Some wood scraps are just too pretty to throw away. For example, the briar wood burl from which I make tobacco pipes has beautiful flame-grain, and some even has eye-catching natural edges. So every time I make a pipe, I set aside a few of the biggest off-cuts to turn into refrigerator magnets. Here are some of the magnets I’ve made for my own refrigerator:
You don’t have to use briar wood for this kind of project–you can use any little scrap of wood with grain patterns that are too interesting to throw away. Wood that is spalted, curly, or otherwise figured will work very well. The simple process involves four steps:
- Cutting the scraps to size and shape.
- Sanding and finishing each piece.
- Drilling the hole in the back to receive the magnet.
- Affixing the magnet.
Even if you don’t have all the tools in the pictures that follow, you can make your own magnets with just a few, simple tools, which include a sharp handsaw, a drill, and sandpaper in several grits.
Let’s get started!
Step 1: Shaping
Cutting pieces of wood this small really should not be attempted on a power saw. I use a sharp handsaw and a bench hook (the platform device pictured below) to cut the pieces to shape. Theoretically, any size will do, but I find that it’s best to cut pieces to between 3/8″ and 5/8″ thick, and to make each piece between 1″ and 1.5″ wide/high.
You can now go directly to sanding in order to remove all the saw marks, but it’s faster to start with a sharp handplane if you have one. Holding pieces this small can be a challenge. I use a handscrew clamped to my workbench to hold each piece for planing. Smooth down the front and each side.
It can be difficult to cut such small pieces to precise right angles, so I often use my shooting board to trim each piece square.
A shooting board is a platform that allows a handplane to be used on its side to trim a piece of wood to a precise right angle. They’re not difficult to construct and are very handy in the wood shop.
Step 2: Sanding and Finishing
If you’re using wood scraps from your own scrap bin, you probably already have a good idea about what kind of finish will best accentuate the grain of the wood you are using. You may want to use an oil finish to “pop” the grain, or you may just want to apply a clear coat of lacquer or polyurethane. In any case, remember that these pieces of wood will be handled and looked at closely, so it’s worth the trouble to sand through several grits of sandpaper in order to achieve a smooth texture.
For briar wood, the grain pattern shows up best when you apply a dark stain and then lightly sand it back. For these magnets, I sanded through 150, 220, and 320 grits. Then I used a dark red stain and sanded to 400 grit. It is easiest to sand small workpieces by laying the sandpaper down on a flat surface and rubbing the wood back and forth on it. For detail work, I like to use a foam-backed emery board (with sandpaper wrapped around it once the original grit wears off).
One little time-saving hint: you don’t have to finish the edges if you don’t want to. I sand the edges to 220 and dye them black with some black leather dye (a black Sharpie marker would also work). Not only does it save me the trouble of sanding through the grits, but the dark edges provide a visual “frame” that draws attention to the grain. On some taller pieces, I orient the workpiece so the natural, “live edge” is on the top. I stain the live edge black and stain the edges a contrasting color.
It pays to consider the grain patterns when cutting out your workpieces. You want grain that is not only attractive but that is accentuated by the shape you cut the piece into. As you can see, it need not be a square or a rectangle. If the grain suggests a circle, an oval, or even an ice cream cone shape, then do it!
After staining and sanding, I finish my briar magnets with Danish Oil, which I let dry for a couple hours before buffing by hand to a low luster.
Step 3: Drill the Hole on the Reverse Side
Up to this point, this project has been all about aesthetics. Now it’s time to deal with mechanics. You could just glue a magnet onto the back of each piece and be done with it, but I find it more effective to drill a very shallow hole and recess the magnet in the back just a little. Not only does it ensure proper placement of each magnet, but it also increases the available glue surface and provides a little mechanical security for the magnet. Run your drill at a fairly low speed if possible, and as soon as the bit starts to bite, stop. Your hole need not be any deeper than 1/8″. When installed, the magnet should stand just proud of the surface of the wood. In use, this will make it easy for you to remove the magnets from your refrigerator.
Before we go further, let’s talk about these magnets for a minute. The magnets that I’m using are rare-earth magnets, which I get from Lee Valley. If you’ve never used rare-earth magnets, you will be shocked at how strong even a small one can be. A 3/8″ diameter magnet can easily hold five or six sheets of paper on your fridge. I buy a “sampler pack” with several different sizes of disks and rods. (Warning: rare-earth magnets can be dangerous or even fatal if swallowed. Do not let small children play with them!) Bought this way, they are about $0.50 apiece. Bought individually, they run about a dollar apiece. I especially like to use the rod magnets (1/4″ diameter by 1/4″ or 1/2″ tall) and the medium-sized circular magnets (1/8″ thick by either 3/8″ or 1/2″ diameter).
I use a drill with an appropriate-sized bit to bore the very-shallow hole in the back-side of each workpiece. Most need only one magnet, but you can also insert three of the very smallest magnets (1/8″ disks) into a bigger workpiece for extra holding power.
Step 4: Affix the Magnets
Unlike a lot of conventional magnets, rare-earth magnets are “reversible.” That is, either side will stick firmly to a metal surface. However, one side is still a little stronger than the other and will hold more firmly. In the kinds of magnets I use, the “back” or weaker side is marked with a faint, red dot. If your magnets aren’t marked, a little experimentation will tell you which side should face out.
Because these magnets are so strong, you must use a very strong glue, or else the first time you try to pull the magnet off your fridge, the wood part may come off in your hand, leaving the magnet itself sticking tightly to the metal surface. I highly recommend a good, 2-part epoxy. The ones with the longest cure-times are the strongest when fully cured, so skip the “quick-set” kind and go straight for the 24-hour cure time. (I have successfully used JB-Weld epoxy, but be warned that this epoxy is slightly metallic and can be difficult to spread on the magnets.) Mix up the epoxy according to the directions, apply a generous amount to each hole, and carefully insert each magnet. Then leave them alone to let the glue cure completely.
In the photo above, notice that the magnets are spaced out on the workbench. If you cluster them together too closely before the glue is cured, sometimes the rare-earth magnets will be attracted to each other and will be pulled out of the glue before it has had a chance to set.
Once the glue and the finish are dry, it’s time to put them up on the fridge–or on whatever metal surface you like.
This is one of the best uses for small scraps of figured wood that I have ever come across. And every time I hang my kids’ artwork on the fridge, I’m glad I took the time to make these very special magnets.