Shop Equipment

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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Front and Center

None of us are as young as they used to be.  I’m in my mid thirties now and I don’t stoop over the work as well as I used to.  As a mostly hand tool woodworker that dovetails more often than not, I’ve gotten accustomed to a clamp-on, twin screw vise (what many call a “Moxon Vise”) that raises the work slightly above the benchtop.  As my original twin screw vise was starting to wear out, I more and more just relied on my sort-of shoulder vise (it’s actually a crochet with a screw).  But that is not a permanent solution, unless I become a sit down woodworker.  And I’m far too fidgety for that.

So a more permanent solution has been born.

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Fine furniture, it ain’t.

My original inspiration was Jeff Miller’s benchtop bench.  At its heart, though, this is a twin screw vise with some extra work surface.  The work surface is 24″ long, 13″ deep (including the inside jaw) and 3″ thick.  Including the feet, it raises the work over 6″ off the benchtop, which equates to about 40″ from the floor.  That height is comfortable for me at 5’10”.

The vise has just over 24″ between the screws, and it opens to over 5″ wide.  More than enough capacity for things like saw vises and tenoning work.

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Very stable.

I like this form because it is so stable.  Many purist twin screw vises are tippy, both while clamping it to the workbench and when working at max extension.  Suffice to say, this one is not.

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Quite a bit of counterbalance to the vise jaws.

The new benchtop bench is admittedly Frankenstein-esque in its composition.  The work surface is four sheets of 3/4″ plywood.  The vise jaws are both 8/4 red oak (bone dry and lined with adhesive backed cork from the home center), as are the feet (with non-skid ladder tread applied to the bottom).  The wooden screws are 1 1/4″ hard maple, threaded with a Beall Tool Company wood threader.  The vise nuts are 5/4 ash.

The inner jaws are tapped to hold the wooden screws; the threads on the wood screws terminate for a tight lock to the jaws.  The outer jaws have 1 1/4″ clearance holes, drilled with a different drill bit that is slightly larger than the one used for tapping (but not so large that there is risk of wracking).  The vise nuts are also tapped with the Beall Tool Company kit.

You may have noticed how chunky the design is.  The source material has a lighter feel, but this is not a magazine piece.  Two recesses on each leg create trestles which are sufficient for clamping.  Any further aesthetics (including shaping the vise nuts) would have added to the build time.

Before the benchtop bench gets put to work, I’ll secure the feet (which are currently just glued on) with lag screws coming down from the top.  I also have not secured the wooden screws to the back jaw yet, as this is technically a prototype.  Securing the screws would take as little as a 1/4″ dowel through the inner jaw and the screw itself.  I may also add dogging capability.

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I also must chamfer the outer jaw all around.

This project was long overdue.  I have a ton of dovetailing coming up, which was a good excuse to finally get this done.  But more on that later.

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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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