Best gifts for woodworkers and makers of all kinds

I love doing a holiday gift guide every year. It’s my chance to share some of the best new gear I’ve seen, plus a few existing products you might have overlooked. From best buys to treat-yourselfs, stocking stuffers to workshop heavyweights, there’s something for everyone. I’ll start with music, which makes everybody happy.

Best bluetooth earplugs on the market

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IsoTunes bluetooth earplug headphones, $60-90

I like listening to music and podcasts in my workshop. When I need to concentrate, it’s tunes; when I don’t, it’s talk. And these new IsoTunes noise-isolating headphones are the best I’ve tried. They hang on the back of your neck till you need them, but more often than not I plug them in my ears and leave them there. When the occasional call comes in, I’m ready. For everyone from gun owners to frequent fliers to DIYers of all stripes, these earbuds rock.

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I keep these IsoTunes in my ears almost all the time now in the shop. They kill even the loudest noises, they sound amazing, and they’re super comfy to wear.

There are two models, the normal IsoTunes and IsoTunes Pro, with the main difference being battery time: 4 hours of music in one; 10 hours in the other. But the super-comfy earbuds and controls are the same either way, as is how amazingly effective these are at canceling the roar of my loudest tools. Both come with a number of different plugs for different size ears, so you can get the fit just right. It takes a minute to compress the foam plugs and get them into your ears, but once you do, you’ll be amazed. In fact, you’ll forget they are even there.

More music, in the form of two awesome projects

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Rockler Wireless Speaker Kit, $30

While we are on the topic, here’s an awesome little project kit from Rockler, a great source for project ideas of all kinds, especially for beginner and intermediate woodworkers. The Rockler Bluetooth Speaker Kit includes a sweet-little full-range speaker, with the wiring and electronics you need to put your music into almost anything.

Rocker also includes a free plan download on the product page.  By the way one of the nice Forstner bits featured below will be perfect for installing this kit.

This kit has proved so popular at $30 that is it sold out at the moment. But if you buy one now you still might get it by Christmas.

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Case of Base “Thinker” Boombox Kit, $200

While we are exploring bluetooth speaker kits, if you want true hi-fi sound in a kit that can be installed into almost anything, check out the kits at Case of Bass. Most include a big rechargeable battery, bluetooth unit, a serious amp, and serious speakers. The rest is up to you. I recommend that you buy the intermediate or high-end kit, which includes the lithium-ion battery (and can also be plugged in).

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What you put your Case of Bass boombox audio components into is up to you. The only limit is your imagination.

A couple of how-to tips for installing a Case of Bass Kit. Use some flexible foam (like egg-crate mattress topper) to create a divider between the left and right channels inside the box you build. For more amazing Cases of Bass, look here.

WoodRiver Forstner bits are a steal at $60

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WoodRiver 16-pc. Forstner bit set, $60

I just tested big drill bits for Woodcraft magazine, from hole saws to spade bits to the all-time greatest option for large holes, the Forstner bit, and the WoodRiver Forstners ran away with the best-buy award, boring big, clean holes in the hardest woods for much less than the other top-performers. And this 16-bit set just went on sale, covering all the sizes you are likely to need. It’s even got a nice wood box for storage and protection.

If you don’t already know about Forstner bits, listen up. Unlike any other drill bit, these make flat-bottomed holes for all sort of projects. They also leave a perfectly clean rim and smooth walls. Due to their unique cutting geometry, they can be used (in a drill press only) to bore holes at an angle or partially off the side of a board. If you are clearing out a mortise, you can overlap the holes without these bits wandering a bit.

If that weren’t enough, you can use Forstner bits in handheld drills too. But stick to the straight holes for that, no partials or angles!

There’s nothing like a great pair of boots

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Danner Mountain 600, $200 (without logo, with various leather and sole colors)

I’m lucky that my workshop is in an attached garage I can walk into through a door near the kitchen. But when I plan to spend more than an hour out there, I put on workboots. It might seem like overkill indoors, but the solid support makes a huge difference on concrete floors, and lets me move around more quickly and positively.

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A legendary Portland boot company, Danner, recently reached out with an offer I couldn’t refuse, a free pair of its latest hiking boots, complete with the logo of the Portland Timbers soccer team on the side (one of my other obsessions, aside from building stuff and being outdoors). All I had to promise was to try them out, and let folks know if I like them. As it turns out, I don’t like them…I flipping love them. These are hands-down the most comfortable boots I’ve ever worn, and I’ve got wide feet that are pretty hard to make happy. I wear them all the time in the shop now, plus they look cool around town too. My next move will be to try them out on the rocky trails of the Columbia River Gorge. Stay tuned for that.

By the way, Danner has models for all sorts of pursuits, all made in its factory in north Portland. These are made to be lightweight and waterproof, for the Pacific Northwest. In fact, if you don’t mind the Timbers logo on the side, and the white sidewalls, you can get these on sale for $135. Otherwise, they are $200, and still worth every penny.

Good boots are a great investment. You’ll go through 10 crappy pairs of light hikers during the lifespan of one pair of leather boots that are well cared for. I’m still hiking in a great pair of boots I bought 25 years ago.

Mobilize your shop for less

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Grizzly “Bear Crawl” Heavy-Duty Mobile Base, $65

If you’re like me, you’re a little strapped for space. So I mobilize everything I can. That lets me shift the big stuff around to make room for the project at hand. I’ve been using mobile bases for years, but I recently tested one for Fine Woodworking that changes the game. There is no more heavier-duty, smoother-rolling mobile base for the money than the new “Bear Crawl” from Grizzly. Trust me, you want the stiffest construction and best wheels you can buy in your mobile base, so you know it will handle the heaviest machines in your shop without flexing or getting hung up on debris. Simply put, the “Bear Crawl” is a beast, and a shocking deal at $65.

The Bear Crawl base has big levers that make it easy to push down the feet that keep the base locked in place, or drop it down onto the swivel casters.

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Rockler Workbench Caster Kit, $70

Workbenches are a lot longer than woodworking machines, and trickier to mobilize, so a lot of folks just slide them around to make space in the shop. Unlike a machine, a workbench needs to sit on its legs, not a mobile base, to provide a solid foundation for effective handwork. Rocker has the solution. Instead of trying to build a giant frame that fits around all four legs, they created casters that attach to each leg individually.

Read the instructions carefully and installation is easy. After that, you just stomp each lever to raise the heaviest bench onto smooth-rolling wheels, or drop it down solidly onto its legs. Here’s a bonus idea: Make your workbench the right height to act as an outfeed table for your tablesaw, and you can roll it into place whenever you need to.

Great little scraper for dried glue

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Woodpeckers Mighty Mini Scraper, $25

Woodpeckers is one of my favorite sources for innovative hand tools, and they’ve struck again with this simple solution for scraping away glue squeeze-out. It’s nothing more than one of those carbide cutters from a segmented-head milling machines, with a handle attached, but it’s genius nonetheless, and a great stocking stuffer. The great thing about carbide is how long it’s edges will last, even after scraping a mile of hard glue, and each of these little cutters has four edges. When one side gets dull (someday), you can just loosen and rotate the cutter to get a fresh new edge. Another cool thing about carbide is it won’t rust, so you can scrape wet glue too and just wipe off the tool afterward.

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Both slightly curved and straight cutters are available, for flat surfaces and corners, respectively.

Woodpeckers’ standard scraper has slightly curved edges so the corners don’t dig in, but they also sell a flat-edged accessory cutter for $12 so you can get into corners. I haven’t tried this little tool yet, but I’ve used others like it, and at $25 it’s well worth a try.

Three great gifts for hand-tool lovers

If you’ve ever dreamed of cutting dovetails by hand, or just want to use more hand tools in your work, these three items are all essentials, and all incredible buys considering their quality. The first two are from Veritas, one of the best hand-tool makers and innovators on the planet. The last is one of my favorite finds from Japan, for just $20.

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Veritas Standard Dovetail Saw, $74

Veritas Tools are made in Canada, and they include innovations you won’t find anywhere else. One is the molded spine on the back of their handsaws, made from a high-tech metal/polymer blend, which is just as strong as a traditional folded-brass spine but lighter and cheaper to manufacture. That makes the Veritas dovetail saws the best value out there. These are push saws, which many people find easier to use than pullsaws for precise cuts, and Veritas does not compromise on the steel or the sharpening of these saws, making them a joy to use.

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Veritas Standard Wheel Marking Gauge (top), $32

A marking gauge is an essential tool for any fine woodworker, specializing in accurate lines parallel to an edge, not only for marking, but also preventing tearout when you actually make a cut at that line.

I just edited a review of marking gauges for Fine Woodworking magazine (check the latest issue), and the standard Veritas wheel type came out on top for value, as it has again and again in various tests. It’s doesn’t have a micro-adjuster like some of the pricier, newer models, but with an O-ring inside the fence controlling its movement, fine adjustments are easy. Most importantly, it’s sharp disk cuts perfect lines with and across the grain, and the round brass fence rides a board beautifully.

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And last but not at all least, this is one of my favorite tools to use. Every time I sharpen a hand tool, which usually involves waterstones, I wipe it off and reach for my little camellia oil applicator to protect the surfaces of the blade from rust. I use it on the cast-iron bodies of my hand planes also, after handling them, since finger oil causes corrosion too.

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Camellia Oil Set, $20

There are other rust preventers out there, and some might even be rated higher in scientific tests, but this one is so nice to use that you won’t hesitate to use it. Camellia oil is a light, subtly fragrant, traditional Japanese tool oil that comes in small squirt-bottles,  I like to apply it with separate little bottle that has a wick on top. Both come in this handy little set from Woodcraft. I rub the wick on the steel, and then spread the oil around with my fingers. Just another Zen moment in the workshop.

Last but not least, Build Stuff with Wood!

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“Build Stuff with Wood,” $15 at Amazon.com

I’m biased of course, but I think my new book is a wonderful gift for woodworkers and wanna-be woodworkers young and old. Amazon has the best deal on it, of course.

It’s chock full of advice for true beginners, plus 13 projects for sawdust-makers at every stage of the journey. Inspired by the free-wheeling, creative spirit of the maker movement, I threw out the old dusty rules (except the ones for being safe and getting good results) to design a bunch of cool, usable, brag-worthy projects anyone can make with just a few basic power tools.

Whether you have zero skills and experience, or you’re just looking for great projects that don’t take forever to build, this book is for you.

Happy holidays everyone!

 

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Make a six-pack caddy from pallet wood

My first book is out and it’s aimed at anyone looking for easy yet totally useful and stylish projects for woodworkers of all levels. Look to the right for more info. But my second book, due out in fall of 2018, is going to be a whole different deal. Yeah, there will be wood in there, and this project is a good example,  but it’s really about every part of the new maker movement, from micro controllers and LEDs to IKEA hacks to a rediscovery of traditional materials like leather, steel, and concrete. What will be exactly the same about both books is how easy and accessible yet brag-worthy and badass the projects will be (that’s the plan, anyway!).

This sweet six-pack caddy is a perfect example. Anyone can make this using simple tools and free wood, but it will add handcrafted style to your life. I sized it to accept all sizes of bottles and cans, from old-school shorties up to hip 22-ouncers, and I spaced the slats to show off the labels. Inside is a separate grid made from thinner oak slats (thanks, Home Depot), which keeps the bottles and cans from rocking and rolling before the music starts. I also added a classic Starr X bottle opener on one end, so I never have to search for one.

This project is so easy to make it could be your very first attempt at woodworking. You’ll need a fat drill bit or hole saw to make the holes for the dowel, almost any kind of saw to cut out the pieces, and then it all goes together with a hammer and nails. I’ll show you a few tricks to make things easier, but you’ll be cracking open your first IPA in no time.

I can’t wait to roll up to my first party with my new creation in hand, packed with an enticing collection of flavors and brews—something for everyone. Despite the simple tools, materials, and techniques—or maybe because of them—it looks awesome. I might use a wood-burning tool to burn an image of Gandalf (LOTR fans, holler) onto one end. Seriously.

Pallet-wood reality check

For decades now optimistic, frugal folks have been exhorting others to build projects with pallets. I applaud their passion and pluck, and I love a free stack of boards as much as the next maker, but I’ll kick off my own pallet-wood project with a caveat: While it’s true that pallets are free and widely available—in the biggest cities and smallest towns—this rough material is not right for every project.

As you might imagine, pallets are built to be strong and not much else. So the wood is roughsawn, full of knots and defects, and varying in width and thickness, even in the same board. Wood species—usually red oak or Southern yellow pine (a hard softwood)—are chosen for strength over style as well. And last, the pallets you’ll find in the free pile are usually outdoors, with dirt and grease ground in.

All that said, a little brushing and sanding goes a long way, and you can clean up pallet boards for all sorts of rustic projects, like outdoor planters, funky frames, a weathered rack for a row of coat hooks, or the sweet tote in this chapter. The key is to lean into the imperfection, embracing it as part of the appeal.

Rustic is the rule. I wouldn’t pull a bunch of boards off a pallet, run them through a planer (if you have one), and try to build fine furniture with them. The sand and grit will trash your planer knives, and, in the end, the low-grade wood won’t look that great anyway. There is no point using gnarly pallet wood when inexpensive boards from the home center will be more appropriate for the project at hand.

Embrace the roughsawn, weathered look, and let your imagination wander. For example, I’ve seen stylized flags made from pallet wood, with the boards turned into stripes by applying a diluted wash of latex paint in different colors.

 

Where to find pallets

I’ve driven by lots of “free pallets” signs from coast to coast. For this project, however, I was on a deadline, so I scrolled through craigslist to see what I could dig up in a day. I found six Portland citizens begging me to haul away their pallets, so I dug through the sketchy photos to find the best bets. Be aware that some pallets are totally trashed, often with only a few scraggly boards still hanging on.

On the flip side, there are extra-sweet, non-standard pallets around too, with better, smoother, boards in sizes other than the usual thick frame pieces and thin slats. Actually, that’s what I was looking for on this project, something that would yield a 3/4-in.-thick board for the ends of the beer caddy. (That’s just thick enough to let me nail into them but not so thick they look clunky.)

It took some digging and re-stacking, but near the bottom of the dirty pile of pallets I found on my first stop, outside a restaurant in North Portland, there were two winners: a standard pallet with thin slats for the sides of the caddy, and a custom pallet with a semi-clean row of 3/4-in. boards on top. And one—just one—was wide enough to let me make the caddy I had designed.

The easy way to harvest boards

When you lock horns with your first pallet, your inclination will be to start pulling nails, and/or yanking off entire boards. You have encountered another reality of the pallet game: Aiming for strength at all costs, pallet-makers use ring-shank nails that are a nightmare to pull out. I’ve heard tell of pallets joined with staples, making the boards easy to remove, but I haven’t found one of those unicorns yet.

There are lots of ways to defeat the nails—just ask Google—but none are fun, and you’re likely to split or damage as many boards as you save. If you can avoid pulling nails or pounding boards loose from the back side, I say do it.

My favorite way to harvest pallet wood is the simplest: Run a circular saw along the top of the slats, as close as possible to the frame pieces below, and the slats just drop free. You end up with pretty short pieces, but for projects like this one, those are perfect.

If you need your pallet boards full length, there are ways to separate them from the beams below, such as sawing through the nails from the back side, by slipping the blade of a reciprocating saw between the slats and frame. You can also bang the boards loose from the back side. I’ve also seen specially welded pry bars for the purpose.

Alrighty then, let’s get to it.

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By far the easiest way to remove boards from a pallet is to saw them off. You’ll get shorter planks, but you’ll get them in minutes.
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Start by laying out one end. It’s 6-3/8 in. wide and 13 in. tall, and the angles start about 7-1/2 in. from the bottom. Lay out the hole to fit whatever dowel you are using for a handle.
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Drill the hole first. I used a Forstner bit sized for my 1-1/8-in.-dia. dowel, and I clamped a waste piece below so the back of the hole didn’t chip out.
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You can make every cut on this project using a jigsaw.
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After smoothing the edges with a sanding block, just use the first end to lay out the second one.
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The caddy is 11-3/8 in. long, so the dowel and slats all get cut at that length. Simple!
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You’ll need to trim the side slats 2 in. wide, and also trim one of the bottom slats so you get a good fit down there. I did this on the tablesaw, but the jigsaw would also work.
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Assembly is a cinch. Use 16-ga. by 1-in. panel nails, which have a serrated shank so they hold super well. But drill first with a 1/16-in. drill so the nails go in easy and the wood doesn’t split.
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Lay the caddy on its side to attach all the slats.
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These oak slats are 1/4 in. thick and 3-1/2 in. wide, just the ay they came from the home center. The first step to making the interior grid is cutting the pieces a little shorter than the interior of the caddy. Then chop a little bevel on the top corners of the pieces. I used my miter saw but a jigsaw or handsaw would also work.
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The trick to laying out perfect notches is to use a shop pencil to trace around the actual pieces. Go a bit more than halfway across the pieces with the slots so you can be sure they will come together fully.
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Cut along the inside of your lines with a jigsaw and nibble away the end to get rid of the waste piece. 
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Try the fit. You can always use the jigsaw to nibble a bit more off the side of a slot. Once the fit is good, add some glue to the mating surfaces and assemble the pieces on a flat surface, so they end up flush at the top and bottom.
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The grid just drops in and looks sweet.
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Add a bottle opener on one end, load up your cool tote with tasty craft brew, and you’ll be everyone’s favorite party guest.

Do More with Less: Tips and Tricks from “Build Stuff with Wood”

Being the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine was like being at the business end of a fire hose, with thousands of would-be contributors sending in an endless stream of ideas. Some were suited only for very advanced technicians, others were strange and ill-advised, and quite a few were just plain awesome. I stored the best of these on dusty shelves in my mind palace, waiting for the chance to use them someday, in a book like “Build Stuff with Wood.” Here are a few of my favorites from the book, all related to doing better work with fewer tools and supplies. If you like these, you should check out the book!

You’ll notice that small, portable power tools play a big role; that’s because I believe they are the easiest path into the craft, especially for people with limited space and limited budgets. But the nice thing about the jigsaw, circular saw, cordless drill, and miter saw are that you’ll keep on using them throughout your life,  for home improvement and fine woodworking alike, even after you add machines and high-end hand tools to your arsenal.

By the way, the projects in the book are not only all do-able in a weekend, but also worth doing, a level above the usual projects suggested for beginners. If you know anyone curious about woodworking but afraid to dive in, hand them a copy of “Build Stuff.” If you think you might welcome 13 simple yet stylish projects that you can knock out in a fun weekend, pick up a copy for yourself. If nothing else, you’ll pick up some handy tips and tricks. Here are just a few.

Turn a cabinet base into a rolling workstation

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Do it in a day. Unless you love building plywood cabinets, start with a used or surplus kitchen base cabinet and hot-rod it with an MDF bottom, casters, and a double layer of MDF on top, to create a rolling work unit with built-in storage. I painted the sides red to match the casters and bring it all together.

 

To be classified as a “fine woodworker,” we all think we need a classic workbench, massive and pricey. Whether you have one of those or not, I think you’ll find good use for this rolling workstation. The time-saving trick is starting with a used or overstocked base cabinet from your local store for surplus building materials. One in Oregon is called the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, with all proceeds going to a great cause. Pick a cabinet that is 42 in. long or less, and then you can use a single sheet of MDF to add a double-layer benchtop that overhangs the cabinet and an overhanging bottom too, which makes it easy to add casters.

If you are just starting out, you can put all your clamps and portable power tools in the cabinet, and roll your whole workshop into the corner when you’re done working.

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Low-tech work support. To create a simple work support for a miter saw, screw a few pieces of 2×4 together, and add drywall screws to the bottom to adjust it to the perfect height.

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Cutting guide turns a circular saw into a tracksaw

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Using it is easy. A cutting guide is amazing for making long, straight cuts in sheet goods. Just line it up with a couple of tick marks, clamp it there, and cut.

Tablesaws are expensive, with a steep learning curve required for safe, successful operation. Armed with a shopmade cutting guide like this one, the humble circular saw can make straight accurate cuts that rival those made by pricey tablesaws and tracksaws. It’s made from two pieces of MDF or plywood, one 3/4 in. thick for the fence and the other 1/4 in. for the base, with 3/4-in.-long screws driven up through the base (and countersunk) to attach the two parts.

The trick is making the fence wide enough that the saw can pass by without hitting the clamps you’ll use to lock the guide onto a workpiece, and then making the whole base wide enough to accommodate the fence, plus the distance between the edge of the saw’s base plate and its blade.

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Build it and trim it. Note that the fence is wide enough to let the saw motor clear the clamps, and the base is wide enough overall so that the saw will trim a little off on the first pass. From then on, the guide will show you exactly where the saw will cut.

The magic comes the first time you run the saw down the fence and it trims off some of the base. From then on the base will do two wonderful things: Its trimmed edge will show you exactly where the saw blade will go, so you can line it up with lay out marks or lines, and that same edge will press down on the edge of the cut, preventing chipping or splintering and guaranteeing a clean cut. It’s amazing, and as low-tech as heck.

Even if you only need this guide for breaking down big plywood sheets before you head to the tablesaw, it’s well worth building.

Rigid foam beats sawhorses any day

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Here’s a companion for your cutting guide. Ever find yourself balancing a long board or big sheet of plywood on saw horses, attempting to keep it level and control the cutoff when it falls free? It can take up to four sawhorses to do the job safely, all set at the same level. So we just hang the whole thing off a benchtop and grab the heavy offcut, attempting to stop it from levering downward and splitting off a chunk of good wood.

The solution is $5 piece of rigid foam insulation. Lay that on the floor or benchtop, put the workpiece on top, and you can cut freely with full support along the full length of the material, with no danger to the sawblade or the surface below. Look at the cutting-guide photos above to see how it works.

You can cut into that foam dozens of times before its too beat to do its job. And here’s one more reason to buy rigid foam: It’s perfect for crafting mockups of furniture designs! There is nothing like seeing your design full-size in 3-D to see if it really works.

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Great for mockups too. I use thin panels of rigid foam for design mockups. It’s cheap and it cuts easily with power tools.

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Good blades turn a jigsaw into a bandsaw

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Amazing blades. Buy long jigsaw blades designed for clean cuts in soft woods and hardwoods to see what this under-appreciated woodworking tool can really do.

OK, there is no replacing the smooth, continuous action of a bandsaw and the control the table affords, but for hundreds less you can get an excellent jigsaw, which will stow nicely in that rolling workstation I showed off at the top of this article. The trick with the jigsaw is replacing the all-purpose blades that come in the box. Bosch and others make long, polished, sharp blades expressly designed for clean cuts in solid wood. Try them and you’ll be amazed at the glassy cuts and smooth curves your jigsaw will produce.

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Smooth moves. If you are a beginner, a jigsaw might be all the saw you need.
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Even if you own a bandsaw, you’ll find all sorts of jobs for the handheld tool, like making curved cuts in sheet goods that would be awkward to wrestle across the bandsaw table, or cutting big circles with a little shopmade jig (cornhole, anyone?).

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Impact driver will put your old cordless drill to shame

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The mighty impact driver. These compact cordless tools not only make long screws a cinch to drive, but they also drill like champs too. To own one is to love one.

If you don’t yet own an impact driver, head directly to the home center. Your old cordless batteries were getting tired anyway. Adapted from auto shops and factories, the impact driver uses a staccato beat of rotational impacts to seemingly melt screws into wood, without stripping heads or torquing wrists. Try it for to believe it!

That impact action means you don’t need as many volts. For $80-$110, you can get a compact 12-volt model that will drive the longest screws with ease.

What they don’t tell you on the box is how well an impact driver will drill, meaning it’s much more than a dedicated screwdriver. When they encounter big bits or hard woods, impact drivers  sometimes start doing their impact thing, but it doesn’t affect the drilling action negatively. The only downside is the quick-change chuck, which only accepts only hex-shank bits and drivers. For the standard round-shanked bits in my collection, I keep my old corded drill around for occasional use.

 

Learn the secret behind bomb-proof screws

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Simple, strong joinery. You don’t need always need complex joinery. To assemble the pedestals for a garden bench, I drilled clearance holes in the top pieces and pilot holes into the end grain below to make the screws super-secure. In fact the whole bench is joined with screws and glue, and you’d never know it.

If everyone knew the difference between a clearance and pilot hole, woodworkers would use screws more often. Take the basic task of attaching one board to another. The hole in the top piece, often called a pilot hole, is actually a clearance hole—if you do it right that is. The top of the screw should pass right through, barely touching that hole at all. So what holds down that top board? Only the screw head! If the screw threads grab the top board and the lower board, you can get a gap between the two that will never close. Think about how hardware attaches. Only the screw head holds it down.

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The feel test. If you roll a screw and a drill bit between your fingers, you can feel if they are roughly the same size, which is what you need for a clearance hole.
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Here I am drilling clearance holes into the platform of a cornhole game. The screws will pass through freely into the solid-wood frame below, which gets smaller, pilot holes.

As for the actual pilot hole, that’s important too in most cases, but it’s the skinnier hole that goes into the lower board. It should be just skinny enough to let the threads grab powerfully, but not so narrow that the threads push outward too hard and split the wood. If that happens, the threads will barely grip at all and the screw will probably spin. Last, that pilot hole should extend all the way down to the tip of the screw.

Try using screws this way, and you’ll be shocked at their power and strength, in any material, even into the end of split-prone materials like MDF. Low-tech, easy, and effective.

Thriving Portland factory builds world-class furniture one at a time

In my 20 years following the custom furniture business, I’ve seen how hard it is to stay afloat building and selling pieces with the hallmarks of fine handcrafted work: carefully chosen and surfaced hardwoods, tasteful design, traditional joinery, and an uncompromising finish. These days, most people just don’t want to pay for or own heirloom pieces made to last 100 years or more.

One- or two-person operations sometimes pull it off, and very occasionally, production shops are successful on a larger scale. One is Thomas Moser, headquartered in Maine with showrooms on both coasts. I didn’t really know another one, until now.

On assignment for Woodcraft magazine, I was invited to visit The Joinery, a small furniture factory in Portland. I had wandered by one of the showrooms before, impressed by the quality of work inside, but I didn’t really know the deal. Was it a consignment/gallery operation, showcasing the work of dozens of local craftsmen, or something else?

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The Joinery’s main showroom and workshop are in the Woodstock neighborhood of SE Portland.
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A downtown Portland showroom gives the company even greater visibility.

The Joinery is definitely something else. Started as a one-man shop in 1982, focusing on furniture repair, The Joinery soon shifted to making new pieces, with the uncompromising quality espoused by a new generation of woodworkers.

By designing broadly appealing furniture, mostly updated versions of classic Shaker and Mission designs, The Joinery was able to create lines and repeat the same pieces, varying only the woods used and a dimension here and there, letting them create jigs and fixtures to speed up the work and lower the price points without compromising quality.

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Heirloom furniture is not cheap, but it’s a lifetime investment in something made locally and made well.

The founder retired three years ago, and the new owners have taken the business to a new level, retiring less popular designs, adding hip new ones in the Mid-Century Modern mode, and using technology to produce easily customized blueprints and parts lists, track inventory, and so on.

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I love this elegantly simple chair, with a rounded seat cushion that echoes the shape of the solid back.

Through it all, they have never veered away from the company’s unique selling proposition: handcrafted pieces, each made by a single craftsman, ensuring uncompromising quality at every stage, with a lifetime guarantee for structural integrity.

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Getting a job as one of those well-paid makers is not easy. You have to be very quick and very good, and the craftsman hail from around the world, including one from Tibet. As a reward, they receive an endless stream of work, regular hours and a regular paycheck, with the marketing and accounting all handled by someone else. It’s a fine woodworker’s dream come true.

What clients get is world-class furniture in gorgeous woods, like live-edged walnut and spalted maple, designed and built to pass the test of time, with a lifetime guarantee to insure their investment.

As the former editor of Fine Woodworking, I was flattered and charmed to see a design aesthetic torn right out of the magazine’s 40-year archive, without copying any particular pieces or designs directly. In my heart, I always knew someone could do it on a large scale. The Joinery has.

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The Joinery uses only hand-selected, sustainably harvested hardwoods.

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A massive library of custom jigs makes it possible to repeat a wide range of pieces very efficiently.

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Designs are simple and tasteful, showcasing gorgeous materials and flawless craftsmanship.
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The old two-story factory building is filled with spaces large and small for staging furniture in typical room settings, only adding to its appeal.

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Build Stuff, the book, finally arrives!

Build Stuff with Wood, a project book for true woodworking beginners, went on sale this week on Amazon.com. I finished writing and shooting it in 2017, but had to wait all this time until folks could actually see it and buy it! My deep hope is that it reaches its audience, folks out there who are inspired to build things with wood but just don’t know where to start.

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Unlike most of the other beginner books out there, this one has projects you can actually build, with basic tools and no previous knowledge. And all the projects are worth building. Most books fall short of one of those goals, presenting projects that are either deceptively difficult or totally uninspiring, especially to younger people.

(By the way, I’ve posted tons of things from the book in this blog, so dig around the site for a sampling of great, tips, techniques, and projects.)

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It’s not easy to design cool stuff that you can pull off with no skills and limited tools, then actually use. In many ways, I’ve been preparing a lifetime for this task.

I learned at a young age how satisfying it is to build things, with my first model rockets, bike hacks, and illegal “forts” in the woods, made from scavenged lumber. I honed my skills in trade school, soaked up some engineering in college, then learned how people learn as a high-school and college teacher. I learned to write and shoot photos as a working journalist, and caught the woodworking bug big time when I bought my first house.

I came to Fine Woodworking magazine as an entry-level editor, eventually rising to serve as chief editor for 7-plus years before heading west to Oregon to do things like writing woodworking books for beginners:-) At FWW I learned tons more about how woodworkers learn, and was exposed to a host of amazing techniques that let you do more with less. I created a number of video series for beginners, but ever really got a chance to teach folks with no skills or tools at all.

My mission now is to spread the gospel of making things by hand. We need it now more than ever, as we live more and more on screen and in our heads. If you know anyone who is inspired make things but is still standing at the edge of the pool, please tell them about this book. Same goes for anyone with a few skills but little time, who is looking for quick, easy projects worth bragging about.

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True satisfaction is way deeper than temporary pleasure. And building and creating is the surest path I know to that inner sanctum.

HardiePlank siding is a great investment

We bought a plywood house in Portland. It sounds worse than it is. In this temperate climate, houses covered with a single skin of painted plywood are not all that unusual. But what made sense in the 1970s doesn’t make sense in today’s energy-conscious environment, and we bought the house knowing we would be house-wrapping it and covering it in good siding before long. Our windows were all ’70s vintage too–aluminum sliders, with poor sliding action and terrible insulating quality–so replacing those was part of the plan.

I like to do things just once, and I hate maintenance, so we chose excellent Marvin fiberglass windows and HardiPlank siding, both rated to last many decades with almost no care.

What is cool about upgrading a single-skin plywood house like mine is that you can treat the house like new construction with standard plywood sheathing. Pop out the old windows, nail new ones onto the plywood, and then cover everything with house-wrap material and your siding of choice.

I wrote about the window replacement in an earlier blog, so now here is everything you need to know about HardiPlank siding. When it comes to siding, you have three basic choices, a wood product like cedar, which looks beautiful but needs regular painting or sealing to last; vinyl, which looks OK, lasts OK, costs the least, and needs only the occasional power-wash; and cement fiberboard, which lasts forever potentially and can be made to look like any type of shingle or clapboard. I’ve had vinyl before and didn’t like it. It feels cheap and cracks easily and melts when the grill comes too close (dumb move by me).

James Hardie is the leader in the fiber-cement field, so I went with them. Their siding used to have a so-so reputation for rot-resistance in rainy regions like mine, but now they formulate it differently for different climates, so those problems seem to be behind them. Builders also realize that HardiPlank needs an air gap behind it, so they either attach thin wood strips underneath, or this cool new house wrap called HydroGap, which creates its own air gap.

Here’s an important tip: If your siding installer hasn’t done a lot of HardiPlank before, get a new installer. There is a learning curve to this stuff, from the air gaps below to the expansion gaps between and the nails on top.

The HardiePlank website is amazing, by the way, letting you choose your house style, then cover it with whatever siding and trim styles you want, in endless combinations of colors. That’s how we designed our look.

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The other thing we did was choose HardiePlank that was already painted. Most people choose the primed product and have it installed and then painted, but the factory paint job is baked on and rated for 25 years (vs. 8-10 for hand-painted) so I went with that. It cost a few thousand bucks more, about the price of one extra paint job, so it will pay off in the long run.

The trim is real cedar, which we painted. Even though the siding was already that nice pewter grey we wanted, there was lots of stuff to paint grey, like the gutters and eaves! I hired a friend for that high-ladder work–no thanks!

The following pictures tell the rest of the story.

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Here’s the original house with T1-11 plywood siding and old aluminum windows.
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And here’s how the house looks now. We love it! It is quieter inside, better-looking outside, and our AC bill is already lower!
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Notice the shingle-style panels we put up in the peak areas for some subtle flair.

Now here’s how the siding went on, with some important tips along the way.

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Picking up from the window installation, the house wrap goes on, along with flashing over any trim and adhesive tape around the windows. Everything is overlapped so it will shed water, in case some gets below the siding.
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HydroGap housewrap has raised beads on it so the siding can not touch the house, ensuring an air gap behind the siding, and proper drainage of any moisture.
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HardiePlank siding gets a small piece of flashing at every joint.
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It is attached with a special air nailer.
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Nails are driven fully home with a hammer. Seems tedious but it goes quick.
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Every joint needs a small gap so the planks can expand and contract freely.
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The overlap on our clapboard-style siding is 7 in.
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Our siding was pre-painted by the factory, so it requires some extra care, like thin plastic sheets between each piece.
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The fiber-cement product is cut with a special blade, always good side down. A circular saw’s blade spins upward, so the bottom of the board gets the cleanest cut.
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The whole house looks so clean and buttoned up. Pay no attention to the deck and balcony–I’ll be fixing those up in future blogs!
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I even had the guys install a wood trim board for our hot-tub hooks! I also took the opportunity to install new lighting. That’s critical in any remodel. The trim is all cedar wood by the way, which we painted separately.

Easy project: Wall-hung planters

Occasionally we stroll through one of Portland’s upscale grocery chains, on the lookout for a funky gift or an unusual snack. This time it was just before Mother’s Day, and my wife spotted some beautiful wall-hung boxes for succulent plants. “$35 a pop?!” I said (so romantic). “I can make three of those for that!” She has heard this tune before, but she has learned to trust me (mostly!).

I love these challenges. The boxes were just rough cedar boards with a few pieces of galvanized metal inside the front face to hold in the soil and let the plants peek out. So off to the home center I went, with only a few days before the big day. I found the perfect roughsawn cedar boards for the job (sold as fence slats), but couldn’t spot any sheet metal I liked for the front. So I decided to use wire mesh instead, backed by sphagnum moss, hoping it would hold in the soil and look cool. Lucky for me, it worked amazingly.

As for the boxes themselves, they couldn’t be simpler. My only trick was making them 11×11 so two 5-1/2-in.-wide cedar boards would cover the back. A tablesaw or bandsaw would be the best tool for cutting the wide cedar boards into the narrower pieces you’ll need for the sides of the box and the strips on top, but you could also do it with a jigsaw, or a handsaw and elbow grease. For those tools, mark a pencil line to guide you, and clamp down the workpiece on the edge of a table or workbench (vs. trying to hold it by hand).

As for chopping everything to length, I used my miter saw, but a jigsaw or handsaw would work there too. Here’s a low-priced handsaw that is really amazing, available at most home centers. It is a pullsaw, meaning it cuts on the pull stroke, so take the weight off it when you push it forward.

You’ll also notice that I used an air-powered nail gun to assemble the boxes, but a normal hammer and finish nails would work fine. You might want to predrill the top pieces to avoid splitting the wood.

The boxes were done by Mother’s Day, as promised, but not quite ready to hang on the wall. The last important tip is to leave your boxes lying flat for a couple weeks after you build them, to allow the succulents to root before hanging them up sideways. I was nervous when I hung the three planters, but it has been two weeks now and no plants have plummeted to earth!

Oh yeah, you’ll also need a mist bottle. Your boxes will need an occasional spray to keep the plants thriving.

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One roughsawn cedar fence board is enough for each planter.
Nail boxes
After cutting the box pieces to width, I assembled them in minutes with my trusty brad nailer. A hammer and finish nails would also work fine.
Nail first bottom piece
The boxes are 11×11 in., so two full boards should fit nicely across the back (they are 5-1/2 in. wide).
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I oriented the boards so they help hold the box joints together.
Add soil
Potting soil has lots of good fertilizer for happy plants.
Add moss
The next step was a flat layer of sphagnum moss along both sides, leaving an open strip where the plants will go.
Add plants
It was fun arranging the nine little succulent plants in the three boxes I made.
Cut the wire
I used wire mesh with a 1/4-in. grid, cutting it to size with my good snips. A wire cutter would also work.
Nail first strip
The mesh gets tucked under the leaves of the plants and should reach almost to the edges of the box. Then the strips get nailed down to hold it in place. The nails actually go through the mesh.

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Attach hanger wire
To hang the boxes, I screwed little eyelets into the sides (drilling tiny pilot holes first), and then attached picture wire as shown: through the eyelets then wrapped and snipped.
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After leaving the planters face-up for a couple weeks outdoors to let the plants root in the new soil, I found a stud in the wall, drove screws, crossed my fingers and hung the boxes. So far, so good!