only become a better woodworker, but by default make useful pieces that my whole family will use and enjoy. That list may include some items that my wife might not care all that much for. With all due respect, I don’t really care. She isn’t making furniture, I am. It’s high time I started enjoying what I build, and if it comes down to something my wife would like to me to make, and I wouldn’t, she can always hop in the car and drive to Raymour and Flannigan, because I’ll be damned if that plant stand is the last piece of furniture I ever build.
At long last I finally nailed the coffin shut on the plant stand I’ve been making for lo these many weeks. Like many woodworking projects tend to be, this one was anti-climactic; applying finish usually is. For the protective coat I used high gloss wipe-on polyurethane. Applying polyurethane is about exciting as it sounds so there isn’t much a point in describing it, is there? I decided on three coats, in between lightly buffing with steel wool after each coat dried. After the third coat I didn’t touch the stand for a full day, and then gave it another light buffing with steel wool, and finally “polished” it with a clean cloth. It doesn’t look bad, but neither do a lot of things that don’t happen to look good either. Maybe you could say the same of breast implants that are too large. Still, it’s finished, and in my living room waiting to be put to use. It has a slightly, and I’m saying slightly, rustic feel to it, in the sense that it was once new and may have looked better. So that’s the description I’m going with.
Before I go on, I would like to add a few words about applying a finish to a woodworking project. In my ideal world, I would only be using Walnut, Cherry, and Quartersawn Oak, and staining a project would be something I rarely do. In the real world I made this plant stand from Fir and Pine, and I needed to change its color to in order to highlight the grain, or at least something like that. I’ve been using gel stain lately, and generally I don’t mind it as far as stains are concerned. But once again, if you’ve never used gel stain, and you may be thinking about it I have a tip or two for you.
The first tip is the most important, and that is do not follow the directions on the container. Every can of stain I’ve ever used has stated in some form “apply the stain and let it sit for a few minutes until you reach the desired color, then wipe of the excess.” Let me tell you, if you let the stain “sit for a few minutes” you will have a blotchy, sticky mess that will be at best difficult to straighten out, at worst impossible. I’ve found that applying the stain and wiping it off nearly immediately is the best way to go about it, and if you want to darken the color, keep applying coats as needed after letting the previous coat dry. Soft woods blotch too easily, even with a conditioner applied, to leave the stain set for too long, and doing so is asking for trouble.
The second tip is nearly as important, and that is to wipe the stain, even gel stain, in just one direction. Why one direction? Because that’s what makes wood beautiful. I found that wiping the wood with the grain in only one direction also cuts down on blotching. I can’t tell you why; I’m not an expert on applying finish, not even a little. I’m just relaying my experiences. I’ve wondered if damping the staining cloth with mineral spirits before applying gel stain would help, but I haven’t as of yet attempted to do it. I’ve also found that sanding between coats with 220 grit sandpaper can help even out the appearance, if a very even appearance is the look you happen to be going for. Other than those two basic tips I have no more real finishing advice to offer, but I can tell you that if you follow those tips you won’t mess up your project. Consider them erring on the side of over-caution.
Never before have I been so happy to finish a piece of furniture. This project has to go down as one of my least favorite builds since I first began woodworking. I can’t necessarily put a finger on the exact moment that this project went from joy to pain, but it did. It’s finished, it generally looks like I envisioned it, and it does the job, but it’s not the type of project that I really enjoy making, nor I would like to make, ever again. But the worst part in all of this is the fact that I had planned on taking a little break from woodworking this summer, not only to avoid the out of control seasonal wood movement that my garage seems to breed, but also to get some home projects finished, as well as finishing a few workshop projects that I’ve put on hold forever. I hate to start the summer out on such a low note as far as woodworking is concerned, but that is the way it has to be I guess. All isn’t dark, though. I just so happen to have a plan in the works that may reverse my bad woodworking fortune, and get the sour taste of this last project out of my mouth once and for all.
I didn’t have much of a desire to woodwork this weekend; six days of work and very little sleep in between saw to that, but because I had a little free time on Saturday afternoon, and because the plant stand I’ve been building was so very close to being finished, I decided to put in a couple hours after work and finally get it wrapped up. The only thing I had left to do was make the bottom shelf and give the stand a light hand sanding before it was ready for finish.
Originally, I had planned on a very basic shelf which sat on top of the bottom stretchers of the stand; I didn’t really care for how that looked, even though several plant stands I had seen were built that way; I felt it looked clunky and unrefined. Instead, I decided on a slatted bottom, with the slats inset on the stretchers and flush to sides. To accomplish that look, I would need (3) boards, four inches wide. I suppose it would have been easier to just make the shelf from one board, but I felt that the slats would look a bit nicer, so that’s what I went with.
The first thing I needed to do was attach some cleats to hold the slats. I ripped a few strips from some scrap pine- ¾” x ¾” , drilled some pilot holes, and attached them to the stretchers with some pan head wood screws. I then ripped the slats to width and cross cut them to size with the table saw, making them a touch wider than they needed to be so I could plane off the excess for a nice fit. I had to notch two of the slots around the legs, so I marked them with a combination square and cut the notches with a back saw. That operation went easily, except for Leg #3, the warped leg that gave me the problems during the glue up; the notch for that leg took a little chisel work and some light sanding to achieve a decent fit. I then planed the middle shelf to fit with the jack plane, also taking a few swipes from the two notched slats, and with that the slats were nicely fitted.
With the slats installed the bottom shelf, I stood up to have a look at it from a distance, and it seemed like there was something missing. The shelf looked too boring. For a moment I thought of trying my original idea of one solid shelf but thought better of it, so I instead decided to chamfer the ends of the slats, boxcar siding style. I’ll say something here that will generally contradict my entire philosophy on woodworking: Rather than using a router table to make the chamfers, I decided to use my little shop made block plane. The way I looked at it, if I couldn’t make four chamfers on three short boards using a block plane how could I call myself a woodworker? Anyway, I used a combination square and a pencil to define the edges of the chamfer and went to town. The plane made a mess of shavings, some of which ended up in the tool tray, but it was finished quickly, and the chamfers gave the bottom shelf a more finished look, as well as adding some shadow lines which provided a nice contrast to what would have been an otherwise ordinary feature.
The last task of the day was sanding. I sanded the bottom slats up to 220 grit with a random orbit sander, and then gave the whole stand a light overall hand sanding. Before I called it a day I hooked up the upholstery attachment to my shop-vac and vacuumed as much of the dust from the stand as I could get. Before I apply finish, however, I will have to go over it with tack cloth.
As I was cleaning up the garage I was able to step back and take an objective look at the stand, and judge it as a (nearly)finished project. Though I will readily admit that I didn’t necessarily enjoy building the stand, after seeing it completed, I don’t hate it anymore. The stand looks exactly how I drew it up, the minor change in the bottom shelf notwithstanding. There has to be something positive said for that. Another good feature is that I could easily repeat the process and duplicate the stand if for some strange reason I wanted to build a matching partner. Still, I will reserve my final judgment for when the finish is applied, and for that finish I will be using mahogany gel stain, the same as I used on the matching end tables I built last summer. I did have a few free hours yesterday (Sunday) in which I probably could have gotten a coat of stain on the stand, but I was tired, and I didn’t want to rush, and frankly I had no desire in the least to woodwork yesterday. According to the story of creation, even God rested on the seventh day, so if a little rest was good enough for Him it was certainly good enough for me.
Maybe there are woodworkers out there that have never become discouraged. Maybe there is a guy or gal out there who has had every project go together seamlessly. There may be that woodworker, somewhere, but he is not I. After spending two hours this evening gluing up my plant stand project I honestly am considering quitting woodworking; it was that bad. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example. As the long night finally drew to a close, I did my customary clean-up of the garage, and while I was wrapping up the extension cord for my sander it whacked me in the balls. Pardon my French but that’s what it did, and my balls are hurting at this very moment because of it. Yet that whack in the balls was probably a fitting metaphor/exclamation point on what was several hours of tortuous woodworking.
Like all horror movies it started off innocently enough; with some free time after dinner I felt that it was now or never so I headed into the garage to finish what I had started. The first thing I had to do was use the table saw to make the kerf for the table attachment hardware. I used the little attachment clip to set the height of the blade and the distance to the fence, and just a minute later it was finished. I then turned to adding the chamfers to the bottom of each leg, and that is when I first noticed something was wrong.
I have an Osborne miter gauge for my table saw. It is a solid piece of equipment that is accurate and easy to use. When adding chamfers to the bottom of table legs it does a nice job not only because of it’s accuracy, but because it has an adjustable stop block. For a task like adding chamfers, I will start with a light cut, and slowly move it in to where I like what I see; I will then set the stop block accordingly. The first two legs went just fine, but the third leg had an issue.
When I “registered” the leg against the gauge I noticed how warped it had become, almost like it was preparing for a new life as a bow. Before I go on let me point out that now it is May here in southeastern Pennsylvania, that means the first really warm week includes a lot of rain and a lot of humidity, and that means that any woodworking project that I happen to be working on will warp uncontrollably. Nevertheless, I finished the chamfering and hoped that the warp could be corrected at clamp-up. Before I went any further I gave the legs a light sanding just to remove the lay out lines. Then it was on to clamp up.
For the glue up I devised a sequence: Clamp up the left and right sides first, and then connect them together with the rest of the stretchers. Now, I’m not claiming that my clamping sequence was a marvel of engineering, but I felt that it would at least allow me to clamp the table with a minimal of outside help, i.e. my wife. Anyway, I clamped the left side first, and then the right side, which had the dreaded warped leg. Both sides went together, though with a little coaxing, but not anything out of the ordinary. I then carefully brushed the glue on the remaining tenons and inserted them delicately into their mortises. It was from this moment on that I really hated woodworking.
Leg three, the warped leg, became a huge problem. Nothing I did could get it lined up, so I did what any other grown man would do and screamed for my wife to get into the garage and help me out. To her credit, she did show up, and with her help I got all of the tenons inserted, and that’s when I noticed that the top of the plant stand looked exactly like a rhombus. I measured the diagonals, and they were more than one-half of an inch off! I’ve never had a project go out of square this badly, not even close. For nearly thirty minutes I fiddled with the clamps, moving them this way and that in order to correct the problem, but I could only improve it slightly.
At that point, I nearly and truly took that plant stand and tossed it in the garbage. Instead, I left it clamped and cleaned up the table top. I found that I had one bright idea left in me. I had planned on attaching the table top tomorrow morning, but instead I decided to use it to try and help square the assembly. I put the table top on the floor, removed the clamps from the body, and placed it upside down onto the top. Because the front was reasonably square, I screwed it down first and used it as my “squareness” gauge. With the front screwed down it was easy to see just how far out of square the table actually was. My combination square was set at one inch, and the sides were indeed 1/2 inch out of square to the front. So I held the combination square as a stop with my thumb, and with the rest of my fingers pulled the assembly to it until it was square, I then screwed in another piece of the hardware and I suddenly had a reasonably square table. Easier said than done would be a huge understatement.
The last woodworking operation of the night was reattaching the clamps. I attached just two clamps to the top to close in the tenons. I was afraid to add too many and throw the whole thing out of whack, and it may very well yet be out of whack, but for the moment I won’t consider that possibility. I still did not finish the bottom shelf, as the glue up took around two hours longer than I thought it would.
There were only two bright spots in this whole mess. For whatever reason, the legs are perfectly flush to the ground. In situations like this I’ve found that the legs usually need a little bit of trimming to even them out. In this case they don’t, and I’m not complaining. The other bright spot is the stand itself; it actually looks exactly how I drew it up.
I’ve never worked on a project that I disliked as much as this one; it was nearly universal hatred. I can usually find things about any project that I like doing: sawing dovetails, or chopping mortises, or achieving a nicely glued-up table top; there was nothing here. It is projects like these that make me hate woodworking. Projects like this one make me wonder why I don’t leave it to the pros, in the climate controlled shops, with the perfectly flat boards and well tuned tools. I probably could have purchased this stand for just a few bucks more than it cost me to make it, and that’s not including my time, nor the fact that it isn’t even done yet. I don’t even want to think about what I’m going to have to do to get the dried up glue out of the corners.
All in all, this project sucked. I hated making it almost from the get-go, and I still hate it now. But like a stubborn fool I’m going to finish it, because I put a lot of hard earned money and time into making this piece of furniture, and I’ll be damned if I let a scrawny looking plant stand defeat me. But even if it does, I won’t go down without a fight, or maybe I’ll just smash it with my sledge hammer.
I had something of an unsettling moment this afternoon as I was finishing up the construction phase of my plant stand. All the pieces were ready to go, and needing to do one last dry fit before calling it a day, I assembled the parts of my soon-to-be plant stand and took a step back to admire it. My first impression wasn’t very reassuring. Before I go on I will point out a few facts: The plant stand looks exactly how I drew it up; the plant stand has the exact measurements I drew up; and last but not least, the plant stand will fit exactly where I planned on putting it. So what is my problem? When I took one small step back to look at the stand, there was no giant leap forward for woodworking kind. I couldn’t help but thinking that I put in a lot of time and effort for something so small for lack of a better word. The plant stand is tall and thin, like a plant stand should be, but it’s freaking boring, and boring is the only word I can use to describe it.
Anyway, today was supposed to be a day of finishing it up and that’s what it was. The first thing I did was sand all of the parts: 60-220 grit. That took an hour, which was an hour of mind numbing noise, as well as some actual hand numbing to go along with it. I then planed the edges on each stretcher, making sure to mark the tenons so I knew which order they were to be installed. Once that was finished it was time to add the beading. I used the router table for the job, doing one test bead for fine tuning, and then onto the real deal; I was finished in under two minutes, and that’s no exaggeration. My next task was something I had been debating since I began this project, and that was beading the legs.
I felt that a full bead on the corner of each leg would be a nice touch, and something different than I normally added to my projects. Yet, when it came time to actually do it, I started to have doubts. Instead of going back and forth in an endless debate with myself, I decided on getting a second opinion, and that opinion belonged to my wife. She immediately told me to add the stopped chamfer I’ve used before so it would match the end tables I made last year. I did not argue or complain, I just added the stopped chamfer, again using the router table to complete the task. Once that was finished I did the dry assembly I spoke about earlier.
Last weekend when I made the first dry assembly the stand was a little out of square, so before I went any further I wanted to get to the bottom of the unsquaredness. Measuring from the bottom, the stand was square and true, so I knew the problem was somewhere at the top. As I started to push the tenons into the mortises I noticed one of the legs developing a small crack, and I knew right there that I had found the problem. I did a little work on the mortise, but most pf the fitting was done on the tenon, which for some reason I missed last week. After a little trimming and fitting the assembly went together much more cohesively, and it was nearly perfectly square. With that, I should have called it a day, but I decided to try the bottom shelf instead.
With the assembly dry fit, I placed the somewhat completed stand on top of the board I was using for the bottom shelf. I noticed the back legs were a hair askew. Rather than worry about it, I marked the notches and sawed them out with a backsaw. It was easy, and I sawed right to the line, so I should have had a perfect fit, right? Wrong. Though the case was dry fit, it wasn’t dry fit enough. There was a diagonal gap on the notches, back left to front right, and there shouldn’t have been, as I had the lines sawn nearly perfectly. The problem was easy to find, I clamped up the entire piece, which squared it up even more, which then accounted for my gaps. No matter, I quickly planed down the edges just to see how it looked, and it didn’t look bad. Still, once the stand is assembled I think I’m going to cut out a new bottom shelf, it only took a few minutes and I have an extra board left over.
Next weekend I have to lightly sand the legs, add the kerf to the stretchers for the hardware to attach the top and bottom shelf, and add the chamfers to the bottom of the legs. All of that should only take 30 minutes or so, then it will be on to the glue up. I’m dreading the glue up a little. There are sixteen mortises and tenons to glue, and I will have to do it in sequence in order for it to go smoothly. I’m going to need help, and when I say help that means my wife. Next weekend is Mother’s Day weekend, so my wife may not be too keen on spending an hour woodworking with me in the garage; I tend to yell and curse a little bit during glue-ups. But this stand is for her, and will be something of a belated present. Though maybe my wife would like no other present than to not help me glue up this stand. At that, we will see…
Yesterday morning time was short. I had errands to run and work to do around the house. I knew that I would have little time to actually woodwork with yesterday so my goal was to get the rest of the mortises chopped in the legs of my plant stand and possibly get the tenons fit. Right away I noticed an error, I had set the lay out of the mortises too close to the top of the legs, leaving little room between the mortise and the end grain. That worried me, and if the leg had split it would have been unsalvageable. The fix was easy, though, I just shortened the mortises by half an inch and marked a new lay out line. I then sandwiched the four top rails together, secured them in the leg vice of the workbench, and gang sawed the new tenons; it was fast and easy work.
Last week I had chopped out the mortises for the bottom rails using a mortise chisel and a mallet, it took me around an hour or so to get them all chopped and cleaned up. I only had an hour left to woodwork, but I felt it was enough time. I started on the first leg and twenty minutes later it was finished. I was running out of time, so I bit the bullet and turned to the router table and a spiral bit. I’ve said before that I generally don’t enjoy using a router, in particular for making mortises. I’m not saying that they don’t work, but I like to chop them by hand simply because I enjoy doing it. But because time was of the essence, and because over the next few weekends my woodworking time is going to be limited, I went for the faster option.
I had the router table set up in no time; I keep it on a stand with casters. It took me a few minutes to set up the fence, but once it was done I had the other three legs finished in less than 10 minutes. The mortises weren’t as clean as they are with a sharp chisel, but the results were roughly the same. Because my spiral bit is not as wide as my mortise chisel, I still had some work to do regardless, so I got out my giant Lee Valley 1 1/2″ chisel, which is razor sharp, and finished up the work the router started. Once again, it took very little effort, and because I had scribed the lay out lines so deeply, the chisel practically guided itself into the mortise wall. While I’ll never be completely sold on using the router table for mortises, it came through for me on a big way yesterday.
With what little time I had left, I cleaned up the tenons, used the table saw to add the miters, and did a test fit. Everything went together tightly, but when I measured the diagonal at the top it was more than a quarter of an inch out of square. I flipped the assembly over and measured the diagonal from the bottom and it was less than a sixteenth off. I turned it back over once again and clamped everything up and found that it improved, but was still nearly a quarter inch out of square. Because I had run out of time I didn’t get to the bottom of the problem. I know that very rarely does a table assembly end up perfectly square and true, but the other tables I’ve made were never more than 1/8″ off. I’ll do a few more test fits and see what I turn up.
The last things I need to do are: cut out the bottom shelf, plane and sand the legs and rails, add the beads, and add the decorative edge to the corners of each leg. I will also need to add a kerf to all of the rails for the hardware needed to attach the table top, and bottom shelf. Next coming Sunday I should have a few hours for myself, and I think I will be able to have the stand assembled and ready for stain. The bottom shelf will be the most difficult part. When I do my next test fit I’m hoping that the bottom is as square as it was yesterday, which will make for and easy fitting, otherwise it will be a lot more work and probably add another day to my construction time. At least I hope that’s the case, because my wife found a project that she would like me to work on, and with that I think I’ve finally found a use for my stash of Walnut.
Like the hair on the heads of most of my co-workers, or a fine strand of gossamer, or perhaps the skin of many woodworking writers, my time spent woodworking lately has been very thin. Why? First off, I just haven’t felt all that great to be honest. I’m hoping it’s nothing, but in any event it was enough to keep me grounded for a week or so. Secondly, with the Easter holiday just passing we had a fairly busy week around the house, not only visiting our relatives, but also having much of the family over visiting us. Still, I did manage to get some work done on my plant stand here and there on Saturday morning, and at that I got a good amount accomplished.
Last week I had milled the stock and finished the top, so next on the agenda was chopping the mortises, and I decided to chop out the mortises for the bottom stretchers first. It’s been months since I chopped any mortises, so I felt that starting at the least visible portion would be the smart thing to do. Each leg has two ¼” mortises, which are intersecting. Intersecting mortises are theoretically easier to chop by hand because if you chop them plumb and square, you automatically will have a flat bottom for each side by virtue of the intersection. The job wasn’t difficult; I had sharpened my mortising chisel last week so it was fully ready to go, and the Fir legs of the soon to be plant stand work easy enough. I didn’t use a mortising machine because I don’t own one and I never really had the desire to, though in this case I wouldn’t have minded. It took around an hour of work to get the bottom eight mortises finished, along with the fine tuning done with a regular chisel. I guess I could have used the router table, but they don’t do all that great a job with mortising in my opinion. I don’t enjoy repeatedly adjusting the depth of cut as there’s just too much room for error.
Rather than continue in a logical sequence and chop out the top mortises, I decided to fit the tenons for the bottom stretchers instead. At first, I used the shoulder plane, but found that a sharp skew chisel and a bench hook did a much better job. I own two skew chisels, ½” Narex LH and RH. Though I don’t care for the bulky handles all that much, they sharpen nicely and hold a good edge. I think I paid $20 for the pair and they were well worth it. To fit the tenons I took a light pass on the “face side”-meaning the side of the tenons on the visible portion of the stretcher, but I did the bulk of the work on the inside portion of the tenon. I learned that if you are going to make a mistake fitting a tenon, it’s best to do it on the “inside” portion. The job didn’t take long, less than an hour, and I had all eight tenons fitted. Only one tenon, the back right, had a shoulder which was a little off kilter, meaning it had a minor gap. It doesn’t matter though, as it will be covered by the bottom shelf and will be completely invisible.
The last woodworking act of the day was sawing the miters on the edge of each tenon. I used the table saw for that job, as it was faster and more accurate. Once the miters were sawn I did another test fit, and found that the tenons were a hair long. To fix that problem I used the jack plane and bench hook to “shoot” the ends of the miters just enough to nibble off the ends a hair. Strangely enough, I had just mentioned to another woodworker that I very rarely “shoot” boards. Once I had finished that little task I did a final test fit using clamps. The shoulders closed up nicely, but I very well may use dowels to reinforce the joint once it’s together; I’m thinking one 3/8” dowel on each tenon should do the trick.
I’m going to estimate that chopping the mortises for the top and fitting the tenons should also take roughly two hours. After that, I will begin the arduous task of planing and sanding the stand. I am planning on beading the stretchers after the sanding is completed. I’m still on the fence with beading the corners of the legs, though I am 95% sure that I will stick to the bead. I’m thinking that a larger bead may be in order, 3/8″ rather than 1/4″, but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it, but the toll for the crossing may be the first new router bit I’ve purchased since before I started woodworking.