Soiling the Till, Round Pegs, and the World’s Biggest Pencil Sharpener

Till is kind of an interesting word. It isn’t always short for “until”, and it doesn’t always mean turning the soil for planting. It has a third, and very different meaning:

till (noun)
1. a drawer, box, or the like, as in a shop or bank, in which money is kept.
2. a drawer, tray, or the like, as in a cabinet or chest, for keeping valuables.
3. an arrangement of drawers or pigeonholes, as on a desk top.
Origin: 1425–75; late Middle English tylle, noun use of tylle, to draw, Old English –tyllan (in fortyllan, to seduce); akin to Latin dolus, trick, and Greek dólos bait (for fish), any cunning contrivance.

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I love my tool cabinet, even if it’s just a simple box with holders. It has a huge amount of space and saves me a world of frustration. But ny collection of saws has grown to include several detail saws (coping, gent’s, flush-cutting, and jeweler’s), my bowsaw, a couple of wonderful old Disston panel saws, a Japanese Dozuki saw, and a set of beautiful Lee Valley carcass and dovetail saws. They accumulate like dust bunnies. Fitting some of them (particularly the panel saws) into my tool cabinet was going to mean a lot of rearrangement, so I decided to move them into their own storage and use my tool cabinet for planes, chisels, and the various other tools which also accumulate. (I blame eBay.)

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Antique saw tills could sometimes be extremely ornate. They occasionally had complex moldings, curlicues, detail carvings, Queen Anne legs, and… well, you probably get the idea. Some were just rude boxes with slots. I wanted something that was functional, simple, (roughly) matched my tool cabinet, and could be made with scrap I had on hand. The result was certainly simple: two sides, two back rails, a custom holder for the smaller saws, and a front rail. No bottom; I didn’t want it filling up with dust. No nails or screws – not because I have anything against them, but I had some walnut dowel scrap handy and thought it would be fun. It took a couple of hours to make, a handful of scrap red oak, and was some good hand joinery practice. A couple of coats of Watco golden oak danish oil, two coats of spray shellac, and that was it. Cost = $0.00 USD. It looks new – but I’m looking forward to having it get dusty and scarred with years of use in my shop.

Not all pegged joinery is that simple and painless.

The Roubo-strocity has to be really, really solid. I don’t want any wobble or shifting – that’s why I’m building it in the first place. That means the mortise and tenon joinery should be reinforced with pegs, using an old technique called drawboring.

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The joints in the table are enormous. I drilled the bulk out with a forstner bit in an older Dewalt drill (not my good and nearly-new lithium-ion Dewalt, but an older Dewalt 14v that occasionally wafts smoke from the motor housing). Be warned – drilling this many deep holes with a hand drill can burn it up; it’s better to use a drill press. But in this case, getting the legs up onto the drill press was going to be a bit of a hassle. Also, the mortises in the table top absolutely had to be done on the floor – lifting it to the drill press was an impossibility. I could have chopped everything out by hand, but that’s a lot of work, and my shoulder isn’t up to that yet. A piece of blue painter’s tape around the shaft of the bit let me get the holes to a mostly-uniform depth, and my indispensable Oddjob (in the picture, not the one with the bowler hat from Goldfinger) helped me ensure they were deep enough to accept the tenons.
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Once the bulk was removed, I cleaned up the edges of the mortises with a mallet and chisel, assembled each joint, and drilled the holes for the pegs. draw boring means that the holes in the mortises and tenons were slightly offset – about 3/32″ – so that when the peg is driven in, the joint is pulled together. That means drilling the holes through the mortised piece, assembling the joint, marking the center of the hole on the tenon, disassembling the joint, drilling the offset hole in the tenon, re-assembling it, and driving the pegs in. Yes, it’s a lot of work – but seeing the peg pull the joint together tight was magical. I absolutely love this technique. Joints made this way are extremely strong, and can be assembled without glue. The joinery attaching the top to the base isn’t glued, so if I ever need to break the table down to move it, I can always drill the pegs out, knock it apart, and reattach the top later. Christopher Schwarz wrote the definitive article on the technique, and I highly recommend it.

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Since the drawbored holes don’t line up, the ends of the pegs have to be tapered. I could have whittled them to shape, but these pegs are 3/8″ rived white oak, and it’s tough. The easiest way I found was to sharpen them on my benchtop disc sander. It took about 20 or 30 seconds each – and saved me either cutting myself or having to get a bigger pencil sharpener.

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One thing’s for certain. This bench is going to be solid. I don’t think anybody’s going to walk off with it if I leave the garage door open.

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The astute among you will probably have noticed the slot cut in the lower leg in the detail photo (above). In case you’re wondering, that’s to accept part of the vise hardware. Which brings me to the next couple of topics: flattening the top, and installing the vises – a Benchcrafted leg vise, and a Veritas sliding tail vise.

More to come.

Ross Henton

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The Case for Hoarding

I really try not to hoard stuff. Mostly, I manage to dump old clothes, things I’ll never use again, and various other junk. Books are a problem; I go through and cull them a couple of times a year just so they don’t completely take over the house, but I still have a lot. I also keep most of my old woodworking magazines – but I intend to go through those as well soon.

Scrap wood is a different matter. I keep a plastic trash bin in the shop for small cutoffs, and a rolling stand for longer pieces. I have some sections of 4″ PVC made into a ceiling rack for long strips.  The only wood I throw away outright is cutoff pieces that are cross-grain, because they don’t have any dimensional strength.

But there is method to my madness. Scrap wood has a million uses, even little pieces. Veneer strips. Wedges. Support blocks. Little cutout triangles to use as supports while finish is drying. Jigs, fixtures, braces. Practice dovetails. Tool handles. Backer boards to prevent tearout when drilling. Clamping blocks. The list is endless.

After removing the rolling carts under my workbench to make room for the Roubo (upcoming), I’ve started making some small carriers for some of the things I’ll still want to keep handy under the workbench. They have to be short enough to fit under the Roubo on its lower stretchers without getting in the way, but that still leaves a lot of storage room.   And I think all of them can be made from leftover wood from other projects.

The first one is a carrier for my air tools – a Porter-Cable brad nailer, and a Grex 23-gauge pin nailer. It also holds all the assorted brads and pins, the air hose, and a bottle of oil.  Time required: 45 minutes. Supplies needed: scrap plywood, scrap dowel, two little wedges for the dowel, a handful of brads, two bolts, two nuts, four washers, glue, and a wipedown with Watco Golden Oak Danish Oil, just so it matches the color of my tool cabinet. Total cost: $0.00.

Did I mention tool handles?  For the Roubo workbench, I’m going to be using a technique called drawboring – the drawing together of a joint using a metal pin to pull it tight, then inserting a dowel to hold it. Christopher Schwarz (author of Workbenches from Design & Theory to Construction & Use) recommends this very old technique highly, and I intend to try it.

Drawboring pins are expensive – stupidly so, in my opinion. We’re talking about a tapered metal pin a few inches long in a wooden handle. Commercial ones seem to run $75-$100.   Chris Schwarz wrote this excellent article about making your own from a set of $6 alignment pins from Sears.  His instructions are nearly flawless, and the first pin I made was a great use for a beautiful scrap piece of walnut burl I’ve been hanging onto for a couple of years.

I said “nearly”, but that’s unfair.  I did hit a problem or two, but they were not the fault of his instructions.  He recommends heating the pin for about two minutes with a propane torch.  All I had handy was a MAPP gas torch, and I overheated the pin – which created a huge cloud of smoke, and I thought it might set fire to the handle when I seated it.

The other problem was that my first attempt was made using a glued-up block of curly maple – and when I whacked the pin into place, it split along the glue line. That never happens to me. This was the first time I’ve ever had a glue joint split; the wood around it always splits first. My theory is that the heat of the pin softened the glue (Titebond yellow) enough that it caused the joint to fail. My second attempt was using a solid piece of walnut burl, and I didn’t heat the pin as much… and it worked extremely well. Materials: one piece of scrap wood, a set of alignment pins from Sears. Cost: $5.95 (plus postage). And I’ll get a much bigger kick out of using this one than one I’d shelled out the money for.

Think before throwing away even small pieces of wood. I fight for every square foot of space in my shop, but I always have room for wood.