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Updated: 1 hour 30 min ago

Portable workbench part two

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 5:51am
With the top complete, I turned my attention to the base.  The big issue is how tall to make the bench.  There's a tradeoff between making it higher for a taller toolbox and having a comfortable working height.  Most picnic tables are 28"-30".  I wanted my toolbox to be 9" high, so, with 2x4s top and bottom, that gave me a 12" height, making the working height 40-42", which is bar height.  That is quite high, though in the range for joinery benches used by taller woodworkers.  My bent elbow is 48" off the ground.  I tried this height and think it will be fine.

There may be times when this is too high and, if so, I am going to clamp the bench to the seat of the picnic table, using some foot-long 4x4s to raise it up a bit.  Picnic table seats are usually about 19", so this will give me about a 35" working height.  A joinery bench that converts to a planing bench!

You could dispense with the picnic table altogether and make some auxiliary legs that would detach for transport, or even use a saw bench, but, while they would be strong enough, they wouldn't have the mass that the picnic table does, which I found to be quite nice.  That's something I may experiment with in the future though.

This is what my portable bench looks like:

The overhangs on the sides are to allow for clamping the bench to the table and workpieces to the top.  Nothing very imaginative here, just some shallow dadoes to join the top and bottom to the sides and some rabbeted shiplap to fill in the bottom and back so as to protect the toolbox when stored inside. The back also serves to stiffen the top.  I later added some stout dowel pins through the top into the sides on all four corners.  The bench is strong, rigid and weighs 29 lbs.

With this done, I chose to add a vise and decided on a twin screw, quick release version.  I hope you are intrigued, because that's next.
Categories: Hand Tools

Portable workbench part one

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 5:32am
With the kitchen remodel finally done, I was looking forward to getting back in the shop. Thinking about what my next project would be I remembered how much I wished I had been able to do some woodworking during our recent camping trip to Tucson.  I had such a great time woodworking while camping at Trillium Lake last fall, I want to do it more.  Then it hit me:  I wanted to build a combination portable work bench and tool chest that would fit snugly in our SUV along with our dog, camping gear and everything else we travel with.  Now, some of my brainstorms work out and some are flops, which is part and parcel of creativity, but I have a very good feeling about this one.

The first issue was what material to use.  I wanted to use douglas-fir, but most of what you find around here is days from harvest and so green it literally drips.  The big boxes sell kiln dried 2x material as "whitewood" so they can use different species.  Usually it is hemlock, which is unsuitable for a workbench, but I checked and it happened to be douglas-fir that day.  I sorted through the pile and found half a dozen studs that were sorta rift sawn and had clear sections.  So, together with scraps left over from the kitchen remodel, I had my materials for a grand total of less than $18.

The first step was laminating the top.  I settled on a length of 34 inches and the width of four 2x4s, which turned out to be 13 inches after jointing off the rounded edges.  At this point I got a nice surprise.  In the past I have flattened panels with a jack plane, but a while back I heavily cambered the blade of an extra #4 to make it a dedicated scrub plane.  This was the first time I had used it and I couldn't believe how much easier it was.

I was able to flatten both sides in about twenty minutes and, after smoothing it out with old #7 I had a top that is a strong 1 3/8" thick:

Now I need a base that will also function as a case for the toolbox.
Categories: Hand Tools

Kitchen remodel takeaways

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 3:39pm
Things are starting to wind down with the remodel; at this point we're adding trim and waiting on counters and backsplashes.  This is a good time to share takeaways that may be of use to you if you are planning a kitchen remodel.
  1. Open floor plans are the thing these days and for good reason.  Taking out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room to create one large space made a dramatic and welcome change to our house.  In fact, it is even better than we had hoped it would be;
  2. Trying to complete a major kitchen remodel in a month is unrealistic.  If you aren't removing walls, changing electricity and/or plumbing or getting custom counters, you might be able to get it done in a month.   In our case, the lead time for counters and backsplashes alone was three weeks after the cabinets were installed;
  3. The european cabinet design is outstanding and the way to go, in my opinion, unless you really prefer face frames.  It's versatile and much faster to build or assemble;
  4. Ikea cabinets are a good choice, although I recommend the semi-custom option in which you make the doors and drawer fronts yourself.  If you choose to use Ikea doors and drawers like I did, be aware that the doors on a diagonal or next to filler pieces did not fit to my satisfaction.  The only hesitation I have is that the boxes are melamine, although they are very sturdy and well-constructed.  The hardware is excellent;
  5. If you want to build your own cabinets instead and like the european style, I recommend the deluxe jig from Lee Valley and the hardware specifically designed for european cabinets that is widely available;
  6. Don't even think about remodeling a kitchen without a laser level;
  7. You can save a large sum of money by doing a kitchen remodel yourself, even if you have to hire a plumber and electrician, but it is a major time commitment.  When all is said and done, I estimate it will have taken me 200 hours.
Would I do it again?  Yes, but hopefully after I recover from doing this one.
Categories: Hand Tools

The key to becoming a better woodworker

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 10:06pm
I listened to a Tedx talk the other day that, on its face, has nothing to do with woodworking yet, I believe, holds the key to improving as a woodworker no matter your current skill level.  If you have 12 minutes to spare, I think it might be worth your time to listen to it.

I have been thinking along these lines for some time, but the speaker really develops and justifies the idea very well.  Perhaps I am one of only a few who doesn't improve as much as I should or could for the reasons he talks about, but I doubt it.  Generally speaking, when I go into my shop I want to make something and I want it to be the best work I am capable of.   I am in the performance zone.  As the speaker explains, that isn't the best way to learn.  For that you need to move into the learning zone, where the goal isn't to make something but to learn something, to develop your skills and capability.  The end result is not a thing, it's a skill.  That's hard for me.  When I am asked over dinner what I did in the shop today, I don't really want to say, "I really accomplished a lot by practicing sawing more closely to a line.  I don't have anything to show for it because I threw away all the pieces I used."  Who wants to read a blog post about that?

I am going to try to motivate myself to spend 20% of my shop time during which I specifically commit to throwing away whatever I produce because I am trying to develop a skill and want to focus solely on that.  I don't know if I can do this but I think it is essential if I am to improve much more.  I have gotten to the point where I have enough skill that I can make pretty nice pieces that will be used and admired, but I am not getting much better for the clear reason that I am spending most of my time in the performance zone.  I tend to fall back on the techniques I know I can execute well.  After all, who wants to try something unfamiliar or that you know you aren't really proficient at on a workpiece made from expensive wood which you have already spent hours on?  I admit that I do this.

I think most of us know intuitively that what this guy is saying is right.  The challenge is to be disciplined enough to act on it.  The sad thing is that when I actually do it, it is very satisfying.

I'd be interested to know if I am the only one that suffers from this failing.
Categories: Hand Tools

Kitchen remodel Part 3

Tue, 02/28/2017 - 6:07am
This is about the process of buying, building and installing Ikea kitchen cabinets.

The purchase process is based on a CAD program that Ikea uses and makes available to its customers, which then feeds the ordering process.  However, I chose to draw my design on graph paper and then go to the store, where one of the kitchen specialists helped me to input it.  She was tremendous, tweaking my design in helpful ways and making sure all of the right components were in my order.  Very impressive and real value added.

A few days later, a delivery truck showed up at our house with 110 flat packs and packages!  It took us about a week to take down the wall, demolish the kitchen and remove ceramic floor tile in the hall.  The following two weeks were spent assembling the cabinet boxes, coordinating plumbing and electrical contractors, installing the range vent to the outside, and installing the wall cabinets and microwave.  At that point, we were able to get the first round of four inspections out of the way.

I was surprised at how easily the boxes went together and how strong they are.  Steel pins are screwed into pre-drilled holes in corner of one side and then cam locks go over them from the other side.  Surprisingly the boxes all came out square with no effort.

Ikea has an ingenious and highly effective way of installing wall cabinets.  You attach a steel rail to the wall and then hook a steel attachment on the back of the cabinets over the rail.  When they are positioned where you want them, there is a fastener that locks them in place.

As we were beginning to install the wall cabinets, my wife made a very important contribution.  I told her how difficult it was going to be to get the cabinets level around three sides of the room and, against my judgment, she convinced me to buy a laser level.  For $120 I got a self-leveling laser that sits on a tripod and projects a sharp line on three walls at once!  You just set it up in the middle of the room and turn it on, then move the tripod up and down until it's at the height you want.  OMG!  It made it so ridiculously easy to install the steel rails level I couldn't believe it.  After that the boxes went up fast.  The result is strong and secure.  One person can install the cabinets without difficulty.

The next step is to install the doors, again a simple process.  You just secure the hinges in a hole in the door, screw a plate into the predrilled holes in the side of the cabinet and snap the hinge onto it.  Put on the handle and you're done.  The hinges have three adjustments on them that make positioning the door easy.

We were just congratulating ourselves on how well we were doing when boom!  Big problem.  I held up the drawer for the diagonal corner cabinet and--it didn't fit.  There was a gap of almost an inch along the side of the door and, since the doors are gray and the boxes are white, it looked just awful.

A call to the support specialist at Ikea wasn't reassuring.  After taking me through a list of things I might have done wrong, she asked for pictures, which I sent her:

She called me back with the bad news that in some installations, including their own model kitchen, this gap does in fact exist.  She was previously unaware of this and found out that they had used some specialty gray edge banding to mask the problem in their display kitchen.  They don't provide it and don't even sell it, but did refer me to an online supplier where I could purchase it.  Perhaps my expectations are unreasonable, but I was not pleased.

Again my wife came to the rescue.  At her suggestion, we took one of our doors to the Home Depot paint department and asked if they could match the color.  The guy said he could and put an electronic device attached to the paint computer onto the door.  It generated the pigment formula to add to the base and, amazingly, it came out exactly correct, a dead ringer.  We went home, sanded, primed and painted the offending cabinet edge and now it looks much better:

In my opinion, this is a better solution than the one Ikea suggested and we are satisfied.  However, it was this experience that tipped me over the edge into wishing I had made my own fronts from the get go, rather than buying Ikea's.  Obviously, I would have made the door wider rather than relying on a standard width.  The actually remodeling wouldn't have taken any longer because I could have made the doors and drawer fronts in advance.

We're not finished with the base cabinets yet and I am hoping there are no further instances of problems like this, particularly ones we can't fix so readily.  I do think our experience is a cautionary tale.

The bottom cabinets are attached to the walls the same way.  In the case of a peninsula, you have to attach them to the floor because you can't use the rail.  The lower cabinets come with adjustable feet that make leveling them easy.  The toe kicks attach to the legs with clips.

Categories: Hand Tools

Kitchen remodel Part 2

Sun, 02/26/2017 - 8:37pm
Having decided I wouldn't build the cabinets from scratch, I began to research my options.  I never considered a custom cabinet shop, primarily for cost reasons but also because we don't need or want a custom design.  That left three categories of options:  ready to install, ready to assemble and semi-custom.

I looked at ready to install cabinets but was put off by the low quality and bland nature of what I saw, and the prices weren't great either.  Many are stapled together particleboard but some are higher quality.  A second category is ready to assemble cabinets, basically pre-cut and often easily assembled with specialized fastening systems.  European style cabinets in particular yield themselves to this approach because of the standard dimensions and use of holes spaced 32 mm apart for everything from box assembly to hinges and drawer slides.  You build a series of standard boxes and then put them together before adding shelves, drawers and carousels of your choosing.  There was a good article about several options in Fine Homebuilding that made this option appealing to me.  Finally, I discovered that architects are using a "semi-custom" approach in which standard ready to assemble boxes, drawers, etc. are combined with custom drawer fronts and doors to yield a custom look at reasonable cost.  There are other variants of semi-custom cabinets, but this is the one that was attractive to me.

I have previously written about being influenced by a speech about design by John Economaki of Bridge City Tools here in Portland.  At one point, he said we should go to Ikea to study furniture design and, when he was met with guffaws, brought us all up short, saying that Ikea offers world-class design executed cheaply.  I did just that and found that he is absolutely right.  Not surprisingly, then, I decided to go to Ikea and look at their kitchen designs.  They had about a dozen model kitchens on display and many of them were extremely appealing to us.  The melamine boxes and painted fronts are particle board but they also have several styles of fronts in solid wood.  They use Blum hardware and the online reviews were very positive.  I don't like particleboard, but I decided to hold my nose and go with it.

One of the things that attracted me to this option as a hand tool woodworker is that you can buy everything from Ikea except the doors and drawer fronts and then make your own.  I almost went this way but instead decided to buy painted fronts we particularly like for now, with the thought that I will replace them with ones I make myself from white oak in a craftsman style.  This is a great option, in my opinion, basically what architects are doing except making the fronts yourself.  I think this is the right way to go and, if I knew then what I know now, this is what I would have done.  You can't begin to buy the jigs, material, finishes and hardware to make your own boxes for the prices Ikea charges and you have the freedom to add very high quality woodworking to them where it matters most.  They have so many choices of styles and configurations that little is lost.  The only downside I see is that your boxes are melamine, a significant disadvantage but one I decided I can live with.

I read online that woodworkers who do this typically buy one inexpensive door and drawer from Ikea in each of the sizes in their design to use as a template for making their own.  That way you can have everything made before you begin demolition of your existing kitchen and be back in business quickly.  I wish I had done this.

In the next post, I'll tell you about my experience building the Ikea cabinets, which, among other things, will help you understand why I think the semi-custom option is best.
Categories: Hand Tools

Kitchen remodel Part I

Fri, 02/24/2017 - 8:18pm
I haven't posted recently because I am in the midst of a major kitchen remodel involving removing a wall, electrical, plumbing and mechanical rearrangements, new kitchen cabinets, replacing a 4'x6' window, replacing ceramic floor tile, new appliances and misc. related items.  It's quite a project and, like Ralph, The Accidental Woodworker, who is also engaged in a kitchen remodel, I am experiencing aches and pains that remind me I'm not as young and fit as I used to be.

This is a woodworking blog and much of this is not of interest here, but I do think that there are aspects of it that are worth discussing.

My first instinct was that I would do everything myself, including making the cabinets from scratch, but that idea went out the window pretty fast for these reasons:
  1. We don't want to be without a kitchen for more than a month or so and it would take me a very long time;
  2. I haven't made or installed kitchen cabinets before and I don't have space to prefabricate a kitchen.  I told my wife that I felt the second set of cabinets I made would be quite good but I wasn't too sure about the first set and that it would take me a long time;
  3. We decided we wanted european style cabinets and making them requires specialized equipment, at minimum the deluxe version of this;
  4. Here in Oregon, you are absolutely forced to have rough and final plumbing, mechanical, electrical and structural permits and inspections (at a cost of $700 in my case).  Eight inspections for a kitchen remodel seems a little over the top to me, but it is what it is.  Electrical and plumbing methods and codes have become so complex and arcane (examples:  because I was moving the range a little, the entire circuit had to be brought up to code, necessitating replacing the three wire circuit with a four wire circuit all the way to the service panel) that I didn't feel it was worth the trouble to figure out what was required and how to do it myself;
  5. There is no way I could replace a 4'x6' window by myself.
I started trying to figure out realistically what I could .do and how I would do it.  I decided to contract for electrical, plumbing and window replacement for the aforementioned reasons.  I've done all the demolition myself including removing the wall and I also did the mechanical (range vent).  I am doing all the framing and finish carpentry associated with the removal of the wall and the window replacement.  That left cabinets.  I really wanted to make them myself but ultimately decided not to, the major reason being the time we would be without a kitchen.  I'm disappointed but know it was the right decision.

I did a lot of research before making my cabinet choice and that is what I am going to post about next time.      
Categories: Hand Tools

Not stools again!

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 8:19pm
Yes, stools again.  I have become really interested in the design of stools, which are the most basic, and maybe the oldest, form of seating.  Designing stools has allowed me to learn a lot without the additional complexity of a chair.  I am amazed at all the details that go into a well-designed stool.

If you look at my shop stool topic on the right side of this page, you will see my various versions of a bicycle seat shop stool, which were received with understandable skepticism; nevertheless, I am convinced I am on to something.  Over the past year, I have tweaked it repeatedly because I know I am not there yet.

For the shop, I am interested in a type of stool I call "active seating,"  meaning a stool you are going to do physical work from.  It has to let you go about your tasks with agility and power.  Here are some principles I have adopted:
  1. Active stools have basically one leg.  It's really three-legged, but the other two are yours.  The stool itself needs to have three legs, as close as you can come to a single leg and still have a stool that will stand by itself when you aren't sitting on it.  Four legs are bad for an active stool;
  2. Active stools put you into a position where you are almost standing but with your knees slightly bent, a position of power and agility that you see throughout nature and sports.  This position is what lets your legs act as the other two legs of a stool and still take weight off them.
  3. Active stools will move with you to extend your reach.  Tippiness forward and to the sides is good when you are sitting on it and bad when you aren't, because you don't want the stool to fall over when you get up.  In practice, this means that one leg points straight forward while the other two point back.
  4. Active stools have a low center of gravity.  This is what promotes a narrow base for tippiness while still allowing the stool to be stable when you get up.
  5. Active stools have to be either custom fit for a single person, or highly adjustable.  There's a reason bicycle seats are so highly adjustable.
You would be amazed at how comfortable and functional a stool that follows these principles is.  We're used to stools you sit on not with, your legs out of action; this is completely different.

So, after a number of iterations, here is where my efforts stood.  I tweaked the base by tipping the stool forward slightly and adding another block on the rear of the base for stability and to lower the center of gravity.

It does a pretty good job of implementing the principles, but there is a problem:  this is about the ugliest and most ungainly looking stool I can imagine.  In part, that's because the entire thing is made of scraps, but basically it's just ugly.  I have come to think of it as what automotive designers call a development mule.  I want to tweak it yet another time with a new version that addresses some functional issues and hopefully begins to look a little more acceptable.

Because it should be a three-legged stool and because it has a bicycle seat, I settled on a triangular platform for a low base in order to help keep the center of gravity low:

Short legs raise it up to the desired height.  The resulting stool was comfortable and functioned very well but was still unstable when I wasn't sitting on it, having a tendency to tip over if bumped.  I addressed this problem by experimentally adding mass to the base:

Yup, that's a dowel with two 5 lb weights on it.  I did this so I could figure out how much weight to add.   Ten pounds is about right.

Functionally, it was now right, but it was obviously still very much a development mule.  I've learned what I can learn and I am done with it.  The seat is right but I want an entirely different kind of base.  What I have in mind is like an antique, three-legged piano stool with a bicycle seat instead of the traditional round seat.  You can buy a great piece of hardware for this, but I am going to figure out something more economical.

Maybe you are thinking, "Why don't you just build a high piano stool and be done with it?"  It's because woodworking requires much more power than playing a piano.  You have to be in the position I have described and able to use the strength of your legs.  The bicycle seat is what allows you to do that.

In a sense, this project was a failure.  I spent a lot of time and, in the end, I am cutting off the seat and burning the rest.  However, I learned a lot.  More important, though, is that when I am trying to be creative, failure is a part of success.  In business, I used to say to my clients, "I will give you five ideas, four of which are almost certainly stupid, but one of them may be really good.  Problem is, I don't know which is which."  This is a darn good record and the effort to explore is worth it.  Many people don't succeed because they are unwilling to fail.

Categories: Hand Tools

Sometimes it's the little things...

Tue, 01/10/2017 - 10:05am
Last week, my son's partner asked me to make her a stand for her tablet computer.  Because we were visiting them at the end of the week, I had less than a day to make it.

I had a scrap piece of walnut 8" wide so I cut off a piece 10" long, ripped a 2" piece off the edge and found a walnut dowel.  22.5 degrees seemed like the right viewing angle, so I cut the 2" piece in two at that angle and made shallow stopped dados in the back to receive them.  I glued the legs in place to hold them while I drilled through the face into the legs and then I inserted the dowels so they would serve as both loose tenons for the legs and a holder for the tablet.  I use dowels to hold up the electronic device so as to minimize interference with the speakers and connections along the bottom.  It worked out well to clamp the leg in a vise and drill through the face into the base:

In no time it was done:

A couple coats of oil and it was ready to go:

Here it is in use:

I am happy with this for several reasons.  I think this design works well and looks nice.  The design is very simple, takes little time to make and has only five pieces making it up.  There is elegance in simplicity.

Enough patting myself on the back.  As the saying goes, "Even a stopped clock is right twice a day."

Categories: Hand Tools

My latest approach to sharpening

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 7:54am
I am apparently like many woodworkers in wasting time and money pursuing various sharpening approaches, being dissatisfied and starting over.  There are others who pursue sharpening as an end in itself, but, personally, I'd rather drink craft beer.  I do seem to be circling in on what works best for me though.  I think that the right sharpening approach for a particular woodworker depends on a lot of things, personal preference among them.  This is what I have settled on for me:
  1. I am interested in getting a workably sharp edge quickly and easily and am willing to forgo ultimate sharpness if it takes time or requires fussy equipment.  Actual sharpness experienced in use is more of a function of regular honing. 
  2. I wish all of my tools were O1 steel, but they aren't, so my method has to be able to handle the harder steels.
  3. I don't mind taking time to sharpen my tools between projects but I resist stopping in the middle of a project to hone a tool, yet regular honing is crucial, so my honing method has to be right at the bench and very very quick.
  4. Spending time flattening my sharpening and honing media is intolerable.
  5. I'm done buying machines and gizmos.  If I've got it and it works ok, I'll use it, but I'm not buying any new ones.   
Adapting the Paul Sellers method by using coarse, medium, fine and extra fine diamond stones followed by a strop was a definite step forward for me, but I found I didn't want to go through all the steps every time my tool got dull.  Part of the problem is that I bought two-sided stones, which are very inconvenient, but I also don't see the need for sharpening from scratch every time and I like secondary bevels.  I want to be like a barber who hones his straight razor between each haircut at the chair, maybe even with the same drama that the old timers used to achieve.  (By the way, they now use disposable ones in my area).

These considerations led me to a two-stage regimen.  I start a project with all of my tools sharp.  During projects, I hone regularly at the bench.  The fastest, easiest, most reliable method I have found is to use these steel honing plates and diamond paste followed by a strop.  I use the 6 and 3 micron paste but I don't use the 1 micron paste because I strop.  The plates are cheap but the paste is expensive.  However, you use much less paste than you would think.  You just put on a very small amount and it lasts a long time.  There's no water and all you have to do is wipe the edge between grits.  It works well on all steels.  Someday I might get rid of every non-O1 tool I own and use oil stones.  Until then, I expect to stay with this honing method.  I do not use any kind of jig or guide when honing.  It takes too long and I don't have the patience.

Between projects or if honing isn't enough, I sharpen.  Depending on how much I need to do, I either use my Worksharp or I use my diamond plates.  For narrower edges like chisels I sharpen with a guide but for wider blades like plane blades I sharpen free hand.  I have owned a number of guides but I have gone back to the first one I bought years ago, this one.   It is quick and easy to use, works well with skewed blades, clamps solidly to every tool shape I have and is durable.  I've had a number of other guides that were fancier and more expensive but I just didn't like them.

I think that if I were teaching an introductory woodworking course, I would urge the students to only buy O1 steel tools and use oilstones and a strop for sharpening and honing.  Alternatively, I would suggest that they get the basic guide I use, three honing plates and the three grits of diamond paste generally available.  For sharpening, I think sandpaper on a piece of glass would be fine.  For aggressive material removal, as when restoring a tool, sandpaper is the way to go in my opinion.

None of this is to challenge in any way the wisdom that waterstones are the way to get an ultimate edge, just to say that they are too much trouble for recalcitrants like me.  Maybe if I had a heated shop with a stone pond and running water, but that is what it would take to get me to consider using them.  None of this is to challenge sharpening systems like the Tormek, but to me the cost and complexity are just over the top.  None of this is to challenge hollow grinding, which has a lot of appeal for sharpening.  I avoided it originally because I feared ruining my tools but hollow grinding has a lot of appeal.  I don't have a grinder and I am not going to buy one.  The Worksharp is good enough.

As I said at the outset, I am after a workably sharp edge as quickly and easily as possible.    

Categories: Hand Tools