Fixing Mistakes of an Inexperienced Woodworker

Some time ago I was asked to build a couple of tile-top end tables for a customer. She wanted them made from alder she had stored in her garage. I had never worked with alder, but I have to say, it’s a dream to work with hand tools.

After building the two tables and grouting the ceramic tiles for the tops, I applied several coats of General Finishes Arm-R-Seal to the base and top frame. I’m not one for staining or dyeing a finish unless the project warrants it or it’s figured wood.

This customer also had a tile-top coffee table that someone else had built for her. After she saw the beauty of the clear oil finish, she decided she’d like to have her coffee table refinished. This table was built by someone who was apparently new to woodworking. I’ll let the photos below tell the story. Check out the fit of the tenons in the mortises. And the uneven finish with runs and drips. The gap around the drawer front was large enough to drive a car through (can’t do much to fix that). The drawer box was so shabbily built that I’ll have to build a new one (I’ll use Baltic birch plywood).

I decided it would be quicker and easier to disassemble the table by cutting the aprons off, planing the finish off, then re-assembling the table.

Pay attention during assembly and glue-up

I’m in the middle of repairing an antique table. There’s nothing really broken, but most of the joints are loose. So I’m carefully prying apart the old doweled joints and removing the old glue, then reassembling the joint with Titebond wood glue.

As is the case with most old furniture, someone had used copious amounts of glue in an attempt to fix the loose joinery. To remove the glue, I carefully pare the joint down to bare wood with a sharp chisel or block plane. Some would argue that doing so dulls the blade, but nothing a quick touch-up won’t fix.

To repair the dowel joints, I’ll just clean the glue off the dowels as much as possible if they’re still solid. On this particular table, it’s a pedestal style with four legs attached to a center, turned column. The original ½”-dia. dowels had been drilled out and replaced with ⅜”-dia. fluted dowels at some point. They were in poor condition, so I cut them off flush with the joint.

I’m not a fan of dowel joinery, so I set up my router table with a ½”-dia. spiral upcut bit. I routed a long mortise between the two dowel locations on each mating piece. Then I formed loose tenons using ½” Baltic birch plywood and reassembled the joint.

But here’s where you have to pay attention. On this table, the curved legs were each capped with a gothic-style cap piece. But I had failed to follow one of my own rules. I didn’t mark how each piece was oriented. After the glue set up, I noticed one of the pieces was turned 180°. Fortunately, the piece was symmetrical, so visually, it didn’t make a difference. But it could have been a disaster, or at least a big problem.

So the lesson here is this: Whether you’re repairing old furniture or dry-assembling a new project to test for fit, make sure to mark the pieces. Mark the joinery and the orientation of each workpiece.

You’ll be thankful later when the glue and clamps go on.

Should I be horsewhipped for using finish nails?

I just finished putting together an antique cabinet that’s similar to the one you see here. It was literally in pieces when I picked it up from the customer. Apparently, at some point in its life, it had fallen off the wall onto the floor. And by the looks of it, this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Someone somewhere in the past had made a pretty poor attempt at repair using dowels. They had even drilled through the sides of the cabinet in a couple spots to insert the dowels into the shelves!

Miraculously, the heavy, beveled glass door survived and is still a beautiful piece of craftsmanship.

I had been contemplating for a couple of weeks how to go about a decent repair for the cabinet. The dowels and dowel holes had dried glue all over them. And obviously, the wood was old and cracked in some spots. I had to patch a spot that had broken out from the side near a dowel.

So how do I put this back together? I ruled out glue because most of the joinery was butt joints and glue doesn’t hold well on end grain. And the joints weren’t tight enough to be “glue worthy” anyway.

So I resorted to using 1½” finish nails. Yep. Modern nails. I figured with their small heads and a little dab of wood putty, they would all but disappear. So I got out my Warrington-style hammer and tapped in three nails through the sides into each end of the shelves. I countersunk the heads with a nail set and applied a little wood putty with a cotton swab to minimize spreading it around.

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Oh, I have one other confession to make. I used modern screws to hold the top of the cabinet to the sides. They even have a Torx head. But I figured this was where the point of failure was originally when it fell from the wall, and they’re on the back, so it really didn’t matter. If someone throws a fit, they can replace them with traditional, slotted wood screws.

So there you have it. Modern finish nails and screws used in the restoration of an antique cabinet. You can call the antique police now and turn me in.

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GRK R4™ Multipurpose Star/Torx Screw
GRK R4™ Multipurpose Star/Torx Screw

Design your own furniture using SketchUp

Those who know me at all know that I’m a big fan of SketchUp. It’s a free, powerful, and easy-to-use software program that lets you design in three dimensions. You can see some of the models I’ve created by clicking here. I’ve also created a most of the SketchUp models you can download as Online Extras for ShopNotes magazine.

There’s a blog ( I ran across that uses SketchUp to create free plans of “knock-off” furniture. Ana White takes her ideas from Pottery Barn and other catalogs and creates plans so that you can recreate the same style in your garage or basement workshop. And she uses SketchUp to generate the plans. Go take a peek at what she’s done.

And if you find something you like, let me know and I can build it for you! Just use the contact form and we’ll see what we can do.

Did I tell you how much I hate finishing?

I have a small shop. It resides in my garage. I don’t have room or the resources for a “finishing room.” So my choices for finishing boil down to those I can wipe or brush on. But I’ve never had much success with brush-on finishes either.

I remember in my younger years watching my dad lay down a flawless finish using a brush. Back then, he used a lot of oil-based polyurethane finish (for kitchen cabinets, mostly). He learned the art of maintaining a wet edge, not brushing the finish once it’s laid down, and all the other techniques that are more art than science.

My experience, however, with the same finish was…ugly. Brush strokes and dry areas where there was no finish was the norm for me. I could never get the knack of it.

Continue reading “Did I tell you how much I hate finishing?”

Why I like working with Poplar

Of all the hardwoods, I think poplar is the most misunderstood. It has traditionally been used on insignificant internal components of furniture as a secondary wood.

A lot of folks get turned off by the green and brown streaks sometimes evident in the wood. But this can be overcome. Or you can use it to add visual interest to your piece.

Continue reading “Why I like working with Poplar”

My admiration for Phil Lowe, period furniture maker

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of attending a day-long seminar with Phil Lowe. I’ve always been impressed with his work.

During the seminar, he showed us his tips and tricks as he created a pie crust table. One of his tips is that he always draws full-size plans before he begins work. He says that doing so gives him a real sense of scale and he can use the drawings to pull dimensions from and use them as templates where necessary.

Phil uses a mix of hand tools and machinery in his woodworking. Continue reading “My admiration for Phil Lowe, period furniture maker”