July 2013

Never has the phrase “Your mileage may vary” been more applicable.  The decisions I made as to how I worked were heavily influenced by how little space I have to work in coupled with the fact that I have a strange aversion to loud noises ( my love of rock music not withstanding).  Everybody brings their own biases into the process and what works for me may drive other people crazy.  In the end, it’s about your end product; if you produce something useful or beautiful (or both), that is success.  But here are some observations in no particular order:

1)      For mortises, avoid the drill-out-most-of-it method.  Chiseling out the rest tends to leave a tapered mortise wall – at least that’s how it worked for me.  Using a square block of wood to guide the chisel introduces just enough fiddling and clamping that it become quicker and easier to just bash them out with a chisel – that works better than you think it will.  Or buy a hollow chisel mortiser.  Or buy a Festool domino.  But if you’ve got the money and/or space for that, you probably never even went through any of this hand-tool business anyway.

2)      A router plane and a shoulder plane turn the process of making tenons from near-impossible to near perfect.  Again, this is true if you’re using hand tools.  But I’m gonna claim that even if you get rid of most of the waste with a power tool, these two hand tools will complete the tenon with perfection and avoid your having to spend a lot of time fiddling with a jig.   But hey, we all make choices…

3)      Laying out things works so much better with a divider than with even the most accurate tape measure.  And the more mortises you have, the more the layout will get out of whack with even the tiniest error creeping in at each measurement.

4)      Waxing the sole of a hand plane makes a huge difference in how much energy it takes to push the plane.

5)      Sharpening a saw makes a huge difference in how fast it cuts.  This seems obvious but it is still striking when you first experience it.  Perhaps because dullness sets in very slowly and you aren’t aware of how gradually things are getting worse.

6)      The humble holdfast is more valuable than any F-clamp.  And faster.

7)      The chamfer is an attractive accent and extremely easy to do with a handplane or spokeshave.  For me, it went faster than a router when I factored in the time it took to find the chamfering bit and get it installed into the router table and hook up the dust collection.  The crossover seemed to have been about twelve linear feet of chamfering – more than that and it became feasible to do all the router set-up.  But the routerless method was more pleasant due to the lack of noise.  If noise doesn’t bother you, then route on!

8)      You have got to learn to cut as close to your line as possible – whether with a hand saw of powered one.  Splitting the line is not some high-minded goal – you’ve really got to do that or risk making a lot of work for yourself later on.

9)      If you use hand tools at all, your bench becomes all-important; it is as much a tool as anything else.  If you are an all-power-tool person, then all you need is a table to assemble parts on.

10)   Everything is great until you have to work on an especially large or long part.  Then your tried and true methods of work have to be altered.  A long bed rail may force you to abandon your precious band saw (or, hypothetically, your table saw with a tenoning jig that holds the work vertically) and grab a hand saw anyway because that’s really the only way to attend to that tenon on the end of it.

11)   A surface planer truly is a luxury that almost anyone can justify.  Life would be extremely difficult without it.

12)   A project becomes almost chess-like when you try to look ahead several moves in order to match the pieces of wood you have with the project you’re building but to do so successfully will make the project end up looking noticeably better.

13)   Sharpness is important but it seems that only the smoothing plane and a block plane intended for doing end-grain need to be as sharp as a razor.


I had one of those flattering but creepy moments this weekend when a got a phone call from someone who had seen one of my projects on the WoodWhisperer website and wanted to know if I would take a commission to make one for him. Somehow, I end up surprised when I put something online and someone actually looks at it.

On the one hand, I’m flattered. On the other hand I’ve never been contacted for a commission before. Kinda threw me for a minute.

FYI, it was an orrery I had made using a CNC router. That’s a mechanical model of the solar system where you can turn a crank and watch the planets move realistically. He was a teacher and wanted one for his astronomy classes.

this is it

Why Does Cherry Darken?

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this on this forum before but I have a Ph.D. in physics and have taken a number of chemistry classes as well so my desire for an answer to this question runs a bit deeper than normal perhaps.

I’ve done the usual Google search; also DuckDuckGo (which seemed to be more fruitful) and I’m more or less convinced at this point that the darkening originates with an oxidation process as opposed to simply saying that it’s the UV in sunlight. I haven’t done any real research other than to notice what happens in my own shop but putting all things together and combining it with what I know leads me to hypothesize that it is oxidation.

Going further, it seems that of all the possible things you could do to make it happen faster, the best way to accelerate the darkening would be to use potassium dichromate on it. Potassium dichromate is a powerful oxidizer (hydrogen peroxide and potassium nitrate) but which also has a chromium ion in the mix which would lead me to believe that it would impart a color to whatever it reacted with. I intend to buy some and experiment on some cherry scraps.

Thus far, I’ve tried putting the wood out in the sun for a couple of days and this definitely works but the wood continues to darken while in the house at almost the same rate after it’s had its moment in the sun which is why I suspected an oxidation process. The chemical treatment will be the true test. Or I could do the opposite: put a piece of cherry in a ziplock bag and suck the air out – perhaps backfilling it with nitrogen or something. By depriving the wood of oxygen, it should not darken at all.

I’ve also read that lye can be used but I’m starting to think that this would either not work as well or not work at all depending on the purity of the lye.

I could write up all this in very nerdy terms but this is my hypothesis; it only wants an experiment to check. In the interest of scientific validity, I have to say that none of this “try and see” methodology will definitively answer the question; that would take a long series of very carefully controlled experiments which I’m unwilling to undertake (or to fund).

In my career, my initial hypotheses have been found to be true by experiment about 50% of the time so this could go either way.

So I will do some testing the next time I get a chance.

I’m no expert by any means but I have more experience than I sometimes let on. I’ve been tinkering around in workshops since I was old enough to walk but I have only recently tried to do really high quality work. This usually includes putting a finish on the completed product.

But I hate putting finish on wood. I’ve already said that here. I deal with that emotion in a variety of ways.

Mostly by getting creatively lazy. First, I like shellac because it dries fast. Also, you can wipe it on with a rag instead of using a brush and then having to clean the brush.

I saw Scott Phillips on TV back in the ‘90s and he instructed us viewers to put shellac flakes into a jar of alcohol and just wait – sometimes for over a month until it dissolves. Well, I took enough chemistry to teach me that you can accelerate that process by increasing the surface area (by grinding the flakes into a powder) and by increasing the temperature. So I take an old blade-type coffee grinder that I’ve set aside for this purpose, grind the flakes to a powder, and then dump that into the alcohol. I then stick the jar out in my super-hot garage (if it’s the summer) and that stuff is mostly dissolved over night. Another day or so and it’s ready.

I’ve also taken to putting a nitrile glove on and then putting one of my old socks over that like a glove. Then I just dip my hand into the jar and wipe on the shellac. I like this because I don’t have to soak the entire rag with it and less gets wasted.

If, for some reason, I feel I need to use something tougher than shellac, I’ll use polyurethane because you can find it everywhere. I get the wiping kind (thinned) and just pour it into my sock-gloved hand and wipe away. If it’s a large surface area like a table top, I’ll just pour it onto the table directly and wipe that around.

Then just shuck off the sock and hang it on the edge of the garbage can to dry.

I’ve never had any problems with socks having lint – possibly due to the fact that by the time I throw them away, they’ve been washed so many times that all the lint is in the dryer flue.

If the thing that I make is small enough, I will go one step lazier and just dip it in the finish directly. I made some handles for a desk once and finished them in this way. This was much easier than any alternative. I put a screw into one of the screw holes and used it to grab onto and then hung the handles by that screw using a clothespin. Easy.

I also hate sanding; so I just try to avoid it by the proper use of a smoothing plane and cabinet scraper. Things usually look pretty good and I only end up having to sand curvy parts. I can deal with that. I prefer all this to using a random orbit sander just because of the noise and dust but I do still occasionally bust out the sander. There’s a time and a place for everything after all and my sander was pretty cheap.