Building a Dining Table, Part Three: Assembly and Inlay

Each stage of building this table has had its unique challenges.  First it was cutting usable lumber out of some pretty seriously damaged boards.  Then it was surfacing everything by hand.  Now, after the final glue-up, I was faced with the prospect of smooth-planing a panel that was significantly wider and longer than my workbench. I decided that I would set aside my Western, workbench-centric methods and embrace an Eastern approach to the problem.

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I’ve seen videos of traditional Japanese woodworkers, who work sitting on the floor, often holding workpieces with their feet.  In imitation, I sat on the panel to hold it down.  I worked barefoot, as Japanese woodworkers do, so as not to mar the surface with my shoes.  (Otherwise I NEVER work wood barefoot, but at this height it would be pretty hard to drop anything heavy or sharp on my foot.)  After trying unsuccessfully to push my smoothing plane across the panel, I turned it around and pulled it.  Asian hand planes are typically pulled, not pushed, and now I know why.  Pulling a plane is much easier than pushing it when sitting.  I found my smoothing plane was actually pretty easy to pull, and even comfortable to hold backwards–one hand on the knob and the other hand wrapped around the tote.  And no, pulling a plane like this is not as dangerous to certain body parts as it looks.

With the panel smooth, it it was time to flip it back over (with help!) and attach the top.

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I nailed battens alongside the base, just to help keep the the base in alignment and to steady the base a bit.  The base is attached to the top with lag screws in generously oversize holes, to allow for the significant seasonal movement that this top will see.  A ratcheting brace made it easy to bore a hole next to the upright.

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I also screwed some diagonal battens to the ends to reinforce the overhanging ends.

Note that the supports go nearly to each edge.  The feet of the table are just as wide, and the result is a very stable base.  In use, the kids haven’t even come close to upsetting the table, and they won’t.

The final stage before finishing was dealing with the flaws in the top.  This was, as I have said, “rustic” lumber, with various voids and knots, and a lot bug holes.  Where most would see these as flaws, I now see these as potential decorative features.  The idea is to fill in the voids with crushed stone in order to speckle the surface with contrasting color–a simple form of inlay.  I learned this technique from a turner, who uses it to fill checks and other voids in the wooden bowls he makes.

Some of the voids are deep, so the first step is to back-fill the deeper voids with other materials.

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Bug holes could often be filled with toothpicks.  Some of the holes were shallow, but a few went all the way through the board.  In any case, I cut off the toothpick so it settled just below the surface of the wood.  Other, wider holes were filled in with sawdust topped with superglue.  That provided a stable substrate for the stone.  I could have just filled the holes with just the crushed stone, but that stuff is expensive ($10 for a few ounces) and sawdust is free.

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I topped off each void with the crushed stone.  It’s pretty fine-grained, but not quite a powder.  It’s about the consistency of table salt.  (The stone is sold in several consistencies–but for this application, the finer the better.)  A baby spoon and a toothbrush are handy for directing the stone into the hole.   You can’t just fill the holes in level, or it will sink down into the hole once you add the superglue.  I mounded up the stone slightly over each void, and then saturated each pile with a few drops of superglue–the regular liquid kind, not the gel kind.  The immediate result looks pretty awful.

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The process is the same for small holes (like bug holes) and larger voids, like knots. It even works with holes made by accidentally drilling a pilot hole for a screw too deep and coming up through the top by mistake.  Hypothetically, of course…

The superglue will dry in an hour or two, depending on the size of the void.  Once it has hardened up, it’s time to cut it down to the level of the surrounding wood.

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I used a card scraper to level the surface.  The scraper was a lot faster than sandpaper, but it was still a lot of work.  But the superglue-impregnated stone actually scraped quite well.  I was afraid it would dull the scrapers prematurely, but it didn’t.  A thick, stiff scraper worked better than a thin one.

After scraping, I lightly sanded the whole tabletop and applied a few coats of semi-gloss polyurethane.  The malachite-filled voids came out pretty well.

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Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

This is definitely a design feature that I will use again.  I am no longer afraid of lumber with bug holes, small knots, and other voids.  There are other color options, too, besides the green malachite: pink coral, white stone, and even aluminum filings (which I’ve used successfully before).  Crushed stone of many kinds can be bought in small amounts on Amazon.  With some patience and a few tools, it’s an easy technique to master.

And finally the table is done.

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Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

Now it’s time to pull up some chairs and gather around for family meals.

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Building a Dining Table, Part 2: Clamps and Pegs

The majority of my time on this project was spent surfacing the boards for the top.  I hand-planed all the boards from the rough-sawn stock, and I must have carried out four or five garbage bags of wood shavings in the course of this build.  (We should have enough kindling for our fire pit for the next few months, at least.)  I’m seriously considering buying an electric planer to help with the rough work.

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On each board, I began with my jack plane, going diagonal to the grain and taking a thick shaving , just to flatten the board and remove the saw marks.  Then I was able to decide which side would be the face and which one I could leave rough-planed.

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On the good face, I planed each board as straight as I could with my joiner plane and finished with the smoothing plane.  As it happened, I probably wasted my time with the smoothing plane because I still had to re-plane each board level after each glue-up.  Now I know.

As I finished planing each board, I edge-glued two or three together and let the glue set up as I continued planing the next boards.  The first glue-ups were pretty simple.

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Cauls and battens helped a lot with alignment.  I had no desire to thickness each board to the exact same thickness by hand, so they’re all a little different in thickness.  Only the top is leveled out.

As I began to glue panels to each other, things got more cumbersome.

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On the final two glue-ups, I ended up using my own weight to align the boards as they rested on cauls.  I used my pipe clamps to their fullest extent, and everything came together in the end.  The final dimensions of the top are 90″ long and 44″ wide.

In the meantime, as the glue dried, I worked on the leg assemblies.  Each I-shaped base is tenoned together with double tenons.  The tenons were big enough that they got cut with my ripsaw.

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I really need to sharpen it, but that’s a task for another day.  (As per spousal noise ordinances banning indoor metal work, all saw sharpening takes now place out of doors–and It’s way too hot outside for that.)

Cutting the tenons left a lot of small offcuts, which one of the kids thought looked a lot like building blocks.

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So this is what I found on my workbench the next morning.  I almost hated to clear it off in order to get back to work.  In retrospect, I should have challenged somebody to a game of Jenga first.

I always cut my tenons first, then use them to help me lay out the mortises.  I usually chop small mortises with a mortise chisel, but these mortises were big and deep.  So I drilled out most of the waste using a Forstner bit on the drill press, but then I squared them up by hand.

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I think this exemplifies my ideal power-tool/hand-tool balance.  I prefer to use the power tools to do the precision donkey-work, which is what they’re good at.  It saves me time and effort, which leaves me freer to do the fun tasks by hand.

Usually glue is more than adequate to keep a well-cut mortise and tenon joint together, but for extra security (and a cool, retro look) there are some ways to reinforce the joint by locking it together mechanically.  One time-honored method is draw-boring, or pegging.  At its simplest, it might involve assembling the joint, drilling through both members, and driving in a dowel to keep everything together.  But true draw-boring works a little differently (and please excuse the explanation if you already know this).

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First drill through the mortise only, then insert the tenon and mark the location of the hole on the tenon.  Pull the tenon out and drill through the tenon, offsetting the hole slightly toward the tenon shoulder.  The holes are thus intentionally misaligned.  The peg is shaved to an octagonal cross-section for a tight fit in the hole (the corners of the octagon dig into the round hole and hold the peg securely in place).  When the peg is driven through the misaligned holes, it pulls the joint together tightly.  There’s no need for clamps, and even glue might be optional.  (I did use glue anyway, for what it’s worth.)  Just drive the pins in and cut them off flush.  The joint is locked together forever.

I’ve used a number of different woods for draw-bore pins.  A tough wood like pecan works pretty well, but oak really does work best of anything I’ve tried.  It’s strong, flexible, and easy to shape with a chisel.  I perpetually keep a few pieces of straight-grained oak, well dried, for making pins.

The end pieces assembled, I then attached the trestle with tusked tenons in order to make the base dis-assemblable.  Full disclosure: I cut the mortises in the uprights before assembling everything.  Chopping mortises on something that’s already assembled would have been very awkward, so the picture below shows the whole base assembly dry-fitted.

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A tusked tenon is a tenon that extends well beyond the mortised piece and has a mortise cut into the tenon.  This smaller mortise has one angled wall that matches a long wedge, called a “tusk.” Normally you drive in the tusks to tighten up the joint, but we live in Alabama, where the Tusks-are-loose-a.  (Terrible, I know.  But I’ve been waiting years to use that joke.)

Before I put the table top on the base, I decided to stress-test it for strength.

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Yep, it holds all the kids.  It’s plenty strong enough to support the table top.

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Building a Dining Table, Part 1: Shavings and Shaping

Our current dining table was built a long time ago by one of my wife’s relatives. (We’re still not sure exactly who built it.  Family lore was ambiguous, but after some genealogical research, my wife narrowed down to two guys, a great-uncle and a great-great uncle, both of whom were professional craftsmen.)  The table is something of a family heirloom, but it’s seen better days. It shakes every time one of the kids bumps it, and the top is nothing like flat. The removable leaves are all warped and don’t stay together anymore, and I can’t remember the last time we needed to remove the leaves to shrink the table down anyway.  Even fully extended, the table is still a little too small for us, especially when we have company.  And my youngest kids hate the table’s apron, which bumps their legs when they sit in their youth chairs.

I’ve wanted to build a replacement for several years.  So after some deliberation with the rest of the family, we came up with my directives:

1. Trestle-style legs.
2. Solid, hardwood top with no apron.
3. Big enough to seat 10 people comfortably (our family is now at 7).

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the project to a guy I know who owns a portable sawmill, and he offered me some cherry boards.  I gladly accepted, though neither of us were sure that he could provide me with enough for the whole table.  When I went to load up the boards, we found that they had been exposed to a little too much weather.  But the price was right, so I took all I could get.

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This is what most of the boards looked like when I brought them home–rotted edges, bug holes, and other defects.  It was a little dispiriting at first, but the more I looked at the boards, the more I saw some potential in each one.

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The damage on most of the boards was confined to ends and edges, so using a chalkline, I was able to mark out some pretty wide boards. I used Borax to treat it all for bugs, and I used the bandsaw to cut off the damaged edges.  Even using the bandsaw to do the hardest work, I still managed to bring myself to the brink of heat-exhaustion in the July heat.

One of the boards I had picked up–a short, thick beam–turned out to be cedar, not cherry.  It had a big wane edge and a lot of sapwood, but it was enough that I was able to rip it in half and edge-glue the pieces to make my central beam, which will connect the two leg assemblies that support the table top.

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I wish I could share the scent with you as well as the image. My whole dining room smelled like cedar shavings for hours!

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Once the two pieces were glued up, it was time to play my favorite game: Find the Glue Line!  You can see it only if you look carefully at the grain.

Well, in the interests of full disclosure, there were a couple little gaps in the joint further down the board, but nothing too detrimental to overall stability. And it’s not like anybody will see it under the table anyway, right? Right.

Next I spent a good bit of time shaping the feet and stretchers for the trestles. This was the fun part, though I had to get a little creative in order to work around a couple big defects in the boards I had. I just managed to do it without sacrificing the shape I had in mind.

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First I made the inside radius with a big drill bit. I was silly enough to try this by hand with a bit and brace the first time around. My 1 1/2″ bit is NOT made for hardwoods. I gave up after one hole and used the drill press for the rest, and my elbows thank me.

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After the drill press and the band saw, it was hand work. I used rasps and files for the convex work. Then I used a spokeshave and a file for the bullnose work getting into the radius.  On surfaces that would show, such as the tops of the legs, I removed file marks with a card scraper and sandpaper, but on the undersides of pieces that would never be seen, I left the tool marks visible, not only to save time but also to give future generations clues about how the work was done.

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This is one of the feet.  I used a spokeshave for the chamfers, except on those tight, convex curves where a half-round file was called for.  I again cleaned up show surfaces with card scrapers and sandpaper.

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The result is two top stretchers and two feet, which will be joined to each other by a central post.  The posts will, in turn, be connected by the cedar beam.

The table top, however, will require several glue-ups to get to the desired width, so next I will begin planing down boards and gluing them up.  While I wait for the glue to dry, I will continue to work on the leg assemblies in order to minimize waiting-time.

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This Is Why We Need Art

I was making dinner the other day, and I happened to glance out the window and see three boys walking home from the neighborhood swimming pool.  They were fooling around, as boys are wont to do, and I paid them little notice until I saw one stooping down in the middle of the street with a piece of chalk.  They all glanced around furtively, giggling a little as the boy finished.  Then they dashed away.

This is the drawing he left on my street:

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Well, it’s not exactly “street art,” despite its having been drawn directly on a street.  It’s what you might call a “representational” drawing, not at all observational–or, for that matter, particularly interesting even as graffiti goes.  Despite the fact that the artist must have seen a number of such objects in the real world (remember, he just left the locker room of a public swimming pool), he does not even attempt a proportional rendition, nor is there any attempt at the provocative exaggeration so typical of the genre.  Vapid and jejune, this drawing fails even to mildly shock to middle-class suburban proprieties that it was probably intended to transgress.  There is nothing even remotely unique about the drawing, nothing to arrest the attention of a passerby.  If it was meant as a protest, it is a remarkably feeble one.  If it was meant as a joke, it’s one we’ve all heard before.  We take in the banality at a glance and dismiss it with a shrug.

But that, I suppose, is only to be expected given its being executed in about twenty seconds by a twelve-year-old boy.  It got me thinking, though, that occasionally we all have the opportunity to express ourselves– to make our mark, to say something significant–outside of or even against the constraints of our cultural norms.  How do we respond to that opportunity?  If we could say anything and get away with it, what would we say?  How many people really have something more significant to say than this twelve-year-old boy did?

Such opportunities come seldom and without warning, and we are likely to react by reproducing whatever one of my friends calls “the artwork on the walls of our minds.”  Whatever images or objects we have contemplated, whatever songs or poems we have memorized, it is these that will naturally spring to our consciousness when we are summoned to make a public statement.  And when we fail to respond to that summons with anything substantial, it reveals how impoverished our memory and imagination truly are.  The average mind is cluttered with trash–advertising jingles, sentimental quotations, and (let’s be frank) pornography–that has become permanent by sheer force of repetition.

What would have happened, I wonder, had this young man spent some serious time in school (or even at home) contemplating the works of the great painters and sculptors?  What if he had memorized a few evocative poems?  Perhaps he might have left something really provocative on the street outside my house.  I know some poems from Catullus that he might find downright shocking.

My preference, though, is for irony.  So I grabbed a piece of sidewalk chalk and wrote an ironizing caption underneath the picture.

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The quotation is from Proverbs 5:16: “Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets?”  I don’t expect that the original artist would recognize or understand the quotation, let alone the sexual imagery of the lines.  I left off the source reference because, where I live, anything with a Bible-verse reference is generally taken as a criticism.  I wasn’t aiming to condemn; I just wanted to provoke a moment of puzzlement in anybody who happened to see the captioned drawing.

I happened to know this quotation because I teach sections of Proverbs as poetry in my World Literature class.  It’s part of the artwork hanging on the walls of my mind, alongside lines from Shakespeare and poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins and W. H. Auden.  (My stock of visual images is more limited, and consists mainly of furniture types and species of wood.)  I’d like to add more, so I’m working on memorizing a few Psalms, alongside poems by John Milton and T. S. Eliot.

It takes a lot of work to hang such artwork on the walls of our minds, but it will stand us in good stead when we are called upon to leave our mark on the world.

 

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Getting It Done: 4 Tips for Marathon Woodworkers

Most woodworkers I know fall into one of two categories: the Piddler-Putterer, and the Marathoner.  The Piddler-Putterer starts a lot of projects and tinkers with them from time to time, but he’s in no hurry.  He seldom finishes a project, either because he’s afraid to screw something up or because he genuinely enjoys the process more than the product.  His shop is a mass of pieces from half-finished projects.  The Marathoner, on the other hand, plunges into a project heart-and-soul, plowing ahead until the project is completed.  He’s usually in a hurry, and he never leaves a project unfinished.  His shop may be cluttered by offcuts and scraps, but you won’t find semi-abandoned projects anywhere about.  Because he can’t leave things unfinished, he is constantly tempted by shortcuts, especially late in the project, when “good enough” takes the place of “do it right.”Handplanes on Benchtop 2016

I suppose most serious amateur woodworkers fall somewhere between those two extremes, but as for myself, I’m a proud Marathoner.  According to my Marathoner nature, I  prefer to work 8-12 hours at a stretch, with perhaps a 10-minute lunch break when I wolf down a sandwich before racing back to work.  I have gotten projects done this way, but I haven’t always been pleased with the results.  Looking over a project a month or a year later, I begin to see flaws that, had I not been in such a hurry, I could have seen and corrected while I was in the process of building.

Recently I’ve worked on pacing myself, breaking the worst Marathoner habits.  Here are four ways I’ve been able to moderate my Marathoner tendencies (somewhat).

1. Take Coffee Breaks

After about two hours of work, it’s time for a 10-minute coffee break.  Sitting down and staring at my work in progress often feels like a waste of time, but mentally it’s some of my most productive shop time.  Coffee Break 2016The coffee break allows me to look at what I’ve done, think about what I’m about to do, and get a different perspective on things–literally–because I can see objects from a different angle than I do standing up.  It also gives me time to consider design choices as I think several steps ahead in the project.

I learned the value of the coffee break when I worked on a maintenance crew at a summer camp.  We took coffee breaks every two hours, and at first it felt like a waste of time.  Why were we just sitting around when we could be out there getting the job done?  I didn’t even drink coffee back then!  As the summer wore on and the work became more physically demanding, I understood.  We were pacing ourselves.  Now that I’m no longer 17 years old, my body appreciates regular breaks–and my brain appreciates the coffee.

2. Sharpen, Sharpen, Sharpen

Diamond Sharpening Stone Box 2016It’s all too easy to get my head buried in a project and neglect the preventive maintenance that my tools require for optimal performance.  The most important is sharpening.  A Marathoner is prone to thinking “just one more board,” “just one more cut,” “just one more piece” before pausing to sharpen, even though he knows that he should have resharpened his plane or chisel long ago.  I still hate having to interrupt my work to hone an edge, but I have learned the law of diminishing returns from letting tools go dull.  Dull tools are harder to push, so I tire more quickly.  Tool marks from dull edges are more likely to leave jagged tool marks, and they are more likely to stick, slip, and cut me.  There’s nothing like profuse bleeding to bring the work to a standstill.

Now I keep my sharpening equipment perpetually on the bench.  My strop is always at hand, and I regularly refresh chisel edges.  Every couple of boards, I strop my plane irons, too.  The tools are easy to push and less likely to injure me.  And the more frequently I refresh edges, the quicker each sharpening is.  As one wise woodworker has said, “Sharpen more to sharpen less.”

3. Sweep Up

Chips and shavings collect on and around my workbench at an alarming rate, and it’s easy to just let them pile up as I move from task to task. Pile of Shavings 2016 It is better, though, to stop and sweep up the mess periodically, usually each time I change tasks.  When I’m done planing a set of boards, I sweep up the shavings.  When I’m done sawing dovetails or chopping mortises, I pause to sweep up the dust or chips.  Not only does it keep the workspace clean (I’ve been known to misplace tools under piles of shavings!), but it also gives me some breathing space–time for my body to relax and my mind to wander.

A clean workspace is also safer, both for myself and my workpieces.  Sawdust on the floor is slippery, especially when there are shavings on top of it.  And chips on the bench top all too easily get under workpieces and dent them.  Taking just a minute to sweep the bench top and the floor prevents many problems.

4. Don’t Work Late

Beautiful Waste Fall 2015When I was in school, I pulled a couple “all-nighters,” but I was never proud of the results afterward.  As a Marathon worker, I am sometimes tempted to work long into the night in order to finish a project on a self-imposed deadline.  But I’ve learned that it’s usually best to go to bed instead.  In fact, I try hard not to do any serious woodworking after supper (though I will allow myself to leave clean-up for the late evening).  It’s not just that after supper is family-time, either.  If I try to do demanding physical labor when I’m tired, I’m more likely to get frustrated or angry when something doesn’t go right, and because I’m tired, I’m that much more likely to make mistakes in the first place.

I realize that some amateur woodworkers do their work primarily in the evenings, and I don’t object.  But when I’ve put in a full day at the workbench (say, on a Saturday or during summer vacation), I don’t allow myself to work after supper.  My mind and body need time to relax before bed time, especially when I’m going to get up the next morning and do it all over again.

Becoming a better woodworker is not just about learning to work.  It’s also about learning to rest.

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Build a Cedar Bench in an Hour

One summer afternoon not long ago, my wife and oldest daughter had gone out, leaving me to mind the little ones.  We decided to make a fire in the fire pit and roast hot dogs for supper.  We lit the fire and sat back in our lawn chairs.

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Soon, though, I got to thinking that I’d rather not have the buns, hot dogs, and condiments just sitting on the ground.  For one thing, little kids don’t always watch where they step.  For another, the ants are really good at finding food this time of year.  If only I had some sort of low bench or table to put everything on.

Then it struck me.  I could build  one!  We had just started the fire, so I told the kids the plan: I would build them a little table in the time it would take for the fire to burn down to coals.  We would build a simple “staked” bench: four legs stuck into tapered holes in a single-piece top.  And it would be a race!

I went down to my lumber stash and pulled out a short, thick plank of knotty cedar that I had kept for years.  (I had picked it up for practically nothing at a sawmill in Texas before we moved to Alabama.) Staked Cedar Bench 2016 In my firewood pile, I had some short cedar logs that I had salvaged when I helped a friend clear some brush at his house a couple years ago.  The sapwood had all rotted away, but the heartwood was perfectly intact.  I sawed the log into four sections on my bandsaw and then brought the pieces up to the workbench.

Using a drawknife, I shaved the weathered surface off the leg pieces, and oh my!  The cedar heart wood underneath was beautiful!  I almost hated to use it for roughly shaped legs, but the fire was burning down, and I had a bench to finish.  I roughly tapered one end of each leg and shaped a round, tapered tenon with a tenon cutter–essentially a giant pencil sharpener (shown at right).  The cedar shavings smelled wonderful.

Then it was time to bore and ream four holes in the bench’s top.  Using a sliding T-bevel as a visual guide, one of my daughters and I bored four holes with a brace and bit.  Then I quickly reamed them out with a taper-reamer to match the tenons.  I put some adhesive in each hole and pounded the legs in tight.  (The top cracked a little bit on one end, so we reinforced it with a couple strips of pine nailed to the bottom on either end.  My son bent over a nail or two with his little hammer.)  I sawed the legs flush, flipped it over, and there you have it: a staked bench!

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It was ready just in time to roast the hot dogs.

Staked Cedar Bench 2016

And the marshmallows, too!

Staked Cedar Bench 2016

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Selecting a Vintage Hand Plane: Deal-Breaker vs. Deal-with-It

If you went with me to a flea market or antique shop, I could pick up the hand planes one by one and tell you exactly why I would or wouldn’t buy them based on make, model, and condition. I probably have an elaborate, internal flowchart that I follow, but I’ve never bothered to write it out.  So this is the next-best thing: a list of what I am willing to clean/fix versus what I consider to be deal-breakers.

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First, you have to learn to see through grime and surface rust.  It takes practice, but you learn to pick out the outline of a well-made plane (usually old Stanleys, but also Sargents, Keen Kutters, and others). I can pick these out pretty quickly.  The planes in the photo above all turned out to be good tools, but for the record, it was my wife who picked them out.

There is a lot of third-rate junk out there, mostly hardware store brands and cheaply-made crap, which I would estimate makes up about 75% of the vintage tools I see at flea markets and antique shops.  I pass on plastic handles and stamped (not cast) frogs, but I actively look for dirty/rusty hand planes with good bones, mainly because they’re priced lower than the comparable shiny ones–or I can point out the rust when I start haggling.

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For the right price, I will gladly deal with the following:

  • Dirt
  • Surface rust
  • Chipped iron
  • Broken/damaged wooden tote
  • Bent lateral adjustment lever

These, however, are deal-breakers:

  • Bent blade
  • Warped or cracked sole
  • Poorly fitted frog
  • Damaged screws/threads
  • Missing/broken hardware (screws, chipbreaker, lever cap yoke etc.)

That’s not to say that you can’t fix this stuff if you’re determined enough. If you have enough time, materials, equipment, and/or money, any hand plane can be fixed. I’m just saying that there’s seldom a good reason to. Tools in better condition can be found pretty easily. I stick to the stuff I know I can fix without much trouble.

Jointer Before 08 1

This jointer plane had a broken handle, and the blade didn’t hold an edge.  Broken wooden pieces are no problem–I’m a woodworker, after all!

Plane Tote Repair 6-09 018

I repaired the break with a contrasting piece of wood, and I eventually replaced the blade with one made from better steel.

I’ve only ever replaced the blades in two hand planes.  The steel in most vintage blades is quite good, and aftermarket blades, though very good quality, are also expensive.  A top-quality replacement blade for the jointer plane above cost me about $50.  Normally I keep the vintage blade, and restoring the plane is only a matter of a couple hours’ work with sandpaper and a wire wheel.

Smoother in Shavings 2012 - - 1

This is one of the planes from the first picture in this post: a WWII-era Stanley smoothing plane.  All it needed was the grime and rust cleaned off, plus a small repair on the tote.  I’ve since replaced the blade and chipbreaker with better ones.  I originally bought the plane for $2.50.  The replacement parts set me back another $75.

The plane works like a charm now, and it’s worth every cent I’ve put into it.  But it’s not the kind of investment I’d want to make every day.

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A New Tenon Saw to Match

This is the old backsaw I had been using as a tenon saw for the last few years.  It’s not a pretty sight.

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I’m tempted to say that this saw had seen better days, but that would be completely untrue.  It’s an old no-name backsaw that my brothers and I used to build tree forts when I was little.  It used to live in a bucket with hammers, crowbars, and rusty nails.  (You can read the whole, sad story here.)  Since then, however, I’ve been treating this old backsaw better than it’s ever been treated in its sorry life.  The sharp edges on the handle got relieved with a file, and I’ve been keeping it sharp and rust-free in my tool chest.  So it is with some regret that I consign this old saw to semi-retirement alongside my other seldom-used saws.

The occasion of its replacement was a Christmas gift: a tenon saw kit made by Isaac Smith of Blackburn Tools.  (A couple years ago, I bought a dovetail saw kit from Isaac and made myself a nice little dovetail saw with a spalted pecan handle.  While not perfect, I’m pleased with how the saw looks, feels, and cuts.)  It’s been a busy year, so I worked on the tenon saw only periodically over the last few months, and this week I finally finished it.

The kit consisted of a saw blade (already toothed), a slotted brass spine, and the bolts and nuts.

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That left me to make the handle, fit and shape the spine, drill the holes in the blade, and put everything together.  Oh yes, and sharpen the teeth.

If you’re looking for instructions on how to make your own saw, you can do no better than reading Isaac’s own series of in-depth, how-to blog posts.  I’m content to share a few highlights of my own saw build.

I’m not much of a metal worker, so all my interest lay in the handle.  Thanks to my friend Dominic at TGIAG Toolworks, I had a large number of templates from which to choose.  I decided to choose a handle style that fit my saw best: a Disston D-4, 14″ backsaw.  I dug out a nice piece of spalted pecan that I had been saving for a special project and went to work.

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The work actually begins at the drill press, cutting out the top and bottom radii with various large drill bits.  Then I connect the holes with a coping saw and cut out the rest of the handle.  There are a number of other delicate operations involved, such as sawing the slot for the blade and cutting a wider slot for the spine.  After that, it’s all rasp-and-file work followed by sandpaper.

So after five months of picking this up and putting it down again, I finally have a working tenon saw.

Tenon Saw 2016

I do all my saw sharpening outdoors (at my wife’s request–she hates the noise). So I clamp my saw vise to one end of my saw bench, perch myself on a lawn chair, and go at it.  The blue tape on the jaws improves the grip and dampens the vibration from the file.  It took me only a few minutes to set, joint, and sharpen the teeth.

Tenon Saw 2016

My new tenon saw is now ready to go live in my tool chest with the other saws–and occasionally do some work to earn its keep. I’ve only made a few test-cuts with it thus far, but it cuts smoothly and quickly.

And I now have a tenon saw to match my dovetail saw.  They’re a fine pair of rippers.

I blame my college-aged daughter for the selfie with the saw.  She also thought I needed a picture of me as my alter-ego, Backsaw Man.

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One-Day Bookshelf: By My Daughter

Yesterday my wife and I were sleeping in.  But at about 7 a.m., I heard a quiet “zzzzzip. . . .[pause] . . . zzzzzip. . . .” outside my bedroom door.  It was my oldest daughter.  With a tape measure.

She had woken up early and decided that she was going to build a bookshelf for her room, so she was measuring the bookshelves in the hallway.  By 9 a.m., she and her mother were at Home Depot buying lumber.

After a bit of work with a hand saw and a hand plane, she was ready to lay out the joinery.  Mid-morning, my wife texted me at work asking where the split-nut driver was.  They needed it to adjust the stair saw for cutting dadoes.

N Builds a Bookshelf 2016

That afternoon, I came home to find nearly all the dadoes cut.  My daughter asked me to cut the last two shelves to length, as her arm was tired from sawing.

Just before supper, we glued up the top and bottom shelves.  We ate, went to church, came home, and put the smaller children to bed.  By that time the glue had set up, so we glued in the middle shelves.  We would have done the glue-up all at once, but I don’t own enough long clamps.

For the top, I showed my daughter how to cut rabbets.  (We sawed the shoulder with a back saw and split off the waste with a broad chisel.  It’s probably the fastest joint you could cut.)  We glued and nailed it to the top.

N Builds a Bookshelf 2016

She was pretty excited to see it all come together only 14 hours after she had decided to build it.

The next morning, she put a couple coats of lacquer on it.  By lunchtime she had positioned it in her room.  Because of the uneven floor, we had to shim one side to make it stand straight up, and we used an L-bracket on the top to secure it to the wall behind it.

N Builds a Bookshelf 2016

She spent the afternoon shelving her books.  Looks like she might have to build a second one soon.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 4 Comments

General Tools #820 Marking Gauge: A Review

I want to make one thing clear up-front: if you’re a woodworker, you should make your own marking gauges.  With only a few scraps of wood and some simple tools, you can make a functional tool in a single afternoon.  You can make them to your exact preferences, and the precision work required will build your skills.  The problem for beginning woodworkers, however, is that it’s really hard to make a marking gauge if you don’t already have one.

So most serious woodworkers have at least one mass-produced marking gauge.  There are many types on the market today, from rosewood-and-brass works of art to slick “wheel” gauges, at widely different price points.  What to begin with?  A beginning woodworker (especially one on a strict budget) will be looking for a simple, functional, and affordable gauge.

Here’s one option to consider: The #820 marking gauge made by General Tools, which retails for about $15.  (Disclosure: this model was provided to me by the manufacturer for review.)  It’s available from several online retailers, including Amazon and Wal-Mart.

It’s a small gauge, inexpensively made, but functional once you tune it up.  The fence locks securely.  The fence itself is well designed, offering a generous reference surface (1 1/2″) given the overall size of the gauge (about 6″ long).  My only initial complaint is that, when loosened, the fence is a little too loose on the arm, making precise setting finicky.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

It fits reasonably well in the hand, or in a tool chest drawer.  For myself, I prefer a gauge with a bigger fence, but the trade-off is that storing several of them in a drawer becomes difficult.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot.  Like some other mass-produced gauges, the General Tools gauge has graduations up to 5″ in 1/16″ increments.  The look nice, but they’re pretty useless.  You don’t use a marking gauge for replicating numerical measurements.  You set them according to the actual dimensions of a physical object–say, the thickness of a board or the width of a chisel.  The beauty of a marking gauge is that it is more precise than any ruler you could easily read with your naked eye.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

This is a pin-style gauge, which I find useful for marking stopped lines.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

So let’s see how it performs out of the package.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

I’m testing it against one of my own pin-style gauges, which is tuned and reliable.  Each of the parallel lines above was scribed with a different gauge.  Scribing with the grain is no problem–you probably can’t tell the difference between the two.  (The General Tools gauge is the one closest to the edge of the board.)

But across the grain, there’s a big difference.  My shop-made gauge sliced across this soft pine nicely, but the General Tools gauge tears the wood instead of slicing it.

But that’s exactly what all manufactured pin-style gauges will do out of the box.  Many woodworkers don’t know this, but you have to sharpen the pins correctly in order to be able to use them across the grain.

The pin is ground to a point, but to slice across the grain, you need a blade.  The way to achieve this is to hone the front and back of the pin, forming a rounded knife-edge.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

This pin is nice and hard–I couldn’t easily cut it with a file–so it should hold an edge once honed.  I honed the pin on a whetstone using a side-to-side motion. A little on one side, a little on the other side, until a burr is formed.  A little on one side, a little on the other side, until the burr is gone.

Now let’s try it again on that soft pine.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

A properly sharpened pin and a light touch results in a much cleaner line.  It’s not perfect, but serviceable.

Pine is difficult to cleanly cut across the grain anyway.  So let’s see how it does on a cabinet-grade hardwood.

General Marking Gauge 4-2016

On this scrap of claro walnut, you would be hard-pressed to distinguish the marking gauge lines from a line struck with a marking knife.  (Answer key: the bottom line was made with my own gauge, the middle one with the General Tools gauge, and the top one with a marking knife.)  Any of those lines would be clean enough for workmanlike joinery.

Can you get a better manufactured marking gauge?  Of course you can–much better, but for a good deal more money.

If you are looking for a basic, affordable gauge, or if you need  a worksite marking gauge that you wouldn’t be heartbroken (or bankrupted) to lose, you might consider this tool.

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