Piano Repair: Fixing a Broken Hammer

I am not a piano repairman.  But when our piano tuner told us that it would be pretty expensive to fix our 1950s-era spinet piano (for which we paid $60), my wife urged me to try it myself.

A couple weeks earlier, one of the younger kids had been pounding on the keys, and the dowel rod holding one of the hammers snapped right off.  My wife found the broken piece inside the piano.  It was the B-flat above middle C–so not exactly a note that we could do without.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

It’s easy to forget that a piano is both a stringed instrument and a percussion instrument.  Press a key, and a small hammer strikes a string held in tension over a soundboard.  There are 88 of these hammers, most of which strike three strings at once.  The dowel rod that held this hammer somehow snapped in two–perhaps there was a flaw in the wood, or perhaps the key was just struck too hard.  That happens sometimes when you have little kids.

Regardless, fixing this hammer was going to be tricky.  Open up the bottom of the piano, and this is what you see:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

All those vertical, wooden pieces are part of the action–the mechanism that connects each key to each hammer.  The broken piece was deep inside this very complicated mechanism.  (Pardon the funny lighting, but the ambient lighting in my living room is abysmal, and I was working mostly by LED flashlight.)

Looking in from the top, this is what I see:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Somewhere down there is the other end of a broken dowel rod.  My first thought was that, if I could get the stubby end out, I could surgically insert a new dowel without having to disassemble anything.  Some older pianos, I knew, were assembled with hide glue, which will release when moistened.  I tried it out on the free end of the broken hammer, but no luck.  It’s PVA, i.e. yellow wood glue.  The whole thing was going to have to come out.

All the way out.

I had heard from pianists that it was possible to remove the entire action assembly from a piano.  I looked over the inside of the piano for quite some time, trying to see how the  action assembly was attached.  Fortunately, the internet had a helpful tutorial by a professional piano repairman.  I’m not sure I would have gotten any further without his help.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Once I located the points of attachment, I started carefully removing nuts and screws.

At one point, I ran across an odd little nut that looked like this:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

I recognized it as a “split nut,” which is used on many old handsaws.  Getting one loose can be quite a trick, unless you have the right tool.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Which I did.

It’s an old spade bit ground down to a screwdriver shape and a notch filed into it.  I made this split-nut driver several years ago when I started working with old handsaws.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

When I made it, I didn’t think I’d get to use it on a piano.

In order to remove the action assembly on a spinet piano, it is also necessary to remove ALL the keys.  And piano keys are NOT interchangeable.  The keys on our piano are numbered, but I still kept them all in order so as to make it easier to put them back in later.

Once the keys were all out, I was able to remove the last few bolts and screws holding the action in place.  I carefully lifted the whole thing out.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017


Here is the now-an empty piano with the keys lined up on the floor and the action assembly at the very bottom of the picture.  (Side note: you can probably imagine how much dust accumulates underneath the keys over sixty years.  It took us quite some time to vacuum it all out.)  The keys fit over those metal pins and rest on felt pads.  It really is an ingenious design, very complicated in some places and dirt-simple in others.

It was time to carry the whole action assembly out to the workbench.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

If the soundboard and strings are the soul of the piano, this is its heart.  I sort of feel like I’m doing open-heart surgery here. One false move, and the patient may not survive.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

With the action on the workbench, I carefully un-hooked and un-screwed the very-complicated mechanism that had the broken piece.

Each key is connected to a mechanism like this.  From this perspective, it looks a little like a Rube Goldberg machine.  Press the key, and a whole sequence of levers, straps, and pads moves to strike the strings.

Take a moment to appreciate how many individual pieces there are in even a small piano.  I count 14 wooden pieces all together here.  Some of the higher notes have fewer parts, but there are 88 keys total.  There over 1,000 little wooden pieces in the whole action assembly!

You can see here where the dowel supporting the hammer broke–right at the base where it was glued in.

Replacing the broken dowel was, I think, the easy part.  Once it got down to cutting and shaping wood, I felt that I actually knew what I was doing.   But order of operations was critical.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

I first sawed the broken dowel off flush at the base.  Then I carefully re-drilled the hole.  The replacement dowel I’m using is a hair thinner than the original, but it’s dead-straight hardwood and should hold up to household use.

It took me three stops before I found a suitably tough hardwood dowel at a local hardware store.  The original one was, I think, maple or birch.  I’m not sure what species the replacement is, but it’s not poplar, which was too soft for this application.

Dealing with the other end was more tricky.  After close inspection, I noticed that the dowel went into the hammer’s head at an angle.  I would need to drill out the old dowel at the same precise angle.  So before cutting off the old dowel, I made this little jig:

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

In a squared-up piece of scrap, I cut a small dado to fit the hammer and wedged it in upside down.  I then inserted a long, pan-head screw into one end of the underside so I could raise the whole jig up at an angle by turning the screw. I sighted the dowel along an upright square and, by trial-and-error, found the precise angle at which the dowel was inserted.

I sawed off the old dowel and took my jig and workpiece down to the drill press.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

It was easy to drill the hole at the correct angle.

I glued in the new dowel and went and had a cup of coffee while the glue dried.  (Sorry, no picture of the fixed mechanism.  I was so tired that I forgot to take one!)

It wasn’t easy getting the repaired mechanism back into the piano.  Having one or even two people to help guide it in was very helpful.  The more you bump things inside a piano, the more out of tune it will be.  And I sure didn’t want to break any more pieces on this action assembly!

My oldest daughter kindly helped me put the keys back on, too.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Keys, nuts, screws–all had to be reinserted exactly as they had come out.  It was especially annoying to reattach the damper and sustain pedals.

Piano Hammer Repair 2017

Finally everything was back in place.  It was a lot of work to fix a little piece.  It kind of reminded me of car repair–and not necessarily in a good way.  I had to remove so many components in order to replace one little piece without which the whole thing wouldn’t work.  At least it leaves my hands less greasy.

Now, of course, the piano needs to be tuned again.  But it plays.  And I fixed it all by myself.


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Book Review: The Woodworker, The Charles H. Hayward Years. 3 vols.

High above my workbench, I keep the back-issues of a woodworking magazine I subscribe to.  It takes up about 8″ of shelf space, but it grows by a fraction of an inch as a new issue arrives each month.  Eventually I’ll have to cull the pile, saving issues with articles that I will want to reread and throwing out the rest.  Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody took the time to compile the really good articles, especially the ones covering essential tools and techniques, and reprinted them in a bound book?

That is exactly what Christopher Schwarz & co. at Lost Art Press have done with The Woodworker, a magazine published in Britain and edited by Charles H. Hayward from 1939 to 1967.

Hayward Book Set

I first met Hayward’s work back in my graduate school days.  When it came to woodworking, I was both ignorant and broke, so at the end of one school year I used some of my remaining printer pages to print out a bunch of old woodworking books, including Charles Hayward’s How to Make Woodwork Tools, from various archive websites.  I three-hole punched them and put them in binders.  It wasn’t an elegant solution, but it was the only affordable way to hold these classic books in my hands.

Now the bulk of Hayward’s work is available bound in these finely printed books.  These three volumes contain over 1,100 pages of instruction and information on woodworking, focusing almost exclusively on hand-work.  A fourth volume is coming out in February, and it will cover shop equipment and furniture styles.  Volume four will add over 300 more pages to the set, bringing the total number of pages to 1,500.  (The pages are numbered continuously across volumes.)   The set retails at $37-$45 per volume, though I expect that you’ll be able to order all four as a set once they’re all in print.  You can order them individually from the publisher here.

The volumes are organized by topic, although the fact that they are made up of hundreds of self-contained magazine articles means that the organization is somewhat loose.  Here’s what you can expect in each volume:

Volume 1: Tools

This volume of about 450 pages includes articles on sharpening, marking tools (such as squares and marking gauges), chisels, hand planes (both metal and wooden), and hand saws.  There are also short sections on turning and veneering.  The volume also includes articles on basic techniques like planing and sawing, as well as a number of articles on relief carving and letter carving.  The articles describe the notable characteristics of well-made tools, as well as typical modifications and repairs.

Hayward The Woodworker v1

The sheer scope of the information in volume 1 is overwhelming, though this volume is perhaps the most repetitive of the set.  If you’re already familiar and comfortable with your basic tool kit, you could skip this volume.  But I don’t recommend doing that.  There is enough detailed information here on effective tool use that it’s well worth the sticker price.

Volume 2: Techniques

In this volume of over 400 pages, there are articles describing a wide range of hand tool techniques that a well-equipped woodworker should know.  It covers everything from shooting board techniques and creative clamp use to drawer and door construction, moldings, and cabriole legs.  Want to know how cut a stopped rabbet?  It’s here.  How to fit a door?  It’s here too.  How to affix a table top to its base?  Yep, it’s here.  Which nails to use for which job?  That’s also covered.  Plowing a curved groove for inlay?  That, too.

Hayward The Woodworker v2

In volume 2, the superb illustrations alone are worth the cover price.  The articles are very well written and instructive, but you can learn a whole lot just by looking at the charts and illustrations.  I enjoyed just flipping through the volume and reading anything that caught my eye.  Just now, I happened upon instructions for making a replacement handle for a socket chisel without using a lathe.  It immediately solved a problem for me that I had always struggled with before.  Now why didn’t I think of doing it that way?!?  (No, I’m not going to tell you what it is.  Go buy the book yourself.  You cheapskate.)

Volume 3: Joinery

This volume contains nearly everything from the popular but long-out-of-print book Woodworking Joints by Charles Hayward.  According to the publisher, however, this is much more than just a reprint.  It not only contains virtually everything that the original Woodworking Joints book included, but also includes many other articles that were never reprinted.  The articles cover edge joints, mortise-and-tenon, rabbets and dadoes, lap and bridle joints, miters of all kinds, and of course dovetails.  I never knew there were so many variations on the lap joint.

Hayward The Woodworker v3

As with volume 2, you can learn a lot from volume 3 just by looking at the illustrations.  But don’t skip the articles themselves.  Every article has helpful tips that make hand work simpler and warn you away from common pitfalls.  Although this is by far the slimmest of the volumes (only about 270 pages), it is perhaps the most packed with information.  Solid joinery is a cornerstone of woodworking, but it is often the thing that hobby woodworkers struggle with the most.  If you are going to buy just one volume of the set, this is the one to get.

Every good book should have little surprises that reward the reader, and The Woodworker is no exception.  The editors not only include quite a few period advertisements, but they also reprint many of the original magazine headings, complete with volume numbers, issue numbers, dates, and decorative illustrations.

I have two cautions for readers just delving into these books.  First, remember that the period photography is often grainy and of little help in illustrating the articles.  Our woodworking magazines have accustomed us to sharp, close-up photography, but don’t expect that here.  What we get instead more than makes up for it.  The pages are covered with Hayward’s own crystal-clear line drawings, as well as numerous charts and illustrations.  On balance, I much prefer illustrations to even the best photographs when it comes to learning techniques from a book.

Second, because the volumes cover nearly thirty years of publication, there is a good deal of repetition early on.  In volume 1, for example, there are about ten different articles on sharpening chisels and plane irons, all of them saying much the same thing.  After a while, I began to wish that the editors had left a few of the more repetitive articles out.  These books are not intended to be read through from cover to cover, but to be browsed and sampled over months and (I expect) years.

Hayward Book Set

Also, I must say that the organization does not always make sense to me.  On a large scale, the articles are sorted into separate, topical volumes.  But on a closer look, some of the organization seems haphazard.  For example, letter-carving is covered in volume one, Tools, whereas the articles on assembling basic tool kits are in volume two, Techniques.  The tables of contents in both books is titled “Tools and Techniques.”  Perhaps there was no perfect way to organize such a mountain of information into a reference encyclopedia, and since the volumes are available for sale individually, it makes some sense that the information be spread out across volumes.  But it makes it difficult to use these as reference books.

I love the historical perspective that these volumes give me.  Woodworking in Britain changed more slowly than it did in America, especially after WWII, and while power tools do appear in the books, it is assumed that most work will still be done by hand.  The articles on sharpening indicate that most woodworkers did not even own a bench grinder–a situation I was in for many years.  Unlike a lot of writers in today’s woodworking magazine, these authors do not assume that every reader will have a wide array of well-tuned power tools and accessories.  Instead, they frequently give instructions for effective work-arounds.  There are whole articles in volume 2 on what to do when you don’t have a standard tool and can’t just go out and buy it.

As a professional teacher of writing, I especially appreciate the authors’ clear, direct writing style.  You won’t stumble over vague, cumbersome sentences when trying to understand a technique the author is describing.  There are a few new vocabulary words to learn (e.g. what we call “clamps,” the Brits call “cramps”), but the writing is exactly like the tools and joinery it describes: straightforward, robust, and effective.

When asked for a one-volume introduction to hand tools, I will continue to recommend Chris Schwarz’s The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but when asked for a comprehensive guide to woodworking with hand tools, I will be recommending The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years.  

Volumes 1 & 2

Volume 3

Volume 4

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Making a Dovetailed Recorder Case

Some years ago I was given a wooden tenor recorder.  (It’s a Küng pearwood, made in Germany, if anybody cares.)  It came in a basswood storage case that the previous owner had made for it, but time and use had weighed heavily on the original case.  The cheap hinges eventually fell off, and there was no latch to keep the box closed.  The interior, however, still did its job of protecting the instrument, so I resolved to build a second, sturdier box around the original basswood case.

That was four or five years ago.  Finally, over the holidays, I built the case.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

The finished box is made from cherry and spalted pecan–the same wood combination that comprises my tool chest, on which the recorder case is sitting in the above photo.  I like the combination visually, and I happened to have a lot of both woods on hand.  I also selected some cherry that had a few bug holes in it (including one massively big hole) in order to do some creative inlay to fill the holes.

But back to the original basswood case.  It has a story.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

The maker was a high school math teacher.  She wasn’t much of a woodworker, but she did understand geometry.  She bought a number of thin pieces of basswood, which is very soft and easy to carve.  She she measured the recorder pieces at different points, drew out the measurements on each thin piece, cut the profile out of each section, and then glued the sections together to form a box.  The result is what you see above–though I presume she did some sanding to get everything fitted just right.

In my own stock selection, I found pieces of wood that were thick enough that I could saw each one in half.  That way, the top and bottom pieces that make up each side of the clamshell would be bookmatched.  The cherry sides ended up at about 3/8″ thick, and the pecan top and bottom just a little thinner.  But I did almost no numerical measurement on this project.  The new case just needs to fit the old case snuggly inside it.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

I carefully arranged the pieces for the best visual effect and marked them out.

Construction was straightforward.  I dovetailed the corners–one big dovetail per corner–and plowed grooves all around the insides of the cherry sides to accept the pecan top and bottom, which will be captured in the grooves once the sides are assembled.

On the long sides, I used my plow plane to cut the groove along their entire lengths, but had I done that to the short end pieces, the ends of the groove would show as gaps once the box was put together, and I’d have to plug each gap.  The other option is to make a stopped groove.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

I began by taking a couple strokes with my plow plane, stopping before I went all the way through the end.  That way, I had the groove laid out exactly as it should be.  I just needed to deepen the groove.  I first used a utility knife to score each side of the groove.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

I then used a narrow chisel and mallet to deepen the groove.  The result wasn’t exactly pretty, but it worked.  The grooves are small, about 3/16″ wide and deep.

I beveled the top of each panel with a handplane so as to just fit into the grooves.  Then it was time to glue up each side.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

Everything came together nicely.  When your joints are cut precisely, you shouldn’t need much clamping pressure to keep them together as the glue dries.  Just enough to ensure that all mating surfaces are making full contact, and that the joints don’t somehow spring apart while you’re not looking.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

After planing, the joinery looks pretty tight all around.

I cut a small chamfer all around the top and bottom of each side, just to break the sharp edges and prevent damage to the box in use.

Then it was time to fill in the bug holes with some some crushed stone inlay.  The process is not difficult, and I’ve used it before on my dining table and other projects.  I begin by back-filling any deep holes with cheap material–either sawdust or a slip of wood, such as a section of a toothpick.  When I back-fill with sawdust, I flood it with superglue to keep it all in place.  Then I fill each hole with the inlay material, which in this case is a green stone called malachite.  (I get it in small amounts on Amazon–I get the finest grain available.)  I mound it up a bit over each hole and then soak it with superglue.  The regular, thin variety works better than the gel kind.  Once the glue sets up, I scrape and sand the surface flush and clean.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

Fitting the old box into the new one was easy enough.  It did require a little planing here and there to get everything to fit.  Somehow I made the new box just a little too long, so I had to pack just a little filler (wood shavings squeezed flat) into one end.

I ordered some hinges and a latch from Lee Valley, and while I waited for them to arrive in the mail, I set about finishing the box.  Because the box may see significant handling, I went with three coats of a semi-gloss polyurethane.

Everything fits nicely now.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

The recorder fits very nicely

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

I could have used small hinges that required a mortise, but I really like the look of decorative, surface-mount hinges for a project like this.  And they’re a lot easier to install.   To hold them steady while I marked out the screw holes, I taped them down with masking tape.

Tenor Recorder Case 12-2016

The latch is a simple wire catch.

It was a satisfying project, and my favorite recorder will have a fine home for many years to come.

Posted in Boxes, Build-Alongs, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A New Kind of Advent Candle Stand

It all started with a rat in the attic.  When we brought down our Christmas decorations this year, we found that the old advent candle stand I had built from pine some years ago had been gnawed all over by a rat and ruined.  So if we were going to celebrate Advent according to custom this year, I would have to make a new candle stand.


This was my original design, which I still find visually interesting but a little too bulky and angular. (We couldn’t find the right color candles that year, either.)  And while I do like pine, I feel that a nicer hardwood would be more appropriate for what I hope will become a family heirloom.

If you’re not familiar with the season of Advent, or with Advent Candles, here’s a brief explanation: Advent is the four weeks leading up to Christmas, and it is traditionally a time of both repentance and anticipation as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus.  Repent, John the Baptist told the crowds, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  It is at once a more severe and a more hopeful message than the flurry of commercial activity that consumes us all this time of year.

We commemorate Advent by lighting candles each Sunday until Christmas.  The traditional Advent Wreath has five candles, arranged as you see above.  There are four tall, thin candles, one for each of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas.  Each Sunday has a different theme: first hope (a purple candle), then peace (another purple candle), then joy (a pink candle), and finally love (a purple candle again).  On the first Sunday, we light only the first candle; on the second Sunday, we light the first and second candles, and so on until Christmas day, when we light them all, including the large, white candle in the center called the Christ candle.

Now, a personal confession: the asymmetry of the traditional, circular arrangement of the Advent Wreath has always bothered my aesthetic sensibilities.  Four candles in a square, burning at different lengths, looks wrong to my eye.  And every year, I always forget where to begin lighting the candles.  (For the record, you start with the candle that’s caddy-corner from the pink one.)  Additionally, my wife asked me to make a narrower stand so that we could keep it on the table for the whole season and still have space for food.

I began sketching out different possible arrangements.  Eventually I lit on an elliptical design, with the Christ candle in the center and the other four candles lined up behind it.  Then it occurred to me that I had very nearly drawn the Icthus–the “Jesus fish” symbol that you may have seen on the backs of cars.  It’s an ancient symbol of Jesus that has probably been used since at least the second century AD, and it is even older than the symbol of the cross.  It seemed a fitting base shape for the Advent candles, so I added a tail to complete the design.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I began with a 1″ thick cherry board I had left over from the table I built–a fitting choice, since the candle stand would go on that very table.  I planed them down just enough to see the grain direction clearly, then glued it up.  The dimensions of this piece are about 7″ wide and 13″ long.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I planed the top smooth and leveled out the bottom so that the stand would sit flat and stable.  You don’t want a wobbly candle stand!

Drawing the design was a little tricky, but with the fish shape, all you really need is a single curve, which you trace out four times, flipping the paper each time.  I drew several on paper, cut out the one that looked right, and started to trace.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I had to erase a few lines here and there, but this is what I eventually came up with.  The “football” shape that makes up the body is what I traced out.  I just followed my lines visually to add the tail.  The center will be cut out, and is just large enough to hold a standard pillar candle.  The top needs to be wide enough for the holes that will hold the candles without making the walls of the holes too thin.  It’s about 1 3/4″ wide all the way around.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I used my bandsaw to cut the outside to rough shape, and I drilled small holes on the inside so as I have a place for the coping saw blade to start when it came time to cut out the middle.

I wasn’t sure what size to drill the holes for the candles.  The butt ends of most candles are tapered, so after measuring the candles’s ends and experimenting in some scrap, I decided to drill stepped holes.  I drilled about half way through with a 7/8″ Forstner bit, and then drilled the rest of the way through with a 3/4″ bit.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I happen to have a nice reamer, so I reamed out the holes a little–even though the candles would have stood just fine in the stepped holes.  But after reaming the holes to ease the step in the hole, the candles go in a little easier.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I cleaned up the band saw cuts with my spokeshaves, followed by a file for the corners and a card scraper. (As you can see, I’m writing this out of order.  But with this project, order of operations isn’t critical.)  I’d have to pay close attention to grain direction and cut only “downhill.”

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I sawed out the center with a coping saw.  Cherry is a hard wood, and this stock is more than 7/8″ thick.  I broke two blades before I finished.  I did manage to get a spokeshave inside to clean up some of the saw marks and fair the curves, but it was mostly file work.

I wanted this candle holder to have some visual depth, so I decided to under-cut the “joint” where the two sides of the body meet to form the tail.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

I made a stopping cut with the chisel and then pared into the stopping cut.  I had to go down pretty far in order to get the shadow I wanted, maybe 1/4″.  It was also important to make the cut slope down in a curve rather than go straight down.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

As with any carving, a razor-sharp chisel is critical to success.


With a spokeshave, chisel, and card scrapers I relieved the sharp edges inside and out.  There are a few uneven spots, but by this time it was Saturday night before the second Sunday of Advent, and I was already a week late.  The wood was smooth enough from the cutting tools, so I didn’t even take time to sand it.  A couple coats of paste wax are all the finish it required.


New candles would have been nice, but the old ones will do for now.  The Advent Candle Stand is now in the middle of the dining room table.

Advent Candle Stand 12-2016

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spoon Carving: From Log to Table

It all starts with a log.  Usually the log comes from somebody who has taken down a tree and just wants the trunk out of the way.  Other times, I go looking for something special.

Logs are heavy, unwieldy things.  So the first step is to get it down into manageable pieces.  If it’s a long log, I cut it into 3′-4′ lengths with a chainsaw.  Then using steel wedges and a sledge hammer, I split the log into halves, then into quarters, and (if it’s a really big log) into eighths.  Splitting out the log means that the wood’s grain will run straight from one end of the piece to the other, so when I eventually make spoons out of the pieces, the grain will run true from one end of the spoon to the other.

Then I run each piece of wood through the bandsaw, sawing them into blanks that measure between 1/2″ and 1″ thick and as wide as I can manage.  It’s a slow, cumbersome process, and probably my least favorite part of making spoons.


I get excited, however, when the stock comes out this pretty.  This is spalted pecan; the spalting occurs naturally in some logs after they are felled, though there are ways to encourage it happening.  I find that woodenware made from spalted pecan sells very well.


Although I bill my utensils as hand-made with traditional hand tools, I do use a bandsaw to saw out the blanks to rough shape.  This process allows me to select the best grain for each piece while also allowing me to get the most out of each piece of figured wood.  I like to let the machines do the precision donkey-work that they’re so good at, leaving me time to do the fun stuff–the shaping and carving.  If you do a lot of hand-work, it’s important to economize on time and energy where you can.

Spoon blanks 10-2016

An hour at the bandsaw yields a big pile of blanks. That should last me a month or so.


I use a single carving gouge to shape the inside of the bowl.  Pecan is hard stuff to carve, but with a very sharp edge and a little care, the surface ends up very smooth.


A drawknife and two spokeshaves take care of the rest of the spoon.  It’s almost a pity the work  goes so fast, because the spokeshave work is my favorite part.  I finish up with a couple of card scrapers, which remove any tool marks and leave smooth curves everywhere.  It takes me about twenty minutes to go from a rough blank to what you see above.  Yes, that’s twenty (20) minutes.  I’ve timed it.  You get pretty fast after you’ve made a couple hundred of these things.

After rinsing in clear water to raise the grain, I sand each spoon briefly.  I don’t enjoy sanding, so I do as little as I can.  But the sanding does relieve all the sharp edges, and it smooths the grain down so it feels good in the hand and food doesn’t stick.

The last step is to apply an oil finish.

The finish warms the wood’s natural coloring and brings out subtle color contrasts, especially in the spalted wood.  Plus, it puts a subtle shine on the utensil, which customers love.


Then, it’s market time.  Here, my oldest daughter and I attend the table at the craft market.  When people approach the table, I encourage them to pick things up.  Lots of people are surprised at how smooth the wood feels.  Many of them like hearing about where each piece of wood came from.  After all, they’re not just buying a utensil; they’re buying a little piece of a story.

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It Doesn’t Matter What Route You Take, As Long As You Get There, Right?

“It doesn’t matter what route you take, as long as you reach your destination.”

I see different versions of this sentiment pop up frequently on various forums.  It’s usually offered as a reasonable middle ground when two people are hotly disputing the “right” way to do something, whether that is to join two pieces of wood together, shape a pipe stem, or write a poem.

The problem with the statement is that it’s misleading on at least two levels.

First, for anybody who is trying to build skill, the method does matter.  It matters a lot.  Whether you are learning to sharpen a chisel, play the clarinet, or hit a baseball, as long as you are still learning the basics, you have to master the fundamental methods.  If you want to learn to hit a baseball, you can use a closed stance or an open stance, but if you don’t know how to keep your head down, rotate your hips, and follow through, you’ll never hit well.  You might use water stones, diamond stones, or sandpaper to sharpen a chisel, but if you don’t keep a consistent angle, you’ll never raise a wire edge.  Whatever the task, there are usually several sound methods to choose from, but they all fall within a narrow range of practices that yield predictable results.

One of the best ways to learn a skill is to set strict limits on yourself.  If you want to learn to parallel park, you could commit to parking only in parallel parking spaces for a month.  If you want to learn to use hand tools effectively, you could commit to building a major project with only hand tools.  In the woodworking community, however, anybody who says, “I’m going to build this using ONLY hand tools” is often met with a lot of raised eyebrows.  Yet there is great value in setting arbitrary boundaries for yourself, IF you are doing it in order to build skill and not just for bragging rights.

Secondly, altering the route often alters the destination. And that’s where the metaphor of a project as a journey gets us into trouble.

Does it really matter whether you walk or drive across town if you end up in the same place? I say yes, it does matter. In walking, you may find yourself taking shortcuts that would be impossible in a car.  And you have been fully present in more places along the way, and you will see the destination differently when you do arrive, albeit several hours after the guy who drove the car.  Or you may find that you didn’t really need to go all the way across town, and that what you needed was within walking distance all the time.

Let me use a silly example: Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) was once challenged by a friend to write a whole children’s book using 50 words or fewer. On its face, it’s a dumb idea. Why limit yourself to only 50 words when there are hundreds of thousands of English words to choose from–not to mention the multitude of made-up words that Geisel was so fond of? But Geisel took the bet, and he wrote one of his most memorable books ever: Green Eggs & Ham.  Without those limits, he would have written quite a different book.

Similarly, if I limit myself to certain kinds of tools tools, that always affects how my projects look/feel at the end.  When working with machines, for example, workpieces must often be milled to precise dimensions that hand tools couldn’t care less about.  Some time ago, Woodworking Magazine (April 2008) had a feature article on making two Stickley tabouret tables, one of which wad made primarily with power tools and the other primarily with hand tools.  From one photograph of the two tables side by side, it is easy to tell which one was made with hand tools. (I’d show a picture, but I fear copyright infringement.) The one with the shallow curves on the stretchers was made primarily with hand tools.  Those curves are easy to shape by hand with a spokeshave; the tight curves on the other table’s stretchers could also be made with hand tools, but not as easily as the shallow curves.   Neither table is necessarily better than the other, but they are two different tables.

So yes, the route you take matters.  If the destination matters at all, then so does the journey.

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Countdown to Simplicity

I like simple tools, and the simpler the better.  One measure of simplicity is the number of discrete parts the tool is made of.  Some relatively simple tools, such as a hand plane or an eggbeater drill, have a lot of parts.  Fully disassemble a typical hand plane, and you will have twenty or more parts, depending on how you count the parts for the frog assembly.  Some eggbeater drills are even more complex.  And I don’t even want to think about how many parts my band saw or my drill press has!

Other tools have very few parts, but even some of the simplest tools often have more parts than we might think.  Quick, how many parts does a handsaw have?  You might say two–the handle and the blade.  True, but what about the nuts and bolts that keep the handle in place?  A big handsaw might have a dozen parts total: a blade, a handle, five bolts, and five nuts.

Counting parts is amusing, I suppose, but it also reveals something about your tools.  The fewer the parts, the less there is to go wrong, and the easier the tool is to repair if it breaks.  So, in honor of simple tools, here are a few of my favorites, in descending order.

Simple Tools 2013 - 1

Five Parts

My wooden jack plane has five parts: the stock, the wedge, and a three-piece cutting assembly (blade, chipbreaker, and screw).  That, at least, is the number of pieces it can ordinarily be broken down into.  Looked at another way, there are two more parts: the tote and the strike button.  From the point of view of the user the tool has five parts, but from the point of view of the manufacturer it has seven, so I admit I’m fudging this one.

Another tool that really does have five parts is one of my axes.  It has a handle, a head, a wooden wedge, and two metal wedges.  In use, of course, it’s a one-piece tool.  You disassemble it only when you replace the handle–which happens a little more often than I’d like to admit.  I need to work on my aim.

Four Parts

My favorite shop-made marking gauges have four discrete parts: the arm, the cutter, the fence, and the wedge.  Normally it can be taken apart into three parts, but the cutter is certainly distinct in function (and material) from the arm.  So I count this as a four-part tool.

Three Parts

Diamond Sharpening Stone Box 2016

Sharpening stones are tools, too.  And my diamond sharpening stone has three parts: the stone, the bottom of box, and the lid.  Each part is functional.  The base allows the stone to be clamped in a vise when I’m sharpening.  The lid protects the stone’s surface, certainly, but it’s also useful for holding small parts like chipbreaker screws while I’m sharpening irons.


My hewing hatchet also has three parts: the head, the handle, and a single wooden wedge. Like an axe, it is a one-piece tool in daily use, but full disassembly yields three pieces.

Two Parts

Mallet Batch 12-2011 - - 06

My two-part tools are among my favorites–and I have a lot of them.  My joiner’s mallets, for example, are made up of a handle wedged through a tapered mortise in the solid head.  Frequent use keeps the head tight on the handle, though enough pounding on the handle’s end can separate them.

My birdcage awl, my gouges, and many of my chisels are also two-part tools: just a blade and a handle.  Ideally, the handles are fixed permanently in place until they need to be replaced–which I hope is seldom or never.  I have never yet replaced a chisel handle that I made.

One Part

Card Scraper and Ruler

While this ruler is usually used with a combination-square head, it’s useful as a tool in its own right.  The tool is built for accuracy, and a single piece is best.

My favorite one-piece tool is a card scraper.  I must have a dozen or more in several shapes.  They get used on nearly every project I work on, from fine furniture to wooden spoons and spatulas.  Once I learned how to sharpen card scrapers, they became absolutely indispensable tools in my tool chest.


I enjoy using complicated hand tools–my joinery planes, for example–but the real workhorses in the shop tend to be my simplest tools, the ones that get used on every project.  I’d call myself a minimalist, except that I have LOT of simple tools.  (Seventeen handsaws and counting…)  And that, I suppose, is another level of complexity to be addressed another time.

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Then Disaster Struck: Dining Table Repair

We had been eating around our new dining table for about week.  Then one afternoon my oldest daughter and I were sitting in the living room when we heard a tremendous crash from the dining room.  We ran out to find a huge mess–and a broken table.

There are wooden valances above each of the dining room windows, and we had been storing books on top of the valances for years.  But something happened that afternoon, and one of the valances came down, books and all, right onto one edge of our new table.  Thank God nobody was sitting there at the time!

Dining Table Repair August 2016

The top was split most of the way down its length, and the support underneath was broken in two.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

It must have been a couple hundred pounds of books that fell five feet before they hit the table top.  The books that had fallen weren’t harmed much.   The valance, however, had broken in a couple places.  (I guess this was a literal case of multivalence?  Okay, sorry, that pun is bad even by my standards.)  When I saw it, I collapsed onto the floor with my head in my hands.  There was nothing for it but to clean up the mess and figure out how to repair my new table.

The top was a clean break, so I knew I could glue it back together without much difficulty.  (By the way, notice that the wood did not break at any of the joints–a properly-made edge joint is indeed stronger than the wood itself!)  The support underneath was another matter.  Each I-shaped assembly is a single, solid piece.  I had neither time nor materials to rebuild the whole assembly.  So I opted for a reinforcement that I’ve seen used for weakened joists in old houses.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

The crack did not run the full length of the table.  I think the bolts holding the top onto the legs kept it together at the far end.  I put a clamp onto the far, undamaged end to keep it together.  Then I used wooden wedges to expand the crack far enough to force wood glue down into it.  Toothpicks and a palate knife were useful in spreading the glue throughout the crack.  I used a couple of cauls to keep the joint aligned. Everything seemed to go together pretty well.

Then it was time to work on the undercarriage.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

Once the glue was dry on the top, but before I pulled all the clamps off, I loosened the lag screws that held the broken piece to the top.  I shot some Liquid Nails adhesive into the break and pulled the two pieces together with clamps.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

Just to be clear: I glued the two pieces together only for alignment, not for strength.  Once that glue was dry, it was time to install a reinforcement.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

I cut a clear 1 1/2X2 from yellow pine and screwed it to the wood on each side of the break.  Then I tightened up the lag screws in the original piece.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

It doesn’t look pretty, but the result is a stable, solid table.  And unless you crawl under the table, you’ll never see that it’s been repaired.

And as for the top, the glue line is nearly invisible.

Dining Table Repair August 2016Dining Table Repair August 2016

All that’s left is to scrape/sand the glue line perfectly flush and refinish it.  But at this rate, I’ll probably just let the younger kids continue to destroy the current finish, which already has some noticeable scratches in it.  Then after a couple years (or decades) I’ll sand it all down and do a proper refinishing job.

Because, frankly, it took me two afternoons to repair the table, and by that time the family was a little tired of not having a table for meals.  I got the undercarriage fixed just in time to eat supper.

Dining Table Repair August 2016

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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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