Author:
• Tuesday, November 30th, 2021
resawn sapele

Even at this point, I often make small refinements in the design, mostly to make the proportions look good. I also may add features, such as edge treatments. This is small stuff that I do sweat. I am aiming for a certain peace and balance that will make the piece of furniture be interesting at several levels, and ironically, even fascinating.

However, all of this has to be put into the language of wood. The goal is to make something out of wood, not to just make a nice looking drawing on paper. Sometimes as I gradually get the oversized components out of the rough stock, the wood itself will suggest subtle alterations in the design, so it’s back to the drawing board yet again. 

I think of the wood early on in the design process. In fact, I really do not even think of a design in the abstract at all, but instead see it from the beginning as being in a particular wood or at least narrowed to a few possibilities for the wood.

So there is an ongoing interplay among the drawings, the wood, and my imagination.

Now, when the mental dust has settled and sawdust will take its place, I want the wood to be reliable. Oh, and you know where that goes, fellow woodworkers. Recall the words with which the late Professor Bruce Hoadley began his seminal book, Understanding Wood, “Wood comes from trees.” Its essential characteristics make it for good trees; it did not evolve for woodworking projects. 

And so the gorgeous boards of quartersawn sapele that I took home for this project were destined to drive me nuts. I wrote about this a while ago in the post “Weird wood stresses stress me.” 

This was an unusual, hopefully uniquely frustrating situation with the wood. The point here is that once we have settled on a design that drives us, that answers the question “Is it worth it?” strongly in the affirmative, uncertainty still lurks, starting with the first bite of the saw’s teeth into the rough lumber. 

The recipients of our best work do not, in all likelihood, have any idea of this, especially if they are used to veneered particleboard ready-to-assemble “things” (see how civil I’m being). Still, as I pointed out in the first part of this series, these matters are not, and should not be, their problems. 

Yet they are out problems, fellow woodworkers, and indeed we can usually solve them. So, I am not whining but once in a while, it is worth mentioning them, just among us. This is the uncool reality that is infrequently shared in print, but we ought to be able to say, “Oh, you too? That happens to you too?”

Next in this series: construction, detours, and, gasp, mistakes!

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Author:
• Saturday, October 30th, 2021
cabinet design

Something easy to draw on paper may not be so easy to execute in wood. Though we can and should try to stretch our technical limits to meet the demands of a compelling design, it may be impossible or at least unwise to attempt certain things in wood. Sometimes even an innocent curve on paper has the potential to foul up a construction.

Deviating from established construction methods is fine but there are reasons they are tried and true, so you better know what you are doing and have a sound plan if you diverge from tradition.

With those points in mind, the “hook” for this piece is the curved sides. I knew I was asking for trouble. Whenever there is a major asymmetry in wood removal on opposite sides of a board, the built-in stresses can manifest unpredictably. If the wood has been in storage through many seasons of changing humidity, the stresses seem to reduce themselves, but for recently harvested and kiln-dried wood, there are inevitably some case hardening stresses lurking. The thinnest points of the 8-inch-deep sides are about 1/2 inch less than the thickest points. The sides come out of 8/4 stock. 

But wait, I’m the wood guy, I know how to work around this! Well, dream on wood guy, the wood does not care that you’re the supposed wood guy.

The wood had its own plans as I was to find out. 

The case construction is carcase dowelling, and the techniques I use have proven sound in projects going back more than 20 years. So I felt confident there and similarly for the frame-and-panel construction of the doors and back.

However, the other hook for this piece is the layout of the door stiles and rails. The center stiles do not reach to the top and bottom like the hinge stiles. They are also, along with the middle rails, slightly thinner than the other frame members to create small steps at the joints.

It would have been easier to take the usual approach where the center stiles go all the way to the top and bottom like the hinge stiles. That way, the doors would be easier to assemble and trim to a final fit. But that’s not the way I wanted it. Still, my scheme here is not too unusual and quite doable. 

Other things that required careful thought are the doors overlapping the top and bottom of the carcase, which precludes using a nice Krenov-style door catch, and hanging with Z Clips, which are essentially thin metallic French cleats. 

So, in summary, I felt my design was exciting but brought about some challenges and doubts. Doubts for sure. But remembering the late Wendell Castle’s advice, “If you’re always hitting the target, it’s too close,” I was ready to go.

Now, about the wood . . .

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Author:
• Thursday, September 30th, 2021
design stage

This will be a series of posts that I have wanted to write for a long time. It will be what is rarely written – a real accounting of a maker’s thoughts from the first idea for a piece through its completion. I will relate my ambitions, joys, frustrations, doubts, successes, failures, and more – all unvarnished and “from the shavings and sawdust of my shop” – in building the piece that started with the sketch above.

Now, why would I want to do that and why might you care?

Magazine articles and books almost always present a sanitized version of the construction steps, and reasonably so. The reader needs a clear layout of the building process so it can be understood and employed, not a replay of a woodworking psychiatric session.

Moreover, when the finished piece is presented to viewers, interested and sensitive observers are generally best served when the piece is mostly left to speak for itself with little or no verbal accompaniment. Questions can come later. That the joints were hard to fit or the wood tore out on the thickness planer are my problems, not theirs, and I have to solve them so they can enjoy the piece.

Yet, Heartwood readers know that I have long emphasized that high-end woodworking is not fast or easy and pretensions to such fantasies by woodworking media are counterproductive. I also think that high quality woodworking, especially one-of-a-kind pieces, are largely underappreciated and not well understood. If that were so, they would probably be in greater demand and fetch higher prices.

So, this is some honest talk for woodworkers. Most of us work alone and all of us encounter doubts and difficulty with the craft. Sharing that can bolster our faith and energy in making things. This can also benefit those who have to put up with our passions or just want some inside baseball about the craft of making really nice stuff from wood. 

I will cover: 

  • Design, starting with the sketches above
  • Wood and materials
  • Construction plans, problems, and detours

The first question, however, is posed in the title. From the outset, a maker has to be convinced that the object is worth building. The concept must be strong, clear, and compelling. The energy has to be there. The plan to execute it must be sound. That’s right, the plan, but as boxing great Mike Tyson has been quoted, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.”

Here we go.

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Author:
• Tuesday, August 31st, 2021
carcase doweling jigs

For designing this joint, I suggest 3/8″ diameter dowels for most work with boards about 3/4″ thick. For components 5/8″ thick, 5/16″ dowels are a better choice. The larger diameter dowels create more glue surface area but you do want to have some minimum meat around the dowel in the long grain workpiece. 

I usually space 3/8″ or 5/16″ dowels about 3/4″ to 1″ apart, on center, as you can see from the jigs, above. Generally, the dowels are closer toward the outer parts of the joint, and spaced wider at the middle of the joint. This is what Krenov taught though I think I am a bit more generous with the number of dowels. You can think of the dowels as individual dovetails. 

I suggest the longest dowel penetration into the side grain workpiece that is possible without getting too close to the outside surface. The hole should not go closer than 1/8″ from the outside surface, and actually more clearance is better. Don’t forget the penetration of the brad point of the drill bit, and the soaking of glue, especially in less dense woods. Many of the dowel joints in my pieces take advantage of an increase in thickness of the side grain piece at the joint as part of the design, which works with the structural needs. 

The penetration into the long grain piece is less critical because it is long grain-to-long grain gluing. It is not going to fail. 3/4″ is probably sufficient in all cases. 

dowels

The best dowels ever were Laurier dowels (above). They were made with great precision and consistency. The compressed flutes expand when water-based glue is used in the joint, making for a tight, strong fit. The spiral configuration of the flutes serves to work the glue up and fully around the dowel as it descends into its hole. 

Unfortunately, these are no longer available. My stash is getting depleted. Here are some options, though I cannot vouch for any because I have not used these brands yet. None of these have spiral flutes, and the available dowels with spiral flutes are not compressed flutes, as far as I can tell.

Dowelmax

JessEm

Bear Woods

Lee Valley

When it’s time to for glue up, it’s worth rechecking the hole depths with a go/no-go setting on a calipers or just a stick. You really do not want to be caught in the middle of a glue up with a surprise dowel projection longer than all the others that prevents the joint from closing. If that happens anyway, grab a coping saw quickly.  

depth setting gauge

As for glue (PVA), avoid being too generous. Don’t ask me how I know this, but it is very easy to overload the holes and make a squeezed-out mess all over your carefully prepared components as you draw the joint together. A simple depth gauge with a hole helps to seat the dowels reliably.

I clamp the joint strongly, having prepared whatever pads and cauls are necessary for a true carcase. 

You can trust a well-planned and executed carcase dowel joint used in appropriate situations. It is not a difficult or complicated joint to make but precision and care are needed. And no, doweling is not cheating. The key is that it opens up design possibilities with practical construction. 

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Author:
• Saturday, July 31st, 2021
dowel jig alignment

Continuing with the carcase dowel joint, shown above is the reference face of the jig being squared to the inside of the carcase. This is the same reference face of the jig to which the side piece was attached as the jig was screwed into place on the end grain workpiece. (See the photo in the previous post.) 

The jig’s end cleat references the placement to correspond with the end grain workpiece. Note that the end cleat should be a bit narrower than the jig itself to avoid interfering with the placement of the square, as seen above. I usually prefer to clamp the jig to the side grain workpiece and recheck it for square before screwing it down. 

Keep track of your references. You can see why I label the jig so much. In this build, the reference face of the jig corresponds to the inside faces of both workpieces. 

I drill all the holes with a portable power drill. I find no need to use a drill press or, if I had one, a horizontal boring machine. The carefully made jig ensures accuracy.

Below, left, the brad point bit is for the cross grain holes but it is slow and tends to burn when drilling along the grain. For that, the DeWalt Pilot Point (middle) bit is my favorite. The standard twist bit on the right works well enough too. Check the actual diameters of the bits to keep the holes consistent.

I have never seen an oversized good quality bit in these categories; they all seem to be made with a one-sided tolerance toward the small side. I suppose this is because all drilling systems have at least some runout, and you can make small holes bigger but not big holes smaller. 

drill bits for doweling

Please don’t use masking tape as a depth stop when drilling these joints. One slip of the tape can ruin a lot of work. And it will happen. So, is there a good drill stop out there? Yes, but you have to make it. But it’s easy. Please see this post

Add chamfers to all the holes – long grain and end grain. This will help with excess glue, and to prevent raised loose chips, which can prevent the joint from closing fully.

dowel holes on side grain
dowel hole chamfers

Next, we’ll look at dowels, gluing, and some joint design considerations.

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Author:
• Wednesday, June 30th, 2021
shopmade dowel jig

It is reasonable to be skeptical of dowel joinery. After all, half the joint involves gluing the long grain of the dowel into a hole where the glue surface is partly end grain with limited true side-grain glue surface. However, the carcase dowel joint, used in the right circumstances and made properly, works and lasts without doubt. Joints in pieces that I have constructed as long as 20 years ago and have been able to observe since are still cleanly tight.  

We associate this joinery with the late James Krenov who wrote about it in detail in The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking. Here my attempt is to humbly add tips and refinements, particularly toward ensuring accuracy.

Making the jig is more than half the job for this joint. Use a very hard, fine-grained wood that will hold clean, sturdy holes to last through repeated use, including inevitably repurposing the jig for future projects. I have long used bubinga, though its availability is now limited. Your shopmade jig will be at least as accurate as manufactured jigs of this type, and it will be customized to your project. 

dowel jig

I usually make the block about 1 1/8″ thick (in the direction of the length of the holes) and about 1″ wide. The width does not need to match the width of either workpiece but will, in fact, be a little wider than the end grain workpiece to ensure good seating on the side-grain workpiece. The length will usually be a little longer than the width of the workpieces.

Employ every effort to make the block with two absolutely flat surfaces that are dead parallel to each other. This is critical because the jig will be used to drill from both directions. Any error in parallelism will be doubled when making the joint. 

A third face, the reference face, should be flat and dead square to the two faces with holes. The fourth face, which I mark with a big “X”, is not critical.

The holes should be drilled with a well-tuned drill press. This is cross-grain drilling, so a good brad point bit is the best choice. 

dowel jig references

A small, removable cleat on the end of the block serves as a physical reference against the workpieces. This can be augmented depending on whether the workpieces meet flush at their edges. 

Krenov’s description shows the block being nailed to the end grain workpiece, using the tablesaw top as a flat reference. I do not like this method. Instead, I use a removable side piece to reference the jig on the end grain workpiece. The jig is attached with two #8 screws going through countersunk clearance holes and penetrating the workpiece only about 3/8″. The jig is attached to the side-grain workpiece without using the side piece but instead squared and clamped to the workpiece, and then screwed in place. 

Below, the jig is placed on the endgrain workpiece using the back cleat and side piece to ensure solid referencing. (I have not screwed it in place for the photo.) Note that both the end cleat and the side piece extend beyond both hole-faces of the jig. This allows the jig to be used at both ends of the workpiece.

dowel jig in place

I mark up the jig all over: “back,” “Reference” face, “X” for the non-reference face, the size of screws to use, the drill bits to use, etc. 

Now, more than half done, next we’ll look at designing the joint, dowels, drill bits, etc.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 11 Comments
Author:
• Monday, May 31st, 2021
carcase doweling

Consider the options for joining solid wood boards across their widths where the endgrain of one board meets within the length (not at the end) of the side grain face of the other. This is what you see in the pieces above and just below, which are constructed with dowel joinery.

A common situation is joining the sides of a cabinet to the top and bottom where the boards do not meet at the end of each. If they did, dovetail joinery is usually the best choice. Another common situation is an interior divider or fixed shelf of a cabinet or bookcase. 

carcase dowelling

Before delving into the topic of this series, here are some alternatives that might be used in the same situation as carcase dowelling. By the way, this series is not about post and rail joints with dowels, a different matter with its own considerations. 

1. The multiple wedged through mortise and tenon. This has plenty of side grain glue surface and the flared mortises coupled with the wedged tenons provide a mechanical lock. It does take a lot of work though, and the exposed wedged tenons may be a nice feature or unwelcome. The blind version of this joint is an exercise in masochism.

For an efficient method for this joint, see my article in Popular Woodworking, issue #170, August 2008, pages 62-65. 

multiple wedged through mortise and tenon joint

2. The tapered sliding dovetail. This provides a strong mechanical lock, and can be made efficiently with careful router setups and a bit of fine tuning by hand, though it does take some trial and practice to get it right. It can be designed to be invisible but only at one end. 

3. Nails and screws. We do not usually associate this approach with fine woodworking but not everything has to be high end. I have a 44 year-old large bookcase held together with nails and it is still rock solid. The nails are hidden (mostly) with the technique of raising an attached chip, driving the nail inside the tiny ditch, then gluing down the chip. I can do better now, but it’s not bad. 

Covering the heads of screws with side-grain tapered wood plugs is a decent option in plywood and could pass in solid wood utilitarian work if done judiciously.

4. Hidden knockdown fasteners such as cam fasteners. Nah, not where I want to go in solid wood; weak. 

5. Dado joints, fully housed or shouldered. Here we have no mechanical lock and no mating of side grain glue surfaces. Biscuits or dominoes would help but I still would not bank on the strength. 

OK, with the other options noted, let’s go ahead and look at the carcase dowel joint. Part 2 is coming up. 

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 2 Comments
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• Wednesday, May 05th, 2021
wooden drawer handle

Here are some thoughts on handle design that I hope you will find useful for your work.

We experience several aspects of woodwork at once – design, spatial sense, texture, color, sound, smell, style reference, etc. A hand-friendly handle can be a significant addition.

Exotics such as the Macassar ebony, above, are my favorites for handles. They finish beautifully and wear well. Note the stand out from the surface of the piece. This avoids finger grime from building up on the surface of the woodwork.

I almost always want a shape that is directly consistent with the design of the piece. In fact, the curves and proportions of the piece tell me how to shape the handle. I rarely want to introduce a new theme in the handle, though that might work more often for designers more talented than I.

The cabinet handle below is shaped much like the cabinet itself. The hard edges on the top will not be grabbed but the hard edges on the sides have a nice feel, especially since the sides are undercut. 

wooden cabinet handle

Below, the very simple small chest handle in wenge is in keeping with the simple design of the piece that relies mostly on the beauty of the wood, pleasing proportions, and the joinery for interest. The underside of the handle is slightly hollowed to make for a nice finger grab.

wooden box handle

Below, this wall shelf with a side-hung drawer has so much going on with the wood species and figure, plus the undulating surface on the drawer front, that any further statement from the handle would be too much. The simple brass knob fits the bill.

metal drawer handle

This drawer handle, below, in Honduras rosewood, borrowed shamelessly ripped off from a design by Michael Fortune, also fits with the gradual curves of the cabinet. (Hey, I did add the bowed front, which made it a lot more difficult to make.) Speaking of “borrowing,” I will be nothing but flattered if you borrow any of my designs shown here.

wooden drawer handle

The length and bulk of the handles are graduated to be consistent with the graduation in drawer sizes. Yes, that took a lot more work.

graduated drawer handles

Lee Valley offers graduated-size metal handles in a variety of finishes.

graduated size knobs

Finally, sometimes it is fun to introduce something different, such as these manufactured handles, which have been on my tool cabinet for a very long time. 

metal cabinet handles

Give it a try – enjoy enhancing your work with custom handles. Keep in mind too, that thoughtfully selected manufactured handles also can go a long way to add to your woodwork.

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 4 Comments
Author:
• Tuesday, May 04th, 2021
making wooden handles

When sculpting the handle, keep the workpiece large for as long as possible. Of course, at some point you will have to cut loose the handle itself but the work becomes more difficult on the smaller piece, which may be impossible to clamp. 

Decide early on if you want a knife-cut finish or a smooth, sanded finish. Work for a good appearance but also keep testing the feel of the handle.

wooden cabinet handle

The finished handle in wenge is shown above mocked up on a piece of white oak scrap. (The scrap was used to test an edge profile; it is not a door). Note the hollowed left side and that the curved right side is also sloped toward the door. These features make for a pleasant grab by the thumb and first two fingers.

A hand-friendly handle does not necessarily mean that all the edges must be softened as they are here. Sometimes a distinct edge or corner feels right.

Create shoulders on the end of the tenon. The mortise, created with a shopmade slot jig for the router, is 1 1/4″ long and 3/8″ deep. 

mortise for handle

Here is the pair of handles.

pair of wooden handles for cabinet

Next: designing handles for your woodwork

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 2 Comments
Author:
• Friday, April 30th, 2021
handle mock-up

Like most furniture makers, I am not a sculptor, artist, or serious carver. However, I do want interesting handles to truly enhance the woodwork in which I have invested so much time and effort. With few exceptions, generic handles just will not do. 

I will first discuss how I make handles, step by step, and later consider design. The goal here is to transmit a practical approach to making unique wooden handles accessible to most any woodworker. For much more on designing for woodworkers, see this extensive series

1. Sketch

I sometimes start by briefly drawing ideas on paper but sketching on a small block of wood is the principal starting point. The wood gives me a better sense of size, partly because I am holding the wood as I sketch, and it is, after all, a handle that I am making. There are two requirements for sizing the handle: it must coordinate with the woodwork (drawer, door, etc.) and with the human hand. Use an easy-working wood like poplar or pine. 

2. Mock-up

Once I have a decent three-dimensional sketch on the wood, I hack away at it with carving knives, rasps, and a coping saw – whatever it takes. Here again, it is not only appearance that is developing but also hand feel. CAD is not the answer here. Like all mock-up work, this should be a relaxed, fun process with some happy anticipation. Maybe you will be lucky on the first try or maybe it will take a several tries. No problem. And the last mock-up does not have to be perfect or great. For example, you might end up with something like: “It’s good except just a quarter inch longer and a bit thinner.”

The finished handle is going to look a lot better but this mock-up will do for now.

mock-up

3. Analyze 

Now I analyze the mock-up to decide on a wood species and the specific section of a board to be used. Further, I figure out how to machine blanks from which the handle can be efficiently produced. At this point, I also decide on the joinery – usually a tenon – to attach the handle, and how to make the joinery as I machine the blank.

handle blanks

Above, each wenge blank is about 8″ long, wide enough to allow the handle to be shaped from it, and tall enough to incorporate the tenon. The extra length allows for safer machining, easier handling later when shaping, and mistakes. 

4. Machine the blanks

The offset tongues, produced on the router table, will later become tenons. Use whatever your good judgment indicates at the router table, such as featherboards, push blocks, etc. If you have enough wood, work the tongue near the edge of a board, then rip away the blank, but think ahead to end up with nice figure for the final handle.

The key is to essentially make the joinery now. These tongues are a precise barely fat 1/4″ thick. 

blanks with tenon

Next: Sculpting the handles to look and feel good.

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