woodworking in an apartment

Extreme Vanity

If a coherent philosophy exists in my woodworking, it’s this: “Why build when you can overbuild?”.  Or, perhaps, it’s “Could we? (not should we)?”.  Either way, it’s resulted in the most hilariously stout bathroom vanity of all time.

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Glamour shot just before the sinks go in.

The entire thing is quartersawn white oak.  The leg frames are entirely 8/4″ stock (final thickness of about 1 15/16″) and the top is 6/4″ stock (final thickness of just over 1 1/4″).  Everything is stub tenoned and drawbored with 3/8″ birch dowels and Titebond 1.  The long rails are even double drawbored front and back.

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It’s not a workbench, but it might as well be.

I chose to drawbore the mortise and tenon joints for two reasons.  First, there are no lengthwise lower stretchers, so it needed the extra rigidity.  Any lower shelf I make will just sit on top of the short rails of the leg frames.  But, more importantly, I don’t own any 60″ clamps so clamping this thing together would have been awkward and unreliable.

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Pre-assembly, pre-finish.

Drawboring also makes assembly less stressful.  You can move the constituent pieces individually and then assemble in situ at a leisurely pace. Sure: the assembled frame probably would have made it through the door from the hallway anyway.  But who knows (and why risk it)?

The net result is a piece of furniture with a frame that will never come apart.  Even if I want it to.

How the tabletop connects to the frame is a different story altogether, though.  More on that later.

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Rapid Fire

It’s been a while since my last blog post, but I’ve been far from idle in terms of woodworking. First off, I finished up the new office desk and it works great. The Eastern White Pine is much easier on the elbows than red oak, and sitting on a stool (rather than an Aeron Chair) has helped my posture immensely.

I have since purchased a drafting stool.  

I’m nearing the end of the the bathroom vanity build, which I’ll post in more detail about later in the week. It’s a complicated project in quartersawn white oak that really does a number on my edge tools. I’ve recently switched to a Lie-Nielsen honing guide (which my sister-in-law bought me for the holidays) and the angles don’t match the cheap-o guide I’ve been using forever. They are, in fact, about 5° difference (e.g., 40° on the old guide roughly corresponds to 35° on the LN). 

Sure, I could have soldiered on doing the math every time.  But thinking is the bane of efficiency in the shop.  So I made a new sharpening jig out of sweet, sweet mahogany.  This jig is less complicated too because planes and chisels register in the same slot in the LN guide (the cheap-o guide has different slots for each).

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I needed a new notation because it’s really about 35.5°.

Interestingly, the LN guide is also wider.  Or, rather, it doesn’t have the extra material in the middle, so on my largest blades (specifically, for my No. 7 plane), it didn’t register fully and introduced additional error.  About 50% wider did the trick.  

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The old guide and the old jig will now live in my toolbox.

Speaking of which, the new tool box is also finished.  It came out really great (if I do say so myself).  It fits a No. 5 jack plane, a tenon saw or half-back saw and all the other accoutrements I may need for on-site work.  And it looks really pretty. 

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Compare it to the old tool tote.

I have two complaints about it, though. First, I haven’t found any lifts that I like yet.  Second, the eye on the transom chain anchor gets in the way sometimes, making it a little finicky to remove the tray.  But that’s the cost of storage, I guess.

So that’s all for now.  

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Alternatives to Fighting

In progressing the standing desk build, I had to make a design choice regarding how to attach the back stretcher. But, more importantly, I had a practical choice to make. The angle of the back leg on each of the two frames is slightly off. Call it half a degree or so. Near the top of the assembly, there is no appreciable difference. 30″ or so down the legs, though, it’s nearly 3/16″ off.

I could, in theory, modify the cheek depth on one of the tenons and cant it very slightly to correct for this discrepancy. Or I could just run the stretcher near the top where the bag legs are, for all practical purposes, parallel. And if I’m doing that, why not in my impatience just lap a dovetail?

Because of course dovetails.

Half-lapped dovetails are an interesting joint. I personally find them aesthetically displeasing, even when executed perfectly. But they provide a mechanical resistance against tensile force that in other joints would require some sort of fastener (dowels, screws or bolts). And, like the comparable joints (mortise and tenon, half lap joint), they have significant long grain to long grain glue surface for maximum strength.

Plus, I find them rather easy to cut once you dial in the compound angle.

Ugly or not, this particular joint is not only on the back of the assembly, so I don’t have to every look at it again. Plus, it will be painted. So I’m happy with the choice.

Now I just have to make the top.

Have I mentioned that Eastern White Pine is just the best? Because it is.

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Palate Cleanser

With the bathroom renovation fully underway, I couldn’t put off building the vanity any longer. Almost two years ago, I selected the design to generally rip off. Shortly thereafter, I purchased who knows how many board feet of 8/4 quartersawn white oak, which then sat in my workshop to acclimate for many months before dimensioning.

It’s been so long, my new workbench was still in big room..

White Oak can be very beautiful and (being both waterproof and tough) it is perfect for applications like bathroom vanities. Hard Maple works well too. But unless it’s air dried, White Oak is just too damned hard to work with hand tools alone. Based on how tough it is (and the way it warped when acclimating in the shop), I assume this stock is kiln dried. So I didn’t even bother trying to chop the mortises by hand. Instead, I utilized the drill press like a mortising machine and pared each mortise to width with a chisel. I also squared the corners, because effort.

Before and after.

The tenons were no peach either. I typically saw tenon shoulders and then split the tenons cheeks (rather than saw them). A router plane then pares down the cheeks to get a piston fit. This approach works pretty well, even in kiln dried White Oak, as long as I don’t take too much of a bite with the router plane. But fine-tuning the tenon shoulders (i.e., end grain) with a shoulder plane is basically impossible. If I don’t saw perfectly to the line, it’s chisel paring or bust.

So after getting through the joinery on both end frames, I was ready for a change. Back to the Eastern White Pine standing desk I’m leisurely making for my home office! If you’ve been reading for any amount of time, you know that I prefer to torture myself with angled back legs and this desk build is no exception.

Fluffy and delightful.

Why Eastern White Pine for desk, you may ask? Well, it’s my experience that a softer wood with a bit of flex is better in the long run for hands and elbows. I’ve been working on a quartersawn red oak desk for about five years now and I’m pretty sure I have arthritis in one elbow because of it. I’ve taken to using gel rests for both keyboard and mouse, but they don’t do anything to make up for the lack of flex.

It’s always a boon to make it through an assembly with no broken pegs.

These frames are only 34″ high overall (and will likely be down to 33.5″ when the feet are leveled). Add in two inches of bearer and two more inches of tabletop, and perhaps 3/8 of felt furniture pad, it’s still only about 38″ high. At just a bit over 5’10”, a perfect standing desk for me is about 40″ high. So where am I getting the rest of the height? From my ventilated laptop stand, of course!

The final desk won’t be quite as long or as wide as my current desk. I don’t work from home nearly as much as I used to, so there is just no good reason for a 76″ x 30″ desk. It takes up too much space. Something more like 60″ x 20″ will be plenty of real estate and will free up a fair amount of floor space.

But this new standing desk will make my current office chair pretty useless, so I need to find a decent 30″ stool with a backrest.

Find or make, I guess.

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Sorting Things Out

It’s been approximately six years since I started woodworking. Once and for all, I’ve grown out of the nylon tool tote I bought from Rings End all those years ago. So it’s time for a DIY toolbox.

I’m actually not here to talk about dovetails in reclaimed mahogany (for once).

It goes without saying, but any tool storage container should be sized to fit the tools it’s meant to hold. Specifically, the interior length should allow the longest tool to easily enter and exit (phrasing?) and the interior height should accommodate the tallest tool and any racks or tills. The interior width, however, is determined based on all the tools to be held.

In this case, the interior dimensions of 21.5″ x 9″ x 9″ accommodate a half-back saw that is about 21″ long and the combined height of a No. 5 jack plane and chisel tray. The width is based the till for that half back saw, plus that No. 5 jack plane, plus a large router plane (with 1/4″ spaces for French fitting in between to keep everything snug).

I went back and forth on how to do the floor of the tool box. I briefly considered 1/2″ plywood captured in a rabbet or groove, but I was impatient and assembled the case before plowing the groove. So tongue and groove pine nailed to the carcass it was. It doesn’t match the case, but this is a utilitarian piece.

Dovetailed nails for strength.

I find the most joy in the repetitive tasks of hand tool woodworking. Sawing, chopping and shaping are great, but planing is where my heart truly lies. And none is more enjoyable than the process of planing tongues and grooves with the specialty tongue and groove plane. It has an opposable fence and cuts both parts of the joint.

I could use this plane for hours.

In prior projects with tongue and groove floors, I typically work with the boards that I have and then trim off any extra. Which is fine when there is a skirt to hide the unevenness. But there is no skirt here, so I matched the width on the outer boards, and then matched the width on the next two boards, and I’ll size the middle board to fit. It will be rather narrow, but symmetrical nonetheless. You know, for my neuroses.

I’ll send pics when it’s further along.

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Fits and Starts

When the spirit moves me, my woodworking progresses quickly.  In the space of a day or so, I went from dimensional 1×12 pine to a dovetailed, rabbeted, glued and nailed carcass for what was supposed to be an under-workbench cabinet.

Biggest rock is best rock.

The whole point of this cabinet was to add some heft to the new workbench without compromising the spirit of “no stretchers”.  The new workbench had a tendency to scoot around while under heavy planing use.  But, it turns out, all I needed to do was add some treads to the bench and it stays perfectly still.

In situ.

They may not be good for the knees, but the cheapo home center anti-fatigue mats are quite effective non-skid surfaces for workbenches.  I should have known.  Back in my old apartment, my dining table workbench sat on top of one of these mats.  And it never moved an inch, whether or not the bottom shelf was loaded up.

So my new plan is to re-purpose this cabinet as a media console.   I will either buy some metal hairpin legs or make a staked-leg base to sit it on top.  

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Branching Out

I’ve been woodworking for about six years total.  Four or so have been hand tool-focused.  It’s hard to admit, but I never really went hand tool only, as I rely pretty heavily on my thickness planer.  I also use a drill press from time to time, because I have one.  And it came in handy recently, as I forayed into some more basic metalworking.

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For me, this is complicated metalwork.

After working at the new workbench for a couple of months, it became rather clear that the connection between the main slab and the extension needed shoring up.  Three posts and some 4″ lengths of angle iron at random intervals weren’t doing the trick.  It needed something more substantial.

I found myself at the home center at 601am on a Saturday (I was actually there for cleaning products), and it seemed they had freshly restocked the angle iron.  I had cobalt bits and a new countersink, so I figured, “why not?”.

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Not even I worried about clocking these screws.

Drilling through 1/8″ mild steel is not too bad (although the squiggly shavings can be sharp!).  And countersinking is messy and loud, if satisfying.  The only hard part about the entire endeavor was lining up the holes in the angle iron to not interfere with the planing stop or holdfast holes.

Now two lengths of 24″ angle iron, with screws at 1.5″ and 8″ from each end, reinforce the joint between the slab and the extension.  They also added a couple of lbs. to the workbench, which can’t be overstated.  Although I’m keeping the workbench shelf-less, I am in fact going to add a back stretcher between the angled back legs to increase the heft overall.

Speaking of which, I added some extensions to the back of the angled legs.  Now the footprint of the legs nearly matches the depth of the bench top, which makes the bench more stable when traversing or using a shooting board.  The extensions also, conveniently, create a ledge for the back stretcher to ride on (meaning I can get away with not gluing the lap-jointed stretcher in place).

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Hide glue and 3/8 lag bolts ensure it won’t ever move.

My next project is a cabinet for under the bench, which will store clamps, fasteners and other odds and ends that I use enough to keep them close at hand, but not so often that they should be in my tool chest.  I’m purposely building it in a way that can be converted to a wall cabinet if the mood ever seizes me.

Stay tuned.

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Keeping it Clean

Let me start by saying that my old workbench is still for sale.  Anyway…

To varying degrees of success, I try to live by the Shaker adage: “A place for everything and everything in its place”.  In the last six years or so of woodworking, I’ve learned at least one important lesson: the place for sharpening is not on your main workbench.

Sharpening is a messy endeavor. Metal filings, steel slurry, honing fluid and tool oils can impregnate the benchtop and wreak havoc on your tools.  So I tried to keep my sharpening implements on the far right side of the bench (away from main work area).  But that just robbed me of the rightmost two feet of work area.  So I decided to do something about it.

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I told you I was practicing!

Largely relying on the Paul Sellers blueprints, I turned about fifteen home center whitewood 2×4 studs into a dedicated sharpening station.  The Nicholson-style design was important.  I needed an apron so I could mount a Grammercy Tools saw vise, which was a gift from my brother and sister-in-law.  The overall dimensions are 47.75″ x 20″ x 36″.

It has enough space for the saw vise, my sharpening stones (or bench grinder)…

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These Ikea goose neck task lights are pretty nice.

… and a dedicated metalworker’s vise.  It also has a tool well for random implements.

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Which I still need to finish by adding a skirt around it.

There is no mortise and tenon or dovetail joinery in this build.  Only lap joints and housing joints, glue, nails and screws.  Without exaggeration, I used a tiny subset of my entire tool kit to make this sharpening station (on purpose), which are tools a beginner woodworker is likely to have:

  • No. 5 bench plane (all dimensioning tasks)
  • No. 4 bench plane (final smoothing only)
  • Block Plane (a shoulder plan would have worked better)
  • 3/4″ bevel edge chisel (with mallet)
  • Eggbeater drill
  • Hammer and die-forged nails
  • Screwdriver and slotted wood screws
  • Various clamps and hide glue

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Never likely to see any hand planing, so I re-purposed the back apron as the bottom shelf.

I took this minimalist approach because I wanted to know whether or not a beginner, with a core set of hand tools, could actually build something like this.  The answer is a resounding: probably.  I’m no beginner anymore, but some of the joints require pretty tight tolerances (like the housing joints where the aprons connect to the legs).  I guess if I went slowly and took great care, I could have pulled this off all those years ago.  But it might have ended up slightly wobbly.

But I’m glad to have undertaken the exercise, as it’s a piece of shop equipment I’ve been missing for a long time.

Long live clean workbenches.

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So Close!

My new workbench is just about done.  The only thing left to do is finish fitting the bench top extension to the posts that are now mortised into the back edge of the main slab.

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My silly little workbench experiment.

When I say “fitting to the posts” what I really mean is jointing the edge of the extension to match the edge of the slab.  I marked the dadoes in the extension against the posts themselves, so it’s really just an incremental trial-and-error process to get a good seam between the two benchtop pieces.

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This is what it looks like when all pulled together.

There are a few things to address which have come to light as I use the bench to finish up the bench, most of which relate to its tendency to scoot a little bit under heavy hand-planing.

First, without stretchers or a shelf full of detritus, the bench is a smidge on the light side.  To address this, I plan to do two things to add some mass: (i) add some mild steel bar stock (or maybe just laminate on some additional wood) to back face of the the angled rear legs, and (ii) add some steel angle iron to the underside of the seam between the main slab and the extension.  The angle iron has the added benefit of shoring up the area between the posts, which can sag a little bit under heavy weight (I should have used four posts, honestly).

Second, the bench is a little bit taller overall than I’m used to (around 36.5″).  As a result, and because of the limitations of the available stock, the back legs don’t have full contact on the ground.  I’ll work with the bench a bit before I decide if I need to lower it, but doing so will have the added benefit of increasing surface contact under the back legs.    If the height ends up working out, I may instead just fit and glue some overlong wedges onto the ends of the back legs (which will slightly extend the footprint).  Either way, I plan to add some non-skid stair tape (i.e., adhesive backed, coarse grit sand paper) to everything to increase traction.

Finally, there will probably be at least one stretcher on the bench in order to reinforce the leg vise assembly.  The front leg is mortised into the benchtop and the pin board is mortised into the vise chop (and both are drawbored and glued in place).  But I still fear the pressure from the leg vise levering against the bottom of the leg will over-stress those joints.  A single stretcher to complete the triangle should be enough to enforce the mechanics while still maintaining the integrity of the stretcher-less design for the workbench.

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Probably to be added just above the level of the pin board.

All in all, this bench has turned out better than I could have hoped.  There are some holes to bore and some surfaces to level, but I am genuinely pleased with how everything came together.

In the next installment, I’ll walk through the specifics of the leg vise, which is completely DIY (including a screw I turned myself on a Beall wood threader), as well as address the disparity between the depth of the benchtop and the overall footprint of the skewed back legs.

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Who Needs ‘Em?

An integral part of a leg vise is the garter that connects the screw to the vise chop, allowing the chop to move in and out as the screw is turned.  Or at least that’s what I’ve been told.  And when you make your own screws, it’s probably a good idea to be able to plow a 1/4″ trench around the circumference of the screw to capture the garter.  But what to do when one does not own a lathe (powered or otherwise)?  Improvise!

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Hold your applause, please.

I started by sawing down the walls of the trench with my miter box.  The screws are 6/4″ wide so I set the depth stop to about 3/16″ and was careful to keep all the saw kerfs in alignment.  Then I used a 1/4″ chisel to hog out most of the waste, using the saw kerfs as the depth guide.  After that was done, I took a mortise float and spun the saw around while holding the float steady: first in the direction of the cut to get it close, then in the opposite direction to burnish it down to a perfect cylinder.  The inner diameter ended up being a bit over 1″.

The garter plate will be made from a 1/4″ x 4″ square of quarter-sawn hard maple (the same wood as the screw).  If I drill a 1 1/8″ wide hole in the face of the garter plate, the kerf from sawing it in half should result in a perfectly-sized (if minorly-oval) hole when the two parts are joined together again and secured to the vise chop with slotted screws.

I also made an ash hub (from the same board as the leg vise chop) and glued in the screw once the garter trench was plowed.  I’ll shave the hub into a something approximating a cylinder once the glue dies.  I will also drive a dowel through the hub and the screw to further secure the assembly.  I haven’t decided on a wood for the handle yet.  I’m leaning toward rived ash (surprise!).  I have some decent lengths of ash to rive into good handle, which I can shave down to round.

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The screw stock is a snug fit into the hole, so PVA works just as well as epoxy.

I have not yet determined how the parallel guide should work.  The leg vise chop is a 6″ wide, highly figured piece of 12/4″ ash.  And because the the legs are only 4″ wide, I should be able to mortise a 5/8″ parallel guide into the chop and secure a catch to the inside of the leg (think of the catch for the lock battens on a Dutch tool chest).  The parallel guide and the catch will probably also be quarter-sawn hard maple (like the other hard-wearing components).   And, because very little of it is internal to the bench itself, the leg vise should, theoretically, be salvageable when I next lose my mind and make another workbench.

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Heart-side to the bench in case it cups.

Although the parallel guide will not be perfectly centered, I might be able to get away with a pin board set-up.  But I’d rather use a shim system with a few common sizes secured to the bench with twine.  I am sure there is some combination of four shims that have specific dimensions in each orientation that will work for most tasks.

But it’s been a long week and I can’t figure that out right now.

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