Techniques

The Importance of Hypocrisy

Handtool woodworking is awesome.  It’s relatively quiet and significantly dust free.  In fact, most of the time, “by hand and eye” is far faster and more accurate than “by power and jig”.

Except when it’s not.  Like when trying to square a glued-up panel that is too large for your shooting board.

For my time and effort, this is still the fastest and most accurate way to square a panel.

For my time and effort, this is still the fastest and most accurate way to square a panel.

No purest am I.  I’ll use whatever tool makes the most sense under the circumstances.  In my opinion, nothing beats a carpenter’s square, straight-edge clamp, trim router and flush trim router bit for squaring end-grain on a large panel.

Give it a try.  There is a reason my trim router (and dust extraction unit) has survived every power-tool purge in my shop thus far.

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Angled-leg Side Table

Cards on the table, I’ve been almost done with this table for about two weeks, just needing to prepare the tabletop and do a quick smoothing before glue-up. The tabletop should only require two boards, so it will go quickly once I get some time to go back to the project.

It's been blocking traffic for a while.

It’s been blocking traffic for a while.

In the meantime, though, I learned an important lesson during this project. I had shaped the angled legs over a year ago, removing rough stock by hand and then cleaning up the profile by trim router with a plywood pattern and a pattern bit.

Although they are pretty close, none of the legs is identical to any other (except for height, which is remarkably close for being cut on a chop saw). Each leg varies slightly in rake and, after some straightening, thickness. Sending them back through the thickness planer would mean also redoing the stopped chamfers, so I figured there must be a way to keep the table square and straight without making the legs identical. Turns out, the basic principals of marking were the solution.

I had always planned for the top to overhang the frame a bit, so as long as the frame was square, I could hide any variations due to the legs. In theory, as long as I marked from the same edges on each leg, and the parallel rails were identical in length to the shoulders, any variation on width or depth would be purely cosmetic. So I took great care to size the rails perfectly. Then I assembled the frame and, while the frame overall was square, one of the rails didn’t seat squarely.

This confused me, because I had marked everything from the same reference edges on each leg. However, the front and back rails were marked from the outside, not the inside like the side rails. Because of the varying thickness of the legs, this added extra length between the mortises for the front and back rails on one side. I ended up having to take down the inside thickness of one leg by hand to fix it.

The moral of the story is: there is more to consistent marking than using the same reference face. When parts are not identical, there is also a correct reference face. To be safe, while marking mortise layout, if you can, reference your marking gauge only on the faces where the mortises will be.

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The Sound (of Mallet Blows) and the Fury (of the Neighbors)

A close second on the overall list of questions people ask me about small-space, apartment-based woodworking is, “Don’t the neighbors complain about the noise?”. I get the question frequently enough to warrant a full post response.

Woodworking, even the hand-tool-only variety, is noisy. The thud of the chisel mallet echoes down a long hallway just as the whirr of the plunge router does. The wheeze of hand-sawing is unmistakeable to even the most casual aural observer.  And other more muted work, such as hand-planing, can nonetheless audibly rattle bench-top accoutrements.

So what can you do, if you want to make furniture in an apartment or a side room and not also accumulate noise violations or the scorn of your family members?  Each situation is unique, but there are some tricks that I employ. And since chopping mortises is the loudest thing I do other than a quick orbital sanding (rarely, if necessary), I will use that as my basic example:

  1. Don’t chop mortises during quiet hours. Apartment buildings usually have a range of hours during the business day where loud noise is tolerated.  So keep your loud tasks to the daytime hours and generally be cognizant of what you’re doing.
  2. Space out louder tasks. You’ve got 8 or more mortises to chop, I get it. Chop two at 10am and then two more at each of noon, 2pm and 4pm. Short bursts of loud banging are less likely to attract attention than sustained pounding.  Use the time in between for quieter tasks, like sawing, planing or sharpening.
  3. Sharpen early and often. Sharp tools mean better results for less effort, so trim down your total mallet blows by keeping your chisels sharp.
  4. Fully support the work.  Wood vibrates and resonates when struck.  Trying to chop a mortise in a piece of wood that’s partially overhanging the bench top is not very different from banging on an impromptu xylophone.  Fully supporting the piece over it’s entire length will reduce vibration and help deaden any resonance.
  5. Dampen outbound noise.  My walls are solid concrete, but my front door certainly isn’t.  It’s a hollow metal box that works pretty much like an amplifier into the hallway.  In a pinch, I will drape a heavy cloth blanket over my front door (not unlike the soundproofing they put in music studios).  There are commercial sound-dampening tapestries that work even better, if you care to spend the money.

Some combination of these tricks will go a long way toward keeping your neighbors and loved ones tolerant of your furniture-making.  And time spent disputing noise complaints or apologizing to your family is time not spent in the workshop.

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Tenon Details

Mortise and Tenon joint is the first woodworking joint I learned to cut.  At first, it was tenons by hand and mortises by plunge router. Closed mortises, roughly half the material deep, and stub tenons, with four shoulders. Everything co-planar and nothing fancy. Words like “reveal” and “haunch” were unknown to me.

Even the picture is poor quality.

One of the first joints I ever cut.  Even the picture is poor quality.

After a few months of voraciously consuming woodworking scholarship (mostly via YouTube) and much trial and error, I knew enough to plan a specific reveal for a joint. A nice roundover leading to a slight reveal can make a world of aesthetic difference and can be accomplished by simply varying tenon shoulder depth.

This is a vanity sink I built for my brother's first house.

The vanity sink I built for my brother’s first house.  That’s the matching footstool on the right.

Later, I learned to always cut mortise and tenon joints to align the long-grain gluing surfaces (and maybe even do a double mortise and tenon) for maximum strength. This allows for different board orientations (and more delicate-looking frames).

Later still, I discovered the haunched tenon, and I’ve been using it as much as I can ever since.

They all basically look like this.

This is the angled-leg bedside table.

I understand the true purpose of the haunch. It permits maximum tenon height (for maximum resistance to twisting force) while still keeping the mortise closed at the top (and thereby stronger than an open mortise, such as a bridal joint). But I also appreciate the economy of the joint. The haunch means I have to chop less mortise overall without compromising joint strength. On a rectangular table with eight mortises (of 4 inches or so each), a half inch haunch saves me a full mortise-worth of chopping.

I also rarely do full length tenons, preferring a bottom shoulder of some depth (usually the width of the mortise, because a chisel is a handy straightedge) to hide any roughness of the mortise hole. Assuming a bottom shoulder of another half inch, that’s a whole extra mortise worth of chopping saved in a single project. And with the haunch on the top of the tenon, I’m only cutting three shoulders – maybe even only two shoulders, if the material is thin enough.

All this time savings means I get more done in the shop with less effort.  And best of all, none of these “shortcuts” ever show in the finished piece.

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An Obvious Downside

I’ve mentioned a couple times that my main source of cheap pine is off-cuts from tongue-and-groove pine siding.  I’m running a bit low, but I’ve managed to make a three-foot tall stack of 36″ to 48″ long boards last for most of a year.  While the material is fluffy and easy to work, it isn’t exactly stable, and most of the time, is significantly twisted and cupped (thankfully, not often bowed).  This presents an obvious problem: final board thickness.

Before preparation, any given piece is only about 11/16″ thick, and the “raw” board can have almost 1/8″ of cup/twist or more.  This means that after flattening and straightening to S2S, I’m often a barely a shade over 1/2″ on some parts of the board.  Passing the piece goes through the thicknesser takes it down to a hair over 1/2″ all around at S4S.

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This pile of shavings is from S2S’ing only two 19.5″ x 4″ boards.

This is why I’ve gotten in the habit of only S3S’ing these boards when the project can allow for it.  For example, the bottom shelf of the toy workbench was made of four such boards.  The underside of that shelf will never be visible, so I left the extra mass in the boards by only S3S’ing them.

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That’s a machinist granite slab adding clamping pressure.

I also use this trick when I need an inside tenon shoulder or when a board is too wide for my thicknesser, in each case where the inside face will otherwise be concealable.

This trick isn’t available in some applications, however.  For instance, I can’t attach drawer runners to the twisted inside face of a side rail (like for the angled leg side table) and the underside of a tabletop should be trued to mate well to the table frame.  I guess you could technically use rabbets to solve each problem, but that seems like even more work than just thicknessing properly.

I haven’t disassembled much antique furniture, but I find it difficult to believe I’m the first person to cut this corner when possible.  I think this shortcut thing is becoming a running theme.

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Shortcuts That Make Sense

I think I first heard the expression when I read the Fellowship of the Ring for the first time as a teenager:  “Shortcuts make long delays”.  I always took that expression to heart and I try not to cut corners in my woodworking (other than breaking the arrises). Sometimes, though, shortcuts make sense.

For instance, I rarely cut through tenons.  Unless they are for a specific design element, or the wood is particularly thin in the first place, through tenons just aren’t necessary  They look cool, and I guess a through tenon might add strength in the right situation, but why do the extra work if you don’t have to?  For that matter, why cut a full length stub tenon when a shorter stub tenon will do just fine?

Side rails to keep the legs rigid and square.

Test-fitting the side rails for tight fit between the shoulders and the legs.

On the mini workbench, I had cut some 1.125 inch tenons on the side rails (see above).  Then I looked at the thickness of the legs themselves (1.5 inches) and the position of the rails (flush to the underside of the bench) and determined that a .75 inch stub tenon would be more than sufficient.  A .75 inch tenon would translate into a mortise that I could chop in a single pass back and forth, saving time overall.  So I hacked half an inch off each of the tenons.

So I hacked half an inch off the tenons.

It’s not lazy; it’s efficient.

The side rails will still do their job  with the shorter tenon (i.e, keeping the legs rigid and square front to back), but that’s more a function of the tight fit between the tenon shoulders and the leg than a function of the dept of the mortise.

Stub tenon or not, that's a tight fit.

Stub tenon or not, that’s a tight, square fit.  And yes, I keep my miter box on the floor.

Speaking of shortcuts, I have also decided I’m not going to mortise the front and back rails into the legs.  Instead, I will half-lap and screw them into the insides of the legs, mainly because I’d like the ability to remove or re-position the slatted shelf if necessary in the future.  Mortising those rails into the legs would make that much harder.  Plus, it will save me a bunch of time (and I really enjoy the ease of cutting half-lap joints).

So next time you’re planning out a woodworking project, think long and hard about any available efficiencies.  I’m not saying scrap the corner dovetails on your tool chest in favor of nailed rabbet joints (although that would be perfectly fine if done correctly).  But I am saying don’t go overboard if you don’t need to do so.

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Through the Gauntlet

Sticking with the theme from Michael’s guest spot last week, let’s talk about preparing rough stock for joinery.

One of my most favorite things to do in the world is plane a piece of wood S2S (i.e., Surfaced Two Sides) by hand.  Going from rough stock to two perfectly straight, perfectly square sides entirely by hand is such a joy.  A face mark, then a square mark and some arrows to indicate grain direction.  Onto the next board!

The pile of wood grows almost as quickly as the pile of shavings.

And the pile of boards grows almost as quickly as the pile of shavings.

One of my least favorite things to do in the world is plane a piece of wood S4S by hand.  Going from two sides perfectly straight, perfectly square to four square entirely by hand is such a pain.  And that is why I still own and often use a thickness planer (it lives at my parents’ house), even though I do mostly hand tool woodworking.

Ready to load into the car.

Ready to load into the car.

On thicker stock like the above Douglas Fir which is for a miniature workbench for my niece and nephew (more on that another time), it is so convenient to send the S2S boards through the thicknesser to clean up the remaining sides.  Then just a quick smoothing plane to take out any plane marks and I’m good to go.  On thinner stock, I’ll actually thickness just one face (making it S3S?) and use the traditional method to square the final side.

Top piece is now S4S; bottom piece is now S3S.

Top piece is S4S straight out of the thicknesser; bottom piece is S3S(?) and ready for ripping/final squaring down do the gauge line.

I quickly came to realize that when thicknessing it’s imperative to know grain direction.  Tear-out from power planing is so much worse than tear-out from all but the heaviest set hand plane. That’s why I’ve gotten into the habit of indicating grain direction on all my S2S boards.  Keeping track of which way to pass a board through the thicknesser can mean the difference between a light pass just to square up a side and having to mill down another 1/4 inch to get to clear grain (or, even worse, having to mill another board entirely).

My thickness planer may be an hour and a half round trip drive away (plus the time for milling), but it ultimately saves me time and frustration.  And that is good enough for me.

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A Rectilinear Corner

Editor’s Note: today, we’re doing something a bit different.  Michael, a friend, fellow-woodworker and fellow-lawyer, whom I have known for literal decades, has graciously agreed (after much prodding by me) to write a guest spot for TheApartmentWoodworker.com.  I think Michael brings up a prescient point about the modern woodworker.  In the past, many artisans would have contributed to a single piece of furniture.  Nowadays, hobbyist woodworkers are convinced they must be jack-of-all-trades craftspeople.  This is certainly not true, and there is great value and efficiency in outsourcing certain project parts. I also learned a new word (rectilinear). Thank you, Michael!
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– – –
Like James, I woodwork in a small shop in my spare time. I use mostly handtools: not only because I enjoy them, but because, for me, they’re simply more convenient. I believe in using the most efficient tool for the job, and when the job involves cleaning up after yourself, and not tracking dust through the rest of the house (you know, the one your partner just cleaned), then handtools quickly score points on the efficiency scale.
But when the snow melts, and I can pull out a contractor’s table saw and rip down some boards in the yard, the efficiency scale leans the other way. Could I have done the job with handtools? Sure, but who cares? This is a hobby and I only have a limited time to do the things I enjoy, one of which is creating beautiful pieces of furniture.
I love the subtle camber on the front front (I hope that not just camera bend).

Editor’s Note: I love the subtle hollow on the front frame (at least, I hope that’s hollow and not just camera distortion).

That’s why I am a firm believer in outsourcing some woodworking tasks when it makes sense to get the project done. For example, I don’t turn my own legs. I don’t have a lathe, or have the room for one.  I’ve never even tried turning. Maybe I will someday, but for now, when a project calls for a turned leg, I go to places like tablelegs.com. There are other excellent websites as well, where a skilled turner will make you any style leg you want – from cabriole legs to bun feet. I can usually find what I’m looking for, or at least something close that I can modify to fit my project. The quality is great, and consistent.  The point is, my lack of shop and skills shouldn’t pin me into a rectilinear corner.
Bun feet!

Editor’s Note: Bun feet!

Sure, I could take a class at the local woodworking club and eventually develop the turning skill to do it myself.  But I want to actually finish my project this decade. Again, I say who cares?  And by outsourcing I am supporting other woodworkers.
But please don’t order your legs pre-mortised.
Don't be lazy: haunch your mortises.

Editor’s Note: Don’t be lazy: cut (and haunch) your mortises yourself!

The Trusty, Underappreciated Rub Joint

I own lots of clamps, but an unfortunately low number reside in my apartment woodworking shop. As a result, as often as I can, I turn to the rub joint.

The Rub Joint: for when literally any amount of clamping pressure will do.

It’s a simple joint, really. A thin film of glue is applied to two jointed boards, which are rubbed together back and forth until the glue becomes grabby. The glued-up boards are then left to dry under gravity and atmospheric pressure only. It works well with other types of joints, but edge-jointing smaller tabletops (the above is for a footstool) is where the rub joint really shines.

There are three tricks to ensuring a proper rub joint, though:

First, the jointing must be crisp and square. Gaps in the mating surfaces are the bane of a good rub joint, even when using gap-filling adhesives, such as epoxy.

Two, there is such a thing as too much glue. Use only a thin film of glue, because without true clamping pressure to force squeeze out, the boards will float on a thick film of glue and the edges won’t meet in a strong, straight joint.

Three, leave the glued-up boards to dry on a flat, level surface. You’re using gravity and atmospheric pressure as your clamping force, so a flat, level surface to support the work will ensure the glue joint is perpendicular to gravity and atmospheric pressure as it dries.

A tight, strong joint with no clamps.

A tight, strong joint achieved without clamps.

A well-executed rub joint is just as strong and gap-free as a clamped joint. Once you master the rub joint, you too may find that sometimes, very occasionally, you can have too many clamps.

Or, you know, just can just use pinch dogs.

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Nesting Saw Bench

Been ripping a significant number of longer boards lately for the planing slab project, which motivated me to finally make a smaller, companion saw bench to nest inside my main saw bench (both are based on the Christopher Schwarz 2009 version).

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I’m psyched to use something other than a dovetail saw for joinery, for once.  Lap joints are the best.

All stock preparation and joinery only took a few hours and I am very happy with the result.  I just need to let the glue dry before I fit the stretchers and level the seams and feet.  Should definitely make ripping easier, as I can now support both ends of a long board won’t need to stop halfway through and flip it around anymore.

Also, I started using the wagon vise on my bench like a front vise for thicker stock that wont fit in the actual front vise.  Works well enough; still need to make an actual moxon vise at some point, though.  I guess I’ll add it to the to-do list.

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Small-space woodworking is all about improvising! 

Hope everyone has their holiday shopping wrapped up.  I’m one home center gift certificate away.

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