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.

Almost.

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

Trash –> Treasure, or New Spoons from Old Furniture

When I sell my spoons and spatulas at craft markets, people always ask me, “Where do you get the wood?”  I often laugh because, truth be told, practically ever piece of wood has a story behind it.  More often than not, I don’t really find the wood; the wood finds me.  This is the story of one such wood-finding event, which happened just last month.

We were pulling up to the house when we spotted two old dressers that somebody had dropped off in the neighborhood trash pile across the street.  (It’s the spot where we dump yard waste for weekly pickup by the trash truck.)  They looked pretty rough from a distance, but we decided they might be worth a closer look.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Upon first inspection, the dressers were indeed trash.  The veneer was peeling off of every visible surface, and some of the edges and feet were rotted–evidently from being exposed to standing water.  The hardware was gone, too.  If I were a furniture restoration guy, I probably would have passed these up as lost causes.

However, old furniture often contains good-quality hardwood that is excellent for spoon making, so I put on my work gloves, grabbed my crowbar and claw hammer, and started pulling them apart.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

A number of the drawers were stuck, so I began by removing the plywood backs so I could push the drawers out from the back.  What I saw was encouraging.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Although the insides smelled pretty musty, the construction was nearly all solid wood.  The only plywood parts were the backs and the drawer bottoms.  And all the drawer sides and backs were solid mahogany, much of it with very pretty figure.  (More on that below!)

As I took the dressers apart, I began to get a sense of their age.  The machine-cut dovetails and mahogany-veneered case indicates mid-twentieth century construction.  They were nice dressers in their time–not the fanciest you could buy, but well built and attractive.  It’s a shame that they were neglected and allowed to get to this state in the first place.

After about an hour, I had disassembled both dressers entirely, picked out the pieces that might yield useful lumber, and discarded the rest.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

I carried home two dresser tops (both laminated oak), four dresser sides (all laminated poplar), a bunch of mahogany-veneered plywood (from the drawer bottoms), and quite a few drawer blades (the horizontal pieces that separate the drawers).

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

Not to mention a whole pile of pre-finished 1/2″ thick mahogany boards in various lengths and widths.  I think I’ll be making some pencil boxes and jewelry boxes soon!

But I’m mainly here for spoon wood, so on to the less-superficially-attractive stuff!  The sides and drawer blades had the best spoon wood: soft maple and poplar.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

But before I could start cutting spoons and spatulas out of this wood, I had to work carefully to remove all the nails and screws I could find.  I also pried off as much of the veneer as possible.

The next step was to bring out my templates and start deciding on the best uses for each piece.  Ideally, I would get a good mix of spoons and spatulas out of this pile of wood, but the nature of the material often dictates what I can and can’t do with it.  Looking at every piece from every side, I had to work around mortises, screw holes, and rot–all the while paying attention to grain direction.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

In many cases, I found I could nest different utensils within the same board.  It became a Tetris-like game of optimizing the placement of each utensil on each piece of wood.  Often it took me working through several possible configurations to get the most out of each piece.

Once I had the shapes laid out, I sawed each workpiece to length with a hand saw.  Then I sawed out the rough shape of each utensil on the bandsaw.  With each cut, I was careful to watch for stray hardware like embedded nails and other mortal enemies of saw teeth.

Back at my workbench, I went to work on some of the poplar.  This is tulip poplar, which has a light yellow sapwood but distinctively green heartwood.  The wood was very dry, but poplar works quite easily with hand tools, and in short order I was able to make some spoons and spatulas.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

The green color is entirely natural.  I think the shavings look like that vegetable-pasta that we sometimes have for dinner–except this has extra fiber.

Dressers Salvaged for Woodenware 1-2018

I did end up having to discard a few blanks because of flaws that only became apparent once I started carving, but much of the wood has turned out to be very useful.  So while I was sad to witness the end of what was once some nice furniture, I am happy to give some of the wood a new lease on life.

 

Posted in Furniture, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

How to Make Refrigerator Magnets from Wood Scraps

Some wood scraps are just too pretty to throw away.  For example, the briar wood burl from which I make tobacco pipes has beautiful flame-grain, and some even has eye-catching natural edges.  So every time I make a pipe, I set aside a few of the biggest off-cuts to turn into refrigerator magnets.  Here are some of the magnets I’ve made for my own refrigerator:

Briar Fridge Magnets 1-2015 - - 3

You don’t have to use briar wood for this kind of project–you can use any little scrap of wood with grain patterns that are too interesting to throw away.  Wood that is spalted, curly, or otherwise figured will work very well.  The simple process involves four steps:

  1. Cutting the scraps to size and shape.
  2. Sanding and finishing each piece.
  3. Drilling the hole in the back to receive the magnet.
  4. Affixing the magnet.

Even if you don’t have all the tools in the pictures that follow, you can make your own magnets with just a few, simple tools, which include a sharp handsaw, a drill, and sandpaper in several grits.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Shaping

Cutting pieces of wood this small really should not be attempted on a power saw.  I use a sharp handsaw and a bench hook (the platform device pictured below) to cut the pieces to shape.  Theoretically, any size will do, but I find that it’s best to cut pieces to between 3/8″ and 5/8″ thick, and to make each piece between 1″ and 1.5″ wide/high.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 4

You can now go directly to sanding in order to remove all the saw marks, but it’s faster to start with a sharp handplane if you have one.  Holding pieces this small can be a challenge.  I use a handscrew clamped to my workbench to hold each piece for planing.  Smooth down the front and each side.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 3

It can be difficult to cut such small pieces to precise right angles, so I often use my shooting board to trim each piece square.

Briar Magnets 1-2015 - - 1

A shooting board is a platform that allows a handplane to be used on its side to trim a piece of wood to a precise right angle.  They’re not difficult to construct and are very handy in the wood shop.

Step 2: Sanding and Finishing

If you’re using wood scraps from your own scrap bin, you probably already have a good idea about what kind of finish will best accentuate the grain of the wood you are using.  You may want to use an oil finish to “pop” the grain, or you may just want to apply a clear coat of lacquer or polyurethane.  In any case, remember that these pieces of wood will be handled and looked at closely, so it’s worth the trouble to sand through several grits of sandpaper in order to achieve a smooth texture.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

For briar wood, the grain pattern shows up best when you apply a dark stain and then lightly sand it back.  For these magnets, I sanded through 150, 220, and 320 grits.  Then I used a dark red stain and sanded to 400 grit.  It is easiest to sand small workpieces by laying the sandpaper down on a flat surface and rubbing the wood back and forth on it.  For detail work, I like to use a foam-backed emery board (with sandpaper wrapped around it once the original grit wears off).

One little time-saving hint: you don’t have to finish the edges if you don’t want to.  I sand the edges to 220 and dye them black with some black leather dye (a black Sharpie marker would also work).  Not only does it save me the trouble of sanding through the grits, but the dark edges provide a visual “frame” that draws attention to the grain.  On some taller pieces, I orient the workpiece so the natural, “live edge” is on the top.  I stain the live edge black and stain the edges a contrasting color.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

It pays to consider the grain patterns when cutting out your workpieces.  You want grain that is not only attractive but that is accentuated by the shape you cut the piece into.  As you can see, it need not be a square or a rectangle.  If the grain suggests a circle, an oval, or even an ice cream cone shape, then do it!

 

After staining and sanding, I finish my briar magnets with Danish Oil, which I let dry for a couple hours before buffing by hand to a low luster.

Step 3: Drill the Hole on the Reverse Side

Up to this point, this project has been all about aesthetics.  Now it’s time to deal with mechanics.  You could just glue a magnet onto the back of each piece and be done with it, but I find it more effective to drill a very shallow hole and recess the magnet in the back just a little.  Not only does it ensure proper placement of each magnet, but it also increases the available glue surface and provides a little mechanical security for the magnet.  Run your drill at a fairly low speed if possible, and as soon as the bit starts to bite, stop.  Your hole need not be any deeper than 1/8″.  When installed, the magnet should stand just proud of the surface of the wood.  In use, this will make it easy for you to remove the magnets from your refrigerator.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

Before we go further, let’s talk about these magnets for a minute.  The magnets that I’m using are rare-earth magnets, which I get from Lee Valley. If you’ve never used rare-earth magnets, you will be shocked at how strong even a small one can be.  A 3/8″ diameter magnet can easily hold five or six sheets of paper on your fridge.  I buy a “sampler pack” with several different sizes of disks and rods.  (Warning: rare-earth magnets can be dangerous or even fatal if swallowed. Do not let small children play with them!)  Bought this way, they are about $0.50 apiece.  Bought individually, they run about a dollar apiece.  I especially like to use the rod magnets (1/4″ diameter by 1/4″ or 1/2″ tall) and the medium-sized circular magnets (1/8″ thick by either 3/8″ or 1/2″ diameter).

I use a drill with an appropriate-sized bit to bore the very-shallow hole in the back-side of each workpiece.  Most need only one magnet, but you can also insert three of the very smallest magnets (1/8″ disks) into a bigger workpiece for extra holding power.

Step 4: Affix the Magnets

Unlike a lot of conventional magnets, rare-earth magnets are “reversible.”  That is, either side will stick firmly to a metal surface.  However, one side is still a little stronger than the other and will hold more firmly.  In the kinds of magnets I use, the “back” or weaker side is marked with a faint, red dot.  If your magnets aren’t marked, a little experimentation will tell you which side should face out.

Because these magnets are so strong, you must use a very strong glue, or else the first time you try to pull the magnet off your fridge, the wood part may come off in your hand, leaving the magnet itself sticking tightly to the metal surface.  I highly recommend a good, 2-part epoxy.  The ones with the longest cure-times are the strongest when fully cured, so skip the “quick-set” kind and go straight for the 24-hour cure time.  (I have successfully used JB-Weld epoxy, but be warned that this epoxy is slightly metallic and can be difficult to spread on the magnets.)  Mix up the epoxy according to the directions, apply a generous amount to each hole, and carefully insert each magnet.  Then leave them alone to let the glue cure completely.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

In the photo above, notice that the magnets are spaced out on the workbench.  If you cluster them together too closely before the glue is cured, sometimes the rare-earth magnets will be attracted to each other and will be pulled out of the glue before it has had a chance to set.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

Once the glue and the finish are dry, it’s time to put them up on the fridge–or on whatever metal surface you like.

Briar Refrigerator Magnets 1-2018

This is one of the best uses for small scraps of figured wood that I have ever come across.  And every time I hang my kids’ artwork on the fridge, I’m glad I took the time to make these very special magnets.

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

My Love-Hate Relationship with Spoon Carving Templates

I don’t remember exactly when I began to use templates to lay out my wooden spoons and spatulas, but after I had made my first dozen or so wooden spoons, I hit upon a couple of spoon shapes that just “worked” for me.  There were two of them, and they were comfortable to hold and convenient to use.  So every time I went to make another wooden spoon, I grabbed those spoons from my own kitchen and traced them out onto my workpiece.

Eventually I got tired of running to the kitchen every time I made a spoon, so I endeavored to make some templates out of some scraps of seasoned pine.  Over the course of a couple years, I made templates for two kinds of spoon and two kinds of spatulas.  It took a couple of tries to get each of the templates just right, but once I did, they worked.

And worked.

And worked.

I’ve been using some of these templates for 7 years now.  I’ve made dozens and dozens of utensils from these templates, and they sell reliably at markets.

But a couple months ago, I was making yet another batch of spoons for an upcoming holiday market.  I was in the middle of shaping yet another spoon and thought, “If I have to make one more spoon following these exact same lines, I’m going to scream!”

I didn’t scream. I held it in. But I did start deviating from my lines here and there, and it felt good.

Varying length, width, and depth a little bit here and there as the wood allows has brought some of the spontaneity back into my spoon making, and that’s a healthy thing when I’m cranking out a batch of spoons for an upcoming market.  But if I depart too far from the template, I will end up with a virtually useless utensil.  A handle that’s only one inch too long or short, a bowl that’s just a half-inch too wide or too narrow, or a neck that’s just 1/8″ too thick or too thin is all that separates a great utensil from a mediocre one.

Let me illustrate.  Take a look at these utensils:

Old Spoons New Spoons 2017

The ones on the left were made “freehand.”  I had a piece of wood in about that size, so I made a spoon or spatula out of it.  Each utensil is functional, but there’s something about each one that makes it a little awkward to use.  Maybe the handle is a bit too long or a bit too short, too thin or too thick.  They’re not bad, but they wouldn’t sell at a market. The two on the right, however, were made from templates, and experience tells me they will sell.  They feel right in the hand.

So for me it’s a delicate balance between varying each piece a little bit and staying within a very narrow range of proportions that fit the ordinary human hand.

A lot of spoon carvers avoid templates entirely.  Some sketch the spoon out freehand on the blank before carving it, while others just go at it with a hatchet and knife and see what comes out.  It can be fun to just “follow the grain,” and people who work without templates or layout lines will often say that they “just let the wood tell me what it wants to be.” The problem with that approach, however, is that all the wood really “wants” to be is a stick.  You have to turn it into a spoon.  And while it is important to work within the limits imposed by the material, you can’t let the material control the process and expect good results.

Another problem with the “let the wood decide what it wants to be” mentality is that, in the end, it’s not the wood that will be using the spoon; it’s a human being.  Although there’s always something of a symbiotic relationship between a woodworker and his or her material, ultimately the human has to be the one in charge.

The results of the “free” method can be anywhere on a spectrum between amazing and useless, with most falling somewhere in the middle–often clustering around “bemusing” and “not quite right.”  And I have two drawers full of my earliest spoons to prove it.  If you’re just making stuff to amuse yourself, then there’s no harm in working spontaneously all the time.  But if you aspire to make an excellent object–something that is both useful and pleasing–and further, if you need to make money by selling those objects (as I do), then you had better lay your work out carefully before you start.

Posted in Carving, Musings, Wood and Woodwork, Woodenware | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My First Woodworking Project (I think)

The other day I was rummaging around in an old box of scraps, and I pulled out a chunk of wood that I had completely forgotten about.

Doorstop 1996

It doesn’t look like much, but I’m pretty sure it’s my first woodworking project (not counting the tree forts I built with my brothers when I was a kid).  It’s a doorstop cut out of a 2X4.

I vaguely recall making this to prop a door open at a local church fellowship hall.  I used only one tool to make it: a circular saw.  Looking at the uneven surface, I recall that the sawblade was small (or I didn’t know how to adjust the depth), so it didn’t cut all the way through the 2X4.  So I cut part the way through it, flipped the workpiece over, and finished the cut from the other side–very unevenly.  I can’t believe I was happy enough with my work to put my name on it, but I must have been.

Doorstop 1996

The only reason I share it here is that it’s the first project I signed and dated.  I was a teenager back then.  I’m pretty sure I “carved” my initials and the year with a flathead screwdriver and a hammer.

It was not exactly an auspicious beginning to my woodworking avocation, but in one respect it was a telling start.  I represents a moment in my life when I looked at problem and came up with a solution that required only the tools and materials I had on hand.  And while I now have a lot more tools and a lot more materials on hand than I used to, this is still the approach that defines much of my work.  Whether it’s a need for a storage crate or a small table or a wooden spoon, I still delight in making what I need with my own hands.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Best Tire Swing Ever

We have a large oak tree in our front yard, and while we have attempted to put up several different kinds of tree swings for the children over the years, this tire swing has been by far the best.  The children have dubbed it the Best Tire Swing Ever.

Tire Swing Construction

It works best with two or three children, though one child can lay across the middle of the swing, and I have found up to five clinging to it at one time.  It has become something of a magnet for neighborhood children.  Constructing this tire swing was simple, and my only regret is that I didn’t put up something like this sooner.

For this tutorial, I took the pictures as I was replacing some worn-out parts on the original swing, so some of the parts will look old and others will look new.  As with any outdoor play equipment, you should routinely check for wear and damage, and replace worn parts where necessary.

Constructing the Swing: From the Bottom Up

Every tire swing begins with a tire.  I recommend a large tire if you can find one.  A 15″ rim diameter works really well, although a 14″ is acceptable.  If you don’t happen to have an old tire laying around your garage, it’s easy enough to get one.  (If there is a creek nearby, there’s probably a tire or two half-submerged in it–and if your neighbors routinely refer to it as a “crik,” it definitely has tires in it.)

Once you have your tire, decide which side will be the top of the swing.  Drill three 1/4″ equidistant holes in the sidewall of the tire for tie-in points.  You can do some fancy geometry to locate the holes, but I just eyeballed the locations.  Now flip the tire over, and in the opposite sidewall, drill six or more 1/4″ holes so that rainwater won’t collect in the tire.  Spin the drill bit in each hole for a couple seconds while you move the drill up and down, just to make sure the drainage holes don’t close back up.

Now it’s time to get some hardware.  At each of the three tie-in points, you need an assembly like this:

Tire Swing Construction

For each of your three chains, you need:

  • One stainless-steel eye bolt (I used a 1/4″ diameter bolt)
  • Two regular washers
  • One fender washer
  • One stop-nut
  • One quick-link.

If you’re not familiar with these terms, the sales associate at your local hardware store can probably help you.  (But for the record, a stop-nut is a regular steel nut with a nylon insert, which prevents the nut from loosening.  A fender-washer is an extra-wide washer.)  Although the bolt should be stainless steel, the rest of the hardware doesn’t have to be.  The tire protects it from the weather–but you can get all stainless hardware if you prefer.

The eye bolt will insert into the hole in the tire.  There should be one regular washer on the top of the tire.  Underneath, there should be the fender washer, the regular washer, and the stop-nut.  Hold the top of the eye bolt with pliers and tighten the nut with a ratchet equipped with a deep-well socket.

Next, you need the chain.  For chain, we used swing-set chain with plastic coating.  This keeps little fingers from getting pinched and clothes from getting caught.  Each chain is about 4′ long, so you will need 12′ total.  But don’t trust the hardware store’s measurement.  Make sure each chain has exactly the same number of links in it, or the swing will sit crooked.

Tire Swing Construction

The quick-link attaches the eye-bolt to the chain.  When you hang up the swing, be sure to orient the quick-link as you see above.  The bolt on the link should be tightened downward, not upward.  Otherwise, gravity will eventually loosen the nut and open the link.  So to repeat a saying that I learned from some rock climbers, screw down so you don’t screw up.

Up at the other end of the chains, you will need to gather them into a single tie-in point.  I used a device called a shackle:

Tire Swing Construction

Double-check that your chains are not twisted.  It helps to have a helper to hold the three chains in place while you attach the shackle.  Use pliers to tighten down the shackle’s bolt as much as you can.

At this point, you could tie the rope directly to the shackle and skip the next piece of hardware.  However, I find it very helpful to have a quick way to take the swing down if necessary.  (We always take it down when we go on vacation, for example.)  Also, it’s a lot easier to tie a knot in a thick rope without the weight of the whole swing pulling down on it.

Tire Swing Construction

I got the biggest stainless-steel snap-link (like a carabiner) that I could find at the home center.  The shackle can easily slip into the snap-link.  (Or, that’s how I had originally designed the swing.  But with our swing, I found that the rope I had hung was about a foot too short, so I added a short length of chain between the shackle and the snap-link.)  The snap-link hangs from the rope and ties in to the shackle.

Now about the rope.  The rope is probably the part of the swing most vulnerable to damage, so do not skimp on the rope.  We got the thickest braided-nylon rope that our home-center carried.  It think it’s about 7/8″ in diameter.  I repeat, do NOT skimp on rope!  Cheap, coated rope will quickly fray and break.

I can’t tell you how much to get, but I will tell you to get a couple feet more than you think you will need.  Remember that the knot at the bottom could take as much as a foot and a half, and the knot at the top (plus what goes around the tree branch) could take 2′-3′, depending on the size of the branch.  So measure the distance between the top of your swing chains and the branch and add 3′-4′.  The rope may also stretch a bit with use, so err on hanging the swing a little high at first.  I found that hanging the swing 2′ off the ground was about right.

You’ll need to tie knots in each end of the rope.  (If you’re a sailor or a Boy Scout, you can ignore this section about knots.)  There are a number of different knots that are appropriate for this application, but you need a knot that makes a non-tightening loop.  I used a very simple “overhand knot on a bight.”  It’s extremely easy to tie.  YouTube is your friend.  Tie the knot on both ends of the rope.

Tire Swing Construction

Now you need to get the rope around the overhead tree branch.  Unless you have a very tall ladder, getting the rope over the branch can be… um… interesting.  I ended up tying the rope to the end of a long, thin stick and throwing the stick over the branch javelin-style.  It only took me four or five tries!  I will not be competing in the javelin throw in any upcoming track-and-field events anytime soon, I assure you.

The good news is that you don’t have to tie the rope around the tree branch.  Since you have tied your overhand-knot-on-a-bight onto the end, just get the rope up over the branch.  Slip one end of the rope through the loop, and pull the rope until the rope is secure, as you see above.  Not only does this save you the trouble of having to tie a knot way up in a tree, but it also won’t cut off the tree branch’s circulation.

The Right Tree

Now a word about trees and tree branches.  Choosing the right location for your tire swing is important for both maximum fun AND safety.  First, be sure you are hanging your tire swing from a live branch–one that has lots of healthy-looking leaves on it–not from a dead one.  From the ground, it’s not always easy to spot the difference between a live and a dead branch unless you look carefully.

Second, the branch should be thick.  Branches do look thinner from the ground than they actually are, but on balance, choose a very stout-looking branch.  I think our swing is hanging from a branch that is over 8″ in diameter by my estimate.  Finally, be sure your swing is not too close to the tree’s trunk, or to any other obstacles that the swing might hit.  You can hang this kind of swing on a really high branch, so measure out your clearance around the swing.  Hang the swing at least as far from the tree’s trunk (or other obstacles) as the branch is from the ground.  So if the branch you’re hanging the swing from is, say, 12′ in the air, then you should hang the swing at least 12′ away from the trunk.  This will allow you to give your kids monster pushes, which they will love!

In my opinion, the higher the branch from which you are swinging, the more fun you will have–to a point.  If you go really high, say over 25′ in the air, the swing becomes difficult to push.  Ours is hanging from a branch that is about 16′ in the air, which is just about ideal.

Now it’s time to hang up your swing.

Tire Swing Construction

Of course, the children will want to test it out.

IMG_3180

Yes, this tire swing earns the Schuler Kids’ Seal of Approval!

 

**Disclaimer: I have done my best to ensure safety by using appropriate hardware and construction materials in this project.  But because I can’t go to the hardware store with you or help you pick out a tree branch, it is your responsibility to ensure that anything you build according to these instructions is strong and safe.  Test everything with your own weight before letting kids onto new equipment.  Furthermore, be aware that outdoor play equipment such as a tire swing does pose inherent dangers to all users, and your kids may suffer falls, bumps, and bruises (not to mention fights over whose turn it is to ride the swing and whose turn it is to push).  If you cannot accept such risks for your kids, do not put up outdoor play equipment.  Risks can be reduced (though not eliminated) by supervising your kids at play, regularly inspecting the equipment for damage, and using the strongest construction materials available.

 

Posted in Build-Alongs, Home Improvement, Kids, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Easy Wooden Pants Hanger

As a professional teacher, I own a lot of dress slacks.  Until recently, I had them hanging on a variety of different hangers, most of which sagged and left unsightly wrinkles on each leg.  There are a lot of effective ways to hang up a pair of slacks without wrinkling them, but most good hangers are expensive and hog valuable space on the rack.  My new pants hangers each cost approximately 75 cents took under five minutes to make.

Making them requires only a few simple woodworking tools and almost no skill.  Here’s how I did it.

I began with some old wire hangers that came from the dry cleaner.  Such hangers are easy to find.  These are have a cardboard tube that each end of the wire sticks into.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

I had most of my slacks hanging on hangers like these.  They worked for a while, until the cardboard began to sag and finally break in the middle.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

I had a lot of them.

You could use regular wire coat hangers for this project just as easily, but I had these ready to hand.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

The first step is to use wire cutters to snip off the lower wire close to each end.  I cut the wire about 3/4″ from each end, but the exact length isn’t critical.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

I also clipped the wire at an angle so as to leave a sharp point.  That will be very helpful later when it comes time to assemble these.  Be careful, though, as cut wire IS very sharp.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

The next step is to cut the new wooden rod to length.  I used 1/2″ diameter poplar dowels from the home center.  They’re often labeled “hardwood dowels,” and the wood often has a slightly green color.  They should run you less than $2 apiece.  I got mine for $1.69 each.

At the store, take some time selecting the straightest dowels you can find.  To test straightness, just sight down the length of each dowel rod.  If they look straight, they are straight enough.  But if you don’t trust your eye, roll them on the floor.  A bent dowel will wobble a lot.  A straight one will roll pretty evenly.

Cut your dowels to 16 inches long.  If you bought 48-inch dowels, you can get exactly three hangers out of each dowel with no waste!  I cut them with a small hand saw and a bench hook–that’s the handy holding device pictured above.  (See the end of this post for more details on making a bench hook.)

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

Next, drill a small hole into each end of the dowel.  You can eyeball the approximate center.  Go as straight as you can, but don’t sweat a crooked or off-center hole.  The hanger will work fine even if your drilling is off a little bit.

I like to stand my stock up in a bench vise, but if you don’t have a vise, you can brace one end of the dowel on something solid, hold the dowel in your hand, and carefully drill the end.  I braced mine onto my bench hook, and it worked great.  Just don’t slip!

Poplar is a fairly soft wood, so use a smaller diameter drill bit than your hanger wire.  I used a 1/16″ bit, but you could go one size bigger without trouble.  The exact depth of the hole is not crucial.  I just drilled to the depth of the drill bit’s flutes.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

The dowels come from the store sanded smooth–which is great if you want them like that.  However, I don’t like my slacks slipping off the hanger and onto the floor at the slightest touch–as they will if the rod is too slick.  So I used a piece of 80-grit sandpaper to roughen the rods a little.  I just swiped the sandpaper down the length of the rod once, turned it slightly, and did it again, until the whole rod was just a little coarse.  Just remember to clean off any sawdust before you hang your slacks on these things.

While you’ve got the sandpaper in your hand, also sand off any ragged fibers that the saw left at each end.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

Now it’s time to assemble your new hanger.  With your fingers, press each cut end of the wire into the holes in each end of the dowel rod as far as you can.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

If you feel they haven’t gone in far enough, a few taps on each end with a hammer will seat the wire firmly.  If the wire doesn’t seem secure, you can always add a dab of strong glue, such as E6000 glue or even hot glue, to each hole.  But that probably won’t be necessary.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

And that’s all there is to it!  Hang up your slacks on your new hanger.

I didn’t use any kind of stain or finish on the wood because (a) I didn’t want to wait for a finish to cure, and (b) I don’t want any smelly or sticky stuff on my clothes.  These are going in my closet anyway, and I really don’t care what color they are.

Wooden Pants Hanger 2017

I made up a dozen of these in under an hour.  It’s probably the easiest woodworking project I’ve done in years–and I’ll use the hangers I made for years to come.

Bonus: The Bench Hook

I use my bench hook all the time.  I actually have two of them, and for cutting up long stock it’s nice to have a pair.  But for small stock, one works just fine all by itself.

A bench hook is simple to make, and almost as simple to use.  Each one consists of three pieces of wood.  The base is a wide-ish board 3/4″ thick.  Mine is about 8″ wide and 12″ long, but exact dimensions aren’t critical.  You could easily build this with smaller pieces–whatever you have on hand.

 

Bench Hook 2017

The other two pieces are they cleats.  They are narrower bits of wood, almost as long as the base.  They can be screwed, nailed, or glued to the base, as you see above.  Mine are glued on.  If you’re right-handed, the smaller piece should go almost to the right-hand end of the base but not quite.  Leave between 1″ and 1/2″ of the base protruding past the cleats.

To use the bench hook, the lower cleat hooks over the top of a workbench or table.  You hold your stock against the upper cleat with your off-hand, and you saw with your dominant hand.  I have two sawing spots in this bench hook–one on the end and the other in the middle.  The one in the middle is best for very small pieces that need to be supported on both sides of the saw.  I use the spot on the end for everything else.

Bench Hook 2017

When one side of the bench hook gets too chewed up to use–which will take quite a long time–you can flip the whole bench hook over and use the other side.  This essentially doubles the working life if the jig.

The saw I’m using is a cheap dovetail saw made by crown, which I think retails for about $25.  But any normal, sharp saw with relatively small teeth can be used effectively on a bench hook.  With practice, you can hold a workpiece firmly and saw a clean, straight line with ease–no clamping required.

If you do much craft work at all, I highly recommend investing the fifteen minutes it will take you to make one or two bench hooks.

Posted in Wood and Woodwork | 3 Comments

Old Names on Old Tools

Most old tools are anonymous–unless you knew the previous owner personally, there’s no way to tell who owned them before you did.  But there are happy exceptions.  Two of my handplanes have a previous owner’s name on them.  And while the names don’t exactly give me a full history of these tools, they do tell me something about the men who owned them.

Mr. A. Robertson

My wooden jack plane was once owned by Mr. A. Robertson.

Wooden Jack Plane Sandusky

I know Mr. Robertson only by his name stamp on this handplane.  I got the plane from a guy in Alaska, but I have no way of knowing whether Mr. Robertson lived in Alaska, or whether the plane was brought up there by someone else later.

Wooden Jack Plane Name Stamps

Mr. Robertson really liked his name stamp.

Wooden Jack Plane Name Stamps

I mean, he REALLY liked it.

He stamped his name on this plane no fewer than 26 times!

Wooden Jack Plane Name Stamps

There are at least four name stamps on every side except the sole.  On the top, there are six.

Wooden Jack Plane Name Stamps

Mr. Robertson also stamped the wedge, and he punched his initials into the top of the iron.

At first, I thought that this was just a guy who was excited about a new name stamp, and that he got carried away marking his name on his handplane.  But the more I look at the stamps, the more I think differently.   This man was methodical–to the point of being obsessive.

If he had been merely trying out a new stamp, I would expect more irregularity in the depth of the stamps.  But the depth is quite regular.  Plus, he always stamps his name in pairs, and in each pair of stamps, one stamp is inverted.  That suggests a very deliberate method.  I think that Mr. Robertson was determined that nobody would steal his tool and be able to sand off (or otherwise disfigure) all the name stamps.  After all, it would be relatively simple for a thief to do away with one or two stamps, but not 26.  It wouldn’t be worth a thief’s time to erase that much evidence.  The fact that Mr. Robertson had a name stamp at all indicates that he was a professional, probably working alongside other professionals–a situation in which it is all too likely for tools to disappear.

The general condition of the plane confirms Mr. Robertson’s meticulous character.  The tool is quite well cared for, given its probable age.  It was made by the Sandusky Tool Co., which operated from 1869 to 1929.  That would place this wooden plane at over 88 years old at the very least.  The iron has not been ground down very much.  In a plane this old, I would expect more of the iron to be gone due to regrinding.  But if the user is careful–as I think Mr. Robertson was–an iron need not be ground very often.

Wooden Jack Plane Sandusky

Yet the plane does show wear from regular use.  The ends have been tapped regularly with a mallet, which is how these wooden planes are adjusted.  When I acquired the plane, the sole was not quite level.  It had been inexpertly resurfaced after some wear.  I doubt that the sole had been planed down by Mr. Robertson, who was far too conscientious a man to have done a job like that.

I wish I knew more about Mr. Robertson.  I wish I could compliment him on taking such good care of his tools.  I hope that he would be pleased to know that his old jack plane is still in regular use, nearly a hundred years later.  But I really, really want to know why he stamped his name on his plane 26 times.  I’m sure there’s quite a story behind that.

Mr. R. Kendall

The second handplane is about the same age as the wooden jack plane.  I picked up this Stanley #3C smoothing plane at an antique mall in Indiana.  The plane is an early type 9, which means it was made sometime between 1902 and 1907.  (Note for handplane nerds: I know it’s an early type 9 because it has a type-9 frog and body, but the lateral adjustment lever is that of a type 8, which means that the plane was probably one of the first type 9s produced, and the factory was still using the last of some of its type-8 parts.)  The plane was in remarkably good condition for its age–it merely required some cleaning and the gentle removal of a little surface rust.

Stanley #3 Smoother Restoration

This is what the plane looks like after some cleaning.

Stanley #3 Smoother Restoration

And this is what it looked like before the cleaning, but after total disassembly.

When I first bought the plane, I didn’t even noticed it was marked.  But as I was cleaning off the tote with some Murphy Oil Soap, I noticed something on the top.  It seemed to be some initials punched into the wood:

Stanley #3 Smoother Restoration

I could just make out an RK.  Perhaps you can, too.

I was intrigued.  What could RK stand for?  I thought it must be the original owner’s initials.  I didn’t think much more of it until I started cleaning the rest of the parts.

Stanley #3 Smoother Restoration

As I cleaned the lever cap, I found that under a light coating of rust, there was an etch, faint but distinct.  It was difficult to photograph, but in just the right light, you can read the name R. Kendall.

Now I knew what RK stood for!

Like Mr. A Robertson, Mr. R. Kendall is mostly a mystery.  Yet I can deduce a few things about him from this tool.  Like Mr. Robertson, he cared for his tools very much.

I would guess that Mr. Kendall was a small man, or at least that he had small hands.  The #3 is a fairly small smoothing plane, and my average-sized hands are not altogether comfortable on the tote.  It is true that the #3 cost a little less than the #4, so it could be that Mr. Kendall was merely pinching pennies when he bought it.  In Stanley’s 1934 catalog, the #3 with a corrugated sole cost $7.10 and the #4 cost $7.45–not an insubstantial price difference back then.  Yet Mr. Kendall opted for the corrugated sole, an extra expense that a true cheapskate would have avoided.  I think that the #3 fit Mr. Kendall’s hands, or perhaps his usual scale of work.

Stanley #3 Smoother Restoration

I do know that Mr. Kendall was a craftsman.  The plane is expertly cared for.  Despite its age, the wooden parts are in excellent condition, and the Japanning (the black paint on the inside of the body) is almost completely intact.

Also, the neat, cursive etching on the lever cap suggests a solid grammar-school education.  His penmanship is precise.  And the fact that this is a neat etch rather than, say, a shaky engraving indicates that he cared for the general appearance of his tools.

Mr, Kendall also knew how to adjust his plane for maximum performance.  When I got the plane, the frog had been set pretty far forward, making the mouth very tight.  Set that way, the plane will produce a fine shaving with minimal tear-out.  While it is possible that a later owner re-set the frog, I doubt it.  Frogs are not normally repositioned unless there is trouble with the plane’s performance.  If Mr. Kendall was the one who positioned the frog, it is clear that he was knowledgable and experienced with handplanes.

It is highly likely that Mr. Kendall, like Mr. Robertson, was a professional woodworker of some kind–perhaps a furniture maker or a trim carpenter.  An amateur has little need to put his name on his tools.  But on a job site or in a busy shop, tools have a way of “taking legs,” as they say.  Mr. Kendall valued his tools too highly to let them go easily.

Conclusion

One of the biggest changes in woodworking over the last century has been the de-professionalization of the craft.  There are still a lot of professional cabinet shops as well as a few individual artisans carving out a living for themselves (sometimes literally), but I would guess that, today, the vast majority of woodworking tools, and especially high-quality hand tools, are bought by amateurs, not by professionals.

That means that, when we find high-quality, antique tools for sale today, there’s a good chance that they were originally owned and used by professionals.  These were men who knew the value of hard work and good tools, and that’s why we have so many good antique tools available to us today.  Without perhaps realizing it, these bygone professionals have left us a rich inheritance in their tools.

So here’s to you, Mr. Robertson and Mr. Kendall!  I’m much obliged to you.

Posted in History, Wood and Woodwork | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Long Wall Shelf for Books

Bibliophiles face an ongoing problem: where to store the books?  In our house, we have run out of places to put more full-sized bookshelves, so we have had to get a little more creative by using more of our vertical space.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

Enter the long wall shelf.  I have always admired the ingenuity behind various wall-shelf designs.  The above wall shelf is especially designed to hold books, and to make use of some available space above a window and a dresser (below the mirror) in our bedroom.

(Yes, I know there is an ugly water spot on the ceiling.  Yes, the roof leak is now fixed.  Thanks for pointing that out, though.  It’s not like I look at that stain every single time I get up in the morning or anything.)

This is the second such shelf we have installed in our bedroom, and we love them.  They keep important books within reach while still keeping them out of the way.  There were, however, several challenges in designing and constructing them.  (1) A long shelf that holds a lot of books is going to sag in the middle, and the longer the shelf, the more it will sag, so I had to come up with some sort of support system for the center of the shelf.  (2) The shelf needed to be very strong, yet use simple joinery that could be cut on the ends of a 9-foot board.  You don’t want this thing crashing down on your head while you’re rummaging through your sock drawer.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

Taking my cue from old-fashioned timber-frame construction, I opted for angled braces on each end, attached to upright posts with lapped dovetails.  The posts are notched and screwed into the back corner of the shelf, and the dovetails on the braces prevent the shelf from sagging forward.  The tops of the posts are screwed to the wall studs.

The beauty of this design is that you find your wall studs first, and then you build your shelf to span the distance between the studs.  A couple big, long screws on each side, and the shelf is firmly and permanently anchored to the wall.  I used 3″ long deck screws.

The shelf you see in the photo above uses central bracing only on the back.  They are braces that are attached at an angle between the corner posts and the center of the back with lapped dovetails.  While elegant when the shelf is empty, the braces take up space behind the books, and the big books hang off too far.  For my longer shelf, I needed a different solution to the sag-problem.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

I opted for a third post in the center of the shelf, but instead of the lapped dovetail I used on the sides, I decided on a tusked tenon.  On the left, you see one of the braces for the end.  On the right, you see the middle post and brace with its longer tenon.  Making them required some precise layout and sawing, but cutting the joints was not difficult.  I built the end assemblies first–which was easy–and then used them as a template for the central assembly.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

I chopped the mortise in the post for the brace, then drilled it to drawbore the tenon.  That will keep the brace from coming loose, even if the glue ever fails.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

Laying out and cutting the through-mortise was the most difficult part of the whole process.  It’s not easy to lay out an angled mortise precisely in the middle of a long board.  I set my marking gauge based on the joint I had cut on the end of the board.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

Since the end assemblies use the same angles and placement as the center assembly, everything should work out.  Theoretically.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

I would normally just chop out a mortise in wood this soft.  (The uprights and braces are southern yellow pine, and the shelf itself is juniper.)  But the mortise runs across the grain, not with it, so I bored out most of the waste with a brace and bit.  Since it’s a through-mortise, I bored from each side.  There was a lot of flipping this board over and over again throughout the project.  After boring out the waste, I cut out the rest with some chisels.  Cutting the mortise at an angle required some care.  It’s a good thing that the insides of mortises are never seen, because I left that surface pretty ragged.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

And just to prove that even bloggers screw things up sometimes, here is my first attempt at a dry-fit.  I had cut the brace about 1/4″ too short, and you can see the gap between the shoulder and the upright.  So I discarded that brace and made a second one that fit properly.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

Once I had the mortise in the shelf cut, I put everything together, marked the tenon where it came out of the mortise, and then bored a 3/8″ hole through the tenon, just slightly overlapping the line.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

I shaved down one side of a hardwood dowel and tapped it through the hole, pulling everything up tight.  The dowel–or tusk–will hold up the shelf in the middle and prevent it from sagging.  I rounded over the end of the tenon, just so I didn’t have any sharp corners sticking out.

 

And here is the shelf with everything glued up and assembled:

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

For a finish, I just rubbed some paste wax on it and buffed it off.  There’s no need to do any kind of elaborate finish here.  Once the glue set up, it was time to mount the shelf in its place on the wall.

Long Wall Shelf Summer 2017

Two big screws in each upright holds everything in place.

It will hold almost nine feet of books.  And it won’t take me long to fill it up.

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How to Restore a Wooden Cutting Board

Wooden cutting boards are wonderful.  I wouldn’t be without them in my kitchen.  But over time, their surfaces get chewed up–especially if you keep your kitchen knives sharp.  A wooden cutting board can go years and years before its surface needs to be restored, but eventually it will be time to resurface it.

We were thinning out our camping gear a while ago, and we pulled out this sorry looking wooden cutting board.  The surface was just too nasty to put it to use in our kitchen.
“Well,” I thought, “I know what to do with this.”

Cutting Boards 2017

I set to work planing down each surface with my smoothing plane.  About two minutes later, the surface looked very different.

Cutting Boards 2017

The handplane leaves a glassy smooth surface, so no scraping or sanding was required.  The wood appears to be hard maple, which is very common in older wooden cutting boards.  It’s a tough wood–the same stuff they use for bowling alleys and basketball courts.  A handplane needs to be razor sharp to cut this wood effectively.  A closely-set chipbreaker also helps a lot.

Now, I realize that not everyone who has old wooden cutting boards also has a good handplane.  But if you’re the sort of person who does a lot of handyman projects around the house, I think it’s really helpful to have a handplane.  An old #4 or #5 Stanley is not hard to find used, and with a simple sharpening routine, you can keep the blade razor sharp.  (There are many good tutorials on YouTube and elsewhere.)  Just avoid the new-in-the-box handplanes at the big-box home improvement store.  They’re pretty much all junk.

So after I posted the above pictures to social media, I got a message from my mom.  Would I please bring my handplane next time I visit so I can resurface her cutting boards too?

Sure, Mom.  I’d love to.

Cutting Boards 2017

These are her cutting boards before I started work on them.  They had belonged to my grandmother, and I remember them being in our kitchen growing up.  In addition to the marks left from normal kitchen use, there were scoring marks from craft projects, as well some paint splatters and pinprick holes.  I had to remove quite a bit of material from each side, but when I was done, they looked pretty good.

Cutting Boards 2017

I not only resurfaced the working faces of each board, but I also scraped the grime off each end and edge with a card scraper.  When I brought the cutting boards back into the house, my Mom hardly recognized them.  But she was pretty happy with them.

I hadn’t brought any finishing materials with me, but I don’t think it’s really necessary to put any finish on cutting boards anyway.  They will slowly but naturally absorb oils in the kitchen.  I’m not lazy, just efficient.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of cutting boards, I was in a high-end home-furnishings boutique in a big city last month, and I ran across this fancy cutting board:

Cutting Boards 2017

It’s probably more of a serving platter than a cutting board, but you get the idea.  Zoom in on the price tag if you can, and you’ll see it’s priced at $140.00

It certainly is a nice piece of spalted maple, but I think the price is a little steep.  But I’ll tell you what: if you want a similar cutting board, I will happily make you one out of spalted pecan for half the price of the above cutting board.

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