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.

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.