Coffee Table: Glue Up

Test fits are important.  With this project it was to the point where I needed assistance to do a test fit, but it’s good that I didn’t skip them, because I found that these parts were an inch too short:


An inch too short! Had to remake them.

The problem is that I sized them to the space between the legs (the same length as the short aprons) rather than the space between the long aprons, which is longer.  I guess this is a possible gotcha when sizing parts from the project instead of working with dimensions and plans.  (Note that these weren’t the simplest parts.)

So here’s the final test fit with the shelf omitted to expose the internal parts:


dsc00101.jpg_smThe blue tape marked the edges of the drawer support pieces which all have side-to-side slop.  I carefully checked that they were square to the front, where the openings for the drawers were located.

A friend came over to help with the glue-up.  I chose fish glue for this project because of its long open time.  When we to to the point of checking the drawer supports for square, my friend tried a different method: he quickly trimmed a stick to the width and ran it up and down the drawer cavity space.  His method actually checks the cavity for parallel sides, which is what really matters for smooth running drawers. And it was giving a different result than my test for square to the front!

I discovered that the apron with the drawer openings was not flat, so my reference surface was no good.  We adjusted the drawer openings to be parallel to each other as best we good rather than square to the face.   The glue-up took about 45 minutes.

After the glue was dry, with the clamps off, I discovered that one thing had gone wrong during the glue up.  The shelf had shifted sideways, mainly at one end (which means it twisted).  You can see the effect in the pictures below.  The shelf was supposed to stick out 1/4″ from the leg, and of course by the same amount on both sides.

dsc00564.jpg_sm dsc00562.jpg_sm It appears that in addition to the obvious problem shown above, the whole structure is not as square as when we first put it together and checked for square, and a tiny gap has appeared between the shelf and the rails that support the shelf.  There’s not much I can do to fix any of this.  Planing down the high side is about it.  I think the lesson is that parts need something to register them during glue up.  I had marks to center the shelf, and I spent a lot of effort figuring out where those marks should be and making sure the projection was balanced on each side.  And we lined up those marks when we put the shelf in.  But at the end of the glue up I forgot to check that the marks were still lined up.   (It didn’t help that the marks were visible only from the top and most of the glue up had the table upside down.)


Coffee Table: Getting Started

When I had the idea for the coffee table, I worked out the desired dimensions for the top.  I thought it needed to be about five feet long.  And to test the width I measured the size of the Ticket to Ride board and concluded it should be about 30 inches wide.  At first I thought maybe I would get wood from Greener Lumber.  They are retrieving wood from rivers in Belize where it has been sitting for a couple hundred years, and hence the wood is fine grained and supposedly quite nice.  Of course, it’s also expensive.  To get a better idea about the character of their wood I ordered a pen blank set and frankly, while the wood seemed nice, it didn’t seem amazing.

Meanwhile I heard about Northwest Timber. They have hundreds of unique, interesting boards posted for sale, often at quite shocking prices. I started thinking about marbled claro walnut boards for a coffee table and looking for bookmatched sets the right size. When I showed Joni several choices she unerringly picked the most expensive set as her favorite. But I eventually found a “cheap” set that was exactly the right size, 59 inches long and 30 inches wide.

The next question was what wood to use for the base.  I thought making the base out of claro walnut was an unnecessary expense, but I wasn’t sure what wood I could pair with the walnut that would look good.  I finally settled on Honduran mahogany, which seems to have a similar color to the light stripes in the claro walnut.  My local lumber hard had dimensional 3×3 Honduran mahogany, but no regular 4/4 material.  He claimed he could order some for me.  My local guy is a bit flaky.  I bugged him week after week and he kept saying “not yet” so after about 8 weeks of this I finally gave up and went online. I ended up getting the material from Hearne Hardwoods. It took three days from when I called them for my order to show up.

My plan with the dimensional 3×3 material was that I could orient the leg in any direction to get a rift sawn piece. As it happened, these pieces were already rift sawn, so I ended up with 1″ thick rift sawn offcuts that were 3″ and 2″ wide boards. The material I ordered had a lot of swirling grain that wasn’t ideal for pieces like aprons, so I spent quite a while doing the layout to decide which boards should be cut for which parts. And I ended up using those 3×3 blocks for most of the structure visible at the ends.  The offcuts, being rift sawn, had nice straight grain, suitable for aprons and rails.  And usin gwood from the same board at the ends gives the ends a nice unity in color. The drawer fronts are from a different, lighter colored board providing some contrast.

This picture shows the visible parts, not yet assembled:


The shelf can be seen a bit on the left. In the center the long low aprons with double tenons are behind, and the long top aprons with single tenons are in front. And on the right, piled on the bench are the short aprons and rails.

Here are the legs:


The four legs with all of the mortises and slots for the rails.


Leg close up showing the bottom joinery with the double mortise and the slots for the rails.

Does everything fit together?  Let’s see:

img_0318.jpg_smimg_0319.jpg_smThis dry fit test looks good.  Some of the mortise and tenon joints could be prettier overall, but the visible parts that are on the outside are all looking good.  And the thing I was the most worried about, the length of the shelf, seems to be right.   Next I need to make the internal structure that supports all the drawers, and cut the openings on the front apron.

Coffee Table: Design

It seemed like we needed a table to go in front of the couch.  We could play games on this table instead of on the floor.  I deployed a piece of plywood on boxes as a prototype at the customary 18″ height.  After a while I turned the boxes and raised the height to 24″.  At first this seemed odd but it quickly became more comfortable than the lower height.  Seated at the table you could get your legs underneath it.  It was easier to reach things.  In fact, I began to wonder why anybody would want an 18″ table.  That height seems to be suitable only for use as a footstool.

This was the first project I designed using Sketchup.  The design came out unusual because I wanted to have a large overhang, so that you could get your legs under the table somewhat, but I also wanted drawers.  If I put the drawers in the customary location right under the tabletop then they have the clear the large overhang before you can get anything out.  That didn’t make sense.  If I put them close to the floor, it seemed likely that they’d hit the couch or the legs of the person sitting on the couch.  So I ended up with drawers at the ends instead, with a couple very small drawers on the front for pens and paper.

With the basic form taking shape I had the problem of deciding how to attach the shelf and handle wood movement.  None of the techniques I read about seemed right.  I finally hit on the method of using a tongue and groove joint with the tongue free to expand and contract in the groove.

I asked for a design critique on Design Matters, and tweaked the design based on the suggestions I got there.

Here is the final design in Sketchup:

table1 table2 table3

Split Top Roubo Workbench

The next project was supposed to be a wardrobe, but the wardrobe’s user was so uncertain about her needs in a wardrobe that I decided to make a workbench instead.  This project was enabled by a friend with a powered jointer.  I used the Benchcrafted hardware, the Glide leg vise and the tail vise. And I mostly followed the plans that Benchcrafted supplies. I finished this project in late 2011, and then built a wall rack for my tools. I’m pretty sure that if I had a tool chest, my tools would just always be sitting on the bench top.

The old workbench was a built-in structure that was nailed to the wall and was very sturdy, but it presented workholding challenges, particularly with securing things to the top for planing. I would use the Veritas wonder-dog, but it was not great. It would spin in the hole and release the work, especially when planing across the grain.


And the new bench:

workbench3_sworkbench2_sHere is a shot showing the glide leg vise in operation.  The pin keeps the vise chop parallel when holding workpieces of different thicknesses.  The wheel rollers take the weight off the screw so the vise glides in and out easily.  I took the screw handle off the wheel because it seemed unnecessary and I kept bumping into it.

glidesThe tail vise has been fantastic, and I’ve really been enjoying it as I have worked on my next project.  It is so easy to hold things in place on the bench top that I do it when I’m marking with a gauge, or for other operations where before it was just too much trouble and I would hold the work in one hand while using a tool in the other.

tail1stail2s tail3s

I made the dogs out of hickory dowel, which I unfortunately had to shave down so it would fit in the holes as the dowel was slightly oversized.  Fitting with a ball catch the dogs work well and I have a dog in every hole in the bench, so I’m never hunting around for the dogs.

Here’s a picture showing the tools on the wall.  I sure got a lot more on there than I did on the peg board:


Double Helix Contra Dance

I have been contra dancing for many years, but I was never inspired to write contra dances.  There are thousands of great dances already written, after all.  This changed after a botched walk-through of a Becket dance, where we progressed incorrectly: in addition to moving up the set we also switched sides.  I thought that it would be interesting to have a dance that intentionally progressed in this fashion.  Here is a diagram with the band shown by musical notes at the bottom, and couples shown by letters and numbers:

danceprogressionI thought about this for a while, and I realized why dances like this don’t seem to exist.  To make this work well, you really want each minor set to turn in the opposite direction as the last one, something which is hard to do.  You can’t give different instructions to the odd sets and the even sets, but that’s you want to get the dancers to progress the right direction: couple A moves to their right while couple B moves to their left.  So getting the progression to happen properly is difficult.

At Timber Ridge Family Camp I decided mid-week that if I was going to write this dance, I should do it there, because I’d have a chance of walking it through to test it.  I found it interesting how writing a dance required me to think differently about the dance figures and how they flow together.  An initial version had long lines followed by a swing, and someone commented that it didn’t flow very well.

I did finally come up with something, and we walked it through late at night on the last night, and it seemed to work, but we didn’t try it with music.  In some ways the dance is like a four facing four:  you have to end a swing facing in the direction of progression.  And it has a quirk:  it’s a double progression dance, and you swing your neighbor, but you end up seeing the same neighbor twice and then skipping the next three neighbors.  Here it is:

Double Helix PDF

Side Table

This project followed quickly on the heels of the file cabinet and I finished it much faster, by the end of 2010–less than a year.  The main challenge of this piece was learning to cut mortise and tenon joints.  This piece had only 8 little mortise and tenon joints unlike the file cabinet which had over 19 linear feet of dovetails.  The mortise and tenon appears to be more difficult to cut than the dovetail, but with only 8 of them to cut, it didn’t take long.

This piece is made of canarywood, which is apparently somewhat harder than hard maple.  I suspect it was not the best wood to choose for learning mortise and tenon joinery.  I found it necessary to drill a starter hole with the drill press.  Subsequent cuts with the mortise chisel follow the initial hole, and the mortise comes out square to the face.  When I tried to do it entirely by hand I would invariably get a crooked mortise.

Another observation is that by this point, I’m doing much better at jointing by hand.  The key for me was learning the methods described by David Charlesworth.  Everybody else, when talking about hand jointing, seems to suggest that you should grab your plane, and just go to work, and the board will become flat.  That “method” never worked for me.  And when I first tried edge jointing, I gave up in frustration and did it with the router.   For this project I edge jointed everything by hand using a cambered blade and stop shavings as Charlesworth teaches.

I also tried Old Brown Glue, but I found it had at best a 5 minute working time in my shop, which is just too short.  The glue line I had gotten—this was for a tabletop edge joint—was too wide, so I tried to reverse the joint with water and heat.  But I couldn’t get the hide glue to let go and I eventually sawed it apart.

stable4 stable3 stable2 stable1

File Cabinet

At long last the file cabinet is finished. I originally started planning this project in 2001, knowing very little about wood working at the time. And it’s now finally complete in 2010. (Many other projects took priority…and I had a lot to learn.)

Here are two views of the front showing the curly maple solid wood drawer fronts. This material was too wide for my planer so I flattened it and surfaced it entirely with hand planes. (The planer also tends to give me tear out on curly maple, something which is not a problem for hand planes.)  My experience with the napkin holders indicated that I would get tear out if I took shavings over .002″, so to do this job efficiently I fit my plane with a toothed blade.



I thought the back might end up exposed, so I used maple plywood that was not rotary cut. (This cost double the rotary cut stuff.) Notice that the plywood happened to have an interesting splotch of color in it.


Just about every joint in this cabinet is a dovetail joint. You can see the dovetails here on the cabinet top (which features a very nice piece of quarter sawn cherry) and from the side.



Joinery Details

This project involved 28″ long dovetails joints at each corner. I cut these joints by hand using a rip tooth dozuki and an assortment of chisels. Close ups of the finished joints from one side, top and bottom:


qt_dovetails_botAt the front I used sliding dovetails for the drawer dividers. I cut these joints by sawing the sides and then removing the waste with a router plane (the hand tool). Some people say they use a chisel for this, but I had trouble when I did a practice joint and used a chisel. Note that the hand cut sliding dovetails is dovetailed only one one side because you can more accurately align the part on the top (straight) edge. I only had to do two practice joints before I felt ready for the real thing.


For wedged mortise and tenon joints, I’m afraid I need significantly more practice. I snuck some in on the inside of the case when I mounted the feet. Using this joint here is overkill, but I thought it would be a nice opportunity to try the joint. First I tried one wedge, and the joints left enormous gaps at the sides. With two wedges things were better, but they still weren’t joints I’d want to display prominently. (Since they’re hidden inside the case nobody is likely to scrutinize them.)


Dovetailed File Cabinet Drawers

After the practice dovetails it’s time for the real thing. The goal is a three drawer file cabinet. One problem I noted with the wood I used for the practice dovetails is that it wasn’t straight. How does one get straight wood? One straightens the wood right before using it.

So for this project I bought rough sawn maple to be my drawer sides. The goal was to turn this material into 1/2 inch thick wood. I used my Clifton #7 hand plane to make one face of each board flat. This step definitely involves some skill. The first time I tried I started with a one inch board and by the time it was flat I had reduced parts of the board to less than 1/2 inch thick. Oops.

But I learned and can do a somewhat slow, but reasonable job at this now. After making one side flat I ran the boards through my thickness planer to get 1/2 inch wood. Then I glued them together. Finally I was ready to trim the wood to size.

All of this preparation took longer, I think, than the actual cutting of the dovetails. These drawers will hold hanging files so I fit them with plastic rails for the files. They will someday be graced by curly maple fronts. They will also someday have a case to live in.

One thing I noticed when joining maple boards together was that this wood seemed quite variable and in some cases I didn’t match the boards well. But when one board happens to have some curl on it, there’s no way to get a good match.


Napkin Holder

This project was meant to be a curly maple practice to see how this wood is to work with as a sort of preparation for (someday) working with curly maple for drawer fronts.

I found that when I ran curly maple through the planer it tended to tear out, at least with my machine.  I started this project with a piece of 1.5″ thick curly maple.  I had originally planned a thinner base but I took the path of least resistance and made the base very thick.  The wood was very flat and just need a bit of touching up.

To make the vertical slats I cut thin wood using the bandsaw from the 1.5″ thick piece.  To make these pieces flat and uniformly thick I used my hand planes.  I found that the task of making the wood uniformly thick was not as difficult as I feared, at least on small pieces like this.  However, I did find that I had to take shavings smaller than 0.002 inches thick or the wood would tear out.