When Humidity is Good

I may catch hell from some people about this post. It’s predictable.

Hum

After the jewelry cabinet, I really wanted to do a couple of smaller projects. I’ve had some lumber I picked up at an estate sale that I’ve hung onto for special occasions – one piece was the figured maple for the jewelry cabinet. Another piece was dark… I though maybe it was Texas Ebony, but I was way off (as you’ll see).  I decided to build a humidor.

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Yes, I smoke the occasional good cigar. (NOT cheezmo cheap stinkers.) Yes, I know I probably shouldn’t, but something else is far more likely to kill me before that does (like inhaling wood dust… more on that to follow).

The wood was very dark, dense, and close-grained. It had a slight lateral twist that had to be removed, but was too big for my little jointer by about two inches. So I set up a sled for the planer, shimmed under the warp, and ran it through several times until the first side was flat. Then flipped the board, and planed the other side to parallel.

Imagine my surprise when this was how it came out of the planer.

image (2)After scratching my head a while, I decided it might be cocobolo… also a wrong guess. So I drove a piece over to the Schmott Guys at Woodcraft, and asked. It turned out to be Bocote – something I was completely unfamiliar with. It’s a central/south American hardwood. Very dense and heavy (Janka hardness 2,010 lbf). Its hardness is similar to rock maple, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s very, very dense and heavy. But it was an absolute joy to work with.

I had decided to not make this a strictly-hand-tool project, because I wanted to get it accomplished in the short term, and I was unsure about handling this wood without some machine assistance. This was the most amazing wood I’ve ever worked with – it machined flawlessly, almost like working plastic. Like Bubinga, but smoother. After planing or sawing, it only required a light touchup with 220 grit sandpaper to bring out a flawless surface.

The box is very simple: rabbeted joinery, with an inset plywood bottom. I resawed the top into a pair of bookmatched panels.

Once completed, a pass across the table saw cut the grooves in the edges for the inlay. The inlay strips are Gaboon Ebony (which is outrageously expensive, but I was having fun).

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When the inlays were in place, I hand-planed it all flat, and rounded the edges with a block plane. A pass through the band saw cut the lid free.  Hinge installations were pretty simple – I decided not to use traditional corner hinges, because strength wouldn’t be a major issue. These brass hinges are simple insets, and stop at 110°.

 

image (6)The handle is a small cutoff of ebony, glued in place. The lining of the humidor is Spanish Cedar. This is a critical issue: Spanish Cedar has a cellular structure that retains moisture and helps prevent mold and rot, without being so aromatic as to change the taste of the cigars. The lining should be replace every few years, so the only place where it’s glued in is a couple of tack-spots on the lid and the bottom. The other pieces are just cut tightly to fit, and when the box is seasoned, the cedar swells enough to hold them tightly in place. The upper tray is a simple construction of Spanish Cedar as well.

Today’s Lesson: When you cut or sand Spanish Cedar, wear a damn respirator. Cedar is a tremendous allergen, and I sneezed for three days. Lesson noted.

I decided that this project would be a good time to experiment with something I’ve been wanting to try: I gathered up my courage and attempted French Polish.

Instructions for this are everywhere on the internet. Most of them are very similar, but I had a clear set of instructions from a class at Woodcraft (thanks, Howard) that I followed for this first attempt. Like hand-cut dovetails, I think there’s a lot more made of the process than it really merits. It’s labor-intensive, but not that difficult. Follow the directions for the shellac cut, the fiber content of the pad, and be patient and prepared to do a lot of rubbing. Having said that, I wouldn’t really want to do an irregular surface or inside corners. I can’t even figure out how that would work.image (5)

But this was the perfect project to try it out. It took about three days off and on to finish the polish, but I’m glad I tried it. And now I’m prepared to do it on something more challenging next time.

The humidity for cigar storage should be about 65-70%. I added a small Xikar digital hygrometer and humidifier inside the top lid. To season a humidor, rub down the inside with a pad dampened with distilled water 3-4 times over the first day, then close the box and let the humidity stabilize over the next 48 hours. mine is holding at about 69% at the moment.

My thanks to Scott at Woodcraft for one great piece of advice: Add one seal coat of shellac to the inside of the box before the cedar lining. That keeps the box itself from absorbing the water while it’s stabilizing, and it will go much faster. It also helps keep moisture of the joinery.

This was a great small project, and not at all difficult. I may try another one with more complex inlay and simpler wood grain next time.

More to follow. Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

February 2014

 

 

The Mystery Project: The Great Unveiling

I had hoped to blog more thoroughly on the construction, but it wasn’t to be. Work, travel, a minor injury, the holidays, and flu season all conspired against me. I was able to take some construction photos and I’ll attempt to work backwards as I can.

This started out as the ‘mystery’ project when a friend looked at the casework and said, “That can’t possibly be a jewelry cabinet. It’s enormous.”

Well, my wife-unit (Cathrine) seems to accumulate a lot of jewelry. She wound up with necklaces and bracelets stored in their original boxes, stuffed into drawers, and two or three smaller jewelry boxes which contained different pieces. It turned into a jumble of frustration. I decided to end it once and for all with a single wall-mounted cabinet, with room for everything and some room to grow. And yes, it’s big.

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Casework:

The cabinet is 28″ x 40″ x 5″.  The casework is walnut, with the two maple panels overlaid across the doors. After debating what to do with the two pieces of maple with their amazing ‘keyholes’, I decided to use them as an overlay for darker wood, and let the walnut show through the openings.  The hinges are european-style Blum 110° soft-closing hinges. All the internal hardware was originally brushed satin, but a couple of spray coats of Behlen dark walnut toner brought them to the bronzed color I wanted.  The project was a combination of machine and hand work – most of the long cuts (and thicknessing) were by machine; all the joinery is hand work.

Problem #1: One of the doors warped just slightly between construction and completion. Fortunately, the hinge adjustments work extremely well, and allowed me to compensate for it so that it’s *just barely* visible if you look directly at the edge of the door from the side.

The cabinet is hung to the wall with two 24″ french cleats in its inset back – one at the very top, butted against the top of the cabinet; the second about halfway down.  I was slightly more comfortable with the weight distribution, and didn’t want the bottom end of the cabinet to ever pull away from the wall.

Joinery:

The case is dovetailed, with a walnut plywood back inset 1/2″ to make room for the french cleats. I believe my dovetails improved considerably over the course of the work.  My instructor at Woodcraft told me once that he allows 30 minutes per drawer for dovetails when doing time estimates for production. I ain’t that fast, and probably never will be. That’s fine; I’m not trying to run a production shop. I also (obviously) don’t see any need to hide layout lines.  These were actually quick-and-dirty layouts for the dovetails; not neatly measured with calipers.  I actually like the look of the slight irregularities of handwork sometimes. Besides, it was great practice.

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Interior:

The interior of the cabinet is shelving, drawers, racks for earrings and bracelets, and a small lighted inset display cabinet.  The left door has a padded panel for pins and brooches; the right door has the earring racks.

WPCabInt1Earring Racks and Necklace Holders:

The racks are made of 3/4″ x 3/16″ walnut slats, on raised vertical runners. They have notches and holes to hang various types of earrings.  This was easy construction – I cut the slats 2″ longer than required to allow for clamping, and cut the notches on the table saw as a bunch. Then I drilled out the holes, and cut the bundle to length.

Problem 2 (anticipated): I guessed right on this one – I made three extra slats, on the thought that they might have a blowout while cutting. There were actually two – one from cutting the notches, and one split while drilling. It was good to have spares on hand.

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The necklace holders are simple satin-finished pegs (available at Woodcraft or Rockler), treated with Behlen walnut toner. Very easy to install. The downside? They’re *stupidly* expensive – about 8 bucks a pop. But I really didn’t want to use wooden pegs, and scrimping on hardware after this much work makes no sense to me.

The Inset Cabinet
Cathy wanted a place to display her favorite pieces – a flat gold necklace, some rings, and a fine chain pendant. I decided to make an inset cabinet, with interior lighting, customized for these specific items.

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There’s no ‘back’ to the inset cabinet as such; it’s built flush to the back of the cabinet itself. It’s 12″ x 12″, with a piece of reproduction Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass inset in the door (pegged half-lap joinery).  The glass is patterned after a skylight in the Willits House, and available through www.mackintoshdesign.com.

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Inside the inset cabinet, there is a 25° angled panel with two concentric plywood circles, flocked in black, which hold a flat gold necklace and matching bracelet. On the left, two pegs allow display of a very fine jeweled chain pendant. Ring storage is in padded insets in the lower left.  Two motion-sensitive LED lights were installed in the top, and they come on when the door is open and remain glowing about 30 seconds after it’s closed.WPGlass2

The Bracelet Holders:

The two bracelet racks were made by sandwiching some scrap maple and walnut and cutting it into a cylinder.  The cylinder had two offset 1/2″ holes drilled through it, and then was cut lengthwise between the holes. 1/2″ walnut doweling was glued in place in each section, and then each was mounted to the maple bracket that mounts it to the back of the cabinet.WPBra1

Problem 3: Buy a lathe someday <sigh>. Making the cylinder was considerably more difficult than I expected, because I had to work across the grain with a spokeshave to even it up.

The Pin/Brooch Holder:

This one was easy. A simple frame, with a padded inset held in place by at 1/4″ lip, attached low on the left door. Pins and brooches are threaded into the padding.WPBro

The Drawers:

Now, the real fun begins. Instead of installing pulls or leaving finger holes in the fronts to open them, I fronted each drawer with a piece of 1/2″ maple, leaving an angled gap at the bottom. This forms the ‘handle’ of the drawer, and shows some nice visual offset with the darker walnut. The dovetails went pretty well – by the time the fourth drawer was done, my time had dropped dramatically, and my results were more consistent. The drawers are flocked in black on the inside, and become storage for everything from opera glasses to necklaces laid flat in the shallower center drawers.WPDra1

Problem 4: The sides of the drawer were too thick. I really should have made them out of thinner stock, and allowed more space inside each drawer. Also, the maple fronts took up another 1/2″ of depth out of drawers that were only 4″ deep to begin with.  If I were to redesign these, I’d start with thinner stock.

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Finishing:

The interiors got one coat of Watco Danish Oil. The exteriors (and drawer fronts) got two coats of danish oil, one coat of shellac (as a sealant), resanded, then three coats of Deft spray lacquer and some paste wax. I’m pretty monogamous about finishes – I tend to find one I like and stick with it. I’ve had great luck and wearability with this combination.

Conclusions:

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As with all good projects, problems become lessons. This was a great exercise for me in casework, joinery, and design – it’s the first design work I’ve attempted on this scale of complexity.

Between the endless delays, this cabinet took several months to complete. I feel good about the outcome, but it left me with an itch to do a couple of small projects before tackling my next furniture.

Oh, yes: there’s a secret compartment. But no telling, she’d shoot me.

Up next: A miraculous discovery hidden in a piece of wood. Stay tuned.

Ross Henton

February 2014

The Tool Tray Debate, and a Quick Retrofit

Tool tray or not tool tray? That is the question. Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the chisels and squares of outrageous clutter, or to take arms against a sea of disarray, and by opposing, end it?

I hear just as much debate about whether or not to put a tool tray on your bench as I do about the perfect-final-last-word-system for cutting dovetails (pins first, BTW. Don’t ask.).  When I built the Roubo du Garage, I decided against the tool tray – I wanted the flat real estate of the benchtop, didn’t want to change the dimensions to make the bench too wide, and didn’t like the fiddly reversible tool trays in the center of the bench that I’ve seen in some designs.

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BUT… recent work became frustrating. Chisels, squares, marking knives, pencils, mallets. Everything seemed to get in the way at the wrong moment. Taking things out of the cabinet one at a time and trying to put them back to avoid clutter on the bench didn’t work even a little bit.

So, I decided to make a removable tool tray on the left end of the bench. I don’t use a planing stop at the end, I use the inset planing stop (visible in the photos).  For wider pieces, I have a thin stop that clamps into the face vise and works across the bench.  The tray is just scrap plywood, two threaded inserts, and two knurled brass screws.  If I decide I don’t like it, or I need the end of the bench for something, it comes off in a few seconds.

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If I do decide to keep it around, I’ll probably build something more aesthetically pleasing (dovetails, nice joinery, or whatnot). Just because. But for now, I can test the idea and decide which side of the controversy to come down on.

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Today’s music wasn’t… it was an audiobook reading of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”.

Go build something.

Ross Henton

January 2014

A Tacky Solution

One thing that I’m absolutely guaranteed that I will not have when I really need one is a tack cloth.
I needed one today for the Mystery Project (more about that saga later). What I found was a dried-out tack cloth about the consistency of a chunk of cardboard, and about as useful. It wouldn’t even bend, much less collect dust.
But, fortunately, it’s salvageable. A half-teaspoon or so of water and turpentine each, knead it through, and let it sit in a container for a few minutes. Viola. good as new.

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This should not be misconstrued as an endorsement for Talenti Sicilian Pistachio Gelato. But, lord, it could be.

Ross Henton
January 2014

A Simple Test

If you’re filing something (like a piece of hardware, as seen here) and it seems to be taking longer than expected, shift farther down the file.

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Take short strokes as close to the handle as you can work. If it cuts better and faster, the file is worn out and should be replaced.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? So why did I just waste ten minutes, when I should have checked last time I used it? Looks like I’m off to the store.

How (mildly) annoying.

Ross Henton
January 2014

Woodworking and Travel, Part 2

It’s broken my heart the past few months to have so little shop time.  Work-related travel has kept me away from shavings and sawdust – honestly, I recently bought a new set of chisels (Stanley Sweetheart 750s, more about those later), and I really enjoyed the hour I spent sharpening and flattening them. When I really enjoy sharpening, I’ve been out of the shop too long.

But being away has also amazed me sometimes, as I’ve seen (and learned things) from past craftsmen.  For example:

This amazing carved bench – inscription courtesy of Otis Redding – was on display at the Chelsea Flower Show, in London. The work was outstanding; I loved the subtle curves carved into the seat. The closer I looked, the more impressed I was – it was flawless work.

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If you’ve ever wondered whether or not it’s worth that little extra time to put into your joinery, consider this little chaise – it’s Egyptian. 18th dynasty, somewhere between 1550-1186 BC. It’s survived over three thousand years. Honestly, that makes me want to spend a little more practice time with my joinery, and stop patting myself on the back because my mesquite table has survived three whole years so far.

Joinery

One of my favorite pastimes is making my own hand tools.  They’re fun, accurate, made for my hand, and I get far more joy out of using them on other projects than anything I’m likely to ever buy at Woodcraft.  I hope they hold up this well – this ruler (an “angulated rule”) belonged to Tutankhamen’s Minister of Finance.Stop to consider sometime that the work of your hands may outlast a few years in the corner of your house, or a generation in your tool chest. Maybe it’ll face a longer test of time.

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And Now, a Shameless Plug:

I have one other great passion besides woodworking – I’ve been a photographer as long as I could hold a camera. Recently, I’ve gotten more serious about it, and started to make prints available for sale. My work is mostly travel, architectural, and garden photography – the photos on my blog are mostly just iPhone snaps (because it’s handy).

If you’re interested to see some of my other work, it’s viewable at my other website, Art in Transit: http://ross-henton.artistwebsites.com/

Also, on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/ArtInTransit

Please stop by if you have a minute! I’d love to see you there.

Next time: Hopefully, back to the Mystery Project.

Ross Henton

May 2013
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Sometimes, It’s a Mystery

Yes, I’m late. Real Life Stuff has intruded on my shop work, and when it suffers my blog lags further behind with it. But I’m back – at least until next month (shoulder surgery again – which is going to mean more time NOT making stuff).

But this project may hold me for a little while. For once, I’m not going to talk about what it is first; I’m just going to dive in. I’m also going to try to talk about the design more than the technique. Think of it as the Mystery project, and just bear with me.

So, the story goes: I found a piece of maple. Not your ordinary stuff – waterfalls, birdseyes, beautiful figure – and two big comma-shaped holes in it. I put it in the stack, and used to pull it out and stare at it. There was something that was itching to be built, but I couldn’t figure out what. Perhaps I Was Not Worthy of such a piece of wood.

Three years passed. Four. Finally, it hit me. It needed to be two bookmatched panels. This was a wee tiny bit of a problem, because it had some twist – enough that I couldn’t get a clean enough resaw to get full thickness out of it. So I did what I could, and went to see my buddy Mike Fannin. Mike’s an amazing woodworker, and he has (lucky for me) infinite patience AND a thickness sander. There was no way this piece was going through the planer – it would shatter like glass. The grain and figure of the wood was far too wild. Mike helped me get it sanded down to 1/4″ panels – thick enough for what I had in mind.

Next: off to Wood World, who was amazingly enough having a sale on walnut. I bought enough for what I had in mind, and a piece of 1/4″ walnut plywood for the back. That was enough for the casework (or so I thought; silly me). I let it stabilize a couple of weeks, and decided that 48″ x 32″ x 6″ was a good size. (What was I thinking? It’s enormous. The wife-unit looked at it and said “Well, it’s bigger than I imagined. We’ll see.” No kidding. The Grand Canyon was bigger than I imagined, too.)

The casework is dovetailed, and the top and bottom pieces of the frame overhang the sides by 1″ for the doors. The back is the sheet of plywood, and that’s where the first problem started. Layout hit a minor snag. I’m a pins-first guy (don’t start in on me about it). The problem was in transferring the layout from top to sides because of the sheer length of the boards; I couldn’t just balance one on the other and start marking. I used a couple of metal brackets designed for squaring boxes, and clamped them in place while I transferred the markings. One problem (for me) with marking dovetails in darker wood is that you can’t see pencil lines. You can’t even see knife lines well enough to cut accurately. Chalk pencils don’t work; they aren’t fine enough. I think the solution is going to be to install brighter worklights in my shop. Yes, I’m getting older. ;

The dovetails actually went pretty well – I ain’t an expert, but I’m getting better. Dovetails by hand in walnut aren’t the easiest thing I’ve ever attempted; the wood is hard and a little brittle. I had some minor chips (one fixed with a wedge, as you can see), and one assembly crack. But one thing I’ve learned is that dovetails tend to look like crap sometimes about the midpoint; they’re cut okay, they fit okay, but look a little sloppy. That vanishes with some sandpaper, a block plane, and a few drops of oil. I used to be really, really hard on my dovetails. They were imperfect: no matter how I tried, they just didn’t look quite even, quite perfectly machined. Then a teacher of mine at Woodcraft (Howard Hale, great guy, great woodworker) pointed something out to me. “Of course they’re not perfectly even. You want perfectly even, machined dovetails, go to Haverty’s. This is handwork. It’s slightly uneven. That’s why it costs six times as much.”

Cutting the groove to inset the back left square holes from the notch in the tails, but those are easy to plug. I had a couple of chips and one cutting error (yes, I cut on the wrong side of the line, of course I did) that was easily filled with a piece of veneer dipped in glue.

Once the casework was assembled, I started to look at what’s-good vs. what’s bad: the case was square, everything fit well, the joinery was okay – but the groove for the back panel was just slightly too wide, and the back rattled a little bit. Also, I realized that I had a structural problem: due to the sheer size of the case, it was possible that the sides might warp – and there was nothing to stop that from happening. My solution is something of a Grand Experiment: I cut two slats with dovetailed ends and fitted them sidewise into the back of the case, in hopes of holding it more stable. Since the plywood back won’t expand (in theory), I went ahead and glued them to the back. If I were redoing this project, I’d make the back thicker. The whole piece would be quite a bit heavier with a solid back, but it would also be stronger in the long run. We’ll see.

I added a 45-degree cut french cleat to the top of the back, and stopped the last of the bothersome rattle with a strip of veneer glued into the groove. The case seems solid, tight, and it’s still square. So unless it disintegrates over time, I’m satisfied.

The first panels for the doors are glued together (more on that next time). The Mystery Maple is sitting in the corner waiting. I’m on the clock: surgery is December 17th, and this has to be finished by then, or it sits until spring. Big thing, ain’t it. There’s the chance the wife-unit will look at it, declare “It’s too big for the room”, and it will go up for sale. That’s okay; if it does, I’ll make a smaller one and get past the growing pains of the design.

One other note: It’s been hard being in the shop sometimes this year without my Angus. He was the perfect Bench Dog, and I’ll always miss him. But Monty shows great promise: he’s already been promoted to Bench Dog, Junior Grade. Like the project, he’s shaping up just fine.

Stay tuned. Watch this space.

Ross Henton

November 2012