• Wednesday, November 30th, 2022


This series will explain the wood finishes that I use. I will tell you the specific finish formula, how I apply it, and explain where and why it works. 

The finishing systems that I present here are anecdotal and based on my preferences and experience. I can tell you that through many years and many trials, I know these work for me and I think they will work for you as long as you use them in appropriate situations.

For expert comprehensive discussions of finishes, there is no better source than Bob Flexner’s book Understanding Wood Finishing

We’ll start with:


I turn dewaxed flakes into powder in a spice grinder and mix the powder into Klean Strip Green denatured alcohol. I use glass canning jars with two-piece lids to minimize the problem of ordinary lids sticking (you’ll see). Swirl the jar repeatedly over about 20 minutes or so to get all of the shellac to dissolve. Some will latter gum up on the bottom but that is no problem because it is easy redissolved. 

This is nowhere near difficult and has important advantages over premixed shellac. First, you can choose the shade that you like – super blonde, blonde, orange, ruby, garnet – to achieve the look you want. Of course, experiment on scrap wood. 

I also know that it will be fresh and thus dry properly because I bought the flakes from a reliable dealer and I know when I mixed it. I store the flakes in the refrigerator. I mix what I need for a project. Mixed dewaxed shellac will probably last at least six months but if you have any doubts, smear some on a smooth surface. It should dry hard quickly and not remain at all tacky.

There are several good shellac dealers. I have had good luck ordering from Shellac Shack

denatured alchohol

Why Klean Strip Green? The MSDS says it is 80-90% ethanol, which is very good. It evaporates quickly. In my opinion, there is no need to bother with exotic alcohol concoctions or Everclear from the liquor store. 

[Addendum: A reader has pointed out that the Klean Strip Green denatured alcohol product is no longer available. However, there are good alternatives available. Please see the Comments section below.]

I use a one-pound cut. [In shellac parlance, a one-pound cut is defined as one pound of flakes in one gallon of alcohol. This equals one ounce of flakes in 8 fluid ounces of alcohol.] That may sound thin but I usually use four coats. Each coat is very fast and easy to apply. I much prefer the reliable incremental approach of using thin, problem-free coats. Also, I do not like thick finishes in general. However, you can build to whatever thickness you want. 

As with everything in finishing, always test on scrap, including the number of coats. The color and look will change as you progress through coats. 

I prepare the wood surfaces by handplaning and/or sanding. For oak, 220 grit is plenty fine to stop sanding. For a finer-pored wood like maple or cherry, 320 is usually enough. Test and observe. Do the least sanding work possible; it’s boring.  

To apply the shellac, I use what I will call a cloth “pad-brush.” I find brushing surfaces with an expensive bristle brush no faster or better. In fact, after repeated experimenting, I get more reliable results with my padding method. For detail work such as moldings, brushing is better. 

I use lint-free cloth such as PFC Paint and Cleaning rags from the home center store. I fold a 6-8″ square of cloth three times to end up with an approximately 1 1/2-2″ x 3-4″ rectangle. The short end with the folds (i.e. not loose ends) acts like a combination pad-brush. I dip that end into the jar and pick up enough shellac to be just short of drippy. 

shellac pad-brush

The key now is to move fast! Mimic smooth, fast airplane landings and takeoffs with the cloth on the wood. Keep a “wet edge” and do not allow the shellac to flow over edges and ends. When practical, say for a 15-18″ long panel, apply shellac to the full length and then go to the next row. It is easier to neatly blend application strokes laterally than end-to-end. 

Do not be intimidated by what you may have read and do not make a big deal about this. Your job is to get the shellac on the wood thinly and smoothly without drips, sags, or ripples. Remember, this stuff dries extremely fast. Remember too, you can correct errors with sanding or by partially redissolving uneven runs or build-ups with an alcohol soaked pad-brush. 

After the first coat, I sand with usually 220 grit to remove grain raising, dust, and application imperfections. This goes better with just hand holding the sandpaper or using a very soft block (even cork is too firm). Use a light touch. 

I can usually get the second coat on by the time I have finished all the parts with the first coat, such as by 30-60 minutes or so. After the second coat, I lightly sand with finer paper, say 320 or 400. After the third coat, I very lightly touch up sand with 400. Do not overdo these sandings; some may not even be necessary. Shellac is a fast finish; not like the days of waiting with varnishes or oil-varnishes.

Depending on the sheen you want, you can sand after the final coat. It will probably already be smooth if you have done a good job but do not worry about slight remaining roughness, just remove it. I do not like high sheen finishes but I do like smooth finishes. I lightly use 2000 grit silicon carbide paper after the final coat. Sometimes a 2500 Mirlon pad gives me the look I want. 

Usually that is all but sometimes, such as for mahogany or sapele, a buffed coat of wax gives a nice look. I still like Renaissance microcrystalline wax.

For some reason, there is commonly an intimidation factor with applying shellac. Forget that. It is not difficult. Give it a try. Applying shellac gives a wonderful sense of immediacy, and you can adjust the look to what you want within a wide range. Also, there is a certain authentic clarity that a shellac finish produces. 

Category: Techniques  | Tags:  | 6 Comments
• Monday, October 31st, 2022
round pegs

Maybe. It depends.

The idea is to make the joint “stronger.” But stronger how

In ballistic and gradual load tests reported in magazines, the M&T joint does not usually fail by the tenon withdrawing, which is mostly what a peg is designed to prevent. Rather, it is the mortise wall or the tenon itself that gives out first. Pegs can and usually are shown to weaken the mortise wall, and probably also the tenon itself. So, pinning does not seem to strengthen the joint against this type of destruction.

A few qualifications are in order. Most tests are done on frame M&Ts. However, in leg-and-apron M&Ts, there is more wood around the mortise and the result may well be that pins are a net benefit in strength.

Also, this discussion refers to glued furniture-sized joints, not timber framing joints. Also, I am not referring to draw boring. In my opinion, this technique has limited use in furniture making unless it is needed to circumvent having to use very long clamps, and even then there are alternatives such as Universal Wedgegrip clamps.

I think that for most furniture, and based on decades of observing my own constructions, the joints will hold up either way. Probably the biggest threat is abruptly shoving or dragging a loaded table across a floor on which the bottom of a leg catches. Also, there is always the risk of abusive handling during house moving. Chairs are a different matter. 

But what about slow degradation of the M&T? There, I think a properly placed peg can help keep the tenon shoulder tight against the mortise member as the inherent dimensional conflict may work to create a seasonably variable gap at the shoulder line. Certainly, there are several factors in what happens: the joint dimensions, the flexibility of the glue line, wood species, grain orientation, joint fit, seasonal humidity stress, and more.

square pegs

And as a practical matter, aesthetic preferences often decide the matter. 

Still, I think there is value to pinning the M&T in some cases, particularly when I want to hedge my bets against gaping at the shoulder line. In practice, I have found that it helps. I am more inclined to pin a leg-and-apron M&T than a frame M&T. Maybe luck is a bigger factor than I know. 

If I am going to pin the joint, I am careful where I place the pin(s). The goal is to have most of the movement of the tenon cheek against the mortise wall occur in the part of the tenon deep to the pin, where it will not create a gap at the shoulder. If the pin is too close to the shoulder, there will not be enough mortise wall for strength. If the pin is too far from the shoulder, that defeats its purpose.

frame mortise and tenon
Category: Techniques  | 3 Comments
• Friday, September 30th, 2022
edges, corners, round-overs

Our visual encounters with woodwork tend to be dominated by obvious elements such as volume, proportion, symmetry or asymmetry, and the flow of curves that contribute to the overall design. Of course, the visual beauty of the wood itself plays a major role in bringing us in to the piece, and the wonderful warmth of the wood surfaces treats our tactile sense.

But just as tiny adjustments in intonation and rhythm are critical in creating sense and sensation in music, the arrises, edges and corners where the woodwork meets the space around it are critical in creating our impression of the piece, in both the visual and tactile aspects. 

We should not neglect this but it is easy to do so. These elements do not show in a paper or CAD drawing, only in a real piece – one that you built. 


I remember from some years ago looking through a book of furniture designed by architects. Though many of the designs were at least clever if not beautiful, few of them brought me in, at least as photographed. There was an off-putting harshness to many of the pieces. I think it was mostly due to a lack of thoughtful edge treatments, as if the design was thought to be done when completed on paper or CAD.

edge treatments

We woodworkers do not work this way. Sure, we sketch, draw, mock up, and then build, but even early in the design process we consider chamfers, round-overs, and the like. In fact, some of these decisions are best left to develop as the piece is taking shape in the shop, as long as we don’t neglect these matters until it is too late to practically incorporate them. 

It is perhaps just as a musician leaves subtleties such as the amount of vibrato or the strength of a crescendo to the actual performance but has a good notion of these ahead of time as he is practicing the piece.

The main thing is to consider how the woodwork meets the space around it and the hands of an admirer. These are important to the logic and the sensuality of the woodwork. You manage them well because you are not only a designer of woodwork, you are also, as Sam Maloof preferred to refer to himself, a woodworker.

Category: Techniques  | Leave a Comment
• Sunday, September 04th, 2022
Preppin' Weapon sanding blocks

This is, hands down, the best hand-sanding block I have used. What I like best is that the substantial weight, the thoughtfully designed contours, and the 7 3/4″ x 2 3/4″ dimensions combine to give it a purchase in my hands that resembles a small wooden smoothing plane. This feel, plus the outright effectiveness of the tool, actually raise the dignity of sanding. 

grip on Preppin' Weapon

It is also very practical. It is fast and easy to clamp strips of 2 3/4″-wide paper, which are produced by three tears across the width of standard 9″ x 11″ sheets. (Here’s how to make that easy.) The clamps grab a strip near its ends so there is minimal waste. You can install multiple sheets and tear them away in succession but I prefer the feel with a single layer of paper. Now is a good time to restate my opinion that 3M is the clear winner in sheets for hand sanding. 

Long accustomed to my cork blocks, I bought the Preppin’ Weapons on a whim, but for all but small-scale work, I now favor them over the corks. I suggest buy different color Preppin’ Weapons to code the installed sandpaper and make jobs move along faster. 

Now for an idea or perhaps a bit of insight into some of what happens at the sandpaper-wood interface. We know that a smoothing plane blade with a straight edge and square corners will promptly produce “gutter” marks on the wood surface, which are slight steps across the width of the board. To eliminate this problem, we sharpen the blade with a very slight curve (camber). This actually makes imperceptible waves that pretty much cancel each other with successive passes of the plane as the peaks of the waves are shaved away. Note that the depth of the blade camber is coordinated with the anticipated shaving thickness. The result is a surface that is, for all practical purposes, nice and flat.

Similarly, imagine a hard block of steel used as a sanding block, especially with substantial pressure. Of course, no one would use that. It would create tiny gutters or steps, and the process of erasing them would just produce new ones. 

Preppin' Weapon pad

The cushion, or resilience, of the bottom surface of a sanding block – cork, rubber, or foam – solves this. With variable hand pressure, we must be producing miniscule waves (probably variably oriented) that get evened out with successive strokes, leaving an essentially flat surface. We never see steps. We intuitively use a little more pressure with coarser paper, inducing more flex in the sanding pad, analogous to coarser plane shavings. Finer sandpaper and less pressure give more shallow waves and ultimately we end up with a nice flat surface.

Coordinated with the area of the contact surface, the flex of the 5/32″ foam pad on the base of the Preppin’ Weapon is just right for producing a smooth and true surface.

This tool gets everything right.

Category: Tools and Shop  | 4 Comments
• Tuesday, August 23rd, 2022
workbench from h.s.

In fact, the first and only. It has sat, at least until now, for more than 50 years right in the spot in my late parents’ house where I completed it as a high school kid. 

It is nothing special, really, and certainly not nearly as functional as the good old Ulmia, a “real” workbench, that I have been using for about 40 years. Its construction mostly follows a design by John Capotosto that was published in the now defunct Mechanix Illustrated magazine in the May 1971 issue. [Old guys, you may recall that magazine, then a competitor of Popular Mechanics, and if you do, you surely remember “Mimi,” who, in various persons, graced every issue among the ads for cigarettes and automobile gear.] 

At the time, my only power tool was a Sears jigsaw, though I longed for a tablesaw, which is another story. The mostly hand-me-down hand tools that I had were marginally serviceable. It is also, hmm . . . possible, that some local construction sites were relieved of some, perhaps excess, 2-by lumber lying around. 


So, why does it matter? I liked then, and now, and for as long as I can remember, to build things – to make stuff. I can still recall the strong feeling then of wanting to build that bench after seeing the article in the magazine. I knew I could do it. Moreover, after all the lumps and bumps of the ensuing years of life, I am still glad that I made it. 

So, I suppose that is my message to you, fellow woodworkers and especially to nascent woodworkers. If you have that deep urge calling to you to Build It – I think you know what I mean – and you possibly can, then Go Build It. Sure, things get in the way, I know, but remember too, that “it’s always something.” So, do the best you can and build it. 

You will very likely be glad for a long time.

workbench from then
old workbench
Category: Ideas  | Leave a Comment
• Sunday, July 31st, 2022
Daitei chisels

What are the best hand tool and the best power tool in your shop? Just considering this question will give you pause to ponder what really makes a tool great. The answers will help guide you in what tools to buy and what tools to employ in a project. 

For me, the best hand tools in my shop are my full set of blue steel “suminagashi” (or “mokume”) Japanese bench chisels made by Teiichirou (Teijiro) Okukbo in Yoita, Niigata, Japan under the brand name Daitei. A few are pictured above. 

I suppose it is possible (e.g. Tasai) but it is hard to imagine a better chisel than these. They can be made hair-popping sharp, they are the easiest tools to sharpen that I own, and the durability of the edges is astounding. The ergonomics are just right for me, and their beauty is inspiring. “Eleven” stars.

Other candidates were: my Bad Axe backsaws and Lie-Nielsen #4 and #7 planes. These are full of intelligent, functional features and the accuracy parameters are excellent. Honorable mentions: Starrett straightedges because of their core accuracy that forms the basis for accuracy in the whole shop.

A sports team coach knows that when a job needs to get done in crunch time, he’ll go to his best athlete. That player has the composition, inherent abilities, and playing smarts to find a way to get the job done, often in a manner no one expects.

Similarly, a good woodworking tool must start with a great design, usually time-proven but allowing for smart innovation. Then, the execution must be top quality. You do not want a tool that contains frustrating design or construction flaws for which you must constantly compensate.

With that great tool in hand, your confidence is uplifted. You find ways to get things done well that you maybe did not even expect. The bottom line: that tool helps you become a better craftsman. When at all possible, those are the tools to buy and put to work.

So, the best power tool in my shop is the Byrd Shelix carbide spiral cutterhead that I installed in my DW735 thickness planer. The design is about perfect. The rows of cutters are in a true spiral (helix) pattern, and each cutting edge is cambered. Each cutter can be reset or replaced to make use of its four edges. Along with the outstanding qualities of the DW735, the Shelix allows me options in stock preparation that no conventional cutterhead comes close to matching. 

Shelix cutterhead

Just like a coach, these great tools allow me to form a better game plan, execute it well, and very often go beyond what I could otherwise do. These tools do not drag me down, and do not need to be questioned and compensated for. I become a better craftsman and I do better work

That is the test of a great tool. I suggest keep this in mind the next time you open a tool catalog or visit your favorite drool tool store. 

• Thursday, June 30th, 2022
Elu collet

I often prefer solid carbide center-cutting upcut spiral end mills for router mortising, especially for 5/16″ mortise widths. They come in longer cutting lengths and longer overall lengths than comparable diameter spiral router bits, and they cut smoothly and cleanly. 

The cutting and shank diameters are the same for end mills. This is especially an issue for 5/16″ bits. I do not like to use router collet bushings to reduce the collet diameter. The inserts are not as flexible as a high quality collet itself and so I think they do not grip the bit as reliably as the regular collet alone. A slipping bit is a bad day, so I do not want to place my trust in the bushing set up if I don’t have to. 

That said, for what it’s worth, I think the best bushings, if that’s what you want to use, are from Infinity Tools, pictured below. I do not like versions with fewer slots because they do not seem to be as flexible. 

collet bushings

DeWalt (for my old Elu, which is essentially the same as the current DW625) and Bosch (for my 1617EVS) do not make dedicated 5/16″ collets, as far as I know. 

There is, however, an ideal solution available! Elaire Corporation makes a wide range of router collets diameters for many routers, including DeWalt and Bosch. These are made in Ohio, and the specs and quality meet or exceed the OEM parts, in my experience. 

Check out their selection here. Prices are reasonable. 

Problem solved. Go mortise.

end mill ready to mortise

[Usual disclaimer: This review is unsolicited and uncompensated. I have no proprietary interest in Elaire.] 

• Sunday, May 29th, 2022

sandpaper cutter

I made this handy sandpaper cutter many years ago but have not until now fully described it here. This post lays out the details if you would like to build your own. I make no claims to originality for this but I have not seen one incorporating all of these features.

By the way, cutting sandpaper with a scissors will quickly destroy the blades, and creasing and tearing sandpaper is slow and awkward especially in coarse grits.

The base is 3/4″ plywood, 13 1/2″ x 6 5/8″. The cutter is a 12″ 14-tpi hacksaw blade. Use a pliers and metal vise to make a small L-shaped kink along the length just inside each end hole to give the blade a slight lift that will make it easier to slip the sandpaper underneath.

Secure it with pan head screws parallel to the edge of the base, then carefully make marks to indicate the location of the teeth. Remove the blade. Draw a line at the marks. It too should be parallel to the edge of the base. 

sandpaper cutter detail

Use cyanoacrylate glue to attach a 1/4″ plywood handle to the hacksaw blade. This makes it much easier to give the blade teeth good purchase on the sandpaper, which gives a straighter, faster, and cleaner cut. 

sandpaper cutter measurer

Use the table saw (alternatively, a router or hand tools) to make 1/8″ grooves, 5/16″ deep, at strategic locations, to house a snug fitting 11/16″-wide slat. [Tip: rip the slat from the edge of a board. On most boards, this will produce a slight bow in the cutoff, which will help it stay in the grooves without being an overly tight fit in thickness.] 

The key measurements are from the teeth of the cutter to the near edge of the grooves/wall of the slat. Below are the dimensions I use, based on standard 11″ x 9″ sandpaper sheets. I drew little visual aids on the base. 

5 1/2″ = half of the length

4 1/2″ = half of the width

3 2/3″ = 1/3 of the length – This produces strips for the cork blocks that I use. 

2 3/4″ = 1/4 of the length – This produces strips for Preppin’ Weapon sanding blocks. 

The line (no groove because there is no room) at 3″ is for my Singely sanding drum. The line for 2 1/2″ strips is for some of my shopmade cork sanding blocks and is the same as PSA sandpaper rolls.  

sandpaper sizing

Reattach the cutter. I added an eye hook for hanging and a larger hook to easily grab the jig from its storage location low down on the wall near my bench. 

To use this nifty jig, slide the sanding sheet, grit side down, under the cutter and against the slat, which is placed in the desired groove. [For the infrequently used dimensions marked with a line only, just bring the edge of the sheet to the line.] Hold the blade down using the handle as shown, and tear. The job goes very quickly.

sandpaper cutter in use

This is an easy jig to make and I think you’ll enjoy the ease with which it handles an otherwise annoying job.