tips and tricks

This Time of Year

Around these parts (Fairfield County, Connecticut), it’s warming up. This time of year, I’m finally able to drag my workbench outside and get real some woodworking done. My outside workbench, now with new slab and tool tray, is in fact getting quite a workout. I can get a bunch done with just a pair of holdfasts and a few clamps to secure the work. Proper vises are great. But they are not absolutely necessary if you’re not cutting English style dovetails.

Nice to see the slab and tray matching so well, though.

One of my goals for this year is mastering tapered tenon joinery for staked furniture. Or at least becoming facile with it. I have experimented with reamer and tapered tenon cutter before, but in situations where strength was not a primary concern. Chairs and stools are higher leverage projects (literally and figuratively) than credenza bases and side tables.

So with a nice weekend, I might as well make some chips on the lawn with a drawknife and spokeshave to prepare some leg stock for refinement. I resolved to take the tapers further than I usually do off the drawknife. I also spent more time with the spokeshave before introducing the tapered tenon cutter. I’m not sure it was faster than doing more rough work, but the results are more consistent than my prior work.

Like so.

These legs are ash, which was split off from a small timber that checked badly while it was drying I’d have preferred the leg blanks be closer to 2″ square, but you work with that you’ve got (these are 1.65″ square). I’ll add some stretchers between the pairs of legs for extra rigidity.

Aligning the legs for the eventual stretcher.

I am also working through some old boards, some from as early as 2014 that I’ve been dragging from shop to shop all these years. Among that is a red oak 2×12 (nominal size 1.75 x 11.25). It’s about 65 inches long and I could never bring myself to cut it down into smaller boards. So as I figure out how to be precise with compound angled joinery, I might as well make another low bench. The top had cupped and bowed pretty badly so by the time it was flattened, it was only 1.5″ thick. You may not think half an inch of red oak means that much, but it does. This is a sitting bench, not a low workbench, so the little bit of flex means added comfort. But if this were to live in the shop, it would need a 2×4 glued and screwed to the underside for extra support.

Ideally, the top would be thicker than the legs.

I do all my boring and reaming by hand with a brace, so it’s much harder to overshoot an angle or a depth with the reamer that way. But it’s still important to check your angles and go slow. Doing so will ensure the exit holes on the top (ie, visible) of the seat are of consistent size and shape. In the end, some irregularities aren’t fatal to the structural soundness of the piece. But looking nice is important too.

So this is a very long way of saying, if it’s nice outside, I will drag a workbench outside and get a tan while doing some rougher work. It’s harder to rake shavings off the lawn than to sweep them up off the floor.

But such is life.

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Fixgasm (Part III?)

I’m unsure if this counts as a proper fixgasm, but I finally got around to framing out and paneling a closet that for a long time was hidden behind the old wall panels. But let’s assume for a moment the closet was already framed out and paneled. Then putting some shelving in definitely counts as a fixgasm.

Yes, I have mostly black and yellow branded tools. No, they aren’t a sponsor.

This closet was, up until this very day, a receptacle for the detritus of the workshop. Clamps, offcuts and various oddments were piled up, leaning against the wall. So with floor to ceiling storage (these metal rack units work great for closet shelving), I have now emptied two (!) different smaller storage units that take up floor space in the overflow room. Getting rid of those smaller storage units will allow me to move things around a bit, which will free up more room.

And then it cascades until I might finally create a direct path from the handtool shop to the thickness planer in the overflow room.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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Batchin’ ’em Out

If you’ve been here more than once, you know I’m a hand tool guy. To be clear, I do have power tools that complement primarily hand tool work. My lunchbox thickness planer does the donkey work once there is a tried and true reference face and a squared reference edge off the jointer plane. A double bevel compound miter saw quickly cuts stock to rough length. And you can pry my benchtop hollow chisel mortiser from my cold, dead hands. I also have a small drill press (that at this point is used exclusively for accurate drawboring), a collection of battery-powered DIY tools (a drill driver, a circular saw and a random orbital sander), and a trim router kit for when I’ve truly given up on things.

But doing hand work efficiently is more than just leveraging power when, as and if it makes sense. When there are multiple parts to cut (there always are), it helps to think like a one-person assembly line. Each step in the assembly line is a repeated task. Sure, variety is a the spice of life. But just like a blade and fence setup at the table saw, you want to set it once, do all the cuts, then move on. It’s the same thing for body mechanics at the workbench.

So let’s talk about tapered octagon legs by hand.

The first two tapers on each piece (on opposite sides) go pretty quickly in the face vise. If you work to opposite sides, the other profile is still square and therefore easily held in the vise (in my case, a leg vise). Do that eight times.

If you have a twin screw vise that can hold tapers securely, great. Stay at the face vise. But I don’t, so I move to the tail vise. Pinched between the dogs, the legs sit flush to the bench on the tapers I had just planed to make a square taper on all faces. Do that eight times.

And then you have this.

Now lay out the octagon(s). If you have a lathe and will taper across the entire length, you’re nearly done at the workbench. But I don’t have a lathe and I like to start the taper where the round tenon ends, so in addition to the octagon at the foot, I also lay out an octagon on the top where the tenon will go. A cradle jig that goes in the tail vise holds the work and I taper from square down to octagon at the foot and also from square down to an octagon at the top. Do that thirty-two times (16 long tapers and 16 short tapers).

And you end up with something like this.

That short taper makes it easier to center the round tenon cutter I have for my drill driver, btw. I use a 1 1/2″ tenon cutter, but that’s just a rough cut. With chisel, spokeshave and rasp I take that round tenon down to 1 3/8″ to ensure it’s centered on the blank (it rarely is straight off the tenon cutter). It also helps to bore a 1 3/8″ hole in some hardwood (or at least wood that is harder than your blank) with the bit you’ll use for the mortise to test the fit now and again. Do this four times.

Almost done now! Yes, that’s a Mets colored Nalgene. #LFGM

Finally, I go back to the corners (where they were tapered from square to octagon) and plane in the full tapered octagon from the tenon to the foot. I find taking the facets down evenly first (so the facet is parallel from the tenon to the foot), and then incrementally increasing the facet width at the top near the tenon by counting strokes, works best. Again, if you taper the full length, this step is unnecessary.

The finished leg.

It goes without saying, but I did one leg first to work out the process and then batched out the other three with the process described above. Are they perfect? Of course not. But we are not machines (and should not strive to be machines). And I enjoy the hand made aesthetic far more than machine-wrought perfection.

Okay, I lied. I made a second one to test the process. I’m actually at step 2 for the other two legs.

There is a great rhythm one can get into when batching out parts at the bench. Hehe, batching.

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Most Important Woodworking Website

There is a website I go to (almost) every day when I’m in the shop. A website with the most important and useful woodworking insights. Truly, it is an indispensable resource for my woodworking needs.

That website: http://www.carbidedepot.com/formulas-trigright.asp

A trigonometry calculator.

Angles are everywhere; make sure you know how long to rough cut a board.

This is not a joke. Imagine rough cutting a board too short and only learning it after you’re trying to level the legs.

A travesty, for sure.

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New Year’s Day, 2022

Another year has passed. As is my heathen wont, I went to bed early last night, stone sober and well hydrated, and hit the shop early this morning. I like to begin each year on my own terms. And then ride out the downhill trajectory from there.

In advance of my regular January vacation, I’ve been making a “gentleman’s tool chest” for a core set of hand tools. Now I’m no gentleman (or so I’ve been told), but as I understand it, the “gentleman” refers simultaneously to (x) a non-professional woodworker and (y) the smaller set of tools a non-professional joiner or cabinetmaker would have in their chest. So maybe I am a gentleman.

This particular tool chest is a modest 25″ long, 11″ deep and 11″ high and will have 2 sliding tills. The planes and sharpening gear are french fit into the tool well and there won’t be too much lose gear rattling around. It’s also intended to be a general around-the-house toolbox holding my nicest spare tools so it will move around a fair bit.

Still one more sliding till to make.

In any tool storage build, like in life, there are compromises. For example, there is not any room for joinery saws in this chest, but I have modified a 10 tpi rip saw (it crosscuts too) and a 6 tpi rip saw to have shorter plates. I say modified; I cutoff about 5 inches from the toe of each saw with an angle grinder and filed off the burrs. The shorter plates are stiff enough for precise sawing as needed (and everything gets cleaned up with chisel or router plane anyway).

It’s also rabbeted and nailed, not dovetailed. Cauls help keep everything flat when nailing together.

The full kit this holds is as follows:

  • Planes: No. 5 jack plane, No. 3 smoothing plane, Low-angle block plane, small router plane
  • Saws: 10 tpi rip cut panel saw (18″ plate): 6 tpi rip cut panel saw (18″ plate)
  • Chisels: 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 1 inch bench chisels, carver’s mallet
  • Marking and measuring: 12″ combination square, 8″ machinist square, wheel marking gauge, 12 foot tape measure, folding marking knife, mechanical pencils
  • Boring: Two jaw, short sweep brace, plus hex adapter, large diameter adjustable auger bit, drill bit set, hand countersink
  • Sharpening: 120, 220, 1200 grit diamond plates, side clamp honing guide and setup block, plus glass cleaner and jojoba oil
  • Miscellaneous: Warrington-pattern hammer, slotted and phillips screwdrivers, cork sanding block, foam ear plugs (lots of these)

I’m sure there is something I’m forgetting (I can supplement this later), but I find the above set of tools is everything one needs for general woodworking projects that aren’t intended to be the finest furniture. I can take rough lumber to dimension with these tools and do crisp joinery by hand without too much fuss. I will likely make or purchase a medium router plane to fit this chest, as well as a set of wooden winding sticks and a wooden straightedge.

As I write this, the second till is glued and nailed and drying in the shop. So that means only one thing: it’s lid time.

And that’s the point at which every tool chest build starts to get tedious.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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Thought Experiment

Where we last left off, I had just about made a functional workbench for the cost of seven Douglas Fir 2×4’s and some construction screws.  Before I knew it, I had a sturdy surface that (although a bit narrow, in retrospect) was ready for some serious woodworking.  There was just one problem: I had cheated and not even realized it.

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Nice looking bench, if I say so myself.

You may have noticed the Veritas low profile planing stop shown above.  They are easy to install (you just drill a couple of 3/4″ holes) and super functional and I swear by them.  But there is no 3/4″ bit in my basic tool kit yet.  Since I’m not yet ready to compromise this intellectual exercise, the planing stop has to go.  Some West Systems epoxy does the trick filling the holes.

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Faces in things.

3/4″ drill bit aside, I definitely have a regular set of drill bits and a hammer.  So instead of a commercially-available planing stop, let’s instead make a palm, which is a different type of planing stop that’s useful for restraining boards both on the their faces and on their edges.

For those unfamiliar, it’s literally just two 1/2″ boards, nailed on at 45 degrees to the length of the bench and 90 degrees to each other. I used 6d die-forged nails with the heads counter-bored a bit so I don’t accidentally ding a plane sole on thinner stock.  Narrow boards (and boards on edge) wedge themselves into the palm (a bit like a crochet), and wider boards but up against the points (like a straight planing stop).

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Not sure what additional wisdom you’re looking for here.

I think that’s all the workholding I’ll need for now.  That said, the list of tools has expanded a bit.  The current list of all tools I used for building the bench is as follows:

  • No. 5 Jack Plane
  • Chisels: 1/2″ and 1″
  • Panel saw
  • Double-faced mallet (not pictured)
  • Claw hammer (not pictured)
  • 12″ combination square
  • 4″ try square
  • 36″ straightedge
  • 12′ tape measure (not pictured)
  • Folding marking knife
  • Wheel marking gauge
  • Small folding bevel gauge
  • Birdcage (square) awl
  • Mechanical pencil, etc.
  • Medium cut straight file
  • Cordless drill driver with standard drill bits and driver bits (bits not pictured)

But I think it’s fair to say that if the entire tool kit for making a workbench fit on the top of that workbench, then it qualifies as an apartment woodworking bench.

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I plan to immediately add a large router plane, also.  I can live without it; I just choose not to.

Up to this point, I’ve just been keeping track of the tools used and putting them back in my floor chest as I go.  But a full size floor chest is not exactly within reach for most small space woodworkers.  To be honest, my full size floor chest (40x24x24, not including the casters) is probably too large for my 12×13 bedroom workshop shop.  So it’s time to make some tool storage that’s more appropriate for a small shop.

I think a tool chest in the Dutch style popularized by Christopher Schwarz and Megan Fitzpatrick is the best option here.  I’ve built two of them before (one large that was gifted to a friend, one extra small with just the angled compartment that is just a residential toolbox) and in my experience they can be built with minimal tools.  I’m not bold enough to cut dovetails pins first on a low workbench, so I’ll stick to rabbets and nails/screws for this one.  Should be plenty strong for something that will live on a saw bench up against the wall.

But here are the rules going forward for this experiment:

Rule #1A: before I can pull a tool from my floor chest, I have to first do the operation (if possible) using one of the simple tools listed above.  For example, when making the workbench, after I cleaned up one of the leg mortises entirely with chisel, I could have swapped in a large router plane to do the same job (I actually did this for one where the grain was particularly unruly).  Another example: once I hand crosscut and square a board the first time, I can thereafter use my chop saw to move things along on the rest of the cuts.

Rule #1B: if the operation cannot be comfortably (or safely) done on the low workbench with a simpler tool, I can pull the correct tool as long as it can will in the Dutch tool chest.  If the correct tool will not fit in the Dutch tool chest and the operation is not comfortable (or safe) to do on the low workbench, I cannot perform that operation and must use a different joint/feature.

Rule #2: No vises, but clamping boards to the workbench is fair game.  I have access to my full set of clamps, in fact.  I’m not that much of a masochist.

Rule #3: I have access to my existing shooting board and can do the operation on my high workbench.  I can certainly make another shooting board that will fit better on the low workbench (I’ve done it before).  However, this same shooting board used to live on my kitchen island and I see no reason to change things up now.  And shooting while standing is far easier on the back and shoulders.

Rule #4: I’m also allowed to use my benchtop drill press for the chisel rack that goes in the chest.  Yes, I could do it by hand.  But I’m not getting into this argument with you.

As of the writing of this post, I’m almost finished with the main part of the Dutch tool chest.  Here is the full tool kit to date (not counting parallel jaw clamps and the aforementioned benchtop drill press):

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Still no 3/4″ auger and bit, though.

This has been a long one, so I’m leaving it at that for now.

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Version 2.0

Once upon a time, I made a leg vise with a cog on a wooden screw instead of a pin board.  I worked with it for about four months and can definitively say that I prefer it to a pin board.  But 1.25″ for the wooden screw is a bit thin, in my opinion.  So when it came to install a leg vise on the new workbench, I took the chance to perfect the form and use a full 1.5″ screw and a beefier cog.

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Still need to shape the vise chop a bit.

The main screw for this leg vise is scavenged from the prior leg vise.  It’s just one of those European screws marketed as a “tail vise” screw.  I had intended to make a new wooden screw with my JJ Beall Big Threader, but none of my 1.5″ dowel stock is straight enough along.  So I scavenged the screw from the leg vise on the reclaimed maple console table, which has over 12″ of thread.

The cog is 8/4 quartersawn white oak.  It’s dense and stable and was honestly the only 8″+ wide stock I had already milled.  What matters is it’s large enough that the teeth of the cog will protrude beyond the edges of the chop, so it is easily worked with your feet.

The cog is pretty easy to make, if you take it in steps.  I began my marking and drilling out on the drill press the 1 3/8″ center hole for tapping, and eight 1.5″ holes to form the teeth.  Eight teeth is plenty.  Everything gets a light chamfer with a trim router.

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I find it’s easier to do the boring when it’s part of the larger board.

It’s then trimmed to final size, first cut to square, then the corners taken off at 45 degrees.  I ended up taking another 1/8″ or so off each side, so the teeth of the cog weren’t quite as sharp.   Everything gets one more set of chamfers and hand sanding to break any more sharp edges.

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The flat face points inward, where it contacts the leg.

All that’s left is to bore the hole in the chop for the cog screw.  Don’t bore it too deep.  You need at least 1/2″ of wood for the screw to press again.  Otherwise, it might blow out if you’re really cranking down.  I just use wood glue (although epoxy would work too) and I make sure the screw is perfectly perpendicular to the vise chop.  You could angle it slightly upward (to create natural toe-in alignment), but I don’t think it’s necessary if your main screw is otherwise perpendicular.

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Keep track of your reference surfaces and alignment is a breeze.

This cog has some real heft to it.  A decent spin with the foot and the cog spins under its own momentum.  A real improvement over the 1′ hard maple cog on the last workbench.  I will say the angled chop makes it a slightly harder to get at on the right side (the tightening side).  But it’s not too much effort.

Is this method more economical than a criss-cross or a pin board?  Not really.  But it works great and I highly recommend it.  Just remember to ream the hole in the leg vertically.  Otherwise, the cog screw will bind if it’s not perfectly in alignment with the main screw.

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Keeping it Together

Fair warning: this post is actually a “how to” on a method for reinforcing a joint where you’re joining two boards at a right angle by screwing through the face grain of one board into the end-grain of the mating board.  If that interests you, please proceed.

I recently built a “The Naked Woodworker” workbench, partly for the intellectual exercise of it and partly because my brother needed a workbench for his recently-expanded garage.  I have mostly good things to say about the design and the ease of construction.  I was able to put the entire bench together in less than 12 hours time of shop time stretched over two days (one long, one short).  Had I let the wood acclimate a bit more before construction, I bet could have done the whole thing in a single day.

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This was about 6 total shop hours in.

The bench is mostly glued and screwed together, but there are two joints where boards are joined at right angles with just screws through the face grain of one board into the end grain of the mating board.  One such place is the top rails of the leg assemblies (seen above).  The other is the number of bearers stretched between the aprons to which the top is eventually screwed down.

Screws into end grain, especially late growth softwood, is not the strongest joint.  In an abundance of caution, I sized all the end grain and glued it as best I could.  But it was still a bit shaky in places.  So when using up the last bits of construction lumber to make a shop fixture, there were a couple of places where screws into end-grain just wouldn’t cut it.  Instead, I utilized a 3/4″ oak dowel like a bench bolt to give something for the screw to bite into.

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I’ve been using my 18 gauge brad nailer more, these days.

Please note, I cannot take credit for this technique.  I learned it from a Popular Woodworking video on making a quick and dirty first workbench.  It shows up in the first half of the linked video.

First, bore a hole to match the dowel (3/4″ in this case) and glue it in place with the rings perpendicular to the direction the screw will penetrate.  While not critical, this will reduce the likelihood of the dowel splitting and weakening the joint.  Anything over 1″ is probably enough.  I went the full 1.5″ that my drill guide could handle.

This hole is 1 5/8″ on center, meaning there is a full 1 1/4″ of material for the dowel to lock against.

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The boards cupped a bit after planing.  More stable stock would not have needed this screw.

Next, drill a pilot hole for the screw, all the way through the dowel.  For cleanliness, I first countersank the hole, then finished it off with a long drill bit.  Red oak is tough, even for self-drilling deck screws.  Better not to risk it.  An extra long bit lets you sight to ensure the pilot hole passes through the dowel.

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Luckily, this extra long bit (the only one I own) was perfect for the screws in use.

Finally, drive the screw and flush up the dowel.  I use a flush trim saw and either a chisel or a plane, depending on how much material remains after sawing.

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Never to be seen again once the top is attached.

If done right, this joint is tremendously strong (at least compared to screwing into end grain alone).  Bench bolts are not terribly expensive, but oak dowel and screws are undoubtedly cheaper.  And, to be fair, this method requires less prep and fuss.

And less prep and fuss is what shop fixtures are all about.

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Rethinking my Life Choices

A funny thing happened on the way to the workshop the other day.  I had four, 8/4 White Oak boards to laminate into a tabletop for the new compact Nicholson Workbench.  At over 20″ wide, the lamination would be far too wide for my lunchbox thickness planer.  And I needed as much thickness as possible for the final lamination so the workbench top would be as stout as possible.  So keeping everything aligned through the various glue-ups was paramount.

So I turned to something that cannot by any stretch be classified as a hand tool.  A self-centering dowel jig.

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I absolutely adore this thing.

Using dowels for alignment actually serves two purposes.  First, it does the aforementioned aligning so any minor bowing along the length of a single board does not otherwise ruin the straightness of the glue-up.  Second, it reinforces the glue joint so if the glue fails, the entire thing doesn’t just fall to pieces.  It’s not as good as dominoes, obviously, but it’s also way cheaper.

Now I like to think that with a jointer plane and some car I can have a joint that will never fail.  And it probably won’t.  But the peace of mind of the reinforcing dowels is nice to have.  It matters more for larger timbers, though.

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And spiral dowels are cheap.

The most important thing, though, is to make sure your dowel holes align.  This is more about keeping track of how you’re flipping the boards than anything.  Otherwise, you’ll use your extra dowels to fill in erroneously-bored holes.  And that’s no fun.

Trust me.

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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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