December 26, 2014

End Grain Cutting Boards for Christmas

I've been working on a bed for my wife and I for a few months now (more to come in a future post) but recently took a break to make up a few end grain cutting boards for Christmas gifts. Wooden cutting boards are easy on your knives (especially the end grain variety), nice to look at, simple to make, and a great use for smaller scraps of wood. These facts make cutting boards one of the most common gifts a woodworker can make but somehow I missed that bandwagon until this year. For this project I largely followed the lead of Marc Spagnuolo "The Wood Whisperer" based on his post and video here.

I had plenty of 4/4 walnut and cherry scraps laying around the shop but I figured the cutting boards would look funny without some thicker stock to make up the bulk of the pattern so I picked up one large 8/4 hard maple board from Kettle Moraine Hardwoods in Hartford. I ripped the maple into pieces about 2"x2"x12" and the cherry and walnut into 1"x2"x12". These pieces were then glued up as shown below. 

The next day I trimmed up the ends and ran the assembly through the planer to bring it down to an even thickness. Unfortunately (at least for this project) the maple board had some curly grain and the planer left some pretty deep tear-out.

In order to cleanup the tear-out I switched over to a low angle jack plane with a toothed blade to take off enough material to get down past the tore out areas.

With the bulk of the material removed I switched to a smooth plane with a high angle blade to take off the peaks and valleys left by the toothed blade. The resulting surface was baby-butt smooth and the figured maple was almost too pretty to bury inside of a cutting board.

After ogling the figured maple for a bit I got back to work and setup the miter gauge to crosscut this assembly into strips once again... this may seem counter productive but we want the surface of the cutting board to be end grain so we are only half way there.

Here is what it looks like with the resulting strips laid end grain up with every other strip flipped end-for-end.

Now we just need to glue the strips back together in this configuration. Since the end grain is much tougher to plane and/or sand down it is important to get all of the glue joints as level as possible during the glue-up.

After letting the glue set overnight I took on the challenge of flattening the end grain surfaces of the board. In order to prevent any blowouts along the edges I planed a slight chamfer around the perimeter of the board on both faces.

Leveling the end grain surfaces is the most difficult part of this whole process. Because end grain is so tough the common advice is to avoid running it through the power planer based on the risk of it tearing the board completely apart. The other common recommendations are to run the cutting board through a drum sander (I don't have one) or sand it down with a belt sander (I don't want one). I figured this was a perfect task for the low angle jack plane with a 25 degree blade (37 degree effective cutting angle). Overall this worked very well but it was hard work and despite the fact that it was just above freezing in the shop I worked up a decent sweat by the time I was done with both sides of a board. Even with modern tool steel (A2 in this case) I found that I needed to re-sharpen the plane blade after each board, honestly it probably would have been good to re-hone between faces.

Next I used a trim router with a chamferring bit to knock off all the edges before final sanding. The plane did a great job leveling the board but I ended up with a few scuff marks so I took care of those with the random-orbit sander working up through 40, 80, and 120 grits. Just for kicks I did try skipping the plane and starting with 40 grit  on the next board and it was clear that the plane/sander combo was much faster. 

At this point the only step left is applying some type of finish. There is a ton of debate and misinformation surrounding the topic of food-safe finishes and many people choose to use some combination of mineral oil and/or beeswax. These finishes are non-toxic and look nice at first but require re-application periodically (monthly in some cases) and I was hoping to avoid that. There are also finishes sold as "salad bowl finish" that are accepted as food safe which are nothing more than thinned wipe-on polyurethane. Poly, like nearly all finishes, is non-toxic once cured. Continuing to follow in the footsteps of the Wood Whisperer example I applied 3 coats of poly thinned about 75% with mineral spirits as detailed here

I ended up making 3 cutting boards this year, one of which will likely become the go-to board in our kitchen so I am looking forward to seeing how this finish, and the board in general, stands up over time. 

With this side project wrapped up its time to get back to working on the bed...

June 29, 2014

Another Oak Bookshelf

When I built the oak bookshelf for my son Eli's 0th birthday last Fall I had enough clear wide oak left to build a second one. This one is for my daughter Alexis and will replace a cheap old particle board bookshelf that I'm pretty sure was in my bedroom when I was her age.

I had cross cut and partially milled the stock along with the first build so I had a nice head start on the project.

The design is basically a copy of the first one but I simplified the joinery to use pocket screws instead of the much more labor intensive wedged through tenons that I used the first time around. One of the biggest reasons I enjoy woodworking is that there is always something new to learn or try and this change was a good way to keep things interesting while also speeding things up. Each shelf still has a dado and short tenon to get and keep everything aligned but the pocket hole screws do the heavy lifting.

Just like last time I used a flexible ruler and some string to make a drawing bow to define the curve at the top of each shelf side. I roughed out the curves at the bandsaw and then clamped them together in the leg vice to fair the curve with the spokeshave.

I'm still pleasantly surprised at how smooth of a surface you can get with a sharp tool, even when working end grain oak.

For my friends that like to give me a hard time about being a hand tool snob here is a fun little picture. You will see a modern Kreg pocket hole jig fastened to my 17th century Roubo style workbench with an iron holdfast. I can also easily say that my Milwaukee cordless drill was much better suited to this task than the brace I typically prefer for boring holes in wood. Despite the varied ages of these technologies they all played well together and got the job done.

All of the stock was prepped for finish before assembly with the smooth plane, a card scraper for a few trouble spots, and then a quick hand sanding at 150 grit to even everything out. Lex jumped in to help sand a few of the shelves so I could take a few pictures. Why she was wearing a winter hat in June still puzzles me. Maybe it was a bit chilling that morning or maybe it is just because she is 8 years old and likes to do things her own way :).

After tweaking the final fit of each shelf to dado joint to get a nice tight fit at the shoulders as well as the bottom of the dado I moved on to assembly. The pocket screws made things pretty easy, I added a bit of glue and screwed in the shelves to the first side one at a time.

Once all the shelves were attached to the first side I glued and screwed that assembly to the opposite shelf side.

Consistent with its predecessor this shelf's back is made up of thin oak boards that I resawed from some 8/4 stock. After planing out the saw marks the back boards ended up about 1/4" thick.

Each board is mated to its neighbors with ship lap joints that I cut with a dado stack on the table saw. I screwed the back boards to the shelf, marked the curve with the drawing bow, removed the boards, roughed cut each one at the bandsaw, re-assembled the back, and then smoothed everything out with the spokeshave.

Ever since I started working on her bookshelf Lex has been pointing out different wood finishes that she likes every time we wander through the paint aisle of Menards, Fleet Farm, or Woodcraft. Her tastes are quite random but over time I've noticed that more often than not she points out something resembling an oil finish on fresh cherry...a bit of color tending towards a red tint, not too dark, with the grain highlighted slightly. Assuming her tastes don't change radically (probably a bad assumption) I'll likely build her next piece out of Cherry but I tried to match the general color tone while working with the oak for this bookshelf.

I settled on an oil/varnish blend for the finish and ended up tinting it with a "Pecan" oil based stain (the same stuff I used on my oak coffee table as well as Lex's loft bed). I haven't see this mix mentioned before but I figured the oil based stain is likely composed mostly of mineral spirits or a similar thinner with just a bit of binder along with the dye and pigment components. Based on this assumption I mixed the finish with equal parts stain, boiled linseed oil, and oil based polyurethane. I applied the finish by flooding the surfaces with a wet rag, letting it stand for 10 minutes or so, and then wiping it off with a clean rag. Because the oak has open pores that tend to absorb finish and then exude it back out later I came back a few times afterwards and buffed the surfaces with a clean cloth to get rid of any droplets that rose back to the surface. I put on two coats of the tinted oil/varnish blend and then one final top coat with mineral spirits instead of the stain. The intent of the un-tinted final coat was to cover and seal in the stain to ensure there is no chance it can rub off on anything later down the road.

While this finish blend may not be common I'm very happy with it so far. The stain added a slightly darker tone with just a hint of red and brown and it highlighted the grain of the oak just a touch without overdoing the contrast. This is the first large project I've finished with an oil/varnish blend and I'm also very happy with the look and feel of the finish. It doesn't have the slight plastic look of the wipe-on poly I've been using for most projects to date. It will be interesting to see how this shelf stands up to abuse over the years compared to Eli's which has the poly finish. If the mass produced termite barf shelf that this one is replacing in Lex's room served for a generation this one should have a good shot at making it a few more than that.

June 3, 2014

A Frame for the Season Tree

We are very lucky to have a family friend who is as generous as she is artistic. Earlier this year she was kind enough to paint us a "season tree" spanning four individual 12"x12" canvases. In order to do the painting justice and display it properly my wife asked if I could build a custom frame. We decided on walnut to match the color palette of the artwork and because I was itching to dig into the stash of beautiful wide walnut I picked up last fall. 

Lex helped me get started by picking out one of the smaller boards from the stack and cutting it down to rough length by hand.

The board was over 14" wide and she tired out about half way through so I took over with Eli's help while Lex photographed the process.

The board we selected had a decent sized crack down the center so we split it the full length and then laid out reference lines along the grain to yield nice straight grained stock for the long narrow pieces of the frame. With the kids back in the house I then ripped the pieces along those lines and jointed the cut edges.

I then flattened and thicknessed the stock and ripped the opposite edge parallel to the reference edge. These two pieces will yeild the 4 outside rails and 2 inner dividers.

I did some head scratching to figure out the best way to create the rabbets on the frame edge pieces while leaving a very narrow ~1/8" overhang on the front face. I ended up ripping the larger piece in half and then ripping a slot along each of the 4 resulting edges.

An outer frame piece was then cut from each side. The thin strip remaining along the edge will be removed later.

The inner dividers were also a bit tricky in that the final pieces needed to end up as a 1" tall by 1/2" wide "T" shape with each leg being just a bit over 1/8" thick. In order to create this shape and also ensure that the stock was safe to work later on while cutting the joinery I used a similar technique to the edge pieces and ripped a pair of slots along each edge of the workpiece to define the center section of the "T" shape.

The individual dividers were then cut free from the larger piece.

The next step was to miter the outer edges so I dialed in the miter gauge and set a stop block to ensure all 4 pieces end up the exact same length.

Here you can see from the rear view of a corner of the frame how the rabbets will be created when the thin strips of scrap are removed from the inside edges, leaving only the 1/8" thick front face to cover the edge of the canvas.

A test fit proved that the miter joints were good with all 4 corners meeting nice and tight.

After planing the show surfaces smooth I then used a marking gauge to scribe a line where the thin scrap piece will be removed.

This piece was then cut free with a few whacks with a wide chisel. The rough surface was then cleaned up with a shoulder plane.

In order to ensure nice tight miter joints when gluing up the frame I decided to add 45 degree glue blocks to each corner. This allows a clamp to be applied directly across the miter to ensure a good tight joint. It is a bit of work to prep the glue blocks, glue them on the day before the frame glue-up, and then remove them afterwards but it makes the glue-up process easier and the results are worth the extra effort.

A few dabs of glue and 4 clamps later and the frame was glued up. Time to move onto the joinery for the dividers.

Each divider is joined to the outside pieces of the frame with a form of bridle joint, essentially a through mortise and tenon with the bottom side open. I started fitting these joints by cutting a slot in the dead center of each outside piece that was half the depth of the piece and as wide as the bottom leg of the "T" shaped dividers was thick. I then trimmed off the top half of one end of the divider piece so that it fit into the slot. I then marked the top of the "T" where it met the overhang along the edge piece so that it could be chiseled away to form one end of the joint.

With one end complete I marked the other end with a knife and repeated the same procedure. Below you can see how the top of the "T" is preventing the divider from seating all the way into the slot.

Here is a detail shot showing how the top of the "T" was marked with a knife and trimmed away with a chisel. Here you can also see that I left the scrap pieces on the "T" making it more of a flat topped "M" shape so that it was stable enough to run over the table saw later.

Below you can see the second side of the joint coming together nice and tight. It is amazing how accurate you can be when working to a knife line.

With the joints fitted to connect each divider to its outer two edges individually it was time to focus on joining them together in the center of the frame. This process started with removing the side scraps from the center section of each divider. This allowed me to fit these joints while again leaving a stable square piece to run over the table saw.

I started this joint by laying both dividers in place aligned with their edge joints and marking the location of a slot in the top face of the lower piece. I then cut this slot to half the depth of the divider on the table saw and test fit the pieces as shown below. This allowed me to mark the exact location of the slot that needed to be cut in the bottom half of the top piece. With both slots cut the top divider dropped down until the top of the "T" rested on the top of the bottom divider. I then scribed along those edges with a knife to mark the section of the bottom piece that needs to be removed. This may sound complicated but it was actually very simple to execute.

With the top of the "T" marked out I removed most of the waste with the table saw leaving just a bit of wood inside of the knife lines which I then cleaned up with a chisel.

This was the most critical joint of the whole project and any slop or error would result in a gap with no reasonable option to fix it. In the end the process of overlaying the mating pieces and marking them out directly with knife lines paid off and the joint came together with a nice tight friction fit.

With the joinery done I shifted to prepping the frame for final glue-up and finishing. I removed the bulk of the corner glue blocks at the bandsaw.

I then trimmed away the rest with the block plane and a few final passes with the smoother.

I had been handling the frame quite a bit while working on the joinery and the glued miter joints were nice and solid but I don't trust them over the long run so I decided to add some reinforcing splines across the corners. I slapped together a quick and dirty jig allow me to cut the slots for these splines on the table saw. Note that you want to use a flat top grind rip blade for this to ensure the resulting saw kerf has a flat bottom rather than the jagged corners left by most combination or crosscut blades.

Here you can see an example of the flat bottomed slot cut across the corners.

I finished up this step by planing down some scraps of walnut to fit snugly into these slots and glued them in.

Next I glued in the center dividers one at a time using a pipe clamp to pull the joints nice and tight.

Once the glue was dry I trimmed off the corner splines and protruding sections at the divider joints with the bandsaw and planed everything flush. 

After a bit of cleanup work with the smooth plane, card scraper, and just a few strokes with some 220 sandpaper the frame was ready for finish. I wiped on 3 coats of shellac, sanding before the final coat, and topped it off with some paste wax buffed in with a scotchbrite pad.

I considered a few options for mounting the canvases to the frame but ended up settling on hot glue. It may not be how this is normally done but it was simple, reversible, and seems to be holding up well so far.

My low light cell phone photography leaves a lot to be desired but I'm really happy with how the end result turned out. The painting is gorgeous and I think the simple walnut frame compliments it well without getting in the way.

In terms of board feet of lumber used this is one of the smallest projects I've done to date but the small delicate joinery was a lot of fun. This project took me just over a month to complete which is pretty quick by my standards. My final observation was that walnut is absolutely wonderful to work with. I am very excited to finish up Lex's oak bookshelf that has been dragging on since late last summer and then shift gears to focusing on the walnut bed the wife has requested.