Back from my absence…

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Well, it’s been quite a while since I posted anything and I can’t believe it’s been since May of last year since I created a post. Our daughter is now 3 years old and between taking care of her and woodworking in any spare moments I can scrape together, it’s been pretty hectic to say the least.

I will try to catch up on the things I’ve been working on since I dropped off the face of the planet, starting with the mahogany coffee table.

We had been making due with various terrible tables / combination of tables / and no tables for our living room for quite a while. I knew I wanted a pretty wide top so it could serve as a central focus for drawing, homework (in the future), writing (like I’m doing right now for this post), and general domestic activities.

After balancing all of the wood options out there and thinking of jointing and gluing up numerous boards for the top, I just broke down and went for the African mahogany since I could make the top with a single joint down the middle. It turned out to be a pleasant choice as mahogany is quite nice to work with hand tools. Other than dealing with the interlocking grain that is characteristic of mahogany, it is quite a nice wood for working with hand tools.

Unfortunately, the legs are also of mahogany but from a different tree and were harder than any oak I’ve ever worked combined with being incredibly abrasive due to the hard resinous inclusions in the wood. Mortising through them for the rail turned out to be a less than enjoyable experience. In the end, it turned out okay, but the amount of work involved for the mortising and planing the legs was significant.

I’ll probably work with mahogany again in the future, most likely for another toolbox I’m planing to make, but will make sure to test out the boards at the lumber yard to ensure the wood is workable and not extra dense.

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Trestle Table completed

Here are a few photos from my most recent woodworking project, a trestle table. The top is made from Black Walnut and the base is made from some select pieces of alder.
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I tried to keep the size appropriate for your relatively small dining room while allowing space for a planned side table built using similar woods.
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The breadboard ends were probably the most rewarding part of the process as they required close tolerances but were quite fun to produce with only a small handheld router and straightedge. Doing these by hand would have been possible but quite challenging given my lack of a wide rabbeting plane that would have made it easier to do.

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I finished the top with a wiping varnish (ala Bob Flexner), which is one part oil-based polyurethane and one part odorless mineral spirits. It took around four coats to get a decent coverage that will stand up against spills and messes resulting from eating every meal at this little table. So far it appears to be doing just fine.

The base is a combination of wedged through tenons for the stretchers (seen below) and for the leg to foot joints. This was my first project using these and I have to say I was amazed at the incredibly solid sound the wedges made when driven home in the kerfs cut into the end of the tenons to accept them. These joints were then drawbored with oak pegs to add belts to the proverbial suspenders. The joinery is conceptually sound so time will test my woodworking ability to determine if it is up to snuff.

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The feet were shaped using a coping saw (believe it or not) as I haven’t found a suitable bow saw and don’t currently own a bandsaw — maybe some day. They were then sanded by hand and joined to the table using wedged through tenons and pegs, not drawbored all of the way through to avoid the end of the oak pegs standing out against the visible part of the feet. I’ll have to wait to see if this was a mistake as the table absorbs the mechanical stresses of being used every day. It’s holding up just fine so far.

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So far the table looks to be holding up well. I’m not sure alder was the best wood to use for the base. If I was to do it over again, I would probably use a stiffer, more rigid wood like a douglas fir or perhaps even white oak as it would have provided a much more rigid platform for the top. As it stands now, I can easily replace the base since the top is attached using traditional buttons instead of being screwed or bolted on in some fashion. It might be a good time to revisit this after completing the side table.

I hope you enjoyed the tour of the trestle table. I’ll post more updates as my next project nears completion.

Woodworking and hand tools

Things have changed quite a bit for me over the last several months. I’ve been busy taking care of my 11 month old daughter full time and have had to find ways of fitting in my work around that busy schedule. I haven’t been drawing much except as it relates to my woodworking, which is a fairly new and serious endeavor for me. I started out building a new changing table, then moved on to refinishing some chairs, crib, dresser,

Cherry Dresser

footstool, table, traditional tool chest,

Traditional Tool Chest

and most recently a new toy box for my daughter.

Toy Box

I thought it was time to update folks on how things have been going and what I’ve been doing.

I started out doing most of my woodworking with machines but Montana winters drive you indoors and in my case into the basement to do the work. I found myself being very hesitant to use the router table, circular saw, or even the jigsaw because of the noise, the fairly limited working space, and the clouds of unhealthy dust they created. I started looking around for some non-powered options which led me to start using hand tools.

One thing led to another and I am now doing all of my work with hand tools and really not missing the power tools at all. Sure I still want to plane a board to a specific thickness or run a long board through a table saw now and then, but the majority of my work is done quickly, quietly, and fairly dust-free with hand tools and I’ve never enjoyed it more.

I am about to start on a new project, a smaller computer desk / organizer for our dining room so we can have a mobile station upstairs for occasional work and for storing writing materials, power plugs, etc. Over the next week or two I’ll update my blog with photos of the last few projects and some new material on the desk project.

It’s been a while since I had the urge to post some photos so I hope there is some interest out there in this turn of events and hopefully I can help being an appreciation to some of the hand tool skills that I am rediscovering in the process.

Here is a parting shot of two my my hand saws that I recently refurbished.

My refurbished 12" and 14" Disston backsaws.

Exhibit Opening: October 7th at 6:00 pm at River’s Mist Gallery of Fine Art

Please join us on October 7th, 2011 at River’s Mist Gallery in Stevensville to help kick off my October exhibition of over 40 pieces of artwork. This is the largest exhibition of my artwork thus far and we are really excited to get the opportunity to show so many pieces at one time. The event runs through the end of October and we are donating a portion of all proceeds from the exhibition to benefit Seattle Children’s Hospital and the wonderful work that they do. Without their help, we would have faced serious health issues with our daughter following her birth in March.

The kickoff event runs from 6:00 pm – 9:00 pm on October 7th and the exhibit will run through the end of October in case you’re unable to attend the opening night. In addition to the over 40 pieces of framed art, we will have matted prints available for purchase, along with notecards, the deck of playing cards I illustrated last year, and several other items for sale as well. We are hoping to have something for everyone there. It’s a great way of picking up a piece of art and helping contribute towards other kids getting critical treatment that they need at the same time.

My humble and slowly-evolving basement workshop

I’ve been doing quite a bit of woodworking over the last few months trying to improve my furniture building skills. I have more recently begun migrating away from power tools more towards hand tools to help with a few things. With a new daughter that I look after full time, I needed to create a safer, cleaner, and more pleasant workshop. I can now work on a project with her in the next room and keep an ear and eye on her without the unpleasant noise, dust, and danger of my power tools.

Hand tools are a much quieter and pleasant way of working wood. You can work on a project with other people in the room without needing hearing and eye protection or with that pained look on your face as the tools wreak thundering havoc on the wood.

Another thing I really like about hand tools is the relative absence of airborne dust in the house. My shop is much cleaner since I ditched the router table and power sanders. The sawdust, chips, and shavings that I produce now settle quickly to the floor and can be vacuumed or swept up with minimal mess. There is still a small bit of dust to be sure, but mostly produced from hand sanding.

This leads directly to the third thing I like about hand tools: the craft of the process. In order to use hand tools effectively, you have to get in tune with your tools through maintaining them. Unlike power tools that come with disposable cutting edges for the most part, hand tools allow you to easily (with a bit of practice) produce a razor sharp edge with relatively simple tools. I adoped Japanese water stones from my kitchen knife sharpening kit and use a honing guide for my chisels and hand plane irons. It’s amazing how quickly you can learn to produce a perfect cutting edge with a minimum of fuss.

The New Traditional Woodworker

The New Traditional Woodworker

I’ve just about completed all of the projects in Jim Topin’s fantastic The New Traditional Woodworker and am about to try my hand at my first hand tool-only project. I am eager to see how I’ve progressed with my sawing, planing, and joinery. It will be a simple first project but should put my skills to the test.

My wooden try squares

Tolpin’s book does a great job of helping the modern reader decipher the various hand tools out there and select those needed to build your toolkit. He goes on to present various projects to create those devices needed in a hand tools shop to work wood safely and efficiently, including a bench hook for crosscutting boards to length and square, a shooting board which helps square an edge of a board, a wooden try square that you can use in place of a purchased one, which I have been doing, along with many other projects. Because I enjoyed the process so much, I ended up creating three different try squares, two normal try squares and a third dovetail gauge, and find myself using them for marking almost all of my board ends and edges.

I’ve also been scouring the online retailers for vintage hand planes. The Stanley hand planes have the reputation as the best built and most dependable made and fortunately they’re fairly easy to pick them up for very reasonable prices, depending on the model. Based on recommendations from Jim Tolpin’s book as well as Christopher Schwarz from Lost Press Art (formerly the editor for Popular Woodworking Magazine). They recommended a starting trio of a No. 5 Jack Plane, a No. 7 Jointer plane and a No. 4 Smoothing plane. I picked up the first two on eBay and purchased the third from Lie-Nielsen. I am almost scared to use the Smoothing plane as it’s simply beautiful and I’m still a bit afraid of putting the first scratch on it. Needless to say, this will eventually pass but it’s still nice to have a work of art in my workshop.

A Stanley No. 5 Jack Plane on the left and a Stanley No. 7 Jointer Plane on the right

"My Precious" (Lie-Nielsen No. 4 Smoothing Plane

I also purchased a Stanley No. 45 Combination Plane, primarily for cutting grooves, dados, and rabbets. I find that it works remarkably well and is doing a rather nice job of replacing my powered router and router table for most tasks. I am waiting to see how it does at more complicated tasks like edge molding and compound profiles, but there are always the wooden molding planes if it doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Stanley No. 45 Combination Plane - a wonderfully complicated bit of kit

I’ve picked up a few additional tools like a hand drill, braces, bits, etc., and am quickly weaning myself off of power tools and only occasionally use a cordless hand drill for quick drilling tasks. I also still use a drill press for creating perpendicular holes in my projects since it can be quite frustrating to misdrill a critical hole.

Hand saws are the next round for me. I’ve picked up some saw files and a saw set to bend the teeth correctly on dulled saws. It’s a rather involved process to do well, but I’ve ordered a DVD to help with the process. I also have two vintage saws on their way and will complete my needed set soon. I’ll post more details as I make more progress…

Chair refinishing is… finished!

It took a while for this project to come to an satisfactory end. I was working on these chairs between other projects and ran into some unexpected literally last-minute setbacks, but the chairs are completed and they turned out really well.

One of the refinished chairs, complete with Thumper

As I mentioned in a previous post, these chairs have sentimental value for me. They were my paternal grandmother’s chairs and I can remember rocking away in them as a young boy on Christmas morning waiting until everyone arrived to open gifts. I remember sitting in one of them as an adolescent chatting with my grandmother and trying to relate to a woman who had literally built a business with my grandfather including the shop and their house and had survived a depression and a World War. I remember sitting in one of these chairs after hearing that she was dying from brain cancer.

I inherited these chairs after my grandmother passed away and they have waited patiently for me to do something about their condition. Although the worn arms and tattered fabric had a bit of nostalgia to them, they really didn’t represent the dignity that my grandmother deserved. It was important to return them to a state that respected their era, style, and “look”. These chairs were built in Indiana in 1959 (according to the furniture tag located inside the chairs). and you really can’t find chairs like them anymore. They’re small and relatively light weight and the swivel rocker design is simply perfect for rocking gently with, say, and newborn in your arms.

After stripping the finish from the arms, I applied a deep red chestnut oil stain, sealed that with a coat of garnet shellac, applied several coats of gel mahogany stain to get the deep rich brown color, before sealing that with shellac once again. A few coats of polyurethane and the wood was ready for reassembly. I took the chair seats to Bailey Enterprises here in Missoula where he reupholstered them and replaced one of the broken serpent springs in the seat. Once he had the fabric on, it fell to me to get him the finished wood so he could reassemble the arms before adding the back. This is where I made a classic mistake!

On delivering the arms to Paul at Bailey Enterprises, I was ascending the concrete steps of his shop with the arms in a burlap drop cloth. As I was opening the door to enter, I felt one of the arms slip… the next moment was frozen with the stomach-churning sound of wood bouncing down concrete! I looked in horror as one of the arms bounced a final time before coming to rest at the bottom of the steps. I was mortified… I slowly lowered the other three arms onto the shop floor and made my way down the steps. The arms was topside-down and didn’t show much damage, but as I slowly picked it up and turned it over, my spirits sank as I saw the dozen or so dings, scrapes, and gouges exposing the bare wood in places.

I climbed the steps to where Paul was trying to console me in my moment of despair. “They should be okay. I’ve heard of people steaming out dings like that in furniture.” He was trying to be kind. You don’t steam out gaping holes of bare wood in a finished arm. I knew that I would have to refinish the arm’s top completely and hope that it wasn’t too obvious when compared to the others. Paul indicated that he could finish the first chair and get the other ready to go for when I got the arm refinished. It was the Wednesday before Easter and we arranged to have the arm back in his hands by Monday.

The re-refinished arm...

I went home and showed Angie the results of my idiocy. She tried to look less than mortified and managed pretty well. I went downstairs and began the process of stripping the arm to prepare it for refinishing. After two days, it looked passable and a couple more days of fine-tuning it, it looked like a new arm again. The following day, I placed it in the back of the car and made my way to Paul’s shop. I carried it (with both hands!) up the steps and delivered it safely to his workbench. He said that he could most likely have the chairs ready for the following day. True to his word, they were ready the next morning and I dropped by and picked them up. I installed the bases once I was home and scooped up Maddie before giving them the first trial rock.

The arm prior to refinishing

The "before" image

The new changing table I just completed

I’ve been busy over the winter learning furniture construction. I recently completed a new changing table for our nursery. It’s made of red oak and finished with a blonde shellec top-coated with water-based polyurethane. I was fairly pleased with how it turned out. I chose a lighter finish to keep the furniture from feeling too massive. I’ll be moving on to a convertible crib / full-sized bed design this weekend.

New changing table installed in the nursery.

I also made the letters on the wall above the changing table. I found a nice font I liked on my computer and printed out huge versions of them which I transferred to a sheet of MDF using a carbon-transfer paper. I then cut them out with a jigsaw, sanded them smooth and coated them with acrylic spray paint. I tried using liquid acrylic but the yellow and blue were far too transparent.

The photo below shows a closer look at the table with one of the hand-painted knobs that I purchased for the drawer pulls.

Closer view of table.

One of the wonderful animal-themed drawer pulls.

I picked up the drawer pulls from Carolina Hardware and Decor who have a great selection of decorative pulls and knobs, many surprisingly still made in the USA. I used a mouse, bunny, bull, pig, lion, and tiger for the dresser.