I first saw this project at Maker Flat, a Portland B&B created by Bryan Danger and filled with handcrafted furniture and accessories. On the front deck was this awesome sign with the house number formed by screws, acting as pixels of a sort. I was blown away and decided right then to both make one for my house and to put a picture of Bryan’s sign in my next book (chock full of maker projects, coming out in fall 2018).
Since the book only contains a picture of Bryan’s sign, with no how-to, here is the step-by-step for creating one like mine. You can do it all with a cordless drill, but it helps a lot to have a drill press for the pilot holes, so each screw goes in perfectly square and the sign ends up looking very uniform.
Also, I used about 6 lbs. of 2-1/2-in.-long stainless steel screws, which aren’t cheap. You want stainless steel, which won’t rust or tarnish outdoors. I drove them into a cedar decking plank, which will weather to a nice gray. But you could use other outdoor woods for your sign, like white oak, teak or ipé, and put a finish on them to preserve the color if you want. Personally, I’ll enjoy the contrast between weathered wood and the shiny screws.
I also took advantage of a sweet Woodpecker’s T-square for laying out the grid, though a normal square and tape measure would work too. Read on for all of the steps and tricks.
We love the finished sign, and visitors always stop to give it a close look. “Gorgeous,” one said recently. Music to my ears.
With the help of two really cool companies, I’ve been producing videos of some of my coolest new projects. As always, the main idea is totally do-able projects that are totally worth doing, like the stuff in my 2017 book, “Build Stuff with Wood.” Links to the videos are below, and I’ll provide more as time goes along.
One company is Woodpeckers, a manufacturer of top-class woodworking tools right here in the U-S-of-A (Ohio actually). I’ll be sharing all sorts of techniques and projects on their YouTube channel. So subscribe to see all my future videos. This time around, they asked me to design a project around their new M2 box clamps, clever little gizmos that keep parts at perfect right angles while you screw or clamp the joints together.
I designed two cool mitered boxes in the Mid-Century style, and attached hairpin legs to turn then into little side tables or nightstands, with an opening in the middle for books and storage. Here’s the video that shows how the box clamps help.
The other company is Digital Trends, a hip reviewer of all things tech, based right here in Portland. They’ve hired me to design and build a bunch of stuff, like the pallet-wood beer caddy I blogged about here, and super-cool frames for your nicest vinyl records. Those frames were inspired by something very similar by Jonathan Odom of Instructables.com. He is a fountain of amazing ideas. I especially love how the album covers can slip in and out without removing the frame from the wall. Beautiful as they are, those record are meant to be played!
I just handed in the final chapter of my next book, called “Handmade: A Hands-On Guide,” and I wanted to give you all a taste. While my first book, “Build Stuff with Wood,” is all about…wood, this one blows open the doors to a dozen other ways of making things. There is a new handcrafted revolution happening, and it’s breaking down the old boundaries with an explosion of pure creative joy.
A brief history is in order. When the digital era first arrived a few decades ago—with video games and cable TV at first, then the Internet, social media, YouTube, Netflix, and so on—it dealt a crushing blow to the hands-on life. All you had to do was look around your neighborhood to see fewer people working on their homes and gardens, fixing things for themselves, and doing crafts like woodworking.
But the urge to make things by hand is an ancient one, and refuses to die. As best we can tell, homo sapiens walked upright onto the world stage 200-300,000 years ago, with a genetic lineage that extended millions of years before that. That makes modern society a mere instant in human history. We evolved—body and mind—to resist the brutal forces of nature, by hunting, gathering, making and using tools, and mastering all of the materials we could get our hands on. Our survival depended on it.
I argue that much of what makes us truly happy contains echoes of that evolutionary history: love, laughter, cooperation, outdoor living, being self-sufficient, and making things with our hands. For many of us, digital natives or not, these essential experiences are more deeply satisfying than pressing buttons and swiping screens.
Building things unites your body and mind in a single task, forcing you to focus on the moment, slowing your chattering monkey brain to a more methodical, peaceful pace. You were naturally selected to love it.
Like any tool the Internet can be used for good, bad, and everything in between. The whole time it was rendering us helpless, it was also feeding a rebellion. Inspired by the hacker movement and empowered by the Web, a new generation of makers began using digital tools like 3-D printers, laser cutters, microcontrollers, and circuit boards to build things on their own, outside the reach of corporations. Soon they were mashing up their projects with wood, metal, and other building supplies, and a rediscovery of traditional crafts soon followed.
While, admittedly, most modern citizens are still heading toward those floating recliners at the end of WALL-E (a must-see movie for readers of this blog), there are unmistakable signs of life. Etsy has exploded with artisanal goods. Makerspaces and community workshops are popping up all over. School systems are learning that STEM doesn’t stick as well without hands-on experience, and shop classes are making a comeback under hip new titles like “Engineering.”
Whether they call themselves makers, woodworkers, leather crafters, inventors, hackers, or just people having fun, there is a common thread: the desire to build something rather than buy it.
This new maker movement is way more about creativity than perfection, about using whatever, tools, skills, and supplies you have to make something cool. And the old boundaries just don’t matter. Want to mash up micro-controllers with wood and metal parts, do it. Want to dive deeply into a traditional craft, that’s great too.
“Handmade,” coming out in fall 2018, is for everyone on the outside looking in, enticing them with a wide range of projects anyone can do with simple tools and supplies. Better yet, you’ll be making practical items that will become part of your life. Here is just a small taste.
I recently tested a pile of big drill bits for an article in Woodcraft magazine, coming out in the April/May issue (#82), and along the way I uncovered some amazing values in Forstner bits, which the magazine doesn’t mind me sharing with you. Here’s why this is big news: If you plan to do any woodworking at all, you can survive without Forstner bits for a while, but not long, not if you want to do really nice work.
Simply put, Forstners do everything that a normal drill bit does, but better, and they add a bag of magical tricks that no other bit can perform. Big holes with dead-flat bottoms? No problem. Drilling at an angle, or with the bit halfway off the wood? No sweat. Seriously. Forstners can do it all.
No doubt you’ll start your career with a standard set of twist drills, with the usual V-shaped tips. Sick of those wandering off the mark, you’ll discover brad-point bits, with a sharp tip that keeps the bit on track, and cutting spurs at the edges that ensure a clean entry. Sometime soon after that, you’ll need to drill holes bigger than 1/2 in.–which is the biggest bit in most kits.
At that point, you’ll head for the home center and see what you can find. Spade bits work pretty well, but they dull fast in hardwoods, and they have a long center spur that makes it hard to drill stopped holes in most boards. Hole saws work OK, but are pricey, considering the fact that they can’t drill stopped holes, and can’t go through anything thicker than about 3/4 in.
Enter the almighty Forstner. They are one of the priciest bits, but their meaty build and unique cutting geometry makes them extremely durable in the toughest woods. And no other bits drills cleaner, in more ways, or with a flatter bottom on stopped holes.
Get a set, say up to 2 in. or so, and you’ll find amazing ways to use them: clean counterbores for bolt heads, overlapping holes for clearing out almost all the wood in a mortise, decorative cutouts, dog holes in bench tops, and too much more to mention here.
By the way, ignore those folks who say Forstners can only be used in a drill press. They work just fine in handheld drills, as long as you start slowly and go in square. Save the angle and overlap tricks for the drill press.
There are lots of ways to store tools in your shop, from chests to wall cabinets to pegboard. These hanging panels are my favorite system. They are simple to make, they keep all of your essential tools at your fingertips, and they can be easily re-hung in new spots when your workshop layout changes (it almost always does). The keys are the simple french-cleat system used to hang the panels securely on the walls, plus the variety of holders that keep the tools both secure yet totally accessible.
You might think pegboard does something similar, but it doesn’t. It’s not as easy to move around the shop, and a lot of the pre-made holders don’t really hold woodworking tools well. As for wall cabinets and tool chests: The former has doors that you will end up keeping open, turning it into a wall panel, basically, and the latter puts your tools out of reach, which is a total PITA when you are trying to work efficiently.
As for what to hang on the wall, I put everything except my chisels and hand planes. I have a lot of these, and they are easy to store and protect in drawers below my workbench. They are plenty accessible that way, and the holders they would require are a bit over-the-top. But if you use these tools every day, you might want to put them on the wall too.
For this project, I bought two 2×4 panels of birch plywood, 3/4 in. thick, from the home center, though the super-strong French-cleat system will let you hang panels of almost any size. To make the panels look more finished, I put an arc on the corners with my belt sander, then rounded all the edges with my router, using a 3/8-in. roundover bit.
The French cleats are nothing more than a strip of plywood that I ripped in two with a 45-degree bevel cut on the tablesaw. You could do the same thing with a circular saw: Just start with a wider piece, clamp it securely, and run the saw along a straightedge as you make the cut.
One part of the cleat screws to the plywood panels, and the other screws to the wall. To get a really strong grip on the wall, look for wall studs. In my case, I put plywood on the walls instead of drywall, making it easy to hang things anywhere. That’s a great shop tip. As for the cleat that attaches to the plywood panels, be sure to use screws that will almost pop out the front side of the panels, so you get a really good grip. I used 1-1/4 in. deck screws, countersinking them a bit in the cleat so they reached deeper into the panels.
As for the tool holders, this is where the fun really begins. Whether you hang your tools on wall panels like me, or put them in a wall cabinet, some of these holders will work for you. By the way, I had fun making custom holders, and they do add handcrafted flair, but not every tool needs one. I also used common nails and screws and a couple of cool magnetic holders. Check the photos below for the rest of the story.
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
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.