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designing and building with wood channels my creativity and challenges my mind.
This blog is a record of my life in my studio.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Aquarium Cabinet

When I first started in woodworking, I made a lot of aquarium cabinets. Aquarium cabinets can be simple empty boxes, a design that presents only a few challenges to a beginning woodworker. Of course, they also have unique requirements, different from your typical cabinet. To name a few, they need to hold a lot of weight, be waterproof or water resistant, and provide access to all of the tubes and sumps that are housed under today's modern aquaria. Since I am an avid aquarist, aquarium stands offered me a chance to bring a rare combination of skills to these projects.

I built several very large, traditional aquarium cabinets. But this summer, I was commissioned for a more creative aquarium stand project. The client allowed me a great deal of artistic freedom with the design, and I was able to bring some of the fine-furniture skills I have learned, to bear on the project.

So thank you, Eric, for giving me this opportunity!

My Finest Aquarium Stand 

This is a pic of the completed piece. It is made of 100% white birch, except for two plies of marine mahogany plywood in the curved door (more on that later).

The cabinet is dovetailed together, and the back is made of ship-lapped 1/4" birch planks, that are set into a dado that runs around the rear edge. The holes in the center plank are there for ventilation (very important for aquarium cabinets housing an under-tank sump of water), as well as ways for electrical cords (for running the heater, pumps, and other sump-related gizmos).
The tank is meant to sit on top of the stand, which is made from a large slab of live-edged white birch. The base of the stand is cut from that same slab. The cabinet, which will hold the sump and a shelf for supplies, is trapped between four legs, which are made from 12/4" "flame" figured birch.

Each leg is tenoned into the top and bottom slabs.

The way the cabinet is suspended between the two slabs is pretty nifty. Each leg has a long notch, about 1/2" deep, which traps the cabinet around 5" from the base slab. The front legs are themselves let into 1/4" dadoes in the cabinet walls themselves, a sort of stretched-out bridle joint that prevents the cabinet from sliding forward or back. But only the front legs are trapped that way: In order to allow the top and bottom slabs, and the cabinet, to seasonally expand and contract relative to each other, the back legs are NOT let into any grooves in the cabinet. The back of the cabinet can actually slide in and out relative to the back legs, but the front of the cabinet won't move. No glue binds any part of the cabinet to the legs. It isn't needed because of the joints, which hold everything securely and solidly (no wiggling), like a puzzle. Once the top and bottom slabs are applied to the tenons at each end of each leg, the whole thing is locked together. Racking, also, is nearly impossible.

The Dovetails

The case is dovetailed together. This was my first time dovetailing a box like this. I have never cut dovetails with a router (except for sliding dovetails, like the ones I use in my Wine Bar wine racks).

By the time I was finished with this case, I had gotten pretty good at chopping dovetails!  And, I have never made a box that was so strong. Given how easy it was to learn, and how strong dovetails are, I can see why this has been the case-making joint of choice for 1,000 years.

The Curved Door

The curved door was my second experience with bent lamination. I cut the veneers myself, using my supercharged Delta 14" band saw to cut 12" wide birch veneers. The wood was from some 3/4" boards quilted birch, and I was able to get three 1/8" veneers from each one. Not bad! It couldn't have been done, however, without the 3hp Baldor motor bolted to the back of the saw!

Making the bending form was as easy as making a template with a batten and plywood, and then routing a bunch of 3/4" plywood strips to match, using a beefy bearing-guided bit.

I used West System epoxy to laminate two layers of quilted birch veneer onto two layers of 1/8" thick mahogany marine plywood.

When the epoxy dried, I used a damaged Dozuki saw to rip the edges straight. I cross-cut the top and bottom edges on the band saw.

After attaching a frame to the inside of the door front, I used some large SOSS hinges. I like the SOSS hinges because they are invisible, but moreover because they are easy to mount if you have some hand skills.

Inside the Cabinet

Inside the cabinet, I made an adjustable shelf, with a pipe-way in the back so my client could run pipes from the tank into a sump, which will be housed at the bottom of the cabinet. A similar pipe way comes out of the top of the cabinet itself, and pipes run through a notch at the back of the top.
The bottom of the cabinet has holes for air. The client will put the sump on small pads to raise it slightly off the floor of the cabinet, so water won't get stuck under the sump, and rot the wood. I like that even though there may be ten gallons of water sitting in the cabinet, it is suspended in mid-air between the top and bottom slabs. I was going for lightness in the design, and floating this heavy cabinet in the air was something I thought would work well.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Macbook Pro Teardown

This isn't a woodworking post, but some may find it useful anyway. I love my Macbook Pro. But recently, after dropping it about 25 times, the screen started go go buggy. It seems like the problem can be fixed by pressing on the hinge. Sounds like a simple cable or connection problem!  But how to proceed to take the thing apart, with some confidence in what I will find inside?

Halleluja!  This link shows it all:


Thanks Guys!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sassafras and Walnut Wine Pedestal

A year ago, my friend gave me a piece of live-edged sassafras, along with a whole bunch of old-growth black walnut, from a fallen tree near his property in Maryland.

I have used most of the walnut, on some really cool personal projects, and on a recent commission

And I finally got around to using the piece of sassafras, along with some of that walnut, to make a cool wine rack. I book-matched a crazy-figured piece of the walnut to make the base, joining the two panels together using hand-cut wooden butterfly keys and clear epoxy. They're my first butterfly keys; the epoxy was a necessity, rather than an open choice. The resulting base sits on two walnut rails, and is solid and stable.

The rack itself is made from the one piece of sassafras, with a special walnut base that tilts the thing back slightly. I left the bark on, and to hold the wine bottles, I drilled angled holes in the sassafras. 

I also added small dowels in the tops of the holes to hold the wine bottles tight, in case the rack was bumped. These little dowels let me drill the holes so the bottles would lie almost flat, perpendicular to the rack, but still be held securely. The dowels are angled so you don't feel them when you put the bottle in, but you can't remove the bottle without lifting it up before pulling it out.

Ingenious, if I do say so myself!

The whole thing is finished in Danish oil, so there are no worries about leaving the bottles in for a long time (and pulling off a strip of stuck-on finish when you finally do remove the bottle).

It's stable when fully loaded, a one-of-a-kind art piece and functional bottle holder with a 12-bottle capacity. It's also for sale. Contact me here.

Building a Large Trestle Table - Part 1

When I was commissioned to build a 9-foot trestle table and benches for a vacation home in Maine, my clients and I discussed the challenge of moving the piece which, being made of solid African Mahogany, was going to be quite heavy. Together, we decided to go for a "knock-down" design, which allow for the piece to be dis-assembled and re-assembled without damaging the joints. The other benefit of "knock-down designs is they provide for a very rigid construction that stays rigid, even during the dry, cold winter months, when wood furniture joints typically become loose due to wood shrinkage.

Now, Ikea furniture is "knock-down" furniture, but everybody knows it doesn't stay rigid over time. The difference between the Ikea version of "knock-down" and the fine furniture version is in the joints. Whereas Ikea furniture relies on dowels and screws threaded through particle board, the trestle table in question would be built with a matrix of lap and bridle joints, with a pair of wedged tenons holding the bottom stretcher tight in place. The resulting construction, weighted down by the heavy solid-wood table top, will result in a table that might get a bit shorter in the winter, but will always be tight and not wobbly.

Did I mention the table will be kept on a roofed-in (but open) deck? That means it will be exposed to rain, sleet, and relentless summer sun. This is a supreme challenge to a furniture-maker. But using a number of techniques and the right lumber, an heirloom piece is not only possible, but a welcome project.

This is the first post in a series, showing how I make the bridle joints for this table and bench set, which is still in progress.

Once the notches are cut, the legs are used to lay out the location of the notches for the cleats and feet, which get edge-notches as well as face-notches.

I use the actual pieces to lay out all my joints. It's the fastest and most exact. In furniture-making, one almost never uses measuring tape or free-hand marking. The most important thing is that things like multiple notches all be exactly the same depth. I achieve this with a scratch gauge.

I use a chisel and a Japanese saw to cut the notches. The better I get with the saw, the closer to the line I can cut. But I don't cut on my line: I use the chisel to pare away waste until a perfect drop-in fit is achieved.

Making Joinery Cuts with a Saw

Cutting joinery with a hand saw is an acquired skill. In the past, I would have spent a lot of time setting up jigs for power tools like my table saw or router, which would allow me to cut my joints simply by pushing a sled or a tool on a guided path. The result of using jigs and power tools is ideally a very accurate joint. But it is time consuming, especially for complicated joints (like the multiple bridles and lap in this table's trestle assembly). And power tools, while themselves accurate, are only as accurate as their setup, and for all but a narrow range of jigs, they are not accurate enough for fine-fitting furniture.

Much better is to develop a facility with a good hand saw and a sharp chisel. Here, I use the legs to lay out the size of the bridle joints on the cleats and feet. I use a marking knife to score the edge of the notch, then a saddle square to score a line all the way around the piece.

The line provides a track for the saw, with which I make a very shallow, long cut in the face of the feet or cleat. Once the cut is made, the shoulder of the face notch is defined, and the waste can be cut away with the chisel. The result is a shallow track, in which the leg joint slides home.

Reinforcing the Bridle Joints

The whole idea of this design is that it can be dis-assembled. So once the bridle joints are all fitted, I will put thick dowels inside the top joints, where the stretchers meet the cleats. This will make the cleat/stretcher joint extremely rigid, even though in winter the wood will shrink and a typical unglued joint would become loose. The cleat/leg/foot assembly will be glued together with titebond III, a water-proof wood glue. Later, I will add the arched, bottom stretcher (see design pics), which will have a wedged tenon joint at each foot. This wedge can be tapped in during the winter, when the joint will loosen.

Stay tuned for more about this project as it progresses!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Karl Holtey Maker of Fine Hand Planes

While looking for a set of drawings for a wooden infill shoulder plane (I want to build my own, after using a Stanley No.93 and then - when that one's mechanism disintegrated - a 100-year-old wooden model), I came across this website for Karl Holtey's hand-made hand planes. These are very fine looking, and by the looks of them, finely made, planes. ;-)

It struck me that while Karl's planes may cost over $3,000, people do buy them and in 100 years many of his planes will probably still be in use. Holtey planes will certainly achieve collectible status, if they aren't already. His trademark look is the dovetailed infill along the sole of the planes. I have seen finger-jointed soles on wooden planes before, but this dovetailed method is pretty wicked!

If you want to see some beautiful-looking planes from a true artist and craftsman, take a look at Karl's Website.

I didn't include pictures here of some of his planes with rectangular totes. As somebody who uses his hand planes a lot, I have to say I am not attracted to having sharp wooden angles in my palm for the duration of a session of flattening a big panel. Ouch!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Best Woodworking Clamps

Before I begin my review of the best woodworking clamps, IMHO, here's an old woodworker's joke:

Q: "how many clamps do you need in your shop?"

Coffee Table Type 1

I am designing a coffee table to be sold at a local furniture chain. The coffee table will be a production piece, so I decided to go through a series of prototypes before settling on a final design. The piece in these pictures is the first of these prototypes.

Prototyping is an important part of design, and woodworkers use many kinds of prototypes, often made of cardboard or plywood. I tend to work from either full-scale drawings or models made in Google's Sketchup software, taking the view that all one-off custom furniture is a prototype. 

In this case my prototypes are made from extra material I have lying around the shop, and the joinery, while "heirloom grade", is chosen for speed. The result is a "prototype" that's a one of a kind hand-made heirloom, something desirable to own, but priced within reach, less than $1,000.

This coffee table prototype is made from red oak and maple cutoffs. At first, I planned to stain the top. But the Red Oak scrap just looked too good. While the final piece will have mortise and tenon and lap joints, this prototype was built with laps and dowels. It is finished in my special mix of tung oil, urethane, and mineral spirits.

the design for this coffee table is obviously an interpretation of the modern furniture of the 1940s and 1950s.  It is a trestle design, though with the stretchers way up above the legs. The angled ends of the stretchers and table rails seemed an obvious design choice, and this gave the table an Asian feel. For that reason, I decided to give the top a long chamfer at either end. The chamfer gives this low table quite a bit of lightness and lift.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Download the Iturra Design 2010 Catalog PDF Here

 The Iturra Designs catalog is considered by many woodworkers to be the Bible of Bandsaws. The reason is that owner Louis A. Iturra loves to talk about band saws, and has packed a TON of information about real band saws into his catalog. Not just product info, but info about WHY products are the way they are, and tons of history of different band saw models. This guy has done a lot of sawing. This is perhaps the BEST

Friday, April 27, 2012

Max the Whale a big hit at Sault New England

Max the Whale has made a big splash in the South End, Boston! After originally showing up in the seasonally warming waters of Sault New England, thanks to Philip, Sault's proprietor, Max has been fished to near-extinction.

Thankfully, Boulter Plywood in Somerville has a ready supply of Max's lifeblood: 5/8" 100% mahogany marine plywood. This Sunday, I'll be working as fast as I can to make more Maxes. Philip has doubled the size of his next order, anticipating even greater demand for Max's debonair style and sink-proof cork feet.

Experts predict extreme

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Maggi Steff 2048 Power Feed

I recently purchased a power feed for my shop, for hands-free cutting on the 5hp table saw, and hands-free, smooth cutting on my 3hp shaper. I was lucky to find a Maggi Steff 2048 4-wheel, 1hp feeder on eBay for a mere

Sunday, April 22, 2012

AirCab at the Door Store

I am happy to announce that my AirCab wall-mounted cabinets are now available at the Door Store in Cambridge. The Door Store specializes in custom furniture. When you buy an AirCab through the Door Store, don't forget to ask about custom sizes. Their staff will help you decide on the right dimensions for your application, then send the info along to me. Your custom-size AirCab will be included in the next run of cabinets, made by me in my Allston studio.

And when you visit the Door Store, don't forget to tell them you heard about them on Isaac's blog!

the Door Store is located 940 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, MA.

Monday, April 9, 2012

power feeder and table saw: how to

since I recently ordered a Maggi Steff 2048 power feeder from eBay, I'm getting serious about figuring out how to use it best on my 12", 5hp table saw. Power feeders are typically used on shapers, and I've found lots of information on shapers and feeders. But info on using a feeder with a table saw has been harder to find. After some digging, I came up with this thread on Woodweb. Very useful tips for table saws and power feeders.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Table Saw Safety: Is it Time to Act?

For woodworkers, the issue of table saw safety is ever-present. And now the issue has grown big enough to be covered the news outlets like USA Today. The big news is a proposed federal

Monday, March 12, 2012

AirCab: The style and price of Ikea... with heirloom quality

I am always trying to come up with production piece ideas, while learning more about the craft and doing custom work. Production pieces present unique challenges: whereas with one-off furniture the goal is to

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Modernist entertainment center

Here is a picture of a recent commission - a small entertainment center to hold a flat screen TV, a cable box, and a couple of stereo components. I had a little fun turning one of the photos black & white, making it look a lot like one of those modernist catalog photos from the 1950's. Originally, my clients and I had decided to bevel the top all the way around. But when it came time to make the final cuts to the slab, the natural edge was so close to the bevel we had planned, we decided we couldn't cut it off.

The bump on the top is a large, felt-bottomed "coaster" I made for the 42" TV that will go on top of the table. The owners were looking for something they could use as an entertainment center in their small condo, then re-purpose once they move into a larger home. The coaster will protect the top so there's no damage from the TV's plastic stand.

This piece took two months to make.  It features several "firsts" for me: my first shop-made pivot hinges, first hand-planed (rather than sanded) surfaces, first invisible magnetic doors, first book-matched doors, first blind dowel & lap joined case, first carved handles, and first 100% solid wood black walnut construction, from a naturally-felled old-growth black walnut.

This was my first "fine furniture" commission, and I look forward to the chance to design & build similar pieces in the future.

The legs get wider at their bases, while the bevel on the top and the doors lend an upward-sweeping shape

the doors move on invisible brass pivot hinges I made myself
book-matching can lead to some amazing figure in wood. I retro-fit a 3hp motor to my band saw before sawing these panels

Thursday, February 9, 2012

New Pedestal Stand for the Sera 15 gallon Biotope

my pedestal: 36" tall
front view
The Sera Biotope 60 is a 15 gallon "micro" aquarium-in-a-box, perfect for people needing just a little bit of fish tank in their lives. With its sleek shape and dark gray molded, vented canopy, the Biotope cuts a handsome figure. But the pedestal usually sold alongside the Biotope 60 doesn't live up to the job.  Short and squat, with not a lot of storage space, it could look, and serve the needs of cramped apartment dwellers, a little better.

This project represents my ongoing development in re-thinking common furniture challenges to create a new, more economical designs, while improving on quality and style at the same time. In this case, I achieved the same wholesale price point as the factory stand, but improved on it in many ways:

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ultra-accurate table saw tune-up tip

here is the straightedge lined up on the blade
Table saw tune ups are necessary and annoying.  And for me, I've never really gotten my table saw "perfectly" tuned.  I've always had the nagging suspicion that using the blade as a reference was insufficient: with a 10" table saw blade, the distance between the reference teeth is a mere 5" or so.  That's not a lot of distance to magnify any deviation from square. 

But  this week I had a bright idea: I used my machinist's straightedge to lengthen the reference surface to a whopping 24".  By laying the bar flat on the table and resting one edge against two opposing teeth on the blade, I essentially increased my precision roughly 5-fold.

Check out these pics:

My first dovetail

The dovetail: a classic corner joint, superior to almost all others for joining two boards at a square corner.  It's one of most recognizable signs of craftsmanship (especially for laypeople), one of the first things taught at most furniture schools, and the joint that spawned a million-dollar industry of products designed to avoid hand-cutting it, or avoid using it altogether. 

After nearly two years of teaching myself woodworking, I have read a great deal about dovetails.  So today, in the midst of what I think of as my first "fine furniture" commission, I decided to see if all my reading could help me make a decent dovetail. 

I decided to make a

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

180 Gallon Cabinet

Here are some pics (and a YouTube video) of one of my 180 gallon cabinets, now on display at Skipton Unique Aquaria in Boston.

Here is the video (below).  To see the pictures click "Read More" at the end of the post.