Back in 2016 I designed and built a Japanese-style gate, which appeared in Fine Homebuilding magazine this past year, and appears every day in my backyard (the best part). I visited the Portland Japanese Garden for inspiration, as well as a few websites and Google images. Once I settled on the design for the gridwork panel in the door, I realized it would also work at larger scale for the railing system on an upper balcony that sticks out of the house, just across the backyard patio.
Well, this year (2018) I finally got around to those rails and balusters on the balcony, which used to be that generic contractor grade you see on condos and apartment buildings. Fine for what they are, but a combination embarrassment/challenge for a woodworker like me.
I started by pulling down all the wobbly posts and rails and taking it all to the dump. Then I covered the joists with TimberTech, the same excellent composite decking I used on the deck in the backyard, and screwed new posts onto the deck using these long, awesome, decorative screws designed for thick timbers, from Home Depot. The posts are cedar, as is everything in the new rail system. I added top rails to the posts, and screwed a composite deck board onto the top of each one.
The next key part was adding a bottom rail, with would complete the rectangular frame where each panel of gridwork would go. To keep those bottom rails parallel to the top, I just made a spacer stick, which I pressed the lower rail against when screwing it into place. BTW, I held it in place with a combination of angled screws and these decorative angle pieces, which look nice.
As for making the grillwork balusters, I started with 1-1/2-in.-square cedar stakes/balusters you can buy at the home center. Then I did some drawing to scale up my original, small grillwork to suit the thicker pieces. You want to get the horizontal spacing adjusted so there are even spaces at each end.
Then I cut all the pieces to fit inside the rail system. Your spaces will probably vary from post to post, so keep track of which grid pieces go where. The vertical lengths should be consistent, since you used that spacer stick to set the lower rails. As for the rest of the process, I’ll let the photos do the talking.
I continue to design and build DIY projects for Digital Trends, and this is one of my new faves. It’s a great-looking, super-functional rack for your collection of vinyl records, which also happens to be totally easy to build. The how-to video is up now, and here are some of the highlights.
The four parts of the rack are held together with simple notches, which are so sturdy on their own that you don’t have to nail the fit of each one and they don’t have to be glued. That means you can cut them with a wide variety of tools, by hand with a coping saw, or by power with a jigsaw or bandsaw. If you’ve got one, I believe a dado set would do the tidiest job, but it’s not necessary.
I found one gorgeous 10-in.-wide jatoba board at my local hardwood shop, and cut all the parts from that. You’ll need about 60 in. of length, and a 1-in.-thick board will look better than 3/4, though it’s all good. You don’t even have to nail the dimensions, but the 10 degree angle in the feet and the splay of the sides is pretty close to perfect I think.
You’ll need a tablesaw to cut all the parts to width cleanly, though you could do it with other tools. Another option is to ask your lumber dealer to cut up the board to the lengths and widths you need.
After that, there are a couple of really cool tricks for laying out the notches. Start by chopping the feet to that 10-degree angle on the ends. I used a miter saw for that. After penciling in some tick marks for where the notches begin, you can use the end of one foot to lay out the notches in the other! Just lay one foot atop the other, reversing the angle of the end to create the same 10-degree angle in the other direction.
To get the other side of the notch, there’s another simple trick. Lay the foot on edge on that first line and trace its other side.
In other words, you are using the actual boards themselves to lay out notches that will fit them. The notches in the tall sides are square, so laying those out is easier, but still use the feet on edge to lay out the second side of each one.
After that I used a jigsaw to cut along the inside of each straight pencil line, and then made curving cuts to remove the waste piece between them. Then I sanded the whole project to 220 grit, broke the edges lightly with 150-grit paper on a block, and applied two coats of Minwax Teak Oil, rubbing each dried coat with a brown paper bag to burnish it–another great trick. As you can see, jatoba takes a beautiful polish.
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!
My latest book, called “Handmade: A Hands-On Guide,” just went on Amazon and I wanted to give you all a taste. While my 2017 book, “Build Stuff with Wood,” is all about making sawdust, 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,” out now on Amazon, 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.