Beat the Clock

No one likes to be under time pressure. It’s kind of cool and exhilarating when you rush to the phone to call your favorite radio station to see if you could win one of their contests. But, if you are at work, and three ASAP-high-priority-hot-button projects that were due last week land on your desk at the same time, your day is pretty much ruined.

The same thing comes into play with woodworking.

Honest answers, please. Raise your hand if you have ever opened your big mouth and offered to build something for a special occasion – even before you considered how long it would take.

One, two, three, four… OK, there are a lot of you. I’ve done it. A lot.

When a friend or relative announces they are expecting a bundle of joy, I always seem to volunteer to build a cradle. When a happy couple decides to make their relationship a permanent one, my mouth is no longer under my conscious control, and I blurt out that I’d be more than happy to build a suitable present. When a respected co-worker announces his or her retirement, my machismo rises to the surface and I offer to build a shadow box for them to frame their work mementos.

Yes, I am as guilty as they come. Time and again, I never seem to learn from previous experience and think before I offer.

Many’s the weekend I’d be in the shop, deadline fast approaching as I race from operation to operation trying to assemble that gift I promised. Cut the side of a cradle too short? That’s OK, just go back to the saw and trim a little off the other one to match. No time to machine a new one. Joint a little gappy? Some wood filler would do nicely. No time to go back and fix the problem. What about those dovetails I wanted to cut to really make the piece look special? Fagetaboutit! Just glue, screw and plug. NEXT!

Yeah, when you put yourself with your back to the wall, you can really find yourself taking some shortcuts. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten hurt racing to the deadline, but I have got to really start focusing on allowing more time for projects.

For many of these projects, it’s OK to not have them on hand for the big day. If you are building a barrister’s bookcase for a niece who graduated law school, it’s OK to hold off with it until she actually starts with a law firm.

Unfortunately, just as many of these projects do have hard and fast deadlines. If your plan is to build a cradle for your new grandchild, you have to remember that babies sleep in cradles for a very short time. You may find yourself changing that gift from a cradle to a changing table to a toy box to a student’s desk to the aforementioned barrister’s book case as time passes!

Why bring this up now? I’ve done it again! I’ve promised my wife a new dinner table for Thanksgiving, and I’m wondering if the finish will be dry enough to keep the turkey platter from sticking. When I went to my Weiss Hardwoods in Largo, my hardwood supplier, and told Earl in the mill shop what I was doing, he laughed. “Yeah,” he said, “This is the time of the year when we see lots of folks come in with the wild-eyed look.” He stopped for a second, glanced at me sideways, and asked, “You didn’t promise it, did you?”

Uhh… That guy Earl can read minds!The clock is ticking yet again, and word is already out in the family that they’ll be dining from the latest Tom creation. Bad enough I have to cook the dinner, I also have to have the table it will be served on ready to roll. No pressure, right?I know that many of you might be considering building Christmas presents. I’m sure each of you has allowed plenty of time to design, build, finish, wrap and ship those beauties, haven’t you?

If you need some motivation, here’s a countdown clock you just might want to check from time to time. You know, just to be sure you have enough time available to make it happen.http://www.emailsanta.com/clock.html

Lots of luck getting those projects done, and be safe!

The Gateway Guy

When I was living off campus at college, my roommates and I weren’t particularly picky about our furnishings. The first two weeks I was in the apartment, we had very little in the way of furniture; an old couch left by former tenants, a TV up on concrete blocks and a pine plank, our beds and a kick butt stereo system. Yes, we had our priorities in order.

When my parents came to visit me the first time, things started to improve. We got some really ugly couches that looked like they came out of some old lady’s parlor, an old dining table that must have been trendy when Kennedy was in office and a coffee table that had seen its share of coffee spills. This was good, but whenever we had a chance to upgrade (read: diving the dumpster), we went for it. Eventually, the majority of our furniture was lovingly plucked from the refuse bin.

Boy, was I in for a shock when my wife and I got married. We had to have some decent (read: NOT obtained by diving the dumpster) furniture to fill our apartment, and eventually our house. Believe it or not, I was shocked by the prices charged for low-quality, mass produced junk. I could forget any sort of custom made furniture – that was way out of my price range! That’s part of the reason why I got into woodworking – I knew there had to be a better way to get good stuff that was custom for my home. And, as I built for my home and showed off my pictures, a strange thing started to happen. Suddenly, I was approached by lots of folks who wanted things built for THEIR homes.

Now, I am a hobby woodworker. I don’t feed my family based on how much I earn building things. And, I don’t have the overhead a business would have, so my expenses are pretty low. And, I have no problem building gifts for my family and friends and giving those away – I know the folks I’m building for will truly appreciate my efforts. And, when I build, it’s kinda like I’m going out to play tennis or golf – it’s what I do for fun.

But, some folks who want things built see me as their gateway to inexpensive custom-built furniture. Now, people like our Woodtalk Online Editors Marc Spagnulo and Gail O’Rourke are professionals at this stuff. They have their expenses calculated out and know exactly how much the market will bear for their hand-crafted custom projects. Their customers don’t balk, because they know they are buying custom pieces from talented craftspeople. Folks like me are at a little disadvantage, because weekend warrior types like me are often not sure exactly what our work is truly worth – or we have difficulty making others see the value of our work.

A few years back, this one lady in my office approached me about building an entertainment center. She had a drawing of what she wanted, and she was very particular with her requirements. “I want it made out of cherry with dovetailed drawers and those doors that open then slide back into the case.”

As I started wrapping my mind around this massive piece of furniture she wanted, she said something that made my jaw hit the floor. “Oh, I saw something like that at Ikea and they wanted $600 for it. ” Pause. “You can build it for less, can’t you?”

I was kind of stunned by what she said, and I told her that I’d have to price out the materials and determine how long it would take to build before I could give her a final cost. When I found that the special door hardware she wanted ran no less than $200, and I visited my hardwood supplier to find cherry ply and stock at a premium here in Florida, I came back and told her she’d be better off buying from Ikea. It was going to cost me money out of my pocket to just buy the materials for the project. And, forget about buying some saw blades or bits with any profit from this challenging job.

Now, this is the exception, not the rule. My neighbors, a couple from the World War II generation, needed some cabinet pull outs made. After a few days of knocking around in the shop and cobbling together some workable units, I built and installed the pieces to their satisfaction and delight. I wasn’t expecting anything in the way of payment, but the lady of the house handed me a tidy sum of money for my efforts. When I said I couldn’t accept any payment, she told me, “You know, if I get this for free, I’m not going to be sure that I got the job done right. Besides, custom cabinetmakers like you deserve the money they earn.

“That was a refreshing change of pace!pic 1My shopMe busting butt in my shop:

The Perfect Joint

Woodworking magazines are a wealth of information. I’ve been a subscriber to Popular Woodworking since 1998, and I have plenty of editions of Fine Woodworking, Wood, Woodcraft, Shop Notes, Woodsmith and many others on my book shelf. Every so often I trot out an entire year’s collection and look through all of the offerings. Great step-by-step projects. Excellent technique articles. Outstanding tool reviews. Each edition has much to offer.

Of course, there are the times when you’ll seem to read the same article over and over again in several editions of different magazines. “Master the Mortise and Tenon!” “Mortise and Tenons made easy.” “Cut spot on mortises and tenons.” And, those may be in three different magazines in the span of eight months. Hey, let’s face it; some topics are so essential to woodworking that you need to see them every so often.

A few years ago, there was this big push to do an article that really left me confounded. I saw it first in Popular Woodworking, then later in Wood. I’m sure it must have been in a few others. It was a wood joint torture test. The premise of these articles is a sound one – let’s find out just how much strength do each of these joints have. It’s a topic that has reared its ugly head in woodworking circles for generations. The tests were devilishly simple, and looked like they were cooked up by Wile E. Coyote of Looney Tunes fame. Basically, a sample of each of frequently used joints – dovetails, mortise and tenon, rabbets, biscuits, etc. – were placed on a work platform, and a 55 pound anvil was dropped a certain distance onto the joint.

The results, as they say, were spectacular. All of these joints, save the beefiest mortise and tenon, were demolished. Splintered. Crushed. The test did expose some of the strengths and weaknesses of each type of joint. For instance, a 90 degree box joint totally flattened out after its date with the anvil, while the dovetail did offer some resistance to the force of gravity.

My only question, however, is what exactly was the point of each of these tests? Sure, if you routinely abuse your woodworking projects, you had better build them like timber framed structures. But, for a hope chest, is a box joint necessarily worse than dovetails? The tests also showed that wood breaks away from pocket screwed joints when hit by an anvil. If this makes you believe that a mortised and tenoned face frame is superior to one that’s pocket screwed, and you have the time and determination to do all of that extra work, be my guest. However, aren’t most face frames joined to the cabinet box, gaining tremendous support from the case itself? In some cases, speed of assembly AND strength are the guiding principles.

Some woodworkers may use this test as further evidence that the ‘Old Masters’ who built furniture before us used only classically cut joints because that is the only way to do it right. But, hey, if the Shakers were so creative as to create work saving devices as the circular saw blade and the washing machine, don’t you think they would have relished the opportunity to use pocket screws or biscuits if they had the opportunity?

Am I saying that there’s no place for classic woodworking joints? Not at all.

Am I saying that there’s no place for new-fangled woodworking joinery techniques? Absolutely not.

What I am saying is that woodworking is an incredible craft, and there is an incredible array of choices available to today’s woodworker. Feel free to pick the right joint for the right job, regardless of the era from which it came, or how it fared when an anvil fell on it.

Odd Cool Tools

If you’ve been following Wood Talk Online for a while, you’ll know I am a big hand tool guy. Not because I relish the thought of sweating in my shop (that’s a given during the long Florida summers) or I want to do things the ‘hard way’ (my dad would argue otherwise…).

With hand tools, I feel more connected to the craft, get to understand the wood better and get myself into less trouble should something go amiss (have you ever had a router bit slip out of the collet and ruin a project? If so, you’ll know what I mean!).

When people think of hand tools, their thoughts first turn to hand planes, hand saws and chisels. As well they should. Even in the most electrified shop, competent woodworkers should have at least a good set of chisels, a block plane and maybe a backsaw to handle some basic tasks that would take forever to jig up on a power tool. I have those in my shop, and I find myself reaching for them frequently.

I also have a few others that I find myself reaching for time and again. Many of them may not be found in your shop, but each of them really makes a difference in how I work. Fortunately, many of them are also dirt cheap and take only a limited amount of time to learn how to use. Ready?
Marking gauge. This has become a mainstay in my shop, and you can have mine when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. There is no better way to mark out a mortise or how wide you want a rabbet on a work piece. Sure, you could do the pencil-on-the-side-of-the-combination-square trick, but, come on, how accurate could that really be? I have one of the gauges made by Veritas that uses a circular blade to score a clean line on the wood. Older gauges use a sharp pin that will tear the wood fibers when you drag them across, so always look for one that slices. You will be very happy.

Striking knife. Pencils are nice for marking cuts, and I have a slew of them in a mug up on my work bench. But, when I really need to be precise, I reach for the striking knife. It has a flat side and a beveled side, and when I run that flat side against a steel rule, I get the exact mark that I need. Very handy, and I keep it with me at all times when doing joinery.

Spokeshaves. Just like the name implies, spoke shaves used to shave spokes on wheels. You can get a really comfortable grip on the twin side handles, and you usually pull the tool toward you. They act sort of like miniature planes, able to fair bandsawn curves with ease. Some have flat soles; others have curved ones, so look to get a set. Some of the new ones are very sweet, but Stanley made these things by the bushel, so you are bound to find a nice model at a garage sale or flea market. The only difficult thing about these are the blades are very small compared with plane blades, so you have to really concentrate when you sharpen them.

Scrapers. Card scrapers are so simple, you have to wonder how they qualify as tools. It’s a rectangular (or shaped) piece of steel. That’s it. But, when you burnish them just right, these things are magic. I was working on a piece of very curly maple. I knew if I put that piece through the thickness planer, it would come out looking like the surface of the moon. And, if I tackled it with sandpaper, it was going to take a long time to get right. I locked the piece into my vise and started scraping it. The wood was incredible! All of the rough surface came off, and the wood was smooth as glass. Look for more information on tuning a scraper in later articles, or check out Wood Whisperer Episode 14 – Barely Scraping By.

Rasps. They look like rabid files, don’t they? And, yes, they can splinter wood if used the wrong way. But, if you need to shape something, I’d be hard pressed to find a nicer tool for the purpose. The key is to use a light touch and remove small amounts at a time. I was working on a small box with a lot of curves in it, and the plans in the magazine called for three very intricate jigs to be built to achieve the results. Since the beginning of the plans mentioned that the woodworker had done most of the shaping by hand, I figured it had to be easier that building the jigs. Sure enough, the raps grated away the right amount of wood, and the final piece needed some very light sanding and scraping to perfect the finish. It sure beat listening to power tools running!

You might be reluctant to give hand tools a try because you think they are old fashioned or slow. However, I think you might be surprised just how much faster, better and more enjoyable they can make your woodworking. I’m glad I started down that slippery slope!

The Far East is Far Out!

Growing up, my buddies and I used to debate really Earth-moving stuff all the time. For instance:

Could The Flash outrun Superman?

Who was stronger? The Bionic Man or Spider Man?

Who did you think is cooler? Luke Skywalker or Han Solo?

We thought we were so darned sophisticated, debating such highbrow stuff.

The best debate, however, went like this: In a straight up fair fight, who would win – Bruce Lee or Muhammad Ali?

As any kid growing up in the western hemisphere, it was only natural that I put all of my ice cream money on the greatest boxer of all time – Ali. After all, he floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. It seemed to be a no-brainer.

“But,” my friends would remind me, “Bruce Lee uses all that mysterious kung-fu stuff.” And, yes, in those Saturday morning karate movies, Bruce and his enemies seemed to do a lot of floating and stinging as well.

Believe it or not, that was the first exposure I had ever had to Eastern cultures. From there, my mind was opened to these strange and mysterious things and practices. Chinese food (the kind we make here in the United States), Japanese cars (everyone remembers the movie Gung Ho, right?) and the martial arts took me to lands far away on the other side of the Earth.Chisels

What the heck does this have to do with woodworking?Well, when I was just starting out with the craft, my thoughts naturally went back to my dad’s tool collection in his workshop. Crosscut and rip saws, power tools, chisels, a Sears hand plane with a high black painted tote. In my mind, those were the images of what woodworking tools should look like, and, when I started my tool collection, my decisions were based on those tool forms.

That was until I got my hands on my first Japanese style handsaw.Japanese Tools

The simple act of cutting wood is a universal need. Cultures thousands of miles apart still had trees and a need for places to live. Thus, they developed similar tools to perform similar functions (cutting, shaping, jointing, etc.) But, while these tools are very similar, there was a mysterious (yes, that word again) feeling about these tools.

First of all, that new handsaw cut on the pull stroke. Wow. That took some getting used to, but it seemed to make so much more sense. I couldn’t get the saw to bind – something I had no trouble doing with my crosscut saw. The blade was ultra thin. I could flex the saw and cut plugs and dowels flush. For me, pulling seemed to be a more natural sawing motion than pushing.Wood Plane

One day, my neighbor Chris gave me his dad’s set of Japanese chisels. I was floored. It was quite an honor because my neighbor’s dad was a noted architect and had worked with George Nakashima, and Chris was very proud of his dad’s accomplishments. The chisels were a little beaten up, but, when I sharpened them, they honed to a fine edge. They have a very broad tip and a narrow body, which makes them perfect for cleaning up joints. When I need to do some very fine work, I find myself reaching for them a lot more frequently than my very nice set of western chisels.

Now, I am starting to get into eastern planes. Again, they do the same work that western planes can do, but these babies are pulled instead of pushed, giving a completely different feel. There are jointers, jacks, smoothers – all of the tasks that western planes are called upon to perform.

Every time I start working with those new form planes, I always make the comparison in my mind.Are the eastern tools any better than western ones? Define ‘better.’ Both give excellent results when sharpened, tuned and used properly. Both styles are the culmination of hundreds – if not thousands – of years of development by master craftsmen. Some may handle certain tasks better, but each is a solid performer in my workshop.

I guess both schools of tools would make for an interesting fight…

Proper plane preparation prevents problems, pal

Rusty and CrustyOne of my most favorite movies of all times is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Who could ever forget Indiana Jones trekking around the world to find the lost Ark of the Covenant, battling bad guys left and right while taking a beating that would kill just about any mortal person?

In many ways, I see myself as a little bit of that adventurer/archaeologist when I start hunting down old hand tools. (OK, it’s my childhood fantasy to run around exotic marketplaces with a bull whip and a brown crusher on my head. There. What’s it to you?)

Instead of running away from evil Nazi agents, I can be found some Saturdays walking around the long-running flea market a few miles from my home. My wife hates going there, but I get a kick out of looking at the old tools hand tools for sale. Some are in pretty tough shape, while others look like they have never seen a square foot of wood in their lives. Some have reasonable prices on them, while others… well… you have to wonder why a nasty looking chunk of rust with a rotten handle can cost more than a plane you can buy new from a woodworking store…

I’ve bought lots of old tools – especially hand planes – at that flea market and in the other big virtual flea market out there – eBay. Since I have told my family about my interest in old tools, I’ve been getting them by the bushel. Old hand planes, spoke shaves, auger bits – it’s a bonanza of old iron that shows up at my door – whenever someone needs something built!

Before you decide to take the plunge, it pays to become familiar with what hand planes are all about. You can check out an excellent primer at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hand_plane), or, what I would recommend would be to get to a library and check out Garret Hack’s The Handplane Book. These are both great places to look for the basics.

Once you get the old tools, you really want to put them to use as soon as possible. While you could take a rusty old hulk and try to work with it, it pays to do a few things first.

Pieces parts1. Before you buy – or after you receive one as a gift – check the plane out thoroughly. Look for broken totes and knobs (you can buy or make replacements), cracked iron, warps and twists, missing pieces, etc. I’ve received some planes that look like they were used for target practice – needless to say, those babies are probably not going to get put back into service. I typically put the broken planes up on a shelf in my garage for decoration and as sources of spare parts.

2. Once you decide you want to rehab the plane, take the entire thing apart. Remove the handles, cap iron, frog, everything. I usually start with wiping everything down with a rag sprayed with some WD-40 and a blast of compressed air for the nooks and crannies. For screws, use an old toothbrush to get the crud out of the teeth.

3. Some folks become crazy about getting rid of rust. I’ve seen people sandblast their planes, submit them to electrolysis and a bunch of other methods to strip off a layer of rust. For me, I’ve found 400 grit wet/dry paper with a blast of the aforementioned WD-40 can clean up the pieces very nicely.

Shiney and New4. Assemble the tote, knob and frog into the plane body, but hold off on the blade and chip breaker. I usually stick a piece of 320 grit wet/dry paper down to my table saw, lubricate with the WD-40 and rub the sole of the plane until its clean. You’d be surprised how much bright red rust comes off the sole of some of these babies! Keep wiping the crud out of the paper so you can eventually flatten the sole of the plane.

5. And, when it comes to flattening plane soles, don’t make yourself batty about it. An easy way to ensure the sole is flat is to draw a squiggly line with a permanent marker across the sole. Rub the plane on the sandpaper a dozen strokes, then lift the plane up and look at it. Where is the marker still on the sole? You want to make sure the front and the area around the mouth are nice and flat, so rub the plane until those areas are without marker.

Curls6. Once you have everything nice and shiny, look at the plane iron. Sharpen and hone that sucker. If you can swing it, look to get a replacement plane iron. There are some killer replacement plane irons out there for $25 – $40 from Lee Valley, Lie-Nielsen, Hock tools and others.

7. Assemble the entire plane and give it a good wipe down with some furniture paste wax. That keeps rust at bay and allows the plane to glide nicely across the board.

8. USE THAT PLANE! Give your jointer, planer or random-orbit sander a rest and develop the skills necessary to dress, joint and smooth wood the old fashioned way.

You may never give up your power tools, but you will gain valuable insight into how wood works, and just how fortunate you are to have those modern shop tools. Now, there’s something to discover all on your own.

In Love With Ugly

My workbench is ugly. It’s REALLY ugly. If ugly were bricks, my bench could build the Great Wall of China.

The beast was born one Valentine’s Day night when my wife was working evenings. I was the only guy at Home Depot that night (everyone else had the sense to take their sweeties out for a nice dinner). I cobbled a puny little bench together with some Simpson Strong-Tie connectors, 2×4’s, a half-sheet of ¾” plywood and a fistful of screws. And, it was good.bench1

Later, when I discovered that my 2 foot by 4 foot bench top wasn’t going to be large enough to work for me, I scrounged through my neighbor’s garbage after he did some renovation work and found his old wooden entry door. SUPER ugly 1970’s carvings and molding on the outside a dark, chocolate brown paint on the smooth inside panel. I carted that heavy sucker home, removed the small plywood top and screwed the big 36″ x 80″ door in its place.

Yes, it has the hinge mortises. And the bore holes for the deadbolt, door knob and security peep-hole. I consider that as part of my shop security plan.

Over the years, I have glued up on it, painted on it and tested the sharpness of plane irons on its corners. I’ve pounded on it, screwed jigs to it and (accidentally) cut into it with a circular saw. This thing is a beast! The creature from a nasty corner of the nasty garage.bench2

But, it has a beauty all its own, too. That ugly bench of mine is the perfect size for my shop. I have built countless projects on it – from the obscenely large to the dainty and delicate. I can lay a straight edge on the door and verify that yes, it is dead flat – once I scrape the beads of dried glue off of it. I can clamp projects down to the overhanging edges and know that they won’t move when I chisel, cut or plane. It’s the same height as my table saw, and functions as an outfeed table.

I’ve added some modifications to my bench to make it even more useful. After using a real, professional woodworking bench with a tail vise, I longed for a better way to clamp projects to my bench top to face plane them. I bought a matched pair of Veritas Bench Pups and Wonder Pups, and drilled a series of ¾” holes through the top. Now, I can plug in the pup, clamp it in place and face plane until my heart’s content.bench4

Another awesome upgrade was adding an old Wilton vise to the front of the bench. It’s right there on the left corner. I experimented with several different configurations of where to site the vise, but the classic position for right-handed woodworkers suits me just fine. Edge planing boards is now a snap.

By the way, the vise itself is just as ugly at the bench is rides on. It was plucked from a dumpster behind a school that was doing away with its wood shop program. It must have been built in the 1960’s, coated in a light layer of oxidation and surface rust and has a handle made of a length of metal electrical conduit. I cleaned it up, put some southern yellow pine faces on it and it works like the day it was built.bench3

Do I ever want to replace that ugly bench with something new and pretty? Sure I do. I get bench envy from time to time. I was at the American Sycamore Woodworker’s Retreat in Cloverdale, Indiana and saw a beautiful maple workbench with purpleheart inlays. Heavy mortise and tenon joinery. Dual screw tail vise. The thing looks more like an altar for some woodworking religion than a bench.

But, it didn’t have the character of mine.

Will I eventually replace my bench? Well, I have to confess that I have researched a number of plans from books, magazines and the Internet. But, every time I draw up a shopping list for wood and hardware – I find myself sitting at my old, ugly friend that has seen me through so many projects…

You know, I discovered I really am a loyal, sensitive guy.