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.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Kitchen remodel Part 2

Having decided I wouldn't build the cabinets from scratch, I began to research my options.  I never considered a custom cabinet shop, primarily for cost reasons but also because we don't need or want a custom design.  That left three categories of options:  ready to install, ready to assemble and semi-custom.

I looked at ready to install cabinets but was put off by the low quality and bland nature of what I saw, and the prices weren't great either.  Many are stapled together particleboard but some are higher quality.  A second category is ready to assemble cabinets, basically pre-cut and often easily assembled with specialized fastening systems.  European style cabinets in particular yield themselves to this approach because of the standard dimensions and use of holes spaced 32 mm apart for everything from box assembly to hinges and drawer slides.  You build a series of standard boxes and then put them together before adding shelves, drawers and carousels of your choosing.  There was a good article about ready to assemble cabinets in Fine Homebuilding that made this option appealing to me.  Finally, I discovered that architects are using a "semi-custom" approach in which standard ready to assemble boxes, drawers, etc. are combined with custom drawer fronts and doors to yield a custom look at reasonable cost.  There are other variants of semi-custom cabinets, but this is the one that was attractive to me.

I have previously written about being influenced by a speech about design by John Economaki of Bridge City Tools here in Portland.  At one point, he said we should go to Ikea to study furniture design and, when he was met with guffaws, brought us all up short, saying that Ikea offers world-class design executed cheaply.  I did just that and found that he is absolutely right.  Not surprisingly, then, I decided to go to Ikea and look at their kitchen designs.  They had about a dozen model kitchens on display and many of them were extremely appealing to us.  The melamine boxes and painted fronts are particle board but they also have several styles of fronts in solid wood.  They use Blum hardware and the online reviews were very positive.  I don't like particleboard, but I decided to hold my nose and go with it.

One of the things that attracted me to this option as a hand tool woodworker is that you can buy everything from Ikea except the doors and drawer fronts and then make your own.  I almost went this way but instead decided to buy painted fronts we particularly like for now, with the thought that I will replace them with ones I make myself from white oak in a craftsman style.  This is a great option, in my opinion, basically what architects are doing except making the fronts yourself.  I think this is the right way to go and, if I knew then what I know now, this is what I would have done.  You can't begin to buy the jigs, material, finishes and hardware to make your own boxes for the prices Ikea charges and you have the freedom to add very high quality woodworking to them where it matters most.  They have so many choices of styles and configurations that little is lost.  The only downside I see is that your boxes are melamine, a significant disadvantage but one I decided I can live with.

I read online that woodworkers who go the semi-custom route typically buy one inexpensive door and drawer from Ikea in each of the sizes in their design to use as templates for making their own.  That way theyi can have everything made before they begin demolition of their existing kitchen and be back in business quickly.  I wish I had done this.

In the next post, I'll tell you about my experience building the Ikea cabinets, which, among other things, will help you understand why I think the semi-custom option is best.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Kitchen remodel Part 1

I haven't posted recently because I am in the midst of a major kitchen remodel involving removing a wall, electrical, plumbing and mechanical rearrangements, new kitchen cabinets, replacing a 4'x6' window, replacing ceramic floor tile, new appliances and misc. related items.  It's quite a project and, like Ralph, The Accidental Woodworker, who is also engaged in a kitchen remodel, I am experiencing aches and pains that remind me I'm not as young and fit as I used to be.

This is a woodworking blog and much of this is not of interest here, but I do think that there are aspects of it that are worth discussing.

My first instinct was that I would do everything myself, including making the cabinets from scratch, but that idea went out the window pretty fast for these reasons:
  1. We don't want to be without a kitchen for more than a month or so and it would take me a very long time;
  2. I haven't made or installed kitchen cabinets before and I don't have space to prefabricate a kitchen.  I told my wife that I felt the second set of cabinets I made would be quite good but I wasn't too sure about the first set and that it would take me a long time;
  3. We decided we wanted european style cabinets and making them requires specialized equipment, at minimum the deluxe version of this;
  4. Here in Oregon, you are absolutely forced to have rough and final plumbing, mechanical, electrical and structural permits and inspections (at a cost of $700 in my case).  Eight inspections for a kitchen remodel seems a little over the top to me, but it is what it is.  Electrical and plumbing methods and codes have become so complex and arcane (examples:  because I was moving the range a little, the entire circuit had to be brought up to code, necessitating replacing the three wire circuit with a four wire circuit all the way to the service panel) that I didn't feel it was worth the trouble to figure out what was required and how to do it myself;
  5. There is no way I could replace a 4'x6' window by myself.
I started trying to figure out realistically what I could .do and how I would do it.  I decided to contract for electrical, plumbing and window replacement for the aforementioned reasons.  I've done all the demolition myself including removing the wall and I also did the mechanical (range vent).  I am doing all the framing and finish carpentry associated with the removal of the wall and the window replacement.  That left cabinets.  I really wanted to make them myself but ultimately decided not to, the major reason being the time we would be without a kitchen.  I'm disappointed but know it was the right decision.

I did a lot of research before making my cabinet choice and that is what I am going to post about next time.      

Monday, January 16, 2017

Not stools again!

Yes, stools again.  I have become really interested in the design of stools, which are the most basic, and maybe the oldest, form of seating.  Designing stools has allowed me to learn a lot without the additional complexity of a chair.  I am amazed at all the details that go into a well-designed stool.

If you look at my shop stool topic on the right side of this page, you will see my various versions of a bicycle seat shop stool, which were received with understandable skepticism; nevertheless, I am convinced I am on to something.  Over the past year, I have tweaked it repeatedly because I know I am not there yet.

For the shop, I am interested in a type of stool I call "active seating,"  meaning a stool you are going to do physical work from.  It has to let you go about your tasks with agility and power.  Here are some principles I have adopted:
  1. Active stools have basically one leg.  It's really three-legged, but the other two are yours.  The stool itself needs to have three legs, as close as you can come to a single leg and still have a stool that will stand by itself when you aren't sitting on it.  Four legs are bad for an active stool;
  2. Active stools put you into a position where you are almost standing but with your knees slightly bent, a position of power and agility that you see throughout nature and sports.  This position is what lets your legs act as the other two legs of a stool and still take weight off them.
  3. Active stools will move with you to extend your reach.  Tippiness forward and to the sides is good when you are sitting on it and bad when you aren't, because you don't want the stool to fall over when you get up.  In practice, this means that one leg points straight forward while the other two point back.
  4. Active stools have a low center of gravity.  This is what promotes a narrow base for tippiness while still allowing the stool to be stable when you get up.
  5. Active stools have to be either custom fit for a single person, or highly adjustable.  There's a reason bicycle seats are so highly adjustable.
You would be amazed at how comfortable and functional a stool that follows these principles is.  We're used to stools you sit on not with, your legs out of action; this is completely different.

So, after a number of iterations, here is where my efforts stood.  I tweaked the base by tipping the stool forward slightly and adding another block on the rear of the base for stability and to lower the center of gravity.

It does a pretty good job of implementing the principles, but there is a problem:  this is about the ugliest and most ungainly looking stool I can imagine.  In part, that's because the entire thing is made of scraps, but basically it's just ugly.  I have come to think of it as what automotive designers call a development mule.  I want to tweak it yet another time with a new version that addresses some functional issues and hopefully begins to look a little more acceptable.

Because it should be a three-legged stool and because it has a bicycle seat, I settled on a triangular platform for a low base in order to help keep the center of gravity low:

Short legs raise it up to the desired height.  The resulting stool was comfortable and functioned very well but was still unstable when I wasn't sitting on it, having a tendency to tip over if bumped.  I addressed this problem by experimentally adding mass to the base:

Yup, that's a dowel with two 5 lb weights on it.  I did this so I could figure out how much weight to add.   Ten pounds is about right.

Functionally, it was now right, but it was obviously still very much a development mule.  I've learned what I can learn and I am done with it.  The seat is right but I want an entirely different kind of base.  What I have in mind is like an antique, three-legged piano stool with a bicycle seat instead of the traditional round seat.  You can buy a great piece of hardware for this, but I am going to figure out something more economical.

Maybe you are thinking, "Why don't you just build a high piano stool and be done with it?"  It's because woodworking requires much more power than playing a piano.  You have to be in the position I have described and able to use the strength of your legs.  The bicycle seat is what allows you to do that.

In a sense, this project was a failure.  I spent a lot of time and, in the end, I am cutting off the seat and burning the rest.  However, I learned a lot.  More important, though, is that when I am trying to be creative, failure is a part of success.  In business, I used to say to my clients, "I will give you five ideas, four of which are almost certainly stupid, but one of them may be really good.  Problem is, I don't know which is which."  This is a darn good record and the effort to explore is worth it.  Many people don't succeed because they are unwilling to fail.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sometimes it's the little things...

Last week, my son's partner asked me to make her a stand for her tablet computer.  Because we were visiting them at the end of the week, I had less than a day to make it.

I had a scrap piece of walnut 8" wide so I cut off a piece 10" long, ripped a 2" piece off the edge and found a walnut dowel.  22.5 degrees seemed like the right viewing angle, so I cut the 2" piece in two at that angle and made shallow stopped dados in the back to receive them.  I glued the legs in place to hold them while I drilled through the face into the legs and then I inserted the dowels so they would serve as both loose tenons for the legs and a holder for the tablet.  I use dowels to hold up the electronic device so as to minimize interference with the speakers and connections along the bottom.  It worked out well to clamp the leg in a vise and drill through the face into the base:

In no time it was done:

A couple coats of oil and it was ready to go:

Here it is in use:

I am happy with this for several reasons.  I think this design works well and looks nice.  The design is very simple, takes little time to make and has only five pieces making it up.  There is elegance in simplicity.

Enough patting myself on the back.  As the saying goes, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

My latest approach to sharpening

I am apparently like many woodworkers in wasting time and money pursuing various sharpening approaches, being dissatisfied and starting over.  There are others who pursue sharpening as an end in itself, but, personally, I'd rather drink craft beer.  I do seem to be circling in on what works best for me though.  I think that the right sharpening approach for a particular woodworker depends on a lot of things, personal preference among them.  This is what I have settled on for me:
  1. I am interested in getting a workably sharp edge quickly and easily and am willing to forgo ultimate sharpness if it takes time or requires fussy equipment.  Actual sharpness experienced in use is more of a function of regular honing. 
  2. I wish all of my tools were O1 steel, but they aren't, so my method has to be able to handle the harder steels.
  3. I don't mind taking time to sharpen my tools between projects but I resist stopping in the middle of a project to hone a tool, yet regular honing is crucial, so my honing method has to be right at the bench and very very quick.
  4. Spending time flattening my sharpening and honing media is intolerable.
  5. I'm done buying machines and gizmos.  If I've got it and it works ok, I'll use it, but I'm not buying any new ones.   
Adapting the Paul Sellers method by using coarse, medium, fine and extra fine diamond stones followed by a strop was a definite step forward for me, but I found I didn't want to go through all the steps every time my tool got dull.  Part of the problem is that I bought two-sided stones, which are very inconvenient, but I also don't see the need for sharpening from scratch every time and I like secondary bevels.  I want to be like a barber who hones his straight razor between each haircut at the chair, maybe even with the same drama that the old timers used to achieve.  (By the way, they now use disposable ones in my area).

These considerations led me to a two-stage regimen.  I start a project with all of my tools sharp.  During projects, I hone regularly at the bench.  The fastest, easiest, most reliable method I have found is to use these steel honing plates and diamond paste followed by a strop.  I use the 6 and 3 micron paste but I don't use the 1 micron paste because I strop.  The plates are cheap but the paste is expensive.  However, you use much less paste than you would think.  You just put on a very small amount and it lasts a long time.  There's no water and all you have to do is wipe the edge between grits.  It works well on all steels.  Someday I might get rid of every non-O1 tool I own and use oil stones.  Until then, I expect to stay with this honing method.  I do not use any kind of jig or guide when honing.  It takes too long and I don't have the patience.

Between projects or if honing isn't enough, I sharpen.  Depending on how much I need to do, I either use my Worksharp or I use my diamond plates.  For narrower edges like chisels I sharpen with a guide but for wider blades like plane blades I sharpen free hand.  I have owned a number of guides but I have gone back to the first one I bought years ago, this one.   It is quick and easy to use, works well with skewed blades, clamps solidly to every tool shape I have and is durable.  I've had a number of other guides that were fancier and more expensive but I just didn't like them.

I think that if I were teaching an introductory woodworking course, I would urge the students to only buy O1 steel tools and use oilstones and a strop for sharpening and honing.  Alternatively, I would suggest that they get the basic guide I use, three honing plates and the three grits of diamond paste generally available.  For sharpening, I think sandpaper on a piece of glass would be fine.  For aggressive material removal, as when restoring a tool, sandpaper is the way to go in my opinion.

None of this is to challenge in any way the wisdom that waterstones are the way to get an ultimate edge, just to say that they are too much trouble for recalcitrants like me.  Maybe if I had a heated shop with a stone pond and running water, but that is what it would take to get me to consider using them.  None of this is to challenge sharpening systems like the Tormek, but to me the cost and complexity are just over the top.  None of this is to challenge hollow grinding, which has a lot of appeal for sharpening.  I avoided it originally because I feared ruining my tools but hollow grinding has a lot of appeal.  I don't have a grinder and I am not going to buy one.  The Worksharp is good enough.

As I said at the outset, I am after a workably sharp edge as quickly and easily as possible.    

Friday, December 30, 2016

Kitchen stool hits and misses

After I have finished a project, especially if it's one I designed myself, I try as best I can to step back and ask myself what I did well and what I didn't do well.  This is my evaluation of the kitchen stools (I ended up making two).  As a reminder, here are pictures of the finished stools:

 From a design perspective, I am quite pleased with the stool overall.  I think my version of a saddle seat is different and quite nice.  I think the thin legs, viewed from the front, look nice and don't draw attention away from the seat.  The dovetail on the lower stretcher looks good and adds a lot of strength.  The stretcher's location is just right for putting your feet on.  The side stretchers are very inconspicuous, as I hoped they would be, and don't draw attention away from the line of the leg.  The big design negative is that the attachment of the legs to the seat is too close to the edge of the seat.  I thought doing this would give the stool an open look and ensure stability, but I don't like it and I'll move the legs in at least an inch next time.  There is no problem with stability because of the seat shape.

In terms of execution, I had a screw-up related to drilling pins through the top of the seat into the legs.  I broke out a sizeable chunk on the inside top of one of the holes.

This picture is partway through the repair.  I carefully chiseled out a clean rectangle, found a scrap with similar grain and then sawed and planed a piece to glue into it.  After it dried, I chiseled it flush.  Amazingly, you can't see it, so this had a happy ending.

Attaching the legs to the seat this way was a mistake that I won't be repeating.  Next time, I will do one of two things:
  1. Attach the leg to the seat with a tapered tenon and hole.   I would have to buy this reamer and this tenon cutter.  The seat base would have to be thicker;
  2. Keep the legs rectangular but move them inboard to the flat portion of the seat and drill the holes with the seat clamped to the completed leg assembly.  I've already decided to move the legs inboard anyway for appearance reasons. 
I had the usual finishing challenges.  I don't like finishing and it shows; I always end with a bad spot or two for no good reason.  If I were to do one thing to improve my results the most, it would be to shut off my overhead lights and use good raking light to go over the piece in detail before, during and after I apply each coat of finish.  It definitely wasn't the products I used:  General Finishes Salem oil stain and three coats of Arm-R-Seal, all wiped on.  Pilot error.

Bottom line, though, is that I am happy.  I started out thinking of this as an experiment, used scraps to make it and ended up being happy enough with it to make a pair, apply finish and bring them into the kitchen.


Monday, December 26, 2016

Didn't weigh down Santa's sleigh much this year

After a number of years, I have finally given in, thrown in the towel, surrendered, capitulated.  It's not that I ever doubted the consensus view that a high quality, small combination square is an essential tool for woodworkers, it was that I wasn't willing to pay the price of a really good one.

Two years ago, I thought I had outsmarted the marketplace.  I took my machinist's square to Sears and methodically went through their 6" combination squares until I found one that was exactly square.  I paid my $9 and went home, chortling to myself about what I clever fellow I am.  My smugness was crushed by experience for two reasons.  The blade was hard to read and it had a tendency to slip.  You had to be very careful or the measurement you thought you had set would become a different one.  This problem became more and more severe until this fall I couldn't secure the blade at all, both problems leading to highly irritating measurement errors.  Exasperated, I threw it away.

I decided to ask for a Starrett, choking as I did so.  They're $95.  For a 6" combination square!  Don't tell me to find a used one.  Tried that, couldn't.  I have no knowledge of what it takes to make a tool like this, but I really can't understand why they cost this much.  I think it may be not only that they are made in the US of very high quality materials but that there is a lot of hand work in the final machining of each square to achieve the level of accuracy they guarantee.  I definitely don't think this one will slip.  Starrett isn't the only manufacturer of high quality combination squares, but it is the one I am familiar with.

As bad as my Sears square was, it definitely taught me that a small combination square is an essential tool, one that would certainly make my short, short list. It's strength is its versatility.  It's the kind of tool that you almost want to carry around in your shop apron.

I have several other small squares.  I have the Veritas sliding square and it is better for some applications, particularly when you are making an "x" and "y" measurement at once.  I also have this Incra T-rule, very accurate but I almost never use it.  In the end, nothing beats a small combination square for all-around utility and accuracy.  I could easily live without the others.

I have one more small square that I couldn't live without, a 3" Starrett stainless steel machinist's square that I inherited from my father-in-law.  This little thing is so darn handy for doing things like checking an edge when I am jointing, checking my dovetails, etc.  I just looked and they cost $70 new.


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Kitchen stool II

With my seat blank cut out and shaped, I turned to the legs.  I'm using 5/4 scraps, so the legs have to be rectangular in cross section and I decided I liked them positioned with the narrow side facing forward for appearance and utility.  I don't like the look of two sets of stretchers, so I decided that I would fasten the legs to the seat with half-inch through pins and that is where I started:

I can't tell you what the angles are because I chose them by eye.  As I went along, I made a series of story sticks for the dimensions and angles rather than measuring anything.

You may be wondering how I drilled the holes for the pins.  I drilled vertical holes through the seat and sawed the tops of the legs at the compound angle I chose for the leg using two bevel squares for reference.  Then I put the seat in my vise and positioned the leg at the proper orientation for drilling.  This was the wrong way to do it.  As you will see, I could have completed the base then set the seat on top of it to drill the holes.  Much easier and more accurate.

This spare, long-legged look appeals to me, and I didn't want to add anything more to it than I absolutely had to.  You want at least one stretcher because most people need something to put their feet on when sitting on a 26" high stool.  So, I decided I would have lower stretchers on the fronts.  I chose to have them 19" below the seat for a comfortable position to rest your feet.  The pins joining the seat to the legs are close to the edge of the seat, so I am concerned about breaking out the round mortise as a result of racking sideways.  This stretcher will share the load and I wanted to make it as strong as possible, so I oriented it vertically and attached it with a rabbeted dovetail.  Here's what they look like:

A wedged through-tenon would have been another good choice, but I thought having the stretcher on the front of the legs would be most comfortable because it would minimize the angle of your legs when resting your feet on it.

I wanted the absolute minimum I could get away with for a stretcher between the legs in the other direction, so I settled on a small one rabbeted just 1/4" into the insides of the legs up high in an effort to preserve the long line of the legs.

So, this is my experimental prototype and I am pleased with it, enough that I decided to put some finish on it.  Next time, I'll show you my prototype and critique it.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Kitchen stools

The recently completed kitchen work table is a success, so we now need a pair of stools to go with it.  I looked at a lot of pictures online and the style that caught my eye is called a saddle seat stool.  They have a rectangular seat, usually around 9"x18" that is contoured somewhat like the side view of a saddle, so I suppose that is how it got its name.  These stools usually have four legs.  Think of a short stepladder.  Generally there are two sets of stretchers on each side, but sometimes the legs are mortised into the seat and there is only one stretcher on each side.  There are all kinds of variants, including rustic ones that look really nice.

Since the kitchen work table is white oak, the stools are going to be white oak, Carving out the seat shape in dry white oak would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, with hand tools.  These days, this sort of thing is often done by power carving.  It involves a nasty looking cutter on an angle grinder with chips and dust (hopefully not flesh) flying everywhere.  It's not for me, so I have to do something else.

I still have a lot of the pickup load of scrap 5/4 white oak that I bought last year, so I decided to experiment with it.  After gluing up a piece 9" wide,  I used a french curve to sketch out the profile I wanted and cut it out on the bandsaw.  Then I used a round spokeshave, a rasp and a file to refine it:

I then glued these to a 9"x18" base.  Finally I used the bandsaw to angle the edges slightly inward as a start for using hand tools for shaping.  The resulting seat blank looked better to my eye than I expected:

The main thing I wanted to do with shaping, besides softening the edges, was to open up the seat with a large roundover along the front edge and the adjoining edges of the sides.  This was easy enough to do with a rasp, file, flat spokeshave and round spokeshave.  The round shave in particular worked really well on the edges.  I really enjoy shaping by eye with spokeshaves and am continually surprised by how well they work.  I only had the general thoughts above and just kept shaving, looking, sitting on it and shaving some more.  Both of mine are from Veritas and work great.

This started out as an experiment and is obviously not ideal.  You'd want to use a solid piece 9"x24" so you could saw off three inches on each end to have a nice match for the small pieces and the base.  I didn't have scraps that long, so the grain doesn't match.  It's an experiment but I think it looks pretty good.  It's really nice to sit on.

The shape I chose is different than most you see, with a much more pronounced "pommel" and "cantle," more like the profile of a real saddle.  These stools commonly have a much more gradual contour, which could be done this way or by starting with a solid 8/4 blank.  I prefer the contour on mine, but that is strictly a matter of taste.

This is yet another example of how a good bandsaw is a nice complement to hand tool woodworking or, in Jim Tolpin's phrase, a new traditional woodworker.  Good ones are expensive but are extremely versatile.  Cheap ones are unusable.  Maybe you could saw something like this out with a bowsaw, I don't know.  In my case, if I kept one power tool it would be my bandsaw.

Now it's on to figuring out what I want to do for legs.

Monday, December 12, 2016

How about a 3/4" stool leg?

I ran across this thought-provoking post by Chris Wong last week, which was about understanding material and joint strength.  It pointed out the downside of overbuilding things in the way of lost design opportunities and less than ideal appearance.  As it happens, I had just done that very thing.

I am designing and building saddle seat stools for our kitchen from white oak.  Making sure every component was more than strong enough was dominating my thinking.  Motivated by the post, I looked up the properties of white oak.  This is a very technical subject, and the reported values for various aspects of the strength of a wood species are nearly impossible for most of us to interpret.  A more pragmatic approach is required.  I went out into the shop, cut up some 24" pieces, propped up the ends on 2x4s and stood on them.  I'm a big guy and I can stand on the middle of a straight-grained 1x1 without breaking it.  It bent but it didn't break.  My sense of how thick my stool legs needed to be was way way off.

 Think about a four-legged stool with riven legs 3/4" square and 1/2" tenons.  Suppose they are mortised into the seat at an angle and that there are no stretchers at all.  What would fail and how much force would it take to make it fail?  If the mortises were too close to the edge of the seat, they would probably break out due to the side loading from the angled leg, but let's say that's not the case.  Then, I'd say that the tenon would rupture at the mortise, but I think it might take a whole lot of force to make that happen.  My sense is that, for straight grained wood, it's the joint and not the member that will fail.  The broken furniture I can remember seeing tends to bear this out.  When I have seen a broken member, it's because it wasn't straight-grained, so it split along the grain.

What does a stretcher really do?  It protects other joints on the legs by sharing their load, often with mechanical advantage or in a way that takes advantage of the properties of wood.  Maybe not always, but generally.  I guess this is obvious, but I hadn't thought about it in those terms.

Do an image search for shaker stools.  The legs on some of them are so darn thin and have only one stretcher per side; they seem like they would never hold up, but we know that they do.  Those thin stretchers are enough to keep the joint at the seat from failing.  I'll bet those pieces are riven.  Looking at these pictures and thinking about the physics tells me that one set of stretchers adds a lot to the strength of a piece, more than one not so much.

Look at this old, mass-produced chair I bought at a garage sale:

Most of the pieces of this chair are very thin and you'd think it would be rickety by now, but it isn't.  The ankles of the legs are 3/4".  Yet the chair is solid.  It's strong where it needs to be, at the joints.  This is just a mass-produced knock off of a cabriole leg.  Real cabriole legs are very strong though extremely delicate because they are so beefy at the joint.  Look at this cabriole leg joint I made:

Another thing I realized during these ruminations is that a stool with no back doesn't experience the same kinds of stresses as a chair.  Just think about what happens when someone rocks back in a chair, their weight on the seat and the front legs off the ground.

There is nothing here that you didn't already know, but, in my case at least,  I don't really think about any of this explicitly.  I should.   

I think that a major reason we don't test the limits of our material and joints is that it takes a lot of work to build something, so building test prototypes isn't very appealing.  Since we don't want the finished piece to fail, our solution is to overbuild.  Of course, you can always use a proven design, but what's the fun in that?

I went back to rethink my design, keeping these thoughts in mind.  It changed a lot, like it went on a diet.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Herb racks

Ralph is the undisputed king of holiday gift-making with his cell phone holders.  I don't come close, but we did do something a little different this year so the gifts would be from both my wife and me.  My wife grew herbs, I made small racks, we bought some bottles and she filled them with dried basil, chives, oregano, mint, sage, thyme and rosemary.  Everything was designed to fit in a USPS medium flat rate box.

The racks are nothing special, just made from half-inch white oak put together with rabbets and dadoes.  The joints are pegged with those Lee Valley 1/8" dowels I use often.  They are designed so that they can sit on the counter or hang on the wall.

I think handmade gifts are very special.  The person who gave it to you spent time making something for you, so there a real personal connection.

It's not too late.  You've still got two weeks.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Log sofa reprised

More than two decades ago, I made two log sofas for our rustic cedar home.  We had hundreds of poles that resulted from thinning our douglas-fir forest.  I later developed a fairly unique style of building with logs, but this was my first attempt.  I didn't have a tenon cutter, so the joinery I settled on was to use a hole saw to define a circle on the side of a log and then chisel it out so that the joining log would fit into the hole.  If necessary, I trimmed the joining log to fit.  I used a 1" dowel as a floating tenon.  The resulting joints looked pretty good and were extremely strong.

That part I think I got right, but another part I got wrong.  At the time, I thought the logs needed to be very smooth, and this was before I got into hand tool woodworking, so I used an angle grinder with abrasive disks to smooth the logs.  Later on, I achieved much nicer results with a drawknife, deliberately leaving on wide flats and sections of the tree's outer layers beneath the bark.  This is rustic furniture and it looks best with a very natural appearance.

We used the sofas for years and then gave them to some friends.  They offered them back to us recently and my wife is very nostalgic about anything associated with our kids growing up, so I reluctantly agreed to try to refurbish and improve them for our family room.  Here is the stripped down skeleton:

The joinery is still solid and, with some accumulated scratches and dents, the sofas are in good condition.  The upper pole is across the back of the posts so the back will be angled to produce a reclined seating position.  I wanted to add a nice back to the sofa that would be more reclined, so I used a drawknife and a spokeshave to create a flat on the inside of the top pole.  I had some old poles to make the back, most about 4 inches in diameter.  To do this, I sliced the poles in half on the bandsaw.  It's pretty easy to do this by attaching a 2x4 to the pole with screws that rides along the fence.  By slicing all the poles exactly in half you get a nice, quarter-sawn face.  Then I just ripped out one inch thick boards.  Here's what they look like:

and here's the refinished sofa:

The templates are to to give to the upholsterer.  We are going to upholster the seat in a solid color and leave the back exposed.  There will be colorful, Pendleton wool pillows placed along it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Are jigs fixtures?

I previously mentioned that Michael Pekovich wrote an article about what he sees as six essential bench jigs.  As should be expected, my essential "jigs" are somewhat different, so I thought I'd post about them.  I'm interested in yours too.

Before I do, however, I want to amuse myself, and hopefully you, with a semantic issue that I recall someone making a big deal about, though I can't remember where or when.  There is a difference, apparently, between jigs and fixtures.  According to Wikipedia:
Fixtures are used to securely locate (position in a specific location or orientation) and support the work... A fixture differs from a jig in that when a fixture is used, the tool must move relative to the workpiece; a jig moves the piece while the tool remains stationary.
This does actually make sense to me because the word fixture comes from a Latin word meaning "to fix," which is what these devices do. Strictly speaking, therefore, I want to share my essential hand tool woodworking bench fixtures. How about that for arcane?

Getting back to the topic at hand, there are a couple of fixtures on his list and mine that don't require elaboration:

1.  Shooting board

2.  Saw hook
Now for the ones on my list that are at least somewhat different.

3.  Split top stop

One of the advantages of having a split top is that you can have a board that you put in it as needed that protrudes 1/2" or so above the bench surface.  This makes an ideal side stop for planing wide and long boards, but I find myself using it for any number of other purposes as well, including during assembly.  Here's mine:

4.  Moxon vise

For a variety of reasons that I have written about previously, I think this wonderful fixture is essential for hand tool woodworking.  For the first year after I built my bench, my Moxon vise was the only one I had.  I learned a great deal about workholding as a result.  I now have the Veritas twin screw vise on the end of the bench, but it plays a limited role.  I would give it up before I gave up my Moxon vise.

Sometimes the most difficult parts to work on are the little ones.  The last two fixtures on my list address this issue:

5.  Edge Planing stop  

This handy and very simple fixture, sometimes called a side planing stop, works very well for planing the edges of narrow boards (for wider boards I use the skirts on my bench):

The green star on the triangle is because I keep losing the triangles, probably because they look like scraps.

6.  Stop for holding narrow parts flush with the edge of the bench

This one is important to me for use with my Veritas plow and skew rabbet planes.  If you attach a deeper secondary fence, you really need to make use of the edge of your bench, but, even if you don't, it is very convenient to use these planes right on the edge of the bench.  I find it very helpful as an aid in keeping the plane vertical.

I had tried a variety of approaches but, in thinking about this post, I decided to build a new one today.  It is made from two layers of baltic birch plywood and two short pieces of T track, which are installed just shy of the edge:

It's all half-inch plywood except for the piece across the right end, which is three-quarter inch so that it will serve as a stop, and a piece beneath it to clamp the fixture in the vise.  Of course, the plywood is not quite a half-inch, so I had to deepen the slots with a shoulder plane:

The final piece is a quarter-inch high fence that moves along the T tracks.  Here's what the fixture looks like in action:

We'll see how it works.  I think it will be useful in plowing grooves, planing rabbets and planing thin workpieces.  What about cross-grain rabbets?  Well, maybe I'll come up with something better, but right now:

One more illustration of the Moxon vise's versatility.

Some woodworkers may look at this list and think it is a lot of extraneous pieces to perform functions they can do with their bench vise.  All I can say is, I've got a bench vise, but I usually reach for them because I know I can do a better job quicker that way.  They are at hand and don't take up a lot of space.

Every fixture I have, including the Moxon vise and my bench raiser, fits in this space beneath my tool chest.

Getting back to the definition of fixture above, the whole idea is to securely fix the workpiece on the top of your bench in a position that allows you to do your best work.  

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A skewed perspective

No matter how many times I have relearned this lesson, every time I buy a new hand tool I think I am going to get perfect results out of the box.  That happened again when I bought my Veritas skew rabbet plane.  It is a truly great tool, but my results weren't truly great at first.  The rabbets sloped in and down.

When I had some free time, I set about figuring out what I needed to do to get good rabbets.  I learned from the company's video that you want the blade to be set proud of the side of the plane body about the thickness of a piece of paper.  That helped, but didn't completely solve the problem, and it wasn't hard to figure out why:  I was having trouble keeping the plane consistently vertical.

Try as I might, I just couldn't find a grip that felt right.  I tried every way I could think of to grasp the front knob but couldn't find one that worked.  Frustrated, I went online to look at some videos of the plane in use and found this one by Chris Schwarz.  Watch very closely.  Notice anything?  He took the front knob off!  I immediately went back to the shop, took mine off and the improvement was immediate.  My hand fit comfortably on the plane body and it was much easier for me to keep it vertical.

This is a puzzling thing to me.  I am a big fan of Lee Valley and they obviously know what they are doing.  However, this front knob seems absolutely awful, at least for someone with big hands like me.  If you look at the company's video, Vic doesn't seem to use it either.  I have absolutely no idea what it's for.  Perhaps some of you use it, and, if so, I'd like to hear from you in the comments.

There is one other thing you should notice in Chris Schwarz's video.  It's very beneficial to keep the edge you are creating the rabbet on exactly flush with the side of the bench.  This is one time when it's nice to have an end vise.  If you want to, you can also add an auxiliary fence as an aid in keeping the plane vertical.

There is one thing he does wrong though:  he is using the plane in the wrong direction.  Take it from me, the left hand one works better.  :)

Finally, in the catalog, the company shows the plane being used to raise panels with the help of an angled auxiliary fence and some longer fence rods.  I see how this is done in principle, but I think it would be quite difficult.  I'm off the hook, though, because I like to raise panels with regular rabbets.  You can do this in the arts and crafts style with the rabbet in the back, but it also looks really nice with the rabbet in the front.