Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Food Safe Finish for Cutting Boards, Wooden Spoons, and more

     After putting in the time and effort to make a cutting board, wooden spoon, or other kitchen-related item, you need to tackle the question of finishing.  In other words, what’s the best finish to both protect your hard work and bring out its natural beauty?  In an ideal world, the finish would last forever and never require re-coating, so it might be tempting to reach for the polyurethane or lacquer. But, while this approach offers the siren song of easy (or no) maintenance, it comes with a price- these finishes are bound to be pretty toxic when ingested. Inevitably they'd end up flaking off over time and ending up in your food.  Not good.  If you're item will only used for display, this is a fine choice, but not if someone will end up using it.

     So this leads us to the best option for this context: an non-toxic oil or wax/oil blend that will need to be reapplied now and then.  When wooden items are washed off, the water tends to raise the grain and produce that rough feel that we're probably all familiar with.  If necessary, you can quickly sand the item down with medium or fine-grit sandpaper and recoat it.

     The advantage to wax/oil blends, in my experience, is that they feel smoother to the touch and tend to hold up a bit better than oil alone. You can buy wax/oil blends at most hardware stores or big box home stores (they'll be sold as butcher block conditioners, or something like that), but it's also fun and easy to mix up your own.  Here's how I do it:

You can use a double boiler to melt the beeswax, although I just use a saucepan filled about
 halfway with water and a stainless steel bowl on top of it.  The burner is set to medium-high heat.
  As soon as you put in the beeswax, you’ll want to add the mineral oil.  I used 22 ounces of oil and half a pound (8 oz) of wax.  As the beeswax melts, it peels off in small chunks and dissolve.

   Within five or ten minutes, the beeswax will have melted and mixed in evenly with the oil- there’s no need to stir.

 The hot wax/oil solution can then be poured into jars.

As the blend cools, it turns white.

Within 30 minutes or so. the whole jar will have likely reached an even temperature and consistency.

   Applying the finish couldn’t be easier- just rub it on liberally, and let it soak in for about ten minutes.  Buff it with a dry paper towel or rag to remove the excess, and you’re done.  You can recoat anytime the item looks a bit dry.  And don't forget the most important rule of thumb: keep wooden kitchen items out of the dishwasher!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Get lumber like this for $1/foot

Drooling over those gorgeous slabs that you see people using for tabletops and more and wondering where to get them without breaking the bank?  Well, you may have great resources in your area that have got you covered.  But if you don't, or if you'd like to explore another way, I'll spell out the method that I use.  I call it, in the tradition of overly-dramatic storytelling since time immemorial, The Plan.

First, some background.  A few years ago, I got tired of seeing arborists buzzing up good logs into firewood-sized chunks- those were logs that I could've put to much better use, frankly.  So I started scheming.  My thinking went like this:

If I had a sawmill, I could mill those logs into lumber on the cheap.  Well, sawmills aren't exactly free, so scratch that idea.  Plus I don't have the time, space, or energy.

But... I found a couple of sawmills in our area that said they'd happily saw up logs for me if I could just get them there.

So that became the problem.  Logs are heavy- easily 1000 pounds- and my old pickup isn't really sturdy enough.  Plus I don't have a team of strong guys at my beck and call.  And if I did, I'd have to pay them, which would really fly in the face of the whole "on the cheap" premise that I was trying to work with.

But... I could get a trailer.  Except then I'd have to store it. Plus I don't want to own a trailer that really just sits around taking up space 99.9% of the time.  And they're not exactly free, either.

Finally, though, I figured it out.  I came up with a way to get lumber from logs with minimal heavy lifting and minimal work.  Let's face it: necessity may be the mother of invention but laziness is definitely its father.  In other words, while I do plenty of heavy lifting on a regular basis, I'm not looking for more.

Here's the behind-the-scenes reality that makes The Plan possible: arborists have to load up the "waste" (aka treasure in the form of logs) at the end of a job anyway, and they have to unload it at a dump or green waste facility or something like that.  They often have cranes or other heavy equipment to make short work of this.

The Plan:

1) Find an arborist.  Have them drop the logs at your sawmill instead of their trash heap.
2) Slide them some cash for their time and trouble.
3) Wait for the sawmill to call when your boards are ready.

I did a test run with a 1000bf of mixed of different species, and paid about $.75/foot for the lumber.  Much of it was 18" wider or more- try finding that stuff in profusion at your regular lumber retailer.  In researching the topic, I found that $.50-$1.00/board foot seems to be pretty average for having lumber sawn.  The result: a total success.  I'll keep doing it.

Extra Considerations:

In general, the yield won't be all primo lumber, so there'll be some waste (or "rustic" grade).  FYI.

Not all logs are created equal.  Some species, widths, and grain patterns are more coveted than others.

You can specify the thicknesses you want

You can leave live edges or have them milled off

If the logistics are right, you might be able to have a portable bandsaw mill come to your site.

Some sawyers will allow you to be on hand during the sawing so you can have input into how it is done

Some sawmills will have a minimum charge, so you may want to make sure to have a few logs piled up before they fire up the mill.  This shouldn't be too hard to arrange.

Frankly I think this is actually viable as a business idea under the right circumstances; you'd mostly just need a place to store the lumber and a big enough customer base.

As for drying the wood- I usually go with air drying (1 year per inch as a rule of thumb), but my sawmill has a kiln, which you can use and then you'll have ready-to-use lumber in just a couple of months for a small extra charge.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Slab Top Coffee Table Project

I harvested this slab of elm from a tree that grew just three miles away. When it had to come down, I had two logs milled into boards. This is the last board from that tree. It measures 48" long x 19" wide x 1" thick and it has incredible natural character. I made the base from walnut scraps left over from a bathroom vanity that I built for a home in Park City, Utah. So it is a fine example of locally made, sustainably-sourced goods, and I hope that it manages to be inspirational or helpful in some way.

I used a jigsaw to trim the slab to length a create
a faux live edge.  Not a bad sta
I marked the locations for the legs- I didn't worry
about making a perfect rectangle, as this
piece was kind of organic in nature anyway.

I used an angle gauge to determine an angle that
looked right for the legs.  It ended up being 15 
I used an angled drilling guide, and I used the
angle gauge to set it to the right angle.
After testing the setup on scrap, I drilled holes
for the four legs.

The legs were milled from 1" x 1" walnut.

I used the bandsaw to cut tapers on the ends of
each leg so that the taper cutter fit.

This taper cutter isn't cheap but it's worth it, and it should last
a lifetime.

I cut a slot into each round tenon.  This one
wasn't lined up so well, so I made another.

I used  a belt sander to make wedges from
contrasting wood to fit the slots.  

I made the legs longer than necessary, because
I figured I'd need to level the table.  I shimmed
the legs up so that the top was level.

I then ripped a scrap of plywood to a width that
would create a finished height of 18".

The legs were all trimmed in different amounts,
but the results was a level table with no
perceivable wonkiness.

I cut the tenons off with a flush-cut saw.

Fitting the short stretchers was tricky business-
I used an angle finder to determine the angles.

I used slightly narrower stock for the stretchers
so that I created a nice reveal.

I secured the stretchers with Miller Dowe
The long stretcher went in just above the short
ones.  I set them into place so I could see where
to mark them.

I marked the vertical cuts directly from the legs,
and used a ruler to extend the angle of the leg
onto the horizontal surfaces.  This made for
compound cuts, which I approached cautiously
but nibbling away and readjusting until they fit
I used Miller Dowels again, although plugged
screws would've been a good choice, too.

The sanding was just business as usual
The walnut yielded a nice little bonus.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Thriving in a Small Shop

I’ve had a number of shops in the course of my almost twenty year career.  Seven, actually, and they’ve really run the gamut in terms of size, layout, and various other attributes.  One was located on the third floor of an old warehouse and was accessed by a clanky old freight elevator. With exposed brick walls and mountain views, it was high on the charm scale.  It was also huge- around 3,000 square feet- and this actually turned out to be too way big.  I basically just ended up camping out in little nooks and then moving around like a nomad to another spot when the mess became unmanageable.  My current shop is my smallest yet- around 400 square feet, or the size of a two car garage, but it is definitely my favorite.  For one thing, it is located at our home, so I just can’t beat the commute.  It allows me to walk our daughter to school in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon.  Logistically, it really works for our family.  There's also the fact that it allows me to run an extremely low overhead business: it feels very satisfying to be in a “whatever I make, I keep” mode for once.

While I love this shop, and figure that it will likely be my home for the next twenty years or more, it does take a certain attitude and a certain set of strategies to make it work.  I’m not sure I could’ve pulled it off at earlier stages of my career, but now it’s great.  Here’s a list, in no particular order, of a few considerations that keep me happy in my small shop:

-Put everything is on wheels.  This allows you to move things around to accommodate different kinds of jobs.
-Don't build any built-in storage units, workstations, or benches.  These things serve as anchors that prevent you from thinking creatively about the space and rearranging as needed.  When you have tons of space, this is less important, but in a small shop, the ability to move things around is critical.  Fixed structures feel, to me, like anchors that get in the way of flexibility.

-Don't hoard scraps or other unnecessary stuff.  It may be unrealistic to get to a “zero tolerance” for scraps, but less is more.  When I have scraps from a project, I try to use them right away.  Not someday. 

-Have a ready-use for scraps.  To this end, I make and sell cutting boards in random shapes, styles, and sizes.  Some times they’re really interesting, and sometimes they’re plain, but I make them as soon as possible and then list them on my online store.  I make a couple of thousand bucks a year doing this and it is a win-win.

-Donate extra scraps that you won’t use.  We have a Habitat for Humanity restore in our area that takes whatever I don't want, which minimizes what I throw away. 

-Reflect on what makes the space really speak to you.  For me, I need a big, bright, open area where I can feel expansive.  I’ve decide to divide my shop roughly in half so that all of my tools and storage are in half of the shop, or less, and this provides me with a nice, open space to work in.  This is a personal preference- I’m sure that someone else, with the same space and the same tools, would arrange it quite differently.

-Set things up to accomplish multiple purposes.  For example, my workbench (made by Kreg) is on casters and is set to the same height as my tablesaw, so it can quickly be scooted around to act as an outfeed for my tablesaw when needed.

-Buy materials on an as-needed basis.  I used to occasionally buy materials in advance because they were a good deal, and I’d used them later on when a project came up.  I don’t do this anymore.  For one thing, I’ve learned that there’s always a deal to be had if you’re resourceful, so there’s no reason to overextend myself in terms of money or space.  I have a few boards on hand that are really lovely, and I haven’t gotten around to using them yet, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.  By and large, I can get everything I need at the drop of a hat- I’m 9 minutes away from my favorite supplier- so I don’t need to turn my space into a warehouse.

-Plan your workflow accordingly.  When I had larger shops, I used to take on at least fifteen jobs at a time, and because I had the space, I’d always have a number of projects in various states of completion cluttering up the place.  Now I take on one or two jobs and work efficiently at starting and finishing them in short order.  “Get ‘em in, get ‘em out” is my motto these days, and it is not only the best use of my small amount of space, but it’s easier to manage, too.
For me, openness is a priority.  I sort of like squeezing
stuff in as needed to create a big "sanctuary" space
where I can really move around.
I keep it flexible.  The shop changes from week to week.
Even my storage- the wire rack in the background- is on wheels.

Mobile work supports help.

Mobile bases are essential.

I move my bench around as lighting conditions
shift throughout the day.  Thank god for casters.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Winter’s Coming- Time to Protect those Tools from Rust

(This post was sponsored by 3-IN-ONE Oil; the content, however, is entirely mine)

For many of us, winter time brings lots of changes in the workshop in terms of heating and cooling cycles.  While many woodworkers live in places with mild climates, many others need to rely on some kind of heating system to make our time in the shop more pleasant.  And the range of heating systems, of course, is pretty broad- I know folks who heat with wood, and others utilize natural gas, propane, or other fuels to get the job done. 

While heating a shop isn’t quite the topic of this post, it definitely has consequences for our beloved tools, so it is worth taking a second to consider.  When choosing a method for heating one's shop, I’ve often found that there are three factors that come into play: price, convenience, and environmental impact.  The best setup would cost nothing, require no work, and have no environmental impact.  In the real world, though, we’re all trying to minimize these three things, and so we all end up making a choice that represents our best option.  A key strategy that usually emerges is the fact that shops aren’t heated evenly at all times.  While some woodworkers do focus on keeping a constant temperature in their shop, I know many- including myself- who don’t.  This solves a few problems (it lowers my heating bills and minimizes the amount of fossil fuels that I utilize) but it introduces a new problem.  Big changes in the temperature inside your shop can cause the humidity levels to change.  And while the changes may not create effects that are directly observable overnight, they can cause problems over time: even small amounts of water vapor can condense on tools, which can create rust.  So, since I have a conservation-oriented mindset when it comes to heating my shop, this means that it is in my best interest to spend a little time protecting my tools.  It doesn’t take long, and it’s worth it.

You can apply oil directly to a tool's surface or
to a paper towel- whatever works best.

My favorite all-purpose solution involves using a light oil product because it’s quick and easy.  It also is versatile; whether we’re talking about hand tools that are stored in tool chests, or on pegboards or shelves, it works great.  I bring this up because some companies produce desiccants that you can put inside a toolbox or other enclosed space, and they work well there to help eliminate moisture from the surrounding air, but they don’t work so well in open areas- their effects are pretty much negated, in my experience.  My preference is 3-IN-ONE Oil.  It is available all over the place, and it is pretty inexpensive.

This old handplane isn't fancy, but it came
from my dad, so it is rather dear to me
nonetheless.   It's worth a little TLC now
and then!

How do I apply it?  That depends, but it’s not rocket science.  If I’m oiling small tools- a handplane, for example- I just use a paper towel or rag that I’ve dampened with oil to rub down the tool and make sure it’s free of dust.  That’s it.  For hard-to-reach places- like the trunnions and other moving parts inside my tablesaw- I’ll used canned air to clean things out, then I apply a light coat of oil.  As I said earlier, it doesn’t take long, and it’s definitely one of those cases where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Yep, this is what happens when you don't take
care of business.  Now I've got to put in a bunch
of elbow grease just to get back to square one.

 3-IN-ONE Oil is available at many retailers.  I’ve purchased it at Lowe’s and Home Depot, and I’ve seen it at our local Ace Hardware, too.

For even more information, check out