I’ve never built a window. I never had a real need to. That is until someone contacted me about building a window sash for a stained glass window she designed. As much as I tried to convince her that a fixed-pane window would be easier, less expensive, and quicker, she insisted on a ventilating hopper window. My first thoughts on a design are shown here. Continue reading “Designing a Hopper Window”
I ran across an article by Steve Maxwell in the Ottawa Citizen a while back (unfortunately the link has expired). He wrote about 5 basic principles that apply to anyone in a shop. It’s well worth the read and I have to agree with him. Here’s my summary of what he said:
1. Sharpening Skills. Practice, practice, practice. Whatever sharpening method you use that gives you good results, become a master at it. I talked here about how much I like my diamond stones. Steve recommends a buffing wheel for honing. I’ve used a buffing wheel for sharpening my carving tools, but haven’t made myself convert to using it for chisels and plane irons. A buffing wheel works fast and gives you a polished edge.
2. Proper Sanding. How many of us hate sanding? I do. But we need to slow down and do it right if we want the best surface for a finish. And that means working through the grits. Steve starts with a belt sander. Belt sanders scare me because it’s too easy to get distracted and the next thing you know you’re rounding over an edge, gouging the workpiece, or sanding through veneer. I follow the advice of starting with 100- or 120-grit paper, but a random orbit sander is usually all I need. Then I work my way up to 180-grit. I usually don’t go any finer than that if I’m applying an oil finish. That recommendation comes from General Finishes when using their Arm-R-Seal product.
3. Know Your Tools. What I mean is, know intimately how they work and how to fine-tune them for the best performance. That goes for hand tools as well as power tools. Maintain and tune-up your table saw periodically. Make sure all of your chisels and planes are set up, sharp, and ready to put to use. Having to stop in the middle of a project to sharpen or fuss with a tool is a distraction you don’t need.
4. Invest in Your Tools. In other words, buy the best tool you can afford. And if you can’t afford it right now, save up until you can. I’ve learned my lessons on buying tools just because the price was right. It’s when you come to rely on the tool that it disappoints you. Steve’s comments on this topic are so good I have to repeat them here:
Choosing tools and gear successfully is a lot like hitting someone with a snowball as they’re running. Unless you aim way ahead, you’ll always miss. The tools and gear you need tomorrow will almost always be more than you need now, especially if you’re a beginner.
That’s why you should always buy better than you think you need. My only tool regrets have come when my snowball fell way behind the results I was aiming at. You need to buy for the ultimate woodworker you want to become, not the woodworker you are now.
Also — and this is crucial — always let actual needs guide your tool investments. Struggle for a while with a process or situation, then use the insights you gain to invest in gear that actually meets the needs you face. You’ll buy smarter.
5. Curb Your Enthusiasm. As Steve says, being motivated to get out in the shop and be productive is one thing. But being in a hurry and taking shortcuts (like not properly sanding, or assuming that the glue will fill the gaps in an ill-fitting joint) are another thing. So the key is not to be impatient. I have to talk myself into slowing down and “doing it right.” (Yes, I talk to myself often when I’m in the shop.) To quote Steve:
“The pursuit of quality is much more important and enduring. “
The shadow box I’m making out of cherry plywood needed some hardwood edging to hide the ugly plywood edges. I ripped strips of cherry about 1/8″ thick. They were slightly wider than the thickness of the plywood. This way, you don’t have to worry about having the edging perfectly flush as you glue it to the edges of the plywood.
After the glue was dry, I pulled out my Stanley 101. It’s a small plane a little longer than 3″. It’s a cute little thing. But it comes in handy for light tasks like this. Lee Valley sells squirrel tail palm planes (like the Stanley 100) and a “Little Victor” plane that would do the job. They also have the Kunz version of the Stanley 100.
Why didn’t I use a standard block plane, or for that matter, a bench plane? Well, I actually started to, but they felt too heavy and clunky for this light trimming task. And the block planes have a lower blade angle that was causing some tearout.
Back to my little Stanley 101. Notice that there’s no blade adjuster on this tiny plane. I set the blade by inserting it until it bottoms out on the workpiece then tighten the cap. See that little nubbin on the back end? I don’t know this for a fact but I believe that’s there to allow you to retract the blade with a light tap of a hammer. The nubbin protects the edge of the casting from being damaged. To advance the blade, lightly tap the front end of the plane. It sure beats loosening the cap and trying to make minute adjustments by hand and eye. That’s an exercise in frustration.
The technique I use to trim the edging is to keep most of the plane riding on the plywood with the blade engaging the edging. This way, as the edging is trimmed, the plane kind of “self levels” the edging. Just keep an eye on the edging and use your fingers to gauge when it’s flush before you cut into the plywood veneer. There’s a fine line (a shaving’s thickness) between flush and too far.
After trimming both sides of the edging flush, I needed to smooth the face of the edging. It still had saw marks on it from ripping it to thickness. I clamped each piece in my face vise and used my No. 3 smoother. I quickly discovered I had difficulty keeping the plane level. I have a tendency to lean the plane to port side, leaving a surface that’s not square to the face. To help me keep the plane square, I used a Veritas Jointer Fence. It attaches to the cheek (side) of the plane with strong magnets. It’s offset so that the entire width of the blade can engage the workpiece. You can make a jointer fence by rabbeting a straight-grained piece or hardwood or you can use a dense plywood like Baltic birch. The idea is to provide a bearing surface that rides along the face of the workpiece keeping the plane square to the face. It works like a charm. A few swipes and the edging was nice and smooth.
Glen Huey is a friend of mine. We happened to meet at a media event right after he was hired to write for Popular Woodworking magazine…the first time. He had taken some time off to work on a large commission project and recently returned full time to PopWood.
Glen and I share a common-sense approach to woodworking. Except that he has a lot more skill and knowledge than I do, especially when it comes to building reproductions of 18th-century period furniture. He is a master craftsman.
So it was refreshing and encouraging to me when I read this post by Glen about building drawers for his workbench. No fancy dovetail joinery. He used what he calls “dado and rabbet” joinery, or what I call tongue and dado. A tongue on each end of the drawer fronts and backs fits into dadoes cut into the drawer sides. It’s a simple joint to make and, as Glen explains, once you get the setup tweaked on the table saw, you can cut perfect-fitting joints quickly.
For most furniture projects I build, this is the joint I use for drawer joinery. Why? Because it’s strong and easy to make. Why don’t I use dovetail joinery? Because I think it’s overrated. Granted, if I were building period furniture reproductions as Glen does, I’d use dovetail joinery for the drawers. But only because it’s reproducing the type of construction of the period piece. Not because it’s any “better” or “stronger.” Besides, the one and only dovetail jig I ever owned I have long since pitched. It was fussy to set up. I routed dovetails on every drawer of a kitchen full of cabinets in my first house. But looking back, I think it was silly. Nobody cares. I could have done the job in half the time and had drawers that functioned just as well if I had used tongue and dado joinery. I think the only reason I did it back then was so I could pull out a drawer when friends and family came over and say, “Look! Dovetails!”
They didn’t care.
Not long ago I was in Amana, Iowa and saw a pair of apothecary cabinets in an antique store. These cabinets were about 3-ft. wide by 6-ft. tall. They were full of drawers that were only a couple inches high. I pulled one of the drawers out, and guess what joinery they used? Tongue and dado. And here’s the clincher (pun intended): They used finish nails to reinforce the joints. I thought perhaps this had been done later as a repair but every single drawer was built this way. Imagine that! Craftsmen using nails in a fine piece. This inspired me so much I had to write an article about nails for ShopNotes No. 131 (page 12).
So, when I build drawers, I’ll more than likely use tongue and dado joinery. And nail them in addition to gluing them. Who besides me is going to notice?
While I was visiting Fort Houston, I was wandering through the old factory/warehouse building and stumbled upon a room that felt like I had stepped back in time about 100 years. Like the wardrobe in “Narnia,” I was in another world. It was a huge wood shop with benches and hand tools all along two walls. The wood floor was covered in sawdust, shavings from hand planes, and chips from carving. There were all sorts of projects in various states of completion from gothic church carvings to modern benches with aluminum butterfly keys.
As I stood there taking in the site of benches and walls loaded with carving and hand tools, an older gentleman steps out from the shadows in the back and asks, “Can I help you?” It was apparent he wasn’t used to visitors in this back corner of a warehouse. I told him I had just stumbled into the room and was admiring his work and tool collection. He immediately pointed out a few of his tools that had belonged to his great grandfather. After asking his permission to snap some photos, we struck up a lively conversation and he proceeded to show me some of his unique projects.
One project was the bench that had been made by his father and carved with his name. Then he stoops down and grabs an odd-looking wood box with a large hole in the top. Turns out it’s a vacuum-assisted carving vise. He picked up an old bowling ball that had a short piece of pipe with a wood block stuck in it. He places the ball on the box, hooks up a vacuum, and clamps his carving to the pipe stem. The vacuum creates a tenacious hold on the bowling ball yet it can be pivoted to any position. Ingenious. Next he had to show me the carving vise he made from an old dentist’s chair. He can elevate the work with a foot pedal. Brilliant.
His son soon came out of the back room and they told me about some of the work they have done, some nationwide for retail stores. Their website shows you some of the more interesting projects they’ve done.
Earlier in August 2013, I had a chance to travel to Nashville, Tennessee. Somewhere about a half hour away from the corner of 5th Avenue and Broadway, buried in an old warehouse district of Nashville, is a place called Fort Houston.
Fort Houston gets its name from its location in the Wedgewood-Houston district of Nashville. The old brick building they call their home used to be a hosiery factory.
Fort Houston was started by a couple of 20-something guys looking for ways to work on projects but lacking the proper equipment to do so. So they started a member-based organization that offers a wide variety of classes and resources for artisans with specific skills. And if you’re an artist willing to teach a class, you get a discount on your monthly membership fee. I was so very impressed with the collaboration and cooperative learning among artists of varying interests.
Here are two of several of the artists I met:
JET Tools was so impressed with the work going on at Fort Houston, they donated a shop full of tools. Fort Houston also has a print shop and a wide open space for artisans to work on their projects at benches and tables. I can’t do it justice in trying to describe all that Fort Houston is and does. Their website provides a sketchy overview, but I recommend you “like” their facebook page to get a feel for the organization. I wish there were something like this in every city.
The first time I used a really, really sharp chisel and plane iron, I immediately became aware of how sharp tools can make or break craftsmanship. With a sharp tool, fine-tuning a joint or smoothing the surface of a workpiece becomes effortless and precise.
When I first got serious about woodworking, all I knew about sharpening was that you were supposed to use a bench grinder. At least that’s what I grew up seeing my dad use. Oil stones were reserved for pocket knives.
Then along came the Internet. I soon learned about the “scary sharp” method using wet/dry sandpaper. I was hooked. The tools for this method require nothing more than sheets of sandpaper and a flat surface. For years I used a polished wall tile I picked up at one of the big-box stores. It’s a 12″ x 12″ tile that’s perfect for holding a sheet of sandpaper. For touching up my chisels and plane irons, I’d start at about 400-grit and work my way up through 2000-grit. It’s a quick and relatively inexpensive method for sharpening edge tools.
Then came the fad of using waterstones (oilstones are so messy and so “old school”). So I put away my “scary sharp” method in favor of a combination waterstone. I used it for a few years but soon discovered one drawback: Waterstones become dished out with use and require flattening. You can buy dedicated flattening stones, but I used 80-grit sandpaper on my 12″ x 12″ wall tile. It worked great, but can be messy.
Then a friend of mine told me about the wonders of diamond stones, specifically the DMT DuoSharp dual-sided combination stones. Once I tried them, I was hooked. I rarely use any other sharpening method. I have the WM8CX and WM8EF models. This gives me a good range of grits from coarse to fine that serve the majority of my sharpening needs. Yes, they’re a little pricey, but well worth the investment.
Here’s what I like about the DuoSharp stones. They’re flat and they stay flat. No need to mess with flattening them periodically.
The steel plates that are coated with diamond grit are perforated. This means that when you spritz the stones with a little water before sharpening, the swarf doesn’t clog the stone. All it takes to clean the stones is a wipe with a cloth or running them under the tap and drying them thoroughly.
The best thing I like about diamond stones is how quickly they cut. It doesn’t take much to get an edge. I proved this when I was chiseling out a lock mortise for a door jamb and hit a nail. After gritting my teeth in frustration at ruining a good chisel edge with a sizable ding, I drug out the diamond stones. I started with the coarsest grit and worked my way up through the finest grit. It took my all of about 10 minutes to get back to a “scary sharp” edge.
If you’re one of those that has to work toward a mirror polish on your tools, you can invest in DMT DiaSharp Bench Stones. They’re available in grits as fine as 3 microns.
You can view a chart of the available DMT grits by clicking here.
So how do I know when a tool is sharp enough? My first test is to see if it will “catch” on my thumbnail as I try to drag it across. But the final test is to take a piece of basswood or soft pine and see if I can make thin shavings of the end grain. If I can’t, it’s back to the sharpening stones. If a tool is anything less than sharp, the fibers of the soft wood will crush rather than be severed cleanly.
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.
In a previous post, I mentioned how I had to create a patch, or inlay, to cover over a knot. Now the first question you may be asking yourself is why I didn’t use another board for this particular piece. In this case, the selection of lumber was pretty slim and I just decided I had to make do with what I had. I really did think that this defect was far enough away from the edge to be hidden by the cove trim that was to be applied to that face. But I was wrong. By the time I routed the profile along the edge, the knot would be visible on the finished project.
I had to resort to some training I received from Tim Rundall, owner of The Woodchip Shop. Tim taught me how to carve and the proper use of the tools, so I dug out my carving tools. The first order of business was to make an inlay. I happened to have a scrap piece I had cut from the same board. I used a gouge and straight chisels to form the shape of the inlay. I used a saw and the disk sander to finalize the shape of the inlay.
The next step was to use the inlay as a pattern to lay out the recess for the inlay. I used a sharp knife to trace around the inlay. Then I took the same gouge to form the rounded part of the recess. Using a detail knife and some other carving tools to deepen the recess, I kept working at it until the inlay was a tight fit.
After gluing the inlay in place, I started working it flush to the workpiece with hand planes. While the glue was still wet, I sanded it to its final shape, smooth with the surrounding profile.
After the project was finished, you’d be hard pressed to find the patch. The color and grain match did a great job of disguising the patch.
I enjoy woodworking. I’ve been at it almost all of my life in some fashion or another. For me, spending time in the shop is a way to relax and lose track of time.
Along the way, I’ve had folks approach me and ask me to build something…and offer to pay me. And frankly, I’ve pursued such projects from time to time to supplement my income.
As soon as the discussion of pay comes up, there’s a mental shift for me. This is no longer a hobby, but a part-time job until this job is completed. There are deadlines and expectations — if not the customer’s, my own. So when I’m in the shop working on a project for which I’m getting paid, it’s not for relaxation. As a matter of fact, it can become a little stressful. I impose upon myself high standards for quality of work. And that’s on top of the looming deadlines and customer expectations.
Fortunately, I’m in a position now where I can afford to pick and choose the projects I want to take on for pay. If a customer has unreasonable expectations about the high cost custom woodworking, I’ll pass. If the customer can’t decide what the finished project should look like, I’ll pass.
But for those customers that really appreciate the kind of work I do, there’s a sigh of relief when the project is delivered and the customer is happy. When the customer hands me the final payment, the sense of satisfaction can sometimes be overwhelming.