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.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Journal Entry #3: Small Victories

At the beginning of January I bought a Delta extended-bed 6" jointer from Rockler and started setting it up. The body of the jointer (175 pounds of metal) is mounted on the stand, as is the motor, but there were adventures setting it up (I might post these with pictures at some later date).

The short story: I dropped the motor on the floor while trying to mount it (if you assemble one yourself, don't believe the picture in the manual that shows the stand upright next to the mounting instructions: it should be turned upside down before attempting to mount the motor). Of course there was a big dent in the casing and I felt I needed to turn on the motor to make sure it still worked. I didn't notice there was a key in the shaft (the key prevents the pully from sliding on the shaft) and the key went flying. Lucky me, it did not hit me, but neither can I find it. So today I tracked it down at the Dewalt/Delta service Web site and ordered a replacement. It should get here around February 5.

Also, two of the wooden toy boxes we brought with us to Belize were broken by baggage handling. I glued these back together today, and they are ready for our next trip (either to see my grandmother in Nebraska, or my parents in Minnesota—or possibly in Mexico if it is affordable).

Finally The work on the Christmas present I gave SWMBO (in the form of raw material) proceeded slightly today. I find it hard to joint the face of a board by hand, and this shelf is being more stubborn than the other pieces. Once I get this last shelf flattened, I can use the power planer to flatten the other side parallel to the surface. Can't wait, since I expect things will proceed more quickly after the stock preparation is completed.

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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.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dovetailed Box #4: Dulled Chisel and Mis-cuts

Last night I retreated to the shop to work on box #4. I hope to complete this and two others before the end of June. The first two joints went incredibly well, but joint number three has become an opportunity to learn.

Lately I've been cutting tails first, and this box is no exception. I checked the tails for square and fixed any that were off. Then I marked the pins using an Xacto knife (a recent Fine Woodworking review rated this as the best value in marking knives. The reviewer was right: an Xacto works brilliantly, especially compared to the mechanical pencil I had been using).

At this point I felt good. The pin layout looked great, with crisp lines. The waste areas were marked to prevent my making more tails where I needed pins. I had even caught an error made during initial layout, where I had marked the wrong side match up on the end piece. This could have been a disaster, resulting in an Escher box with two bottoms.

In fact, the first cut looked great: I had matched it exactly to the knife line and followed the inside edge of the marked pin exactly. A moment's satisfaction and I was ready to make the second cut. That's when I realized: I had cut on the wrong side of the knife line. I didn't cut waste. The joint was guaranteed to have a saw-width gap there, just waiting for repair.

I could have quit then, but I hate to stop work when I've just made a mistake. It leaves me sour, and depressed. So I calmed myself and planned out how to patch this with one of the waste pieces. Then I settled in to complete the pins. The rest of the night brought some challenges, but nothing as painful as that initial miscut. I finally had to stop when I realized the chisel was dull. I'm not sure how I managed it, but I must have knocked the cutting edge into the holdfast. There is visible flat spot on one side, but the rest of the edge looks good. Tonight I expect to be sharpening for a while to get that out. Now I wish I already had a grinder...

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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.

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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.

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Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dovetail Errors of the Past

In my basement shop I have my first "successful" project in wood. I put that in quotes because the criteria for success were pretty loose: could I make dovetails that actually seemed to stay together by themselves? I did pretty well for such a complex first project, but you can see the single nail in one of the pins that says "not quite"

There were a number of mistakes that preceded the making of the dovetails, (like trying to smooth wood scavenged from a pallet without first checking for nails, not making the boards flat and square, and not actually knowing how to sharpen a plane blade OR a chisel very well, but that's all for another day). But I was making dovetails, and I was not daunted by a lack of knowledge. I had read instructions for making dovetails several times before, so I thought I had the right idea: mark out the pins and cut them, mark the tails from the pins and cut them, put together the box and wonder how you ever became so clever. So I did just that and was very satisfied.

Of course there were a number of execution errors (obvious in these pictures), but there was a major layout error too. One I've seen other woodworkers duplicate (including one whose project was featured in a major woodworking magazine): I'd created half tails instead of half pins. I think anyone layout out dovetails for the first time is likely to do this if they don't have guidance: It just seems logical to put those satisfying visible angles in as many places as possible. But the experts all tell you to use half tails on the ends of a join, and after much puzzling about the joint structure and wood movement, I think I know several reasons why.

  1. If the wood cups,half tails allow it to happen much more easily
  2. There is less distribution of pressure across the grain structure, making it more likely for joint failure at the corners
  3. If you are making a half blind joint to allow a panel bottom, you need to place the panel groove much higher in the frame, losing some of your drawer space to the underside.
There may be other reasons, but these are the three I've encountered so far. Next time you look at a well made dovetail, take a look at those half tails and try to picture the forces on them. You'll begin to see how having these cap the joint makes it much more difficult for cupping to occur in either panel that if it had the straight on angle of a half tail.

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