small projects

Just Right

Things are weird right now. Well, now and for like the last couple of fiscal quarters. But one of my happy places is casual dovetailing with whatever scraps I have hanging around. Often, that casual dovetailing ends up in a toolbox which gets gifted to a friend or loved one. This one, though, I’m keeping for myself.

Why does everything look like a casket?

This particular tool chest is for outside woodworking, so one of the important things is making sure the rot strips hold up. So I went to the MAX with some sort of plastic that is used in boat building. They’re pretty slick when sitting on engineered surfaces, but they work great on grass and concrete. Plus they (and the stainless screws) will never rot away.

That’s a lot of nails!

The inside of the chest is pretty utilitarian; essentially, it’s a gentleman’s chest. The well is big enough for both a No. 7 and a No. 4 or No. 5 bench plane, and the saw till holds one back saw (a carcass saw) and one hand saw (a modified Simmonds that I cut 4″ off the toe and re-toothed at 11tpi rip cut). I also added a sliding till for holding chisels and marking tools, although a combination square sits on top of the saw till at the back of the well.

I actually use my Narex spare chisels and my Veritax spare carcass saw.

All in all, I think I’ve hit the right balance with this tool box. Some prior versions didn’t quite work out, for various reasons. But this one is easy to carry, holds the right amount of tools, and best of all, it used up the last of my Driftwood paint from General Finishes and cleaned out some of the scrap pile. I didn’t get a good shot at it, but I also got to use a few pieces of scrap cherry as battens along the edges of the lid to keep it flat.

The lid is the nicest piece of pine in the entire build.

So if you’re wondering why it’s been so long since I last posted, it’s because I’m rather displeased with the new wordpress blocks system. They’ve removed some basic functionalities that I’ve relied on since the beginning and it’s so dumbed-down it’s clearly meant for non-facile folks. It takes far longer to do basic posts and I’m really sick of it. They even got rid of the click only autofill on tags. It’s fucking bullshit.

If anyone has a recommendation for another platform, let me know.

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I’ve Figured it Out!

I call myself “The Apartment Woodworker”.  But, really, nowadays, I’m the “small space woodworker”.  Which doesn’t sound as cool, but it still pretty accurate (my workshop where my workbench and tool chest reside is a 12×13 bedroom).   But after all these years of woodworking (8ish?), I’ve finally figured it out: the setup for woodworking in an apartment or other small space like a proper woodworker.

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This is literally the apex of everything I’ve worked towards.

Without hyperbole, I feel like I’ve reached the apex of the intellectual exercise of small space woodworking.  It starts with the Apartment Workbench, which is constructed entirely from 10 or less home center 2×4’s and built basically like a heavy-duty sawbench.  Although the saw-bench construction might make the bench a bit tippy if the legs are too far in from the ends, the vertical legs might have a benefit: the design makes it easy to clamp onto the gussets.

When you add a couple of shop made sawhorses in the Japanese style, some F-style clamps, and maybe a strip of 3/4 plywood for a tool tray, you’ve apparently got an actual workbench.  The gusset on the legs clamps to the cross beam of the sawhorse (both front and back) and that’s your workbench.  Some lumber stored across the lower stretchers would add to the mass of the bench, but it’s not strictly necessary.  And I’d probably add some non-skin disks to the sawhorses to make sure you’re not sliding around on a slick, laminate apartment floor.

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The legs barely extend past the sawhorse.

But, all in all, it works as well as I could hope.  It’s not perfect, as the combined height of a typical sawhorse (29″) and a 2×4 slab (3.25″ or so) is uncomfortable for much besides hand planing.  But one can always clamp on whatever workholding you need beyond the palm, such as a moxon vise.  I prefer a bench around 34.75″ high for most work (I’m exactly 5’10”), btw.

But, as far as I can tell, this is absolutely serviceable for a small space woodworking bench.  It’s basically a Japanese planing bench, with some Western brute force adjustments.

Although I would recommend chopping mortises at the back end over the back sawhorse.  For whatever reason, it jumps less when you chop on the back than the front.

Maybe it was just the grass.

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Cultural Appreciation

Let me be the first to say: I have no non-American cultural identity.  It’s just the way I was raised: my family doesn’t associate with any other country other than America.  We’re just American, with no hyphens.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s talk about Chinese workbenches.  To learn about working on a low workbench, I’ve done quite a bit of internet researching the forms and methods of low workbenches (as compared to high workbenches with vises).  And part of that research involved Chinese woodworking.

From what I’ve seen, traditional Chinese woodworking involves bowsaws (or framesaws) on the push and they also push planes (but there is a cross-bar that’s held like you’re giving someone the guns).  The Chinese workbench form seems pretty similar to other low workbench forms in that it has splayed (and sometimes raked) legs that are mortised into a slab benchtop.  However, it seems unique in that it typically has a stretcher between each pair of legs (i.e., perpendicular to the length of the slab).  It also has rectangular tenons instead of round tenons.

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Like so.

I’ve made a number of low, Roman-style workbenches with slab tops pierced by round tenons (i.e., “staked” legs, per the current parlance).  There is amazing recent scholarship out there by Lost Art Press on this form.  But there isn’t a ton of information out there on Chinese woodworking (although, I haven’t moved to print yet).

So with little more than a few pictures, I set out to give the Chinese form a try.  For ease, I only angled the legs outward at 10 degrees, same as on my sawbenches and my low workbench.  I did not try for compound angled rectangular mortises on my first try.

As always, I do my protyping in Eastern White Pine, an easy to work and abundant material that lends itself to trial and error.  The benchtop is 8/4 stock about 8 inches wide and 31 inches long.  The legs are 1.75 inches x 1.5 inches and either red pine or heart pine (they’re reclaimed from an old shack) and are much harder and than the fluffy top.  All parts are bone dry.

Although not strictly necessary, I started by boring the mortises with a brace and bit to clear most of the waste.  I chose a 5/8″ bit for 3/4″-ish tenons, which were scribed with a mortise gauge.   A 1/2″ would have worked as well, and folks are likely to have a 1/2″ bit handy in a drill driver.  It’s a lot easier to bore a hole when you’re not aiming for perfection like with round tenon joinery.  Even a wonky hole (as long as it doesn’t cross the scribe lines) is just fine.

To be clear, you do not need a brace a bit.  These are easily chopped out.  Just use a narrower chisel and leave some room to pare down to the lines.

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Just make sure to use a backer board to prevent blowout in the softwood.

After the bulk of the waste is removed, it’s just paring with a chisel down to the gauge line.  Work slowly and use the same bevel gauge to help spot the angles.  When working in fluffy pine (“bullshit pine”, as I like to call it), a flat mill file is just as good as a mortise float.  Eventually, you’ll have an angled mortise.  DO NOT reset your bevel gauge.  You’ll need it for the stretchers.

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OSHA-approved workshop footwear.

Each of the legs takes an angled shoulder at the same angle as the mortise.  Make sure the tenon will clear the mortise, mark the tenon itself with a marking gauge set a bit fat to the mortise (so you have room to pare down or crush the fibers).  Then mark the shoulder with the same bevel gauge.  Angled shoulders, especially wide ones, are pretty easy to get right if you cut away from the line and pare down with a chisel.  Undercutting is fine.

I apparently got no pictures of cutting of the angled mortises in the legs for the cross strechers.  I used the same mortise gauge setting to mark the mortises and the tenons and set to chopping by hand.  There was no way I was chopping a 3/4″ mortise with a 3/4″ chisel, even in pine, so I used my 1/2″ chisel and pared down to the lines.  The same bevel gauge sets the shoulders of the stretcher, and eventually you have everything fitting nicely.  I actually drawbored the stretchers into the legs and wedged the tenons in the top.

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Leave some room to trim down the legs.

Leveling legs can be done a couple of ways.  I prefer to use the 4×4 of truth.  Which is just a length of 4×4 the height I want (minus the height of the benchtop) with a pencil resting on it to scribe around the legs.  You could also use the level surface method, but level surfaces are hard to come by and in any event that sounds like overhandling to me.

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These angles are perfect and it still looks wonky from several angles.

All in all, I get it.  This entire bench could have been (and pretty much was) built with just three main tools: (x) a bench plane for preparing the stock, (y) a chisel for chopping the mortises, and (z) a saw for sawing the tenons.  I guess you also need a mallet, a square, a bevel gauge and a marking knife, but that’s semantics.  No lathe.  No drill press.  Just time and care and the most basic of tool kits within the reach of any hand tool woodworker in an apartment.  I’m not even sure you’d need a proper workbench (even a low one).

Even with the vertical legs and no long stretcher connecting the leg assemblies, it’s very stable.  And compound-angled legs would add additional more stability.  In fact, that’s my next attempt: compound leg angles.  But I wonder if that would require compound angled shoulders for the cross-stretcher as well.

Thoughts for another day.

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Test Run

A few years ago, I bought a Veritas Bevel Up Jointer Plane.  I also got the jointing fence, which I have more than once used to make a hand jointer for small parts.  It’s also still very useful for edge-squaring, especially on long, narrow stock.

But ever since I inherited a first gen Stanley Bedrock Jointer Plane, I haven’t had room in the tool chest for it.  It therefore lives in storage and, without it closely at hand, it’s been rather neglected in its use.  So I’ve devised a way to keep it closer at hand: a saw till to hang on the wall.

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Ignore the bad paint job on the wall!

I have a fair pile of reclaimed mahogany that one day will become a full wall cabinet (maybe not Studley-level, but something like it).  One part of any good wall cabinet is a plane till.  From what I can tell, there are two basic ways to capture the planes in a plane till.  First, angle the till with a single catch at the bottom so gravity does all the work.  Or have both top and bottom catches so the planes can sit vertical.  I’ve chosen the latter.

There’s three parts to store in the till: (x) the plane itself, (y) the jointing fence, and (z) a toothed blade that’s great for coarse work and also roughing up smooth bench tops.  Let’s start with the box to store the plane.

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Because of the ridge to which the fence attaches, it’s unfortunately not possible to shoot with this plane.

The box is pretty simple: just three narrow pieces of cherry, glued together in a long U shape and nailed after-the-fact for extra strength.  The recess should be about 1/8″ wider than the plane sole and at least 4″ longer than the plane sole.  Then friction fit and glue and nail on ends to enclose the box.  Once the glue dries, glue and screw on the first cleat to capture the heel of the plane sole.  The exact thickness of the cleat and the height and depth of the recess will depend on the plane.

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Like so.

If this were an angled till, that would be the end of it.  But a vertical till needs another cleat at the top to capture the toe of the plane.  The till works by inserting the plane toe at an angle into the top cleat, then straightening the plane to vertical and dropping the heel into the bottom cleat seen above.  And when it’s dropped into the recess made by the bottom cleat, the toe should still be retained by the top cleat.  Otherwise the plane would crash to the floor.

Unfortunately, locating the top cleat is a bit of trial and error.  It’s L-shaped, much like the cleats that retain the fence as seen below.  You can make this cleat in a single piece (like I did) or laminate it from one narrower piece and one wider piece.  There will be a sweet spot where the depth and height of the rabbet forming the L allows easy access in and out without too much slop.

Once you figure out the spacing, screw the top cleat in place from the back of the till.  No glue with this one, just in case something needs to be adjusted, either because the angle is off or you get a different plane and want to reuse the till.

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The nearly-finished till.

A couple of wooden hooks retain the jointing fence and the replacement blade hangs in its plastic case from a cut nail.  I declined to finish the till and just screwed it into a stud on the wall.

Funny thing is, since making the till, I still haven’t used the plane.  Perhaps I just don’t need it.

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An Iterative Process

Not everything goes to plan the first attempt.  Any decent woodworker has internalized that fact.  Take, for example, a jointing sled I recently made for my thickness planer.  It’s a jig consisting of a tried and trued 2x4x96 with four boards glued and screwed at 90 degrees to the jointed edge.  And it worked okay, I guess, on the first try.

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Iteration 1.

See, here’s the thing: I consider myself to be a hand tool woodworker.  But after truing one face and squaring one edge of a board, bringing the other face and edge into parallel by hand starts to feel an awful lot like actual work.  That’s where a thickness planer comes in.

But for a very twisted board, even squaring that one edge to a trued face can be more of effort than I’m willing to expend.  And that’s where this jointing sled comes in.  I can clamp the trued face to the uprights with F-Clamps and send it through the thickness planer to square the edge.  A quick hand planing will address any errors and then back to the thickness planer for S4S.  Just as if I had done the donkey work of hand squaring that first edge.

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The clamps go the other way around.

But my prototype sled didn’t work perfectly.  Just clamping to the 90 degree uprights didn’t support the board enough.  Compression from the planer’s rollers bowed the wood and planed a big hump along the length.  I tried using brass bar stock to support the beam but they kept falling out or shifting because of vibration.

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And I didn’t have enough for the entire length.

In the end, I added adhesive-backed sandpaper to the uprights and used hot glue to shim under the length of the beam.  Just like a normal planing sled.  This made the whole thing quite a bit more rigid and minimized the hump, even if it did add a bit of prep time.

But it was still less pretp time than hand-planing that edge square.

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Trendy Furniture

I don’t much go in for casework, being sans table saw and largely migrated to digital book collections (outside of woodworking books).  But I have need for more shelf space.  Specifically, to display my vintage Lego collection in my home office.

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I’m about 2/3 done unpacking at this point.

A heavy bookcase seems like a waste of time and materials for such a display.  I could build or buy a lighted curio cabinet, but that’s probably overkill for what I’m trying to do here.

But there is a form of bookcase that would do perfectly: the wall-leaning variety.  They are utterly ubiquitous and just behind live edge epoxy river tables and ahead of standing desks in trendiness.  But, they are also easy to make with hand tools and relatively light on materials.  So I’ll have a go of it with some leftover Eastern White Pine 2×8’s from the standing desk build and some clear-ish home center 1x12s

The design I have in mind will incorporate a dovetailed cabinet for a bottom shelf, which will hold some larger books and heavy items.  That way, there can be dovetails in the project.  Three or four additional shelves (over 80 inches of height) should be plenty to comfortably display all the vintage goodness.

In case you’re wondering, my favorite Lego sets are from 1989’s Space Police I and 1994’s Spyrius, with 1990’s M-Tron being a very close third.  Check out http://www.bricklink.com.

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Everything Old is New

They say that everything in furniture making is either a platform or a box (or both). And I say that sometimes it feels like everything my woodworking life is either a workbench or a tool chest (or both).  So let’s talk about the latest tool chest.

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I’m a big fan of this red color.

I’ve built a Dutch Tool Chest before. I think the form has many advantages, especially in the small home shop where the shallow profile efficiently fits into the floor plan.  I just hated squatting all the time to get at my joinery planes, which is why I switched to a proper floor chest.  But that’s not really an issue when using the plywood low workbench.  In fact, one could skip the lower compartment all together and just have the top till area.  Which I did.

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You’re already squatting when working on this workbench.

The great virtue of a dutch tool chest is how easily it goes together with much less material compared to a rectangular chest.  The joinery consists of dovetails on the bottom two corners and nails or screws for everything else (plus two rabbets if you build a proper one).  The entire case (which has inside dimensions of 11.25″ x 23″ x 15″) came together in an afternoon from a single ten foot pine 1×12 from the home center:

  • Two sides:  one board, 26″ long  and full width (crosscut at 20 degrees to form two boards)
  • Bottom: one board, 24″ long and full width
  • Back: two boards, one 24″ long and full width, one 24″ long and ripped to 5″, shiplapped (T&G also would have worked)
  • Front: one board, 24″ long and full width

The remainder of that first board became the tool rack and the skids on the underside.  If I had started from a twelve foot pine 1×12, I probably could have gotten the lid too from that single board.

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Everything is 5/8″ thick.

This tool box wouldn’t hold a full set of woodworking tools.  But it’s definitely big enough to hold everything a beginner hand-tool woodworker would own. Especially with the chisel rack and the saw till.  I even made a straightedge specifically for this tool chest.

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That’s a salvaged saw till from a prior tool chest.

As of today, it’s stuffed with my spare tools: both a No 5. bench plane and a No. 4 bench plane, a full set of back saws and most of a set of chisels, together with diamond plates for sharpening, a hammer, a chisel mallet, and the essential marking tools (including combination square).  A small panel saw that would fit too, but I don’t own one that small that is not one of my regular tools (at least not until I break out the angle grinder).

Even with all of that loaded in, it’s still light enough to carry around and fits easily in the back of my SUV.

This is another one of those “I wish I had known about it when I first got started woodworking” projects.  I would have made this entirely with screws and plywood, or rabbets and nails in dimensional pine.  No dovetails needed.  And it would even match the plywood low workbench.

Speaking of which, it’s time to take the plunge on boring the rest of the dog holes in the laminated slab top.  But I’m ready.

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One Board Projects

In keeping with the single board project motif, I slapped together a shooting board from a large mahogany off cut that was basically twist free.  Utilizing a wedged fence, the board is about 12 inches long and 9 inches wide.  This version is based very heavily on the plans in The Minimalist Woodworker by Vic Tesolin, just without the cleats.  It’s meant for use on the low occasional workbench so it just buts up against the planing stops.

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How do you make a shooting board if you don’t have a shooting board to make it with?

A shooting board, you may remember, is a jig with a fence at some fixed angle to a reference edge that helps a handtool woodworker true up a sawn edge to that fixed angle.  90 degrees is very common for general, rectilinear work, but a 45 degree fence comes in very handy for precision miter joints.

I find the hardest part about making shooting boards is getting a consistent glue surface between the base and the deck.  My “Biggest Rock is Best Rock” approach to clamping largely grew out of this frustration.  But when your biggest rock isn’t quick big enough, improvise!

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Even with all this weight, I still ended up screwing the boards together from the underside.

The end result is quite nice.  Heavy, flat and (I assume) stable.  And the wedge is dead-square to the deck.  We’ll see if mahogany is tough enough to stand up over time.  I don’t plan on using it for bench-hook purposes (it’s too pretty for that).

Now for that palm!

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The Easy Way Out

A corollary to “Why build it when you can overbuild it?” is “Why do it the easy way when you can do it the hard way?”  The latter seems to be the theme of my latest project, a sitting bench and occasional Roman workbench.

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Cherry, plus Boiled Linseed Oil, plus Sunlight = Beauty

I could have easily glued and nailed a gusset onto each set of legs and called it a day.  That would have been the easy way out.  But I had to go make it all complicated and mortise in a stretcher that’s flush to the underside of the benchtop.  Sure, it looks nicer and will theoretically be stronger, but it’s at least twice as much work.

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This entire article is just a clip show, apparently.

I should note that there are two failure points in this setup.

The first is cross-grain movement.  I assembled the bench in my downstairs, non-HVAC workshop on a humid day.  But the finished piece will live in the HVAC upstairs living area so it should shrink a smidge.  Nonetheless, the quarter inch drawbore pegs are likely not strong enough to resist heavy seasonal movement, even if they had been rived from solid stock instead of storebought dowels.  I have a nagging suspicion that 3/8 would have been more appropriate.

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Clamp pressure was a must, even with the drawbores.

Second, the 10 degree rake on the legs seems a bit aggressive.  There is the slightest bit of flex in the legs when I sit on the bench, although it might just be the slickness of the hardwood floor.  I can imagine that heavy mortising over the legs might loosen the lap joints over time.  We’ll just have to see.

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I added Veritas bench pups to one end.

I used the bench for some basic hand planing last night and have some plans for a special shooting board/bench hook that braces against the bench dogs pictured above.

Once that shooting board is functional, I’ll move onto a Palm that fits over the bench dogs, and maybe a removable crochet/shoulder vise that does the same.  Or maybe just drop the illusion of this being furniture add a whipple hook?

Is it obvious that I’m between major projects right now?

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Nearing Completion

The second mirror for the upstairs bathroom is complete and I’m as pleased as I can be with the result. Everything seems balanced out now.

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Color match is what it is.

In making the second mirror, I took no chances and went straight to a rabbeting bit in the trim router.  There is something to be said for ultra-repeatablility and ease.

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Color match is what it is.

There are a great many power tools I’ve given up since I first started woodworking, but I would rather die than be without my rabbeting bit and flush trim bit (both of which have a place in a hand tool-focused shop).

Or, whatever.

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