Dresser: Dovetails

The moment had arrived to test the skill that I designed a whole other project to practice. Dovetails!

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I used the same technique as practied witht he box. There are already great step-by-steps covering how to make dovetail joinery, so I’ll skip the process here, and just show you my happy result.

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I chose the staggered pattern to reduce the number of tail and pins I’d have to cut, while also increasing the visual interest compared to simply larger, even components.

A small detail I added was to offset the seams between the planks in the top and bottom, from the seams on the sides. I then arranged the tails and pins so that they hold the seams in the opposite board together. It may never make any difference, but why not reinforce a pontential weak point?

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The four corners fit snugly. A test fit proved the case to be square. This was also the first time I got a live feeling for the size. It felt huge in my small shop. I think it will feel large compared to my current dresser, but once I can get more than one step away from it, it won’t feel overwhelming.

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Dresser: Plank Joining

After the wood had adjusted to the conditions of my shop, I began on the casework. Step one was to cut the ten-foot planks to length. I aimed just a little on the long side, because the tools I have to handle these large pieces aren’t the finest. I needed to have room to re-square the edges afterward.

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This cherry already had one surfaced side, so I was able to move directly to thicknessing next. I brought everything down to just 1/32 over an inch. That should leave me a full inch after finishing, which will be the sort of visual weight I’m looking for.

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With the faces smooth and parallel, I moved to squaring the edges to them. I don’t have a jointing fence for my planes, and I recently learned that the sole of my longer plane isn’t flat, so this was a bit of a slow process, requiring frequent pauses to check progress. Luckily, my No. 4 is in good condition, so making small adjustments went well.

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Once everything was flat and square, I could finally tackle the first bit of assembly work I mentioned in the previous post. I used dowels and glue to join pairs of planks together, finally arriving at four boards eighteen inches wide, the full depth of the dresser.

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Glue-up took several days, because I only had enough clamps and space to do one board at a time. But once it was done, I could finally square the ends, and match the exact lengths of the sides to each other, and the top to the bottom. For this work, I first attempted to use my router to run a pattern bit along a square jig. Unfortunately, my clamping wasn’t good enough, and the jig shifted.

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This isn’t the first trouble I’ve had with router jigs, so instead of trying again, I cleared off the bulk of the error with a saw, and turned to a more laborious, but safer solution. I quickly assembled a shooting board, sharpened my plane, and set to shaving the end grain.

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Now I could finally get to the part I had practiced for…

Dresser: Planning & Purchasing

Over fifteen years ago, friends lent my wife a dresser that their children had once used. When we moved into our first apartment, and she recovered her own dresser from her parents, the lent dresser became mine (our friends were adamant that they did not want it back). It has functioned well. The case is solid, the drawers open and close just fine, the drawer bottoms hold. Being a children’s dresser, though, it has never quite been able to hold all of my clothing. So, my next big project is to replace my child-size dresser with a gentleman’s chest.

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The dimensions are also relatively huge: approximately a foot wider and six inches taller than what I’ve been working with. That, in itself, should solve my space issues. I’ve chosen the chest style, because I think the cabinet to one side will work well for stacking sweaters, which are my main overflow item today.

I hadn’t yet settled on which species of wood to use when I visited the lumberyard. The bed in the same room is maple. The mahogany in my coffee table was nice to work with. Alder is a nice, slightly less mainstream choice. After picking through the stacks at Aura Hardwoords, I settled on cherry. They had a few pieces with some very nice looking figure, and also a large selection of relatively clear 10 inch+ by 10-foot planks in 5/4.

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One hundred board-feet of cherry planks for the drawer and cabinet fronts. Three sheets of 4×8-foot cherry plywood, for the back of the cabinet and the bottoms of the drawers. A stack of 9×48-inch baltic birch plywood for drawer construction. Not only did I have to borrow a trailer and towing vehicle, but I also had to rearrange my shop to fit it all.

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The chest will be eighteen inches deep. Two sections of ten-inch plank need to be joined to fit that width. Sorting the planks to find untwisted, unchecked sections of the right lengths, and ranking the figuring for top versus front versus side was a physically tiring edition of the Towers of Hanoi game, as I stacked and restacked the pieces.

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After some time acclimating to the shop conditions, cutting began…

Toy Blocks

Our friends’ son is turning one year old. His parents, deep in the Silicon Valley tech world, would prefer to delay the point when screens become a major component of his entertainment. Fortunately, screens are a major component of my entertainment, and so Pinterest suggested the perfect gift: wooden blocks. But why buy, when you can
make?

I’ve hauled around a few large leftover hunks of maple from the bed I made. This one was a little over 1 3/4 inches thick. After consulting choking hazard regulations, and thinking about common children’s blocks, 1 3/4 inches seemed about right. I ripped two square-ish columns, and then sent them through the planer to square them up and smooth out the faces.

Each block is 2 5/8 inches tall: a lower, cube 1 3/4 on a side, plus a 45º “roof” half that height. Instead of cutting these columns into 2 5/8 inch segements, though, I cut them into twice that length, plus 1/8 inch (5 3/8 inches). The extra length gave me a better hold on the piece while I cut the angles on either end.

I attached a sacrificial extension to my miter gauge, to give me more support and reduce tear-out at the near side. The way I attached the extension, with a little clearance off the table, made it difficult to use my normal method of setting the angle. That is, if I set my try-square against the miter rail, the ruler of the square didn’t engage the extension. So instead I laid my framing square against the saw blade, and then set my miter so that the extension crossed the same marking on either leg – a 1-in-1 drop.

With the angle set, I lined up the first cut, and clamped a stop block in place at the other end of the piece. With that preparation, cutting all off the roof lines was a simple matter of placing the block against the stop, running it past the blade, flipping it over, and doing the same again. In no time, my floor was covered in off-cuts.

The final cut was to separate the two blocks in each segment. This was the reason for the extra 1/8 inch: that’s the kerf of my saw blade. With the mitre gauge set to 90º and a new stop block in place, I had a village assembled in no time.

My final bit of dust creation was to ease the edges and scrape off any marks with some 220-grit sandpaper. I call this one the “cathedral” formation:

With all shaping done, it was on to painting. I re-learned my lesson with my last project, and returned to taping stencils for this one. I wanted very simple patterns anyway; most often just a face or two painted, with an occasional simple geometry.

We used milk paint to keep the toxicity low. The red and green hues covered solidly mostly after just one coat. We added a second for evenness. The blue and yellow showed through a bit more, so we added a third coat to those. I think more even roughing with the sandpaper would have helped with adhesion, but I tried to go easy on the faces, since the grain figure was so nice right off the planer.

The milk paint dried with a slightly dusty texture. Wax coating is very common for milk paint projects, so I mixed up my usual beeswax and mineral oil finish. I mixed it a little stiffer than normal, which resulted in a moment when I was sure I had ruined the project.

The finish was too stiff when it cooled in its container. I heated it to make it spreadable, but as soon as it came in contact with the wood, it cooled into ugly clumps. We decided that if heating worked once, it could work again, so we put the blocks in a low oven for fifteen minutes.

It worked perfectly. The wax reflowed evenly, and a quick wipe to remove the excess is all that was needed. The wax also lightly glossed the dusty texture of the milk paint and the face of the raw wood.

The final step was to prepare some sort of container. We couldn’t drop a sixteen-piece toy in our friends’ laps without some way to organize it.

My wife designed and sewed a beautiful felt box to carry the set. We spent some time considering different options for closures, but ultimately settled on suede thongs loosely wrapping a large button. I love the simple look of it.

The gift has now been given, receiving smiles all around the room. He has already demonstrated his love for knocking down towers, so I think this toy will provide plenty of entertainment for a few years.

Project Box: Fit and Finish

The inside of this box is about 36 x 12 x 3 inches – not something that could just sit on a table for decoration. It was built for a purpose: carrying equipment. Let’s talk about how I prepared it to do that.

I wanted the items in this box to be held securely, so they wouldn’t rattle around and bump into each other. I decided to cut profiles of each piece into ribs that span the width. That process was: dry fitting, tracing profiles, roughing in with a coping saw, and then refining the fit with a file. The result was a framework custom fit to the intended contents.

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I also added a handle and lockable latches, to cover “held securely” from another perspective.

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With that, construction was complete. On to finishing! First, a bit of art, and your first real clue to the box’s purpose. A tip: many corporations publish a “press kit” on their website, that includes scalable versions of their logo. I found the logo I wanted, and printed a letter-paper size copy. I used a DIY carbon paper technique to transfer it to my lid: shade the back of the paper with pencil, secure it to the lid, then trace over the image with a pen.

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The logo is often used in yellow and blue, like the Swedish flag it represents. My wood is going to have a yellow tone to it, so I selected a dark blue paint for my work. I’m not a freehand painter, and I probably should have chosen to cut a stencil instead, but sometimes you have to experiment anyway.

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I wanted a finish that was easy to apply, and would offer a fair amount of protection. This box won’t see harsh conditions, but it will get knocked around a little, loading and unloading. I just happened to have some spray-on Minwax Helmsman, so that’s what I used. I covered the hardware with gaffers tape, so I could focus on spraying evenly, without worry about urethane seizing my hinges.

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I propped the box on a tripod and applied two coats.

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Once the finish dried, my only remaining task was fixing suede strips to the contact points on the supports. With those in place, my box was complete.

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I’ve now used this box to carry my shotgun to the range several times, and it has worked quite well. The handle is a little narrow for the weight, and the weight is a little unbalanced, but on the whole, the box has served its purpose. It also stores well, sliding unobtrusively into a corner, efficiently using space. And, it provided a great platform for practice and experimentation with some techniques I plan to use in my next big project.

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Project Box: Planning

While I think about how to tell you about the process of fitting the internal components of this box, I’m going to talk about planning.

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The image above is the whiteboard in my shop, as it was at the end of this project. I’ve lost some of the context about what each scribble meant, but there are three obvious diagrams: the dovetails, the hinges, and the latches and handle. None are to scale. None indicate relationships to each other. All were drawn at the moment they were needed.

It’s tempting to write about how this plan-as-you-go process is because of the nature of wood. The many ways different grain patterns can and cannot be used, and the inability to be sure of what you’ll find inside a slab, means that most projects end up needing to be adapted to fit as they progress.

But this incremental design is how all of my projects go. The basic structure of a program gets sketched and then adapted as I start to code. Presentations are outlined and then rearranged as I find each part needing a different fit in the story. Dinner plans come together on the cutting board. Road trips have a destination and, “Something like this road will probably work.”

I would make far fewer things if I designed the entire solution up-front. There is, of course, plenty of planning that happens before the first cuts are made. However, there is a point in the initial design of every project at which there are too many unknowns. My solution is often to bring the work near the point where the project is blocked without their decision. This brings clarity to the details surrounding the issue. Sometimes the details become so clear that the solution is obvious, and other times I learn that the question wasn’t even relevant.

There are two keys to this flow working. The first is enough familiarity with the domain to recognize which decisions are likely to doom a project if not addressed early. My box must have internal dimensions large enough for the things I intend to store in it. I must have yeast and two hours of lead time if I want to bake bread for dinner. Put another way, it must be possible to determine what can be left unknown.

The second key to this process is the confidence that I can solve the problems that will arise. I find this one key to my work, even if I’ve over-planned. Years of projects in many domains have taught me that I have to expect that I will make a mistake somewhere in either my plan or my execution. I’ve also learned from this experience that very few of these mistakes spell disaster.

So, a whiteboard hangs in my shop to provide a place for information to accumulate to clarify the unknowns, as needed.

Project Box: Hinges

This box was designed to be a carrying case, so the lid need to be hinged to the bottom. In keeping with the theme of cheap practice, I grabbed brass-colored, stamped hinges at the local Home Depot. Also in keeping with the theme, I watched Matt Estlea’s videos on preparing these hinges and chiseling mortises for them. The particular style of hinge I bought required a little change to the plan, but I’ll explain that in a bit. The mortising started with lines scribed for the edges of the hinge plate.

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The first step in choping out the hinge was not cutting along these lines. Instead, it was chopping across the grain, 1/8″ to 3/16″ inside these lines.

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With the grain sliced, it was easy to pare in from the edge, without any risk of splitting past my markings.

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A couple of rounds of chopping and pairing, and I had reached my desired depth.

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With that base defined, I could work my way back to the scribed lines carefully.

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The hinge plate was a nice snug fit side-to-side, but this is where the style of hinge came into play. The hinge pin stuck out of either end, so I needed to cut relief for it as well.

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After repeating that process seven more times, drilling, and screwing, my lid was attached.

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It closed quite closely. There wasn’t even enough room for some thin cork lining I was considering.

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The hinges protruded so little that the box had no trouble standing on that edge. I may add some feet at some point, just to protect them a bit anyway.