Breadboard Ends on a Stove Cover

I always enjoy it when somebody commissions a piece that gives me the opportunity to try something new. This time it was a friend who asked me to make her a wooden stove cover. (Full disclosure: I didn’t even know such things existed until she asked for one. Apparently a lot of other people don’t actually cook on their stove tops all that often?) Stove covers come in a few varieties. Some of them are designed to be used as cutting boards and even have juice grooves around the edges. Others have handles that allows the cook to remove the heavy cover more easily. A lot of the ones I saw online seemed pretty crudely constructed.

After talking with my friend about what she wanted (yes, handles; no juice groove), I dove into my stash of hardwood and came up with some rustic cherry boards. This is the result.

I’m pleased with the final result, and I hope the owner will be, too. It’s about 20″ wide, 30″ long, and 3/4″ thick.

I’m not going to detail the whole construction process here. Instead, I want to focus just on one element: the breadboard ends. I had never tried to make breadbord ends before, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try it out.

A stove cover may be a simple concept–just one wide board that goes on top of your stove–but the problem is that any wide board is bound to warp over time, especially when exposed to heat and/or moisture, both of which are normal in the kitchen. So any solid-wood stove cover needs to be built in such a way that the panel will stay reasonably flat over the long haul. That’s where the breadboard ends come in.

Other makers of stove covers solve the problem by nailing long battens across the panel on each end. The result is a pretty utilitarian look, and a surface that’s not actually flat all the way across. If that’s your thing, I have no objection. But breadboard ends result in a flatter, cleaner surface that looks like it was made by someone who knew what he was doing. (I hope to keep that illusion going here.)

Here’s how a breadboard end works: each end of a panel is captured inside another board whose grain runs perpendicular to that of the panel (as in the photo above). Each breadboard is attached to the panel with a tongue-and-groove joint combined with a number of mortise-and-tenon joints. The tenons provide strength, and the tongue-and-groove ensures that the panel won’t warp between the tenons. The resulting panel is very stable and very strong.

We begin our breadboard journey with the 20″-wide panel already glued up from five cherry boards that I had planed down from rough-sawn stock. The first step in making the breadboard ends is to cut what amounts to either a really wide tenon or a really long tongue on each end of the panel.

After laying out the shoulders with a straightedge and a knife, I used my stair saw to cut in the shoulders of the joint. (I love my stair saw for dadoes especially, but it works extremely well on any cross-grain cut whose depth needs to be precise.) This ensures that I have a straight shoulder that makes solid contact with the breadboard end all along the joint.

The next step is to remove the waste from the cheeks of the tenon/tongue. I went back and forth for a few minutes on the best way to do this, but I eventually settled on my rabbet plane, a Stanley 78. The tenon/tongue is only about 1″ long, so the rabbet plane should be able to take off the waste pretty well.

Except that it also made a mess in the process. Because of the plane’s construction, it caught a couple times on the corner where it entered the wood, mangling what should have been a nice, crisp edge. (It’s a good thing I started removing stock on the underside of the panel instead of on the top!) This rabbet plane works okay for cutting rabbets with the grain, but I’m not pleased with its performance across the grain. I quickly put it away and tried something else.

I pulled out my Veritas shoulder plane to see what it could do. Ordinarily, a shoulder plane is just for trimming–it’s not really optimized for heavy stock removal. But I decided to try it anyway.

I was very pleased to find that the plane worked well in this situation. I made the first few cuts just by tipping the corner of the plane into the saw kerf. After a number of passes, the plane was taking nearly a full-width shaving. It was slow going because the plane is designed to take a fairly light cut, and I had to stop a few times to clear the shavings from the throat. But it worked.

Soon the plane was cutting a very nice channel, and I was able to bring the cut right down to my layout line. The plane is only 3/4″ wide, so i left about 1/4″ of waste on the outside, which needed to be removed next. First I tried doing that with a small smoothing plane, but it was faster to just knock off the waste with a broad chisel and use the shoulder plane to remove any remaining high spots.

With the long rabbet/tenon now cut, the next step was to lay out the actual tenons and cut away the waste between them. Normally a breadboard end will have an odd number of mortise-and-tenon joints: one joint in the middle and the rest evenly spaced on each side. On this board, I decided to go with three tenons: one in the very center and two closer to each end. Each of the five boards in the panel has at least part of a tenon on each end. The panel will therefore stay together even if all the glue fails. (It won’t.)

The groove cut in the breadboard end itself is 1/4″ wide and 1/4″ deep, so each tenon needs to be 1/4″ thick, with a 1/4″ tall tongue running on each side of it. Instead of using a ruler or something like that to lay out the height of the tongue, I just used the width of my 1/4″ paring chisel to guage the height of each tongue.

I used a coping saw to remove the waste between the tenons. Fortunately, the tongue will be completely concealed inside the groove–except on each end–so the tongue is intentionally cut just a little bit short to ensure that it bottoms out in the groove only on each end. This whole process is pretty involved and takes a lot of time, so it’s good to economize by working quickly to approximate measurements whenever possible.

In a similar way, the mortises in each breadboard end are intentionally cut a little longer than necessary, which will accommodate some wood movement across the width of the panel. I used my plow plane to cut matching grooves into the breadboard ends, and the grove provided a very handy guide for placing each mortise. (Sorry, no picture; I was in a hurry to finish at this point.) I chopped each mortise with a mortise chisel. I also made each breadboard end a fraction of an inch long so that I could saw it off flush with the panel’s edge on each side.

Because the breadboard end runs across the grain, it needs to allow the panel to swell and shrink across its width as the humidity level changes. I intentionally used quarter-sawn boards for the panel, which will move less than flat-sawn ones, but there will still be some seasonal movement. The normal procedure, then, is to glue only the tenon in the center, and to use some more flexible way of securing the tenons on the outside. I opted to just peg them with poplar dowels.

I considered doing a true drawbored joint but decided that was more complicated than necessary. I merely clamped the whole assembly from each end and bored a hole through each joint. With the panel still clamped up, I tapped in a poplar dowel. With the clamps removed (once the glue in the center joint set), I trimmed the dowels flush on both sides. The poplar is soft enough that it should compress just a bit as the panel swells and shrinks throughout the seasons.

I rounded over all the edges with a hand plane and sanded the whole thing smooth to get it ready to finish. There were some old bug holes that I plugged with walnut sawdust flooded with CA glue and scraped flush with the surface. The result is a dark colored patch that adds just a little bit of visual interest and looks a whole lot better than an open hole in the surface of the wood.

I did also need to address the mess that my rabbet plane left on the shoulder of that one joint.

To explain how I fixed this, I need to back up in the assembly process a couple steps. Before putting on the breadboard ends, I created a wall around the gap with painter’s tape and filled the hole with cherry sawdust. Then I saturated the sawdust with CA glue (superglue) and let it set–the same process I use to fill the bug holes above. Once the glue set, I was able to sand the patch flush with the surface. The resulting patch is sturdy and will blend in well enough with the surrounding wood.

I finished the stove cover with several coats of Danish oil, which really brought out some lovely figure in the cherry wood. Last, I installed two black door handles on each end.

In retrospect, it was a lot of work to end up with what amounts to a single, flat board. But this board is going to stay flat, and I learned a lot in the process. I’m glad I did it.

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Spoons, Spoons, and More Spoons

During market season, it sometimes seems like all I make is spoons, spatulas, and other wooden utensils. I take photos of a lot of my work, but I don’t always remember to post the photos here on my blog. So today I’m going back into my photo archives from the last couple years and putting many of my favorite spoon pictures together into one post.

Enjoy!

For several years, I was making many of my spoons out of black walnut from a single tree that I helped take down in my in-laws’ back yard. I finally exhausted my supply, and these utensils are some of the last that came from that old tree.

Pecan wood is plentiful down where I live, and pecan spalts beautifully. It is often a challenge to know exactly when to cut up the log. If you leave it sit for too long, it quickly rots. These utensils show off the wide variety of colors that develop when pecan wood spalts. (There’s also a single spoon made from black walnut up in one corner of the picture.)

Another common wood in this area is Eastern red cedar. It’s fairly soft, so I don’t use it for utensils very often. But it does hold up very well to water–the red/brown heartwood is nearly impervious to rot. So once in a while, somebody will bring me a cedar log from their property and ask me to make them something from it. I like to oblige when I can.

Not long ago, an old friend gave me a large red oak log from her family’s property. Oak isn’t great for spoons–the pores in the wood are large and tend to get gunk stuck in them. But it does make a decent spurtle, which is a utensil for stirring stews and sauces. The grain in these utensils is very pretty. The rest of the log will be used for stool legs.

And then there was that one Christmas….

We got an order for a hundred small utensils, needed in two weeks.

So we did it!

It was a lot of work. But we got really good at making them quickly!

I love being able to set out beautiful, unique utensils at every market I attend.

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How I Make a Spoon

One of the most common questions I get about my spoons at craft markets is “How do you make them?”

It’s hard to know how to answer. If I’m feeling a little snarky, I usually say something like, “I find a piece of wood that looks like it has a spoon in it. Then I cut away everything that doesn’t look like a spoon. What’s left is the spoon.”

It’s a response that amuses children, at any rate.

But if the person asking seems to be interested in the technical process, I’m happy to go into detail, even though that requires a description of the tools as well as the process. (Not a lot of non-woodworkers know what a spokeshave or a carving gouge is, for example.) What follows here is not a tutorial about how to make a spoon. It’s just a description of the stages that a piece of wood goes through on its way to becoming the spoon you might have bought from me at a craft market.

It Starts with a Log

I use many different kinds of wood for spoons, but my favorite kind of wood is free. Living in Hurricane Alley, I have a pretty constant supply of great spoon wood from trees that go down in storms. I’m picky, though. Most trees that come down in storms are firewood. I use only good-quality hardwoods. This double-trunk cherry tree, for example, came down in a friend’s back yard during Hurricane Sally back in 2020. My son-in-law helped me cart off as much as I could. It was a lot of hard work! (Good thing he takes payment in homemade pizza.)

Once I get the logs home, I remove the bark. Each log gets split lengthwise into smaller sections.

Because I split the wood like this, the wood grain in each spoon runs straight and true, making each utensil stronger.

The Electric Part

Nearly all the work of spoon-making is hand-powered. Except what comes next.

I use my bandsaw to cut each section down into rough boards of about 1″ thick and as wide as I can manage. It’s dusty work.

The result is a lot of rough-sawn boards. I set them aside to dry for a few weeks at least. Fresh-cut wood is very wet. In fact, the mass of a living tree can be two-thirds water! As the wood dries, it also shrinks (in width and thickness, but not in length). Once it loses some of that initial water weight, the wood becomes more dimensionally stable and generally easier to work.

Once the wood has lost some of its initial water-weight, the next step is to begin sawing those boards into spoon blanks.

I have a wooden template for each style of spoon I make. I lay the templates out on the boards and trace out the rough shape of each utensil with a pencil. Then I saw out the blanks on the bandsaw. This process allows me to get as many blanks as possible out of a single board with minimal waste.

I will often saw out 20 or 30 blanks at a time and set them aside near my bench until I need them.

The Fun Part

The really enjoyable part of spoon making is shaping each blank with just a few hand tools.

With the workpiece clamped securely in a bench vise, I begin by smoothing down the face of the blank so I can see the grain clearly. Blanks with cracks or other serious flaws can sometimes be repurposed for smaller utensils, but a few inevitably become firewood. Such is the nature of working with wood.

Then the real shaping begins. I carve out the bowl of the spoon with a carving gouge. I keep the gouge razor-sharp so it takes minimal effort to push it through the wood.

The next step is the shape the handle. It’s a delicate balance of taking off just enough material that the handle is comfortable to hold, but not so much that it becomes thin and weak.

I use a couple different kinds of hand tools to do this work: the drawknife and the spokeshave.

These are tools that were first developed by woodworkers to shape things like barrel staves and wagon spokes, but they work well for spoon making, too. The drawknife takes off a lot of material very quickly, and is ideal for initial shaping. The spokeshave is a small handplane with handles on each side, and it takes a fine shaving. It is ideal for refining the shape.

I finish the shaping work by completing the underside of the spoon’s bowl, also done primarily with the drawknife and spokeshaves.

The trick here, as with the handle, is the get the bowl just thin enough so that the spoon is not too heavy in use, but not so thin that it’s fragile and prone to cracking.

From Shaping to Smoothing

Once the shaping is done with the cutting tools, the result is a perfectly serviceable spoon.

The tool marks are clear–every surface is faceted, but the spoon would still stir your pancake batter or turn your stir-fry veggies just fine. A long time ago, when people had to make a living doing this, they often considered the spoon done at this stage. You can still find antique, hand-carved spoons with many tool marks still evident.

However, nearly everyone these days prefers a smooth surface. So I do more work to remove all the tool marks and gently round over every edge. This also makes the spoon more durable, as rounded edges are less prone to chipping than are sharp ones.

I smooth out each spoon in two steps: scraping and sanding.

The scraping is done with a card scraper, which is the woodworker’s secret weapon.

A card scraper is a simple piece of tool steel, with a burr created on the edge. By pushing or pulling the edge across the wood, I can take very fine shavings, making each surface perfectly even.

After scraping, I rinse the spoon with water in order to raise the grain. It’s an important step, but it requires some explanation. Remember how much water is in a living tree? And remember how the wood shrinks as the water in it evaporates? Well, dry wood will also absorb water back into its surface, which can temporarily make the wood swell up again–but just on the surface. Once the wood dries yet again, the severed wood fibers can remain swollen, resulting in a rough or fuzzy surface texture. So, if I didn’t raise the grain, the first time you used the spoon you might find a formerly smooth surface becoming rough.

So after raising the grain, I sand the spoon down to about 320 grit, which leaves the surface nice and smooth to the touch.

Finishing

The final step is to oil the spoon and let it dry. I use an oil mixture that I make myself: about one part each flax oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane. (No, it’s not a toxic finish, once it’s cured.) I dip each utensil in the oil, let it sit for fifteen minutes or so, and then wipe off any excess oil.

I lay out the finished utensils on an old oven rack to dry in the sun all day, turning them over periodically. Normally, the finish would take a few days to fully cure, but direct sunlight really accelerates the drying process. Once I can’t smell the finish, I know it’s totally dry.

The Other Fun Part

Now the finished spoon is ready to use! Take it into your kitchen and use it regularly.

When you’re done, wash your wooden spoon with clear, hot water and a dishcloth, and let it air-dry. You can wash it with soap if you like, but the original finish will last longer if you don’t. Just don’t put it in the dishwasher.

You can re-oil your spoon periodically if you like; just use flax seed oil, hemp oil, or walnut oil from the grocery store. Those are the only vegetable oils that will actually dry; the others remain liquid and will just wash right off. Flood the surface with the oil and then wipe off the excess. Set it aside to dry for a day or two–ideally in direct sunlight. Then keep using it!

With care, your spoon will last for years and years in the kitchen, even with daily use.

So now you know how a spoon gets made.

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Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 2)

In my last post, I described some of the working properties of two local woods that I have harvested over the last couple years: southern magnolia and crepe myrtle. In this post, I’ll describe three more species that have no presence on the commercial lumber market: waxy (or Chinese) privet, Chinese tallow tree (or popcorn tree), and mimosa. All are non-native invasive species that were planted as ornamentals. All are typically regarded as pests, so I hope this post will give some of my readers a reason to cut a few down and turn them into something useful.

Waxy Privet (Chinese Privet)

As a tree, this one is pretty in its own way, with glossy leaves and inedible fruit that looks a bit like bunches of purple grapes. Waxy privet doesn’t grow very big, and it often produces multiple smaller trunks from one root. If there’s only one trunk, it branches early, meaning you can’t get large sections.

During one of the 2020 hurricanes, a mature specimen was blown down right across from out house, blocking the street for the evening. Early the next morning, I fired up my chainsaw and cut it up, leaving the sections as long as I could. I had never worked it before and was curious about how it might behave.

I’m very pleased I did. For a spoon carver, shorter sections with a bit of curve to them are perfect. (I have an idea that some of the curved sections might make fine crest rails for chairs, but that remains to be seen.) Other sections were straight enough that I could saw out some short boards on the bandsaw.

The wood itself is fairly hard, diffuse-porous, and milky white. It reminds me of hard maple, both in its color and its texture, although the color is somewhat variegated throughout the log (see above). It’s not as springy as hard maple, but it is quite tough when try, so if you decide to carve a spoon from it, carve it green if you can. It makes a fine spoon, and I suspect if would also make an excellent cutting board–if you could find pieces big enough, or wanted to laminate several thinner pieces to form a wide board.

Like maple, it seems to attract bugs pretty quickly, so you’ll want to cut it up promptly. Treat it with an insecticide (like a Borax solution) if you intend to set it aside to dry for a while. I suspect it would spalt well, though I haven’t tried it yet.

I will definitely be on the lookout for more mature trees that might yield some straight, clear pieces.

Chinese Tallow Tree (Popcorn Tree)

The Chinese tallow tree, which locals call the “popcorn tree” due to its popcorn-like flowers, is a particularly aggressive invasive species. This understory tree propagates easily and grows quickly.

The tree on the right is a “popcorn” or Chinese tallow tree. The trunk is unusually straight. The multi-trunked tree on the left is waxy (Chinese) privet in bloom.

It seldom gets very big, although individual specimens can have trunks over 18″ in diameter, plenty enough to saw into boards. The trees tend to follow the sunlight, however, so the wood is nearly always twisted–sometimes severely so. Take a close look at the bark of a living tree, and you’ll see how much it spirals as it grows.

The wood itself is diffuse-porous, very fine textured, and creamy white to yellow when freshly cut, though it can darken to a grayish brown fairly quickly from what seems like spalting. I understand that it was commonly used in China to make printing blocks, since it is dense and holds fine detail. It is also nearly impossible to split, so it needs to be sawn into usable pieces. Don’t try to rive it.

I have not found it to be a particularly nice spoon wood. It’s not that it makes a bad spoon–it’s just that the twisted grain means you will always be fighting the grain as you work. I don’t care for that.

However, it does make a fine bowl or trough–if you work the wood green. It is quite hard once dry.

In bowls, the wood’s resistance to splitting is a boon. For the same reason, it makes a very fine chopping block. Just saw out a short section of the log, drill holes for legs (or screw them on), and you’ll have a chopping block that will never split apart.

I suspect that the wood will also be very good for stools and maybe even chair seats, for much the same reason. I’ve got some short slabs from a big tree set aside to dry. So the Chinese tallow tree can be a useful wood in the right applications.

Mimosa

A mimosa isn’t just a brunch cocktail–it’s also an ornamental tree that’s become an invasive species. It’s immediately recognizable in bloom, and you often see it growing along roadsides in the South, showing off its distinctive, power-puff pink blossoms in the summer.

Its growth pattern is curious. It nearly always grows at an angle, not straight up and down, seemingly to get the best sunlight. It won’t grow in the shade. The trunk will grow dead-straight for three or four feet, but at an angle. Then it branches into a two or three straight sections, which will eventually branch again in the same way. The result is a lot of short sections that are quite straight.

The wood itself is also curious. It is ring-porous, lightweight, stringy, and somewhat brittle. It works very easily, but it’s best to let it dry a little bit before planing or shaping it, or you’ll have no end of stringy, fuzzy tear-out.

But it’s the color of the wood that’s super-weird. When you first cut open the wet log, you’ll be stunned by the shimmering color of the fresh wood.

The sapwood is a creamy yellow, and the heartwood is a beautiful, variegated bown that alternates between tan and chocolate tones. It glistens in the light.

The above picture is a trough carved out of a freshly-cut mimosa log. Pretty colors, aren’t they?

And then you will be even more stunned when those vibrant colors completely disappear as the wood starts to dry.

The knife on top of the bowl above is also mimosa, which has now dried and has been sitting for a few months. The heartwood has turned a plain brown with little visual interest.

At a certain point, you will barely be able to tell the difference between the sapwood and the heartwood anymore, and the vibrant browns will have all but disappeared.

Such a disappointment!

But wait. The color change doesn’t stop there! If you let the wood age for a year or so, most of the colors will eventually come back! The sapwood regains its vibrant yellow that will remind you of a highlighter marker, and the heartwood turns a lovely brown again. Some of the color variations will become visible once more. It’s not as striking as the freshly-cut color, but it’s nevertheless quite attractive.

Above is the same bowl, now fully seasoned and finished with a bit of oil.

I have seen other woods whose colors change drastically as it ages, but I have never seen a wood that changes color and then changes back. I hope that someday some botanist will explain to me what’s going on. Should you ever get the chance to work some mimosa, I recommend it just for the experience of the color changes over time.

So take a look around your own neighborhood and see what trees and even large shrubs you might be able to harvest for the wood. You really never know what the wood will be like until you try it.

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Working with Weird, Local Woods (part 1)

I live in one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world–the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in southern Alabama. That means I have access to a very wide variety of tree species to work with. Many are non-native species, and most have no commercial uses, so when I want to know what the wood from a weird, local tree will be like, I can’t just Google it. I have to cut it open and start working it.

What follows is an account of my experience with several different woods that are fairly common where I live but that might be less familiar (or completely new) to readers in other regions. If you live in the Deep South, you may find some interesting new species to work with. But if you live elsewhere, I hope this inspires you to try working with some of the species that are local to you.

Longtime readers of this blog know that I make more spoons than anything else, so for practically every wood I list, I’ll show utensils I’ve made from it. That’s because making a spoon is an excellent way to really get in touch with the working properties of a wood that is new to me. I get to see how well it splits (or doesn’t), how it saws and planes, how well it holds carved detail, and how smooth it is when sanded, as well as how it behaves as it dries (does it check? does it twist?). Once I’ve made a few spoons from a particular wood, I’ve got a very good sense of how it works and what else it might be good for.

In this post, I’ll talk about two local woods for which there is some detailed information online at The Wood Database, which is my go-to source for technical specs on woods of all kinds. Then, in the next post, I’ll talk about a few woods that are so obscure that they aren’t listed there.

Southern Magnolia

A ubiquitous yard tree in the Deep South, the southern magnolia produces huge, fragrant blossoms each year. It is a truly iconic tree. (Our neighboring state of Mississippi is “The Magnolia State.”) Everybody in the South knows what they look like–on the outside. But what do they look like on the inside?

When first cut, the wood is a milky white with visible growth rings. But it will soon turn a greenish-gray color that, personally, I find mildly repulsive.

But I find the trees themselves repulsive. Their dense canopy casts a deep shade that prevents anything–even grass–from growing underneath. They branch very early, and unless lower branches are removed as a tree grows, the shape of the tree will be similar to that of a spruce tree–branches all the way to the ground. Magnolias are are evergreen. The leaves are big and leathery, and difficult to clean up; they take forever to decompose. A southern gardening book whose title I have long since forgotten put it best: the southern magnolia is a beautiful tree–in someone else’s yard.

But I digress.

The wood is a little harder than black cherry and walnut, and the hardness of the wood makes for a durable utensil especially, and it wouldn’t be bad as a secondary wood in other applications, such as drawer sides. Basically, I think anything you can’t see regularly is a good candidate for magnolia wood.

I do have a chopping block made from a section of a magnolia tree, and it holds up well in that application. Fortunately, after a few minutes of use all chopping blocks look pretty much the same. Magnolia would also make a fine cutting board. And if you do like the color (you psychopath), there’s no reason not to use it just like you would use any other domestic hardwood.

Unlike the other woods I’ll be discussing here, the magnolia is sometimes harvested and sold commercially in the South, and you can read about its technical properties here.

Crepe Myrtle (Pyinma)

These ornamental trees are everywhere here. Often planted along avenues or in borders, they produce lovely blossoms all summer long. They are usually pruned ruthlessly in order to produce maximum blooms, often to the detriment of the tree itself (a practice that some locals refer to as “crepe murder”). Because the tree grows very straight, the trimmings make great walking sticks.

Left to themselves, a crepe myrtle can grow to a medium height with a big trunk. Yet in landscapes they are almost never left to themselves. That’s why, even after living in the South for nearly twenty years, I had never tried working crepe myrtle. I never found any pieces big enough to work!

That changed when my friend had a crepe myrtle tree blow over in her yard during a storm.

After an hour with the chainsaw, the yard was cleared and I had a three-foot section of the trunk sticking out of the trunk of my car. I split the log into sections and set them aside for an opportune moment. It took me about a year to get back to them, but I’m very glad I did.

Crepe myrtle is hard but workable. The grain is fine and the pores are small. The sapwood is creamy white, while the heartwood is a nice brown–with just a hint of green. When freshly cut, the wood has a distinct vinegary odor, but that fades quickly. You can read more about its properties here.

Evidently, crepe myrtle has curly figure more often than not, though this particular log has pretty straight grain (except where it grew around some big knots). Once dry, it can be sanded exceptionally smooth. It would make a very nice accent wood. I found the wood very nice to work, and I’d be happy to get more in larger sections. Utensils made out of it have sold well at craft markets so far.

In my next post, you’ll get to hear about the properties of more obscure woods, all of which come from invasive ornamentals: waxy privet, Chinese tallow tree, and mimosa.

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Four Steps to Rust-Free Tools

Ever since the dawn of the Iron Age (whenever that was), rust has been the enemy of the woodworker. I live in the wettest region of the continental USA, so rust is ever present to me. Even though I store and use my hand tools indoors, there are still big fluctuations in humidity from season to season, so I have had to give a lot of thought to rust-prevention.

Like everything else in the shop, the key to success is establishing good habits and routines. Here are four practices that I have found helpful in keeping my hand tools rust-free:

1. Wipe them off. Our shops are dusty places. But dust particles that settle on your tools give moisture in the air a convenient place to condense, which leads to rust. So the less dust you have on your tools, the less rust-prone they will be. You can use a clean cloth or even a handheld vacuum to dust off your tools at the end of the day. For hand tools with a lot of nooks and crannies (like hand planes), I use a small paintbrush I got at a hardware store. Also be sure to wipe down metal surfaces that you have handled with your bare hands. The natural chemicals that our skin produces can quickly corrode iron and steel.

2. Apply a lubricant.  There are many good oils and waxes that, when applied in a thin layer, form a very good barrier between atmospheric moisture and your tools. I’ve used a lot of different lubes over the years, including jojoba oil, paste wax, and synthetic motor oil. I’ve heard of good results from natural products like camellia oil and mutton tallow, as well as products in a spray can like Topcote, Boeshield T-9, and WD-40. They all work. Pick one and try it out. (Just don’t use a drying oil like linseed oil–that goes on wood, not on metal.) Apply only thin a coat, and wipe off any excess. Waxes and some oils can get gummy when applied too thickly.

A trick I learned from Paul Sellers: to make a simple oil applicator, roll up a cotton rag and stuff it into a small, clean can. Soak it with your choice of oil. Use it to apply the oil to your tools before putting them away.

3. Store them in a wooden box. I learned this one by experience. When I first started working wood, I kept my hand tools in a metal tool box, and I would occasionally find rust spots on them. But since I built my wooden tool chest, I’ve had far fewer rust problems. I think the wood acts as a moisture regulator, absorbing excess moisture in the air inside the chest before the moisture can condense on the tools. It might not be a practical solution for large power tools, but for everything else, I highly recommend a wooden tool chest or wall cabinet. If you do need to keep your hand tools in a metal chest or cabinet, consider using a small rod heater (like a Golden Rod heater) to prevent condensation. These devices are inexpensive, plug into a regular outlet, and are designed to regulate temperature and humidity in everything from pianos to gun safes. They work for tools, too.

4. Use them frequently. One of the greatest causes of corrosion is neglect. (And that applies to a lot more than just woodworking!) Regardless of how carefully you store your tools, they will tend to corrode if left to themselves. But if you use your tools often, you will notice the small rust spots before they become big rust spots. And if you are in the habit of cleaning your tools before putting them away, you will be cleaning them frequently. But if you never use them, you probably won’t think to dust them off and oil them, either. I’ve seen a lot of pictures of shops full of duplicate hand tools just sitting around on shelves, unused. That invites rust, unless the tools are regularly maintained. There’s nothing wrong with collecting tools, and if you do, then naturally you’ll want to curate your collection in more ways than are detailed in this blog post. But if you’re not a dedicated collector, and some of your tools are deteriorating from lack of use, consider passing them on to somebody who will actually use them.

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Planing Stop

To plane down a piece of wood by hand, you have to immobilize the wood. If the workpiece is small enough, it can be held in a bench vise. But if the workpiece is too wide or too long, it won’t fit in the vise. What do you do then?

There are a lot of gadgets and gizmos that will hold a big piece of wood steady while you plane it down, but the simplest is the planing stop. Because as it turns out, when you run a hand plane over a piece of wood, it really needs to be immobilized only in one direction–the direction you are planing the wood.

Some time after I built my workbench, I installed a very simple planing stop that has worked fairly well for years. The design is not mine–I modeled it on something I saw on the internet years ago. The original was built partly of plywood, which delaminated over years of use. I recently built a new one from solid wood, so I’m taking this opportunity to blog about this simple but essential part of my workbench.

The design is very simple. It’s a wide board reinforced with battens. It has slots that allow it to slide up and down on threaded rods that I have epoxied into the end of my workbench. The stop is secured with wing nuts.

The planing stop can be raised just a little bit so as to handle regular planing jobs. One of its advantages is that it can be raised as little as 1/8″, which allows me to plane down very thin pieces of wood.

Or it can be raised up to about 2″ high for planing thicker stock, or wider stock on edge. If I had wanted, I could have made it bigger so I could raise it even higher, but I don’t think I’ve ever needed a planing stop any higher than this.

Construction Details

If you want to add something like this to an existing bench, the exact dimensions are not critical, but it helps to have some general dimensions to start with. My planing stop is about 19″ long (along the grain) and about 7″ deep. The main stop is made from 3/4″-thick red oak. (I had a scrap of a trim board that I cut in two and edge-glued.) The cross-grain battens are made from yellow pine scraps and screwed on. The oak is dry enough and the screws are set close enough together that cross-grain movement shouldn’t be a problem. The battens add stiffness to the stop, which is important in use.

I cut the slots by boring a 1/2″ hole at either end of each slot and cutting out the rest with a coping saw. Measure carefully so that, when you drop the stop all the way down, it sits level with the benchtop. Or, better yet, cut the slots so the stop sits just a little bit proud of your benchtop and plane it down exactly level. But don’t worry; the top of the planing stop will soon get chewed up by your handplane, and you’ll find that it eventually sits just a little bit below your benchtop.

The stop slides up and down on 3/8″ threaded rods, and the extra-wide slots allow the stop to slide up and down easily. They also allow me to set the stop a bit higher on one end than on the other, which is helpful when working stock of slightly different thicknesses.

The threaded rods were cut from a piece of 3/8″ all-thread I had lying around. (You could also use carriage bolts with the heads sawn off.) I secured them in the bench top by drilling holes a couple inches deep into the end-grain and gluing the rod in with original JB Weld epoxy. Leave plenty of rod protruding so the wing nuts can be loosened without the nuts falling off. Leave them longer than you think you’ll need them–you can always saw them shorter with a hacksaw if you want. Use washers behind the wing nuts so you don’t chew up the wood behind them. Be sure you let the epoxy cure completely before using the planing stop!

Right now the slots in the stop only go about halfway down. That’s partly for leverage–if you think of the planing stop as a lever, with the rods as the fulcrum, the force created by planing a piece of wood against one end needs to be countered by the bottom of the stop pressing into the end of the workbench on the other end of the lever.

Should I need more height on the planing stop, it’s easy to grab my drill and coping saw and cut the slots just a bit longer.

This planing stop is easy to build and extremely versatile, and it can be retrofitted to practically any workbench.

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The Story of My Stanley # 4 1/2 Smoothing Plane

A week ago I wrote about my growing preference for lightweight tools instead of heavy ones. While writing that post, I remembered that I had never blogged about how I came to own my Stanley #4 1/2 smoothing plane. Here is the story of that hand plane.

It all started in about 2006, when I first took a one-day class in hand-tool joinery from Paul Sellers, who was then teaching at the Heritage School of Woodworking at Homestead Heritage, near Waco, TX. Paul talked the class through an essential set of hand tools, demonstrating how to use each one to make three basic joints (the dado, the dovetail, and the mortise & tenon). I still remember that, of his personal hand tools, he seemed especially pleased with his smoothing plane, which was a Stanley #4 1/2. “The workhorse of the shop,” I think he called it.

It’s funny how a remark like that can stick in your head, because somehow I got the idea that my first smoothing plane should definitely be a #4 1/2. Now I certainly don’t think that was Paul’s intention, but I nevertheless went home from that class determined to find one. But as it turned out, the Stanley #4 1/2 is not a very common size plane to find on the used market–much less common than, say, the #4. Plus, Waco, TX, had never been a great place to shop for used hand tools, and I struck out at local antique shops. Shopping online was possible, but eBay was much more of a gamble back then, and I was unwilling to take even small financial risks, seeing as we were living mainly on my graduate stipend at the time.

So being unable to find a vintage # 4 1/2 in the few places I thought to look, I was taken in by a catalog product description and purchased a new Anant #4 1/2 smoothing plane mail-order. (It wasn’t so long ago that many of us were still shopping from the print catalogs put out periodically by companies like Woodcraft and Highland Woodworking.) I used that plane for five years. It did work, more or less, but the adjustment was imprecise and the blade did not hold an edge very well. It was also pretty heavy as smoothing planes go.

Then, in the spring of 2011 (we had moved to southern Alabama a few years earlier), my wife was at a local church rummage sale and happened upon three very rusty handplanes.

There were three very solid hand planes hidden under all that rust and grime.

She called me at work and described them to me over the phone, asking if I wanted them. They were very rusty, she said, and one was a Stanley. She described their general dimensions, but it was hard to tell what exactly they were. But it was half-price day at the rummage sale, so I figured we should take the chance. She bought them for $2.50 each.

When I got home to find the three planes on my workbench, I couldn’t have been more pleased. There were two jack planes, one of which was a Stanley #5 that was probably made in the 1960s or 1970s (the one in the middle, above). I fixed it up and passed it on to a friend who was interested in woodworking. The other one was an identical size, but had been manufactured before 1900 by the Birmingham Plane Co. in Connecticut. The rust on it had gone pretty deep, but I cleaned up that one for my wife to use. We still have it.

And the third hand plane? It was a Stanley #4 1/2. The hard-rubber depth adjuster wheel immediately told me that it had been made during WWII. There’s not a bit of brass on it anywhere, all the brass having gone to the war effort. The handles, too, are made from stained beech wood, which replaced the rosewood that Stanley had been using before that time.

I had been waiting five years to find this plane, and I was delighted.

As I cleaned it up and put it to use, I found that it was a substantial improvement over my Anant plane, and I wrote up a blog post showing exactly why.

After using my Stanley #4 1/2 for a while, I found that the only part of the plane that displeased me was the blade. The back of the blade was severely out of flat, with one raised bump in the center, so it was difficult to sharpen and the chipbreaker just did not sit right. After repeated attempts to flatten the back of the blade, I decided to replace the blade and chipbreaker with new ones. (I now have the equipment and skills to correct a problem like that, but I didn’t back then.)

I had been very pleased with a replacement blade I got from Lee Valley for my spokeshave. The Veritas PM-V11 steel blade (a proprietary alloy made exclusively for Veritas) promised to hold an edge longer than typical tool steels but be nearly as easy to sharpen. This time, the catalog description was not deceptive–their steel really is that good. So I got a PM-V11 blade and chipbreaker set from Lee Valley and have been very happy with it.

Over the last decade, this hand plane has touched every major furniture project I have worked on, and it has made miles of fluffy shavings. Even though it now feels pretty heavy in my hands, it’s still a gem of a tool, and I’m very grateful to own it.

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Loose the Weight

I used to prefer heavy tools. Now I don’t. It has taken me longer than it should to recognize that, given the choice between two tools of similar quality, I should choose the one that is lighter in weight.

Let’s begin the story in the 1990s. When I was a teenager living in the corn belt, I worked a few summers doing de-tasseling for a local seed corn company. (If you know what de-tasseling is, you are a rural Midwesterner through and through.) Some days our crew was taken off of our usual de-tasseling work and set to de-rogueing instead. That, at least, is what we called it–an agricultural practice so localized that I’m not even sure it has a proper spelling. De-ROGUE-ing is how we said it.

Anyway, here’s how it worked: local seed companies grew seed corn in their fields, and the seed corn had to cross-pollinate. As long as all the cornstalks were of the right varieties, the seed would be good. But cornfields always produce some “volunteer” corn–stalks that grow from spilled or dropped kernels from previous years’ crops. Normally that’s not a problem. But the more volunteer corn you have in your seed corn field, the lower the quality of the seed it produces. Those volunteer stalks were called “rogues,” and we were sent out into the fields to chop them out. (Agricultural work like this was the only legal employment for teenagers under 16 years old, so the crews were mostly 13-15 year-old boys.) We were equipped with sharpened hoes with handles cut short, about 2 1/2 feet long. Starting at one end of the field, each of us walked down our row keeping an eye on the stalks on either side of us. Any stalk that looked different from the rest, especially one that was a lot taller than the rest, was chopped down with one swing of the hoe.

I tell you all this because, when I first went to grab one of the many de-rogueing hoes out of the back of an old farm truck, I selected one that was a bit heavier than the others. My arms were not exactly muscular, but I liked the heft of it. One of the older, more experienced guys suggested I use a lighter one instead. But I held onto that heavier one, thinking it would give me good momentum as I swung it. I wouldn’t ever have to swing twice at the same cornstalk.

As it turned out, that guy was right. Swinging the heavy hoe a few times was no problem. But swinging it regularly as I walked all the way down a quarter-mile row and and back again, I began to feel the problem with wielding a too-heavy tool. Especially after I lost control of it at one point and landed a blow square on my shin. (I still have the scar.) Every time thereafter, I chose a lighter hoe.

I have not always remembered this lesson. As I have worked extensively with the kit of hand tools I have assembled over the last 15 years, I have realized that a few of them are really too heavy for me. I have a broad chisel, for example, whose beveled edges are barely ground down, and whose blade is therefore much heavier than it needs to be. I’ve been meaning to grind the beveled edges down further in order to make the tool lighter. One of these days I’ll get so tired of the extra weight that I will take the time to do just that.

Then there is my WWII-era #4 1/2 smoothing plane with the thick aftermarket iron. I hadn’t used it for about two months when I picked it up the other day and suddenly realized how heavy it is. Just picking it up by the handle made my wrist ache–and I have used this handplane quite a lot since I acquired it years ago. Before, I hadn’t really thought much about its full weight, but I had been using some of my smaller hand planes–my Stanley 3 and a block plane–for some delicate projects, and in comparison the wartime #4 1/2 with its extra-thick casting felt like hefting a cannonball.

This particular #4 1/2 was made during WWII, when the inexperienced machinists employed by Stanley had trouble working with the relatively lightweight castings. It was all too easy to grind too much or drill too deep and ruin the casting. So despite wartime metal shortages, they added thickness to the castings, making the resulting planes heavier than before.

Then, early in the Hand Tool Renaissance (the first decade of the millennium), many woodworkers recommended that a handplane–especially a smoothing plane–should be fairly heavy. The mass of the tool, it was said, would help to carry the plane through each stroke through sheer momentum, and it would reduce the chances of the blade “chattering,” or leaving ridges on the workpiece instead of taking a single, clean shaving.

I now wonder if that is why modern hand planes, including some really nice ones, are built to be quite heavy. Today, my Stanley #4 1/2 weighs in at 4 lbs. 10oz., and that feels heavy in my hands. But it’s a lightweight compared to a brand-new Lie-Nielsen #4 1/2, which is almost a pound heavier at 5 lbs. 8 oz. A new WoodRiver #4 1/2 is heavier still, tipping the scale at over 6 lbs. That’s a lot of weight to push across a board a dozens or even hundreds of times over the course of a day!

As it seems to me, the conventional wisdom was both right and wrong. I think that the extra weight of a heavy smoothing plane does indeed create momentum that will carry the tool through the cut–but at a significant cost. First, the user has to create that momentum, and the extra energy used to get the plane moving will cause fatigue. And then the user has to stop that momentum at the end of each cut and bring the tool back to its starting place. Pushing and pulling a heavy plane will soon tire you out.

Something we woodworkers missed a couple decades ago was that earlier, professional woodworkers almost universally preferred lighter-weight tools to heavy ones–not just the lighter-weight cast-iron smoothing planes like the Stanley #3 and the Stanley #4, but also the wooden hand planes that weigh only a fraction of the weight of a metal-bodied plane of similar size.

A lot of modern woodworkers can tolerate using a too-heavy hand plane because they’re not using the tool for long periods of time. Often they are working with stock that has been planed by machine, so they are just taking a few light passes over each board before a final scraping or sanding. But if you are using the a hand plane (or any tool) all day long for days on end, then you had better get the lightest one possible.

That, I think, is why I have been gravitating more and more to my 1920s-era Stanley #3 with the original iron. It’s lightweight, coming in at a mere 2 lbs. 13 oz.

I can push it back and forth across boards for hours without feeling its weight in my hands, wrists, and forearms. (By the way, wooden planes may appear lighter than their metal-bodied counterparts, but my wooden fore plane is actually a couple ounces heavier [4 lbs. 3 oz.] than a 1920s-era Stanley #5 [4 lbs.].)

I’m not going to get rid of my trusty Stanley #4 1/2, though. It’s a well-built tool that has served me well for more than a decade. But I think I am now fully cured of my youthful preferences for extra weight in these objects.

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Crosses and Craftsmanship

When my church did some remodeling, they salvaged several painted pine boards and commissioned me to make some decorative crosses out of the wood. Some were gifts for volunteers; others were sold in a missions fundraiser.

From a joinery point of view, these crosses could hardly be simpler to make. It was just a matter of cutting the stock to size, smoothing the edges with a handplane, and cutting one simple lap-joint for the crosspiece. The whole operation required very few tools, and I was able to complete about ten of them in a single morning, though I think I made about 30 in all.

Since the cross is quite literally the crucial symbol of Christianity, we Christians see crosses all the time. That familiarity tends to obscure the historical reality of crosses as they were used in ancient Rome. Doing this project, I found that I could not build crosses without imaginatively entering the first-century Roman world in which crosses were made not to hang on a wall but to hang people on, not to decorate a room but to publicly torture criminals to death.

In what follows, I want to explain the process I used to make these crosses from this special wood, while contrasting that with how I imagine an original Roman cross might have been put together–without, hopefully, going into too much graphic detail.

Let’s begin with overall design and stock-selection.

I had my stock provided to me. It was pre-painted and pre-distressed pine 1X4s that were 2′ to 4′ long, so the first job was cutting out smaller sections to appropriate lengths and widths. In doing so, I had to cut around a few really big knots, but I also endeavored to retain as much character in the wood as possible. Since the wood had been salvaged, I wanted it to look salvaged. The smoothed sides and lightly chamfered edges contrast nicely with the rougher, distressed surface on the front.

The overall dimensions of the crosses were determined by the available stock. Because I was cutting the stock out of 1X4s, I made the pieces just over 1″ wide, allowing me to rip each 1X4 into thirds. Beginning with the width, I calculated that the top and two arms would need to project about three times the width of the center joint, and the bottom would need to be twice that again, or a little more. So I cut the long pieces 11″ long and the crosspieces 7″ long. On the finished pieces, these dimensions allow for a finished cross that shows off just enough of the distressed surface to be visually interesting, but not so much that the whole thing looks blocky. It should be able to hang on a wall in a fairly small space.

I can only assume that the dimensions of an original Roman cross would have been just enough to accommodate an average human body. A 6′ crosspiece would be about right, with the vertical piece needing to be a little longer, plus extra length to drop into a hole in the ground. An 8′ beam would be plenty. In most illustrations of the crucifixion of Christ, we see dimensioned wood used in the cross. But I can’t imagine anyone bothering to square up timbers for such a use. I suspect that a Roman cross would have been assembled from timbers in the round, probably no more than 3″ or 4″ in diameter. Given the landscape and climate of ancient Israel, timber of all kinds must have been at a premium. Probably only the knottiest, most defect-ridden logs would have been used for crosses. Come to think of it, though, this would also have been a good use for reclaimed timber, so I suppose it’s just possible that some crosses could have been made of dimensioned timbers after all.

For this project, I pulled only a few tools out of my tool chest. And so, I suppose, would a Roman craftsman. Other than cutting the timbers to length with an axe or saw, there wouldn’t have been much to making a cross in those days. It seems most probable to me that the beams would have been lashed together with rope. You probably wouldn’t have wasted good hardware like expensive, handmade nails on a project like that. Yet a cross would have had to have been study enough to bear human weight, and (without going into extra-gory detail) to withstand some real stresses of movement during use. Perhaps the maker would have cut out a rough notch or two with an axe so as to reinforce the lashing, or perhaps the whole thing was nailed together after all.

On these crosses, I opted for a single notch in the crosspiece, which makes the crosspiece stand out a little from the upright, giving the whole object just a little bit of visual depth. Because the joint is not load-bearing, it only needed to be tight enough to look tidy.

After planing the edges of the stock smooth and straight, I turned the stock over and placed the crosspiece exactly where I wanted it, and made sure it was centered on the upright.

I marked out the joint with a knife and marking gauge and then sawed each side. Finally, I popped out the bulk of the waste with a chisel and pared down to the line. The lap joint was then ready to assemble with just a couple drops of glue to keep everything together.

But first, I used a block plane to chamfer the edges a little bit. Especially on the stock with the darker paint, the chamfers really emphasize the color contrast. (The cat was annoyed that I was working in his favorite napping spot.) Because these are decorative pieces, a little decorative touch that didn’t take too long seemed appropriate.

Roman crosses, on the other hand, were emphatically not decorative. Aesthetics were surely not a consideration at all. Yet the crosses were built for display–for the public execution of enemies of the state. They and their victims were meant to be seen–even to be stared at. And they were intended to be ugly and horrific.

And we know they were made and used in batches. Jesus was one of three men crucified on a single day. Accounts of other crucifixions have reported hundreds of victims being executed at a time–a typical Roman response to, say, an insurrection. In such exceptional cases, they probably used whatever timber came to hand: dry or freshly-cut, new or reclaimed, really anything you could drive a nail into. But in Jesus’s case, I can only assume that there was probably a pile of ready-made crosses available for the small but steady stream of capital sentences meted out by the government, and that the same crosses would have been reused on victim after victim until they inevitably deteriorated into firewood.

Batch production is efficient, and the Romans could build things with remarkable efficiency when their public honor was at stake. I can only assume the same was true of the crosses on which they executed their criminals. An order of a dozen crosses would not have taken long to fill. The maker, who might well have been a slave, would have had to make each one quickly but also “to spec,” and could only hope that he would never end up on one himself.

It seems that Christians began to use the cross as a religious symbol only after crucifixion was abandoned as an execution method in the Roman world–or perhaps it was abandoned because of the spread of Christianity, which worshiped a very specific victim of crucifixion. Regardless, crosses only begin to appear regularly in Christian art several hundred years after the death of Christ.

And now, here we are, with twenty centuries between us and the original event. The cross has become a symbol–an emblem that evokes a deep, even spiritual response from people who know something of what it means. It is a sign of pain, shame, and death, but paradoxically it is also a sign of hope and of life eternal. As an image, a cross could not be simpler–a horizontal line crossing a vertical one. Anybody can draw one. Nearly anybody could make one.

This whole project puts me in mind of an old poem called “The Dream of the Rood,” one of the oldest known poems in the English language, in which a man dreams that he sees the cross of Christ, both as a gruesome instrument of death and as a bejeweled beacon of hope. Here are a few lines in which the dreamer tries to describe the cross as it appears in his dream:

I could still look upon its traumas,
wretched & old, so that it began at once
to sweat blood along its right half.
In every part I was dredged in regret —
I was afeared for its fearful beauty.

I witnessed the change, the streaking beacon,
warping its own in clad & color:
sometimes it was blood steaming,
swilling in trills & rills of ruddy sweat;
sometimes it was bedazzled with richness.

You can read a translation of the whole poem here.

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