2021 Christmas Gifts: Braid-Pattern Pizza Peel

Published Monday, January 3, 2022 by Bryan

I've mentioned a few times that most of my wood projects are one-offs. This keeps things interesting and new. But I do often finish a project with a dozen ideas of how I would do it differently next time. This happened with my pizza peel - a purpose built tool that I never expected to build again. But when my parents' reactions to it were so strong, I seized the opportunity to try some of those ideas. Since I never wrote here about my own pizza peel, let's make this post a tribute to refinement.

The original.
The refinement.

What I consider the smallest difference, is also the one that's hardest to see in the photos: these are completely different sizes. The original is almost 16 inches (40cm) wide, while the refined gift is only about 12 inches (30cm) wide. Perhaps more obvious is that the original is wider than it is long, while the gift is closer to square. I built the original to the dimensions of my own, rectangular pizza stone. It works for me, but I think most people, including my mother, have a round pizza stone. I also lengthened the handle a bit. My relatively short handle (8-ish inches, or 20cm) works for my reach, but I think most people prefer to have a bit more space between their hands and the hot oven (14-ish inches, or 35cm, on the gift).

Original, bookmatched paddle.
Refinement, striped paddle.

More obvious is that the striping on the paddle is completely different. My original peel features two large book-matched maple planks. Maybe it was Chris's, "A guitar-shaped pizza peel, right?" comment that had me thinking in this direction. Looking at it hanging on my wall, the wide pale rectangles surrounded by darker-colored strips look just a little unbalanced. I was saved from making the same choice on Mom's gift by the fact that I didn't have another piece of maple large enough. Instead, it's several strips of "similar" widths. If I recall correctly, the maple (light color) is twice the width of the white oak (darker brown color), with the cherry (copper color) being halfway in between. Not only does this provide a better visual balance across the paddle, it also better balances the paddle with the busier braid in handle.

Original, braid pointing away from paddle.
Refinement, braid pointing toward paddle.

The braid is exactly the same, but applied completely differently. I had wanted to orient the braid in the original in the direction I did in the gift. But, between mistakes in cut lengths and worries that I needed the cross-grain connection to strengthen the transition from the center oak strip to the maple wings, I installed it in reverse. I like both orientations, now that I have seen each. But I also think that the straight-across at the paddle-end of the handle would not have worked as well with the gift orientation. It would have left more small braid sections hanging out alone, without surrounding braid.

Initial curve on front of braid.
Beveled curve on front of braid.

I do like the rounded end better. It was a little wild to make. While making the guitar-shaped pizza peel, I figured out an easy way to make an even curve, for the sound-hole inlay. I drove a nail through a bit of plywood, then clipped it down to a small point protruding only 1/16th inch (2mm) above the surface. This point worked as a pivot, allowing me to rotate the piece against a moving sanding disc. That also worked for the initial shape here. Then I kicked it up a notch: by mounting the plywood on the 45º edge of a rafter square, I could swing the piece back and forth to get an even bevel along the curved edge. Creating this bevel first, even with its complicated shape, was so much easier than my choice to add the straight bevel after attaching the braid to the original peel. Tiny gouges where my chisel slipped into the paddle of the original are still visible.

Original, small hole, reamed out.
Refinement, larger hole, rounded over.

A small detail that makes me disproportionately happy is the improved execution of the hole in the handle for the hanging strap. I forgot to put the hole in my original, before applying finish. A week later, I took it back to the shop, drilled a quick 1/4in. (6mm) hole, and then attempted to use a reaming tool to bevel the edge of the hole. The tear out is ugly. For Mom's gift, I instead used a nice 1/2in. (12mm) forstner bit to put a clean hole through the handle. After that, I ran a 1/8in. (3mm) roundover bit in a trim router around the hole. No tear out. The larger hole looks much more intentionally made. Much better.

1. Glue the braid together.
2. Sand flat.
3. Glue to handle.
4. Trim flush

With so many changes, you might wonder if anything stayed the same. Strangely, one of the most fiddly, time-consuming bits did. I couldn't think of a better way to assemble the braid. In both cases, I cut batches of short 1/2"x1/2" sticks, then glued them individually into a stack. The stack was pressed against a reference 90º form, but otherwise I found the necessary clamping to be minimal. The Titebond III that I was using had just enough tack that rubbing each piece against its neighbor, and then holding it in place for a moment seemed to keep it in place. Once the glue had cured, I was able to do all shaping without any pieces coming loose.

A little off the right.
A little off the left.
Until the edge is complete.

The technique I used to shape the paddle edge was also the same on all three peels. I had expected to use a belt sander to shape the front edge of the paddle. It never felt right. Instead, I grabbed my trusty #4 hand plane and whittled the edge down by holding the plane at an angle off the paddle's surface. This worked so well, and so quickly, that even if the belt sander had felt right, I doubt it would have been faster, or produced a better edge.

Original, with oil still soaking in.
Refinement, with sparkling flecks of grain.

All peels were also sanded to 220, wetted to raise the grain, then smoothed with 320 grit. After that, I applied mineral oil until they stopped soaking it up, left them overnight, then wiped any standing oil off for another day or two. It was tempting to put a harder finish on them, but where they'll be exposed to high temperatures, a simple, easily reapplied finish seemed best. With the oil on, you can also see the second benefit of the change from the large book-matched maple panel to the more equally-sized stripes. Thinner strips meant that I could rotate the maple 90º and show off the beautfiul ray flake and chatoyancy in the quarter-sawn edge.

Side view of handle.

And finally, while lengths and widths changed a bunch, thicknesses mostly didn't. All paddles are 1/2in. (12.7mm) thick. It seems like most commercial wood paddles, and hobby instructions, suggest a bit thicker, near 3/4in. (19mm). So far my thinner choice has been plenty supportive, and also shaves off a bit of weight. All handles are 1in. by 1.5in. (25mm by 38mm). I arrived at the first dimension by just adding a second layer of paddle stock. I chose the second dimension after digging through my scrap pile, experimentally holding pieces together until they felt like any more would be too wide. All the scraps had square edges. Using their dimensions, but rounding over the edges, brought the feeling back from too large to perfect comfort.

I'm quite pleased with how my second-try ideas played out. I think most of my refinement ideas from here are not around design, but are instead around more permanent jigs. That would make the proccess more reliably repeatable, and a bit quicker. If I were going to do this a third time, I would expect a fourth, fifth, sixth … who knows how many would be lined up after that? But for now, it's another one-of-a-kind. Merry Christmas, Mom!

Categories: Woodworking