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

Wicked Cool… and How Knot to Make Vise Handles

I read several woodworking magazines. Shop Notes gets browsed and filed, Woodsmith gets read in more detail, Popular Woodworking I read almost cover-to-cover, Wood magazine gets read (mostly), Fine Woodworking I pick up off the newsstand occasionally. The late, (and by me) lamented Woodworking – the finest of them all- gets read again and again and again, and resides in its entirety on my iPad. I look at projects that might be interesting, read the technique articles and tool reviews, and usually extract some things worth keeping. The downside of this armchair-woodworking is that I occasionally find something that is way too cool to not build as soon as I have a chance, no matter what other projects I’m behind on.

A good example of this was something I stumbled on in a back issue of Popular Woodworking (October 2005).  An article by Samuel Peterson called Build an Oil Wicke.  Drop-everything-and-go-build.

If you’ve used hand planes for any length of time, you’ve probably discovered that it helps a great deal if you keep the sole of the plane slightly lubricated.  Some people keep an oily rag handy. I’ve seen some woodworkers with a block of paraffin wax that they swipe over the sole of the plane occasionally.  An oil wicke (or plane wicke) is a beautifully archaic tool – a can or box with a rag soaked in oil.  Before planing and every few strokes, you pull the plane backwards across the rag, and it lightly oils the surface.  It helps prevent chatter, lessens the friction in planing, and helps get you through abrupt ‘catching’ in hard woods.

The article recommended using a tin can inset in a block of wood – and the author had a very cool old Kayes oil can he used, with a removable lid.  I couldn’t find anything but a tuna fish can.  That was out.  Then I remembered a post on The Art of Manliness (one of my favorite blogs), called 22 Manly Ways to Reuse an Altoids Tin. I had one handy (Ginger, of course), and decided it would be perfect for #23.

I had a pretty hefty rectangular scrap of mesquite in the bin left over from the Roubo du Garage. That was ideal, because I wanted the wicke to be heavy enough that it wouldn’t try to slide around the bench in use.  I sawed the top third off the block, and routed out the openings to hold the two pieces, leaving the bottom of the tin protruding about 1/8″ above the block.  (No, I didn’t route out the recesses by hand, and if you’ve ever worked in mesquite, you know why.)  I glued the two pieces in with epoxy, and when finished setting, the lid snaps into place pretty tightly.  I cut the beveled sides of the box, and shaped it with a smoothing plane and the belt sander.  The handle is a piece of scrap left over from the recent picture frame (wine stoppers, box handles, and I’ve still got a couple of feet left over. Who knows?). One coat of danish oil, and a pass through the Beall Wood Buffer.

The article recommended using raw linseed oil (not boiled; it’s a combustion risk) or mineral oil. I have a bottle of camellia oil I use to help prevent rust, and decided to try that.  Not only does it work, it works so beautifully that I had to be careful to hang on to the plane.  One swipe backwards, ten strokes, swipe again.  I’m completely converted, and the wicke looks good enough that I can put it in my tool cabinet without wincing whenever I see it.

Since that went so smoothly (sorry), I decided to piddle around on another shop project I’ve been putting off. One of the problems with woodworking is that it’s self-perpetuating – I tend to spend as much time on small projects for the shop as I do actually making other stuff. 

The handle for my Veritas sliding tail vise is either soft maple or poplar or some other innocuous white wood, and I decided that I wanted to replace it with a mesquite handle to match the other mesquite vise hardware on the Roubo.  Mesquite doweling isn’t exactly available at Lowe’s (surprise, surprise).

I grabbed another scrap of mesquite, milled it square, and clamped it in the vise.  A few minutes with a plane (sliding gracefully thanks to the oil wicke) and a spokeshave, and I had a dowel – even round enough to pass the “roll across the workbench” test.  Beautiful grain; it had a large knot in the middle, as mesquite so often does.  I polished it, screwed the ends back on, and the vise handle no longer glared at me in shining white.

I clamped up a scrap of wood, racked the vise shut, tightened it… and BAM.  The handle shattered across the knot.  D’oh.  What was I thinking? Vise handles take a lot of stress.  Stick to straight grain. <sigh> 

From tree to cutoff to vise handle to firewood.  What a journey for that little piece of mesquite. Meanwhile, it was good practice in planing dowels.

Ross Henton