Monday, November 20, 2017

Slab bench II

Here is the bench assembled.  By far the most challenging part of this project was surfacing the slab; the rest was pretty straightforward, basically just 6 mortise and tenon joints.

I hadn't really thought about how to attach the slab to the base, so what I came  up with was a 1' square piece pegged to the legs and attached to the slab with screws in elongated holes:

Seems to get the job done while looking good.

After 3 coats of satin Arm-R-Seal the bench took its place at the end of the table.

This was my wife's idea and I was skeptical, but it is much more comfortable to sit on it at the table than I expected.  I find myself choosing it over the chairs.

She wants me to make three more and not have any chairs at the table.  To do that, I would have to buy and season another slab, so I am going to try sitting at this bench for awhile before I go along.  I am thinking that some guests might not be comfortable without back support so it might be better to make another one for the other end of the table and have four chairs in the middle.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Slab bench

The final piece of the slab is 14" wide and 39" long and I am going to use it for a bench.  Scrounging around, I found enough pieces of cvg douglas-fir for a base.  Two leg assemblies will be joined with a stretcher.  Here is one dry fit:

I don't usually describe my construction techniques because it doesn't seem all that interesting but often I pick up tidbits in the descriptions in other blogs, so here goes.  These tools plus my miter box are what I used:

I chose the angle on these legs by eye and then used a bevel gauge.  Since the most critical cut on these angled tenons is the shoulder, I created knife lines and then cut them on my miter box.  It takes no extra time and ensures precision.  After that I sawed out the tenon at the bench.

As I've written before, I use a hybrid method for making mortises.  I lay them out in pencil but only use a center line because I drill them out on my drill press. 

Then it takes only a couple of minutes to finish them with a wide chisel, using the edges of the holes as guidelines.  Yes, I should be using a mortise chisel, and someday I may, but this method works so darn well it's hard to give up.

I cut the through mortises for the long stretcher the same way:

If you look closely at the mortise on the right, you can see a hint of the original drilled hole in the center.  This is what makes this method so convenient; the guideline ensures a perpendicular mortise that fits snugly with little or no trimming.

I use the drill press mostly out of force of habit but it would be just as easy to bore the hole with my brace and bit.  There are some things in hand tool woodworking that seem almost magic to me and one of them is that you can bore holes at precise angles completely unguided with no more than some sort of reference like a bevel gauge or square.  There is no need to have a drill press. 

I always peg or drawbore my mortises; it's a belt and suspenders thing.  If you think about it, in a drawbored joint the thing that matters most is the shoulders of the tenon.  They need to be dead on for both appearance and strength.  The peg holds the tenon tight.  As long as the peg holds, the snug fit of the tenon doesn't matter; only the shoulders matter.  You lose the mechanical strength and glue strength if the fit is poor.  I know that some woodworkers who drawbore don't even bother gluing their tenons but I do, as I don't see a reason to give up the redundancy.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Interesting developments

I start with a development that may seem trivial, but it definitely isn't for me.  I have been a loyal customer of Lee Valley/ Veritas for many years.  The one thing that has held me back from purchasing more from them has been shipping, which commonly took a week and a half or even more.  This resulted from the warehouse being in Canada and reliance on UPS ground for shipping to the west coast.  For a major tool purchase that was tolerable, but for many purchases of hardware and supplies or for something that I needed for a project I was in the middle of, I just couldn't wait that long, so I would purchase elsewhere.

Imagine my surprise when a recent order arrived in only three days.  Doing some research online, I learned that Lee Valley has established a distribution center near Reno, Nevada, so now those of us on the Left Coast can get items from them in a reasonable time.  This is really great news.

Next, Joel from Tools for Working Wood has an interesting series of posts on his blog about things he is doing differently in his woodworking.  The latest is about his use of a Moxon vise.  He writes that,
by raising the overall height of where I saw I can see better, bend over less, and the whole process feels so much less jury-rigged. I am sawing better and more accurately - partially at least because I can see what I am doing...
I was thinking the same thing this week because I was sawing some tenons using my bench vise and it wasn't going well at all.  I was stooped over in an uncomfortable position and couldn't see well.  Try as I might, I couldn't get my sawing motion right.  Finally, I put my Moxon vise on the bench and things immediately improved.  For many of us who are older, a vise at bench height just doesn't work well for sawing joinery.  I have a Veritas twin screw vise on the end of my bench and it works well for some things, but sawing joinery definitely isn't one of them.  If I could only keep one, it would definitely be the Moxon.  It really is a game changer for me.  I am one of those weird ones that could easily do without a bench vise.  If you don't have one, as I didn't for awhile, you find other ways of workholding that are often better. 

I built three Moxon vises in succession over the years.  The first used pipe clamps, the second bar clamps and the third and fanciest one used acme threaded rods.  Funny thing is, I like the bar clamp one best by far.

I like the handles being in the back out of the way and I like the "quick release" feature.  You can clamp any sized workpiece very quickly, even if you need to skew the jaw.  I added that piece of walnut on the front so I wouldn't strike the clamp with a saw.  It also turns out that the heavy duty bars fit snugly into slots do a great job of eliminating most racking, which is a problem with my other two versions.  This is the one I use while the other two stay on the shelf.

A Nicholson workbench, a pair of Krenov sawhorses and a Moxon vise will be in my shop for as long as I do woodworking.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Plane issues

I have written about my frustration with not being able to use planes on the douglas-fir slab because of all the tearout.  Douglas-fir tears out fairly easily anyway and all the wild grain and knots just made things impossible, at least that's what I thought.

I had one more piece of the slab I used to make the dining room table, the only one with no knots, and  I was determined to get to the bottom of this issue.  I began by using the power hand plane to get the rough surface down to within about 1/16" of flat.  I didn't use a scrub plane because the last time I tried it tore out something fierce, 1/8" in places.

What I tried first was taking a sharp #3 set to take very shallow cuts.  I used it across and on both diagonals to the grain and it worked really well:

I also gingerly tried it with the grain but it started to tearout, so I stopped.  I was still puzzled about why this has been so difficult.  I have flattened my bench, which is cvg fir, with minimal tearout and successfully made other things out of fir.

I decided to do some research and essentially found what I have read previously except in a more extreme form.  Several experts recommend setting the chipbreaker absolutely as close to the edge as you can possibly get it when planing difficult wood, literally a few thousandths.  The reasoning is precisely that it breaks the chips before they can tearout, producing accordion like shavings and only a slightly rougher surface.  Neither put emphasis on a tight mouth.  One suggested a bevel-up plane with a blade sharpened at a very steep angle as an alternative, something I have.  The blade becomes its own chipbreaker.  Being risk averse, I decided to give both of these a try with the grain on the bottom of the slab.  In both cases, I sharpened the blades carefully before beginning.

As you can see from this picture of the sidegrain, it isn't difficult to predict where it would tearout.

With the #3 freshly sharpened and the chipbreaker set as close as I could get it, I tried planing with the grain.  Nothing happened.  Taking the plane apart, I discovered why.

There wedged between the plane and the chipbreaker were the accordion shaped shavings.  Not hard to figure this out.  I purchased this plane a while back, sharpened it, tried it, and it worked fine, so that's all I did.  Visual inspection of the front of the chipbreaker attached to the blade looked just fine, but it clearly wasn't when the chipbreaker was set this close.  There was enough of a gap that the chips could force their way in.  The fact that I use the ruler trick on my plane blades may have been a contributing factor, I don't know.  After I cleaned up  and shaped the chipbreaker, the plane started producing nice accordion shavings with no tearout, just a slight roughness in places.  This is what the shavings looked like.

As you can see, they are somewhat short because they tend to break off.  Next, I decided to try my Lee Valley bevel-up smoother with a 50 degree blade.  In this case, the blade acts as its own chipbreaker because the angle of attack is 62 degrees.  It too produced shavings without tearout, but they were distinctly different, not accordion-shaped and more continuous, leaving a surface that was slightly smoother.

The major difference between these two planes was that the bevel-up plane was noticeably harder to push.

That left the issue of why I had experienced such bad tearout with old #7.  I removed the Hock blade and chipbreaker to look at them and this is what I saw:

The chipbreaker was set fully 1/16" back from the edge.  Sharpening the blade and moving the chipbreaker up to the very edge of the blade gave me long continuous shavings with very slight tearout, easily removed with a cabinet scraper.

You can see what a tight roll the chipbreaker being set up like this produces.  I think the reason it isn't accordion shaped is that the Hock chipbreaker is at a lower angle than the stock Stanley one.  The front of it has the same shape as the blade and is about the same thickness.  It's like a second blade turned over and with a slight bow in it.

What are the takeaways?  First, I don't know why I have to continually relearn this lesson, but when something isn't going well it pays to stop and figure out why rather than just blundering ahead.

More significantly to readers of this blog who are hopefully not beset with this failing, the advice to set the chipbreaker absolutely as close to the edge as you can get it when planing difficult wood is confirmed.  You don't want to do this normally, because the resulting accordion shavings are not continuous and leave a somewhat rougher finish.

Finally, I think Lee Valley's claim that the low angle smoother with a 50 degree blade will do a good job on difficult grain is also confirmed.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Outdoor serving table II

Once the mortises were done, it didn't take long to finish the table.  Here it is with the salvaged Corian resting on it.

I didn't want a front stretcher on it because I want to be able to sit at it comfortably on a stool.  I doubt that the corner braces on the front legs are really necessary because the table has 14 stout, pegged mortise and tenon joints.  I added them anyway, for additional strength and because I like they way they look.  I did something different from what I usually see.

The grain runs diagonally, which I think looks nice and takes advantage of the characteristics of wood to be very strong.  I created the shadow line to emphasize the difference.  They are held in place with pegs.

I have never understood why the grain on the ones I usually see on arts and crafts tables runs parallel to the leg.  It seems like it would make the brace prone to splitting on the very short inside section.  I also don't think this curve looks right on an arts and crafts piece, but that's just me.  This is a nice library table but the brace just looks crude to my eye. 

The final decision is how to finish my serving table.  I wanted to leave it unfinished and let it weather, with the idea that it would end up looking like an old white oak whiskey barrel after a few years.  However, my wife didn't like that idea, so I found some semi-transparent exterior stain that is almost indistinguishable from the raw white oak.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Outdoor serving table

I have been cooking outside more and have found that I need a side table for preparing and serving food.  When we remodeled our kitchen I salvaged a piece of Corian 14" wide and 60" long that is about the size we want.  The task was to design and build a base for it.

I thought about a number of options, but kept coming back to the kitchen work table I made last year, which has exceeded our expectations.  My  wife loves it and uses it constantly.  I decided to use a similar design for the outdoor table.  It is a bit narrow, but it will sit against a wall.

The next issue was what species to use.  Cedar and redwood are obvious candidates, but I decided to use white oak because it looks nice and is an excellent outdoor wood.  In a Forest Service study, untreated white oak was found to have an estimated average service life of 30 years in outdoor untreated applications.  It also weathers nicely.  Think of old whiskey barrels.  I bought three 5/4 boards 8 feet long averaging 6" wide for $70, under $5/bf.  I like this thickness because it makes strong stretchers and, doubled, makes 2" legs.

One disadvantage of white oak is that it is somewhat difficult to work with hand tools.  It is subject to tearout and quite hard (Janka hardness of 1360 vs. 1010 for walnut, for example).  It's manageable though; the key is very sharp tools, which requires honing very often.  Given my severe patience and discipline issues, I have to be able to do this quickly at the bench with no fussing.  The best way I have found is three steel honing plates loaded with 6, 3, and 1 micron diamond paste:

I also keep a strop at hand.

My design requires 14 mortises, which I made as I normally do by using a drill press to remove the bulk of the waste and then finishing with a bench chisel.  At some point, I will buy a pig sticker and give it a go, but this method is so easy I am ambivalent.  A personal failing I know.

Here are the four legs mortised and ready to go:

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Slab "waste"

I have always admired the native american practice of using every part of an animal they killed.  We americans generate entirely too much waste.  So when it comes to woodworking, I try hard to avoid any waste at all, which is actually quite easy.

The slab I purchased was 11' long and I used 8' of it for the table, so that left a piece 40" wide and about 36" long.  That piece didn't look right for anything as it was and it had two big knots in the flat sawn center, so I decided to rip it into two pieces, cutting out a small center section.

The near piece is clear vertical grain and I haven't decided what to do with it yet.  The rear piece has a knot and a limb coming off the side of it, which makes is quite interesting.  It is also angled, reflecting the way the tree was cut.  It had one large crack running all the way through it which needed to be repaired with epoxy.  I taped the bottom of it and then filled it from the top.

I learned the hard way that you have to overfill cracks by quite a bit.  Even then, I ended up having to fill the crack a second time about an hour after the first time.  T-88 epoxy takes a long time to set up so it was uncured.

Smoothing the epoxy isn't as bad as you might think.  I've found that a plane works just fine:

Because this fir tears out so easily, I did the last bit with sandpaper.  A problem that I encountered is that air bubbles get trapped in the epoxy, so when you smooth it small holes appear.  I think that I should have thinned the epoxy the second time I filled the crack.

I wanted rustic legs from small logs that would be attached with loose round tenons so I used a technique that I have used successfully with three-legged stools but never with four legs.  I created a 45 degree sight line and used a bevel gauge to guide a brace and bit.

This doesn't seem like it could possibly work, but it does.  The four legs were all within 1/4" first try.

Here is the final result:

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Dumb but now better than OK

Recently, I knocked a quarter-inch chunk off the tip of the top horn on the handle of my Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw.  I have no excuse whatsoever.  When I do something like this, I just shake my head and wonder how I could be such an idiot.

I certainly wasn't going to leave the handle that way but I wasn't looking forward to making or buying a new handle.  Holding the handle, I noticed for the first time that it was kind of tight for my very large paw and it looked like it might be more comfortable if the horn were shorter.  With nothing to lose, I used a quarter to draw a new shape and had at it with my TFWW saw handle maker's rasp.  I originally purchased this when I was shaping a saw handle, but now I use it regularly for all sorts of things.  It's the only hand cut rasp I have and the shape and random fine teeth are perfect for shaping of compound curves.  It's a must have.

Reshaping took only a few minutes and, to my great surprise, I ended up with a handle that I like better than the way it came from the maker.

  Really.  It fits my hand better and I can't see how it detracts from the saw's handling.  I don't think it looks bad either, although maybe that's a rationalization.

I read that Lie-Nielsen finishes its handles with a wiping varnish, so I applied two coats of satin Arm-R-Seal to the repair.  As expected, the tip of the horn is somewhat lighter but I think it will age and doesn't look bad anyway.

This was one of those lucky occasions where a dumb move had a happy result.  It got me thinking.  What other tools that I have would I like to personalize?  I might even try it without damaging the tool first.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Krenov sawhorses

Recently I decided to make a new pair of sawhorses to replace the traditional ones I made years ago.  I wanted them to be suitable for use with handsaws as I don't find sawbenches to be satisfactory.

As I often do, I started by searching for online images and was immediately attracted to a design by James Krenov.  They are functional and handsome in my opinion.  I really appreciate great design like this and knew I would enjoy seeing them in my shop as well as using them.

Of course, I had to put my own spin on them.  Since it is a felony in Oregon to build sawhorses out of anything other than douglas-fir, I used kiln dried 2x6s for my version.  I experimented with the height and decided that 29" was about right.  Here is what I came up with:

The sides are mortised into the bases and the stretcher is connected with wedged through tenons.

They nest together nicely so they don't take up much floor space when they are not in use.

 A nice feature of these sawhorses is that the stretcher can be used for a shelf, which I think will be very handy when I am assembling and finishing smaller projects.

To me, they are strong and look great.  I've tried sawing on them and am very pleased.  They were fun to build in about a day.

As I was building these sawhorses, it occurred to me that they would make a great project for an entry level course in hand tool woodworking.  Douglas-fir is inexpensive and easy to work.  The joinery is varied and moderately challenging.  They would serve as a good introduction to tablemaking.  I wonder if that is part of the reason Krenov designed them the way he did.  I've seen pictures of his school and notice that each of the students seem to have a pair at the end of their bench.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Stanley 200 honing guide

We were passing by an estate sale the other day and stopped to take a look.  The guy was a hoarder and there were boxes of junk scattered around the yard.  Something caught my eye and, when I picked it up, it appeared to be a vintage Stanley honing guide, though I had never heard of it.  I took it to the seller, offered him $5 for it and he asked me what it was.  I told him what I thought and he immediately went on Ebay and found one for $110.   I am sure I could have bought the entire box for $5 and, of course, I didn't have to tell him what it was, but that's me.  Obviously irritated, I put it back and he promptly told me he would take $5 for it.

So, here is what it looks like after I cleaned it up:

It's got some light pitting on the roller that doesn't affect use.  You can alter the angle of the blade either by varying how far it protrudes from the guide or turning the acme-threaded rod on the roller.  One of the things that intrigued me about it is that it is long enough to let you have the roller off the sharpening medium.  I like this idea because I use diamond paste and it keeps the roller from being contaminated:

I sort of assumed it wouldn't work very well because you don't read about them and, so far as I was aware, there is only a cheap modern version that is anything like it.  However, I tried it out on this plane blade and it worked really well.  I've got the roller a little low in the picture, but there is a lot of flexibility in how you adjust it.  I wasn't sure how well the thumbscrews would work, but they held the blade securely.

Now I'm wondering why a guide like this seems to have fallen out of use.  I did some research and it appears that it wasn't popular because the sharpening medium has to be a uniform thickness or the angle will change.  That isn't a problem with diamond stones, plates and paste or sandpaper but it was a problem with oilstones.  Some woodworkers seem to really like them.  I think it is a keeper.

Here is an interesting video by a luthier who has developed a similar guide that he uses with waterstones.  One of the advantages he claims is that it keeps him from gouging a very soft 8000 grit waterstone he uses.  The way he uses it to polish the back is interesting too.  

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Oregon is on fire

As I write this, hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon are on fire and some of them are minimally contained after months of effort.  The one that saddens me beyond words is the fire at Eagle Creek in the Columbia Gorge.  This fire is near Multinomah Falls and many other falls along the beautiful Columbia River Historic Highway. Two teenage boys were tossing fireworks over a cliff along a trail.  Nearly 5,000 acres have been consumed so far, a number of communities have been evacuated and Oregon's only east/west interstate has been closed.  The fire is within a few feet of the historic Multinomah Falls Lodge and right next to the falls.  I go there to hike often.  It is a very special place to me, a place that calls me back again and again.  These were huge old trees, trees like the one that gave me my slab table and it will take a century for the forest to come back fully.  I will never see it as it was again.  Our house is about fifty miles away and we woke up to ash everywhere, the remnants of what used to be.

What can be done?  Here, nothing other than replanting.  There will always be a few teenage boys who do things like this.  I think the Forest Service can be faulted for not closing the area but this would have been hugely controversial.  It's hindsight.  Many of the other fires were caused by lightning strikes.

There is a bigger and more fundamental issue and the solution is beyond dispute.  Forest fire is a healthy and natural part of forest life here.  Experts study old growth forests and they see that there were several natural, low intensity forest fires every decade.  It can literally be seen in the trees and we can see the positive impact thereafter.  These fires remove brush and the "ladder fuels" that allow the fire to climb to the tops of the biggest trees and they thin the forest.  A century of putting out forest fires and not removing the overstocked trees and brush mechanically has created a situation in which the fires are so hot and intense that everything is destroyed.  You go to ponderosa pine forests in eastern Oregon where the brush has been removed and then "controlled burns" have been conducted at optimum times in late spring and just marvel at the health of the forest.  Contrary to what many environmentalists believe, this is what a natural forest looks like, not the overgrown tangle you see in many pictures.  I have seen old pictures of untouched forests in Oregon and they don't look anything like the ones we admire today.

I owned 40 acres of second-growth douglas-fir in southern Oregon that was tangled and choked.  The trees were way overstocked so they couldn't grow well and were susceptible to disease.  A forest fire would have moved through at unbelievable speed.  I did a lot myself and hired fire crews on standby to do the rest.  You just wouldn't believe what happened.  The remaining trees were "released" and they starting growing vigorously.  Forest health improved dramatically.

The people at the Forest Service understand this and they do as much of it as their budget allows, but it is a pittance compared to what is necessary.  We are willing to pay thousands of workers to fight forest fires but not to clear brush and remove ladder fuels in our national forests so fires can be beneficial.  This is what our Congress has done.  Tragic.  I so wish we would take care of our national forests.

Update:  Read this to be utterly disgusted.  Two fires have merged and the total is now 31,000 acres.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The slab is done

Having used the bottom as a learning experience, I enlisted some neighbors to help me turn the slab over and repeated the process on the top.  It was extremely time consuming and challenging.  There is a reason that people who do this commercially use a router sled.  I ended up removing 3/4" of material on a slab that is 40" wide and 8' long.  In the end, a power hand plane and a belt sander saw a lot of use.  I regret this but, by coincidence, learned that Chris Schwarz does the same thing for his Roubo benchtops.  His stock is half the width of mine.

Why do you have to remove so much material?  A slab like this will almost inevitably twist and cup.  Across its width you have vertical grain changing to flat sawn and back to vertical grain.  It basically has to cup.  The wild grain pattern associated with the huge knots almost guarantees that the slab will be "wonky."  That is its beauty.  During the course of this project I came to understand that there is an entirely different aesthetic at work here.  The cracks and knots are part of the tree's story.

I elected to use Arm-R-Seal to finish the slab, brushing it on the bark and using a cloth on the top.  I didn't want the "plasticky" look that you often see, the result of a thick hard finish.  Here is the result:

I am very pleased with the result.  It is unique and has character.  This is about as rustic as you can get short of just using the rough sawn slab as is.  It's certainly not for everyone.  Welcoming cracks, pitch pockets and knots is kinda weird I admit.

I got the ultimate compliment from the cable guy as I was applying the finish.  He admired it and said, "It looks like it belongs in a brewpub."  As it happens, I am a big fan of brewpubs and knew exactly what he meant.  Douglas-fir is our state tree, it played a central role in our history, it is fundamental to the beauty of our landscape and we like to keep it close.  Same with draft beer.  You can travel the world but you won't find a beer better than an Oregon IPA made with our own Cascade hops.  This table is going to see a lot of it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipse for Woodworkers

Before I share an image, some background is in order.  We are avid fans of the Portland Timbers MLS soccer team.  Our team mascot is a lumberjack named Timber Joey.  After every goal, he uses a chainsaw to cut a slice off a large log and then he holds it aloft.  After the game, the slices are awarded to the players who scored the goals.  The goalie is also given a slice for a "clean sheet," meaning no goals scored.

A fan named Brent Diskin tweeted a graphic image combining this familiar event with the eclipse.  Here it is:

Original tweet

Maybe you have to be a Timbers fan to like this a lot, but I think it's great.  I am sure it is destined to become a t-shirt and I want one.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Slabs part 3

The first issue I faced was how to go about flattening a 37" x 96" slab that had cupped and twisted about 3/8".  This is an awful lot of material to remove and a very large area to get flat obviously.

The technique I settled on worked fairly well.  Using long winding sticks, I got the ends of the slab in the same plane using both hand planes and my Makita power planer.  Then I used a 8' long straightedge and the same tools to connect the ends along the sides.  This left me with a rectangle around the edges of the slab that was in the same plane. Finally I just used a  straightedge side to side along the length.  It worked.

That left me with a slab that was quite flat but with a lot of cracks and knots and substantial tearout.  This is the point at which you want to use epoxy to fill in the cracks and knots.  I chose to use T-88 epoxy, which I had on hand, because it disappears under varnish and dries very slowly.  The problem I encountered is that it dried so slowly that it got absorbed and the level would drop below the surface.  In places it ran completely through the slab onto the floor.  To remedy this, I taped the cracks and knots on the bottom and overfilled the cracks and knots but the epoxy would still soak in so much that I had trouble maintaining with absorption.  Finally I mixed fine sawdust into the epoxy and this solved the problem.  I am not sure how else to do it.  I think a faster setting epoxy might be better.  It was a lot of work taking the overfilled epoxy down to the level of the slab.  The epoxy fill actually turned out much better than I expected.  Especially with the sawdust, it blends in quite well and looks good.

As I wrote earlier, I couldn't figure out a good way to deal with all the tearout.  The hand tool that worked best was a cabinet scraper but it took forever because of the depth of the tearout.  I finally gave up and turned to a belt sander, which I haven't used in years.  I got better at it eventually and, by keeping it moving, I was able to smooth the slab without introducing too must unevenness.  I started with the bottom, so I am hopeful that I can do better on the top.  What I may do is use the belt sander to get as close as possible and then spend a lot of time with the cabinet scraper.  If you know of a better way, I 'd like to hear it.  As I have told you, a plane, no matter how sharp, will simply not work because of the soft douglas-fir and the swirling grain.

The epoxy fill actually turned out much better than I expected.  Especially with the sawdust, it blends in quite well and looks good.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Slabs part 2

As I wrote previously, I had a relatively easy time surfacing the first side of my big slab but anticipated that it might move with 3/8" of thickness removed and continued drying.  Boy was I right.  It cupped and twisted significantly.  It's really not that surprising because the slab probably had a ton of weight on it as it was air drying for over a year but, with that gone, the slab was free to move.  We've had very hot dry weather here so, even with the endgrain covered with paraffin, it's drying fairly fast.

I had turned the heavy slab over to the rough side, so I decided to work on it first and got an unpleasant surprise.  The now much dryer slab was decidedly more prone to tearout.  Cracks had opened up and these tended to widen with anything but straight on planing.  With all of the twists and turns in the grain, especially around the big knots, planing with the grain was impossible.  I sharpened my planes very carefully but nothing I tried could avoid deep tearout.  Finally I just let it tearout and then used a belt sander for final surfacing.  Not very satisfying, but it worked.  I was able to avoid all but one dip with the belt sander.  The slab is currently 2 3/8" thick so I have removed 3/4" of material!

Douglas-fir is obviously not the ideal species to make a table slab from because it is so soft and prone to tearout.  However, this is what we wanted--it is after all the Oregon state tree--so we just have to accept its challenges.  I've come to understand that a 37" wide live edge douglas-fir slab with lots of knots in it isn't going to resemble fine furniture and that this is part of its aesthetic.  Now that I look at these slabs in pubs and restaurants more closely, I see that they are all that way.

I almost went over to the dark side.   Surfacing this slab clearly showed why the standard way is attractive.  If you build rails along the sides of the slab and then make a sled for a powered router to ride in across the slab, you can get a flat slab with little or no tearout and not a whole lot of hard work.  I didn't do this, but it was at the cost of many hours of hard work and a slab that isn't perfectly flat, although it's close.  Once I get this side done, I have to turn the slab over and do the other side again.

This project has turned out to be far more challenging than I thought it would be.  Just about everything I thought would work didn't.  Looking back, I should have done more research.  So, in the interest of saving you from my fate, I am going to go over some things I learned in the next few posts.

Monday, July 3, 2017

This is boring.

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

Inside was a neat little three layered box:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 29, 2017


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

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

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

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

Then we rolled if off on dowels:

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

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

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

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

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