Monday, July 3, 2017

This is boring.

I have several excellent braces and a complete set of vintage Irwin pattern bits that a friend gave me, but I rarely use them for woodworking.  I use them regularly for carpentry because the bits work great in douglas-fir but the lead screws won't draw the bits into hard woods like oak.  I had been toying with purchasing some new Jennings pattern bits from Tools for Working Wood, though at $32-43 apiece they aren't cheap.  Then the other day we stopped at a garage sale.  I was walking back to the car when my wife said, "Did you see these?"  I hadn't:

Inside was a neat little three layered box:

and when I opened it, I found a complete set of Russell Jennings auger bits in great condition wrapped in tissue paper:

I paid $30. Online prices are all over, so I don't know whether this is a good deal or not, but I am pleased to have the set.

An interesting and puzzling, to me at least, sidenote is where the 32 1/2 comes from.  The bits are graduated from 1/4" to 1" by sixteenths and, if you add up the thirteen bits, the sum is 130/16.  Dividing the numerator and denominator by 4 yields (32 1/2)/4.  Odd.

I don't know a great deal about auger bits so I have been doing some research.  The bits I have are Model 100 RJ, which means they have a double-threaded lead screw and are meant for woods "not extremely gummy or hard" according to the label. The Russell Jennings company also made a 101 which, according to a label I found online, have a "single thread point for quick boring which is especially adapted for hard or gummy woods, end grain boring, mortising doors, etc."  The label indicates that the 100s are the ones used by cabinet makers and that the lead screw is the only difference between the two versions.  There are conflicting opinions about the relative merits of the two types and I cannot find a head to head test online.

I happen to have one auger bit made by the Russell Jennings Company some time before 1944 when Stanley acquired it and think it is interesting to look at the three varieties of size 15 (15/16") bits side by side:

You can see that the original Russell Jennings bit on the left and the Stanley version in the middle have many more twists on the shank than the Irwin bit on the right.  I have no idea which one will clear chips better but it does seem as if the Russell Jennings bits might be stronger.  Now, take a look at the lead screws close up:

The Irwin bit appears to be much coarser, but this is misleading because the Stanley Jennings pattern bit next to it has double threads.  Imagine two of your fingers tracing a spiral next to each other.  What this means is that the screw actually penetrates the workpiece at twice the rate as appears from looking at the threads.  Doing the best I could with my fingernail, I got 7 revolutions on the Irwin lead screw, 6 on the Russell Jennings bit and 5 1/2 on the Stanley.  I also tested this by boring holes in a piece of alder with similar results.  It took 15 revolutions to get through with the Irwin but only 13 1/2 and 13 with the Russell Jennings and Stanley bits respectively.  These results are consistent with others I have seen online.

The next test I conducted was to see if they would bore a hole in 5/4 dry white oak.  The Irwin and Russell Jennings bits did fine but the Stanley stalled.  Looking at it, it appeared that the threads on the snail clogged up.  I then used a trick that Bob Rozaieski shared.  I bored a hole in the alder just to the depth of the lead screw and covered the threads on the lead screw with green honing compound.  Then I threaded it into the hole and worked it back and forth several dozen times.  I re-attempted to bore a hole with the bit and it worked fine.  Clearly the snail needs to be clean and polished to do its job well.

So what's up?  It's not clear to me whether one design is superior to the other.  I cannot provide a technical explanation of the relative merits of double threaded and single threaded snails on auger bits.  The most important thing seems to be to make sure they are tuned-up very well.  Looking back, I think the problem I had with the Irwin pattern bits in hardwood was a result of maintenance not design.

Thursday, June 29, 2017


For some years, my wife and I have wanted a large slab table.  I made a douglas-fir base a long time ago, but I never could find a slab 36" wide at a price that was remotely reasonable.  That changed a few weeks ago when I saw a Craigslist listing by a guy with a small mill near me.  I drove up and was amazed at what he had.  First of all, he had a great dog:

He cuts the slabs on a chainsaw mill on steroids:  23 hp and a 6' cutting width.
 He has trees slabbed and neatly stacked with stickers everywhere you look.  Some of them were amazing, long wide slabs of maple that were almost completely burl, if you can imagine that.  However, I was after douglas-fir and he had lots of it.  I imposed on the guy to show me lots of them:

Finally, I found the one I wanted, 3" thick, 37" wide and 11' long.

Problem was, my pickup bed is only 6' long, just over 7' with the tailgate down and we had to go home on an interstate, but what the heck.  I hadn't really thought through what we would do when we got home with an approximately 300 lb. slab, so here's what we did.  We backed right up to my workbench:

Then we rolled if off on dowels:

I cut off 3' so the tabletop will be 8' long.  Never having tried to flatten anything anywhere near this big, I started with a scrub plane but it was just way too much for me, so I turned to some power tools:

Yup, that's a belt sander and a power planer.  I used them only for initial flattening.  Then I filled cracks and voids with epoxy and turned to planes and a cabinet scraper.  After quite a while, this is what I ended up with:

This picture doesn't convey how massive the slab is, so remember that you are looking at 24 sq. ft.!  It also doesn't reveal all the swirling grain around the knots, which is really beautiful.  I removed 3/8" of material, partly because it took me a while to figure out what I should be doing, so I am thinking that the final table top will end up around 2 3/8" thick.  It's not perfectly flat, but is within 1/32".  This is what I hope is the bottom of the table, but I don't know for sure because the slab is so heavy I can't turn it over to find out.  For that I am going to have to round up the neighbors.  Barely noticeable in the picture is that I sealed the end grain with paraffin by melting it and painting it on, which seems to be working.

This slab had been drying for over a year and feels quite dry, but it has a ways to go.  My plan is to flatten both sides and then let it dry in the garage for the summer months before resuming work on it in the fall.  That probably means I will have to do some more flattening but I have plenty of material.  I just felt like doing some work on it now.

The bark is all there and I have decided to keep it, so it's going to be challenging to figure out a way to finish it.  I put spray polyurethane on the bark of the alder coffee table I made and it is holding up, but the bark on this table will have a lot more contact with people and chairs.  The good news is that this bark is a lot stronger and more stable than the alder bark.  Over the summer I am going to try some experiments on scrap pieces of bark.  One thought I had is to thin epoxy and paint it on.  I've read that you can heat it up or dilute it with alcohol to thin it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Sharpening and Shaving

I remember one of the first woodworking classes I took years ago, a half-day on sharpening and using card scrapers. It began with a scintillating hour of the instructor, a graduate of a prestigious school, demonstrating his skill, in order to establish his bona fides perhaps.  Then we were told that every surface, the edges and the sides, of our scraper needed to be polished to a mirror finish.  We spent 2 hours on this highly stimulating task then, with an hour to go, we were shown how to burnish, waited our turn at trying and found that our results weren't great for some unknown reason or reasons.  As best as I can remember, none of us received any constructive criticism.  Then we were bid adieu.  Puzzled, I went back to sandpaper and I suspect most of the other students did too.

Polishing the sides of your scrapers to a mirror finish can be very useful, because that way you can use one of your finely honed plane blades to shave right in your workshop without needing a shaving mirror.  Which brings me to another subject.  I am happy if I can get my plane blades and chisels sharp enough that they will shave hair off my arm, which you don't need a mirror for.  I know that some woodworkers think this is not good enough and that the hair should "jump" or "fly" off your arm.  I once accidentally got one of my plane blades this sharp and it scared me.  I was afraid that a blade this sharp would make the shavings jump off the workpiece and hit me in the face or eye, and I don't wear a face shield when planing.  That could cause a lost time injury.

A while after the scraper class I took a class on sharpening plane blades and chisels taught by a foreman at a local high-end woodworking business.  He does all the sharpening for his crew.  One of the things he did was prepare a new chisel.  He flattened the back on a belt sander, went to a grinder to create the bevel he wanted and finished off on a diamond plate, all freehand.  The entire process took less than 5 minutes.  This class was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the scraping class; it emphasized the practical and wasted no time.   I don't recall a single jig. We all left with tools that weren't great but were usably sharp.  I do considerably better than this now, but it was a good starting point.

We all have to decide where we want to be on this spectrum.  Experiences like this turned me into a rather slovenly woodworker.  As a result, I don't flatten the backs of my chisels all the way to the handle, I use the dastardly "ruler trick" on my plane blades, I can't see my reflection in the sides of my scrapers ...  I could go on, but you get the idea.

In case you're wondering, I did eventually learn to sharpen and use scrapers.  When enough time had passed after the class for my inferiority complex to die down, I spent a few minutes watching Youtube videos, gave it a shot, then another and another, each time trying to figure out why things got better, or didn't.  Eventually I got the hang of it.  I really like scrapers now.  They usually make shavings but they aren't usable as shaving mirrors.  That's the way I like it.

There are woodworkers that are really into sharpening.  For some, it seems to be almost a meditative experience.  There is nothing at all wrong with this and I am in awe of them, in fact somewhat envious.  Really.  I wish I could lose myself in sharpening the way they do.  Instead, I ask myself whether the extra sharpness results in better woodworking.  How long do these superior edges stay sharper in practice?  I suspect not very long, but I don't know.

Calculus taught me to see processes in optimization terms.  As your tools get sharper your woodworking gets better, first rapidly, then more slowly.  You reach a point where extra effort isn't worth it.  That's my mental model, which has its own limitations.

As for classes, what you learn in classes is partly a function of the skill of the instructor as a woodworker and partly a function of his or her skill as an instructor.  This will sound arrogant, but I could teach a much much better class on sharpening and using scrapers than the one I took, even though I don't have near the skill with them.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Hand tools and wood species

The other day I was listening to Bob Rozaieski talk about the best hardwood species for working with hand tools and he listed off the species favored historically, mahogany, walnut, cherry ...  He also talked about white oak being hard to work with hand tools.  I already knew this, but it resonated with me because I have been working with white oak a lot lately, mostly because I have that pickup load of white oak scraps that I bought a while back.  It's hard.

Here are some Janka hardness numbers to make this point quantitatively:

Mahogany       800
Cherry             950
Walnut           1010
Red Oak        1220
White Oak     1335

I am building a prototype of some tea boxes that I will be making as Christmas gifts and without thinking about it had grabbed some pieces of white oak.  I have gotten used to it so I wasn't really thinking about how difficult it is to work.  For some tools, like chisels, it's no big deal.  You just have to sharpen more frequently.  Some operations are really challenging, plowing grooves being one of them.  I was trying to plow 1/8" grooves 1/8" from the edge of thin boards.  Since I only have one plow plane, sometimes I was plowing with the grain and sometimes against.  The latter wasn't going well at all.  Even if your blade is sharp, the white oak tries very hard to leave a very ragged edge.  A knife line is the only way around it I know of.

I had some cherry, so, just for grins, I decided to try it for comparison.  What a difference.  I know this is obvious, but I had forgotten how dramatic it is.  The cherry seemed almost like paper.  It was a lot of fun to work with after the white oak.  Although I like to use up stock I have on hand, I think I am going to keep the white oak in reserve for projects that really need it.  There are a lot of projects where white oak's strengths are very valuable.  Tea boxes aren't one of them.   


Monday, May 29, 2017

My last shop stool post ever--promise!

I continued to struggle with this project because I felt very strongly that I was onto something, but I just couldn't get it right.  I can't design anything without making a prototype or, in the case of this shop stool, multiple prototypes.  It was getting really aggravating.  Then Gerry made a  comment on my last post:
Andy: How about a circle for the base, with the seat pedestal set to one side. If the base was 1 1/2 -2" thick you could ease the bottom front to accommodate rolling forward as well as right and left. A dense hardwood might give the weight needed to keep it upright.   
Even though I didn't want to do exactly what he suggested, Gerry's comment was the insight I needed and I knew immediately what I did want to do.  My prototypes taught me that my ideal stool would have the wooden bicycle seat mounted on a long thin stem and Gerry's idea was that it should be attached to a heavy round object at the base.  I retrieved a 10 lb. weight from my weightlifting machine, drilled four counterbored holes in it, cut off two short pieces of 2x4, grabbed a scrap of closet rod, drilled two 1 1/2" holes and there it was, exactly what I had been groping for all this time:

I know this is arguably ugly, but it works great and does have a certain modernist appeal.  You really have to work at it to knock this stool over and the rounded edge on the weight lets it move easily in all directions.  It's very comfortable and allows a wide range of movement.

This one doesn't incorporate height adjustment because I knew exactly how high I wanted it to be, but it wouldn't be difficult to add.  I am not sure if this is a coincidence, but the height I chose by feel is exactly 1/2" less than my inseam.  The important thing is that your knees be slightly bent.

This sort of active stool, as I have called it, is obviously not for everyone.  The bicycle seat is ideal because you can move around without sliding, but you probably have to be a bicycle rider to appreciate this.  For me, though, it is the ideal shop stool, just what I wanted.

I look at it now and can't understand what took me so long.  Now that I can see it, this design seems so obvious that it is almost embarrassing that I floundered around.

I am done.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bob Rozaieski

Many of you will recall Bob Rozaieski's Logan Cabinet Shoppe website and the excellent videos he produced (they are still available here).  Bob has since moved to a homestead in southwestern Virginia where he teaches classes, builds and restores furniture and maintains a new website with a lot of interesting information.   He also has a radio podcast series which you can subscribe to here.

For those who don't know of Bob, he is very involved with pre-industrial revolution furniture, including the design standards, hand tools and construction processes of the time.  I got involved with hand tool woodworking because of his outstanding video series on building a Porringer tea table with cabriole legs.  He is an excellent instructor and took the time to go step by step so that folks like me with no skills could make a beautiful traditional piece.  Bob is one of the two or three woodworkers that I would really like to take an in-person class from.

In a recent episode of his podcast, Bob talks about power tools in the hand tool shop.  I listened with great interest and it surprised me that my conclusions are generally similar to his.  I won't summarize them here because the podcast is well worth listening to, but I do want to comment about one thing he said which really surprised me:  He is thinking about buying a combination jointer/planer.  I was frankly astounded because Bob is so committed to using vintage hand tools that I cannot imagine him using one.  I was tempted to email him and ask him if he fell off the roof of the cabin he is building and hit his head.  :-)  In his defense, he does say that he would not use it for period pieces he builds, but only to avoid the drudgery of preparing a lot of stock for other projects.

Bob isn't the only prominent hand tool woodworker to reach a conclusion like this.  Shannon at The Renaissance Woodworker bought a large stationary planer, which I think is his only power tool.  I am not sure, but I think someone prepares Paul Sellers' stock with machines off camera.

Bob certainly has the skill to prepare all of his stock with hand tools to high standards, no question about that.  I can do it too, though with less proficiency.  However, it is time-consuming and tedious.  After the early satisfaction that came from learning the techniques, it quickly became drudgery for me. Others may feel differently, but I don't enjoy it.  I think this is the reason many hand tool woodworkers turn to machines for stock preparation even if they don't use them for anything else.

The problem is that these jointer/planer machines are very expensive, really heavy and have large dedicated space requirements.  The changeover is somewhat time consuming, especially if you have to remove then reattach the fence.  Spiral cutterheads are very desirable but they add a lot to the cost.  Taken together, these issues are enough to make me decide I won't buy one.

So where does that leave me?  I currently have an older lunchbox planer that I use all the time and I regard this as the bare minimum.  I also have a 6" jointer that I rarely use; it's not worth having in my opinion.  6" is too narrow and it isn't all that hard or time consuming to roughly hand plane one side of a board flat enough to run through a planer, which I am forced to do a lot anyway.  Alternatively, Shopnotes published plans for a sled that allows a planer to be used for jointing which looks good to me.  That is something I might build someday.  So my decision is, get rid of the jointer but keep a planer.  I will probably upgrade to a better one with a spiral cutterhead at some point though.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Dusting a garage workshop

This is my best shot at making you laugh and shake your head.  I do both each time I dust my shop this way.  At a minimum, it is unorthodox, at maximum it is absurd.  How did this start?  I was getting frustrated one day because countless dust nibs were interfering with my feeble attempts at finishing.  In desperation, I opened the garage doors, fired up my blower and blew the whole garage out thoroughly.  Then I let a fan run for a few minutes and, to my surprise, the dust was gone.  I guess you can put this down as one advantage of garage workshops.  In my defense, it does take two minutes.

The best way to deal with dust is to have a separate area for hand tool woodworking that is walled off from machines, sandpaper, and other sources of fine dust.  For a variety of reasons that I won't bore you with, that isn't feasible in my case, so this is what I am left with.  Rescue me from my perversion; tell me a better way.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Garage workshops part 3

With my hand tool area in the right bay done, for the time being anyway, it was time to turn my attention to the remaining two bays.  The first thing I did was put the camping gear and bikes in the back corner where they would be out of the way but accessible.  I have built a shed for my garden tools and equipment, but I keep a few here in the front corner for convenience.

I have an old Craftsman workbench and rollaway that I put near the handtool area.  It contains wrenches and supplies for the most part but I use the tops of both for a sharpening area.

That left the rest of the space for workshop storage and my remaining woodworking equipment.  The familiar generalization that with hand tools you bring the tool to the workpiece while with power tools you bring the workpiece to the tool has big implications for how a shop is arranged.  With hand tools, you want a big workbench in the center and your tools stored around it where you can reach them easily.  With power tools you want the tool in the center with enough space around it to accommodate the largest workpiece you anticipate.  Because I don't have enough space to dedicate an area to each power tool, I have to have them on mobile bases so I can wheel them out into a common work area.  That is what I did with my router table, jointer and chopsaw, the tools that I wouldn't replace and may sell:

This area in front is also a place where I can use my tracksaw, and do assembly and finishing on sawhorses.

I placed my miter box and chopsaw end to end facing rearward so they can share space for long boards.  Commercial shelving works great as bases for both:

I never stop thinking about how I can best arrange my garage for woodworking.  If you spend a lot of time in your workshop, it's an effort that pays a big return.  I hope this series of posts is useful to you and I hope you will consider doing something similar, as I am always looking for good ideas.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Garage workshops part 2

Matt commented on my last post as follows:
I have wall shelves in my garage shop and my tools (and everything else on those shelves) get very dusty. I never thought a tool chest would be a good idea because you have to move so many things to get at the tool you need, which just happens to be at the bottom. Can you comment on your experiences with this?
This is a question many woodworkers considering a tool chest have.  I know I did.  The short answer is that I have not found this to be a problem at all.  A longer answer follows.

My shop is not dusty. I intend to share a video here showing why.  It may make you laugh and perhaps cringe but it works.  Nevertheless, I would not store many of my best tools on shelves.  We have had 54" of rain in the last six months, so rust is a concern.  I think you need a mixture of storage types and there are a lot of items in a garage woodshop that do just fine on shelves, but most tools are not among them.  To store mine, I am an enthusiastic advocate of tool chests.

I originally chose a tool chest over wall cabinets because I knew I was going to be moving and my tools would be in storage.  Another reason was that my garage at the time lacked suitable wall space for cabinets.  I had serious reservations about tool chests, the two most important being about bending over each time I wanted a tool and the same concern about ease of access that Matt has.  Bending over turned out to be a non-issue because the tool chest was approximately six inches off the ground on a dolly I made so I could move the chest around easily.  It's just not a problem, especially because my planes are on the bottom of the chest and they are easy to grasp.  I did eventually make a higher platform to place my chest on, mostly to demonstrate how to overcome that objection.  I keep it because it gives me storage beneath the chest and I don't need mobility, but it is not necessary at all.

Matt's issue concerned me a lot.  I pictured myself constantly sliding tills around to access my tools. I tried to address this by making the tills removable.  I thought I would lift them out and put them on the bench when I was working.  In practice, I never do, because working directly from the chest is so convenient.  I can take just a step or two to access my tools in the chest.  Two tills can be exposed at a time and, in any case they slide easily and quickly on waxed maple rails using three fingers.  It has become second nature and I am no longer even aware that I do it.  I know some woodworkers remove the tools they are going to be using at the beginning of the day and put them on or under their bench on a shelf, but I don't.  It's just as easy to put them away.

Like Matt, I don't want to paw around looking for a tool.  You can minimize this by making shallow tills, making custom holders for your tools that make them easy to access and using the inside of the top.  I made three tills of different depths but, if I had it to do over again, I might make four.  For many of us, tool chests can be quite deep to accommodate them.  My opinion is that you can determine the maximum depth for your tool chest by measuring the distance between your armpit and the second knuckle on your forefinger.  

Tool chests have incredible density.  Usually about 3'x2'x2', they store an amazing amount of tools in just 12 cubic feet.  Their mobility makes them ideal for a small shop and being able to close them quickly when not in use protects the tools from dust and moisture.  You could even easily dehumidy your tool chest if you wanted to.

Here are some pictures that illustrate these points.  Mostly planes on the bottom:

The bottom two tills:

The top till:

All three tills and my saws in place (very secure for travel):

Shop made tools on the lid:

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Garage workshops

There isn't much question in my mind that the ideal situation for a workshop is a separate building built to purpose.  Well-insulated, lots of natural light, high-ceilings, wood floors ... the list goes on and on.  If there was a suitable place on my suburban lot, exactly that would happen in short order.

Reality for many of us is different; woodworking happens either in the basement or in the garage.  I am luckier than many in that I have a three-car garage, but it has to accommodate four hobbies-- gardening, tent camping, biking and woodworking--as well as the usual paraphernalia for home maintenance.  (The cars stay in the driveway.)  Woodworking gets the lion's share, but the space is just plain awkward.  It's not big enough, there's not a lot of available wall space, it can be too cold and there is almost no natural light when the garage doors are closed.  These are issues faced by many woodworkers and I hope this discussion will be useful.

Here's the garage from the street:

The two bays on the left are 20' deep and the one on the right is 24' deep.  The overall width is 31'.  The ceilings are 9 1/2' high.

My bench has been on the right side behind the single door since we moved here almost 4 years ago and I  am keeping it there.  One goal I have is to store everything I use regularly at the bench no more than a step or two from it.  I've been short on accessible storage next to my bench, so the first thing I did this spring was build floor to ceiling shelves along the right side of it:

60 lineal feet of shelves was a big improvement, although I do have to use a ladder to reach the top shelf.    An alternative favored by many is to install wall cabinets for tools, which would look nicer but not be more functional.  My personal preference is shelves.  They cost very little, are quick to build and have a lot more capacity.  Extending them to the ceiling allowed me to secure them to the top plate.

  On the left side of the bench, I have my tool chest and an antique butcher block that I will be using as a joinery bench.  I raised it up to be 38" off the ground.

This let me put my main bench back down to palm height, 35" in my case.

The flooring is utility mats made from recycled tires that I got at a ranch store.  As far as I am concerned, they are ideal because they create a vapor barrier, are easy on the feet and protect dropped tools.

Working at the bench in good weather is great because I can put the garage door up and have lots of natural light.  Because the garage doors lack windows, the shop feels like a dungeon when they are closed, even though I have half a dozen LED fixtures.  I had hoped to replace one section of the door with one that has windows, but neither the manufacturer nor the local distributor would consider it.  The best they can offer is a brand new door with the top two of four sections containing windows, at a cost of $1,200.  I am considering it but it aggravates me to replace a perfectly good door.  Right now I am thinking about building my own replacement section using polycarbonate for windows.  It looks like I could just unbolt the existing one and bolt on a replacement, using the existing steel supports around the perimeter and the same hinges.  I think I could keep it light enough to operate properly.

I'd really like to have no power tools in this space, but the deeper bay, electrical connections and other issues don't allow it, so I put the three power tools that I would replace if they failed in the back:  my bandsaw, drill press and power planer:

On the right, I have more shelves that are used primarily for hand power tools, paint and home maintenance supplies.

I am pretty satisfied with this section of the garage.  Once I solve the natural light issue, the remaining challenge will be heat for the winter months.  I'll post about that later.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Portable work bench part five

With the bench and toolbox done, I began thinking about what tools to put in it and how best to store them.  I tried to go about this the "right" way by sitting down and making a list of the tools I want to take camping, but it just didn't work.  The list would just keep growing and I couldn't visualize what would fit.  In the end, I went to the shop, put the tools I thought I would want on the bench and started trying to figure out what would fit.  Little by little, tools got put away until these were left:

I am sure the list will grow and change over time, but these are the ones I settled on:
  • dovetail saw, crosscut backsaw, flush cut saw and fret saw
  • #4 bench plane, router plane and fence, shoulder plane
  • set of chisels
  • spokeshave
  • mallet
  • small combination square
  • hook rule
  • eggbeater drill and bits
  • marking gauge
  • screwdriver
  • measuring tape
  • double-sided diamond stone
  • scrapers and burnisher
  • mechanical pencils
I started by making holders for the saws, planes and eggbeater:

I had a canvas tool roll and this works well for a spokeshave, chisels, a marking knife and gauge, a screwdriver etc.  The mallet can be loose:

I put the smaller tools into the top tray:

A final verdict will have to await field trials but I think this project is a success.  At minimal cost, I have a travel toolbox and bench that seems highly functional and versatile.  The big issue is working height, because 12" on top of a picnic table is on the high end.  If it's too high, I will try it on the seat instead.  Another possibility is to use legs and anchor them to the table so they wouldn't tip and slide.

My hope is that others will come up with their versions of a portable workbench and toolbox too.  The only other one that I am aware of is the Milkman's workbench that Chris Schwarz built.  I don't like it at all, but it does have the advantage of solving the working height problem.  You could make a separate toolbox instead of having a single unit like I made.  If you got rid of the vises and just made a laminated top I think it could be quite nice.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Portable work bench, part four

With the bench complete, it was time to turn to the toolbox.  It had to fit inside the bench, so the required dimensions were 25"x 12 1/2"x9".  Not coincidentally, I had just enough 4/4 cvg fir left over from the kitchen remodel to make it.

For a variety of reasons, I'm not a big fan of dovetails, mostly because I am a contrarian, but even I have to admit that a toolbox cries out for them.  Since I don't make them very often, I am not that good at it.  I rely on a trick that seems to make a big difference for me.  I use green tape on both the tail and pin boards, cut it with the marking knife and peel away the waste, leaving the part that will remain bright green.

This is somewhat time consuming, though not as much as you might think once you get used to it, but for me it makes all the difference.  Mostly, I think it makes the line precise and extremely easy to see but, who knows, maybe it's a tic I have.

Sometimes things I do in the shop turn out worse than expected for no reason I can discern and sometimes the opposite occurs.  This time, it was the latter.  The dovetails fit off the saw with almost no gaps.  Part of this is because I took advantage of the fact that douglas-fir is compressible and intentionally made the fit a little tight.  Here's the front of the box:

and here's the rear:

which is shorter for two reasons.  One, that's all the material I had and, two, it will make it convenient to work out of the box.  When the toolbox is stored, it will be against the shiplap back of the bench, so it doesn't matter.

Now I can show you why I wanted my toolbox to be 9" high.  It allows me to store planes and saws on the bottom and have room for a shallow, removable tray on the top:

I've learned the advantages of this kind of layout from the toolchest in my shop.  Shallow tills are extremely convenient.

Here's the toolbox inside the bench:

So, now it's time to fill it.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Portable workbench part three

Of course, a portable workbench needs a twin screw, quick release vise, nothing less.  Spoiler alert:  this is hyperbole for the sake of amusement, although, as I will explain, there is something to it.  The vise does have twin screws and it does have a quick release feature.

Part of my goal is to build this portable bench and toolbox at minimal cost using mostly scrap material and things I have on hand.  The challenge was to come up with a lightweight but useable vise without spending anything.  This is something I already know how to do based on my experience years ago making Moxon vises using bar clamps.  Here is one that I kept:

It has collected dust since I made one with acme threaded rods, but now that I look at it again I am thinking it is better.  It's relatively light, fast as a result of being able to move the screw arm along the bar and nice to work on because the handles are in the back.  I am not sure why I mounted the rear jaw on top of the base, but I have decided to change that and go back to using it to see if I like it better.

The cool thing about using this idea on a portable workbench is that you already have the rear jaw: the bench itself.  I attached some tabs on the sides of the bench to hold light duty bar clamps at the right height:

I had a nice piece of 8/4 cvg douglas-fir (save for the pitch-pocket which I epoxied) to use for the front jaw:

The bar clamps fit in small notches in the bottom of the jaw that hold it in place.

I wasn't sure what finish to apply to a portable bench that will be spending part of its life outdoors, but I had some old tung oil on hand and decided to use it.  It seems like it might be a good choice as it didn't make the top slippery, but I have never liked the way it looks on douglas-fir.  I am going to use something else on the toolbox.

At this point, the bench is done.  Now it's on to the toolbox.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Portable workbench part two

With the top complete, I turned my attention to the base.  The big issue is how tall to make the bench.  There's a tradeoff between making it higher for a taller toolbox and having a comfortable working height.  Most picnic tables are 28"-30".  I wanted my toolbox to be 9" high, so, with 2x4s top and bottom, that gave me a 12" height, making the working height 40-42", which is bar height.  That is quite high, though in the range for joinery benches used by taller woodworkers.  My bent elbow is 48" off the ground.  I tried this height and think it will be fine.

There may be times when this is too high and, if so, I am going to clamp the bench to the seat of the picnic table, using some foot-long 4x4s to raise it up a bit.  Picnic table seats are usually about 19", so this will give me about a 35" working height.  A joinery bench that converts to a planing bench!

You could dispense with the picnic table altogether and make some auxiliary legs that would detach for transport, or even use a saw bench, but, while they would be strong enough, they wouldn't have the mass that the picnic table does, which I found to be quite nice.  That's something I may experiment with in the future though.

This is what my portable bench looks like:

The overhangs on the sides are to allow for clamping the bench to the table and workpieces to the top.  Nothing very imaginative here, just some shallow dadoes to join the top and bottom to the sides and some rabbeted shiplap to fill in the bottom and back so as to protect the toolbox when stored inside. The back also serves to stiffen the top.  I later added some stout dowel pins through the top into the sides on all four corners.  The bench is strong, rigid and weighs 29 lbs.

With this done, I chose to add a vise and decided on a twin screw, quick release version.  I hope you are intrigued, because that's next.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Portable workbench part one

With the kitchen remodel finally done, I was looking forward to getting back in the shop. Thinking about what my next project would be I remembered how much I wished I had been able to do some woodworking during our recent camping trip to Tucson.  I had such a great time woodworking while camping at Trillium Lake last fall, I want to do it more.  Then it hit me:  I wanted to build a combination portable work bench and tool chest that would fit snugly in our SUV along with our dog, camping gear and everything else we travel with.  Now, some of my brainstorms work out and some are flops, which is part and parcel of creativity, but I have a very good feeling about this one.

The first issue was what material to use.  I wanted to use douglas-fir, but most of what you find around here is days from harvest and so green it literally drips.  The big boxes sell kiln dried 2x material as "whitewood" so they can use different species.  Usually it is hemlock, which is unsuitable for a workbench, but I checked and it happened to be douglas-fir that day.  I sorted through the pile and found half a dozen studs that were sorta rift sawn and had clear sections.  So, together with scraps left over from the kitchen remodel, I had my materials for a grand total of less than $18.

The first step was laminating the top.  I settled on a length of 34 inches and the width of four 2x4s, which turned out to be 13 inches after jointing off the rounded edges.  At this point I got a nice surprise.  In the past I have flattened panels with a jack plane, but a while back I heavily cambered the blade of an extra #4 to make it a dedicated scrub plane.  This was the first time I had used it and I couldn't believe how much easier it was.

I was able to flatten both sides in about twenty minutes and, after smoothing it out with old #7 I had a top that is a strong 1 3/8" thick:

Now I need a base that will also function as a case for the toolbox.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Kitchen remodel takeaways

Things are starting to wind down with the remodel; at this point we're adding trim and waiting on counters and backsplashes.  This is a good time to share takeaways that may be of use to you if you are planning a kitchen remodel.
  1. Open floor plans are the thing these days and for good reason.  Taking out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room to create one large space made a dramatic and welcome change to our house.  In fact, it is even better than we had hoped it would be;
  2. Trying to complete a major kitchen remodel in a month is unrealistic.  If you aren't removing walls, changing electricity and/or plumbing or getting custom counters, you might be able to get it done in a month.   In our case, the lead time for counters and backsplashes alone was three weeks after the cabinets were installed;
  3. The european cabinet design is outstanding and the way to go, in my opinion, unless you really prefer face frames.  It's versatile and much faster to build or assemble;
  4. Ikea cabinets are a good choice, although I recommend the semi-custom option in which you make the doors and drawer fronts yourself.  If you choose to use Ikea doors and drawers like I did, be aware that the doors on a diagonal or next to filler pieces did not fit to my satisfaction.  The only hesitation I have is that the boxes are melamine, although they are very sturdy and well-constructed.  The hardware is excellent;
  5. If you want to build your own cabinets instead and like the european style, I recommend the deluxe jig from Lee Valley and the hardware specifically designed for european cabinets that is widely available;
  6. Don't even think about remodeling a kitchen without a laser level;
  7. You can save a large sum of money by doing a kitchen remodel yourself, even if you have to hire a plumber and electrician, but it is a major time commitment.  When all is said and done, I estimate it will have taken me 200 hours.
Would I do it again?  Yes, but hopefully after I recover from doing this one.

Friday, March 3, 2017

The key to becoming a better woodworker

I listened to a Tedx talk the other day that, on its face, has nothing to do with woodworking yet, I believe, holds the key to improving as a woodworker no matter your current skill level.  If you have 12 minutes to spare, I think it might be worth your time to listen to it.

I have been thinking along these lines for some time, but the speaker really develops and justifies the idea very well.  Perhaps I am one of only a few who doesn't improve as much as I should or could for the reasons he talks about, but I doubt it.  Generally speaking, when I go into my shop I want to make something and I want it to be the best work I am capable of.   I am in the performance zone.  As the speaker explains, that isn't the best way to learn.  For that you need to move into the learning zone, where the goal isn't to make something but to learn something, to develop your skills and capability.  The end result is not a thing, it's a skill.  That's hard for me.  When I am asked over dinner what I did in the shop today, I don't really want to say, "I really accomplished a lot by practicing sawing more closely to a line.  I don't have anything to show for it because I threw away all the pieces I used."  Who wants to read a blog post about that?

I am going to try to motivate myself to spend 20% of my shop time during which I specifically commit to throwing away whatever I produce because I am trying to develop a skill and want to focus solely on that.  I don't know if I can do this but I think it is essential if I am to improve much more.  I have gotten to the point where I have enough skill that I can make pretty nice pieces that will be used and admired, but I am not getting much better for the clear reason that I am spending most of my time in the performance zone.  I tend to fall back on the techniques I know I can execute well.  After all, who wants to try something unfamiliar or that you know you aren't really proficient at on a workpiece made from expensive wood which you have already spent hours on?  I admit that I do this.

I think most of us know intuitively that what this guy is saying is right.  The challenge is to be disciplined enough to act on it.  The sad thing is that when I actually do it, it is very satisfying.

I'd be interested to know if I am the only one that suffers from this failing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Kitchen remodel Part 3

This is about the process of buying, building and installing Ikea kitchen cabinets.

The purchase process is based on a CAD program that Ikea uses and makes available to its customers, which then feeds the ordering process.  However, I chose to draw my design on graph paper and then go to the store, where one of the kitchen specialists helped me to input it.  She was tremendous, tweaking my design in helpful ways and making sure all of the right components were in my order.  Very impressive and real value added.

A few days later, a delivery truck showed up at our house with 110 flat packs and packages!  It took us about a week to take down the wall, demolish the kitchen and remove ceramic floor tile in the hall.  The following two weeks were spent assembling the cabinet boxes, coordinating plumbing and electrical contractors, installing the range vent to the outside, and installing the wall cabinets and microwave.  At that point, we were able to get the first round of four inspections out of the way.

I was surprised at how easily the boxes went together and how strong they are.  Steel pins are screwed into pre-drilled holes in the corner of one side and then cam locks go over them from the other side.  Surprisingly the boxes all came out square with no effort.

Ikea has an ingenious and highly effective way of installing wall cabinets.  You attach a steel rail to the wall and then hook a steel attachment on the back of the cabinets over the rail.  When they are positioned where you want them, there is a fastener that locks them in place.

As we were beginning to install the wall cabinets, my wife made a very important contribution.  I told her how difficult it was going to be to get the cabinets level around three sides of the room and, against my judgment, she convinced me to buy a laser level.  For $120 I got a self-leveling laser that sits on a tripod and projects a sharp line on three walls at once!  You just set it up in the middle of the room and turn it on, then move the tripod up and down until it's at the height you want.  OMG!  It made it so ridiculously easy to install the steel rails level I couldn't believe it.  After that the boxes went up fast.  The result is strong and secure.  One person can install the cabinets without difficulty.

The next step is to install the doors, again a simple process.  You just secure the hinges in a hole in the door, screw a plate into the predrilled holes in the side of the cabinet and snap the hinge onto it.  Put on the handle and you're done.  The hinges have three adjustments on them that make positioning the door easy.

We were just congratulating ourselves on how well we were doing when boom!  Big problem.  I held up the drawer for the diagonal corner cabinet and--it didn't fit.  There was a gap of almost an inch along the side of the door and, since the doors are gray and the boxes are white, it looked just awful.

A call to the support specialist at Ikea wasn't reassuring.  After taking me through a list of things I might have done wrong, she asked for pictures, which I sent her:

She called me back with the bad news that in some installations, including their own model kitchen, this gap does in fact exist.  She was previously unaware of this and found out that they had used some specialty gray edge banding to mask the problem in their display kitchen.  They don't provide it and don't even sell it, but did refer me to an online supplier where I could purchase it.  Perhaps my expectations are unreasonable, but I was not pleased.

Again my wife came to the rescue.  At her suggestion, we took one of our doors to the Home Depot paint department and asked if they could match the color.  The guy said he could and put an electronic device attached to the paint computer onto the door.  It generated the pigment formula to add to the base and, amazingly, it came out exactly correct, a dead ringer.  We went home, sanded, primed and painted the offending cabinet edge and now it looks much better:

In my opinion, this is a better solution than the one Ikea suggested and we are satisfied.  However, it was this experience that tipped me over the edge into wishing I had made my own fronts from the get go, rather than buying Ikea's.  Obviously, I would have made the door wider rather than relying on a standard width.  The actual remodeling wouldn't have taken any longer because I could have made the doors and drawer fronts in advance.

These upper cabinets are done except for a molding that goes along the top and bottom.  I will be boxing in the vent pipe also.  We're not finished with the base cabinets yet and I am hoping there are no further instances of problems like this, particularly ones we can't fix so readily.  I do think our experience is a cautionary tale.

The bottom cabinets are attached to the walls the same way.  In the case of a peninsula, you have to attach them to the floor because you can't use the rail.  The lower cabinets come with adjustable feet that make leveling them easy.  The toe kicks attach to the legs with clips.