Extended absence

Hey, sorry (to the two or three of you that read this stuff) about the extended absence.

I’ve recently gotten busy at work and am having trouble fitting in the normal household chores, let alone annoying anyone with this occasional stream of unconsciousness.

You see, I am not the type of blogger that sits in his underwear, eating cheetos, banging away at his keyboard at 1:30 a.m. Rather, I wait until a thought occurs to me, usually while ankle-deep in wood shavings, to strip down to my underwear, grab the cheetos, and start banging away at my keyboard.

However, if anyone is interested in my occasional blather about the goings on in the Bronze Oak Leaf shop, I ask you to subscribe to my email list. You never have to check to find out that I have nothing new to say, just get the email notification and read on.

Also, while learning to navigate the blogosphere, I see that I can (somehow) categorize these missives to make your navigation through all this muck more interesting. Hmm… coming soon.

By the way, if ever there is a question about anything you see here, please feel free to contact me in any way you see fit.  I always welcome the chance to talk shop, whether it’s about the nuts and bolts of some woodworking project, or anything else that may have tickled your fancy.

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So much wood; so little talent

Well, I am no longer in need of wood.  If you can see in the picture, there are no fewer than  five separate stacks of wood.  I now have some nice maple, cherry, and even a little walnut to play with.  Wasn’t it just last week that I was complaining about having to wait for wood?  Now I am tripping over it to get to the fridge (you know, where the beer is).  A wise friend of mine once said “always leave a path to the fridge, in case of emergency.”

Well, now I can follow his advice and start getting rid of some of this cherry by building something about which my wife will ultimately ask “what are you going to do with this?”.  God bless her, do I have to have a reason for everything?

I’ve had my eye on this nice little Shaker cabinet I saw in a magazine.  They called it “the Enfield Cabinet”, named for its location in Enfield, Conn.  It’s a very simple jelly cupboard-type of cabinet, with very simple lines and very straight forward construction.  Its simplicity, as is the case with all Shaker-style furniture, is its main source of beauty.  The Shakers had a way of overstating the simple.

Anyway, yesterday I began what, for me, is one of the most difficult and picky parts of the process of building a piece of furniture: The Great Choosing of the Wood ceremony.  This is when I don my Grand Poo-Bah-of-wood-sorting hat and begin to confer upon different pieces of lumber (with an imperious wave of my folding stick rule) their station in the hierarchy of furniture parts.  “You will be a face piece” (imperious wave)–“You will be a back piece (another imperious wave, followed by a quick measurement; it is a stick rule, you know)–“You will burn in our fires”–that sort of thing.

Boy, I really do wish it was that easy.  I agonize over grain patterns, figure (or lack thereof), size, color, matching boards to be glued-up into a panel; it really is a picky business.  Anyone can grab just any group of boards without knots and glue them up into whatever width is needed.  You see it all the time at ‘big box’ furniture stores. But a nice piece of furniture that you may spend up to 40 hours building deserves better treatment.  Grain patterns should match.  Boards glued into a panel should have the same color, and the figure should complement rather than contrast.  I can easily go through 300 boardfeet of lumber to find the right pieces for a cabinet that requires fewer than 100 boardfeet to build.  I’m almost exhausted by the time I’m done, and now the path to the fridge is blocked.

Well, after getting a beer from the house fridge (let’s face it, I’ve moved enough lumber for the day), I look at the stack that has been chosen.  Each board has been marked and cut to rough sizes; their stations in the furniture kingdom diligently marked on the edges so as not to be milled off before I can remember where they go.  I fold up my scepter and slip it into my hip pocket.  Tomorrow I’ll move the stack into the basement for a couple weeks to equalize its moisture content with its eventual environment.  I sip my beer, looking at the stack of maple in the corner.

I think I see a bookcase side staring me in the face.

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Dehumidifier Kiln

Well, after much thought, research, and stalling, I finally built a dehumidification kiln.

You see, the last time I cut trees was last Spring. That lumber has been stacked and air-drying for over a year now. I recently finished off my supply of oak, and now I’m starting to get itchy. Another year in the shop to air-dry further? You gotta be kiddin’.

Being a small time sawdust maker and electron slayer, I probably could give in and go to the local hardwood lumber yard and (gulp) buy some lumber. There. I said it. Give me a moment while I go brush my tongue.

Buy lumber? You mean they sell it cut, dried, and ready to transform into what surely someday will be treasured antiques featured in the Carnegie Museum? What fun is that?

No, thank you. I prefer sweating. Swearing. Near-death experiences. To go to a lumber yard and buy ready-made lumber–wouldn’t that be like cheating on my trees? “Sorry guys, I found someone else. Smoother; drier; someone who doesn’t threaten my life by falling with tremendous force to the forest floor.” Just doesn’t seem right.

Moisture content, as I mentioned before, is my sparring partner when preparing to build. Not quite my nemesis, it’s more of a friendly bout.

When you design some of your projects, as most woodworkers do (you just can’t trust printed cut-lists), you always have to keep moisture content in mind. As hard as it is to believe, wood doesn’t die when you cut, dry, and murder millions of electrons on it. It continues to live on in the maddening movement that occurs with the change of the seasons, and with that, the relative humidity in the air. No, when designing furniture, you have to design with the idea that wood movement is inherent, inescapable, and capable of ripping your furniture to pieces.

Oh, yeah, the kiln.

Well, how can I get that beautiful stack of Cherry and Soft Maple out of the drying stack and into my shop–er, studio? (What a snooty word for “shop”.) I need to dry it further, and fast.

Daren Nelson, a woodworker over in Illinois, has plans on Ebay on how to build a nice, inexpensive dehumidifier kiln. **Alert** for those of you (all two or three of you) who read this for the humor and philosophical insight, I’m going into some nuts-and-bolts now.

The kiln is a simple box, airtight and insulated, that contains a small heat source, some fans, and a dehumidifier. Without putting you to sleep, I’ll just say that the initial heat source is turned on to get the kiln to temperature, while the fans and dehumidifier run all the time. The moisture is drawn from the wood by the heat, and the dehumidifier continuously draws the moisture from the air. When the kiln is up to temp, the heat source is turned off and the dehumidifier keeps the temps up to operating range.

Brilliant. Fantastical. Cheap. Did I say cheap? For fifty cents/boardfoot I can have my lumber dried at the (gulp) lumber yard. At home, I can dry it for as little as five or ten cents/boardfoot. In as little as two weeks. Sorry, I’m drooling. In two weeks I can start my merciless slaughter of millions of defenseless electrons. A blood-thirsty grin pasted on my maniacal face, dreaming of the new sideboard against the wall of my dining room. Well, maybe not millions of defenseless electrons. . . have I mentioned my handtool collection?

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Wardrobe and Chest

I noticed while perusing past posts (let’s face it, I’m the only one who reads them; and, again, it’s all about me) that I have not yet posted any pics or information on the wardrobe or chest. I’d like to say a small amount about them because they are a good illustration of the steps you need to take and the things you must experience, through just doing them, to become proficient at anything.

Let me explain: I found many tedious details that need attending to when fitting joints by hand.  When setting up machines to make precise, repeatable cuts.  When getting the completed piece to its final smooth surface ready for finishing.  These tedious details are not just part of the job–they are the job. When you’re complaining about having fifty tenon shoulders to back-cut (to guarantee a tight fit to the stiles) or having to fit and then re-fit mortises and tenons dozens of times before final glue up, I’m feeling your pain.  I’m with you.  But what we have to realize is that the learning is in the doing.  Yes, tedious chisel work sucks.  But it makes you good with a chisel.

My Pappy always said: “Experience is the best teacher”.  I knew what he meant, but I never knew the depth of the axiom.  The more you do something, the better at it you become.  Tedious, anal fitting of woodworking joints is not really that much fun, but it’s one of the many things you have to go through to develop the skills to be a competent craftsman.

When I completed the wardrobe, I was able to step back and admit that it was a simple piece with simple lines that appeals to simple people (me–me,me,me).  But there was enough learning going on during its construction that, after its completion, the chest I had planned flew together in record time.  I was actually stunned at how much more smoothly its construction went.  More pegged mortise-and-tenons.  More floating panels.  More experience to apply to the next project.

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Wood Snobbery

Ever built something from Honduran Mahogany? Burmese Teak? Plain old Black Walnut?

Last year I was cutting some trees on my property to make a hole for the sun to shine through on my kids’ new pool. We just couldn’t make that baby warm enough to swim comfortably in our little patch of woods in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The trees I chose were going to come down eventually; I thought two of them were Hard Maple, and I knew two of them were cherry.

Well, after awhile I realized that the maples were soft maples, not the hard, pretty maples I thought. Shoot. Well, they’ll burn nice. Sure are tall, though. And straight. And clear.

Do they have to be Hard Maple? Will the furniture they make hold a beer or someone’s clothes differently? Is it still pretty, tight-grained, and hard?

Being a new woodworker, I fell into the trap of coveting only the most sought-after domestic hardwoods you could get. I once cut down a nice Poplar at my brother’s house, leaving a huge 10 foot bole behind. Probably 36″ across. The friend of ours that was hauling some of the prettier trees we cut to the mill he managed looked at the Poplar, looked at me, and said “junk.” Junk? Really? What do I know? I thought, “you need secondary woods, too, right?”

Well, I didn’t let him talk me out of milling that tree. I never got the lumber, but that’s another story. The point is, when you want to build, almost no wood is junk, and I’m finally starting to realize that. That maple I cut down is drying in my kiln right now, and is it pretty. It’s going to make some nice bookshelves, contrasting doors or drawers for my cherry step-back, or whatever else I can think of.

I don’t have a huge stand of Walnuts. I don’t even have one Walnut on my property. But I do have some Sassafras. Hickory. Plenty of Poplar and Soft Maple. I think I can appreciate each wood’s unique characteristics enough to grace my living room with it.

I still like Cherry. White and Red Oak are still favorites. I have some of each to eventually harvest. But I’m finally learning that wood snobbery only gets you one thing– a light woodshed.

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Well, I think I’ve finally finished off the giant red oak I cut down about 3 years ago. It was a magnificent tree. It yielded some wide, clear planks that forever spoiled me concerning quality lumber.

Being a brand new woodworker, I didn’t realize the work that both nature and I must do to generate such beautiful and useful material. I don’t shy away from the work. I enjoy it. I can cut down a tree, have it limbed, bucked into useable lengths, and loaded onto a trailer bound for the mill in a matter of a few days. All by myself. It is an immensely gratifying experience–to do all that on your own. However, we sometimes forget the work the tree goes through to give us that beautiful lumber. I counted the rings as best I could after dropping that majestic red oak. Over 80 years old. 80 years to produce what I cut down in less than 10 minutes. Now, granted, the furniture I produce from that tall, straight beauty will last a few generations, and be filled with a pride only someone who creates can imagine, but, you can’t help but to feel a touch of sadness at such a passing.

I admit to occasionally hugging a tree; albeit to get a rough measurement at breast height to determine the yield in board feet I stand to gain. But I can never get over the sense of loss I feel when I drop a big beauty on my own property, and leave just a stump to mark that it was there. Nature’s cycle, I guess.

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Making Pegs

Well, it’s been a while since I posted. I must admit that I am a little busy, and it takes more time to write than I sometimes have to spare.

I finished the wardrobe since my last post, and then finished another exercise in pegged mortise-and-tenon joinery: a nice frame-and-panel chest to match the hand-made doors in my basement. I’ll post more info on that later.

My original intention for starting this blog was to talk about more than just the nuts and bolts of woodworking. I see now that it looks more like a how-to than a philosophical-type of blog. That’s not what I want, and let’s face it, it is all about me. However, I don’t want to leave any hanging chads, so I’ll cover the making of the pegs briefly.

It’s really more simple than I imagined. I thought, “how in the world do you make consistently sized pegs?”. But the truth is, just like in most project pieces, the pegs don’t have to look like they came from a factory. Why make pegs at all? Why not buy dowels? Because dowels cost money. Because dowels can be made from mystery wood. Because making pegs is easy.

I have been using 1/4″ pegs lately, so that’s the size we’ll talk about. I devised a nice little fixture for safely cutting consistent 1/4″ x1/4″ sticks which I then turn into octagons and cut to length by hand.

I also made a nice little fixture for turning the 1/4″x1/4″ sticks into octagons. It’s just a piece of wood with two 45’s cut in the center to hold the sticks with a corner up. I take a few licks with a block plane on each corner, and voila, you have an octagon that holds a little more securely than a round dowel. I use the same fixture for cutting the dowels to length. I made a groove with a dozuki saw for a guiding kerf, then start the saw in the kerf, then ease it through the stick, making consistent-length pegs. Finish them off with a pencil sharpener to make starting them in the holes easier.

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Pegged Tenons

When I first decided to start woodworking, I decided to read as much as possible first. A friend of mine told me that’s nice, but you need to start making sawdust.

I thought his advice was good, but I read a lot anyway. The first woodworking book I bought was “Woodworking Wit and Wisdom” by Jim Tolpin. I can’t stress enough the enormous luck I had in choosing this book for my first real investigation into the serious side of the craft. By “serious” I mean making furniture with woodworking joints, not just picnic tables with deck screws.

Anyway, this is where I first read about pegging tenons and the “drawbore effect”. It is without a doubt the best way to make a mortise-and-tenon joint if your tenons are long enough.  The tenons for the frame of this wardrobe are all 1-1/4″ long.  Long enough to accept a peg without blowing out the edge of the tenon.

The “drawbore” effect comes when you drill the holes in the tenon.  In the picture I already have the holes drilled in the mortised pieces–you drill the holes in the tenons after you have a good fit in the mortise.  Some people just drill through a completed mortise-and-tenon joint and insert a peg.  This is a good mechanical joint for when the glue eventually fails, or racking stresses are introduced in the joint, but if you offset the hole in the tenon by 1/16″ or so, you then draw the tenon shoulders tight to the leg.

Here’s how it works:  You cut your mortises and tenons, then tweak the fit.  Drill a hole through the mortise where the center of your tenon will be (5/8″ in from the edge for a 1-1/4″ tenon).  You can drill straight through a thin piece-such as a 3/4″ thick door frame, or you can drill a stopped hole; such as in a thicker table leg.  After you have your tenon fitted to your mortise, you insert your brad point drill bit into the hole, marking the tenon.  Pull out the tenon and drill a hole 1/16″ or so closer to the shoulder than your mark.  When you drive your peg, the offset of the holes will pull the tenon shoulders tight to the mortised piece.  A very stout joint with a mechanical lock that will stand the test of time.

Next up:  How I made the pegs

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The Wardrobe

Today I started what, for me, is my most challenging project to date: a wardrobe for my son.  I tried to keep it simple; just frame and panel construction with four long posts at the corners.  It’s a ton of mortise and tenon work, and you always hope your lumber is the right moisture content so your newly surfaced boards don’t warp beyond usefulness.

Moisture content has been an ongoing life’s lesson for me.  When is it dry enough?  When you cut your own lumber it really is a heavy consideration.  If I’m lucky, I can wait 2 years; one for air drying outside and one for air drying in the shop.  Luckily, the red oak I’m using now came from an enormous tree I felled about 4 years ago.  I kept 300 bdft., burned 300 bdft., and sold 600 bdft.  That’s right–this idiot sold 600 bdft. of the prettiest straight-grained red oak you ever saw.  I’m still kicking myself.  Anyway, I stacked it outside for a year and then brought it in the shop.  I picked at the pile here and there for awhile, but it mostly just stayed there and dried for a couple more years before I got serious with it.

I did recently buy a Wagner 210 moisture meter because I got tired of guessing at MC.  Equilibrium in my shop seems to be around 8%, but I usually cut lumber to rough size and stack it in the basement for at least 2 weeks before milling.  My basement is pretty dry.  The wood for this wardrobe was actually stacked in my bedroom for around a month before I got started.

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Wood and the story of the Bronze Oak Leaf

pure lust

I love wood.  Everything about it.  The smell, the texture, the way a freshly handplaned board shimmers in the light.  However, you can’t let your obsession with that new pile of air-dried cherry paralyze you–staring wistfully at it instead of sacrificing a small percentage of it to the floor as sawdust.  That’s the problem we novices face every time we head to the shop.  The crude drawings are complete; the cut list has been done and redone, scribbled out and done again; now I actually have to cut something.  Boy, is this the perfect board for this rail.  I hope I don’t screw this up . . .

The “Bronze Oak Leaf” is the symbol of an apprentice in a great series of books called “The Ranger’s Apprentice” by John Flanagan.  The series is geared more towards teenagers, and nowadays an eleven-year-old (my son) seems to qualify.  Anyway, my fondness for white oak notwithstanding, I thought it an apt title for a novice woodworker’s adventures in learning the craft.

Hopefully this can wind up a place where we can share ideas and maybe a chuckle or two over the stupid things we do while we learn how to do things once and do them right.

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