Sunday, December 9, 2012

Surfacing Big Boards without a Big Jointer

How do I surface a big board if I don't have a jointer? In this post, I'm going to show you one way to do it. There are many ways to skin this particular cat, but this way works, and the basic principles apply in lots of situations.

Getting some big boards surfaced is the first step in a project that will stretch out across several blog posts:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Power Cord Replacement

In an earlier post, I pointed out that I needed to replace the power cord on my drill, which is a Milwaukee 3/8” “Hole Shooter” about 10 years old. I don't know if there's something special about the air here in Atlanta, but the outer insulation on power cables seems to degrade faster here than anywhere else I've lived. When you see that the outer layer of a power cord is cracking, it's time to replace it. No ifs, ands, or buts. Don't wait until the drill (router, sander, whatever) stops working - - - by that time it may start shorting out and tripping breakers, or in a really bad case, give you a nasty shock.

This is good advice for all woodworkers, but especially for those of us trying to equip a shop on a shoestring. If you hunt for tools at estate sales or pawn shops, you may come up with some real gems at bargain prices - - if you can settle for an “as is” deal. The power cord is definitely something to inspect before you fire up a used power tool for the first time. In fact, if you're the type who likes to negotiate the purchase price, pointing out frayed insulation and saying you'll have to replace the power cord might help you find out how low the seller's willing to go.

Whether it's a vintage jewel/old beater you've just purchased, or a tool you've had for years, when you look down and see this,

then it's time to install a new power cord.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


It's Thanksgiving weekend. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday; I have developed some pleasant rituals for myself and enjoy cooking a big, delicious meal for my family. This autumn, I have been thinking about Everyman (the play they make all the English majors read during the first semester survey of British lit) and, one thing leading to another, my Thanksgiving ruminations focused on memory.

(So far this isn't about woodworking. I know. Please bear with me.)

How did Everyman lead me to think about memory? The play teaches an important lesson that I wasn't ready to receive as a 21-year-old: everything we have will be stripped away eventually. Money, friends, family, health - - Everyman relies on each to pull him through his existential crisis, and none of them do the trick. (If you've read the play recently, you probably realize I haven't read the play in a long, long time. This digression is all about my memory of my reaction when I read it 26 years ago in Craig Kallendorf's class.) In the 1980's, in the United States, the average 21-year-old white male was still in a phase of life that involved far more gain than loss: I was still gaining new experience, knowledge, and skills so that I could “begin” my career. Being told by a medieval morality play that everything I was working towards would be taken away from me was not a welcome message at all! My strong denial stuck with me, for some reason, and I found that as I lived my way through my twenties and thirties and forties, I gradually came to understand and accept the wisdom of Everyman. Seeing the slow physical deterioration and death of loved ones; gaining and losing some truly wonderful friends through career moves and misunderstandings and missed connections; witnessing unexpected losses of life and property among my peers; getting and losing jobs and houses and money as time and chance happened to them all: these taught me that yes, Everyman was right. It's all temporary.

(Still no woodworking! But just another paragraph or two, I promise.)

Memory is something I treasure, now that I have lost some people and places I love. As I cooked Thanksgiving dinner, I thought of all the people I've shared Thanksgiving dinners with. Many of them are no longer in my life. Time and chance does that. As long as I have memories, though . . . but guess what? Memory can be stripped away too. Alzheimer's is in my family, so there's a chance I'll lose my cherished memories. And even if I don't, remember Roy Batty's dying monologue in Blade Runner? “All those moments will be lost in time . . .” So this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for memory.

However, loss of memory has at least two sides. Early this month I was in Wisconsin, in the patch of woods I own. I knew that I had carefully stacked and covered some walnut boards there, about 15 years ago when I still lived in Iowa and had just bought the place in Wisconsin. A friend in Iowa gave me a small walnut log, which I split into quarters and then cut into quartersawn boards on a bandsaw. Every once in a while through the years, I have passed the covered stack in the woods and thought to myself I ought to bring the lumber home and use it. This fall I took action. And what a treat! The stack was in very good shape. I had covered it with pieces of steel roofing to shed water, and I think the fact that the cover overlapped the pile by quite a bit was what saved it.

The wood in the stack was all in good shape! Let's hear it for well-made piles!

And then I found the gift that I had given myself: inside the pile, a couple of pieces of crabapple. 

They aren't big, they aren't the best quality, but I had assumed that all the crabapple I bandsawed back in Iowa had been lost or burned. Apple is one of my very favorite woods. Hard, heavy, fine-grained, and with a glorious color that just keeps on improving with age, like cherry's older, more sophisticated sister. Finding these pieces of wood, probably only big enough to make a couple of tool handles or drawer pulls, was like a small gift I had given myself thanks to forgetfulness. This Thanksgiving, I'm thankful for forgetfulness.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dovetails by Hand

This blog is supposed to be about “woodworking on a less than infinite budget,” but so far I've been neglecting what I think is the real heart of frugal woodworking: using hand tools. In fact, I would guess that the most lavish thousand-dollar shop possible would be an all hand tool shop equipped with used (and some vintage) gear. 

I was thinking about this last Saturday as I taught my hand-cut dovetails class at Highland Woodworking. You don't need much gear to cut dovetails, and the difference between mediocre and Krenov-quality dovetails has far more to do with technique and practice than equipment. What do you need to cut dovetails? Some marking tools, a saw, a hammer and a couple of chisels. Throw in a way to hold the work still and a place with decent light to work in, and you're all set. Even if you think you'll do most of your woodworking with power tools, you need all those anyway, with the possible exception of the dovetail saw.

Sharp saw, sharp chisels, sharp eye, and practice: these are what it takes. How do you practice? Mark a knife line, split it with the saw, and remove the waste. That's all of woodworking in a nutshell, isn't it? Mark a knife line, split the knife line, remove the waste.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Lights! Camera!

For several years I had two borrowed photographic light stands in my shop. I used them for taking photos, holding up backdrops, and sometimes as task lighting for things like sanding or finishing where a raking light at just the right angle is necessary for the best results. Then last month I had to return the borrowed stands, and realized I didn't want to shell out the money for this. Which is just for the stand, mind you, not this too.

So, until I can afford to splurge on that kind of gear, I decided to jury rig something out of stuff I had on hand. My “jury rigs” have a way of lasting for years, so whatever I made needed to be fairly durable and it had to work well. With a bit of head scratching and a couple of false starts, I came up with this, which I'm pretty pleased with:

Keep reading to see about the process of building it. If you don't want to click through and read, here's one key nugget of information buried back in there: the screw on a standard tripod head, and the corresponding threaded hole on the bottom of your camera, is just plain old 1/4-20. (At least, here in the U.S. I can't speak for Europe or Asia)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Sharpening with Sandpaper

I have said elsewhere that sharpening on sandpaper is the cheapest way to start sharpening, and the most expensive way to continue. That's because you can scrounge up what you need to make a razor-sharp edge on a chisel or plane iron for well under $20. But then the sandpaper wears out pretty quickly, and it retails for around a dollar a sheet. Even if you find it for 50 cents a sheet in bulk, compare that to a $30 water stone that lasts for a couple of decades, and you'll see what I'm saying.

So why bother? Like I said, it's the cheapest way to get going, and you can spend just a little bit to get sharp tools for your first few projects, and then invest in more permanent equipment later on. The cheap honing guide I recommend for beginners will work on water stones or diamond plates as well. And even though I own a set of great water stones, I still use sandpaper when I'm out on an installation and don't want the mess, or the risk of theft or breakage, that go along with using water stones outside my own shop. And wet or dry sandpaper is good for flattening water stones. So when you get additional sharpening gear later on, you don't have to fret about wasting money on sandpaper sharpening.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sharpening: Extra Coarse

I learned this trick from Mark Duginske a couple of years ago: drywall mesh is great for flattening plane soles. It's also great for flattening water stones. So I wondered to myself: would it also be good as the very coarsest sandpaper in the “Scary Sharp” method? Turns out the answer is “kinda, sorta.”

I'll backtrack a little in case any of this is new to you. Here's a picture of drywall mesh:

You can find it in the big box home stores in the same area as the drywall tools, tape, and joint compound. It is coarse, and the mesh structure lets sanding dust (or iron filings) fall through so the mesh can keep cutting. In drywalling, it's used after you've taped and mudded, to quickly get the surface ready for paint. As you can see from the photo, it's die cut into a tabbed shape to fit a special holder with a handle.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

35mm hinge boring jig . . . without a drill press

The easiest way to bore holes for 35mm hinges (a/k/a cup hinges, concealed hinges, or Euro hinges) is with a drill press, and one of my other posts shows a great drill press jig for making sure all your hinges are in consistent locations. A drill press is great to have, and I think it's one of the first machines you should get, BUT it might not be something you buy with the first $1,000 you spend on woodworking equipment. Most of us will want a tablesaw or bandsaw, a router, and perhaps a planer first. 

The 35mm hinge is the standard for kitchen cabinets because it's affordable, it's durable (if you buy a good brand), and most of all, it's adjustable, so that when you put the door in place and it's not quite parallel with its opening, or a bit higher than it's supposed to be, you can adjust it with the turn of a couple of screws, while the door remains in place.

The hinge fits into a hole of 35mm (1-3/8") diameter about 12mm (1/2") deep, bored in the stile of the door. The hole is best bored with a "forstner" bit, or other bit that leaves a flat-bottomed hole, since you don't want the pilot of a spade bit or auger bit to poke through the face side of the door. And forstner bits are notoriously tricky to use with a handheld drill, especially in larger diameters, because of their extremely short pilots - - the very feature that makes them good for this job. So what to do, short of going out and buying a drill press?

Give this jig, or one like it, a try. It's simply a good, thick slab of flat material with a 35mm hole bored in it.* Actually, the hole in this one is 1-3/8", but that's close enough for Euro hinges, just a hair loose but it works fine.

If you're going to use it with a handheld drill, the jig needs to be at least as thick as the body of your forstner bit, plus the pilot, so probably around 3/4" thick. If you're going to use it with your router and a pattern cutting bit, the thickness needs to be enough to let the bit spin freely while the bearing is low enough to follow the edge of the hole. So if the cutting length of the bit you're using is 1", you should use a jig around 1-1/4" thick. The one in the photos is 1-1/2" thick, which is a bit too thick for the bit I used, as you'll see.

Position the hole so that it's around an inch in from the long edge of the jig. That will leave room for a fence, which will determine the distance between the edge of your door stile and the hinge hole. This distance is critical for determining how much your door overlays its opening. In the next photo you can see the fence, which is made of nice straight wood that's thinner than any door I'll ever bore with this jig:

The fence is positioned to put the edge of the hinge hole about 3mm in from the edge of the door stile. This distance works great for the hinge I use most often, Blum's Clip-Top 120.

Using the jig is simple: clamp it down where you want your hole, carefully put the drill bit into the hole, spin it up to full speed before it hits wood, and drill until you're deep enough. The sides of the hole in the jig keep the bit square enough to the stile for your purposes.

(Safety notes: you see those safety glasses on the bench? Those are extras. I was wearing mine but you can't see them in the picture. For real! Safety glasses aren't optional when you're drilling a big hole. Also, you nitpickers have already noticed I need to replace the power cord on this drill. This is a 5-minute job and will be the subject of a subsequent post, because most power tools need a new cord every few years.)

Here's the resulting hole:

You can also use this jig with a plunge router and a pattern following (bearing above cutter) bit:

Notice that the jig is thick enough for the bit to spin freely (not cutting wood) while the bearing is low enough to be guided by the jig. This is important. On the other hand, with this bit I think a thickness of 1-1/4" instead of 1-1/2" would work better.

And here you see why: notice how the columns are bottomed out? I could barely plunge a hole deep enough for the hinge without starting to rub the bottom of the collet on the jig.

Using this jig with the plunge router is easy. Clamp jig to workpiece at a comfortable height, plunge bit to within 1/8" of workpiece surface, turn on motor, and rout around and around the hole while gradually plunging to the full depth of your hole. Most pattern bits aren't designed to plunge straight down to full depth, so you have to keep moving the router and let the side of the bit do the cutting instead of the end.

Routed hole on the left, drilled hole on the right. The routed one is slightly cleaner and doesn't have the dimple in the middle from the drill pilot - - but all this is covered up once the hinge is installed. The router takes about the same amount of time as the drill, but throws the dust around more violently (and grinds it finer). 

*I hear the objection: how can I make this jig if I don't have a drill press? I have several suggestions.
1) make friends with someone who has a drill press, and show up at their house with your prepared jig stock, the 35mm bit you'll use to bore your doors, and an appropriate gift.
2) buy this jig from me. Oops, sorry, my son asked if he could have it. I'm not sure why. 
3) pay me to make a new jig. Oh, did I just say that? I guess I could. I'm kind of busy, though.
4) make your jig out of mdf, like I did. It cuts like cheese. Try your hand at using the forstner bit freehand. Your first try won't go well. Your second try might go better. Once you finally get a sort of clean hole (typically, they have messy beginnings and neat endings, the opposite of love affairs), use your best hole as a jig for making a better hole. Use that hole as the jig for making this jig.
5) buy a 1-3/8" spade bit, a good one with spurs on the edges, and use that to make the jig.
6) buy a 1-3/8" hole saw, and use that to make the jig. (Note: I don't know if this will work. Just an idea. The resulting hole might be way too big!)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Drawer Pulls

As I draw near to completing this little storage cabinet for my shop, I'm taking care of details. This weekend I realized that I'm about ready to install the drawer faces, but didn't have pulls yet.

I've used a version of these pulls on other furniture built for myself, and find them quite practical. They're easy to grip, they're friendly to the hands, they don't stick out enough to hurt you as you walk by. And they're free! I won't go into lots of details here, just show you some photos of making them.

They're made from white oak that's 5/8” thick and 2-1/2” wide. I think if I were doing these over again, I'd go for 1/2” thick stock, but I had a bunch of 5/8” left over from making drawers and it was on top of the pile.
Hard to tell in this photo, but I'm using a following block to make it easier to hold the pull blank square to the fence.

Rounding over with a 1/16 radius makes them friendly to the hand and resistant to splintering. I shouldn't have done the rear of the pull, where it will be inside the mortise in the drawer front, because now there's a tiny gap to amuse the nitpickers.

Hopefully when I install, I'll keep the end grain lined up consistently from piece to piece.

The mortise in the drawer face is cut almost completely by hand, then finished with the router and a pattern bit.

At the end, you see them mocked up on the walnut drawer faces they'll be glued and/or screwed to when installed for good. I'm not sure about the white oak/walnut contrast, though I don't think it will look bad when the finish goes on. My approach in making these shop cabinets has been to use whatever material I have on hand as often as possible. This year, that has meant white oak, walnut, and wormy maple, with birch countertops. Next year it will probably mean thick, bluestained pine.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Mounting Euro Hinges: a no-dollar drill press jig

Cup hinges, 35mm hinges, Euro hinges, concealed hinges, whatever you call them they sure make door installation easier. Compared to anything else, getting all the doors to line up parallel with each other is far easier with a cup hinge!

Here's a quick tip on how to bore the holes consistently, door to door, so that when you go to install you can slap on the baseplate, drive the screws, and pop on the door.

You'll notice I use a drill press. Perhaps a drill press wasn't in your $1,000 budget? I think it should be something you consider having when you start out, and if you find that woodworking is for you and you'll do it forever, definitely get a drill press. Even a benchtop model, if it's half decent, will be useful to you in many, many ways.

If you don't have a drill press, you could just as easily make yourself a similar jig for spacing the hinges in from the end of the door, and bore the hole with a handheld drill (or better yet, the router with a pattern bit!).

The first thing to determine is the distance from the edge of the door to the edge of your hole. Varying this will vary the amount of overlay your doors have when you're done. Please, as always, at least glance at the spec sheet for your hinges, and then test out the idea on scraps before you commit to hole placement on those doors you've lavished with so much hard work!

On this drill press table, the flip-stops on the fence are meant to be the same distance from the center of the bit, so that the holes at the ends of the doors are symmetrically placed. If you have more than 2 hinges per door, vertical placement of the other holes is not critical and doesn't need to be consistent, as long as you don't put a hinge right where a shelf has to be. During installation, just install the two end hinges, then clip the baseplate to the other hinges, close the hinges, and screw the baseplates to the face frame wherever they fall. Automatic fit.

I'm going to let the pictures do the talking for the rest of this entry.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Drawer Slide Installation

I spent the weekend chauffeuring my 14-year-old to anime conventions, haircuts, pet shops, etc. In between chauffeur runs I worked on installing drawers in my shop cabinets. And I used this "jig" to do it.

The first time you mount a drawer on metal slides (a.k.a. runners), and see the intricate way the slides have been manufactured, and all the tiny little numbers on the specification sheet (some of them in millimeters with Euro hardware), you might think you need to buy a $30 jig that helps you drill the screw holes in the right places.

That jig might work just fine, and people I deeply respect say good things about the Rockler jigs for installing hardware, but I'd rather save my $30 for something else, and save the space that jig would take up in my very small shop.

What's the alternative? I show one possibility here: a piece of sheet material from the scrap bin. As long as it's wide enough to support the drawer slide, and its two sides are parallel so the slide will end up level inside the cabinet, it can work as a fine drawer slide installation jig:

As you see, I simply lay the slide down on the top edge of the jig, position the front edge of the slide 5/32” back from the front edge of the cabinet using my adjustable square, and drive some screws. 

Move the jig to the other side (it's double sided! ambidextrous! unhanded!) and install the other slide, which automagically ends up at exactly the same height! There you go: your drawer will be perfectly level inside the cabinet.

What if I don't know how tall to make the jig?
I was hoping you'd ask that. Use this as a chance to learn: make the jig close to what you think is the right height, install the slide and drawer, and see where the drawer is compared to where you want it. If it's 7/16” higher than you want it, make the jig 7/16” shorter and reinstall the slide. Chances are the screw holes from your first try will be covered. If they aren't, and somebody actually sees these screw holes, and then cares enough to ask about them, just roll your eyes, sigh, and ask "What's your problem with green woodworking?"

What if the jig is too short?
Say it's 2” too short. Find a long scrap 2" wide, and put that under the jig.

What about the next drawer?
Cut the jig shorter, and use it again.

What if I'm building face-frame cabinets?
Use a jig like this to install the blocking you use for installing the slides. You know, the blocking that kicks the drawer slide out from the cabinet side so it's flush with the inside edge of the face frame. Then use the jig (or one like it) to install the slides.

No more questions tonight. Well, maybe just one.

I really love this idea, and I want to beat it to death. How can I go about doing that?
Let's say you have a run of cabinets which have several drawers in each cabinet, all at the same heights. Make yourself a set of these jigs that stack together. Number them 1, 2, 3, 4 so that you always put them in the cabinet in the same order. Stack them all up, screw on a drawer slide, take off the top layer, screw on another slide, take off the next layer, etc. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

File Tip for Screw Tips

If you've used pocket screws for very long at all, you've probably run into this problem once or twice: the screw pokes out the other side of the workpiece you're fastening to. Most times this problem is felt before it's seen: you're moving an assembled case down from your bench, one hand slides along the corner and OUCH!!!! you've torn a chunk out of your hide. Hopefully you haven't left a bloodstain where it will show.

I was going to say the three main causes of this problem are 1) a void under the screwhead which lets the workpiece you've bored collapse as you drive the screw, 2) inadvertently boring a little too deeply, and 3) setting the clutch on your drill/driver for too much torque, so the drill keeps driving the screw even after it's reached the bottom of the pocket.

I'm not so sure about reason number 3, but after today I'm adding reason 4 to the list: workpiece thinner than specs! I was getting ready to install drawers in this case, and just to double check my calculations I measured the height inside the case. It was a bit over 1/8” taller than it should be, meaning that the plywood top and bottom were a hair over 1/16” thinner than the nominal 3/4”. We're used to seeing hardwood ply 23/32 instead of a full ¾, or 24/32, thick. This ply is 21/32! I would have been much better off setting my boring depth for a 5/8” workpiece rather than 3/4”, which is my habit when I'm building cabinets. It may be time to change that habit.

So how to save the situation? Something I have tried that doesn't work is just sanding it down with my random orbit sander. Trust me, don't do it. The replacement backing pad for my old Makita sander was $15. One choice would be, take the cabinet apart, bore new shallower pocket holes, and reassemble the cabinet. Another would be to remove the offending screw from its hole, use wirecutters or a grinder to make it a little shorter, redrive the screw, and fill the hole if it shows. I think this is the way to go if the screw has poked out through a surface that will show in the finished product. Here, though, the screw poked out a cabinet side which will be hidden when the cabinet takes its place in the middle of a run, so I took a quicker approach: I filed it down.

Use a big, flat file. I used a 12” mill file for this job. Hold the tip of the file flat on the surface you're flushing the screw tip to as you file. Note the tape wrapped around the tip of the file. This is the key to this trick. The tape stops you from scratching the cabinet side with the end of the file (which usually has a pretty big burr), and it stops you from filing down the whole side of the case when the screw is flush. Also note that I've added a wooden handle to the file's tang. You can buy these handles, or you can make your own with scraps, which is what I do. Just shape a scrap of solid wood so it's comfortable to hold, drill a hole that's a snug fit for the tang, and pop it on with a few hammer taps. The palms of your hands will thank you.

Pocket screws are hardened, but they're still just a tad softer than the file. It makes a terrible shriek for the first couple of strokes, but after that it's not so bad. Every couple of strokes, clear away the iron filings so you don't smash them into the wood where they'll give you trouble later.

 In the final picture, you can see a silver dot, which is the newly flattened end of the screw. It's flush with the side, and will be hidden against the side of the next cabinet over once I install these. There's a small possibility that if I use a water based finish on the cabinets, it could cause a rust stain, but I'm not worried because I'll be sealing these with shellac before the acrylic goes on, and again, it will be out of sight once installed.