Working Wood with My Children (Mostly Pictures)

Ever since my children were old enough to hold tools, I have included them in my woodworking.  My workbench is right in our main living space–on one end of the dining room–so the kids can all see me every time I work wood.  They have all dabbled in woodworking here and there, though their interest waxes and wanes over time.

Here are a few pictures of what the kids have been up to over the past six months.

My oldest, N., is my most active woodworker.  She’s also old enough to be able to design her own projects and use all the tools effectively and safely.

She has tried her hand at many kinds of woodworking over the last few years.

N Woodburning Ornaments 2017

Last Christmas, she experimented with wood burning, and she made a number of lovely ornaments from sections of limbs that I had cut and smoothed down.  She sold some at a local craft market, and others went to various family and friends.

N Makes a Pipe 1-2018

This year, she made her first pipe.  Then she made a second pipe, which she sold to a friend.

N at the Craft Table 5 Rivers 2018

N. is quite the entrepreneur.  She makes wooden spoons and spatulas, as well as other little items, as time allows.  Every time I sell my wares at a craft fair, she is my able assistant.

N and K Make Spoon Butter

A few months ago, N. suggested that we make some woodenware conditioner to sell alongside our woodenware.  She researched different recipes and eventually settled on an oil/wax mix that could be sold in small tins.  She and my next-oldest daughter, K., mixed up a batch and got it ready for market.

K. has worked wood in the past, but at the moment she is more interested in tending the garden.

But, when the need arises, she still likes to make simple things out of wood–like her little berry patch sign.  She is very fond of setting up fairy gardens.

A M R Sand Spoons 2018

The youngest two girls, A. and M., share their oldest sister’s entrepreneurial spirit.  They’re not quite mature enough to take on building projects yet, but they are old enough to handle sandpaper.  When I make spoons and spatulas, I contract out some of my sanding work to them, paying them a fraction of the purchase price of each utensil.  They get to earn a little pocket money while learning a valuable life-lesson: money comes from work.

My youngest, R., especially enjoys working alongside me.  When I pull out my tools, he often asks me if he can do woodworking, too.  He loves to try out different tools on bits of scrap wood.

Sometimes, though, he gets to do something genuinely useful.

R fixes a wooden truck 1-2018

When one of his wooden trucks broke, I glued it back together.  Then he reinforced the joint with a couple of screws.

He also likes to make his own building blocks.

R Wodworking 5-2018

He will happily saw up four or five blocks out of a single stick of wood, and then go build towers with them.  Sometimes I help him start the cut with the hand saw, but once he gets going, he finishes each cut.  A few years ago, I made that saw’s handle to 3/4 scale in order to fit a child’s hand.  I keep it sharp, and R. really likes using it.

R Wodworking 5-2018 (2)

R. also enjoys using a hand plane.  A Stanley #2 fits his hand just right.

But like all good woodworkers, he also knows that woodworking is hard work.  It takes a lot of energy, especially when you’re a kid.

R Wodworking 5-2018 (done)

Sometimes you just have to take a break and look at the clouds.

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How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 4: Stem-Bending, Staining, and Finishing

On balance, I would say that half of pipe making involves sanding. It’s not exactly the fun part of making a pipe, but the results are worth the care and effort.

Theoretically, rasps and files are used to establish the pipe’s shape, while sandpaper is used to refine the surface.  In reality, though, careless sanding can alter the shape of a pipe and even ruin a perfectly good shape.  So, although the pipe looks almost finished, it still has a long way to go.  Sand thoroughly but carefully.

Pipe Making Process 2018

But before we sand, we need to bend the stem. Some pipes have straight stems, but many have a stem that’s bent, either a little or a lot, depending on the desired shape.

This vulcanite stem will bend easily with the application of a little heat. There are a couple ways to do this, but I like to use hot water.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Heat a small saucepan or kettle of water to a rolling boil on the stove.  Turn the heat off, and put in the stem.  A pipe-cleaner inserted all the way through helps a lot.  For example, I can bend the end of the pipe cleaner so I know which direction I’m supposed to bend the stem.  Also, the pipe cleaner prevents the airway from collapsing as the stem bends.  Furthermore, it allows me to get just the stem submerged.  (I’m not interested in bending the tenon.)

Vulcanite needs just a couple minutes in the hot water bath to become flexible.  (Acrylic stems will need a longer soak, often up to 5 minutes.)  At your kitchen sink, turn on the cold water.  Remove the stem and bend it in your fingers.  (Longer stems, especially churchwardens, may require a form in order to establish a consistent bend.)  Run the stem under the cold water to set the bend.  Look at the bend closely to see if you got it right.  If not, back into the hot water it goes.  It may take two or three tries to get the bend exactly where you want it.

Now, especially you’re married, don’t forget to clean up the kitchen and dump out that pan of water when you’re done.  Nobody wants pipe-stem-flavored soup.

Next comes sanding.  Prepare yourself, because pipe making requires a LOT of sanding.

Pipe Making Process 2018

First, apply a dye to the wood.  It doesn’t much matter which color–as long as it’s not black–whatever color you eventually intend to stain the pipe will work just fine.

This stain doesn’t have anything to do with coloring the wood.  What it does is make scratches visible.  You are about to sand through several grits, each one removing the scratches left from the previous grit, until the scratches are too fine to be seen.  The stain makes those scratches easy to see.  In the picture above, you can see how the stain brings out the grain pattern, but if you look closely, you can also see distinct file marks all over the surface of the wood.  Those file marks would be much harder to see without the dye.

I generally begin sanding with 150 grit sandpaper.  Then I work down through 220, 320, 400, 600, and 1,000.

Pipe Making Process 2018

You can see my secret sanding weapon in the picture above: it’s a foam-backed emery board, which comes in a pack of three at Walmart.  I wrap the sandpaper around the board, and it gives me very good control.

Sand off all the stained area, and sand down the entire stem, too.  It’s a simple, somewhat monotonous process: stain, sand, and repeat with the next lowest grit.

Pipe Making Process 2018

You can see here how the dye has “caught” in several file marks, which require additional staining.

Sanding the stem takes even more care than sanding the wood.  The wood has a natural texture that tends to hide the smallest scratches, but the vulcanite should be absolutely smooth and scratch-free.  I usually spend twice as much time sanding the stem as I do on the rest of the pipe.  You can’t use a dye to bring out scratches in the stem, but you can look at the surface carefully under raking light.

Pipe Making Process 2018

As you sand, especially with the lower grits, be careful around the rim and other delicate areas.  You want to keep the whole shape crisp and well-defined.  Just a few errant strokes, especially with an aggressive grit, can change the whole shape of the pipe.

Sand with the grain lines as much as possible, too.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Once I get down to the lowest two grits (600 and 1,000), I have to start lubricating the sandpaper with water or mineral spirits, otherwise the sandpaper loads up with dust and stops cutting.

For the stem, you may well have to sand down to 1,500-grit in order to remove the finest scratches.  If the home-center doesn’t have the finest grits, you can get them at any auto-parts store.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Just to reiterate, this process is going to use a LOT of sandpaper.  But don’t rush the sanding process.  With briar wood, you can achieve an exceptionally smooth surface, and you don’t want stray scratches ruining the look of your pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

After sanding, the final stage in smoothing out the pipe is buffing.  The stem especially benefits from buffing.  I have a dedicated buffing machine outfitted with a stiff, cotton wheel, but they make buffing wheel attachments for drill presses, too.

I buff the stem with Tripoli wax.  You can buff the whole pipe if you like; it does give it a nice shine.  Just use a light touch, use both hands, and hold on tight!  If you’re not careful, the buffing wheel can grab your pipe out of your hands and fling it across the workshop–or even right into your face.  Wear eye-protection, too.  Flying pipes are no joke.

With the buffing complete, you can now stain your pipe the color you want.  Natural briar will finish fairly light but darken over time, but in order to bring out the figure of the wood, it’s best to use a dye.

But don’t use that swill they sell at the local home-center.  You are far better off using either a leather dye or an aniline dye.  Fiebing’s leather dye is an excellent choice.  Many pipes are stained in two stages, first with a darker base-color (usually a very dark brown) and then with a lighter color (often a red, orange, or yellow).  I’m using only one stain on this particular pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

To apply the stain, first warm up the wood with a hairdryer.  (Be careful not to heat everything so hot that the stem loses its bend.  I’ve made that mistake before!)  The wood should be warm to the touch all over.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Immediately apply the stain evenly to the entire the surface using a cotton swab.  Be careful to keep the stain out of the tobacco chamber.  It’s not that stain in the chamber will affect how a pipe smokes, but it does look bad.  If you do get stain in the chamber, you can always sand it out by taping some sandpaper around a dowel and using that to sand the chamber.  (You can even chuck the dowel in your drill press, if you like!)

Pipe Making Process 2018

Once the stain is dry and the wood is back to room-temperature, wipe down the pipe gently with denatured alcohol on a paper towel.  The result will be a nice, even stain–both on the pipe and on your fingers.  Wear rubber gloves if you don’t want dyed fingers for the next couple days.

Repeat the process with your second, lighter color if you are staining twice.

Now that you have the pipe the color you want it, it’s important to seal that color in.  I use a single coat of Danish oil over the whole stained surface.  (Watco Danish oil works just fine, but I use my own home-brew of equal parts safflower oil, mineral spirits, and polyurethane.)  As with the stain, do your best to keep the oil out of the chamber.


Pipe Making Process 2018

The Danish oil really brings out the figure in the briar.  Let the oil finish cure overnight at least, then buff gently with a soft, clean cloth until it’s no longer tacky.

It’s customary to use a top-coat of wax over the oil finish.  (If you don’t use oil under the wax, the stain will eventually bleed through when the pipe gets warm while being smoked, staining the smoker’s fingers.)  Carnauba wax, applied with a buffing wheel, is the usual finish, though a good paste-wax will also work in a pinch.

Buff the pipe until it shines!

Pipe #49 Briar Author 4-2018

Hopefully, the result is a pipe you can be proud of.

Pipe #49 Briar Author 4-2018

Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 3: Shaping with Rasps and Files

When we left off last time, we had a stem inserted into a drilled block of briar wood.  Now, you could smoke this block if you wanted to (I’ve seen it done!), but you probably want to do some shaping in order to make your pipe look like, well… a pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

My first step in shaping is to draw some straight lines around the shape of the pipe and remove as much of the waste as I can with a saw.  Either a band saw or a hand saw will do nicely.  Just be careful not to over-cut your lines.

One of the most important parts of shaping is secure work-holding.  Most pipes are shaped on a lathe and then finished up on a disk-sander or belt-sander.  We, however, are going to be using hand tools, which require us to hold the work down mechanically.  I use a large handscrew set upright in my bench vise.

In order to make the handscrew adjustable while clamped in the vise, set a small scrap board behind one of the jaws of the handscrew.  Then, when you tighten the vise, one jaw of the handscrew will remain free and adjustable.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use a rasp to shape the block down to your lines.  My favorite rasps for this operation are hand-stitched rasps from Lee Valley.  They’re a little more expensive than machine-made rasps, but they leave a much smoother surface.  I use a 10″ and 6″ half-round rasp.

A rasp is a two-handed tool, hence the importance of effective work-holding.  Keep the work securely clamped as you proceed.

It is important to leave the stem inserted as you shape the pipe.  Although it’s technically two pieces, you need to treat it as one solid object from here on out.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Eventually you will have to start cutting away your layout lines.  That’s when things get interesting, because you have to start shaping entirely from memory.  It really helps to have taken a picture of your original shape as a visual reference.

Okay, so there’s a simple procedure for shaping a pipe with hand tools.  Most pipe shapes are essentially two cylinders that intersect (or some variation thereof).  In order to make a cylinder with hand tools, you first make a shape that’s square in cross-section.  Then you take off each of the four corners to form an octagon.  Take off each of the sixteen corners, and you have something approaching a cylinder.  That’s what we’re doing with this pipe.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Here I’ve rasped the block roughly square, keeping the stem and the tobacco chamber in the center of everything.  Drawing the circumference of the pipe’s rim is a good idea.  I find myself drawing and re-drawing a lot of layout lines throughout the shaping process.  You don’t want things to be any more spontaneous than they have to be.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Beginning with the top of the pipe’s bowl, I have begun to take off the four corners to form an octagon.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The most difficult part to shape is always the junction between the bowl and the stummel.  A small, half-round rasp is especially helpful here.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The same square-to-octagon process applies to the bottom of the pipe, too.  Aesthetically, the lowest part of the bowl should not be directly under the center of the bowl; rather, it ought to be right under the back of the chamber.  (Take a close look at any well-made pipe in a standard shape, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Pipe Making Process 2018

As you shape the pipe, don’t just rely on your eyes.  Rely on your sense of touch, too.  Each time you remove the pipe from the vise, roll it over in your hands.  Gauge the thickness of the chamber wall all around with your fingers.  You will be able to feel irregularities in thickness even if you can’t see them.

Pipe Making Process 2018

As with the bowl, so with the stummel.  Take off the four corners to make an octagon, but avoid hitting the stem with the rasp.  Rasps dig into vulcanite very aggressively, and rasp marks can be difficult to sand out.  Stop the rasp work just short of the stem.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The result is a faceted pipe.  Some pipes include facets as part of the final design, but all these facets need to be smoothed out.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use the rasps to remove the corners and refine the shape as well as you can.

Pipe Making Process 2018

At some point, a rounded shape becomes difficult to clamp in any kind of vise.  I use a 3/4″ dowel clamped upright in my handscrew to stabilize the pipe while working the bottom of it.  With care, you can use a small rasp one-handed here.

Pipe Making Process 2018

At some point, you will be close enough to your final shape that you will want to switch from rasps to files.  A couple half-round files the same shape and length as your rasps are best.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Be especially careful around the stem-stummel transition.  You want a tight, even radius, especially at the top.  A chainsaw file is perfect for this operation.  I find myself going back and forth between my small, half-round file and my chainsaw file as I chase the exact shape I’m looking for.

Take your time here, and don’t give up too soon, or the whole pipe will look clumsy.  A well-defined transition between shank and bowl is one of the hallmarks of a workman-like pipe.

As you are refining the shape with files, you will gradually start working into the stem, too.  Continue to shape the wood and the stem as one piece, and check occasionally to ensure that the stem has not gotten pulled out or rotated along the way.  A second-cut file or smoother is best for stem work.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Notice that I am using one more little jig here.  A section of 2X4 with either a notch or a large, shallow hole cut into it works great for stabilizing the end of the stem as you work it with a file (and later with sandpaper).

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use your finest file to refine the shape of the button.  Some like a thick, heavy button; others like a very delicate one.  Whatever your preference, just remember that you’ll have to sand out all your file marks, so it’s best to leave everything slightly over-size.  A little sanding goes a long way on the button.

Pipe Making Process 2018

There are still a lot of little facets that need to be smoothed out, and the stem also needs to be bent.  But it’s starting to look a lot more like a pipe!


Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 2: Drilling the Briar Block

In my last post, I explained how I prepare a stem to be fitted to a pipe.  In this post, I will show how I drill the holes in the block of wood itself.

This stage of the pipe-making process is the most important in building a pipe that smokes well.  If you screw up the drilling, then no matter how awesome your pipe looks on the outside, it will be less-than-awesome in use.

Briar Blocks

Before we talk about mechanics, we need to talk about materials.  Tobacco pipes are typically made from briar wood.  The briar used for pipes is cut from a burl, which grows on the root systems of a scrub tree native to the Mediterranean region.  The burls are harvested, cut, processed, and cured by professionals.  It’s not the kind of wood you can grow yourself, at least not in the USA.

Briar Blocks

There are several suppliers of good-quality briar blocks in the USA, and the blocks come in many different shapes, sizes, and grades.

I could write a whole blog post about the different kinds of briar blocks you can buy, but the suppliers themselves can tell you all about their products.

I highly recommend the blocks from Vermont Freehand/PIMO.  Mark Tinsky at American Smoking Pipe Co. also has good briar.  If you’re just starting out in pipe making, I suggest buying a few cheap “ebouchon” blocks, though if you are really partial to pipes with the natural top, you can get small “plateaux” blocks instead.  Buy the cheapest grade to begin with.

“But wait,” you say, “who says briar is the only wood you can use for pipes?  Can I use something other than briar?”

It’s a fair question.  The technical answer is yes, there are a few other woods that will make a good pipe.  The bad news is that they are probably not woods you happen to have lying around the shop.  Olive wood, for example, makes a fine pipe.  So does strawberry wood, which comes from a small tree sometimes planted as an ornamental.  You can also use “morta,” or “bog oak,” which is cut from ancient oak logs that have been dug out of European peat bogs.  There are, however, a few domestic hardwoods, such as persimmon and osage orange, that can make a passable pipe.  Cheap wooden pipes are often made of pear wood, or even black cherry.  While these woods will smoke reasonably well at first, they will not last as long as a briar pipe.  If you happen to have any thick, seasoned chunks of such wood lying around, it won’t hurt to use them for practice, but they may impart an odd or unpleasant taste to the tobacco smoke.

That said, there are good reasons that briar is the ideal material for a wooden pipe.  Not only is the grain dense and beautiful, but briar has an unusually high flashpoint, so it won’t catch fire while you smoke.  Briar pipes, if taken care of, can be smoked almost indefinitely without wearing out.

Once you have your briar block in your hand, you can draw your pipe’s outline on one side.  Begin by drawing two lines, the center line of the tobacco chamber, and the center line of the draft hole, which intersect at the bottom of the pipe.  The rest of the pipe will be shaped around these two lines.

Briar Blocks

Your pipe’s shape can be as normal or as bizarre as you like, but for your first pipe, it’s best to begin with a relatively traditional shape, like a billiard, a poker, or a Dublin.  (Yes, pipe shapes have odd names: here’s one chart that lists a few of the many traditional shapes and names.)  Shapes with steep bends or lots of odd angles are fun, but they add a lot of complications to the pipe-making process.  For this tutorial, I’ll be making a modified “author” shape (not pictured above).

Drilling the Block

At the drill press, I set my fence so that the drill bit hits the block more or less in the middle.  I do look at the grain pattern on the briar block and try to plan for the best grain orientation, and on this block, the best grain orientation happened to be a little off-center.

Pipe Making Process 2018

The first hole to be drilled is the mortise for the stem’s tenon.  Using the right size drill bit (1/4″ in this case), I line up the bit with the center line of the draft hole.  Use a square to ensure that you are, in fact, lined up correctly.  Take your time to get everything lined up perfectly, because you’re going to drill several different holes with several different bits with the block in this position.  So clamp the block securely, and don’t move it until I tell you you can!

But before you drill, I should say a word about drill bits.  Not all drill bits labeled the same size actually are the same size!  Drill three holes with three different 1/4″ bits, and a 1/4″ tenon might fit properly in only one of them.  I highly recommend drilling a test mortise in a piece of scrap first.

The depth of the mortise is flexible, but a 1/2″ to 5/8″ is fairly typical.

Now, once you have drilled the mortise, don’t un-clamp the briar block!  You still need to level off the face of the briar so that the stem fits snugly up against the wood with no unsightly gaps.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use a sharp Forsner bit bigger than the diameter of the stem to kiss the top of the wood.

Keep the block clamped up for the next step, too, which is drilling the draft hole.  Most draft holes are either 5/32″ or 11/64″ in diameter; I’m using the smaller diameter here.  A high-quality brad-point bit works the best for this operation.  Regular split-point bits tend to wander.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Lower the bit to the top of the block, and lock it in place.  Use a ruler or dividers to measure the depth of your draft hole.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Transfer that measurement to your depth stop.  Now you can confidently drill your draft hole to a precise depth.  Briar is dense wood, so go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.

Okay, now that the draft hole has been drilled, you may finally unclamp the briar block!

There’s only one hole left, which is the tobacco chamber.  Tobacco chambers come in different widths, but the most common is about 3/4″.  I use a spade bit that has been ground down to produce a round bottom.  You can make one yourself with a bench grinder (grind slowly, quench frequently, and be sure to grind a relief-angle on each side of the cutting edge), or you can buy them ready-ground.

Pipe Making Process 2018

With the bit chucked into the drill press, use your depth-stop to set the final depth of the chamber.  Err on the shallow side.  You can always make the hole deeper if necessary.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Use your square to ensure that the bit is lined up correctly with the center line of the tobacco chamber as you’ve drawn it on the block.

Pipe Making Process 2018

These re-purposed spade bits work okay if you don’t rush the process.  Go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.  If you have the block clamped up securely, you should be able to bore a nice, clean hole.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Even with the depth stop, it can be difficult to know if you’ve actually bored deep enough–or too deep!  One trick is to insert a cotton swab into the draft hole.  When the bit hits it, you’ll see it quiver.

Pipe Making Process 2018

And you’ll be able to easily see the cotton at the bottom of the chamber.  Drill down until you have gone all the way through the draft hole, but no farther.

A properly-drilled pipe has a draft hole that intersects with the very bottom of the tobacco chamber.  This is one of the most important features of a pipe that smokes well, so take your time to get this exactly right.

Now, with the briar block drilled, you can trim the stem’s tenon to length.  To do so, insert the tenon into the mortise as far as it will go.  Measure the difference (either with a ruler or with dividers) and use a small saw to trim that much plus about 1/32″ off the end of the tenon.  (The tenon should not quite bottom out in the mortise because, if the wood shrinks, it will open up a gap at the stem/wood junction.  Leaving the tenon short allows for a bit of shrinkage.)  Once you have trimmed the tenon, counter-sink the end of it.

Pipe Making Process 2018

Insert your stem.  Finally, it’s starting to look like a pipe!

In the next post, we will start shaping the pipe.

Posted in Build-Alongs, Tobacco Pipes, Tutorials, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How to Make a Tobacco Pipe with Hand Tools, Part 1: The Stem and Tenon

Five years ago, I wrote here about making a tobacco pipe with hand tools.  That post assumed you were starting with a “pipe kit,” i.e. a pre-drilled block of wood with a stem pre-fitted into it.  I still think that is an excellent way to begin learning to make pipes.  But once you’ve decided you want to make more than just a couple pipes, you will want to begin drilling your own blocks–making the pipes yourself start-to-finish.  This post is the first in a series about how to make a pipe from a block of wood and a pre-molded stem.

Pipe #34 Briar Churchwarden Plateaux 2015 - - 08Professional pipe makers not only drill their own briar blocks but also make their own stems from solid rod stock–usually vulcanite (a hard rubber product) or acrylic.  But many hobby-level pipe makers (like me) prefer to use pre-molded stems.  These stems (sometimes called “bits”) can be bought online in many shapes and sizes for a few dollars apiece, and they come pre-drilled with a draft hole and roughly shaped.  I have used stems from a number of suppliers, including Vermont Freehand, American Smoking Pipe Co., and J. H. Lowe.

In order to fit a stem to a pipe, it needs to be modified in two ways:

Most obviously, they need to be refined in shape and texture.  Most vulcanite stems come rough-cast from their molds and require quite a bit of shaping and sanding before they are comfortable to hold and look good.  But first, they need to be fitted with a hollow tenon which will be inserted into the pipe.  There are a couple ways to accomplish this.  You can buy a special tool called a tenon cutter, made just for pipe stems, which fits into a drill press chuck and cuts a tenon on the end of a stem.  Or you can drill a hole into the stem and glue in a pre-drilled tenon, which is what I do.

When I make a pipe, the first step is to insert the tenon into the stem.  Most pre-molded stems come with a tenon-like stub on the tenon-end of the stem.  I saw that off with a small handsaw, then take the stem down to my drill press for drilling.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

I clamp the stem upright on my drill press table.  (Here I’m drilling out a diamond-shaped stem, but the principle is the same with any shape.)  Take the time to ensure that the bit is perfectly aligned dead-center over the stem’s draft hole.  Also double-check that the stem is indeed clamped straight up-and-down by looking at it from several sides.  Also double-check that you are using the right sized drill bit.  Then, with the drill press set on medium-to-high speed, slowly lower the bit into the stem.  Vulcanite is fairly brittle, so go slowly and raise the bit frequently to clear the chips.  You need to drill down no farther than 1/2″.  If your drill press has a depth-stop, use it.  Otherwise, just eyeball it.

And yes, pipe making requires either a drill press or a good lathe.  You can’t do this accurately freehand.  This is a good time to remind you that, if you want to make more than one pipe and aren’t content working with pre-drilled pipe kits, then you have to invest in a workable setup.  Pipe making requires a number of tools and jigs that you either buy or make for yourself.  In other words, if you are going to go to the trouble of making one pipe, you may as well make a dozen.

Once the hole for the tenon is drilled, do not move the stem.  You need to level off the surface of the stem so that it is perfectly perpendicular to the tenon.  Switch to a large, sharp Forsner bit.  The exact size doesn’t matter, as long as the teeth around the edge of the bit clears the outside of the stem.  It just needs to be sharp.

Turn on the drill and, very slowly, lower the bit onto the stem.  Just kiss it with the bit.  (Excess pressure may cause the bit to rip chunks off the top of the stem.)  As soon as the whole face has been leveled off, you’re done.  Now you can unclamp the stem.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

If you don’t have a high-quality drill-press vise–or even if you do have one–it can be difficult to hold a long stem perfectly upright in a drill press.  The contraption shown in these pictures is the best I’ve been able to come up with, and it works fairly well.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

I began with a squared-up block of seasoned hardwood, about 2″X2″X6″.  On the drill press, I drilled a series of holes of different sizes: 3/8″, 1/2″, and 5/8″.  I also drilled a large counter-bore at the top of each hole.  Then I reamed out the top of each hole slightly because most stems taper somewhat.  Finally I sawed it in half down the middle of each hole.

To use it, I clamp the stem in the appropriate-sized hole, and clamp the whole thing to a fence on my drill-press table.  (The fence is nothing but a squared-up 2X4 clamped to my drill press table.)  To get the stem centered directly under the bit, I lightly clamp everything up as near as a quick eyeballing can get me.  Then I tap things here and there until the alignment is perfect, and I tighten the clamps.  It doesn’t take as long as it sounds.

Once the stem is bored and faced, it’s time to glue in the tenons.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

The tenons are made from delrin, a flexible, Teflon-like material.  You can buy rods of delrin in different diameters from industrial suppliers, but because the rods are long, shipping is often prohibitive.  Then you still have to drill out the center of the rod before it can serve as a tenon.  I prefer to buy delrin tenons pre-drilled, often from the same people who supply me with the stems.  The tenons come in several sizes.  I find myself using the 1/4″ diameter size the most, and that’s what you see here.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

Before gluing the tenons into the stems, they need to be modified just a little bit.  I always use a countersink bit to ream out the end of the tenon that will go into the stem.  (In the picture above, the tenon on the right is as it came from the manufacturer; the two tenons on the left have been countersunk.)  This makes it easier for the stem to pass a pipecleaner once assembled.

Now, remember when I said that the tenons were made of a Teflon-like material?  There’s an old joke that asks, “How do they get Teflon to stick to the pan if nothing sticks to Teflon?”  (It’s a true feat of chemical engineering, but don’t let’s get sidetracked.)  Glue won’t stick to these tenons, so you have to use epoxy to lock them in mechanically instead.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

With the corner of a file, cut several notches into the sides of the tenon, on the end you will insert into the stem.  They should be big enough to allow a generous amount of epoxy to flow into them.  Just don’t cut all the way down into the airway.

The epoxy will fill these notches and stick to the stem, thus locking the tenons in place–even though the glue does not actually stick to the tenon.

When applying the epoxy, be very careful not to get any glue on the inside of the tenon.  Be equally careful to ensure that every notch you filed is completely filled with the epoxy.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

You don’t need much epoxy for this operation, but you do need the right kind.  There are many epoxies on the market, mostly distinguished by the time they take to cure.  Here’s an important rule of thumb: the quicker an epoxy cures, the weaker it is.  The strongest epoxies require a full 24 hours to cure, and they are worth the extra time.  I use regular JB-Weld epoxy, which is widely available and extremely strong.

The cure-time is the reason I begin the pipe-making process with the stem.  Typically I drill and glue up several stems at a time, so as to have each one ready when I set out to make a pipe.

Pipe Making 1 Stem Drilling and Tenons 2018

With the epoxy applied to the tenon, insert the tenon into the stem.  Be careful not to drip any glue into the airway of the stem.  Then tap the tenon sharply on the bench top or a block of wood to ensure that it is fully inserted.

Finally, clean off all the excess epoxy immediately.  (This is another advantage of using the slow-curing epoxy; you have ample time to clean off the excess.)  Use a wet paper towel to wipe the excess off the tenon.  And soak a pipe cleaner in water and run it through tenon several times to ensure that no glue has blocked the airway.  You can also check that the airway is clear by blowing through it–and by simply looking through it.

Now set your stems aside to dry for a day while you turn your attention to the wooden part of the pipe.  In the next post, I will show how to drill the holes in a block of briar.



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

Marking Gauges for Sale

I love making tools for myself, and one of my favorite tools to make is a marking gauge.  Now that I have all the marking gauges I need, I have started to make them for other people.  I made the two gauges you see here from black cherry and spalted pecan, both of which were cut right here in Mobile County, Alabama.  If you want one, please e-mail me at  PayPal is the preferred payment, unless you live close enough that you can pick it up in person (in which case, nix the shipping charges).

Scroll all the way to the bottom for the full product description.

Edit: The small gauge is still available.

Marking Gauge: Regular Size, $40.00 +shipping  **SOLD**

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Marking Gauge #2 1-2018

Overall dimensions: the arm is 7″ long and about 5/8″ square.  The fence is 2 1/2″ wide (at the widest point), 2 1/2″ tall, and 1 1/4″ thick.


Marking Gauge: Small, $40.00 +shipping

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Marking Gauge #1 Small 1-2018

Overall dimensions: the arm is 6″ long and about 9/16″ square.  The fence is 2 3/8″ wide (at the widest point), 2 1/8″ tall, and 1 1/4″ thick.

Product Details

Each gauge is made from black cherry, and the fence is faced with spalted pecan.  The bell-shaped profile of the fence gives you a convenient place to rest your index finger and thumb.  The profile also offers a wider bearing surface than most other gauges without making the fence too big to wrap your hand around.

The arm locks securely with a sliding dowel mechanism, which is operated with one hand.  Press the button on one side firmly and the arm locks; press the other one and it unlocks. (Tap the button on the bench for extra locking power; tap the other end to release.)  There is no side-to-side play in the arm.  At first, the arm will require some pressure to slide in and out, but this will become easier with repeated use.

The pin is made from hardened steel and sharpened to a rounded spear-point, so it cuts in either direction.  While a pin-style gauge works best with the grain, this gauge will also mark across the grain if used with light pressure.  As you resharpen the pin, you can tap it down from the top.

Finish is only paste-wax rubbed out to a light sheen.

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Choosing a Back Saw: Everything You Really Need to Know

So let’s say you’re just starting to get into woodworking, and you realize that you really need a small saw.  The ones with the spines look nice.  They’re called “back saws,” right? They seem like they might be easier to saw with than the big handsaws because that spine keeps the blade stiff and straight.  (You would be right about that.)  You start reading online, maybe watching some YouTube videos, and you soon realize that THERE ARE SO MANY DIFFERENT KINDS OF BACKSAWS!

For example, here are just some of the backsaws I’ve acquired over the years:

Backsaws 2018

So which ones do you really need?  Should you start with a dovetail saw?  How is that different from a gent’s saw?  What about a tenon saw?  Is that like a sash saw?  And what on earth is a carcass saw?  And OH MY GOODNESS WHAT IS THAT GINORMOUS BACKSAW IN THE BOTTOM OF THAT PICTURE?!?

There Are Really Only Two Kinds of Saw

When it comes down to function, there are essentially only two types of saws: saws that cut smoothly across the grain (called “crosscut” saws) and ones that cut smoothly along or with the grain (called “rip” saws).

The only difference is in how the saw teeth are shaped–any size saw can be sharpened for either rip or crosscut.  However, many of us find that backsaws, which have relatively small teeth, can often be used for general cuts across or with the grain–though any given saw will cut more easily in one direction than the other.  In my experience, a crosscut saw can be used for ripping, though the saw will cut slowly.  But using a rip saw for crosscuts is more difficult and leaves a more ragged surface.

So if I had only one backsaw, I would choose one configured for crosscutting.  If I could have only two, I would choose one of each.

Now, with the rip/crosscut distinction in mind, here are some of the usual kinds of backsaws you will run across:

The Dovetail Saw

Sharpened for ripping, the dovetail saw is optimized for making shallow cuts in end-grain, such as when cutting dovetails.  A dovetail saw is often 8″-10″ long.  Because of the fine teeth, however, a dovetail saw can also be used for small crosscuts–for example, cutting small dowels to length.  Dovetail saws typically have a fairly thin blade so as to leave a narrow kerf.  Thus, they are not suitable for crosscutting stock more than about 3/4″ square.

Backsaws 2018 Dovetail Saws

Dovetail saws are available with either a “broomstick” handle or a “pistol” grip, as you see above.  The broomstick handles are cheaper but a little more difficult to learn to use.

The “Gent’s” Saw

A small, general-purpose backsaw.  It is similar to the dovetail saw, but often sharpened for crosscutting.  It usually has a pistol-grip and can be anywhere from 6″ to 10″ long.  It can be used for dovetailing, small crosscuts, etc.  It’s often an essential part of a small, specialized toolkit, like for model making, but most woodworkers can get along fine without it.  It’s the one kind of backsaw I don’t own, so I have no picture of a gent’s saw to show you.

The Carcass (or Carcase) Saw

A medium-sized crosscut backsaw, often 12″-14″ long.  This is a workshop workhorse, ideal for all manner of small crosscutting jobs–from cutting tenon shoulders to small miters to pretty much any small sawing jobs you can think of.

Backsaws 2018 Carcass Saws

The top carcass saw in the above picture was my first backsaw, which I procured from my parents’ barnyard toolkit when I moved out.  It’s taken a lot of abuse but has served me well.  The one below is my trusty Disston #4, which is now my go-to carcass saw.  If I had only one backsaw, it would be this one.

The Tenon Saw

A medium-to-large backsaw sharpened for ripping, anywhere from 12″-16″ long.  As the name implies, this saw is designed especially for sawing the cheeks of tenons, so it’s designed to make deep cuts with the grain.  While it can sometimes do double-duty as a carcass saw, it excels at ripping cuts.

Backsaws 2018 Tenon Saws

Notice that, compared to a carcass saw, the tenon saw has a deeper blade under the spine.  Unless you cut a lot of tenons by hand, you really don’t need a tenon saw.  But if you do, then it’s practically essential.

So How Do I Know Which One to Buy?

Names and specifications will vary a little from manufacturer to manufacturer.  You’ll also see the size of the teeth listed on a lot of saws, but don’t worry much about that right now.  Any good saw manufacturer is going to match the size of the teeth to the kind of work that the saw is best for.

When in doubt, ignore the name and look at the product description.  How long is the saw?  Is it optimized for crosscutting or ripping?  That will tell you all you really need to know.

Should I Buy New or Vintage?

If you have it in your budget, you will be very pleased with one of the many backsaws available from small toolmakers such as Bad-Axe. and Grammercy.  In addition to a traditional lineup of backsaws, both companies offer what they call a “sash saw,” which is essentially a larger carcass saw with teeth that the makers claim is sharpened for either ripping or crosscutting. Both makers are very reputable, so I have no reason to doubt the claims they make for their “hybrid” or “combination” filing, though I have not personally tested them.  The saws offered by these makers are heirloom-quality tools that, with care, will last several lifetimes.  But they come at a premium, often $150-$300 per saw.

If you prefer old tools like I do, I highly recommend an old Disston #4, which is the carcass saw I use most frequently. They came in different lengths, but 12″ seems to have been the most popular. There are other excellent vintage saws, however. Spear & Jackson, Simonds, and Atkins all manufactured excellent backsaws, and any of them would serve you well.

If you find a vintage backsaw in the wild, often the teeth will be dull and need sharpening before the saw is usable. (Saw sharpening can be learned, but that’s another whole issue. It’s best to begin by sending them out to a sharpener.) With some patience, you may be able to find vintage backsaws available online from people who refurbish and sharpen them, which is ideal.

Two other new options are worth mentioning.  Veritas and Lie-Nielsen both make very good backsaws.  The handles are comfortable, and the teeth come perfectly sharp.  The Veritas is somewhat cheaper but lacks the “classic” look of the Lie-Nielsen.

I’ve tried out some of the backsaws from both Veritas and Lie-Nielsen, and they work very well.  Yet I don’t really like them as much as I like my vintage saws–or the two backsaws I made for myself.  The Lie-Nielsen’s handle is just a little too blocky, and the Veritas’s molded plastic spine feels weird.

More importantly, both the Veritas and Lie-Nielsen saws have relatively thin blades.  Vintage backsaws have thicker blades, and while that makes them a little heavier than some modern backsaws, it also makes them a lot less likely to kink if you accidentally twist them mid-cut. Yeah, I know the spine of the saw is supposed to prevent that. It does, usually. But believe me, it’s possible to kink the blade of a backsaw if you wrench it hard enough. (Yeah, I was a sawing novice once myself….) In my experience, the vintage backsaws stand up to harder use.

So Let’s Say I Can Buy Only One (or Two [or Three]) Backsaws Right Now…

It depends somewhat on the kind of woodworking you intend to do, but for general-purpose hand-tool work, such as joinery, here is my recommendation:

If I had only one backsaw, it would be a carcass saw sharpened for crosscutting.

If I had only two backsaws, I would add a dovetail saw.

If I had three, I would add a tenon saw.

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to grip a handsaw.  This is the right way:

Backsaws 2018 Three Finger Grip

We call it a three-finger grip.  Extend your index finger along the handle like so.  You will find that this grip helps you saw straight as your arm swings to follow your index finger.  (It’s the right way to grip the handle of a handplane, too.)

If you use older vintage handsaws, you will quickly notice that the openings in the handles are quite small.  It’s not because men’s hands used to be smaller way-back-when.  It’s because saw manufacturers assumed that people knew how to hold a saw correctly.   They optimized their handles for this three-finger grip.  Newer handsaws have bigger openings in the handle to accommodate a four-finger grip, but don’t give in to that temptation.  Always use a three-finger grip on a handsaw!

Oh, and one more thing: that really long backsaw at the very bottom of the first picture belongs to a miter box, which is a device that allows you to saw repeatedly at a pre-set angle.  The spine slides through two guides, which both direct and support the saw.  This saw is not designed to use “freehand.”  It’s far too heavy for that.  You will sometimes find long backsaws like this in antique shops, but unless you own a vintage miter box, there is no reason to have one.

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Four Decades on a Thumb: Old-Growth Page Holders

I was planing down a batch of thumb-ring page holders yesterday. That kind of repetitive work gives me time to reflect on the origins of the material I am using.  In this case, I was making the page holders out of some short pieces of old-growth pine that I had salvaged out of the garage of a long-deceased woodworker.  I have no idea how he came to own them, or what he intended to do with them.  After keeping these pieces of wood on my shelves for a few years, I decided to use one for page holders.

Thumb Ring Page Holder Old Growth Pine 2018

The grain of this wood is very fine, and the growth rings are tiny, in places over 30 rings per inch!

The boards were a little under 5 inches wide, but those few inches represent nearly 150 years of growth.  In contrast, most of the pine used for the 2X4s you get at home centers might have 3-12 growth rings per inch.  The old-growth pine, however, has grain lines so small they are sometimes difficult to see, let alone count.


Many of these page holders have over 40 growth rings apiece.  You can count about 19 rings on the top half of the page holder pictured above.  There are another 21 ounderneath.  That’s four decades on one thumb!

(And if you were wondering what a “thumb-ring page holder” is, well, now you know.  It reduces wrist strain when holding open a paperback book with your thumb, and I sell them for $5 apiece.)


I love the way these page holders display the growth rings prominently on their edges.  Because the grain is so fine, these page holders are incredibly smooth, too.

Wood like this doesn’t come around every day. I’m privileged to be able to work with these pieces.


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How to Replace a Tang Chisel Handle

There’s something especially satisfying about making or modifying your own tools, but it’s even more fun to do so while helping one of your kids build her tool collection.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

This 1 1/4″-wide Buck Bros. chisel was given to my oldest daughter a year ago.  The handle it came with is obviously a replacement, so I’ll be giving this chisel its third handle–at least.  While not poorly made, the handle it came with was much too thick for my daughter’s hands (or my own hands, for that matter).  Also, if you look carefully, you can see that the handle is not straight but is canted to the left a little bit.

Fortunately, with a little care and the right materials, tang chisel handles are relatively easy to replace.

The first step is to remove the old handle.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

First I sawed the end off the chisel with a hacksaw.  Normally I use a regular handsaw to saw wood, but I didn’t know exactly how long the tang was, and I didn’t want to risk hitting the tang with my good saw.  As it turned out, I estimated correctly.  But I’m glad I was cautious anyway.

After sawing off the top, I split away as much of the old wood as I could with an old chisel I keep around for use when I might hit metal.  With some of the wood split away, it was easy to pull the remains of the old handle (ferrule and all) off the chisel.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

The next step is to select an appropriate piece of wood for a new handle.  There are many good choices of wood species, but in my opinion, the best handle woods are very hard and difficult to split.  Domestic woods such as hickory, hard maple, elm, and pecan are especially good choices.  I have lots of dry pecan wood on hand, so that’s what I used.  I began with a straight-grained blank that was about 1 1/8″ square and about 4″ long.

Using a hand plane, I tapered it slightly on all sides, but I left it significantly oversized in thickness.  It might seem like it would be better to shape the handle completely before installing it, but are two good reasons not to.  First, it will actually be easier to shape the handle after it’s installed because I will be able to grip the chisel’s blade in the vise which I shape the handle.  Second, and more importantly, the tangs of these old chisels are not precisely machined.  They are often a little crooked or otherwise irregular in shape, so a dead-straight handle may still go on crooked in the end.  (See below.)

A traditional part of some tang chisels is a leather washer that is compressed between the handle and the bolster (that’s the swelling just above the tang that supports the handle).  The leather washer acts as a shock-absorber when the handle is struck, and it also provides just a little wiggle room when we install the handle.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

From a little scrap of leather, I cut a small square.  I used a leather punch I had lying around to punch a hole in the middle, but it would have been just as easy to use scissors.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

After pressing the washer onto the tang, I used scissors to trim it to the width of the bolster.

Now, with the handle blank roughly dimensioned, it’s time to drill the hole for the tang.  I might more precisely call it a series of holes because, as you can see, the tang is not straight but tapered.  We will use several size drill bits to make a stepped hole.  In the end we will literally be driving a square peg into a round hole, which if done correctly will create enough friction to keep the handle on permanently.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

I began with a drill bit that is the same dimension as the very top of the tang.  I held the handle upright in a vise and just eyeballed a straight hole with my handheld electric drill.  After drilling down about 1/2″ into the handle with it, I stopped and switched to another, smaller bit.

I suppose I could have done this more precisely on the drill press, but that really wasn’t necessary.  If the hole ends up being not quite straight, that’s okay.  The handle blank is oversized, and we can correct for a wayward hole as we shape the handle.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

The ideal situation is to be able to press the handle on with just hand pressure until it is about 3/8″ or 1/4″ from being fully seated.  This tang is a little longer than my smallest drill bits, however, so I ended up using a small pipe reamer to open up the hole.  I also used a chisel to square up the very top of the hole in order to fit the tang more precisely.

At this stage–before seating the handle completely–take a careful look at the handle in relation to the blade.  If the handle seems to lean one direction or another, rotate it on the tang until you get the best alignment.

With a chisel, it’s always good for the handle to be canted up slightly toward the bevel-side of the blade, so err in that direction if possible.  Remember what I said about not worrying about a perfectly straight hole?  This is why.  You can actually use a misaligned hole to your advantage.

Now stand that chisel up in the vise and give the handle a couple smart whacks with your mallet.  If you’ve done your work right, the handle will go on tight without cracking.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

Even with your best efforts at alignment, the handle will probably be skewed slightly in one direction or the other.  In the above picture, you can see that the handle shows just a little twist in relation to the blade, probably due either to a twist in the tang or in the handle hole.  But it doesn’t really matter.  We’ve planned for this.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

Now comes the fun part–in my opinion, anyway.  Stand the handle up in a vise, and use a spokeshave (or a rasp and file) to shape the handle however you want.  I like an octagonal handle that swells a little at the end, which is a traditional shape for chisel handles that aren’t turned.

After squaring up the handle by eye and tapering it down toward the bolster, I sketched an octagon on the end and used the spokeshave to shave down to my lines.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

At this point, it’s important to trust your hand even more than your eyes.  While a visually pleasing handle is a bonus, it’s not your eyes that will be using this handle.  It’s your hands.  So if it’s comfortable to hold, that’s all that matters.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

With the facets cut on the handle, I turned to relieving the sharp edges on the end, which is one of the most crucial parts of the shaping process.  In use, the heel of your hand will often be pressing on the end of the chisel handle, so it’s imperative that the handle not cut into your palm.  I used a spokeshave to cut generous chamfers all around the top of the handle, but a rasp and file would work just as well.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

When is the shaping work finished?  When your hand says it is.

After the spokeshave work, I went over each facet with a card scraper to remove any tearout.  I also used the scraper to break all the sharp edges.  I find that the facets help a lot with gripping the chisel in use, but sharp edges are still uncomfortable, so a balance between facets and rounded corners is best.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

A light sanding and an application of paste wax complete the project.  Now I can sharpen the chisel and put it to work.

Tang Chisel Handle Replacement 1-2018

My daughter had tang chisels in two sizes, both of which needed handles.  So now she has a pair of useful chisels.  These vintage chisels take a wicked-sharp edge.  With care, they should serve her well for the rest of her life.

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

A Kitchen Essential: The “Staked” Stool

I don’t remember much of the furniture I grew up with, but one small piece stands out in my memory.  It was a small, oak footstool, which was kicked around my parents’ kitchen for years (sometimes literally).  I believe that it was made by some friends who were into woodworking at the time.  They made a batch of them to sell, and my parents bought one.  It’s survived several decades of heavy use in their house, so when I first began working wood, one of my first projects was a similar kitchen stool.

My resources were limited, and so was my skill set.  The original stool, which I built 10 years ago, was made entirely from pine.  I was not at all confident in my mortise-and-tenon joints, so I ended up just dovetailing the legs into the sides.

Dovetailed Footstool Texas

That stool stood up for five years, but eventually the legs all came loose.  By that time I had the tools to make tapered tenons, so I ended up cutting the stool’s top shorter, boring angled mortises, and installing new legs, also made from pine.

That version of the stool lasted five more years.  But even though I had reinforced the pine top with battens underneath, the whole thing finally split in half.  It was clearly time to replace this old stool with something more substantial.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

This is the rebuilt and re-broken stool, standing atop the pieces that will become its replacement.

In theory, there was nothing wrong with the rebuilt stool’s construction.  The only problem is that construction-grade pine is not a good material for the seat.  The open grain in the mortises doesn’t take glue well, and the wood is too easy to split.

An ideal replacement would have a hardwood top, preferably made from a close-grained hardwood, and legs made of a tough hardwood appropriate to the task.  I had no wood thick and wide enough for the top, though.  After considering the wood I did have on hand, I opted for a laminated cherry top and red oak legs.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The cherry wood is a story in itself.  I had several boards that I had gotten for free out of a pile of junk lumber.  They had a lot of bug holes, and the ends were rotted–which is why they were free!  But each one had a little sound wood inside.  It took all the good wood from two of these 6′ boards to make one top for a stool.

As I cut into the cherry, I had a minimum length in mind (11″), but I was able to cut a few pieces longer (up to 12″), just in case I needed to cut around defects later on.  As I looked at my collection of wood strips, though, I found that I could place the longest ones in the middle and the shortest at the end, which would allow the ends of the top to be curved instead of straight.  There’s no functional advantage to curved ends, but they will look nicer.

The wood strips were pretty rough when I brought them into the shop.  I oriented all the worst edges in one direction (see photo above), which would be the bottom.  Then I planed the other three sides.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Even nasty looking lumber can clean up nicely.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Lots of glue and an overnight clamp-up later, I had a top.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

While top was in the clamps, I turned my attention to the legs.  I selected some straight-grained red oak I had stashed away for just such an occasion.  The oak came from a neighbor’s tree, which was taken down a while ago.  I had sawn up a few pieces to about 1 1/2″ square, expecting to eventually build some kind of a stool or chair.  I cut four billets to about 12″ long.  That allowed me plenty of leeway to eventually trim either end to final length.  The stool itself will end up 10 1/2″ tall.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I planed them roughly square, but there was no reason to obsess over making them identical in thickness.  What’s the final thickness of the legs?  I have no idea.  Somewhere a little under the 1 1/2″ they started out as.  But it really doesn’t matter.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I set them in cradles to plane the square pieces down to octagons.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I love how the oak shavings pile up on the windowsill beside my bench.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I marked the approximate center of each leg with a Forstner bit the same width as the small end of the tapered tenon cutter–in this case 1/2″.  I have a tapered tenon cutter (essentially a giant pencil sharpener) that allows me to shave down a perfect tenon.  First, however, it is necessary to roughly shape a taper on the end of the leg before cutting it to final shape with the tenon cutter.

For one insane moment I considered sawing the taper down–eight cuts on four legs.  Then I came to my senses and reached for my drawknife.  I marked 1″ below the tenon cutter’s length and started with the drawknife.  Although the tenon cutter makes an accurate cut, it can be slow going.  If the workpiece is just a little too thick, the tenon cutter stops cutting, and then it’s necessary to remove more stock with spokeshave before continuing with the tenon cutter.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Eventually I got them all cut.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The next day, I turned my attention back to the top.  The glue was dry, and the top was ready to be planed.  This is the “good” side, which will be the visible top.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Planing across the grain with a jack plane quickly leveled out the slab.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

A smoothing plane with the grain leaves everything flat and silky smooth.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Viewing a planed surface with raking light helps identify any irregularities.  I know I’m going overboard here, though.  This surface is going to be stood on regularly, so it’s not necessary to make everything precisely flat and smooth.  But a smooth surface is less likely to collect grime and easier to clean than a rough surface.

Plus, cherry is fun to plane.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Next I cut a gentle curve on each end.  Marking out the curve was easy.  To mark this kind of curve, I’ve seen woodworkers rig up some kind of trammel or pencil-and-string apparatus.  But it’s not necessary to draw a geometrically-precise curve.  Your arm will do nicely.  Your elbow is the pivot point.  Place it in line with the center of the workpiece.  Then hold the pencil and swing your arm from side to side.  The result is as fair a curve as you could want on a stool.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The only really tricky part of this whole build is boring the holes at the correct angle.  Set a bevel gauge to a pleasing angle (I used one of the legs on the original stool) and eyeball the rest. If I do this much more, I’ll make myself an angle-gauge that will stand up easier.  I kept knocking the bevel gauge over.

I did have to double-check that I was boring the correct angle on the correct side.  The last time I did this, I bored the holes backwards, and the bottom instantly became the top.

Actually, boring at the correct angle isn’t the hard part.  It’s reaming the holes at the correct angle that is difficult.  At least with the auger bit, once you’ve established the correct angle with a few turns of the brace, the bit will keep going at pretty much the same angle you started with.  The reamer, however, can be tilted in many different directions at any time, so you have to repeatedly check your angle every few turns.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Even with repeated checking, the angles are visibly different from each other.  Oh well.  They’re not far enough off to affect the stool in use.

Also, as you approach the final depth with the reamer, test-fit the leg frequently.  Once the top of the leg pokes up through the top, it’s time to stop reaming.  Mark the hole and the leg so you make sure you don’t get them mixed up later.

Now, as tempting as it would be to just glue up the legs now, it is best to do all the shaping and trimming work on the top before inserting the legs.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

First, I eased the edges just a little all around the underside of the top.  It gives the whole piece a lighter look.  I used a plane and spokeshave to relieve all the sharp edges.  You don’t want a sharp corner when you inevitably bash your shin against it while carrying dishes through the kitchen.

I also found just a few old bug holes and one little soft spot on the end that needed attention.  I saturated the soft spot with thin superglue, which will stabilize the wood.  I filled the bug holes with sawdust and dripped superglue onto them, too.  After drying the superglue with a hairdryer, I used a card scraper to remove the excess glue, leaving a perfectly smooth, filled void.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Once the top is shaped, trimmed, and smoothed, it’s time to get ready to install the legs.  I find that legs like this will tend to work loose if they aren’t secured somehow, so I decided to wedge the tenons.  Here’s how:

  1. Make the wedges the same width as the top of the mortise. Give them an aggressive taper–not too low an angle!  Use a tough, seasoned wood like oak or hickory.  These are pecan, also a tough wood.
  2. Insert the legs and mark a line across the grain of the top.  With the tenon saw, cut a kerf in the top of each leg to a depth of about 1″.  You just need the kerfs deep enough to allow the very top of the tenon to expand and lock the leg into the mortise.
  3. Use a half-round file or a knife to relieve the tops of the mortises, just on the end-grain.  That way, when you drive the wedges in, the tops of the tenons will have space to expand, creating a reversed taper and locking the legs in place.
  4. Place clamps across the top to prevent the top from splitting as you drive the tenons in.  This is a nice time to call in a little shop assistant to help.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Dinner was almost ready.  Once the smaller kids were done setting the table, they each came over to help insert the legs into the mortises.  We slathered the tenons with lots of wood glue, rotated them in the mortises until the whole surface was coated, and then pressed them in.  I had marked the inside of each leg so I got the best grain oriented to the outside.  Finally, we tapped each leg home with a mallet.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Before sitting down to dinner, we flipped the stool over and drove in the wedges.  Wedging tenons is a tricky thing.  If you don’t drive the wedges in deep enough, the wedging action won’t happen.  But drive a wedge in too hard, and you risk breaking it off inside the slot.  (If that does happen, about the only thing to do is to quickly cut another wedge with a blunt tip and try to drive it in on top of the broken one.  Sometimes it works.)  Just tap the wedge firmly until it stops.  If you’re paying attention, you’ll feel it stop.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

I let the glue dry overnight, then sawed off the tops of the wedges and planed everything flush.

On a stool like this, there are two potentially weak places, so it pays to reinforce each one.  The first is the joints, which can work loose over time.  Which is why I wedged the tenons.  The other potential weak spot is the top itself.  The long grain between the legs is unsupported and could possibly split in half if, say, somebody jumped and landed hard on the middle of the stool.  So as one final piece of insurance, I nailed two battens underneath the top.  For the battens, I selected a wood that is strong along the grain but fairly lightweight: southern yellow pine.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Although these battens will be mostly unseen, I still took the time to plane them smooth and chamfer the edges.  Not only will this make picking up the stool easier on the fingers, but it lends just a little bit of grace to what is otherwise a very plain design.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

What are the dimensions of the battens?  I don’t know, really.  Probably about 3/8″ thick and 1 1/2″ wide, more or less.  What is more important is that they are flat sawn or rift sawn, not quartersawn.  When nailing battens like this in place, the nails will hold better (and be less likely to split to wood) if they punch through the growth rings rather than between them.

I used cut nails, which require a pilot hole but hold very firmly.  With a good pilot hole, you can pound in these nails perilously close to the ends of the battens without splitting them.  I placed the battens as far apart as I could, which ended up being right up against the legs.

The last major step is to cut off the bottoms of the legs so the stool won’t wobble.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The easiest way is to place the stool on a relatively flat surface (such as the top of your workbench) and use something of the right thickness as a gauge to mark around each leg with a pencil.  The end of my bevel gauge happened to be just right.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The only difficult part of this operation is holding the work steady as you cut the legs to length.  It seems that however you hold them, the other legs are in the way of your handsaw.  Well, so be it.  Saw carefully, and try not to hit the other legs as you do so.

Just saw to your pencil lines, and don’t worry about being any more accurate than that.  You could try to get the bottom of each leg precisely co-planar so the stool will sit perfectly on a perfectly flat surface.  But that’s pointless because your floors aren’t that flat.  As long as you get everything close enough, the stool’s top and legs will flex a little as you stand on it, and it won’t wobble in use.

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The last shaping job to do is to relieve the sharp edges around the bottoms of the legs.  Chamfering those edges will make the legs less likely to splinter on the ends.  I used a spokeshave, but you could use a sanding block and sandpaper just as easily.

And now, here it is, the finished product:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

The final dimensions are 10 1/2″ tall, 11 1/2″ wide, and 9 1/2″ deep.

Now to apply a quick finish to bring out the colors and make the inevitable dirt a little easier to clean off.

I applied some homemade Danish oil (equal parts polyurethane, safflower oil, and mineral spirits), using a couple heavy coats on the top especially.  After letting it dry for a day in front of a fan, it was ready to use.

Here’s a shot of the underside now that everything is finished:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

And the completed stool:

Staked Kitchen Footstool 2-2018

Now that it’s done, I’m thinking it’s almost too pretty to use.


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