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.
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.
Normally I like to do every last thing I can on my house. It saves money, and I just love the work. However, for the big job of replacing all the windows on my house, plus adding all new siding, I hired out the work to a trusted local contractor. But if you read on, you’ll find out how to choose the right materials and how to keep your contractor honest. You might even learn how to tackle the job yourself.
In an earlier blog, I installed a window in my garage, to give me a nice view and some natural light in my workshop space. So it bothered me a little to just watch the work this time! But it was a wise choice. My contractor has better ladders, more workers, and more know-how, and I just have too much work at the moment. That said, watching it happen, I realize that this is a job a lot of people could do.
In the milder climate of the Pacific Northwest, where I live, a lot of houses were built with just a single skin of exterior-grade plywood. No house wrap, and no siding. That’s the deal on the 1979 fixer-upper we bought in 2015. So adding windows is a little bit different than it is on a house with plywood sheathing plus siding. But not much.
Modern windows have a simple nailing flange all around the outside. You just sit the window in the rough opening, make sure it is level, and nail or screw that flange to the exterior walls. Done. In my case, we could simply nail that flange onto the plywood exterior, wrap everything with house wrap, nail trim boards around the windows, and then nail on our siding of choice, bumping it up against that trim.
For a house with existing siding, you would just need to work around that, cutting it back or removing some of it, or just pulling off the trim boards and replacing them afterward.
The problem on houses like mine is that those window flanges are nailed right onto the studs, and then the T1-11 exterior plywood goes on and covers them up. That meant we had to cut off a strip of that plywood around each window to access those flanges and remove the windows.
A word about choosing windows. We were getting rid of the worst possible windows, made of aluminum, another cheap signature of the era of disco and polyester. Terrible looks and terrible energy efficiency. The usual choice these days is vinyl windows, which used to be considered cheap but have gotten way better of late, with most offering the Energy Star rating. That said I went with Marvin’s Integrity windows, for a variety of good reasons. Made of a special type of fiberglass, they offer the best longterm value on the market.
Building experts agree that Marvin’s fiberglass is super-energy efficient and super durable, meaning it won’t warp or crack like vinyl sometimes does. Also, it expands and contracts very little, just like the glass inside the frames, meaning the seals all around that glass will not fail. And last, its mitered corners are crisp and clean-looking, unlike those melty miters on vinyl windows. Last the Marvin Integrity windows are available in a range of colors, applied in a thick fiberglass layer that promises a lifetime of service.
You could go even higher end, choosing windows clad with wood on the inside, but I’ve got plenty of wood inside my house, and I like the clean looks of the fiberglass interior.
Whichever windows you choose, the KEY to a good installation is making sure the windows are level and square, so they will operate smoothly, and then making sure the window is flashed correctly. Flashing is the overlapping layers of metal, plastic, or rubberized material that go all around the window, under your siding, to catch any water that gets under there, and send it down over the house wrap instead of letting it inside the window frame to cause rot and damage.
Anyway, check out the following pics to see the whole process. Next up will be applying the window trim and all the siding. I’ll do a whole blog to explain our choices on that.
With the gate frame done and the 1/2-in.-thick boards for the lower panel ready to go (go here for part 1 of this project), I was ready to assemble the whole door. Soon my awesome fence would have an awesome gate to keep my dog in! (Go here for the fence project.) That cool-looking upper grid would be too difficult to build before the door was together, so I saved it for later. I had a good plan for how to build it and hold it in place in its upper rectangle of space.
The first step for any glue-up is a dry fit, where you put everything together without glue, so you know all the joints will end up nice and tight and you have the clamps you need to get the job done. So let’s get to it.
When I replaced our old dilapidated wood fence with my own funky blend of wood and galvanized metal, I put a Japanese-style arch over the gate opening, planning to cook up an actual gate in the same style. I’ve learned not to rush the design stage, so I visited the excellent Portland Japanese Garden, took pictures of the gates I found, and also did some digging in Google images.
This gate, with falling ginkgo leaves pierced through the lower panel and a traditional Japanese gridwork pattern up top, is the result.
I’m now a proud owner of a PantoRouter, and I knew that the big, perfect-fitting mortises and tenons it produces would be perfect for my wide gate. Water and weather are hard on gates, and over the years they tend to sag. So I chose 1-1/4-in.-thick cedar for the frame, just thick enough to accommodate sturdy 1/2-in.-thick tenons but not an ounce heavier than it needed to be. I made all of the tenons the full 2 in. long that the PantoRouter allows. You probably don’t have that machine, so just make the the joints any way you know how.
Adding to the strength, I designed the rail widths for a single wide tenon in the two upper rails, and a two-tenon array in the wider bottom rail. A wider bottom rail also just looks good in a big frame-and-panel assembly, grounding it somehow.
All of this adds up to eight deep, thick mortises and tenons, four down each side of this wide door, plenty to keep it square over the years.
The details are up to you
I won’t go through every mortise-and-tenon step, but once you know how to make a big sturdy frame like this, you can design any gate you like.
I my case I filled the lower frame with 1/2-in.-thick cedar boards. Those are lightweight and would be easy to pierce with the ginkgo leaf pattern I had in my head. You can see how I did the leaves below. I didn’t want gaps to appear between the boards over the years, so I fired a brad through the frame into the end of each board, top and bottom. A single brad or finish nail will do in each spot, letting each board shrink and expand without moving around much.
In the next part, I’ll show you how I glued up the gate and made that cool grillwork for the top. It was a real blast working with those tiny pieces.
I worked with an expert welder for an upcoming article for Woodcraft magazine, titled, “Welding for Woodworkers.” And that’s what I covered in my first blog. Now my part kicks in: adding a wood top to our steel frame, along with some finishing touches for the overall table.
Just as I thought, dealing with metal is simple compared to wood. Abrasive pads remove the last traces of high heat, plus any scratches, and a coat of paste wax is all the finish you need, evening out the sheen and providing a bit of protection from finger grease and corrosion. There are awesome plugs that you just bang down into the ends of the steel-tube legs with a rubber mallet, and they come threaded for adjustable feet.
As for adding a wood top, that’s woodworking, and takes a bit more time. I went with Port Orford cedar, a hard cedar that grows only in the Pacific Northwest. It’s got nice organic character that goes well with the steel below.
I milled up two thick pieces to make a 1-1/2-in.-thick top, to match the thickness of the steel frame parts. Than I added a little rabbet around the bottom edge to create a thin shadow line that separates wood and steel.
After prepping the surfaces, putting a nice roundover on all the edges, and adding a few coats of polyurethane, attaching the wood top was a breeze. Kari Merkl had already drilled holes through the upper frame pieces before welding the frame together, so now I just drove long screws through those into the top. The cedar is pretty stable but there is enough wiggle room in the screw holes to allow for any seasonal wood movement.
That’s it, a mixed-media table in the modern style! For the whole story, including a variety of different pieces made with similar techniques, see my upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine.
The traditional way to add legs to a table is first to connect the tops of legs to a series of rails, creating a separate base. The top then attaches to that. That type of base demands high-skill joints like mortises and tenons to connect everything. Lucky for us, there are much easier answers these days.
A variety of companies now sell self-supporting legs that simply screw onto any top you have, be it a wood slab, butcher block, old door, old workbench top or whatever. In my book for beginners, “Build Stuff with Wood,” due out next fall, I show four of these leg systems. Here they are, attached to a variety of tops.
You can imagine the rest of the possibilities, I’m sure. By the way, to find out how I surfaced and finished the beautiful walnut slab that I used for two of these tables, go here.