Monday, November 28, 2011

How I'd Do It: Mortises

After some initial struggles with getting my video to render, I have conquered my computer demons and I am now prepared to make my monthly entry into the "How I'd Do It Friday" series. The subject this month is the Mortise side of a mortise and tenon joint.

I enjoy shooting the video for this series, it gives me a chance to do something a little different on the blog and it gets me more comfortable with the medium. I think that even after a few sessions at this I may already have enough footage for a blooper reel. Its been a cool excuse to get my daughters involved in my shop, as they help me come up with the quick intros and my oldest daughter Chloe helps out as my camera operator. (I upgraded her to cinematographer this past session and boy did she get bossy after that).

So pop some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy the show, Thanks for watching.

The collection of woodworking bloggers and podcasters who participate in the How I'd Do It Friday joinery smorgasbord are kind of a loosely formed bunch. If we have time, chance, and opportunity we participate, if not, we just let this month pass us by. If you want to participate we are working on this the last Friday of every month, feel free to join us.

So far I think I may just be the lone wolf this month, of course I may be wrong. If you participated in this months show off and I missed you please drop me a line at and I will gladly add a link to this post. I don't think it's too late to join in so anytime.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Filling the Bottom of the Chest

I know tonight should be my mortise entry into the "How I'd Do It Friday" co-op with several others in the woodworking blogging community, but unfortunately I'm having some technical difficulties with the video. Hopefully I'll get it up really soon. Instead, and perhaps to help distract me from my technological frustrations, I changed my focus tonight to write some more about my traditional tool chest build.


By all rights, if I were to follow standard logic and the plan, then the next step in my build of a traditional tool chest (in an anarchistic style) would be to wrap the carcass and lid in skirts. Well here in the Oldwolf Workshop we follow the standard substandard logic and I think we lost the plan a couple months ago so I decided to change it up and attack things out of order. I filled the chest with the varrious tool holding apparati first.

Seriously there is some logic to the decision, mostly it is based on the fact that I live in Wisconsin, and that my shop is really a tin can with some nice tools inside. It's not the best shop I've ever had (I've had some nice basement shops in the past) and it's not the worst shop I've had, (long time readers will remember the Wood Shop Jr. a 5X9 closet at the bottom of some stairs). Eric Bushèe over at the Breen Bush Design Blog listed mine on the top of his "Poor Excuse for a Shop" workshop list, and he's probably right. (though I think I am in good company.)

In the end I don't believe it's the quality of the shop that matters as much as the quality of the work that comes from it. I would rather be making sawdust working out of the back of a '68 VW van than no making sawdust at all. But the reality is that winter in Wisconsin slows down my progress, and heating it as much as I can is getting pricier and pricier. This year I decided to try something different, I'm going to clear out some space in our dining room and move in my portable joinery bench so I can work in comfort and warmth this winter.

The decision to build the tool chest now came from the exercise of trying to decide what tools I should bring along. The best answer I could think of would be to bring all the basic ones I could use. Now it's November and the snow hasn't really flown here yet. but once it does I won't be able to get my van up the hill to my shop to load the chest and bring it home. So the smart money is on making the chest usable first, in case the snow flies, and finishing off the skirting after that, and that's how we come to building the apparatus to hold and store the tools.

The first strip placed with glue and a couple finish nails.

I wanted to start by making sure I utilized the advantage of vertical height in the chest. At several points in "The Anarchist Tool Chest" Chris makes mention of the front of the tool chest as a great place to squeeze in a tool rack to hold joinery saws, chisels, or tri-squares, but he doesn't demonstrate anything. It really is a simple concept to come up with something though. At first blush you may be tempted to to just run a thin board with a couple spacers to hold it out from the chest wall.

This was my first consideration but I worried a little about storage through the centuries. If I hung a joinery saw in this configuration I decided it may put some pressure on the blade's toe as gravity pushes it against the rail and the chest wall. I decided I would run two strips, one against the chest wall and one seperated by a couple spacers.

Three spacers for between the strips, a little thicker than 1/4".
 I located the strips far enough up the wall that the handles will sit below the top edge comfortably but there is enough height to hang up to a 16" backsaw

A drop of hide glue on the spacing buttons.
I did have to make a switch up to the wood I was using for the insides of the chest. Originally I was going to use poplar like I did for the shell. I miscalculated my poplar purchase though and 60 bf turned out to not be enough, I had estimated 50 board foot with a 20% mark up for waste, and for a while I thought I was going to get away clean. In the end, I will end up using most of the 60 bf for the shell, bottom, lid, and skirts, with a very small amount of waste.

This works out well though because I was able to pick up some pine for the insides, and I had always planned on using hickory for the portions that need to be "long wearing."

Nailing the outer strip into place.
Once the rack was in place, of course I had to set the chest down off the workbench to get a good look at how things hung in the rack.

Not for sure everything that would live in there eventually, but I wanted to weight it down and fill it up to see how much I could get away with and I was surprised at how much.
 By now the chest was getting pretty weighty and it was a bit of a struggle muscling it up and down from the workbench, but I was too excited not to give the rack a proper try.

As I looked at what I had accomplished a thought occurred to me. If this chest managed to survive intact for a century or more, would the glue and the nails be able to support the weight of these tools for all time? Sadly, I decided I probably needed to reinforce it with some support columns that ran to the bottom of the chest.

So I milled up a couple blanks of poplar to be wide enough square to support both of the long rails.

 Then I attacked them with the spokeshave to bevel the edge that would be facing away from the walls. The corner braces each had one corner chamfered, the center support had two corners chamfered.

I planed away the end grain on a shooting board until they each fit in place snugly, Then I tacked them into place with some finishing nails.

With the rack done it was time to move forward into the saw till. I liked what Chris had done in TATC, but I had a few ideas I thought might improve it. First Chris's was made to hold four saws and I wanted to hold 5, A full size 24" rip and crosscut saw with larger aggressive teeth, some shorter 20" rip and crosscut saws with a finer tooth set, and eventually a larger 18" tenon saw. So first I needed up upsize the width of the till boards.

I also understand that underneath the saws is a great place to store a decent amount of those "every once in a while tools" like a hacksaw, saw files, metal punches and a taper reamer. Some of my files are a little on the long side so I decided to make an arched cut out beneath the saw kerfs to allow space for longer items if need be.

The tool rack I had just installed had to be taken into account as well. I had to move the start of the tills over a bit to make space for clearing the saw closest to the wall easily past the rack.

I ganged the two pieces of pine together with some screws and took the work to the bandsaw. To get the right cut for the kerfs I made a couple of passes to remove the waste.

I was super happy with how this turned out.

I set it on the bench and played around a bit to see how I wanted the saws to fit. I mocked it up inside the chest as well and found I could remove another 1/2" off the front side of these tills and still clear the hanging rack just fine.

I know it's only another 1/2" of space but inside this chest I'll take every little bit I can.

I chose to set the tills in place off center so the handles would all bunch up on the right side. This left enough room on the far end for my saw vise. I measured out and installed a couple cleats for the outer wall  and secured it to the till boards with some more finishing nails.

I also toe-nailed in a couple nails connecting the till boards themselves to the chest wall.

The saw till was in. Again I lifted the chest down off the workbench, hopefully for the last time, and I started playing around with the spacing I had left.

Chris installed another long, shorter partition along the back wall for his moulding planes and his hollows and rounds. I am still in the market for most of those things. I decided I was pretty happy leaving the whole side open until I tried to decide how to fit my sharpening supplies into the chest.

At this point I use the Super Scary Sharp Sandpaper Sharpening System (try saying that 3 times fast) I know it will cost me more over time, but the initial buy in is very low cost compared to other methods, and that is important in our house right now. The big supply you need for this system is a reliable flat surface. Some folks use glass plates, When I was looking around I decided upon manufactured stone tiles from the home store.

They come in 12" X 12" sizes which holds 3 1/3rd sheets on a plate and they are plenty flat for my purposes. They have held up well for a couple of years now and if I break one I can go and replace it for less that 2 dollars. They are a big item to store though and I wanted to fit them in nicely.

I decided to put in a cross till with a pine board I could just life out from between it's battons if I so desire. My box for my carving chisels fit very nicely in the space as well. This will be easy to modify and remove in the future if it turns out to be a bad idea, but for right now it seems like the right move.

With that all said and done I filled the bottom of the chest as much as possible (for now) and rested the lid on it for the evening. I really am very happy with the way the inside is working out. It gives me high hopes for the upper half of the chest. Building in the sliding trays. But that will have to wait until next time we visit the chest.

Ratione et Passonis

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Hidden Magic

I have always had a deep relationship with books, I can understand e-readers like Kindle or Ipad, but I just can't see ever giving up real books. I read a lot beyond what I keep up with online. I drive my wife nuts because I read between two and six books at a time, and she is a strictly one book at time person. the other issue is inevitably my books end up piled high on my side of the bed, and occasionally under her feet when she makes a midnight trek to the master bath.

Marital issues aside, I am very fortunate to live just a few blocks from La Crosse's public library and it has a great selection of  woodworking titles to help feed my habit. Once a month at least a couple of them follow me home. Some I read in depth, others I skim through for ideas. A few weeks ago I checked out Thos Moser's "How to Build Shaker Furniture."

There was a passage in an early section of the book that caught me by off guard, so much so that I put down the book to collect my thoughts about what I 'd just read. I even had to get my wife to unplug from her Ipod so I could read the passage to her, (another of her favorite things, I'm so lucky she puts up with me).

Railes and stiles cut to length and width.
The passage reads as follows:

"With experience one learns to anticipate what to look for in ancient cabinetry, since the methods of joining are relatively few and, in time, become predictable. Unlike today's craftsman, the old-timers didn't have a convenient glue and therefore used it sparingly. It is for this reason that our task of disassembly and repairing is made so much easier. I often think the eighteenth-century joiner knew that someday his work would be so exposed. Why else would he have been so precise in stamping roman numerals on the pieces of a joint inside the joint itself? Or why would he take the time to gently chamfer all the edges of a concealed tenon? When inspired, I will often write a message inside a joint or under a support or hinge in hopes that someday, years hence, somebody will read my message about Watergate or the temperament of my oldest son, Matthew."

At first when I read this I was taken back. Several years ago we owned our own version of "This Old House," The basement plumbing that had been retrofit had the date of 1903 stamped into it, so we knew the house was pretty darn old. We also knew it had gone through an extensive remodel in the past, we guessed around the 50's based on the kitchen cabinets design and other clues. The carpenter who did the remodel was like an artist, he had signed everything. Every baseboard I removed, almost every piece of trim had the cursive signature of "G. H. Baltz" and the date 1947. I haven't thought about it in forever and I didn't really understand it at the time, but I think I may get it now.

I flattened and glued up a couple boards for the center panel
After the glue dries I go back over the panel to re-flatten. 
What Mr. Baltz was doing was making a connection with what he was building. He was adding a component of himself to his work that stretched beyond his labor.

Labor by itself can be an impersonal thing. I can build furniture piece after piece and as it leaves my hands it has the potential to become something valued by the new owner, or it can become just another object to fill their lives. I often wonder where the furniture we build fits into the scheme of things created. Where does it reside on the bell curve between factory made, press board bookshelves, and recognized works of high art like the Mona Lisa, or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

When does the magic happen that transforms the chair holding your butt up off the floor, into something worthy of a place in a museum. Surely age, design, and craftsmanship all pay their roles in this but there is something else that resonates. Something else that connects with an audience and makes that chair more than a chair, more than the sum of it's wooden parts, more than the hours of labor and effort put into it's creation, even more than the skill of the hands that worried it into existence.

I love plane shavings, but traversing shavings are a different kind of cool.
You don't want paper thin shavings when you're traversing, you want a heavy cut. but wood is such a cool medium, even a heavy shaving has translucence when held up to the light.
High art carries the same sensibilities as well made piece of furniture: technical skill, craftsmanship, proper design and proportions, and a presence that people notice. But art carries with it something that can be difficult to invest in a piece of furniture. Great art, the kind that people connect with, the kind that people remember, has a bit of the artist themselves invested into it. The work is personal, often times intimate, even when it's not immediately evident, trust me, it's there.

For years Leonardo Da Vinci's, the Mona Lisa has been heralded as one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. Everyone knows the work, everyone has seen the painting on display, in prints, in photos, in advertisements, and in satire, since forever. One of the mysteries is "Who was the girl?" Then several years ago a team decided to run the image through facial recognition software and amazingly it hit on Da Vinci himself. The Mona Lisa, may very well be a self portrait. All other theories aside, how much more personal and intimate can you get?

I cut the grooves on the panel using the table saw. I used a couple test pieces to get the spacing just right and where it was just a bit tight, I planed the back of the panel down a hair.

What stopped my reading of How to Build Shaker Furniture cold in its tracks was Thos's mention of writing something hidden in the joinery about the temperament of his son. At first I thought "Why would you do that?" Maybe if you were building something for yourself, but at the time he was writing the book, Thos Moser was building Shaker reproductions out of his shop for sale to many people. I got completely hung up on the thought that you would be scrawling something so intimate, making that personal connection with the piece, and then see it leave in the hands of strangers. It doesn't get more intimate than a message about your feelings about your child.

It felt akin to sharing your deepest, darkest secrets with a perfect stranger you'd just met on the street, but somehow they would have no idea you're sharing with them.

What do you gain from enclosing these small messages, these bits of hidden magic into the secret places of your work?

Here's the lid dry fit together.

Adding these tucked away messages is kind of like sending a letter to the future, it's a hidden magic carrying a bit of yourself, your personality, you experiences, your influences, your wishes, and your dreams into the future. It's a hidden magic that connects you with that furniture forever, and through that furniture, can connect you to the rest of the world.  Because in the best of all worlds real art is about making those connections.

At the thinnest levels, it is something that starts the process of distinguishing a chair that is just a chair, and a chair that is art.

And I have to believe in that distinction. I have to believe that the work I put into a piece gives it greater value than anything that can be turned out by a factory, and I have to believe that what sets it apart is not just that it's better built using superior materials. those tangible, physical things can be replicated if those factories have a mind to do so. So I have to believe it's the intangibles that really count in setting my work, and the work of others serious woodworkers, apart. And taking a lesson from the art world and inserting a piece of intimacy into everything built is a start along that path.

Once you make the decision to invest a part of yourself into a project, you start to look at that project a little differently. And maybe that little change in perspective is enough to show through in your work, and thereby change someone else's perspective about shop built furniture altogether.

I started with the tenons, writing messages both to the chest itself . . . 
. . . and to myself.
Some of the messages were thoughts on how I wanted the chest and it's contents to inspire and hold up to time, others were thoughts on the path of apprenticeship to mastery. Another was a message to myself, a reminder of my influences and advice for my future summed up into two words. The title of the first chapter in "The Anarchist's Tool Chest" "Disobey Me" 
This is a practice I plan to continue on every piece that passes through my hands, and I encourage you to try it as well. I know it sounds strange, but it helped me come to terms with this tool chest build. I dislike playing follow the leader on anything, I rarely use plans. As I started this project there was a voice in the back of my head that was giving me a hard time for following Chris Schwarz again. Even though I had wanted to build a chest for a long time, and even though a chest is the right solution for me now. I felt like the popularity of the book coupled with the fact that I've built a couple of his other projects made it feel like I was just buying in and selling out. Allowing someone else to substitute my judgement with their own.

Along the way I've had the feeling like I've been building Chris's Chest, even though I know that's bullshit, the critics in the back of my skull would herald and scream it at the top of their abilities. Sneaking in some hidden magic writing has somehow helped me reclaim this chest as my own. Yes I'm using Chris's ideas and plans for the most part, but I cannot argue with the logic of almost any of his choices. This is the strongest, most stable way I can think of to build a lid, and I don't want my desires of nonconformity to compromise my results.

I want the chest to both be mine, and I want it to be the smartest construction possible. I'm asking it to follow the divergent logic of the phrase "Disobey Me" and Thos Moser helped me to find that path. I'm not building Chris's Anarchist Tool Chest, I'm building an Oldwolf Workshop version of a traditional tool chest following the good advice of someone I've been reading for so long I consider his words like an old friend's.

As an interesting coincidence, as I've been struggling to find my right words on this difficult to write post, I saw that there has been a release of a new, revised and updated version of "How to Build Shaker Furniture" It's availible through Popular Woodworking's books store here:

I'm going to pick up my own copy so the library can have theirs back. I humbly suggest you pick up a copy as well.

Ratione et Passonis

Saturday, November 12, 2011

By Rabbet and Nail.

With the shell dovetailed and cleaned up, the next step was to put a bottom on the box. This wasn't the most difficult of jobs, infact this might have been the easiest of them all because I didn't bother to do any real milling to prep the poplar stock. It's for the bottom after all. This rough cut stock was run, one pass, through a planer on one side. The result was a kind of subtle ripple in the surface of one side. Nothing significant or even terribly noticeable, in fact I fould believe that after a few years of tools and planes sitting on it, I'll wish for the ripple back, if I ever see the entire bottom again after I fill the chest and start using it.

I started with sawing up some stock to length. I over cut the boards by a quarter inch so I could plan on planing off the 1/8" overhang on both sides when I was done. I like to cut enough stock to cover the width of the chest, with allowances for narrowing with jointing and joinery. I usually plan for a couple inches overhand on the sides, this allows me to center the boards on the piece and remove the excess from both ends. Without doing this stock widths will undoubtedly leave you with one board that is just an inch and a half strip hanging on one end, (if you are lucky.) And I think that looks like crap, my brand of OCD can't handle it.

In the book "The Anarchist's Tool Chest" where I took the pattern and overall design sensibilities from. Chris Schwarz uses tongue and groove joints for the bottom stock. He refers to it as a satisfying kind of over-kill. Grooves are a difficult thing for me as I still lack a plow plane of any sort. (Yes I will get on that and get one, it's just taking me a while). So I backed up and opted to go the ship-lap route. I have a rabbet plane and I'd rather get to using the tools I have than sit around and wish for the ones I don't.

Grooves become an issue later in the build and I have to solve that problem then, but that is a future post.

I have really been loving how sweet this poplar machines, I have never used it a whole lot before and, despite being a kind of homely wood, referring to the color and grain pattern, it planes beautifully and makes nice crisp joinery. I can see it's value as a long wearing secondary wood.

I just started on one end of the bottom and moved my way across. I would joint two board to fit together, then cut their rabbets, then joint the next seam and rabbet again. It was a pleasant day in the shop witha definite feeling of accomplishment when I was done.

With all the joining done it was time to nail the boards in place. No glue, just nails. I know I can almost hear it now, No Cut Nails???  Well the cut nails are waiting in the wings with the plow plane for now. Wire nails will work fine and hold for longer than my lifetime.

I was fortunate to have my apprentice with me in the shop this day and I let her get to work pounding some of the nails in. What's a few french marks on the bottom compared to the memory we'll both have of her helping me.

Now even though I used the "inferior" wire nails for the job, I did use a technique taught to me by my best friend's father. he had spent most of his life working construction and when I was over helping build a garage he stopped me as I was swinging the hammer.

"No, not straight." he said, "You got to drive them nails in at angles so they meet like a 'V' then the don't work themselves loose"

I didn't understand what he was saying so he took my hammer into his own callused hands and quickly drove in a pair of nails coming from opposing directions.

"There. Now unless you pull the nails one at a time, the boards don't come apart."

The effect was kind of like this.

Remind you of something? The angles and mechanical strength inherent in a dovetail perhaps? Old Fred sure knew what he was talking about.

After an evening of banging and hammering my apprentice and I were ready to call it a night, but I left with a real feeling of accomplishment. I started the day with a dovetailed shell. now, other adornments and embellishments aside, I was a lid short of a chest.

Ratione et Passionis

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Whole Nest Of Dovetails.

One of the big jobs in the traditional tool chest build is cutting the dovetails for the carcass. For a while, as I considered the build I was worried that one of my main weapons might not be up to snuff, my Moxon bench vise. I was concerned I wouldn't have enough width. I know I could have pulled it out and measured it to make sure, (I just couldn't remember the measurements off the top of my head) but it seemed more like me to just keep working along and lightly worrying in the back of my mind.

As it turns out, My fears were unbased. The panels are 23 3/4" tall, and I could pass almost 25" in between the screws. A small beginning victory is not a bad way to begin.
Set on top my already slightly taller joinery bench makes the height very nice for dovetailing. No real stooping and lower back pain involved.

Because I wanted to make all four corners the same I decided to use one other old dovetailing layout trick. I made a story stick where I played with and pre-laid out the spacing for the pins and tails.
I transferred the spacing and did a little work with the marking gauge, tri-square, and marking knife. Yes the lines are penciled, but I like to run a pencil in the knife lines, both to help me see and to help things show up better in photos.

Then it was down to some quality time with my dovetail saw.

I love this picture, lines of sawdust as I work my way down cutting one side of every tail. After this I work my way back cutting the other side.

I use a coping saw to remove most of my waste, and then clean up the bottoms of the tail with a little chisel work.

With everything refined, I give the joint a test fit. Only halfway, I don't want to push anything too far and halfway should be enough to tell if you're going to have any real problems.

Repeat another four times, and you have a carcass to glue up.

The next day, after the glue dries. Clean up them tails.

Then you get to work putting a bottom on it.

Ratione et Passionis

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Words Aren't Enough

It's difficult to come up with something to say that makes a post about flattening boards and joining panels together interesting. So tonight I thought I would just run with more pictures and less words as I show the start of my build of a traditional tool chest.

Edge Joining:

Flattening and truing a face:

Traversing with a jack plane can simplify your laundry by removing crayon from your whites and unmentionables as well as your standard poplar lumber.

Gluing up a panel:

I know the purists out there will dislike seeing the biscuits, they say they are unnecessary, and I could agree, but the fact is I have a biscuit joiner and a jar of the wafers laying around the shop so I figured it at least best to use them up. A little belt and suspenders maybe, but there should never be harm in that.  

I also used good old standard wood glue for the panels instead of my preferred liquid hide glue, I was worried I wouldn't have enough hide glue for the dovetails in the carcass and also, you use hide so it is reversible and therefore repairable, I can't think of any reason to disassemble a panel in the future. 

A side and an end, and all my long clamps.
I then re-flattened the panels, joined the edges and trued the ends.

Tah-Dah, Four sides ready to go. 
Ratione et Passionis