Monday, December 7, 2015

OK, I might add ONE more machine to my shop...

A week ago today I received an important reminder about shop safety.

You see, I was working on cutting some mortises, and had paused to flick out some chips, which I do with a screwdriver.  I put the screwdriver down, picked up my mallet, and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that the screwdriver was rolling off the bench.  I grabbed it... and discovered it was actually the chisel.

Fortunately, this was a fairly cheap lesson:  It needed four stitches, but only did real damage to skin, so there shouldn't be any long-term damage except the scar, which will probably be fairly significant.

There are two important lessons here:

1) If something is rolling off your bench, DON'T TRY TO CATCH IT!

2) There's a tool rack on my bench.  This is pretty much exactly why it's there.

Hopefully I'll learn from these, and in the meantime I'm going to have to find a different way to cut mortises.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

A Desk for a Modern Campaign

I haven't written here much recently, and I may not for the near future.  I'm in the middle of a couple of projects I can't talk about until January (or at least the end of December), so you'll likely mostly get theoretical discussions for now, and maybe a couple of tool and book reviews.  This will be the first entry I write as a design notebook entry:  when I was writing software, this was the sort of writeup I did before starting.

Background and Purpose

I've been thinking for a while that I need a new desk.  Up until a couple weeks ago I was using my kitchen table, which meant it was usually too cluttered to actually eat at.  A few weeks ago I picked up a desk cheap at the thrift store down the road, but I don't love it.  It's better than using the table, but not by a whole lot.  So while I won't have time to start building, it's time to start thinking and planning.

I decided quickly that I wanted a desk that could be closed.  It's going to be in a "public" part of the house, and I'd like to be able to just close it up and hide my mess.  I also knew that I wanted a writing slope, cubbies for sorting mail and documents into, and space for my laptop and, ideally, an external keyboard.  That means I'm looking for, ideally, something like an old secretary desk.

All of this, combined with having helped friends move furniture recently, got me thinking about campaign furniture.  I've always loved the style, and the ability to just strap it closed and move it as is is a big incentive.  The downside of campaign furniture is, of course, the expense of building it.  Last night, though, I came to an important realization:  furniture designs change over time to fit new requirements.


So:  what are the requirements of a modern piece of campaign furniture?  I'm going to assume moving a couple of times a year;  say, something a college student might need, or someone who moves north in the summer and south in the winter.

1) It's more likely to be moved by minivan than by mule, and up staircases rather than mountains, so while it should still be solid, it doesn't need to be quite as bombproof as an original piece.

2) Humidity may still be an issue, but not to the point of rotting the wood, so teak or mahogany aren't really necessary.  The same goes for insects:  if bugs are eating your desk, they're likely also eating your house, so you've got bigger things to worry about.

3) Weight matters.  Much like a tool chest, we want the majority of the weight to be in the contents, not the box itself.

4) Getting around tight corners and up narrow staircases is an issue.  I know from experience that something 30" wide by about 20" deep can be worked around almost any odd corner, but things that are longer can sometimes be a challenge.  Figure 40" in length and 20" front-to-back is an absolute limitation, with smaller being better.

5) It really sucks to have a chest of drawers start opening itself halfway up a staircase, so each drawer should be able to lock (or at least latch) for transportation.

6) It needs to have space for a laptop,  keyboard, and mouse.  People who are likely to move often are less likely to have a desktop computer, so allowing space for that is probably unnecessary.  If an extra monitor is necessary, it can probably just be treated like a small television and left on top of the desk.

6) More and more people like standing desks, so it should end up reasonably tall.  I use a standing desk, and I find I like a keyboard to be at about 45" from the floor and my monitor to start about 10-15" higher, depending on the size of the monitor.

7) At least one lower drawer should be large enough to store hanging files:  treating it as a lateral file is probably most sensible, which means the inside dimension of the drawer needs to be at least 13" front to back.  Adding space for the drawer face and the cabinet back means a total depth of at least, say, 15".

Design Considerations

Since weight matters, I'd like to split something that tall into three sections, rather than two:  it'll make it much easier to carry, especially if lower drawers are used for storing file folders or something like that.  So:  figure two bottom sections totaling about 40-43",  with the top section a little shorter than either of the other two.  That sounds like two sections of 20" each, and one of maybe 15".  Add some low feet to the bottom section, and the bottom two sections will run up a bit further, bringing that total to around 44", give or take.  That sounds like a top section of 15" (external size) will be about right.  So now we know two sets of external dimensions:  we have a 15" minimum depth, and two of the sections will be 20" high, while the third is 15" high.

For reduced weight, let's go with stained pine for a material.  Getting 15" wide pine should be relatively inexpensive, it's easy to work with, and it's light.  We have a winner!  Walnut or oak would be more historically accurate, and stronger, but also more expensive and heavier.  Depending on my budget when I actually build it, I might go with one of those, but pine is more likely.  While the traditional thickness would be about an inch, 3/4" should be more than strong enough.

File drawers are usually about 12-13" deep, and should go on the bottom.  Given that, I'd say the right configuration is:

  • Bottom Case:  20" high.  12.5" drawer on the bottom, for files, and the remainder of the space taken up with a single shallower drawer.
  • Middle Case:  20" high.  A single full-width drawer below, and two or three narrower drawers above.  Alternatively, a file drawer below and two or three shallower drawers above.
  • Top Case: 15" high.  The full space is used as a secretary, with a slot for a keyboard and mouse at the bottom, space for a laptop just above them, and drawers and cubbies for paperwork and desk supplies scattered through the space.  A pass-through at the back for bringing power in and data cables (like an HDMI cable) out would be necessary.  A slide-out writing slope somewhere in the middle would also be nice.
For feet, I'd probably go with something removable, either turned feet or a bracket foot that clips or screws in easily.  They might or might not be removed for transport, but it would be nice to have the option.

Especially with a weaker wood (like pine), joints are critical.  The traditional half-blind dovetails should work fine, although through dovetails might be stronger.  Alternatively, rebates with brass screws would work just fine.  Brass reinforcement will do its job at the corners, and looks fantastic, so it gets to stay.


At this point, the design is basically done:  it's a three-component unit, with a file drawer at the bottom.  It's made of 3/4" pine, probably stained dark, and reinforced at the corners and some edges with brass.  It has one or two file drawers, along with some other storage, and stands about 58" high overall, and 15" deep front to back.  Pretty much the only variables turn out to be the configuration of the desk section, and how wide it is.  I'd be inclined to go about 36", because I know that will fit in the space I have.  Wider would be fine, narrower would be OK up to a point.  I wouldn't make it less than 30" side to side, because I think it would start looking less like campaign furniture and more like someone went overboard with a chimney cupboard.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Working With The Tools of my Fathers

I visited my uncle and aunt this weekend, and came away with treasure, along with the pleasure of seeing them again.  I'm the only one of my generation, as far as I can tell, with an interest in old tools.  Perhaps the others are wiser than me, or perhaps they just have different hobbies.

My uncle has been slowly sorting through things from my grandfather's basement, and sent me home with a collection of tools that were used -- or at least owned -- by my grandfather.  In looking through them after getting home, I realized how much has come down to me, both from my grandfather and from my father.

Almost all of my planes are now inherited.  There's a 24" Siegley jointer, which was my father's, along with a pair of block planes he bought over the years.  All three have some quirks, particularly the Siegley, but all three work well.  There's also a pair of Stanley smoothing planes (a #3 and a #4), a pair of rabbet planes (a wooden one with an angled iron, and a Stanley #78), and an oddity I'm not quite sure how to identify.  (That would be the one between the smoothing planes and block planes.)

The handsaw behind the jointer belonged to my grandfather, and one of my best carpentry saws, a Craftsman crosscut saw, came from my father.

A few tool boxes now in my possession were my grandfather's, along with a tool chest I'm itching to start restoring.

So what difference does it make?  Is there really a difference in using old family tools?  In one way, no.  Those Stanley planes don't work any better than anyone else's, or than one I bought on eBay.  In another way, though, they do make a difference.  One of the things that's lacking in the modern world is continuity, and a visible link between the past and the future.  Each time I pick up that #3 and start smoothing a board, I remember my grandfather, and think about who might come after me.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Traveling Chest - early thoughts

I love my Dutch-style chest, but it's not actually very portable.  I mean, yes, I can lift and move it with some help, but it's not "toss it in the car the morning of a trip" portable.

So I've been thinking about it, and I've decided to make a pair of devices to solve the problem.  One, which I'll build later, is a "milkman's bench", from the plans in Popular Woodworking a while ago (June 2013, according to the internet).  The first project is a small tool chest.

I'm planning to base it on a Japanese toolbox design, with a few modifications.  There's a sample of the design here.  I've seen a few variations, and my intent is to borrow a few of them.  While the standard design has no dividers, I'm considering adding one, to separate saws from everything else.  I'm also planning to set up the top so that I can set it on a bench or tabletop and use it as a bench hook and shooting board;  that will probably necessitate replacing it periodically, but that's OK.  The idea is quick and inexpensive.  To be honest, I expect nails to cost more than everything else put together, since I'd like to do square nails, and clench them in some spots.

For tools, I'm going to try to figure out a really minimal set.  Here's what I'm thinking at the moment.

  1. Saws.  My Shark Ryoba should handle the majority of chores, being cross or rip cuts in more or less any wood.  I'm also planning on a coping saw, since curves aren't really practical with the Ryoba.  I'm torn on the Veritas Carcase Saw;  it's tremendously useful, but I'm not convinced it's worth the weight.
  2. Chisels.  I'm planning on 1/4, 1/2, and 1" chisels.  They should cover just about any need I have.  These will need a tool roll, but that's OK.
  3. A hammer and a mallet.  My mallet at the moment is a cheap Harbor Freight panel beating mallet, and it works great.  The hammer will drive nails, and the mallet will adjust planes, drive chisels, and knock things together when I'm doing glueups.
  4. Brace and bits.  I'm a little bit torn on this.  They add a LOT of weight, but they're really the best option for making holes bigger than about 1/4".  Probably they'll go in.
  5. Hand drill and bits.  This might end up being my full roll of bits, but more likely I'll buy a small box of common bits, and call it good.
  6. Gimlets.  They weigh practically nothing, and they're the best tool I've ever found for starting screws.  Done.
  7. Planes.  I think I'll have a #5, #3, and the wooden shoulder plane in my regular kit.  That covers stock removal, jointing, smoothing, and rabbets, which is most of what I'll need.  I'll likely also toss a Veritas medium router plane in, because there are some things you just can't easily do otherwise.
  8. My shop apron.  The pockets of the shop apron hold:  a tape measure, a six inch combination square, a marking knife, a mechanical pencil, a folding 12 rule, and a very small six inch rule, which is great for checking mortise depths and things like that.
  9. Odds and ends.  The finest plate from my DMT set, a block of paraffin wax, a strop, scrapers, and stuff like that.  Probably a 16" rule, but maybe not.  Likely a bottle each of hide glue and Titebond 3.  At least one marking gauge.  Maybe a spokeshave, but maybe not.  Certainly a four-way rasp/file.
The real question in my mind is how much this is all going to weigh.  I'll probably drop it all in a bag or a bucket before starting to build, in case I wind up needing to slim it down further.  I could probably replace the #3 plane with a coffin plane, which would leave me the value but drop the weight some.

So what do I expect to be able to do with this?  Basically anything.  The ryoba and chisels mean I can cut dovetails.  Adding the carcase saw would mean I can suddenly cut dados, open or stopped, and grooves, and clean them with the router plane, which can also do things like hinge or lock mortises  The shoulder plane can cut rabbets.  Between the brace, hand drill, and gimlets, I can put a hole of any size in pretty much any wood.  With the coping saw, chisels, and a rasp I should be able to make curves of almost any radius, either inside or outside.

Some things will be difficult.  I wouldn't want to make a raised panel with this set, or cut grooves in anything very large.  I'm considering ordering the Mujingfang plow plane:  If it's decent, I might keep it for this chest, as a light-weight option.  If I could manage to replace all of the planes with wood, that would lighten it up considerably, leaving the brace as the single heaviest item.

In any case, it should prove interesting!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

CTR 10: Garrett Wade Gimlets

No, not the drink.  The old-fashioned hole-maker and screw-starter.

Where, and How Much?

These were a gift, but they came from Garrett-Wade, and are $25 for a set of seven.  You can get them here.

(photo from Garrett-Wade)

What do you get, and What's the Construction Like?

They come as a set of seven, from 5/64" to 3/16".  Construction is traditional, robust, and very simple:  it's simply a piece of wire, with threads and fluting cut at one end, and the other end bent into a handle shape.  They've been made this way more or less forever, and it's utterly reliable.

 How do they work?

These work beautifully.  I'll be honest, I didn't really have high hopes for them.  I've used gimlets a few places before, and didn't much like them.  They didn't cut well, they bound in the wood, and they didn't seem to make starting a screw any easier.  I decided I wanted these because Garrett Wade has a good reputation, and I was sick of trying to drill pilot holes with an eggbeater drill.  I made a very good choice, because they're fantastic.

Here's how they work.  Once you know where a screw is going in -- say, to install a hinge -- you mark where you want the hole.  You could use an awl, a marking knife, or the gimlet itself.  Pick a gimlet that is the same diameter as the core of the screw, or just a touch larger.  Twist it into the wood.  It shouldn't take much strength or effort, because the threads at the point will draw it in.  When you're done, twist it back out in reverse.  That last bit is important:  you'll end up with the ghost of a thread track in the wood, which means the screw will go in with practically no effort at all.  At this point there's no tool I'd rather use for drilling pilot holes.  This is another technology where I don't understand how it got lost:  sure, if I have a thousand holes to drill I'd rather use a power drill, but how often does that happen?  In my shop, probably never.

Final Thoughts?

They're well worth the cost, and if you ever need to drive small screws, order a set.  They are a little harder to use in hardwood, but they still do a pretty good job.  I've recently run into a number of tools like this:  things that seem like they should never have fallen out of style.  The mid-size Yankee screwdriver is another.  It produces more torque than my electric drill, while weighing less and being easier on my wrist.  More on that in another entry, though.  For right now, the important information is that it's well worth buying a set of these, and they'll make your life easier.

Would I buy another?

Absolutely.  They're cost effective and efficient.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Dutch tool chest, details

Yesterday I promised some details and photos of the chest.  Let's start with the outside.

The paint was dry enough this morning for me to re-assemble and repack the chest.

It's now very blue...

You can also see how cramped my workspace is... I'm squeezed in next to the clothes dryer.

Top open.  You can see the rack for small joinery saws at the top, the tool rack, and the top of a couple of large saws.    Below is a closeup of the joinery saws:  I'm working on rehabbing a nice old dovetail saw, but I haven't finished re-cutting the teeth yet, so this little gent's saw does the job for now.

The inside of the top section.  The rack holds screwdrivers, chisels, odd bits for a brace, and a Yankee screwdriver.  Bench planes and large saws are also stored up here, along with a box holding a full set of auger bits.  I somehow forgot to put the tenon saw back in before shooting.  Oops.  The tool rack and saw till I'll probably replace at some point... they work OK for now, but they're not ideal.

Fully open, with the bottom pretty empty.  There are two more shelves that go on the right, which you'll see next.

Almost entirely packed.  A few more things got added to the top along the way, but this is pretty much what it looks like in daily use.  I'm considering a shallow drawer (maybe two inches deep) for the top of the open section.  The shelves are really over-filled, and it would be nice to have a safer place for things like scrapers and blades for the combination plane.

Finally, the front panel.  The 16" square and coping saw fit pretty perfectly, and the slats to hold the panel in place slide behind the square just about perfectly.

All in all, I'm happy with the way this came out.  Even freshly painted it looks a little battered, but I don't mind that:  it was made from recycled lumber (previously a nearly unusable workbench), and I enjoy that it shows some history.

I doubt I've finished my changes to it:  I'm pretty sure I'm going to build a drawer for the lower section, and I may well rebuild the tool rack and saw till as well... I'll have to use them a little longer, and see what other tools I acquire.  At this point I think I mostly just need things like moulding planes, so there shouldn't be much change necessary in the top section.

In any case, there it is:  my completed-for-the-moment tool chest.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Thoughts on the Dutch-style Toolchest

I've been using my Dutch-style toolchest for over a year now, since early October 2013.  In that times, I've learned some things about it, some good, some bad.

The Bad

On the bad side, in one respect the design is a complete failure.  Part of the idea was that I should be able to pick it up and move it, fully loaded, on my own.  That's just not going to happen.  It weighs far more than I can comfortably carry, and I suspect the handles would tear out of the sides if I tried.  If I replaced all my metal planes with wood it might be different, but I don't think that would be enough of a change to solve the problem.

In addition to that, I'm running out of space, and some of my tools (the combination plane being the primary offender) just don't fit conveniently.  The combination plane is too long, tote to toe, to just slide in, so I have to put it in sideways, at which point the adjusting rods inevitably trap something else behind them.  I've also accumulated more tools than I really expected to want to store in it, and I'm going to have to make some hard decisions sooner or later, or else build an auxiliary toolchest and try to split things up into "used frequently" and "used rarely" categories.

The Good

There's far more good to say about it, though.  The primary goals of a toolchest, in my mind, are to keep tools safe, and to keep tools easily accessible.  This chest accomplishes that, and in far less space than I would have expected.  Things do get tangled up in that combo plane, but other than that everything is easy to reach.  I can grab a chisel, screwdriver, saw, or a plane (mostly) without having to move anything else.  The top compartment holds a full set of bench chisels, a 1/4" mortise chisel, screwdrivers (including a small Yankee drill/driver), bit adapters and a countersink for a brace, rip, crosscut, carcase, tenon, and dovetail saws, along with #3, #4, and #5 planes, a block plane, and an old transitional jointer plane.  I've also got my box of auger bits in there for the moment, for lack of a better place to put it.  Everything in there can be grabbed without having to shift anything else, and those are the tools I use most often.

The lower case holds moulding planes (what few I have), a hammer, the brace, an eggbeater drill, squares, a coping saw, scrapers, and various other bits and pieces that don't make sense to store up top.  They're more or less just tossed into the chest, though, so finding things can be a bit of a challenge.  Still, it rarely takes more than 30 seconds to find something, and at worst another 45 seconds to extract it.

The biggest advantage is in the convenience of cleanup.  Every tool has either a defined place or goes in a pile in the bottom.  That means putting everything away takes a few minutes, and there's no real thought involved beyond "does this need to be cleaned?".  As a result, my tools spend more time put away, and less time sitting out on the bench.

What's changed?

It looks like the last thing I published about this chest was in 2013 (here), and some things have changed since then.  I plan to do a more thorough breakdown, but here's the short list:

  • I did, in fact, add a shelf stack to the right end of the lower compartment.  It holds a Stanley #78 rabbet plane, my squares and gauges, blades for the combination plane, and scrapers.  Getting the small stuff out of the way has helped organization a lot, and makes it less likely that something will fall out of the chest when I open it.
  • The lid was completely replaced with a frame and panel arrangement.  The lid now has safe storage for a cacase saw and a dovetail saw, which has been really nice.  It's now one step to get to either one, or to put it away.  I used the lid for about 6 months without any glue (the frame is a pegged mortise and tenon arrangement) and it worked great:  this morning I knocked it apart, added glue, and put it back together... I'll paint it tonight, and reassemble it for the final time and photos tomorrow morning.
  • I've moved the tool rack to the back wall, gotten rid of the divider in the top, and added a saw till.  I just couldn't find a better way to store long saws, and it seems to be working quite well.
  • I painted it bright blue.  I like blue, and I found some cheap paint in a remarkably bright shade.  Yes, there will be pictures.  I ended up not priming it first, and I really like the sort of battered appearance the re-used wood has, and the slight variations in color from old stains on the wood.  It doesn't look like a show-piece, it looks like a chest that has had a long and productive life.
  • I build cleats to hold a 16" combination square and a coping saw into the removable front panel.  It means I need to keep that panel accessible when I take it off, but it works beautifully.
  • I gave up and bought something for the chest:  handles for the sides.  They're cheap steel chest lifts, but they fit and they make it simple to just grab the chest and move it (at least when it's empty...).
Once everything is back in it, I'll get some pictures to show the current layout.

Overall, I'm thrilled with the chest.  I admit I still love the idea of doing a big traditional tool-chest, but there's just no space.  My "shop" space is still only 6'x6', and a 2x2x3'+ chest just wasn't going to happen.  Someday I'll get my garage insulated and heated, and maybe I'll build one there.  Or maybe I'll just stick with the chest I have and am used to.