Friday, March 5, 2010

Building a Tool Tote for My Youngest Daughter

I have a plan to engage my children in woodworking: I think that the process of envisioning and creating an object in three dimensions gives an important understanding of the world. And it's just plain fun.

So I hatched a plan to give them woodworking tools in a tote that I built for them. Step one of this plan was completed today when I gave the box and about 12 tools to my youngest daughter (don't tell the oldest, but she's getting one of these too). The plan was inspired by one that Megan Fitzpatrick built and described in Woodworking Magazine's Autumn 2008 issue. If you're interested, you can get the article for about $2 through Popular Woodworking.

Megan attached the handle of her box with three cut nails on either side of the box, but I wasn't fully happy with that method. I redesigned the box to have a mortise securing the handle to the box, which I'm sure would have worked great. But I've never cut a mortise before, and certainly not at an angle as would be required in the end pieces. When I started the project I was pretty sure I wouldn't finish by the deadline if I stuck with the planned mortise, so I discarded that plan and settled for glue and dowels.

Two other changes from Megan's plan:

First, hers was 30.5" long (and my original tote design was actually 31"). When I started laying it out it just seemed too big for a 7 year old, so I trimmed it down to a more manageable 24.5" long. I didn't redraw the plans, but just cut the lengths of the sides and took all other measurements directly from that.

Second, hers had cleats. I know my original SketchUp plans also had cleats, but apparently I chose to eliminate them. I didn't remember I had made this choice until I reread her article after finishing the box. To provide some support against downward pressure, I glued the handle to the bottom and put two dowels through each side into the bottom. I didn't worry about the ends, since there should be plenty of support there, provided by the angles.

The SketchUp drawings in this article have a mistake I made the very first time I tried to make dovetails. The joints are drawn with half tails instead of half pins. This is not the best plan, since it won't hold the tops and bottoms of the sides to the box as well as with half pins, and the sides may pull away from the joint in those areas. Also the drawn pins are sized more like tails, and visa versa. You'll notice the finished box has the tails done correctly, with half pins at the top and bottom of the end panels and the pins smaller and the tails bigger.

So here's a brief summary of the procedure I followed:

First I found the wood on the lumber rack, digging to find some pine (since the ash and oak and I had would be much too heavy for the girl). I found enough to make all the parts without too much glue up. Then, using the radial arm saw, I cut lengths for sides and ends (only the sides were thin enough to use only one board width, so everything else would have to be glued up). Using a 6" power jointer I jointed one edge and one side. Then using a power planer I planed them all to the same width.

That first day I glued up the panels and called it quits. The ends were glued into a single panel and ripped into two end pieces so I only had to use 3 sections instead of 4. It turns out that I miscalculated on the bottom, and had to glue it up twice (the second time to increase the width with a third section of board). In spite of all my attempts to be organized, something like this usually happens: it was easy enough to fix.

The next day I ripped all the ends of the box sides to a rough width leaving enough overlap to provide a safety margin. These would get planed flush later. I was ready to start the dovetails.


Using a marking gauge set to the thickness of the boards, I marked both sides of each board. Normally I would mark all four sides of the tail boards, but with the angled sides I found it couldn't be done with the same setting. I went back and using a saddle square and marking knife I marked the top and bottom edges of the tail board.

For this operation I decided it would be easier to cut tails first, and I used the method that Rob Cosman demonstrates for laying out consistent tails using dividers (I should have watched this video again before cutting and chopping: I probably could have been much faster...).

The dividers on the left are set to mark the ends, the dividers on the right are set to walk off the location of the pins, starting from the mark made by the other dividers.

I also set two bevel gauges: one to the same angle as the box ends (It would have been wrong to have the top edge of the tails angle up, and  I was concerned that anything less than parallel with the the top and bottom of the box would be too fragile because of the box angle).

The second bevel gauge was set to what I thought was a pleasing angle to look at on the box. It turned out to be almost 90 degrees, and would have looked fine if it had been.

I marked off the ends.

Then walked off the length of the tails, starting from each end mark made with the other dividers.

Using the saddle square, I drew a line square to the edges (it is important that this line and the cut that follows it be square or your dovetails won't work well, if at all).

I then marked the tops of each tail with the bevel gauge set to match the angle of the ends.

And marked the bottom of each tail with the bevel gauge set to almost square.

I cut to the waste side of each line, making sure to follow that line on the top edge as closely as possible. Cutting parallel to the faces is more important than exactly following the angled lines on the sides.

For the first set of tails I used the chopping method I learned at North Bennet Street, when I took their Fundamentals of Fine Woodworking course, working my way down from the line until about half way through, then flipping the board and going the rest of the way.

Then cleaning out the cuts and making sure the tops of each tail were square to the sides (fixing that with a sharp chisel if they weren't). For me there was a bit of this fixing the angle: I'm improving with practice, but it will be a long time before I move directly to marking the tails without having to fix a few angles, and longer still before I stop checking.

For all the remaining tails, I used a coping saw to remove most of the waste between the two cuts and then cleared the waste. I wish I had rewatched the Rob Cosman 3 1/2 minute dovetail video before doing this. I know I could have been much faster if I had used his method of pounding from the backside and then pushing from the front. For each set of tails, I checked that the cuts I had made initially were square to the sides.

Using a jointer plane to support the other side, I lined up the tails and using an Xacto knife marked out the pins directly from the tails.

This time I used the saddle square to mark lines square to the end from the end of the marked tail section to the gauge line I created at the start.

And again I cut on the waste side, this time tracking from the cuts I made from the marking knife. This time through it is important to follow the lines (both marked and drawn) as closely as possible.

Again I coped out the waste.

And chiseled out what remained.

The sides were ready.

I cut a glue spreader out of a discarded file folder and spread glue on the sides of the tails before pounding the box together and clamping it until dry. Honestly: I should have checked for square while I could still influence that with the clamps. I was lucky that it wasn't too far off when I checked later.

I then ripped the bottom panel to the width of the box (of course, this is where I discovered I hadn't made the bottom panel wide enough and had to chop, joint, plane, and glue another board on so it was wide enough to rip to the correct width).

I set a bevel gauge from the sides and set the angle on the radial arm saw from that to cut the angled  end of the bottom. This worked fine for the first angle, and I went back to the box to mark the length directly. I love marking directly from a piece because it is so accurate, but sometimes it requires a little thinking. I didn't realize that because I had marked the top of the panel, I needed to transfer that mark around to the bottom. Sure enough, when I cut the other side I had a parallelogram, rather than the trapazoid I expected. I tried to finesse it so the bottom would be long enough, but when I had cut the angle the other way, even leaving a little of a bevel on the top lip, it just wasn't long enough any more. I ended up fixing this mistake with a shim about 1/4" wide, cut at the correct angle on both sides and then glued and nailed (with small brads) to one side of the box. That closed the gap so that the bottom fit properly. A very obvious mistake, but not fatal on a rugged piece like this.

Here I'm gluing up the panel to be used for the handle. After that, the side angles were cut first so I could fit the panel to the box. That way, even when I cut the length about 1/16" too short, I could just hand plane the bottom of the panel away until the section fit perfectly.

I then marked the height of the ends, using a combination square as a depth gauge in the box and then as a marking gauge on the panel for the handle. I then marked the curved section using two nails pounded in the waste area and a flexible metal ruler pushed up to the curve I wanted.

I ripped the straight sections with a hand saw. For some reason I stopped taking pictures at this point, but I clamped the panel to the bench using holdfasts, then cut the curve using a jigsaw. I marked the handle hole and drilled half-inch holes with a forstner bit in the drill press and finished the cut with the jigsaw (again with the panel held down with holdfasts). the curve was faired and the edges of the handle rounded using rasps and sand paper.

The panel was then glued and clamped into the box. After that dried I pegged the ends in with dowels that I made by splitting out sections of the pine with a fro and then whittling to rough and finishing by driving it through a doweling plate to be 1/4 inch in diameter.

I marked the placement of the handle using blue tape.

And drilled right through the tape. I glued the dowels in with the tap still on the box. This made cleaning up the squeeze out easy, and the blue tape came off easily. I could have left it on to protect the box while I flush cut the dowels, but I didn't think of this at the time.

I cut the dowels close to the box and trimmed them flush with a sharp chisel. Then did the same thing for the sides to provide some support to the bottom of the box.

Above is the finished tote with the tools I gave with it (no the iron was not included). This weekend we'll probably tune up the hand plane so my daughter can make shavings with it (she loves that) and then drill holes with the hand drill.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, January 2, 2009

Another Dovetailed Candle Box

Now that Christmas is over, I can publish some pictures that were marked "Classified" by Santa's Workshop. I'm working my way slowly through a pile of box parts that I milled a few years ago, and I completed the third of these in time to send home with my parents. Every box teaches me something new, and gives me a chance to practice what I learned on the previous box. I'm happy to say the successes on this one were greater than the failures.

On the last box, finished about two years ago, I discovered how easily I could overshoot the correct lid size. On that box I had to invent and insert bushings to keep the lid from rattling around too much. It turns out that cutting polycarbonate with a jigsaw is difficult to do. I don't remember the final solution, but I did eventually create two guide bushings that fit in the slots of the box and solved the majority of the problem. You can see one of them clearly in the left slot of the picture below.

So this time through I carefully sneaked up on the correct width, and when I planed the bevels, I was again careful not to get too overeager. The result was a lid that slides nicely, but (at least in the winter) will not fall out when the box is turned sideways. I'm hoping I didn't leave it too snug, or it will become one with the box for the summer. We won't know until then.

On the last box, I also had trouble with the finger pull, which I planned to make triangular. I found to my chagrin that the finished pull appeared off center because I carved the pull before applying the bevels (which were off center). I had to fix the problem by modifying the pull, which turned out to be interesting and beautiful, but much more worry and work than I had originally planned:

Somehow I managed to perform these tasks in the correct order this time, and was extremely careful in carving out the pull. There was a moment when I almost panicked, because in "touching up" I managed to lengthen one corner of the triangle, but I managed to bring it back in balance by keeping my cool and carefully extending the other corner:

Lessons learned on this one:
  • Leave the sides slightly proud so they can be made absolutely flush with the side rails after assembly (one corner was slightly below where I wanted it, and subtracting material is more easily done than adding it).
  • Don't balance things to dry on the same surface you are using as a work table. There was a repair job involved, but I'm happy to say that steaming can work wonders and only someone who knows what they're looking for will discover exactly where all the damage was done.
  • Scraping is a good thing on figured cherry. My eyes saw tear out after the balancing act that had been invisible before I started looking critically. I learned that I can get the scraper to cut shavings instead of sawdust—that never happened before—and I cleared up most of the tear out. I noticed some very slight remainders when it was too late to correct: my finishing preparations will be even better next time.
  • Learn to cut to a line (see my last post). These dovetails were respectable, but had several problems, including a couple spots that had to be wedged to hid the gap (M&D: can you find the two wedges? It's a lot like playing "Where's Waldo" even for me, and I put the wedges in...) Next time I hope to cut closer to the line, and on the waste side.
  • The bottom corners were not as snug as I wanted them, and I hope to figure out why there was a slight gap. That said, they still look good:
That's all for tonight. Tomorrow I'm on my way to Rockler to buy a $200 6" Delta jointer that is usually $400.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Tails First or Pins First?

I've cut dovetails using both the tails-first and pins-first methods. When I was taught to do this, it was using the pins-first method, and although I was a beginner, the joints were very tight and accurate. They just required a lot of correction along the way.

Soon afterward, I saw a video by Rob Cosman on making dovetails and he cut the joint tails first. It looked to have many advantages for speeding the process and making it more accurate so I started experimenting. I soon found that a pencil was inadequate for marking the pins, where it worked just fine for marking the tails on a pins-first joint. This caused me a lot of grief as I didn't have a marking knife. I tried a number of solutions, including a sheetrock knife (don't try this at home, kids), but they all compromised the tightness of the joints. Finally, Fine Woodworking did a test on marking knives and included a $3.37 solution: the Xacto Knife. Problem solved, and my tails-first joints got much tighter.

Yesterday, Christopher Schwartz posted a list of reasons why he has adopted the tails-first method, and a couple of them are destined for my shop: gang cuts should be a real time saver, and I'll be trying the rabbetting trick soon after the moving fillester arrives in my shop.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 16, 2008

First Dovetail for an Eight-year-old

Here's a great post by Konrad Sauer about his son's first through dovetail. This is the kind of experience that blow me away about being a parent.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Box Assembly

Yesterday night I returned to the shop. The bottom and insides of the cherry dovetailed box had been finished with two coats of Tung oil finish and a coat of wax. The finished cherry glowed almost golden, practically begging me to glue it together.

Having come this far without incident, I wanted to be sure to get the glue up right. I checked my labels, still visible on the outside of the box, and laid out the parts in relative position with the bottom in the center. I placed the sides with the bottom slots of each piece laid alongside the bottom. I had clamps ready if I should need them; also a 12" rule, a mallet, four pine blocks cut with fingers slightly thinner than the tails, glue spreaders and glue cup cut from a small paper cup, a spray bottle of water, paper towels, and scraps of cherry created when I cut the dovetails.

Surveying the scene, I ran through the process in my head. It seemed that everything I needed lay in front of me. I used some poster putty to temporarily attach the paper glue cup to the bench top (have you ever chased a glue cup under the bench while your open time was ticking away? I have.). Then I poured enough wood glue into the cup and started spreading glue on the long grain of the pin boards. Perhaps I should have also spread glue on the tail boards, but I chose not to do so. I knew the tails had a fairly tight fit, and I wanted to minimize squeeze out.
After adding glue to all the pins, I lightly inserted one set of tails into the corresponding sets of pins, first on one side and then the other. Using one of the pine blocks to protect the cherry side from the mallet, I tapped the end home, working alternately from one edge to the other. When that end was set, I turned the box over and slid the bottom into its slot, then repeated the process of inserting the tails and driving the second end home.

I now had a box. Using the 12' rule, I tested for square. Then I looked at the inside for squeeze out. At this point I realized two sections were not driven all the way home, so I applied the mallet just a little bit harder to drive them into place. The box was still square, and there was only one spot of squeeze out. Since the inside was already finished, cleaning this was no big deal. I sprayed a paper towel lightly with water and wiped away the glue spot.

At the last, I looked at the dovetails critically. Only one spot looked like it needed significant help, so I made a small wedge from one of the cherry scraps. I dipped this in glue and lightly tapped it into the gap (making sure to line up the grain so it would appear to be part of the pin – I think end grain hides better than edge grain and its easier to make the wedge that way). So now the assembly is done. My only worry is that I may have driven this wedge a little too far and deformed the tail enough to be noticeable. We'll see tonight when I trim it flush.

Labels: , ,

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dovetailed Box - Progress Report

I continued work on the box as much as possible this weekend (amidst a two day camping trip, yard work, and a barbecue):
  • All sides of the bottom, and the insides of the box sides have been finished with two coats of tung oil finish and a coat of lightly buffed wax.
  • My maker's mark has been stamped in the bottom.
  • The profile on the top sections of the box sides has been beveled. One of the bevels is slightly steeper than the other two, but trying to correct this would just cause problems. It looks fine as it is.
  • I cut pine blocks that fit the tail fingers of the ends. These will be used to protect the box from the clamps I will use to set the box square and keep it that way until dry.
  • I set out the clamps and set them to the right size for the project, cut a paper cup (both for a glue dish AND glue spreaders), and laid out the parts: ready to glue (possibly tomorrow night).
In all, I'm happy with the progress, but I'm anxious to finish so I can move on to the bench project. I want the benches for Mid-July for a test run, and I don't have much free time between now and then.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pounce Wheel and Pounce Bag: Another Marking Technique

Christopher Schwartz wrote an article about pouncing a while ago, over at Woodworking Magazine's blog. This is a technique that seems like it could speed the process of transferring dovetails. Probably not significant in a basement shop, but definately relevant to makers who may be laying out and cutting multiple dovetail joints.

In the comments on the article, someone mentioned a pounce wheel:

I've used a pounce (pronounced pöns, I believe) bag before, but never for dovetails.

My usual use for one is to transfer curved patterns from paper to full size templates. The technique is to lay the paper plan onto the template stock, and trace over the line with a pounce wheel. A pounce wheel is a spiked wheel on the end of a stylus. It sort of resembles a Texas cowboy's spur, in miniature. Anyway, the pounce bag is bounced on the row of tiny holes, and a clear dotted line shows up on the template stock, ready to bandsaw to shape.

This is a very cool way to transfer curves from a full-sized paper pattern to a template or workpiece. The pounce wheel is something I've seen when browsing the tools section of the fabric store while my wife improved her stockpile of fabric, so if you want a pounce wheel and don't know where to find it, try calling your local fabric store.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Patching a Poorly Cut Dovetail

I've been practicing by making boxes with half-blind dovetails and frame and panel bottoms. Although I was taught to cut near the line and approach slowly and carefully, I know it is faster to cut perfectly with the saw. So I've been cutting right to the line and dealing with the consequences, knowing I will spend more time now for reduced time in the future.

The first two joints came out quite nicely, but on the third joint my hope for the best didn't work so well. I wrote last week about cutting on the wrong side of the waste line. The good news is that my practice of cutting to the line meant I was only one saw's width too wide instead of more. But there was a saw's width gap.

I didn't think that could be fixed with a simple wedge (as I plan with the bottom side of the same tail), so I decided to patch it with some of the waste generated while cutting the pins.

The first step was to identify a waste piece that would fit, and make sure it fit snugly. I chose to patch the pin rather than the tail, because end grain is less likely to show noticeably. Then I made sure the side and corner of the tail were square and flat.

Even though my chosen waste piece had a flat section, there was a notch where I had started the chop. I needed a safe way to flatten this, and a chisel was definitely not that way. While puzzling over this, I remembered a miniature plane that might work. It looked to be just right for this application, so I tuned gave the blade a quick flattening and sharpening. Then I clamped it in the vice and ran the intended patch over it until it was flat.

Note: Looking at the picture, I realize this probably is not safe for the ends of my fingers. I was lucky and did not make finger shavings. Let me know if you have a safer idea for how to do this in the future.

Then I used a chisel to cut a matching angle for the bottom edge and test fit the patch to the tail.

Glue up was next. I used Tightbond II and a small c-clamp to attach it.
After letting that sit for a day, I trimmed the patch flush with the pin.

Then marked it for a new cut.

And trimmed to the line with a chisel. Actually, I trimmed past the line on one end (insert a favorite string of curses here) but the result is much better than I started with. The remaining gap can be wedged during glue up or hidden by peening the end grain.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Thoughts on Dovetails

Since I've been making dovetails, I've thought a lot about why they are made the way they are. The first time I tried a dovetail, I automatically laid out the joint with half tails at the top and bottom. I soon learned that this was not recommended.

Tage Frid, in the first book of his excellent series Tage Frid Teaches Wooodworking stressed that dovetails should start and end with half pins and not half tails. I believe that the reason for pinning top and bottom is to provide a mechanical restriction should either board try to cup away from the joint.

Using half pins at top and bottom theoretically fixes the pinboard and tail board from cupping. The half tail offers no such restriction. Because the angle of the tail runs with the grain rather than across it. there is nothing preventing the edges of either the pinboard or tailboard from cupping away from the joint. The first such restriction will be the first pin. So the rule of starting and ending with half pins is a good one because it improves the chances of the joint staying tight.

Today I discovered that this good-sense rule was not always practiced in the past.
If you look at the section on Antique Dovetails in this Popular Woodworking blog entry, you'll see that only one of these follows Tage Frid's admonition. Instead, most started with a half pin at the top, and ended with a half tail at the bottom. As evidenced by the half pins at the top, these craftsman obviously knew that half pins offered an advantage. But why didn't they pin the bottom? At first I guessed that they wanted the top to stay absolutely flush with the drawer because the user was most likely to notice gaps there. But if they were willing to pin the top, was it so much more work to create a half pin at the bottom?

On further thought, I suspect there was some planned advantage to this layout: there must be a reason why leaving out the bottom half pin was faster and easier. I suspect that reason is the groove holding in the bottom of the drawer. I obviously can't see the interior of any of the drawers Glenn Huey showed us, but I suspect that both the sides and front have a channel for the bottom that runs right through area of the half tail. Laying out with a half tail at the bottom allows the maker to work without fear of accidentally exposing these channels with a misplaced saw cut or chisel (something that can easily happen with a half pin). This advantage probably justifies a gamble on the stability of bottom end of drawer.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dovetail Error #2

No, this is not a mock up for next year's jack-o-lantern teeth, but a real life example of cutting the tail instead of the waste. This demonstrates why you should always mark the waste, on both visible edges, before starting to cut and chop.

It almost makes me feel better that this error is over a year old. And it was a mock-up using scrap wood. And I was hurrying.

My New Year's resolution? Work smarter, not faster. The speed will come, and going slowly once is still faster than going quickly twice.

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dovetail Error #1

Notice the chisel (my thinnest) and how it compares the the waste area next to it. If your thinnest chisel is a 1/4", you cannot cut pins that run to the width of the saw kerf: your chisel will be too wide to remove the waste.

Labels: , ,