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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.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Best depth stop collar: plastic or set-screw?

In furniture-making, drilling pilot holes to a certain depth is not uncommon.  For worry-free and accurate work, it's nice to have a depth stop collar: something to stop the drill once it reaches the desired depth in the workpiece. 

So the question is: are all depth stop collars the same, and, if not, which is the best? 

I am happy to report that the best functioning stop collar is also the least expensive.  It's the plastic design, shown in this picture.  You can get them at Woodcraft, Rockler, or Lee Valley, for about $6.

Now, when I was looking for a picture (and the name) of these handy devices, I came across a this entry on Toolmonger.com.  I can tell you right now: the comments on Toolmonger are very negative regarding these depth collars.  but I didn't find any of the negative comments to be true to my experience, and I have to wonder if many of the people who claimed to have used them really have, or whether they just bought them...and then traded "up" to metal collars assuming the bright red plastic ones are junk. 

The truth is, these plastic collars are better than metal collars in a couple of ways: First, they don't have set screws to mar the cutting edge on your drills.  Second, since they don't use set screws, you can set them anywhere on the drill and they won't slip.  Metal collars with set screws often have the problem of the set screw getting bumped off the drill and into a gullet, and loosening the collar in the process.

I have been merciless with these collars, whereas with the metal collars I proceed gingerly because I don't want to bump the collar and loose the stopping action right when I need it.  The plastic collars never move, no matter how hard you bash them against the work.  Between the large and small sizes that came in the package I bought, they fit nearly any drill, including Kreg Pocket Hole Drills and Miller Dowel Stepped Drills. 

My verdict: don't believe the hype, save your money (and your drill edges), and buy plastic.

The easy route to a mirror polish: where cars and credenzas meet

Putting a good-looking, long-lasting finish on your furniture project can be an afterthought.  Many of you probably wish you didn't have to think about finishing at all!  This final sequence of steps is not woodworking, it's chemistry, and an exercise in patience, diligence, and attention to detail. 

Most carpenters think of applying the last coat of finish as the last step in finishing.  But furniture makers know that the final coat of finish needs to be rubbed out before the finish is - er - finished. 

Rubbing out starts with fine sandpaper, and ends with polishing.  Over the years, polishing has evolved alongside the evolution of water-borne finishes and automotive clear coats.  New automotive finishes are meant to stay flexible, so they don't crack when plastic car parts bend.  That's led to a convergence in formulations for both wood and automotive finishes.  Things have gotten to the point that you can use automotive finishes on wood projects, and automotive polishing compounds work very well as rubbing compounds for most wood finishes, including water-borne, polyurethane, varnish, and lacquer. 

This table was rubbed out using 320 grit sand paper, then 400, 600, and 800, then rubbed with 0000 steel wool.  Finally, I rubbed it with 3M fine scratch remover car polish.  The result was a beautiful surface that took mere minutes to put on and wipe off. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A good use for the 5mm Festool Domino cutter - expansion slots

The Festool Domino biscuit joiner has a rep as the best, most well thought-out biscuit joiner on the market.  It even uses its own proprietary "domino" tenons rather than traditional biscuits.  But the Domino isn't without its glitches.  To wit: the 5mm cutter cuts mortises that are often too small for the 5mm "dominoes".  In a year of using the Domino, and over the course of three packages of 5mm dominoes, I am still convinced that the 5mm tenon is the worst-fitting of all the sizes available, and also convinced that more than 30% of the 5mm dominoes in any given bag are too large for the mortise and have to be sanded back or baked in a microwave in order to fit. 

I have stopped trying to use the 5mm tenon in my projects.  But I have found a use for the 5mm cutter: making slots for mounting cabinet tops to their cases, and table tops to their aprons.  The slots are a great size for z-clips (see photo).

Friday, August 19, 2011

Oil-Based Beauty with General Water Borne Topcoats

This post shows how to bring out the deep figure in wood furniture using water-borne finishes, which are notorious for leaving wood dead and flat.  

Water borne topcoat finishes - like Minwax Polycrylic and General Finishes Enduro-Var and Pre-Cat Urethane - are very popular among carpenters.  There are many reasons to choose water-borne.  For one, water borne finishes dry in about an hour, as opposed to traditional organic finishes (polyurethane, tung oil), which require 24 hours to cure.  Water-borne finishes don't smell as bad as traditional finishes, the worst-smelling of which (lacquer) is very poisonous and explosive.  Water-bornes aren't flammable, and they clean up with water instead of noxious organic solvents.  Finally water-borne finishes have excellent resistance to heat, water, alcohol and other solvents, making them appropriate for high-wear applications. 

But water-borne finishes are much less popular with fine furniture makers, for the simple reason that they just don't look as good as their oil or lacquer counterparts.  Water-borne finishes don't bring out the depth and figure in wood at all: what you see before you lay down a water-borne is pretty much exactly what you'll see once the finish is dry (some brands have yellow dye to imitate the look of oil-based polyurethane, which changes the tint of finished wood).  This is very different from solvent-based finishes like polyurethane, shellac, oil, and lacquer, all of which make wood "pop" with chatoyance, and show off the holographic shimmer inherent in many wood species.

Less expensive water borne finishes have poor clarity.  When water-borne finishes first hit the market (before my time, in the 1980's), they all had a bluish cast to them...very unnatural!  Nowadays, cheaper brands (like Minwax Polycrylic) have a yellow dye to combat the blue, but the cloudy, plastic look remains.  More expensive (read: high-tech) new water-borne formulations are less cloudy.  But even the very best water-bornes look flat and dull compared to traditional topcoats.  

The best of both worlds:
But there is a way to get most of the benefits of traditional finishes, while avoiding the majority of the hassles of organic solvents.  This method is the only water-borne one I'll use on my projects, and I happen to be using this method right now, on a table commission for a new pub opening soon in Davis Square, Cambridge.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Steinway Project

the Steinway Square Grand
I am lucky to have recently been offered an antique Steinway Square Grand piano, to use as the basis for a one-off furniture collection.  I am now considering the options: the purpose of the collection, how to express the essence of the piano in furniture, and how to use substantially all of the piano in whatever I make.

The piano itself is unlikely to ever be playable again, since it has been sitting in a barn in New Hampshire for the past decade or so.  But otherwise it's in amazing condition.  It has all of its parts: the main case of solid mahogany, cast iron soundboard, all the keys (with ivory veneer and real ebony), a super-flat 3-piece solid mahogany top, four fat, carved mahogany legs, mahogany pedal board, and a mahogany sheet music stand - carved with Steinway's twin serpent logo.  All of the wood is in excellent shape, and so is the finish, including the Steinway decal over the keyboard. 

My initial thought as that this one piano is too big to be made into a single piece of furniture.  Also, whatever is made will be so big and bold that few private homes could accommodate it.  I wonder if this collection is destined for a bar, restaurant, or nightclub.  Using the gorgeous sound board is another challenge: should I take the easy route and put the sound board under a glass table top, or be more adventurous?  Perhaps the sound board could be made into a chandelier of some kind, to hang over a table made from the main body of the piano.  I am also thinking of making a tall, slender cabinet, and turning the keys into handles and hinges for the cabinet doors. 

Of course, the legs are an altogether different challenge.

Take a look at the pictures, and tell me what you think I should do! (click "read more" below to see the pics).

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Fluval Nano Stand arrives at Skipton Unique Aquaria

It was a sunny Saturday morning yesterday, when I carefully packed my just-finished "Nano" aquarium stand, in solid cherry and purple heart.  The stand is small, tall, and finished in tung oil.  The frame-and-panel case features solid wood panels I planed and raised myself, and adjustable shelves.  The Nano stand will take its place on display next to the checkout counter at Skipton's, which is located in Boston, Massachusetts.  Atop the stand will go a Fluval Nano aquarium, in which the staff at Skipton plan to rear exotic marine shrimp.

Here are pics of the stand inside Skipton, with an empty Nano aquarium on top:

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Fluval Nano aquarium stand in cherry and purple heart

Recently, I got a commission from Skipton Unique Aquaria and Reptiles in Boston, MA, to build a nice stand for a Fluval Nano reef aquarium display next to the store's checkout counter.  I took some photos of the stand in my shop while I waited for the last coat of oil to dry.

The project began as a very basic frame and panel stand.  As I try to do at least one new thing with every project, this was the first time I used my router table to cut raised profiles on hardwood panels.  Previously, all my frame and panel cases used plywood panels. 

I wanted to give a subtle "lift" to the stand, and so I went with top and bottom horizontal panels with a sharp bevel running along their edges.

About halfway through the build, I started thinking I should push the envelope just a little bit.  And around that same time, I ran out of cherry lumber, with the adjustable shelves still left to make.  So I dug out a nice piece of purple heart, and cut the shelves from that - making a nice little surprise for anybody who opens the front door of the stand.  I wanted to give a hint of what was inside, so I hand-carved a door handle out of purple heart as well, and also added two vertical purple stripes to the back panel.

The handle was made by first cutting profiles on either side of a stick of purple heart with a 3/4" core box router bit.  Then, I cut the end profiles on the band saw.  After cleaning up the curves on my 6"x48" linishing sander,  I cut out the sides of the handle on the band saw, giving it an hourglass shape.  I finished it off with 220 grit sandpaper in the palm of my hand.  The result is cool and curved and smooth. 

The photos show the stand before rubbing out the oil finish, which will impart a smooth sheen.