woodworking in an apartment

To Last Forever

Some of my pieces are utility furniture that could easily be purchased at an IKEA or Bed, Bath & Beyond.  And those store-bought pieces would serve their purpose just fine for a modest price.  But instead, I choose to make these things by hand.  “Why?”, you ask.  Three reasons, really.

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A very simple wall rack for towels, in situ.

The first reason is probably the most obvious: I enjoy the making.  If I didn’t derive extreme satisfaction from the work of my hands, why bother with the sometimes-arduous act of hand tool woodworking?  And I certainly wouldn’t write about.

The second reason is probably also obvious: I can make to exact specifications.  Store-bought items are rarely just the right size.  For example, I needed a wall rack for towels that could fit behind a bathroom door.  It also had to hold all my bath towels and hand towels and allow the door open all the way.  What is the likelihood I would find a 14″ x 30″ x 7.25″ rack at a store?  And in the same color white as the walls?  Possible, but unlikely.

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Some of the towels are in the laundry or on the hooks/racks.

The third and final reason is less obvious: I can make something that will last.  This is the core of the Christopher Schwarz philosophy of Aesthetic Anarchism.  The work of my hands is far more durable than anything I can buy at a store.  Dovetail and housing joints  in pine are stronger than metal screws and dowels in MDF by orders of magnitude.  Barring catastrophe or relocation, I will never again need to make another behind-the-door hanging cabinet for the spare bathroom.

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Thar be dovetails under that paint.

I do not discount the labor required to produce the piece.  But, in my mind, the labor costs are worth the benefits of making it myself.

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In Praise of Dadoes

Sometimes it feels like the only joinery I cut is dovetails.  A distant second to dovetails are dadoes (a/k/a housing joints).  And the mortises and tenons I cut for the ash sitting bench felt like the first I’d done since building my workbench, and the first for furniture in years.  I

n my view, dadoes are the easiest (and most satsifying) joint to get right.  You can even cut the dado overly-tight and later fix the mating piece to fit.  The thunk of a fully-seated housing joint is a beautiful thing.  And it can be a very strong joint, in the presence of glue or nails (or both).  

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An overly-tight joint works quite well in compressible pine.

Whenever possible, though, I will use a stopped dadoes for the show face of a piece.  A through-dado is just fine if it won’t be seen (either on the back of the carcase or covered by a face frame) or the piece isn’t fine furniture.  But on the show face, a through-dado looks too much like a mortise haunch to me.  No matter how perfect it is, I’d rather have the clean shoulder line.

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Isn’t a dado pretty much a shallow mortise with a shoulderless tenon, anyway?

The trickiest part, I find, is the act of fitting the mating piece into the final joint.  Boards can cup between dimensioning and assembly.  Driving a cupped board into a straight dado is a recipe for brusingt the surrounding face grain.  To combat this, I clamp on a caul to flatten the mating piece.  After it’s seated, the dado itself will hold the board flat.

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Dovetails typically do this work without need for a caul.

On an unrelated note, I’m deciding on whether to paint the wall cabinet before I glue it together.  I wouldn’t normally, but I’m using latex (not milk) paint for this one.  So working out the kinks on the underside of the bottom board before assembly is probably a good idea.

Probably.

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Needing Something More

It’s a magic thing.  Starting from 7 linear feet of home center 1×12 eastern white pine. Adding the plane, the saw and the chisel.  Then ending up at the finished piece.  In this case, a 14″ x 30″ x 7.25″ wall cabinet, with through-dovetails at the corners and stopped dadoes for the shelf.  It is as perfect as I am capable of making.

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And perfect for hiding in a bathroom corner behind a door!

But it looks a bit plain to me.  I can only imagine how drab it will be when painted grey to match the vanity in the bathroom.  Rather than shape the sides, though, I may spruce it up with small molded face frame.  Or perhaps just an applied moulding on the shelf.  In any event, something I can do with moulding planes.

It feels like everything I make is square and flat.  Maybe it’s time I learn to cut compound dovetails.

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A Small Oversight

I’ve been on a shop appliance kick lately, including some necessary upgrades for the workshop itself. In addition to finally hanging some proper lighting, I also added a parallel clamp rack to the side wall. I have two more such racks; I just need some more washers to hang them correctly.

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Much harder to knock down, now.

I also felt it was time for a tool rack on the back side of the workbench, a la Monsieur Roubo. With a scrap of 1/2″ baltic birch and some pine offcuts, I knocked together a rack that gets the spacing right for my chisels and other everyday tools.

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Holes on 1 5/8″ center are just right for Narex chisels (rather than the 1 1/8″ in my tool chest).

I am 100% certain this would have been a 20-minute job if I owned a table saw. Instead, it was about 2 hours of planing, spacing and gluing (not including drying time), but the result was worth it.

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That block plane is a clamp.

There is only one problem: I never squared the back edge of my workbench. Time to debate whether to remove the top from the frame so I can square the back edge, or just attach a wedge to level out the surface.

In the meantime, I think I’ll make a “Basic Project” out of it.

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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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A Brief Flashback

My post the other day reminded me that I never actually posted this.

Once upon a time, as a supplement to my Milkman’s Workbench, I made what I called a “planing slab”.  It was 6 feet long, 13 inches wide and about 2 inches thick (after several flattenings), with a Veritas Inset Vise on one end.  It clamped to my dining table with angle iron, just like the Milkman’s Workbench.  And now, it has reached its full potential.

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Yes, that’s a second Japanese-style saw horse as well.

I had always meant to add a cleat to the underside so it could function like a Japanese-style workbench.  Nothing fancy, like the sliding dovetail shown in the source material.  Just dado and glue.  I used PVA, so I’m pretty sure it’s permanent.

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So tight, it needed clamp persuasion to seat.

The most important thing I’ve learned in this process is that the coefficient of friction on douglas fir is not significant.  A layer of adhesive-backed sandpaper on the underside of the slab in front of the cleat or (better yet) on the tops of both sawhorses does wonders to keep the slab in place.  A couple of F-style clamps holding the cleat tight against the front saw horse also work.

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There is Always One

I’m no stranger to angled mortises.  But I’ve never done staked furniture before, so when it came time to bore the through mortises into the Roman Workbench slab, I didn’t know what I was getting into.  I read and reread the entries in both The Anarchist’s Design Book and Roman Workbenches, and I think I nailed the sight line and resultant angles, but it was still a bit touch and go.

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The front two mortises look pretty good.

I should have done a test mortise because, as often happens, the first one is a bit wonky.  It’s not quite lined up laterally, and I can tell the rake is off by a few degrees.  Not just by eye, but also because it’s the only mortise that had any blowout on the top face. While I can fill in the chipping (and might even paint the top), there is not much I can do about the angle.  Luckily, it’s the back right leg, so I won’t see it day to day.

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There is always one.

So that means it’s just about time to make the legs.  Shaping the tenons without a lathe will be one challenge, but before that, I’ve got to rip down the legs.  By hand.  Out of 8/4 air dried red oak.  At least it will be a workout.

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I wish I had a table saw right about now.

Speaking of wishful thinking, it would have been great to know about the Roman Workbench form when I first started woodworking five years ago.  This seems like the perfect workbench for getting started in an apartment with a limited set of hand tools.  It’s easy to make and straightforward.  Hell, you could probably even make the top from a single sheet of 3/4″ plywood ripped four times down the length.

Plus, with an extra cleat on the underside, a Roman Workbench could also go up on saw horses and act like a Japanese-style workbench for added flexibility.  And flexibility is the key to apartment woodworking, in my experience.

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Like this, basically.

Oh well, coulda, woulda, shoulda, right?

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If it’s Wobbly…

then you should have put a stretcher on it.

 

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A bit more spindly than I expected.

I thought the drawbored mortise and tenon joints would be enough, but the ash sitting bench has turned out to be a bit wobbly.  So paraphrasing Queen Bey, I’ve decided to retrofit a stretcher to back legs.  In my world, “retrofit” is a synonym for “lap joint”.

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It’s times like these when I’m glad my workbench is apron-less.

A friction-fit lap joint can be very strong.  Between the long grain-to-long grain glue surface and the mechanical strength of the intersecting joint, it can be nearly as strong as a proper mortise and tenon joint, even without a metal fastener.

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It’s so pretty.

Because the joint will never be seen, though, I may add a slotted screw to each joint for a little bit more lateral support.  Or perhaps a walnut peg, to mimic the other drawbored joints in the piece.

There was some subtle twist in the entire assembly, so I’ve left the joint clamped for the full 24 hours.  That will give me time to think about whether to screw or peg.

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It’s almost like I meant to do it.  And now it matches the table a bit more.

The only other remaining question is whether this one stretcher will be enough.  I’d prefer not to add a second stretcher to the front legs.  I tend to cross my legs at the ankles when I sit, and that stretcher would get in the way.

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We Who Are About to Bore

A straight and square board, surfaced on all four sides is a thing to behold. When it’s 7 feet long, 11 inches wide and 2 inches thick, it’s down right beautiful. And that’s what I did over the weekend. It may be poplar, but soon it will be a Roman Workbench.

Little thin for a proper Japenese bench,

Like any pretty board in my workshop, though, it started out ugly and rough. But ugly and rough is how we like ’em ’round here (at least at the start). Then comes the Jack Plane.

My only complaint about the new floor is that it’s slick sometimes.

In my experience, the trick to flattening a wide, thick board is to start on the cupped aide and not get too overzealous. It’s very easy to plane a hump if you’re not paying attention. And that’s no recipe for keeping as much thickness as possible.

This is not a how-to on traversing . So my only other advice is to figure out where the twist is early in the process. It’s no good first taking out the cup then having to take out the twist. That’s likewise a recipe for losing more thickness than necessary. Once I have one side flat, I like to send it through the thickness planer. Others square an edge right away. Either works.

Then I tackle the edges. The goal is to remove only as much width as necessary. I try to square each foot or so to the face, then worry about overall straightness. On this board, I ended up only losing about 1/8″. A testament to the sawyer more than my planing skills.

So glad to have my 5 1/2 back in the shop.

The end result (seen in the first picture above) is a board that’s ready for joinery. And joinery, in this case, means big, round, wedged tenons.

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For All to See

After clearing a few little projects around the home, I turned back to the ash sitting bench I’ve been [slowly] making.  The design includes a 10° rake on the back legs and that means one thing: angled mortise and tenon joints.  One of my favorites.  But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.  I’d like to talk about mistakes.

 

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I’ll wedge that gap at the top, no problem.

The cross rails pictured above are a different thickness than the legs.  This means that while the mortises are centered in the legs, the tenons are not centered on the rails.  So keeping track of the reference face for the mortise gauge on the rails is SUPER important.  And, of course, I messed it up on the very last tenon.  Nothing would be square without a fix, and I’d prefer not to make another rail unless I really have to.

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The saddest “spot the diffrences” puzzle ever.

In the past, when I’ve pared tenons too thin, I glue on veneer of a similar hardness wood to build it back up.  Like the leg tenons on the Stent Panel workbench.  So why not use the same trick to build back up one of the tenon cheeks, then widen the mortise on the rail to accept the fatter tenon?  I grabbed an offcut from one of the tenon cheeks and glued it back onto the tenon.

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Say what you will, but these squeeze-style clamps work well for light clamping tasks.

After the glue set, I pared the patch down to the correct depth.  Then I reset my mortise gauge and widened the mortise to match the fatter tenon.  Net net, the joint is tight and the reveal is even (as shown in the first picture above).  And because I didn’t lose any of the original tenon’s thickness, the joint is still as strong as it would be had I not messed it up in the first place.  Once glued and drawbored, the joint will last forever.

Of course, none of this was necessary to share.  But I don’t keep anything from you guys.

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