Two years ago, I replaced my moldy old deck with a shiny new one made from plastic-wood composite material (TimberTech), and it looks as good right now as it did when I installed it. And all I’ve done for maintenance is a yearly scrub with mild soap (Simple Green) and warm water.
That got me thinking about building outdoor furniture with this material. I mentioned that to my friends at Woodcraft magazine, and soon I was writing two articles for them, both in the latest issue (June/July 2019), on newsstands now. One article takes a broad look at all of the plastic-based lumber out there and how to work with each type, and in the other I build nice outdoor project: a bench and planter combo adapted from my recent book, Build Stuff with Wood.
Here’s the bottom line on plastic wood: While there are a number of plastic-based products out there, only two are really good for woodworking-style projects. One is all-plastic (HDPE) lumber, used mostly for big commercial projects like docks and boardwalks. The other is composite decking, but not the kind with a plastic cap on the outside. That type looks weird when you cut into it. The best type is uncapped composite lumber.
One other bad type for furniture projects is PVC-based lumber (like Azek). It’s just too flexible.
The all-plastic stuff is the premium product, available in bright colors that will stay that way for decades in sun, rain, and cold. The stuff even gets grippier when wet.
For a more woody look, there are uncapped composite boards. They are more widely available and significantly less expensive, produced in wood tones with more of a matte finish that fades a little over time, like real wood.
Best of all, the plastic in both of these materials is 100% recycled, pulling some trash out of oceans and landfills.
As for how to use plastic lumber, that’s all good news too. It cuts just like wood, with any common woodworking tool, including handplanes. The only thing that doesn’t work on plastics and composites is glue. So it’s all mechanical fasteners for joinery: screws, pocket-screws, cross-barrel bolts, normal nuts and bolts, and dowel for alignment. Be creative, choose the right screws (GRK screws from Home Depot are coarse and weatherproof, and grip plastics and composites really well), and you can build almost anything.
The only real downside is getting your hands on the stuff. These days, PVC and capped composite boards dominate lumberyards while all-plastic and uncapped composites are available by special order only. It’s worth it though. Here are the best sources and some typical prices.
All-plastic (HDPE): Price for a 2x4x12 is roughly $47-60 depending on color, not including shipping. Sources are PlasTeak.com (shown) and PlasticLumberyard.com, both of whom are happy to send you samples for a minimal price.
Uncapped composites: Price for a 2x4x12 is roughly $50. Since these products can be ordered from local lumber retailers, shipping is built into the price. The brands to ask for are MoistureShield Vantage and Tamko Evergrain. Check manufacturer’s websites (or call customer service) for retailers near you.
As for what’s possible and how to make it happen, here are some highlights. For more info, check out the June/July 2019 issue of Woodcraft magazine.
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.
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.
A few years back, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) named wood dust a known carcinogen. That was a big wake-up call for the whole woodworking industry, which answered with a host of practical new products for keeping workshops clean and airways healthy. In an upcoming article in Woodcraft magazine, I offer up a practical approach for dust collection in small workshops. Here are the broad strokes.
Let’s start at the start. In days past, wood dust was simply considered a nuisance, which it definitely is. It doesn’t take long for workshops to pile up with chips and fine dust to migrate from basements and attached garages into living spaces, coating everything in a furry layer.
Allergy sufferers have always known fine dust was the enemy, especially when added to springtime pollen. But we all lived with it, and if folks had dust collectors at all, they were the type with porous cloth bags, which grab the big chips and save you some sweeping, but blast out the most dangerous dust at head height.
By the way, the problem with the finest dust is that it hangs longest in the air, penetrates deepest into lungs and airways, and is the hardest for the body to get rid of.
But that was then. Once the CDC and NIOSH spoke up, people got serious about wood dust. The good news is that new products and new approaches make it easier than ever to bust dust for good.
The secret is collecting it at the source, as it is made, and then having filters that won’t let it escape. You can start with a powerful shop vac. Install a HEPA filter in it and attach the hose to all the portable tools in your shop. You’ll be shocked at how dust-free your random-orbit sander will be with a vac pulling the dust through those holes in the sanding disks. And your sandpaper will last twice or three times longer without all that dust clogging it!
Step two is a true dust collector. If you try attaching a shop vac to big chip producers like a tablesaw or planer, you’ll find it lacks the volume and velocity to pull the chips and dust through the small hose. As for which dust collector to buy, there are amazing cyclone collectors out there, but even the compact ones are over $1,000. For most of us, the practical choice is a single-stage dust collector, like the one pictured here. Those have better filters now too, called cartridge filters. They are pleated, which vastly increases surface area, so you can have finer filtration without hurting airflow and effectiveness.
Pleated cartridge filters are available for almost every old dust collector out there, and available as standard equipment on new ones. Manufacturers like Jet and Grizzly offer them for their collectors, and aftermarket companies like Damn Filters and Wynn Environmental offer retrofits in all sizes.
The tradeoff with fine filters is clogging, which will kill airflow. But there are a number of solutions. For dust collectors, there are internal flappers inside the filter, which knock off the dust caked inside. Better yet, you can blow from the outside in with compressed air.
Shop vacs tends to clog too, but there again, there are solutions. Some fancy vacs have a self-cleaning function, but those work only so-so in my experience. You can buy and use paper bags inside as a pre-filter, but those are pricey throwaway items.
My favorite solution is Oneida’s Dust Deputy, which can be attached to any vac and separates out almost all the dust before it can even reach the vac and its fine filter. Plus the Dust Deputy’s bucket is easer to dump into the trash.
Check out these pics for more of the story, plus some handy accessories that make life easier.
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.