Big Projects

Sunk Costs

I am not super great at interpersonal stuff. With the exception of a few traumas from my youth, I get past things pretty quickly and don’t dwell on stuff. And by extension, I don’t get attached to much (people or things).

I learned about the Sunk Cost Fallacy early in my life and I embraced the hell out of it and never let go. Which seems a tad ironic as I write it: I don’t easily form attachments because of my religious-like devotion to a core tenet of rational economic action. But I think my low-grade sociopathy makes me a better woodworker. I just don’t get attached to materials or projects because I will never let myself succumb to the sunk cost fallacy.

This is going somewhere, I promise.

Late last year, I used a bunch of scraps to make a knock down workbench for woodworking away from my shop. Whether on the lawn or at my parents’ house in Vermont (which, I just realized, this morning, is a French portmanteau of “Green Mountain”), this bench has served me well. Except the slab top (face laminated Douglas Fir), which got wet in the back of the truck and cupped horribly.

So, embracing the sunk cost fallacy, rather than spending hours reflattening and whatnot, I scrapped the slab entirely (I’ll cut it up for firewood later). I had a lovely Poplar slab that is a perfect replacement and that only needed some minor attention before it was ready for the thickness planer. Sure, that poplar slab was technically for another project in the queue, but I need a workbench for outside now.

The most important tool for hand tool woodworking is a decent thickness planer.

Also, I think it’s worth mentioning that the last slab was 78″ long. But making the poplar slab 76″ would leave an offcut large enough to get four table legs out of. So the new slab is 76″. That only leaves 11″ overhang on each end of the undercarriage. Oh well. Sunk Costs.

I am well aware that is not the correct use of the term.

In the end, I think we could all be better at avoiding attachments. For instance, it would have been easy enough to try and blind peg the top to the existing 5/8 dowels in the undercarriage. But I took the time to saw off and plane down the old dowels and re-blind peg the top with larger dowels (3/4) that completely subsume the old dowel holes.

Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.

This post has gone a bit off the rails, admittedly. But I still need to mortise in the fixed deadman (seen on the floor above) and bore holdfast holes in the slab. And attach the Whipple Hook (which works great and is not being abandoned).

Because not all prior effort is actually a sunk cost.

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CAP4TR: Addendum

Just a quick update before the weekend. I finished (literally and figuratively) the joined low bench (which is what I’m calling it now). Two coats of Jacobean stain and some dark paste wax. No film finish.

I think it looks great.

It still stinks (both the stain and the wax smell the same to me) but it’s getting better and feels dry to the touch. I’ll give it a few days to cure before I sit on the thing, just in case.

All in all, I remember why I stopped staining projects. Natural wood color is nice and a wipe of Boiled Linseed Oil or Tung Oil is just so much more convenient (and less messy) than staining things. But sometimes you don’t have the wood you want on hand and have to make due. Or, sometimes, the wood you want just isn’t going to match the rest of the furniture.

Although it probably needs one more coat of wax in a few weeks.

I think I stained the thing so that I wouldn’t just turn this into a low workbench. I now can’t glue any blocking to the underside for holdfast holes or a twin screw vise on the side. And it’s better that way.

Not everything needs workholding.

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Cultural Appreciation (Pt. IV: the Revenge)

With the first, I ended up with a simple sawbench.

Just when I started to think it was over, I made a less simple sawbench.

Then, furniture’s most misunderstood creature returned, in a minimalist coffee table.

This time, it’s personal.

If you don’t get it, watch the Jaws 3 and Jaws 4 trailers.

For a while now, I’ve been fascinated with the Chinese-style of “staked” furniture construction. Instead of round tenons, they are square or rectangular and therefore able to be made with very simple cutting tools (just a saw and a chisel, essentially). This also means that the angles can be micro-adjusted in a way that outshines even reaming tapered round tenons. So getting the fits and angles perfect is within reach of anyone, especially with some basic angled guide blocks.

If you click the links above, you’ll see I have gradually increased the complexity of the build project by project. And it is now culminating in what will be a sitting bench for the bottom of the bed. No palm or holdfast holes on this beauty. And no softwoods for margin of error.

A mid-build shot.

I was tempted to go stretcherless on this piece. The entire project is 8/4 ash (the legs are actually a bit thicker than the finished top) and there would have been plenty of strength in the beefy, wedged mortises. I even considered lapping the stretchers on with some die forged nails or square head bolts for accent, but it just didn’t match the aesthetic for which I was aiming. After checking all the information available in a single internet image search for “chinese workbench” (which actually turned up two great articles, including one by The Schwarz himself), I decided to mortise in the short stretchers.

Had I done single shouldered tenons like with the original saw bench, I’d be done already. But I had to get all fancy and do double shouldered tenons. Because I’m a masochist.

With this bench, there is 10 degrees of splay but only 2 degrees of rake (remember: splay sideways, rake foRwaRds). So I assumed the tiny bit of rake wouldn’t mess with the geometry of the angled shoulders enough to matter (and that perfectly parallel shoulders would work without fettling). I was wrong and there is one decent gap among the four total shoulders. I keep the shades drawn in the bedroom most of the time, so I doubt the gap will ever be seen, even by me. I did fill it with some matching putty, though.

Close up of the rectangular tenons with hard maple wedge.

I am still tweaking the fit on the second short stretcher and will post some pictures of the finished bench once it’s complete (I also have to level the legs once everything is fitted). But, for now, I will think on whether to paint the base to match the walls in my bedroom or just tung oil and be done with it. Or maybe stain the base in dark mahogany to match the bedroom furniture (which is storebought, btw).

Stay tuned!

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Catching Up

The year has started off somewhat weirdly. I was able to take a bit of time off; I even made a new traveling tool chest for my vacation. Which I am quite pleased with, although I wish it had been about 1″ deeper than it is. The upper tray, even at a full half of the total depth of the chest, is still a bit tight for a 12″ combination square. But I make due.

Everything fits, and that’s what’s most important.

The case itself is pretty utilitarian; as are the tills. But the lid is definitely not. I went full groove-in-groove frame and panel with this one. I had never made a lid like this before. All my panels were in the past raised, and I made the choice to glue one long edge of the panel in place in the frame. I somehow mis-sized the piece and there was a bit too much side-to-side float for my taste.

Flat, square and stable.

When it came to picking tools for the actual vacation, I ended up stuffing it a bit to the gills. Glue, blue tape, a few clamps, an egg beater drill. None of these things fit naturally in the design so just get piled in. It does, however, stabilize the tills so nothing bangs around while driving. The chest itself took some heavy dings when I piled it and the travel workbench into the back of the truck (with the stock for other projects). But it held up well so far.

Does look a bit like a baby coffin.

Speaking of the travel workbench, I need to make a new top for that. The slab cupped again (not sure why; it’s been through two flattenings). The front edge sits about 1/8 off the legs. It doesn’t rock and I may just level where the slab sits on the frame, but it changed the peg hole geometry and it’s tough to get the slab off again once it’s in place. But the bench worked great. Not sure I prefer viseless woodworking, but it can be done.

But I really liked the 32″ height for rough work.

I’ll talk more about the vacation projects in a future post. Monster Hunter: Rise came out while I was gone so I got less done than I wanted, but still more than I expected.

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Restorative Process

One of the first proper pieces of furniture I made when I switched to primarily handtool woodworking was a dining table. Or, at least, that’s what it was supposed to look like, because it really was more of a workbench. Made of solid ash, it had roughly 3″ square legs, 8/4 rails and a 5/4 top. Everything was drawbored together with 1/2 pegs.

For several years, I clamped my Milkman’s Workbench to it and that was my primary work area. In fact, you can see it in the banner of the website and I detailed the construction in my second ever post.

So many memories.

But many years have passed since then and my shop is now a 12×13 bedroom (instead of a dining nook). My mother claimed the old dining table for her house and my dining room has been empty (other than a console table that functions as a bar) for some time. But that’s about to change.

Dry assembly.

I’ve had a stack of paint grade soft maple for a while. Mostly 4/4 boards, but a little bit of 8/4 stock too (enough for some leg frames, at least). So I’m making a new dining table out of it, although much more delicate than the last. The legs are 1.75″ square and the top rails are barely 1′ x 3″ (and the bottom rails under 1″ x 2″). It will be solid, but far too spindly for woodworking on. There’s a number of mortises in this piece, so in addition to the usual cabinetmaker’s triangles, I’m also employing a timber framer’s marking system as backup.

I’ve never cut roman numerals with a chisel before.

As always, I tend to latch onto specific design elements that I find online (don’t @ me). For this, I’m going with the same stopped chamfers shown in this Restoration Hardware piece.

I don’t plan to permanently affix the top (not even a line of glue along one edge). Instead, the entire top will be affixed with wooden turnbuttons. Further contributing to the future of this piece merely as a dining table.

I mentioned this is paint grade soft maple and I mean it. It’s blotchy, streaked and, although curly in a few places, generally the grain is unruly throughout. I expect to paint the entire piece (probably in the same linen/coastal blue two tone as the console table bar). But as an initial matter, a couple coats of boiled linseed oil to see how the grain looks unpainted will do the trick.

We’ll see.

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Perfection, In Potentia

Over the last year and change, I’ve been experimenting with the Moravian Workbench form popularized by Will Myers. I’ve watched the first three and a half hours of the instructional video probably 15 times. Every time, right up to when the top gets attached via blind-pegged dowels.

But up until now, I haven’t paid much attention to the leg vise assembly, because the previous benches I’ve made for others haven’t included leg vises. For the final version, though (the one I will keep), I’ve got to push through the rest of the video and figure out exactly how that part of the bench is made and works.

Pretty, right?

This particular version is 73″ long (i.e., 3″ shorter than the source material) and 24″ deep. But instead of a single slab and a tool tray, mine has two 12/4 ash slabs at 11.25″ wide each. The gap in the middle will eventually be bridged with a tool removable tool rack.

The legs and long stretchers are poplar. Along with the slabs, the short stretchers and the wedges are ash. Ash is my favorite wood, with poplar close behind. Both are cheap and readily available, making them perfect for workbenches. And, other than the slabs (which came from a single board) were already in my lumber pile.

Having made three of them now, I have some thoughts on the form and process of the main bench.

While the legs themselves are sawn from solid 16/4 poplar stock, the long stretchers are laminated from three 5/4 poplar boards. I did it this way in the douglas fir experimental version and found this easier than sawing and paring the tenons (like I did for the more accurate version I made recently).

My mortise chisels and paring chisels are all legacy Narex ones.

Also, I nixed dovetailing the lower stretcher and just mortised it in with drawbored pegs. I’ve always thought the dovetailed lower stretcher on the source version must have been added later, when it became clear the leg assemblies weren’t rigid enough without them. I may be biased, but why use a lapped dovetail for only this joint when you’re otherwise using square mortises? Because you done F’d up and needed to fix a design flaw. That, or the maker just got sick of mortises and changed it up. Which I also understand.

Oh, and I painted the undercarriage forest green. Which then made the tenons too thick and I had to widen the mortises. Sweet, sweet irony.

Small cherry Roman workbench FTW!

And, with that, it’s back to making the vise assembly. I’ve procrastinated long enough. And I have just the board for both the backer board and the chop. An 8/4 ash board that’s been acclimating to my shop for almost 4 years. It’s almost too perfect.

But every board, in the end, gets sawn up. No matter how perfect the board is.

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Secret Plans

Tell me if this sounds familiar: a friend or relation knows you can make things (in my case, out of wood) and are otherwise handy at need. Instead of paying a professional, whose livelihood depends on finding jobs like this, they ask you, an amateur to make or fix or modify something. Being a good friend/relation/human being, you dutifully pack up your traveling tool box with what you think you’ll need and, before you go, ask the person to confirm they have a decent workbench to work on, or at least a sturdy table for you to clamp a portable workbench to. They of course respond “yes”.

Then you show up. Their “workbench” is a bit of screwed together 2×4 and plywood that sways like a willow in a hurricane from the lightest wracking force. Even worse, it’s a plastic, folding card table. Or their partner won’t let you clamp your portable workstation to their IKEA dining room table. You can’t work like this, so eventually you make portable workbench that doesn’t rely on clamping to another stable platform (like a staked, roman-style workbench). But those are a pain (literally and figuratively) to move around.

Do this enough times, and your conclusion will be “why don’t I just make all my friends and relatives workbenches, so I always have one handy when they ask me to help with something?”. And your conclusion is correct. I, myself, have been secretly filling my friends’ and relatives’ homes with proper workbenches for years.

I ran out of whole 2×4’s so I laminated in some “clamping gaps” with scraps.

The bench above is a pretty faithful representation of Will Myer’s “Moravian Workbench”, other than it’s entirety constructed from Douglas Fir 2×4’s (except the wedges, which are red oak, and the tray, which is poplar). And I omit the leg vise.

Pre-pandemic, the twenty 2×4’s needed to make this entire workbench would cost about US$80 in total. Add in an oak hobby board for the wedges and a bottle of PVA glue and you’re barely pushing $100 for the raw materials. Unfortunately, with the lumber prices being what they right now, the materials would currently cost almost twice as much.

But that’s okay. A good workbench at a friend or relative’s home is worth its weight in figurative gold.

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The Last Train Home

I’ve resisted it for a while, but finally gave in to this Roubo Workbench craze (if you can call something at least 15 years old a craze). Not because I need it (I have to many workbenches already); but because I need to prove to myself that I can do it.

I was never able to sell my old workbench, so cut the back wing off the slab and set that side after plugging the holdfast holes with epoxy and covering them with poorly matching dutchmen. That repurposed wing is still about 3″ thick and 7 inches wide and will become something, eventually. Probably a mantle, if I’m being honest.

Slab Rehab!

The main slab was still about 3.75″ thick, even after several flattenings. It’s 90″ long and about 15″ wide, consisting of two boards edge glued together. It started as a single, 180″ long piece of 16/4 ash, as a reminder. And after 5 years or so seems to be pretty dry and stable. And the holdfast holes are still pretty plumb even after all that flattening. This is no 6″ thick, 24″ wide slab of green red oak. 15″ is far too narrow for all four legs to be straight up and down (the bench would be too tippy).

So that means another weird Stent Panel (i.e., stretcher-less) style workbench!

It’s still a nice slab.

I’ve made a quasi-Stent Panel workbench before, with angled back legs. Unlike the last time, though, I won’t mortise the angled back legs into the underside of the slab. Instead, just like a saw bench, I’ll dado the back legs into the side of the slab and cut an angled lap joint on the leg itself. Glue and a large lag screw will secure those back legs to the slab. I contemplated a sliding proper dovetail, but there is a ton of glue surface here (although I may cut it at a couple of degrees for a little bit more mechanical strength).

The front legs, however, need to be more solidly attached to the top due to strain from the leg vise and the holdfasts. In my previous Stent Panel workbench, the legs were merely blind-mortised into the top. A friction fit, with glue and drawbores, made a very stout joint that was nothing special to look at. But that was last time. This time, we’re doing the Roubo tenon/sliding dovetail! All these years later!

The slab was blind mortised to attach the frame on the old bench. I plugged those old mortises with epoxy and a tight dutchman.

I’m not sure I agree that this is a simpler joint than a double tenon (i.e., where the front recess is also square instead of angled for the dovetail). Well, at least the mortise part. The dovetailed tenon is dead simple to cut, if a bit fiddly to get those little front shoulders in line with the center shoulders.

Just keep track of which leg is which through marriage marks.

But it does look nice, especially after a few wedges fill up any remaining gaps. I apparently cut one of the joints a bit too tight, as a hairline split emerged along the front of the inside tenon. I don’t think it will be structural, and it doesn’t appear to have gone all the way through the slab. The glue joints are large and sound, so we’ll see if I need to drive some lag bolts in to secure it.

It does look pretty nice, though.

I had never cut a double tenon before (sliding dovetailed or otherwise). I’m now satisfied that I can do it effectively now. But if I ever do this again, I know now to make it a bit less friction fit and let the glue do the work.

And knowing is half the battle.

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Thought Experiment, Part Deux

In my ongoing efforts to replenish my intellectual excitement for woodworking, I have undergone a periodic downsizing of my tool kit.  Using a full sized, English-style floor chest is great.  But it gave me the space for extraneous tools to creep in.  And, when something can happen, it does happen.  So the best solution to reducing a tool kit is to reduce the available tool storage.

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Another Dutch Tool Chest for the archives.

This particular Dutch Tool Chest has no dovetails.  For good reason: the entire thing was built on the low, apartment woodworking bench.  Which has no vices.  And I’m a tails-first kind of person.  The bottom corners are rabbeted and nailed, which is more than solid enough, even if it was actually more work to assemble than dovetails would have been.  Well, more clamps and cauls, at least.  I have a feeling it would have been easier if the apartment woodworking bench was more than 9.75″ inches wide.

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Wooden hand screws are well worth the investment, if you’ve never used them.

I also, for the first time, just bought shiplapped pine siding from the home center instead of bothering to do my own rabbets or tongue and grooving.  It saved quite a bit of time and effort and, if you pick through the pile, you can find knot-free wood. A sixteen foot board was like $8.  I have no idea why I ever bothered doing this myself.  Just put the course side facing into the chest.

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Sure, the chamfers are a bit wide, but it’s the back of the case.  

As I’ve done additional woodworking, I’ve slowly moved tools over to the new tool chest.  A few things that haven’t made the cut yet:

  • 1 1/2″ chisel (my 1 1/4″ is just fine)
  • Scrub plane (my No. 5 is just fine)
  • No. 3 smoothing plane (my No. 4 is just fine)
  • Low angle block plane (I’ve migrated to a rabbet block plane over time)
  • Roll of firmer gouges
  • Quarter set of Hollows and Rounds (Nos. 2, 4, 6, and 8)
  • Yankee Push Screwdriver
  • Large (18″ max) dividers

Although, it’s fair to say, I don’t think there is room for any of that stuff in the new tool chest anyway.

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End of Life as We Know It (Part 1)

So the country is a c-hair away from mandatory quarantine and my local lumber yard went out of business.  There is no way I’m paying home center or pre-surfaced lumber prices during a global pandemic.  So I guess I’m stuck with what’s on hand.  And what’s on hand is workbench material (among other things, for another post).

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Spoiler alert!

I’ve been working off my 6 foot long Nicholson-style workbench since the beginning of the year.  The Nicholson form is growing on me (coming from almost a year with my Vasa-style stretcher-less workbench).  But 6 feet is a bit too short for my taste.  Not because the boards I’m working with are often over 6 feet (they are, but that’s not the point).  But, rather, in my small shop, I rely on the far end of the bench for assembly and tool storage and there just isn’t much real estate down there.

Pictured above is 10/4 hard maple.  98″ x 17.5″ worth, which is a bit over 2.25″ once fully thicknessed.  That feels a bit narrow to me, so some 8/4 hard maple will build out the back edge of the bench (to bring it to 19.5″ of footprint, assuming the legs are flush to the edges).  I also have enough off-cuts of 10/4 for the aforementioned legs (which will be lapped in at angles of about 14 degrees) and one leg vise chop.

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Gluing on the 8/4 strips to form the rear edge mortises.

I recognize that 2.25″ is a bit bit thin for a workbench slab, even in hard maple.  However, the balance of the 8/4 hard maple will become an approximately 12″ wide apron for the front.   That front apron will be glued to the edge of the top slab (to further expand the working depth to about 21.5″).  The apron will significantly stiffen the front edge of the slab (i.e., the working area).  I also plan to reinforce the holdfast holes with strips of 4/4 hard maple, so a good portion of the bench will end up over 3.25″ anyway.

On top of all that, there will be cross-stretchers spanning the legs and flush with the underside of the workbench.  So as long as I chop directly over the front left leg (by the leg vise), there will be plenty of stiffness.

That said, I don’t do a ton of heavy mortising these days.  I prefer to bore out the majority of the waste and pare down to the lines.

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