Author: The Apartment Woodworker

The Apartment Woodworker is a weekly blog with insights, projects and tips for making the most of woodworking with hand tools in confined spaces.

In My Defense

I am commonly asked why I spend so much time on superfluous furniture projects when there is home improvement I should be doing.  Usually, the honest answer is: “home improvement projects generally suck and I’m procrastinating”.  But every now and again, there is another answer: “because I’m practicing for an important home improvement project”.  And this is one of those very rare cases.

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The finished cherry table with the last scrap of the source wood for comparison.

It’s no secret that I don’t chop many mortises.  I much prefer dovetails and housing joints.  But with the double-sink vanity I’m making for the upstairs bathroom, only mortise and tenon joinery will do.  I would not describe the vanity design as “delicate”, the legs and rails will only be about 2″ square so the joints need to be as stout as possible.

The 48x13x36 reclaimed cherry console table (seen above) is done.  It served two purposes (aside from cleaning out some of the wood pile), really.

First, it allowed me to test build a Nicholson workbench if I ever go that route.  I’m impressed with the overall design.  I was able to figure it out without any real plans, so that makes me think it would be good for someone making their first workbench from construction-grade lumber.  It seems stout and scalable and not very dependent on the materials that you’ make it from.  Oak, Douglas Fir, Spruce or even White Pine all seem like they’d work just fine.

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The cross rails add rigidity despite the lack of a slab top.

The second purpose was to practice mortise and tenon joinery.  With such little margin for error on the relatively small dimensions of the vanity components, I’ll rely on stub tenons to hold everything together.  For aesthetic reasons, I don’t plan to drawbore the mortise and tenon joints, so piston fits will be important to lifetime bonds.  And that’s what this project allowed me to practice.  Unless I decide to learn to fox wedged tenon.

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Gratuitous up-frame shot.

At this point in the retrospective, I typically assess what I’d do differently on this build.  In truth, very little.  I absentmindedly broke the arrises on a few boards before the glue-up, so there are a few visible glue lines (the joint line between the apron and the tabletop as seen above comes to mind) that no amount of boiled linseed oil will hide.

But that’s about it.  Once the BLO dries, I’ll move the table into my office.

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A Rebirth (of Sorts)

A great joy of life is reclaiming wood.  Both economically- and environmentally-efficient (most of the time), recycling my or someone else’s prior project into something equally (or more) beautiful and functional is about the only resurrection I still believe in.

A while back, a coworker gifted to me a solid cherry table that had been neglected.  Across a 3 foot width, the table top had cupped almost a full inch.  There was no flattening this through ordinary means.  It had to be ripped down and re-laminated if it could be saved.  But that seemed like a lot of work and I already have a dining room table.  So, instead, I took careful stock of how board feet there were and set to work re-purposing the table.

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The first of many glue-ups.

I’ve been fascinated by the Nicholson Workbench form for a long time, but never actually built one.  And in need of a grinding station for my new bench grinder, I set out to turn that cherry monstrosity into a light duty workbench.  It would be 48″ long, 13″ deep and about 36″ high.  Small enough to move around but big enough to stay put when pushed up against a wall.

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Light duty because of the depth of dadoes in order to make the aprons flush to the legs.

I drew on a number of influences, including Paul Sellers’ ubiquitous workbench and Mike Siemsen’s Naked Woodworker bench.  And then pretty much winged it.  And as the piece took shape, it became clear that this was not destined to be shop furniture.  The wood is too beautiful and the effort too great.  This one would live in the civilized world.

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I’ll scrape away the little bit of french polish left in spots where flatness is not critical.  

It’s no secret that I don’t chop a ton of mortises.  Most of my woodworking involves dovetails and dadoes.  So when I need to cut eight blind mortises for the leg assembles, I fall back on the most boring method of all.

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See what I did there?

I find that when chopping mortises by drill bit and paring chisel, the most important thing is to cut the mortise first.  And it begins at establishing a reference wall (see the check mark above) that is consistent across the piece.  If all of the reference walls correspond to the outside face of the assembly, and the corresponding tenon cheek on each rail is perfectly in line, then it doesn’t really matter what the opposite wall and opposite tenon cheek are.  They can be adjusted to fit the individual mortise (which I do with a router plane on smaller work).

The end result is a consistent reveal on the show side of the assembly (and, by extension, an assembly that has no twist or wind).

And a base that is square and true will be the first step toward a table that is square and true.

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There Comes a Time

We must all live with the choices we make.  In my case, the choice to make a small workbench out of home center Douglas Fir.  Even sharp tools bounce around because of the varying hardness.  But one great property of Douglas Fir is its compression.  A friction fit joint can be nearly mechanical if done right.  And the angled back legs of that small workbench are beyond friction fit.  They are sledgehammer fit.

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The most important trick is getting the angle right.

While I recently chose the benchtop boards for their clarity and color match, the legs had been prepared for some time.  As a result, the grain pattern is not great.  I used what was left of the Lamp Black milk paint (leftover from various tool chests) to paint the undercarriage.  It’s a silly contrast that serves no purpose other than vanity.

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The back legs are lag-screwed to the top, but the front legs merely through tenoned.  No glue.

I did not glue the short rails to the legs.  They are just friction fit lap-jointed with carriage bolts.  The laps on the back legs are intentionally left long, so the short rails (and not the benchtop itself) butt up against the wall.

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In the absence of glue, I guess this is, in theory, a knock-down workbench.

Once the paint dried, I packed up the bench and the Dutch tool chest and brought them to their new home at my buddy’s house.  I was sad to see it go, but I know both the bench and the tool chest will have a good home.  My buddy does metalworking, so I also bought him a proper vise as a housewarming present.

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Goodbye, dear friend.

I’m officially over Douglas Fir for a while.  With the extra room in the shop, it’s time to get started in earnest on my next project: a new guard rail for the staircase.  I need to check the building code, probably.

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Sincerity in Imitation

Thoroughly ripping off Mr. McConnell, I’ve been making a small workbench to clear out some spare Douglas Fir 4×4’s from the home center.  I don’t know about you guys, but whenever I see a rift-sawn, clear-ish 4×4 at the local Lowes or Home Depot, I buy it.  For US$8 or so each, it’s hard to pass up such useful dimensional lumber.  I’m sitting on ten or or so of them right now, so why not make a little workbench for a buddy who is moving into a new place?

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It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough for any workbench.

My friend is about 6’1″, so a 36″ high workbench should be perfect.  He does metalworking (not woodworking), so I’ll skip the crochet and assume he’ll bolt a metalworker’s vise to the top.  Speaking of which, a 48″ x 18″ top (i.e., about 6 lengths of Douglas Fir 4×4) should be plenty of real estate.  With the splay on the back legs, it will probably be 20″ from the wall (and I’ll make a backsplash that he can screw on to keep things from falling down the back).

The front legs will pierce the top with through tenons (like a Roubo bench but without the sliding dovetail).  The mortises will be formed in advance by shaping the front piece of the lamination (to keep things simple).  The back legs will also be through-mortised, but on an angle in much the same way as a joined saw bench.  The back lamination, like the front, will be shaped in advance to create the mortise for those angled joints.  

Short rails will connect each front and back leg with lap joints.  But there will be no long rails between the legs.   Instead, a scrap of 3/4″ plywood, reinforced with a couple of Douglas Fir strips, will fit neatly across the short rails.  I don’t expect the workbench to receive much lateral stress (like occurs when planing by hand), so I’d rather leave the area under flexible for storage.

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Beautiful, beautiful lap joints.

In the spirit of adventure, I’m using only a very small number of edge tools to build the bench.  To date, the only handtools to touch the work have been a Stanley No. 5 bench plane, a 3/4″ chisel and a large router plane.  All pieces go through the thickness planer once a reference face and edge are tried and trued.  And F-style clamps are used for glue-ups (with Titebond I).

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This vintage Stanley No. 5 has quickly become my favorite bench plane.

I’ve purposely selected the more twisted boards for this project because they aren’t good for much else.  As a result, each length of 4×4 ends up at about 3.25″ square.  These boards have been in the corner of the shop for over a year at this point, so once the twist is removed and they are laminated, I’m willing to bet they’ll behave (more or less) for the rest of the bench’s working life.

This is all just a distraction from finishing up the Dri-core in the basement.  It’s amazing how much gets done when you’re procrastinating.

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Made with Love

It’s good to have goals.  Not just deadlines, but true motivation for doing something right and well.  In my woodworking life, my greatest motivation tends to come from projects that will become gifts.  In this case, the Japanese tool box for my buddy, Brady.

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I think I’ll leave it unfinished, so it ages naturally.

I am glad to have embarked on this project.  The joinery (rabbets and nails, with a little bit of glue) was a lovely break from my usual dovetail routine.  It would be a good project for someone just starting out in woodworking.  And by careful wood selection, I barely dented my pile of reclaimed mahogany (the entire box used only two 36″ boards, plus some scraps I had lying around).

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The lid is friction fit (both in the case and under the end battens), so no need for locks or wedges.

It had been a while since I “dovetailed” nails.  I don’t know if I hit exactly 7º, but it was close enough.  The bottom should stay put for a very long time under ordinary use.

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There are always a few french marks that don’t steam out.  Glad these are where only the bugs will see them.

There is nothing I would do differently on this project, which is refreshing.  Except, maybe, making the box a little bit shallower.  With 7.75″ of clearance inside (when the lid is in place), this is probably more of a picnic basket than a proper tool box.  I thought about adding a removable till, but that seemed like overkill.  These things are meant to be stuffed.

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Nice and open are always preferable, in my view.

My favorite design detail on this is the recessed ends, which allowed me to add wooden handles (from softer Eastern White Pine, for comfort). Because what’s a portable storage container for if it hurts to hold?

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A little contrast is good.

Conceivably, these recesses could also permit someone to clamp this to a table.  If I made a stouter lid (perhaps replacing the battens with a rabbet around a much thicker slab lid), this might even be sturdy enough to be a little workbench in a pinch.

But I think something dovetailed would be better suited for that.  Oh well.  Back to the bench, I guess.

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Better Late than Never

I’ve come very late to the Japanese tool box party.  I already have a traveling tool chest, so up until recently, making this tool box would have been a purely intellectual exercise.  But a dear friend of mine is starting the house hunt, and every good home needs a good tool box.  Plus, it was his birthday recently.

I dug into my pile of reclaimed mahogany for the case.  Although nominally 3/4, the stock gets to about 5/8 when tried and trued.  This should make the case light enough overall. While the recipient is not likely to use the tool box for woodworking tools, I roughed out the dimensions based on my traveling kit of tools (seen below).  The interior dimensions of 8″ x 17″ are enough to fit a No. 5 plane, a couple of medium backsaws, brace and bit, and eggbeater drill.  8″ tall may seem a bit excessive, but after piling in a tool roll, mallet, hammer, nails and other miscellany, the tool box would be quite full for my purposes.  And don’t forget, it loses 5/8″ or so of height due to the lid being inset.

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That’s my “new” No. 5.  It has quickly become my favorite plane.

Cards on the table, I’m pretty sick of dovetails and their finger joint cousins.  The design calls for recesses at the ends will house the wooden handles.  So this was a perfect application for dadoes and nails.  A tightly-fitting housing joint can be just as satisfying as their interlocking counterparts.  And the tactile feeling of cross-grain shavings from a freshly-sharpened router plane is divine.

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Glamour shot of the joint after glue and nails.

Each joint, which was fit to require hammer persuasion, gets glued and secured with die forged nails from Rivierre.  I took great care to properly size the end grain during the glue up.  Taken together, the tight joint, the careful glue-up and the reinforcing nails form a very strong joint that will hold up to any wear and tear this box will likely see.  And it’s pretty from the outside.

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I keep track of french marks to steam out before finishing.

I don’t have any 1″ mahogany scraps and didn’t feel like laminating any, so I instead used Eastern White Pine for the wooden handles.  There is a slight bevel on the underside of each, which helps get a firm grip.

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Just a couple of degrees, for comfort.

The case ends were somehow slightly proud of the handles, so I shot them down to flush.  It was awkward on the shooting board and uncomfortable to hold the plane.  I still have the bruise on my palm from the wing of the plane sole.  Never again.

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The crochet is perfect for final fettling.

More on it next week, but I have since attached the case battens and prepared the lid and lid battens.  It’s unclear to me what to use for the bottom boards.  I can certainly resaw some 1/4″ mahogany.

But that starts to feel like actual work.

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Harlequin Baby

Warning: DO NOT image search the namesake of this blog post.

For a while now, I’ve been rehabilitating a Type 15 Stanley No. 5 smooth bottom bench plane. After a couple of hours of work, it’s as pretty as I’m going to make it.

Other than my Veritas scrub plane, there are officially no modern bench planes in my tool chest anymore.  I really like the lighter weight of the antique planes (as compared to their modern counterparts).  If one of the modern makers made new versions of these lighter planes to the precision specs they do for their Bedrock copies, I would be all over it.

Even after scrubbing, there is some of the patina on the sides.

This No. 5 is intended to be a worker and, suffice to say, it’s a bit of a harlequin. The sole and frog are original. As is the cap iron. The blade, however, is salvaged from my Type 17 Stanley No. 4 smoothing plane (which now has a Veritas replacement blade and is my main smoothing plane).

It’s not a pretty grind, but the frog is perfectly flat.  And it’s a bedrock frog!

The lever cap (seen above) is scrounged from another Stanley No. 4 (a Type 10, I think). The lever cap that goes with this Type 15 exists, I just haven’t cleaned it up yet.  It has a chip at one corner so I’m in no rush to expend that much elbow grease.

The knob and tote are replacements as well. I source wooden replacement parts for planes from Greg Droz.  He does a great job and his prices are very reasonable. They both fit first try without any fettling.

Honduran rosewood, which is beautiful enough for a worker.

The sole of the plane is in very good shape and didn’t take long to de-rust or flatten. This is a jack plane so I didn’t obsessed too much. In fact, I only took it to 80 grit (which, admittedly, had worn to probably 120 grit by the end) on the granite slab.  There is a very slight hollow around the mouth that can be seen below. If the spirit ever moves me, I may dress the sole a bit more. Maybe to 220 grit and perfectly square on the shooting side.

I’m pretty sure this plane was well-used before it came to me

But I now have no place in my tool chest for my well-loved WoodRiver bench planes (No. 4No. 4 1/2 and No. 5 1/2).  They have served me well but I’d be happy to part with the No. 4 for $100 and the No. 4 1/2 and No. 5 1/2 for $125 each.  UPDATE:  ALL THREE PLANES SOLD.

If interested, shoot me an email at theapartmentwoodworker@gmail.com and I can send pictures.  They are all in used but otherwise perfect condition.

This is the first of a few sets of extra tools that I plan to sell off.  I am not a tool collector, per se.  But I do have some extra tools, which are pretty much only good for cluttering the shop and procrastinating when it’s time to sharpen.

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Just Look at That

The process of leveling the feet on the staked low workbench was not as straightforward as I hoped.  Marking each out with a pencil on a block of wood and sawing to the line was not the problem.  Cleaning up the cuts, however, was an exercise in managing flex of the legs as they are planed and beveled.  I ended up using a block of wood in a holdfast on the face of one workbench leg as a backstop.

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The rake and splay is a little catywampus, but could be worse.

Like most of my workbenches, the very first workholding added is an aluminum planing stop that is secured with 3/4″ pegs in dog holes.  This one is left over from my old clamp on workbench.  I plan to make a palm planing stop to fit the same dog holes, but this will do for now.

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No other dog holes yet.

I figured that a lap joint would be a good start to woodworking while sitting.  A dear friend needed a replacement support for his bed frame out of some straight-grained douglas fir.  The face grain stock preparation was pretty easy (plane a section, scoot back, plane another section) but edge planing could have used some lateral support from pegs.

Cutting the dado in the long piece was quite easy, as was crosscutting the shoulder on the mating piece.  But the cheek cut was anything but. I don’t think low benches with no workholding at all are conducive to splitting or paring (my preferred method for bone dry douglas fir).  I should hog out a sawing notch and make some softwood wedges (softer than poplar, at any rate).

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A close up of the joint.

My next trick will be adding a series of pegs and notches, but only after the bench pulls duty as seating for a get together.

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Something Original

I haven’t had much of an intellectual boner for woodworking, lately.  For whatever reason (probably Monster Hunter: World), it’s been tough to get down into the shop.  But I seem to be coming out of the malaise and first thing on my list is finishing the low, staked workbench.

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The one on the right is still a bit ragged.

The slab has been S4S for some time.  The mortises for the legs were already bored.  But not owning a lathe put a damper on my momentum all those months ago.  But no longer.  This thing is getting built.

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Ever good cylinder starts with an octagon.

Making round tenons without a lathe or a tenon cutter is very much a trial and error process, consisting of three basic steps.  Step one: crosscut the shoulders and then saw the tenon to a rough octagonal shape.  Step 2: split down the length of the tenon with a chisel to get it as close to the reference circle as possible.  Step 3: Rasp the tenon until it fits in the mortise all the while maintaining square down the length.

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Admittedly, that step 3 is a bit more involved than the first two.

The first leg I made went straight to step 2, and some wily grain gave me a slightly conical tenon on one side.  It should be okay (the defect is not load bearing), but I will for the rest of my life worry that the leg will fall out of the mortise. At which point I will make another one.

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With my new octagonizing jig!

I have absolutely no idea if I kerfed the tenons far enough down for permanent wedging.  By going 3/4 of the way, though, the end of the fully seated wedge is still fully inside the thickness of slab. But judging by how the wedges on the first two legs each drove in and seated just fine, I think it will be okay.

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Cards on the table: I still have two legs to go.  It takes about an hour and a half per leg from ripping to thickness to final wedging.  I’ll try and get it done this week, but no promises.  In any event, it has to be done in the next two weeks, because I’m having company and need the extra seating.

I stand by my statement that a workbench like this would have been great for when I first started apartment woodworking.  So much so that I’m going to make a second (smaller) version in a few weeks and give it a try.  Maybe with one of those side twin screw vises that Christopher Schwarz put on his eight-legged bench.

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Circle of Life

One of my very first woodworking projects was a king-size bed frame.  Made from Hard Maple and Douglas Fir, there wasn’t a single proper joint init.  Just glue, screws and corner brackets.  I built it over a couple of weekends from dimensional lumber (my only woodworking tool at that point being a miter saw).  I recall it being much too tall.  Between frame, box spring and mattress, it was probably 38″ off the ground.  Getting in and out of bed was a minor acrobatic feat.

But, god damn, was I proud of that bed frame.  the design sprang from my mind and was made reality by my own hands.  Little did I know it would be the first step down a figurative rabbit hole of my newest (and current) obsession.

Alas, the bed did not survive one of my moves.  It was permanently disassembled back in 2014 and, since then, pieces (like the stretchers) were re-purposed for other furniture projects.  And all along, the main pieces of the frame (four hard maple 5/4 x 8’s, each over six feet long) sat in the corner.  Too slathered in dark stain and polyurethane to ever be useful, I thought.

Until now.

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I’m pretty sure the glue will hold at this point.

With Spring now sprung, it’s time for serious woodworking again.  Those four hard maple 5/4 x 8’s are now eight hard maple 5/4 x 4’s.  And they are quickly becoming ready for laminating.  Probably into into a single 40 x 16 slab to form the top of a sharpening/grinding station.  But, for now, I’ll leave them at full length and see how thick the final lamination can be.

And the great circle of life begins anew.

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