Monday, September 1, 2014

Make a Chopping Block for Green Woodworking

If you want to get started in woodworking on the lowest possible budget, I recommend what's called “green woodworking” or sometimes “greenwoodworking”. I've talked a little about this already, in this entry about the chairmaking class I took at Country Workshops last summer, and this entry about gathering some ash for my next chair.

One thing you will find handy if you want to start carving spoons and/or bowls from green wood is a chopping block, so you'll have a stable surface for shaping with an axe.
This surface should also be safe for sharp tools and a good height that allows you to work without bending over and hurting your back, or reaching too far upwards and losing some strength and accuracy. Ideally, you would get a tree stump about 24 inches in diameter and tall enough to end just below your hips. I used to have such a stump and found it wonderful to use, but impossible to move around safely.

This spring I took a second class at Country Workshops, a weekend seminar on carving spoons, and we used some nice portable chopping blocks that Drew and his crew had made with short lengths of oak logs and three sturdy legs. The blocks were light enough to move around, and strong enough to take the doughty blows we dealt as we split birch spoon blanks with a froe and club. So I went on the lookout for a workable piece of wood for a block.

In July, I got my chance, when a tree service came to my son's rented house to take out a silver maple that threatened to fall on the house. The main trunk was hollow (thus the danger), but two of the stems above the first split were sound, so I came over and nabbed a firewood-length section about 20 inches across - - perfect for my purposes. Today I made it into a chopping block, and I'm happy with what I got, so I'll share it with you. None of any of this is necessarily orthodox, correct, polite or proper, so adapt your own process to suit your needs and the materials and tools you have at hand.

From a long-ago project, I have this Veritas round tenon cutter. It makes a 1” round tenon in stock of various shapes and sizes. You can see that my legs are VERY ROUGH octagons - - they are white oak, which I scavenged when a big tree came down on my son's high school campus this spring. The wood is from a branch and I'm here to tell you, don't take branch wood and expect to rive it cleanly. White oak trunks split beautifully, but branch wood is reaction wood, so learn from my mistake and don't go there. Believe me, if I had known ahead of time how long and hard I'd have to work to get those three legs, that white oak would have gone in the firewood box.

The round tenon cutter works fairly well, though you have to pay good attention to having the drill or brace well-centered on the long axis of the workpiece and the level (there's a built-in spirit level in the cutter). You can see the cool helical shavings the tenon cutter makes.

Three finished legs. 

Boring holes in the stump for the legs. I laid out a circle, divided it roughly into thirds, eyeballed an angle I thought looked good (it turned out to be 12 degrees), then got the drill roughly parallel to the 12 degree sliding bevel and also coplanar with the radial layout line, and drilled as deeply as my cheap spade bit would take me. Drilling deep in wet (and somewhat spalted) silver maple end grain turns out to be really easy.

Another view. That jagged line running from the left edge, under the end of the sliding bevel and almost to the drill bit is not a crack, but a step where the chainsaw operator stopped cutting and attacked from the other side of the log, probably underbucking to avoid pinching the bar. On the other hand, the nearly vertical dark line is a check that will grow larger as the wood dries, unless we do something.

Now the legs have been inserted in their holes (I used a mallet but they went in fairly easily) and the block is rightside-up on my bench top. I'm using my handy-dandy 1-2-3 block scriber to mark the legs so they can lie flat on the floor.

Cut along the pencil lines, and you'll have a nice stable block.

Quick test drive. I'm pleased. Note that I'm not hunched over, so I'll be able to do the rough shaping of spoons without killing my back. I hope to have some happy hours at this block. Carving with an axe and knives, for me, is one of those wonderful activities that lets me zone out and forget all else, as I watch the wood and the shapes emerging from it.

What about that crack? Since we're talking about a piece of wood with the pith trapped, cracking is inevitable.

So I'll try to minimize it by doing this with epoxy now, and perhaps a few more times as the wood dries. Even if I end up with a block held together with epoxy, it will remain more than sturdy enough for making spoons. (It doesn't show well in the photo, but there is plenty of newspaper under the block, in case the epoxy runs all the way down before it dries!)

Since this tree was cut down in summertime, when the sap was flowing, I expect the bark will come off gradually over time. No biggie!

So, I have a chopping block. The cost was time, the gas to haul the FREE WOOD, some wear and tear on my tools, and half a jug of epoxy that needed to get used up before it spoiled. Not bad!

See you next time.

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