Friday, January 29, 2010

The Finish Line

When I'm in "the zone", it can be difficult to resist the desire to glue up a project before I add finish to inside pieces of a drawer or cabinet.

But you do yourself a favor if you finish first, assemble second. That's because trying to achieve a flat, brushed- or ragged-on finish when you're dealing with inside corners is next to impossible.

I fixed the drawer on my sawbuck table but, tempted as I was to glue it up, decided to first conduct a comparison study of different finishes on a practice piece to see which looks best.

The sawbuck table is made from curly cherry, a wood that's tricky to plane and tricky to finish, at least in my world.

My normal finishes of choice are shellac, Watco wipe-on poly, and boiled linseed oil (BLO). I never stray too far from them because I'm not an enthusiastic finisher and prefer to get the process done and dusted.

I consulted with friends and researched a few ideas and chose the following to try on a test piece, which was sanded to either 220 or 320 grit (I can't remember).

1. 2 coats of garnet shellac; 8 coats of blonde shellac; rubbed out with 0000 steel wool.

2. 1 coat of tung oil, thinned 30%, and dried for 24 hours; 2 coats of 100% tung oil, with 24 hours drying time in between.

3. 1 light coat of BLO, dried for 24 hours, then lightly sanded with 320 grit paper; 1 coat of garnet shellac; 6 coats of blonde shellac; rubbed out with 0000 steel wool.

4. 1 coat of BLO, dried for 24 hours, then lightly sanded with 320 grit paper; 1 coat of garnet shellac; 6 coats of blonde shellac; 1 coat of Watco wipe-on poly; rubbed out with 0000 steel wool; 1 coat of dark paste wax, rubbed out with a soft cloth.

Two woodworking buddies visited my shop last night and I asked their opinions. Neither one saw a difference between #3 and #4 (I thought #4 looked a little darker). Neither one liked the tung oil (nor did I). Both preferred the straight shellac (as did I).

#3 and #4 popped the figure the most and were darkest, although they did look a bit blotchy (maybe sanding to a higher grit would fix this?). I also thought they looked a little too shiny for a rustic piece, but they would look terrific on fine piece of furniture.

The tung oil looked dull and uninteresting and did not bring out the figure as I thought it would.

The shellac looked most natural and had a soft, buffed sheen. The figure did not pop as much (but there was not as much figure on the end of the board), however, it did not look at all blotchy.

I'm no finishing expert, so in the hands of someone else, all four finishes might look fabulous. But I've decided to stick with shellac. For this experiment, I applied more layers of shellac than I had ever done before, and I can say without hesitation, that the more layers, the better-looking the finish. I usually stop at four layers, but applied 10 to this sample. The result is beautiful.

Recently, there was discussion on the SAPFM forum regarding BLO and shellac. Two points that grabbed my attention: BLO will turn black over time, and shellac might peel if poly is applied on top of it.

One thing's for sure—if you're going to spend a lot of time building a project, it's worth it to invest the time in researching the best finish. Even if you end up using the same old standby.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Who Would Have Thought...

15 years ago that we would have the abundance of information that's freely available to us on the internet today.

Any questions you have about woodworking, warblers, and wombats can be found online. And the presentation of this information just keeps getting better and better.

There's enough great woodworking content—through magazines, forums, blogs, and podcasts—to occupy all 24 hours of your day.

But in case you're looking to fill those few stray minutes, check out the sites on my links page. They're not in alphabetical order for no other reason than I like randomness.

Just to point out a few of the many bloggers and podcasters who are kicking it up a notch, check out:

1. Tom Fidgenfurniture maker, author, and instructor—who's recently updated his website to include full SketchUp models, bench plans, expanded galleries and after thoughts from all six projects in his book, Made By Hand.

2. Matt Vanderlist—the original woodworking podcaster—has just launched a new podcast called The Spoken Wood where he has invited several woodworking bloggers to read some of their favorite posts. It's a clever concept and one that might make your commute to work a little more pleasant.

3. Bob Rozaieski—cabinetmaker and traditional woodworker—who packs loads of material into his blog and podcast. Bob is very good at walking you through the steps of preparing stock and building projects using only hand tools.

There are more. Tons more. They're light years better in appearance and content than what I was able to find 15 years ago.

And that makes me happier than a warbler with a wagonload of worms.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Suddenly, I See

Believe it or not, this blog was never meant to be exclusive to hand tools. Power tools were included in the orginal plan (albeit, only a little bit), but feedback from readers, and an ever-growing attraction to hand tool blogs and forums, steered me toward my ultimate woodworking destiny.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not about to sell my table saw. And my band saw? Forget it. That guy's going to be buried with me. But after two and half years of blogging, I'm all up in the hand tool grill.

So much so, that I've started seeing everything through hand tool-colored lenses. I showed up early to our club meeting last night at the Woodcraft Store to peruse the inventory, and spied a metal table saw jig with hold downs that helps a person trim waney edges from a board. I remembered seeing something like this early on in my power tool days and thinking, "so that's how it's done."

But I looked at it last night and thought how edges like that can easily be corrected with hand tools.

As a variety-seeker, I'll often choose different techniques, on separate occasions, for the same operation—like jointing a waney edge. If I'm in a hurry, I'll use my bandsaw and power jointer. If I'm not (which is the norm), I might trim the bulk of it with a handsaw and then smooth it with a handplane. Or I might use a drawknife and plane. Or I'll use my favorite technique: trim some of the excess with an axe—but not too much—because then I get to use my scrub plane to get closer to the line, and then finish the edge with a finely-set bench plane.

I realized last night that I see almost everything from a hand tool perspective, and power tool jigs are no longer in the periphery.

More often than not, hand tool procedures are not as fast as power tools, but for me it's all about personal preference and what makes you happy. Also important to some of us, is that working wood by hand burns more calories. You've heard of the Freshman Fifteen? Yeah, well every winter I suffer from the Holiday Hundred. So I'd better stick with hand tools.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jim Whetstone: Talented and Organized Woodworker

Jim Whetstone (how's that for a cool last name?), of New Cumberland, PA, makes and sells woodworking projects which include beautiful gift boxes, complete with wood ribbons.

Jim developed a method of laminating contrasting pieces of wood, alternating their grain direction like plywood, and cutting them out on his scroll saw to look like pieces of ribbon. The alternating grain provides strength where short, weak grain occurs.

The strips of ribbon which wrap entirely around the box are glued into shallow dadoes, while the strips that make up the bow are glued on top of one another. Metal weights and washers are used to "clamp" the ribbons in place while the glue dries.

Jim takes great care to cut the ribbon pieces so they mimic the curls and fluid movement of fabric ribbon, which results in a very realistic product.

In addition to being talented, Jim is the most organized woodworker I've ever met. He knows the exact number of pieces he's made in his career (1,109) and has job folders and notes for each one. He keeps all his templates and photos of his work for future design reference, and has clever ways of storing tools and making maximum use of a relatively small shop space.

All his equipment and work stations are on wheels; wall and ceiling spaces are used for template and tool storage; and hinged partitions hold tools and reference material. When not in use, a box slips overtop of his planer, creating another work surface.

It's always a joy to visit another woodworker's shop, especially one who has so much to share.


When not in his workshop, Jim is busy with his other passion: photography. His newly-launched photography website can be found here. Some of the photos in this post were provided by Jim and are marked as such.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Wooden Bowl

I just finished reading The Wooden Bowl, a book written by Robin Wood. If you're not familiar with Robin, he's a woodturner and spoon carver who works wood the traditional way—with a pole lathe and handtools. He's also chairman of the Heritage Crafts Association and the 2009 Artisan of the Year.

Robin has a passion for wooden bowls—especially antiques of the most humble designs, complete with tool marks, that were made in large quantities and saw everyday use—and high regard for the turners who made them centuries ago. His reverence for these bowls was the catalyst for a career dedicated to replicating them, down to the last detail. Robin has made authentic reproductions for museums, theatrical productions, and most recently, the new Russell Crowe film "Robin Hood".

In his book, he provides details about woodturners in Great Britain that he gathered from archaeological reports, Medieval manuscripts, and first-hand study of ancient bowls.

Wooden bowls were the standard eating and drinking container in all of Medieval Europe. Most people owned their own bowl, which would last them a lifetime, as evidenced by the metal staples and other reparative methods that reconnected a split, and the blackened surface and warm patina which naturally occurred from years of use. They were used by everyone from the poorest to the most wealthy.

The earliest lathes (created some 2500 years ago) spun wood reciprocally—backwards and forwards—and include these types: strap, bow, and pole. By the 16th century, continuous rotation lathes—treadle, great wheel, and water-powered—were developed. Some lathes were better suited for small work whereas others could manage large diameter bowls.

Robin includes images of historical artwork and photos of antiques that complement the text. One photo is a shale bowl found in London dated 140-160 A.D. Other images are wooden bowls recovered from the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII's warship that sank just offshore, and lay submerged until the ship was excavated in 1971.

The chapter on 14th-17th century mazers was my favorite. These exquisite bowls were often made from burl and rimmed with gilded silver. Some were engraved with detailed designs around the rims, and displayed circular, gilded prints that were embedded in the bottom of the bowls. These pieces were extremely expensive and were referenced in Medieval wills and inventories.

Turners once held fairly prominent status in the community, since everyone required their skills. But by the 16th century, when inexpensive earthenware pottery was starting to be produced in larger quantities, the decline of the wooden bowl ensued, as did the prestige of the woodturner. By the late 17th and early 18th centuries, turners were forced to find other markets that utilized their talent, so in Britain, they focused on making furniture parts.

Robin concludes with a chapter about the last bowl turners of the 20th century and his determination to continue the tradition of creating the wooden bowls he loves.

The book's jacket says that it will appeal to archaeologists, museum curators, treen collectors and turners. I'm none of those things, and yet I found it interesting and inspiring. So much so, that I'm compelled to try turning a set of bowls for use in my house. And if you know anything about the relationship I have with my lathe, that declaration speaks volumes about Robin's book.


Disclosure: I do not benefit in any way from the sale of this book. My motivation in writing this post is to shed light on an individual who makes an important contribution to the world and who I hold in high esteem.

If you are interested in purchasing Robin's book and live in the U.S., you will be able to find it this March, when it will be available at The David Brown Book Company in Connecticut, 860.945.9329.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

No Winding Sticks? No Worries!

If you're working with long boards, you'll probably want to make a set of winding sticks. But if you're working with shorter pieces, here is the method I use to remove twist and flatten a board.

Lay your board on a dead flat surface—I use my table saw. Touch one corner with your finger and then the opposing corner. Then do the same with the other two corners. If the board rocks with one set of corners, it's not flat. And depending on which corners are rocking, you can tell where the high spots are.

High corners will not rock, low corners will. Remove high spots with your handplane and keep checking the board on your flat surface. Sight along the bottom edge of the board to see where it is and isn't touching the flat surface. This will also reveal high and low spots. Continue to plane and check your board until it no longer rocks when you touch oppposing corners and when the bottom edges of your board lay seamlessly on the flat surface.

In addition, I use a backlit straight edge to check for flatness by laying it diagonally across the board in both directions, and along the width and length of the board, parallel to its edges.

These methods have always worked well for me and actually seem to work most effectively when I use them before cutting the joinery. Go figure.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Sharpest Tool In The Shop... sometimes the most dull. By "tool" I mean brains and by "dull" I mean mine.

"If you don't have time to do it right the first time, when are you going to have time to fix it?" That's one of my favorite quotes and one I choose to ignore on occasion.

Take ninny move #1:

Today I decided to replace the planing stop on the end of my bench. It had been obliterated over the years, having been too thin a piece of wood to stand up to the beating of handplaning, so I found a beefy piece of cherry to replace it.

The first mistake was in not drilling new holes on the end cap of my bench—ones that sit lower so the top portion of the planing stop would be wider above the holes. The second mistake was in not drilling a new hole that was not so close to the front of my bench. The wood in the planing stop that's closest to the front of my bench, next to the slot on the right, will eventually snap off.

Nincompoop move #2:

Time to fess up. I committed a cardinal sin when I made the dovetailed drawer for my sawbuck table. I did not properly flatten the boards first. When laid on a flat surface, they wobbled like an 8 month old toddler learning to walk. I ignored this and went ahead with construction.

Of course the drawer would not sit flat when checking for fit, and how do you install a drawer bottom when the sides are catawampus? I walked away from that project until I could think of a solution. That was a year ago.

Today I resolved to correct this mistake and put my new planing stop to work. After removing 1/8" from the surface of the side panels and back of the drawer, they now sit dead flat when assembled. The front of the drawer houses half blind dovetails and cannot be fixed by flattening the inside face. If I did that, the tails on the side pieces would no longer fit tightly in the front board and would be as gappy as the teeth on a 6 year old.

I haven't quite figured out how to fix that yet. But I'm hoping that enlightenment won't keep me waiting another year.