The Two Sisters

I took the plunge, rented the Lowe’s truck (the Borg shuttle, if you prefer), and bought the wood for the Roubo Monstrosity. About twenty pieces of 2″x10″x8′ southern yellow pine.  Now the north side of my garage shop is a huge pile of lumber on small spacers (called “stickers”) to allow air to flow.  Most of it is between 15 and 20 percent humidity, and will have to equalize with the moisture level of the shop for some time before I can start construction. Probably about three weeks.

Meanwhile, it gives me the chance to finish some storage projects, and make some small stuff.  Little weekend projects are really gratifying.  I can look at the Stickley table with pride, but it also took me about three months to finish.  Boxes (at least simple ones) give me some good instant gratification.

A good friend has two beautiful daughters, and I’ve been promising her that I’d make a couple of jewelry boxes for them.  I wanted to make two boxes that were similar form, but of different woods.  What I decided on was to make a pair of band saw boxes in contrasting woods, and switch the drawers.  Band saw boxes look like they might be really difficult, but the truth is that I find them almost embarrassingly easy.

The pattern I used is from Lois Keener Ventura’s wonderful book Building Beautiful Boxes with Your Band Saw. My technique differs slightly from hers, but the basic construction is the same.

The boxes start as a slab of wood. Not a solid slab, but a glued-up slab of several pieces of 3/4″ stock.  A single block would tend to crack over time. The glued-up slab is easy, and also allows for some design possibilities as the grain of the wood goes back and forth. Get a good spread of glue; you don’t want it to separate later.  I use a glue spreader made out of an old credit card cut along the edges with a pair of the wife-unit’s pinking shears. For this project, one block is cherry, and the other is maple.

The pattern is printed out on paper, and spray-glued to one face of the block.  Patterns for these boxes range from simple to complex.  My favorite ones are usually the simplest ones – I love the organic design of them.  I’ve done several of my own pattern, but I especially like this one.

Once the glue is dry, set the block pattern side up, and cut out the outside shape of the box.  Then set it on its “bottom”, and saw a panel off the “back” (the face opposite the pattern) about 3/8″ thick, and set it aside. Set the block pattern-up again, and cut out the drawer. It will probably require two cuts to do this – stopping the  band saw and backing the blade out of the first cut. Take the drawer piece, saw both faces off at 3/8″, and set them aside. Turn the drawer block on its side, and remove the two parts that will be the inside of the drawers.

This all sounds much more complex to write than it really is.  It took about 15 or 20 minutes to make the cuts for each box.

Sand or scrape the insides of the front and back panels of the frame and the drawers just enough to remove any marks left by the band saw. Then glue the faces on the drawer, and the back on the frame.  Clamp well, and allow to dry for a couple of hours.

This is where my technique differs from Lois Ventura’s: she recommends shaping the edges of the frame and the drawer on a belt sander.  I put a 1/4″ bearing-guided router bit in the router table, and pass the drawer and the frame along the bit to soften the edges instead. I get more consistent results, and I’ve over-sanded accidentally a couple of times and ruined the fit of a drawer that way.  There is one caveat to the router technique: make certain the bearing of the bit is set lower than the thickness of the wood on all the parts you’re working. If the bearing rides over the edge of the wood, it will cut into the edge and completely ruin it.

None of this takes very long – up to this point. Then the sanding starts.

Sand, sand, and sand more. Start about 120 grit, and sand the outer frame of the boxes on a benchtop belt sander. Shank a sanding spindle into a drill, and use it to sand the insides of the box (the inside of the drawers doesn’t matter much, as you’ll see). Sand the edges by hand. Resand the outside by hand. Then move up a grit, and do it all again. Finish at about 220 grit.  It’s great exercise, trust me.

On these two boxes, I did something new (to me). I sank a small steel screw into the back of the drawers, and countersunk a small rare-earth magnet into the back of the box. It’s just strong enough to keep the drawer closed, and I think I’m going to do it on all of these from now on.

The handles are mesquite, and are bandsawn freehand and shaped on a belt sander.  They’re attached to the front of the drawers with super glue. Then I flooded all the parts with a thick coat of danish oil, let it sit a few minutes, and wiped it off.

Making these two boxes took about four or five hours work in construction. Most of that was sanding.  This morning, I polished them on the Beall Wood Buffer – an amazing system; took about 20 minutes for both boxes.

The inside of the drawers is flocking; a sort of powdered felt.  All you have to do is spread glue on the parts you want to line, and dust them heavily with the flocking.  Let it dry overnight, and blow the excess out with some compressed air.  Flocked surfaces need to sit for two or three days for the glue to harden completely, or the flocking will still be soft enough to deform easily by mishandling it.

Making the two boxes at the same time did speed things up, but they’re still not an exacting project.  Single drawer boxes like this are easy one-day projects, and one of my favorite things to do.  There’s a lot of variance to the techniques used. All you really have to have is a band saw, clamps, and the patience to do a lot of sanding.

Next time: More storage, preparations for the workbench, and maybe other small projects.

Visible Means of Support

After a couple of bigger projects, I was itching to do something small and simple.  Just a weekender.  What I decided on was an older idea from Wood Magazine, called a “3-in-1 Work Support”.  It was pretty simple, and could be made from stuff I had on hand – common hardware (knobs, bolts, t-track, a handful of roller bearings), and reclaimed wood.  The plans include three different tops: a roller bearing top, a phenolic plastic glide top, and a small table top.  I only made the roller bearing top for now. I doubt that I’ll ever bother with the little table top, and I need the roller bearing top for outfeed support. I’ll probably make the glide top later.

The wood I had on hand was much softer than the project plans called for.  The plans specified maple, and what I had handy was redwood and poplar.  I really think it will do fine in the long run, but I’m a little concerned about weight. It’s extremely light, and might be subject to getting knocked over.  If that’s the case, I’ll either weight the base or scrap it and rebuild it out of something stronger and heavier.

Using reclaimed wood isn’t just a matter of not being wasteful.  I’ve seen some amazing work done from old reclaimed wood from flooring and doors.  In this case, it was simple economy. This is a work support for the shop, not fine furniture.  So free wood was perfect – build, sand, one coat of lacquer, and viola.

One major safety issue occurs using reclaimed wood.  You do not want to be running something through the table saw and hit a nail.  Seeing sparks being thrown out of your cutline isn’t something you want.  Not only can it damage your expensive blades (chipping teeth and tearing off carbide), but it’s terribly unsafe. It can throw pieces of metal, and cause your work to twist and bind against the blade, often causing kickback.  The best way to avoid surprises like this is to purchase a small hand-held metal detector. They’re inexpensive (about $20), and much cheaper than either a new sawblade or a trip to the ER.

I’ve had exactly one kickback incident. It allowed me to spend a thrilling evening in the  emergency room getting a cut on my thumb glued together.  It happened because I did an unsafe procedure that I should have known better than to attempt.  The saw threw a 5″ piece of oak at me, and it hit the back of my right thumb.  It might have actually broken my thumb; it hurt for almost three months afterwards.

If you’ve never seen kickback, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll have time to react and prevent it.  It’s easy to think that you can stop it as it starts.  It’s so fast that you can’t believe it. I heard a loud Bang, and I realized that my thumb hurt, my workpiece had vanished, and I was dripping blood. I hadn’t had the workpiece properly supported, and I didn’t have a splitter in place. The wood had case-hardened, and closed up on the blade as the cut was made. When it touched the back of the blade, the saw fired it at me like a rifle.

I have a lot of safety equipment, and most of it is specifically for the table saw.  I’ve developed a healthy respect for anything with moving blades, but the table saw concerns me most of all.  Use of a table saw means pushing a piece of wood into a rapidly spinning blade.  If you think about it, that’s intrinsically somewhat dangerous.  Managing the risk is what it’s all about.

I’ve added an aftermarket blade guard (a Shark Guard, from LeeWay Workshop), a lot of different push sticks, jigs, and such, outfeed support rails for my Bosch table saw, and now this roller bearing work support.  It’ll spend it’s life as a humble outfeed support, but if it keeps a workpiece from flipping, or keeps me from overbalancing over the blade trying to keep something stable, it’s more than worth the day it took me to build.

Next time: Starting the Roubo Monstrosity. Stay tuned.

Storage Stuff (continued)

In the process of getting the area under my existing workbench cleared out to make room for the Big Honking Roubo Workbench project, I realized that one thing that had to go was my combination storage cart and downdraft sanding table.  The Roubo has stretchers between the legs, and rollaway carts won’t fit under it. This was a tough decision.  Not because it was irreplaceable, or expensive, or particularly artistic. Just because it was so damn clever. It had two shelves that were storage for various small power tools and jigs, and the top four inches were a downdraft sanding table with a dust collector attachment.

But it had to go.  So before I lost my nerve I pulled the screws, knocked it apart, salvaged what I could of the plywood, and junked the rest.  I bought and assembled another metal tool stand on a rolling base to replace the old wooden cart my jointer was sitting on, and most of the things stored in the sanding cart are now below the jointer – including the bench grinder, dovetail jigs, dial indicator, and circular saw.  Honestly, after the Stickley table, the dovetail jig might just get sold.  The satisfaction I get out of looking at the hand-cut dovetails might just make it obsolete.

The sanding cart also stored various sanding tools – pad sander, orbital sander, belt sander, belts, discs, and so on.  As the new workbench approaches, I’m going to build some portable tool boxes for those that will go back under the workbench, across the stretchers.  More on that later.

I’ll have to make a smaller downdraft sanding table – maybe a portable box, a few inches thick that can be clamped on the workbench.  It’ll work fine, but I’ll miss the old one.  Shop work in a small space like this is all about making tradeoffs.  I trade space for convenience, time moving things around for time working, and extra effort for the freedom to have a workspace like this at all.

And as long as I don’t make tradeoffs that compromise my safety or the quality of my work, that’s okay.

Storage Stuff, and the Massive Workbench Project

The Stickley table project was educational in a way I hadn’t expected.  Although it taught me a lot about dovetails (expected), handling consistent angles (expecting), working with extremely hard, unpredictable wood (expected), it also taught me that my workbench is inadequate to the work I’m doing now (really unexpected).

My existing workbench  is a set of commercial metal legs, bolted to a slab of MDF (medium-density fiberboard) three layers thick. It’s edged with oak, and has a loose, replaceable fiberboard top.  It has a neat old front vise, and an adjustable end stop that actually got printed up in Woodcraft magazine (yes, they paid for the idea, which I really got a huge kick out of).  It’s pretty heavy, strong enough to handle a lot of weight, and has served well for the last few years.  I’ve replaced the fiberboard top a couple of times. I added a clamp-on bench jack to support longer work.

But I’ve outgrown it.  It became really apparent during the Stickley table project, as I was cutting dovetails. The whole bench vibrates and wiggles when lateral stress (like sawing) is put on it.  It doesn’t have enough holes for bench dogs.  I like the front vise, but I really want a long front leg vise, a removable planing stop, and a sliding deadman. But mostly, I don’t want it to wiggle.

I recently read a terrific book: Workbenches, from Design and Theory to Construction and Use, by Christopher Schwarz.  This is a terrific book – it approaches workbench design from the direction of the various kinds of work you’ll be doing, not just as a fixed construction. It principally discusses two different workbench styles: the English workbench and the French “Roubo” workbench.  The English style is beautiful and incredibly tempting, but it would mean making a lot of changes in the way I work, and the way I’m used to clamping workpieces in particular.  I’m afraid I’d be unhappy with it in the long run. And I only have room for one.

The second design is the 18th-century French-style Roubo workbench.  It’s kind of a monster.  Big, incredibly heavy, probably somewhat difficult and labor intensive to make, but I think it’s what I want to work on for the next few years.

It also means that I have to rethink a lot of my shop storage, because I’m not going to be able to roll cabinets under the bench (it has heavy lower stretchers).  Last week, I built a couple of small new cabinets, from an idea in the May 2010 issue of Wood magazine.  The cabinets are fitted to the lower shelf and bottom of the rolling tool stand for my planer.  The cabinets in the article were nicely done rabbeted joinery, but mine are simple pocket-hole joinery, and are actually made of mismatched scrap plywood left over from other projects.  A coat of Golden Oak danish oil evened the color out enough to make them bearable looking.  Honestly, they hold wrenches and odd heavy tools… and I’d rather use my time making furniture than spend more time than is necessary to keep them from being an eyesore.

I’m also going to have to dismantle my combination downdraft sanding table and tool cart <sigh>.  There just isn’t going to be room for it.  The sanders will still go under the workbench in carriers, but the cart just has to go.  I’ll make a smaller downdraft sanding box that can store somewhere later.

While I’m redoing the storage, I’ll go to the local Borg Cube (otherwise known as “Lowe’s”) and buy about 400 pounds of southern yellow pine, so the humidity can start equalizing in the shop. That’s going to take some time – probably about three or four weeks – and will allow me to complete some smaller projects in the meanwhile. I also still have a lot of design decisions to make – like whether or not it will have wheels and how they will work, whether it will have a front leg vise or a twin-screw vise, and so on.  Stay tuned.