Shop Equipment

Walking on Sunshine

I had intended to call this post “Let there be Light: the Revenge”, but thought better of it in the end. But the point is the same: proper illumination is an integral part of doing quality work (woodworking or otherwise).

It’s not pretty, but I don’t want to hardwire any fixtures yet.

By now, that I swear by these LED light bars is not news. But as always happens, there is some finesse in the hanging. To hang properly, the hooks in the ceiling should be about 45 inches apart. But in the orientation I desire, that meant hanging on studs 48 inches apart. Too far for just the S hooks to reach.

My solution? Twist some leftover coat hangers from the Roman Workbench mockup.

And I got to use my electrical pliers!

Each is about 5 inches long and much sturdier than the thin wire that originally came in the box. Nothing fancy, totally free, and quick.

The simplest solutions are always the best.

And now I can see what I’m doing. And isn’t that really the point?

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Some [Non-]Mechanical Assistance

I’m not always kind to my Work Sharp 3000 sharpening system.  It’s a temperamental machine, in my experience. But seeing as I somehow let some of my chisels get a bit out of shape, the Work Sharp has spent a fair time on my bench lately.

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In all its glory.

For those unfamiliar with the product, the Work Sharp spins a tempered glass disc covered with adhesive-backed abrasive paper on each face (see above).  With the disc spinning, the top face is typically used for flattening, while an adjustable tool rest permits bevel-grinding and sharpening on the underside (up to 2″ wide).  Though great for bevels, I’ve found it nearly impossible to evenly flatten on the top face while the disc is spinning.  But the discs are very flat, which is what I’d like to talk about today.

For flattening, I typically use a machinist’s granite slab with adhesive-backed sandpaper.  The setup is admittedly much better for planes than for chisels and the granite slab can be cumbersome in use.  For example, I can only adhere a few different grits at a time (which range only from 80 to 320).  Also, changing sandpaper often leaves adhesive residue that needs to be scraped away (or worse, removed with mineral spirits).  So instead, I’ve been using the Work Sharp discs for re-flattening my chisels, but off the machine.

To begin with, there are more grits available than with adhesive-backed sandpaper (WS goes from 80 grit to 3000 and above) and each of grit is available at all times because I own 5 glass discs.  Plus each disc is naturally non-skid on the benchtop, having abrasive paper on both sides.  In addition, because each disc is barely over a chisel-length in diameter, I can work the chisel from all angles use every square inch of abrasive on the discs (unlike my granite slab, where large swathes of fresh grit are wasted).  Finally, the abrasive on the WS discs lasts much longer than ordinary sandpaper and can be easily cleaned with a crepe block while spinning on the machine.

And the results have been more than satisfactory, especially for my purposes.

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Polished to 1000 grit only.  I already own enough mirrors and my chisels are for chopping.

I’m not recommending anyone go out and buy a Work Sharp 3000 (and certainly don’t blow $100 on extra glass discs just because they are nice surfaces for flattening).  But small-space woodworking is about finding the right tool for the job from what’s available.  And in this case, something I had on hand works better than anything else.

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Finding the Hole(s)

It’s pretty snowy out, all of a sudden.  And I’m using the quiet time to get some things done in the shop.  Sharpening and plane making in the early am, then onto other tasks.

On my list for a while was drilling a few more dog holes in the maple planing bench.  Not actually for bench dogs, but for aluminum planing stops.  Extremely low-profile, they come in several lengths (and can be hacksawed to exact measurements).  I’m sure I’ve talked about them before, but I could not live without them in my apartment woodworking shop.

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Not sure if others sell them, but all mine are from Lee Valley/Veritas.

The pegs (which come in 3/4″ or 20mm) slide in a track on the underside of the stop, so they fit in a variety of dog hole configurations.  And the pegs are shallow (less than 1 1/2″): perfect for a clamp-on workbench made of 8/4 maple.

In addition to their utility for surface planing (seen above), I have found these planing stops to be quite useful as bench hooks. Two more holes to the right side of the bench now make a crosscutting bench hook (see below).  And because my plywood shooting board/bench hook is too deep for this particular bench, I no longer have to unclamp the whole bench every time I want to cut a tenon shoulder.

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And it saves me from always digging out the saw benches.

There are actually three more holes to drill.  One centered in the far right for a holdfast.  And two more along the back edge on the left side of the bench to form a perpendicular for traversing and general bracing.  Everything is measured and marked; I’m just taking it slowly today.

Hope all my east coast readers are staying off the roads.  It’s not too bad out here, but pretty blustery.  I can only imagine what it’s like further north.

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Some Minor Maintenance

It’s true that I don’t woodwork on a full-size woodworking bench.  I am not, however, immune from some of the more mundane workbench maintenance tasks.  Specifically, I took some time this weekend to re-flatten and re-seal my Milkman’s Workbench.

I’ve been working with thinner stock lately (some pine siding off-cuts for little dovetailed boxes) and have noticed that the as-planed pieces kept developing a slight twist.  Turns out, the bench had a couple small high spots (in the middle of the main bench), as well one large high spot around the last two dog holes.  Nothing terrible, but enough to affect stock that isn’t thin enough to self-support while planing.

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You can see the slightly lighter areas in the above picture.

The flattening didn’t take long (other than the drying time on the Danish Oil), but I took a pretty sizable tear-out chunk from some swirling grain near the wagon vise.  Clearly nothing fatal to the function of the Milkman’s Workbench, but you all know my feeling on aesthetics.

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It will eat my brain forever.

On an unrelated note, I’ve been watching a lot of Paul Sellers’ videos and am thinking about making one of his shooting boards.  We’ll see.

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An Apology to Accessories

A few days ago, I wrote about how cleaning, honing, sharpening and project planning just wasn’t as fulfilling as actually making things. Although I stand by that statement, I think it may have sounded more negative than intended.

When I first started woodworking, for good or for ill, I was focused on acquiring “tools” (as most people understand the word). Things that cut. Things that shape. Things that go ” whirrrrr” at various pitches (which nowadays is just me making sound effects for my router planes and braces).

In a brief moment of calm over the weekend (I did not, by the way, get any ripping done), I was rummaging through my toolchest in hopes of finding more excess to trim. I was struck by how few “tools” I actually own. I won’t go through the litany again, but in sheer number and volume, it’s not much (and certainly my “tool” collection hasn’t grown significantly since establishing the apartment workshop several months back).  In reality, there is so much more to a workshop than “tools”.

The real heroes of my apartment woodworking shop.

The real heroes of my apartment woodworking shop.

A good portion of my shop equipment is not “tools” (as most people understand the word), but accessories for sharpening, setting up, maintaining and protecting my “tools”.  Accoutrements that allow my chisels, knives, planes, saws and squares to consistently perform at a high level.

And clamps. Lots and lots of clamps.  Always more clamps.

And clamps. Lots and lots of clamps.  Always more clamps.  In soft focus.

Learning to use these support items effectively is the other half of woodworking.  Dull, poorly set tools are as much a threat to safety and success in the workshop as poor technique.  So while I will enjoy the making more, I will also be thankful for the vises, sharpening stones, files, gauges, blade guards, rust prevention chemicals, and that sort of thing that make the making possible.

In sum: sharpen early and hone often; lubricate and polish regularly; protect edges always.  Your tools and your projects will be better for it.

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Saying Goodbye (For Now) to Old Friends

Yesterday, I said farewell to some of my oldest and most trusted tools: my full size router set, cordless jigsaw and cordless circular saw. They now live in storage in my brother’s basement.

These are some of my original tools, from the before times when everything I knew about woodworking came from Norm Abram.  Back before I knew I wanted to do hand tool woodworking almost exclusively.  I consider many of my early tool purchases impulsive wastes of money, but not these.  If (when?) I have the space again, these tools will be back in the shop.

Godspeed, gentlemen.  We shall meet again!

Godspeed, gentlemen. We shall meet again!

My quest to simplify my woodworking existence continues.  I hadn’t touched any of these tools since well before I moved into my apartment over 4 months ago.   My finishing supplies bin takes their place under the worktable.

That brings total power tools remaining in my apartment woodworking shop to: compact router, cordless drill, random orbit sander and Dremel rotary tool.  Not sure there is anything left to cut at this point.  I have thought about giving up my WorkSharp 3000 sharpening station as well, but I never know if I’ll need to grind an edge back to life.

Goodbye for now, old friends!

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Sometimes, Careful Planning is Not Enough

Just about three months ago, I wrote an entry on the “dining” table I built to be the foundation of my apartment woodworking shop (post linked: here).  During its construction, I had envisaged the table (which, by the way, was reverse-engineered from a Restoration Hardware design) as a furniture-quality, rock-solid clamping surface with some much-needed storage space on the shelf below.

And it has not disappointed.

And, thus far, it has not disappointed.

I believe I executed pretty well on that concept.  There is no hint of wobble or bench-based chatter when I am hand planing, and I have (just barely) enough storage below for the powered odds and ends I thought I would use when I switched back to apartment-based woodworking (more on that another time).

During the design phase, I did my best to determine the perfect dimensions for what I’d need to do meaningful woodworking, but there was no way to solve for (or even predict) everything. I’m not saying I would necessarily change any of these dimensions, but, for example:

  • The height (at 31″) is just right for planing, with the top of the Milkman’s Workbench sitting at a very comfortable 33″ (I’m a little over 5’10” and all my planes are iron-soled, FYI), but I still need to craft a moxon-style vise to raise the workholding to a comfortable level for joinery.
  • The top is wide enough (at 50″) to accommodate both the Milkman’s Workbench and a shooting board/miter box at the same time, but not nearly wide enough for planing longer, thinner boards (hence the need for a 72″ planing slab (seen above on the right, planed to final dimensions but still lacking dog holes and inset vise)).
  • The top is deep enough (at 34″) to splay out the tools needed for any particular project, but is sadly too deep for the reach of the boom on my LED task light (solved by locating the clamp-on base to the side, which now gets in the way of some cross-grain planing).
  • The overhang of the top in relation to the frame is wide enough (at 4″) for ease of clamping a variety of benchtop accessories on all four sides (e.g., Milkman’s Workbench, miter box, saw vise, task lamp base, soon-to-be planing slab), but anything less than a co-planar top eliminates the usefulness of the legs themselves as a clamping surface.

The point is, no matter how well you plan, no matter how much thought goes into the design or care goes into the execution, it is only a matter of time before the shortcomings and mistakes become apparent.  In making the best of a less-than-ideal situation, any solution to an existing problem could also be the genesis of a new, unforeseen issue.

And that, more than anything, is the essence of small-space woodworking.

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Because sometimes what we really mean is “unplugged”

Hand tool woodworking is great.  It’s relatively quiet, can be done with minimal shop space, and the results are often better than anything produced solely or mostly by machine.  I consider myself a hand tool woodworker, although I admit sometimes I reach for a plunge router, cordless drill or an orbital sander.  I also own, and frequently use, a thickness planer to surface the remaining two faces of a board that I’ve hand straightened and squared.

Net net, if I’m deviating from my basic set of saws, chisels and planes, there are meaningful efficiencies at work.

That having been said, I have a new addition to the shop. The Nobex Champion 180 miter box, with Ikeda blade.

Perpetually on backorder at  www.leevalley.com for a reason.

Perpetually on back-order at http://www.leevalley.com for a reason.

I know it’s technically not a power tool, but it is also not an essential tool for hand tool woodworking.  I can mark a knifewall and saw/shoot down to the line. I get it.

I wanted the convenience and the speed of a precision miter box.  Accurate saw cuts mean less time at the shooting board, so I can get back to the fun part, cutting joints.  Plus, I miss my 14″ double bevel compound miter saw and this should be a pretty solid replacement.

I have only cut a few pieces of wood so far, but I have some initial reactions.  First, the unit was much easier to assemble than expected (although there were a few extra pieces [two random hex nuts], which is distressing).  Second, the unit feels sturdy and the Ikeda blade is super sharp (already cut myself).  Third, the blade should definitely be lubricated prior to use.

My brother and sister-in-law requested that I make some footstools for their new house (they left the last footstool, which matched a vanity sink I also made, at their old house), so I will have an opportunity to further the miter box.  I have also been thinking about making some picture frames; not out of necessity, but as practice for cutting mitered halflap joints by hand (which is a favorite design element in exposed joinery).

Edit: After a couple days of use, I am very happy with the saw. I still have to shoot the ends of each board (the blade is ever so slightly canted to the left, which is probably user error), but it is always a slight cleanup, not a major straightening.

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Let There Be Light!

“See the line; cut the line.”  It’s the basic premise of hand tool woodworking.  It seems like everyone is so focused on the latter (cutting the line) and no one cares about the former (seeing the line).  I would like to change that, because no one should struggle through the literal and metaphorical darkness.

In my experience, an ample source of clean and bright light is just as important to quality and safety in woodworking as sharp tools, solid workholding and proper technique.  With a little bit of planning, you too can drive away the dark and see what you’ve been missing.

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You can’t cut what you can’t see, and quality shop lighting goes a long way in improving your woodworking, even in an apartment.

Up front, I want to say that you do have choices when it comes to shop lighting.  I use LED lighting because when it comes to efficiency, durability, simplicity and safety, LED in my mind is head and shoulders above incandescent or fluorescent equivalents.  If you’re looking to illuminate a workbench tucked away in a corner, without having to change bulbs or wire permanent fixtures, then hanging LED bar lights are the way to go.  If you are looking for tips on lighting your 1500 square foot production workshop, you are clearly on the wrong website.

Okay, now that’s over, let’s talk about goals.  My shop lighting goal is (and has always been) to have bright, white light shining directly on my work surface(s) without shadows or obstructions.  Ideally, I’d have a north facing window and a high ceiling with plenty of clearance and wooden studs directly above my workbench.  That way, I could hang two Lithonia 120V LED light bars over the workbench and be done with it.  I had this setup in Vermont (plus an LED task light for joinery and sharpening tasks) and it worked great.

In my current apartment, though, my windows face east (which is a nightmare in the mornings) and, although I have 12 foot ceilings, everything is concrete and drywall with nary a wooden stud to be found.  I only need to hang one bar light given my smaller work space, but I am just not comfortable using drywall anchors or drilling into the concrete [i.e., losing my security deposit].  The LED task light alone was not cutting it and I needed to get creative.  The solution turned out to be easier than I could have hoped.  I built an arbor.

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Sometimes the best ideas are born of lazy necessity.

Take some leftover 6/4 ash (ripped and planed into two approximately 60″ x 3.25″ x 1″ pieces), add in couple of angle irons (left over from the Milkman’s Workbench supplies) and a pair of threaded screw hooks (hardware store specials), clamp to opposite sides of the table and hang a bar light.  Done and done.  No finish, no flair: just bright, clean light directly on the work surface.  I might one day scrap the screw hooks and make a cross bar that fits in bridle joints on the supports, but for now, good enough is good enough for me.

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It’s that simple.

The best part is, because they’re just clamped to the table, I can move the supports around if I need the clearance or want to focus the light on a particular part of the work surface.  Plus, the whole thing is portable, relatively speaking.

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Nothing permanent here.

With very little effort, I now have a well-illuminated work surface.  My task lamp can be tucked out of the way until needed for close up work and the whole project took about 2 hours (not including the drive to my parents’ house and back to use my thickness planer).

Quality shop lighting makes tasks like reading grain direction and inspecting the camber on a freshly-sharpened plane iron a snap.  You’re also less likely to miss a spot when planing or applying finish or wander over a layout line if the work is brightly lit.

So before you cut the line, spend some time making sure you can see the line.  Drive away the dark in your workshop and see what you’ve been missing.

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The Bare Essentials (Part 2, Handplane Edition)

Welcome back to The Apartment Woodworker!

This week, I will be rounding out the workshop tour with an in-depth look at the set of hand planes that I’ve come to know and love.  Just like always, I won’t be using brand names in any description.  After all, only one of my planes is a premium brand (the large router plane; thanks, Mom!) and everything else is at best a mid-budget brand.  If you are here looking for hand tool porn, you are still in the wrong place.

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From left to right: No. 5 1/2, No. 4 1/2, No. 4, low angle block, large router, small router, small chisel, small shoulder, trimming.

Every woodworker loves planes, even woodworkers who don’t use hand tools, and for good reason: planes are the most beautiful and complicated (and expensive) hand tools in the woodworker’s arsenal.  From straightening and squaring rough stock to refining the fit of a joint to preparing the final piece for finishing, hand planes are essential at every step of furniture building.  Even the most die-hard power tool enthusiast still needs at least a block plane.

Ownership of a hand plane is sort of endothermic.  Only through consistent use and maintenance will a plane (and the woodworker using the tool) reach full potential.  Be it a premium modern plane or a rehabilitated antique-store find, “up and running” is just the first step in the lifelong maturity and growth of tool and user alike.  Once the sole is flat and the iron is sharp, the real fun begins.  Plus, S4S’ing a piece of 12/4 ash is excellent exercise.

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This is reclaimed pine, but it’s still super way better than going to the gym.

In my hand-tool woodworking, I quickly developed a preference for two particular planes: the #5 1/2 jack plane and the #4 bench plane.  The #5 1/2 is plenty long enough for jointing, the #4 is plenty short enough for smoothing, and those two planes will touch every single piece of wood in every single project.  I definitely use my other planes (for instance, I’m very fond of my large router plane, and the # 4 1/2 is “super tuned” for smoothing), but the #5 1/2 and the #4 form the foundation of my tool chest. It’s true that sometimes I struggle when edge jointing thin stock, because the #5 1/2 is rather too heavy and tippy and the #4, though thinner and lighter, is probably too short.  Other times, flattening very long boards is a chore because even the #5 1/2 is too short.   Generally, though, these two planes (and a block plane) give me everything I need to prepare all six faces of a board (faces, sides and ends) for joinery and finishing.

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I rarely reach for anything else.

As an aside, I know quality hand planes are expensive and I’m not advocating that any beginner woodworker go out and spend a fortune on premium versions of the planes shown above.  Truth be told, each plane has its limitations and I have made compromises for lack of space.  As always, stick to your budget and figure out what works for you.  If you are dying for a recommendation, though, first go out and buy a regular home center block plane.  Learn how to sharpen it and adjust it.  Then, make your second hand plane a decent quality #5, which I guarantee will get the job done. After that, get a small router plane and hand cut a housing joint. It will change your life.

So, that’s it for the “this is my apartment workshop and these are my tools” portion of The Apartment Woodworker.  I purposely didn’t bore you with my straightedges and other miscellany and I hope you have enjoyed the tour.  Next time, I hope to share with you a silly little personal project that was a little bit about necessity and a lot about testing the capabilities of the Milkman’s Workbench.

The Milkman's Workbench

This thing

By the way, Happy Halloween to everyone!  Do yourself a favor and treat your Saturday hangover to a Netflix binge on Supernatural.  It’s still an amazingly entertaining show, even though it jumped the shark like a billion years ago.

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