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