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My favorite part of any furniture project is the point when a solution has been found to a challenge. It’s a figurative crossing of the “hump” which then signifies hopefully smooth sailing moving forward. This past Saturday I crossed that hump.
The bad news first. The temperatures in the area dropped well below freezing, and though that is not unheard of in my neck of the woods, it is uncommon for this time of year. So after I returned home from work on Saturday the first thing I did was check on the desk top panel. The panel is just fine, but the breadboard end with the issue was not looking so good. The underside developed a split that was instantly noticeable. Maybe the cold exaggerated it, but at that point I didn’t care, so the instant decision was made to saw off both of those bread board ends, which I did using the table saw and a cross-cut sled. I understood it meant losing a few hours of work, but I know the decision was the correct one because I felt no real remorse then or now, and rather than dwelling on it, I moved on to putting together the leg assemblies.
The leg assemblies posed a bit of a challenge, at least to me they did. Firstly, I wanted them to appear as if they could fold up, so I could not ship lap them together, though that in some ways may have been easier. The dilemma was attaching them to the cross cleats, which sounds simple but was a bit complicated.
The issue was the offset of the legs. Because the legs were not ship-lapped, one side of the leg would obviously offset, in this case ¾ of an inch. So my solution was to make a filler board to make up the gap made by the offset. At that, I wanted the board to match the angles and width of the cleat board as closely as possible, so I spent a good deal of time clamping and measuring. Once I was as sure of myself as I was going to get, I made the cuts, planed it to final size and started drilling holes for the quarter inch hardware I purchased for the project. I won’t lie, those first couple of holes were nerve-wracking, because a mistake would cost me several more hours of work, but once I got moving things went relatively smoothly. It took more than two hours, but in the end I had a finished leg assembly.
Sunday morning I started on the second assembly, and using lessons learned from the previous night’s experience, I had it finished and ready to attach in under an hour, so rather than leaving those two assemblies on top of the workbench, I did just that attached them to the desktop using some angle brackets. I hadn’t planned to do an assembly to be honest, but curiosity got the best of me. The good news is that so far it looks pretty good. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that the breadboard ends needed to be removed, but it doesn’t look bad in my opinion. But the better news is the fact that the legs all sit level with the ground. Generally, when making a table, there is usually a bit of wobble. As of right now the table sits nicely, and when I placed a level on the top I found it dead flat. At that, the table does rock a bit back and forth, but considering it is not permanently attached to the top yet, and considering the leg assemblies haven’t been joined together yet with any cross bracing, that was to be expected.
Lastly, I removed the assembled table from my garage and placed it in the family room, where I think it will be much safer. Over the years, I’ve found out the hard way that leaving unassembled furniture projects in my garage is a recipe for disaster. Maybe it’s gremlins; I don’t know, but whatever it is my projects seem to take a beating if they sit in the garage for too long, so I was taking absolutely no chances. In any event, the cat seems to like it, because as soon as I brought it inside the house she promptly hopped onto it, sprawled out, and took a nap.
Next weekend I will mill down another board to use for the cross bracing as well as the desktop drawer unit. Thankfully, I already have the drawer unit finalized in my mind, so the construction should have no unwanted surprises. So with a little luck I could quite possibly have a desk ready for finish a week from now.
On another note, some of you (or none of you) may be wondering why I did not post last week. Well, I had the very good fortune to go to Washington DC and not only take a tour of the White House, but to visit Mount Vernon as well. The Mount Vernon trip was not planned, it just happened to fall into place, and because I had not been able to go there last time I was in DC, I made it a priority. I will only say of the trip that I was completely blown away. The furniture examples in Mount Vernon alone are beyond description, and I would have taken photos, but they are not allowed inside the house itself. And because I believe that rules are a good thing (they are hardly “for fools” as some in the woodworking world would claim) I did not attempt any, and instead purchased a very nice book with photos that are much better than those I would have taken anyway.
My family, who was skeptical about the Mount Vernon visit in part because the day was cool, cloudy, and damp, was nonetheless blown away. My daughter in particular was completely awestruck. But the highlight, for all of us, was visiting the final resting place of George and Martha Washington and paying our respects. When I say that this trip was beyond inspirational and much more of a spiritual experience, I am understating to the highest degree. Upon leaving Mount Vernon, my admiration of George Washington, which was already immense, grew even greater. And more than ever I am committed to making this desk to the highest level I possibly can.
I started and completed phase 3 of the Washington Campaign Desk project on Sunday afternoon, but I ran into a few problems, one minor, two a bit more concerning.
As I mentioned in prior posts, when I began this project I decided to build the top with a breadboard end detail. The reason for going with breadboard ends was not only for added stability, but also for appearance.
I’ve seen breadboard ends made in several different styles, from one long tenon, to a ‘haunch’ style tenon, to dowels. I decided on the one long tenon (1 ¼”) for no particular reason other than it seemed to fit. The process for creating the joint went smoothly enough, though it was somewhat time consuming. I set up the table saw with a dado stack, made several test cuts to center the groove, and proceeded to make the groove, raising the blade height ¼” on each pass. Once that was finished I did the same for the tenon on the desk top.
The first issue, and to my mind the biggest, came when I was cleaning up the tenon. I used a shoulder plane to do the bulk of the work, and that worked well, but a slip of the hand left a nice little ding on the front left corner, which would not have made a difference had I not decided to go with breadboard ends. Unfortunately, when I was doing a test fit I noticed the gap that the ding made, around 3 inches long and 1/16th of an inch wide, which doesn’t sound like much until you compare it with the rest of the joint, which is pretty much right on the money.
The second issue, and to me almost as troubling as the ding, came when I installed the dowels.
I used 3/8” oak dowels to hold the joint in place, and I decided to drawbore the joint for added security. I’m not overly experienced in the art of drawboring, but I’ve done it enough to not be afraid of it. Drawboring, briefly and in layman’s terms for those of you who may not know how a drawbored joint works, is when you drill out the hole of your tenon slightly closer to the shoulder than the holes bored out on the breadboard ends. This, in theory, will pull the joint closed very snugly and help to eliminate any gaps between the shoulder of the desktop and the breadboard ends. To leave out the dull details, it worked just fine in 5 of the 6 holes. On the last joint (as usual) the dowel pin I used went crooked, which is a sure sign that it needed to be tapered more. So I took a nail set and used it to tap out the pin, and of course it blew out a very small but noticeable chunk of the wood on the breadboard piece. Under other circumstance it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least, but because this piece is right next to the dowel, which is oak and much lighter in color than walnut, that little ding looks huge. I of course glued the blowout back in, but I have no idea how it is going to look until everything is completely sanded down and ready for finish.
The “minor” issue, and the easiest one to fix, is nonetheless the most disappointing to me. After all of the work, I’m not exactly sure that I like how the breadboard ends look. It’s an easy situation to remedy; I can just saw off the ends and in the process I would only be losing around 4 inches of desk top length (along with several hours of work and effort). I can easily chamfer or round over the top for a pleasing appearance. So I trimmed the breadboard ends flush (almost) and gave the top a light sanding and I’m still on the fence. I won’t lie, the dings are bothering me, and one showed up inexplicably near the center of the panel; don’t ask me how as nothing was dropped on it, but stuff like this seems to happen in my garage.
The center ding should easily be fixed with an iron, but that gap is not as simple. One option is to make up a filler with some glue and sawdust, the other is to just hide it with the drawer compartment. A third option, as I said, is removing the breadboard ends completely. I wanted the gappy area to serve as the front of the desk, because I like the grain pattern there and also because the other panel has two knots with some really funky stuff happening.
My plan now is to fix the dings as best I can, and then adding a coat of sanding sealer to see what I am working with. Otherwise, any advice would be much appreciated.
This past Sunday afternoon I began day 2 of the Washington Campaign Desk project. The main objective was to get the legs sawn to finish length and width along with the cleats to attach it to the desk top, the secondary objective was to get the desk top planed flat. If everything was working at optimal level I even considered getting the rabbets cut for the breadboard ends. Happily, I at least got the first two items on the list checked off.
To start, on Friday night I got the desktop sawn to final size (minus the breadboards) 40 inches. I then ripped one of the boards I had prepped last week into 4 strips, 2 ¾ inches wide and 6 ft long. Those boards were to be used for the breadboard ends and the 4 legs. So on Sunday afternoon I first chose the nicest board and cut that to the rough lengths needed for the breadboard ends. I then got to work on the legs.
The legs turned into a bit of a challenge. Cutting the angles was not really much of an issue as I simply used the cardboard template I made, but working around some of the knot holes and defects was a bit more difficult, or at the least time consuming. I basically hemmed and hawed for 15 minutes trying to lay out the cuts in such a way as to utilize the best parts of the boards, and then I got to sawing with the table saw.
The table saw work went quickly; after a few test cuts to set the angle of the legs, I had them sawn to length along with the cleats in a matter of minutes. But there was a minor drawback; in choosing the best aspects of the boards, I was forced to shorten the overall height of the desk from 29 inches to just over 28 inches, which I can certainly live with, in particular if that is the worst thing that happens during this project.
After the legs were sawn to length, I ripped them to just over their final width: 2 ¼ inches, as I will use a hand plane to finish them.. I then did a few test layouts using the template and so far everything looks good. Once that was all finished I turned to the desk top, where I discovered a minor issue.
When I glued up the two boards to make the desktop I wanted to remove any of the sapwood that I could, and I thought that I had. But at the seem there is a very fine line of sapwood that I honestly hadn’t noticed. Initially I thought it was just a bit of glue that had seeped through when the boards were clamped, unfortunately I was wrong. But, I am not going to worry about it. These boards are old and have a lot of “character”, so going in I knew that I was not going to end up with a French Polish level of refinement. But I did get the top planed to where I wanted it, using the jack plane and smooth plane. On that note, in cases like this I use the jack plane very much like a smooth plane to take fine shavings. The Walnut planed nicely, and I can live with the results.
Before I called it a day I gave the underside a quick plane as well. As I had mentioned in the prior post, the glue up went smoothly, so the panel was nearly flat to begin with, and really only needed some touch up work. While I had the desktop flipped over I added some epoxy to a knot that had developed a small crack, just in case. Lastly, I got to cleaning up the garage. It wasn’t too late, so I probably could have made an attempt at the breadboard ends, but I didn’t want to push the matter; I’m in no rush.
Next weekend, my goal is to complete the breadboard ends, and quite possibly assemble the base. If I manage to get the breadboard ends finished I will give the entire top a quick once over with a plane and possibly start sanding. Once I do that I can get to work on the base assembly. Initially I was a little worried about the base, but I figured out a very simple method to attach the legs accurately that should allow me to get to the fun part: the desk top cubby.
As far as this desk is concerned, I am trying to make it as close as I can to the original piece using only a photograph. I know there are woodworkers that specialize in reproductions who are experts at working from photos. Unfortunately I am not one of those experts, so this project has required a good bit of guess work.
For instance, I want the desk top to have a height of around 29 inches, and that is because my computer desk at home is 29 inches tall (most desks seem to fall in the 27-31 inch height range) and for me that is a comfortable working height. The length of the top will likely finish off at around 44 inches, which was my original guestimate from the photo using the book and pen as a guide. Why likely? Because I still have to do some trimming, and that trimming may change the finished size, depending. The width of the desktop (front to back) should finish off at around 23 inches, partly because of the stock I am using, and going by the original photo, I believe it is close to the actual width of the desk shown.
The legs are a bit trickier. Most woodworkers will make a “story stick”, which work well for projects like tables and traditional desks with bases, but for this project the ‘X’ pattern of the legs make the story stick a less viable option, because I want to have the ability to see that ‘X’ in full size. So the simple solution was to draw out a side view of the desk on a sheet of corrugated paper. The drawing not only gives me an easy lay-out guide, it also provided the angles needed for the legs. And after looking at the drawing, I came to the conclusion that screwing the legs to the face of the desktop cleats is a better solution than using a mortise and tenon joint, as it will be stronger and allow for the panel to expand and contract.
Maybe most importantly, this drawing helped to eliminate a lot of measuring, and the full sized drawing allowed me to proportion the top drawer compartment to dimensions I found pleasing, and once the desktop base is completed I will use the drawing as a template to saw the curves for the drawer unit.
It’s always nice to find that the simple, low tech solution is usually the easiest and fastest. Some woodworkers prefer to use drafting programs such as Sketch-up to do layout work, but that has never appealed to me, though I do believe that Sketch up is a valuable tool. But as far as this project is concerned, I found it enjoyable to use a basic pencil, T-square, and yard stick to design the desk, and at that, I think GW would have approved.
I woke up on Sunday morning feeling a little under the weather. My back was a little stiff, I had a headache, and I didn’t sleep very well on top of it. I almost put my Washington’s Desk project on hold, but I knew that if I didn’t get started I probably never would. So I cleared out the garage and got to work.
The plan was to mill up enough material for the desk top, the breadboard ends, the legs, as well as cleats for the desktop underside and the cross stretcher. So I chose 3 boards, two 6 footers and one 4 footer (all of the boards were 12 inches wide by 1 inch thick). To mill down those boards I used my Ryobi surface planer. For the record, this isn’t what I consider a great or even good tool. I purchased it almost 14 years ago while doing a kitchen remodel. It does the job, but it is loud and messy. Nonetheless, I had to work with the tools I have, so I checked the blades, and they were reasonably sharp, so I started milling.
What made this such an arduous process was the collection of the shavings. Because I rarely use power tools, I don’t have a dust collector or even a large shop vac. The shop vac I do have is perfectly fine for cleaning out a car or keeping a workbench clear, but it is not made for large scale work. But once again I had to use what was available, and it was not fun. Initially, I was hoping to finish up with two boards just over 7/8” thick for the top and one board just over ¾” thick for the legs. But, I underestimated the amount of material I needed to remove. The boards I was working with were very rough sawn, as in just a shade beyond still having bark. So I had to remove nearly ¼” of material just to get down to usable boards that were flat. And it also meant a lot of starting and stopping to empty out the shop vac. I was actually sore from the constant bending over to pick up the shavings, which I did at the very least fifty times. In the end, I filled up an entire lawn bag with shavings.
After the boards were milled I used the table saw to trim the two boards for the desk top to rough width and length (as well as getting rid of planer snipe). I then aligned the boards for a nice grain pattern (at least to my eye), and trimmed the boards to very near final size. To join the boards I decided to match-plane them.
Match planing works well, especially if your plane is set properly. I used a strange sequence: jointer plane first, a couple of passes with a jack plane set to take gossamer thin shavings, jointer again, and then one final pass with the jack. I’m not sure how other woodworkers match-plane, but when I am able to take a full width, full length shaving from both boards I call it joined. And in a surprisingly short time the boards were ready to be glued. I am very happy with the joint, as it was air tight, and the top is thankfully nice and flat. It will take a good amount of plane work and sanding, and probably some scraping as well (there are a few funky grain spots) to get the top ready for finish, but I should have a top ¾ thick when all is said and done, which is a bit less than I wanted, but hardly the end of the world.
At that point, I decided to call it a day. There was a lot, and I mean a lot, of clean up to do. In fact, I spent nearly as much time setting up and cleaning up as I did woodworking. This coming weekend I am hoping to get the legs sawn to finish length and width, the breadboard ends ready, and with a little luck I may possibly have the entire base and desk top ready for assembly. I was a little worried over laying out the legs, but I figured out a simple solution that I will detail in my next post.
Over the weekend I finished up the weather station project I’ve been working on as well as made a small “wallet” for some combination plane blades. Though, I’m happy to have finished those projects, I’d like to share with you a very minor (but oh so major) change I made to my sharpening system.
First things first, a few weeks back I made a weather station for the instrument kit I purchased from Lee Valley some time ago. Those of you who read the post may recall that I used walnut for the base and a piece of scrap pine to hold the weather instruments. The scrap pine was just an experiment to test the appearance of the piece; I liked what I saw, so I decided to go ahead and use cherry as the contrasting wood. Because I already had the pine template, cutting the cherry to size and boring out the dowel holes was a matter of minutes. The only time consuming part was planing the board smooth from its rough state, which took around 10 minutes to complete both sides.
Otherwise, it may be worth noting that I attempted to bore out the 2 1/2″ diameter hole with an adjustable boring bit and brace, but it was simply too much material for me to hog out. Instead, I once again used a hole saw, but with an electric drill rather than a drill press, as my drill press has been having issues. I did not want to use the hole saw again because I felt the holes were a touch too large for a snug fit, but in the end it worked out just fine.
To complete the finish I coated it with linseed oil, wiped off the excess and let it dry overnight. I added a second coat in the morning and let it dry for around 4 hours or so, then added two coats of wax. I have to admit that it turned out fairly nice, and my wife actually wants to hang it in the living room, so I’m happy with the end result.
The other project I completed was a basic wallet to hold the smaller blades for a Record combination plane. The project was basically a way to pass the time while the second coat of linseed oil was drying. I used a scrap piece of 1/4 inch plywood and a couple of pine cut offs. It was really a very basic, down and dirty project. I’m happy to report that the fit is nice, and I coated the inside of the wallet with wax to not only smooth it out, but also for added protection.
But the real revelation has been my sharpening “system”.
On paper, my sharpening system may seem complicated. It’s not. I have two water stones, a DMT duosharp diamond stone, a leather strop, sandpaper, a hand cranked grinder, and a low-speed power grinder. For nearly all of my sharpening, the water stones and a leather strop are the only requirements.
If I have to do any heavy grinding I use sand paper and/or the DMT stone. If it’s real bad I will use the power grinder (or if I am trying to reset the bevel). As an added note, I personally don’t believe that power grinders are completely necessary. They certainly save time, but you can work without one. In fact, I admit that the only reason I have one is because it was purchased using a gift card that I received through my work, where our vendors offer those cards as incentives to take their online training modules. As far as the hand cranked grinder is concerned, it was given to me by a friend, but it does work rather well if need be.
The reason I bring up my sharpening method is because I’ve been making an effort to sharpen a few tools every time I woodwork. In this case, I sharpened a 3/8 in chisel, the iron from my block plane, and the 1/4″ plow iron from the combination plane. What has been remarkable lately are my results. For the past few months I’ve been getting beyond razor sharp tools. Perhaps I’ve just become a better sharpener through experience, but I don’t think that is entirely the case.
Going back to the water stones. For many years I’ve used a 1000g and an 8000g Norton. I’ve always had good results with the 8000g stone, but the 1000g stone always seemed to give me trouble. I felt that it was slower than it should have been, and it seemed to wear unevenly no matter how carefully I tried to keep that from happening. So a few months ago I happened to drop the 1000g stone (a Freudian slip?) and it broke in 3 pieces. Rather than try to epoxy it back together, I purchased an 800g King stone.
I can’t tell you exactly why I purchased the King brand, probably because it was inexpensive, but I can tell you that since I’ve been using that stone for the initial honing the sharpness of my tools has improved beyond dramatically. The King stone cuts very quickly, and builds up slurry far faster than the Norton ever did, it has worn evenly and it seems much easier to flatten ( I use the DMT stone to true up my water stones) That all being said, I still use the Norton 8000g stone and it has always worked well.
The first tool I sharpened using the King stone was my marking knife. I’ve never been a great knife sharpener, but I can tell you that after 5 minutes with my regular method (800g, 8000g, strop) I was using that knife to fruit ninja paper out of mid air. When I say I could have shaved my face with it I am not exaggerating.
Since, I’ve been going down the line, sharpening a few chisels and/or plane irons at a time, as well as other tools like my router plane and coffin smoother. In fact, I believe the only I have left to finish using the King stone are the jack plane iron and my 1 1/4 in chisel. That being said, I’ve only sharpened 2 of the combination plane blades thus far, but my 8 chisels and 4 bench planes are basically finished up, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
So maybe it’s the stone, or maybe I’ve improved and the actual stone has nothing to do with it, but I don’t think that is completely the case. Nonetheless, since I’ve been using the King stone, sharpening has been faster and easier, and the results speak for themselves. Some people treat sharpening as some sort of religious experience; I’ve never felt that way about it. Sharpening has always been a means to an end for me, and for once getting to that end has been far faster and more enjoyable than it ever has been.
****As sort of a post-disclaimer, I was not paid or compensated in any way to write this post. I am just doing it because I’ve found the King stone to be an excellent value****
Like nearly every other woodworker on the planet, I built a “Dutch” tool chest a few years back; in fact, I built two. I enjoyed both projects, and it was a good chance to work on several different skills: dovetail joinery, dado joinery, mortise and tenon joinery, joinery, joinery, joinery.
One of those chests I gave to my dad, the other I kept. For quite a while my chest was in my garage with most of my woodworking tools placed inside it. It sometimes sat on my bench, or under it, or under my feet. I bumped into it quite often, every now and again I would trip over it; I bent over countless times to get stuff out of it. Eventually, I smartened up, hung a cabinet and some tool racks on the walls near my work area, and put my Dutch tool chest in the attic.
Here is the plain truth that nobody wants to hear: working out of that chests sucked. It wasn’t a size issue; the chest was easily large enough to hold the bulk of my woodworking tools. It is a simple matter of logistics, too much bending over, reaching, stretching, dropping, knuckle banging nonsense.
I found the best way to work out of the chest was to put it on my workbench so that everything was at eye level. The problem there was it got in the way too much. Of course, I could put it back on the floor after I got everything out, but then all of that stuff was on the bench too. And who feels like picking up and putting down a 100 pound + tool chest four or five times? Not me.
I’ve seen videos where the woodworker removed all of the tools he/or she needed at the beginning of the project and put them on the bench. I suppose that works, but then all of the stuff is on the bench and in the way (unless you have a recessed tool tray, but they are bad news, right?)
Okay, I’m complaining, so what solution am I offering? The same one that has been around forever: mount your tools on a wall rack and store them in a wall hung cabinet.
Everything is at eye level, out of the way, easy to see and easy to reach. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: since I’ve mounted my tools on the wall I’ve become a more efficient woodworker. AND, my back feels a whole lot better.
So here is my expert advice: If, for some reason, you travel a lot with your woodworking tools, make a tool chest for transportation. And if you are like the overwhelming majority of amateur woodworkers with tools that very rarely leave your work area, mount your stuff on the wall over your bench. Nothing bad is going to happen to your stuff if it’s out in the open. I live in a high humidity area and I’ve had very few rust issues. Keep your tools oiled (as you should be doing anyway) and they’ll be just fine.
So why rehash a topic I know I’ve already covered? Well, a few weeks ago I was getting some things out of the attic and I saw my tool chest sitting on the floor. It still looked pretty good, and it will certainly still hold tools, so I brought it down the stairs, dusted it off, and sold it for a few bucks.
I mentioned a few posts back that I had sold off some tools (mostly duplicates) and how I surprisingly had no sentimental attachment to any of them. But when I sold my Dutch tool chest I very nearly backed out of the deal. My second thoughts didn’t stem from the sell cost, I was just very reluctant to let go of something I had built myself.
I’m hardly a great woodworker, but I put a lot of time and effort into my projects. For whatever it’s worth, and for all of it’s shortcomings, I thought that my tool chest looked great when I finished it. When I brought it down the attic stairs and briefly back into my garage, it seemed to “fit the scene”. But then I remembered why I put it into the attic in the first place, so I put sentimentality aside and did what I know was the right thing to do. And though I pride myself on being a person who makes the right decisions, the right decision in this instance wasn’t an easy one to make.