How to Find the Center Without Doing the Math
Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t like to follow convention. I swear I don’t do it to be ornery (though my wife might disagree), I just enjoy viewing things from different angles. I always take a different route when I can and like to approach life the same way. One of my differing viewpoints is on measuring. For some people the measurement is the measurement and that’s it. For me, not so much. It doesn’t seem like much of a hill to die on, but I think it is at least worth discussing. Measuring with tape measures and using some system like imperial or metric to communicate those measurements with others is important, but it isn’t the only way to accomplish many tasks. One of the most common places to subvert mathematical conventions is in dividing spaces evenly, and a great example is finding the center of a piece by dividing a space in two.
Finding the center with math can be simple – half of 24″ is 12″. But, it can be hard too. Real quick, tell me the center of 157-13/16″. The answer will take some math and possibly a calculator to get to 78.90625″ or 78-29/32″, and then you need to find that on a tape measure – more math to figure out that 29/32″ is just between 7/8″ and 15/16″and isn’t even marked on your tape measure. The conventional approach would be to do the math, mark the measurement, and double check the math by measuring from each side to verify that the center mark is the same distance from each edge. But, I am here to tell you that you can skip the math part.
The measurement or the actual number on the tape measure is somewhat arbitrary at this point. All that is needed is for both halves to be the same, whether or not it lines up with a mark on a tape measure doesn’t matter. Think of it like this, that center point is going to be in the same place no matter what measuring system you use. The measuring system is just a way for you to communicate a number from piece to piece or to someone else.
So, how do you find the center without doing the math? The answer is pretty simple. Skip the math part and just go straight to the verifying part. All you need is a tape measure and one good eye. Here’s how to do it:
1) Look at the piece and put a mark in what looks to be the center. Maybe you have a great eye, maybe you are done.
2) Measure to that mark from one side. It will most likely be a wacky, non-conformist number like 28-15/16″, plus a skosh. Simplify your life and move that mark to something easy and something on the tape measure, in this case 29″.
3) Measure from the other side towards the center and mark 29″ again. Now you will have two marks on your piece. If you have a good eye, those two marks will be very close together. If not, pick another number that will get those marks closer together. For example, those two marks might be about 6″ apart, so add 3″ or subtract 3″ (depending on if they overlap or not) to each side and remark. Now they will be close together. Still no math.
4) If you are only roughly splitting the piece in two, it is easy enough to eyeball and mark the center at this point, since there is very little distance between the two marks. If you need to be accurate, just change your measurement a little. If your marks are about 1/2″ apart, change it by 1/4″ on each side. At some point the numbers will be exactly the same or they will be 1/16″ or less off. Once you get to that point, you have no choice but to eyeball it and put a mark in between the marks.
I love to use this system and smile a little bit inside when I do it, feeling like I know some secret no one else does. I know it’s not the case, but I still think it is fun to find the center without all the official math. Heck, I could even do the same thing with just a random stick if I needed too. On a recent project, I was cutting it very close on length and needed to make sure my layout was in the middle of the slab, and I got a chance to use my “no measuring” system again, and this time I got it on video. Check out the following video where I show my measuring marvel in real life:
What to Look for When Purchasing Used Lumber
I buy what I would call “used” lumber (even though it may not have been actually used) on a somewhat regular basis. Most of my purchases have come from barn finds because I like to buy in larger quantities and lots of barns are sitting out there with big stacks of lumber in them. I make sure to only purchase if the price is right because I have learned the hard way that the lumber is never as good as everyone thinks it is or wants it to be. And, there are many reasons for this:
- Not cut from high-grade logs: The lumber is cut from whatever logs were available at the time. There may have been some high-grade logs (from the bottom of the tree) in the mix, but there were definitely also low-grade logs (from higher up in the tree). This means the lumber will have more knots and other defects. In the hardwood industry, logs are sorted by grade. Low-grade logs are milled to make low-grade products, like railroad ties and pallets. They aren’t even milled at grade sawmills.
- Wood is more precious to the owner: Wood that should be trimmed off was kept simply because they weren’t ready to let it go and it didn’t hurt anything to keep it.
- People involved in the lumber production are not professionally trained: Usually the owner of the logs and the sawyer they employeed do not know enough about sawmilling to produce the highest quality lumber. Many sawmill owners do not understand how to cut for grade lumber, and even if they do, they are often given direction from the log owner to maximize yield and not grade. Beyond that, cutting for grade involves flipping the log in the sawmill many times, requiring more work and more time, so those steps are often skipped.
- Lumber hidden in a stack is always lower grade than everyone remembers: After the lumber is cut and tucked into a stack, it looks higher grade. It’s too easy to forget about defects and only remember the perfect boards.
- Lumber is cut thin and inconsistent: Often (almost always) barn find lumber is cut a little thin and inconsistent. People ask for 1″ thick lumber and the sawyer delivers, even though commercially produced 1″ thick (4/4) lumber is cut at 1-1/16″ to 1-1/8″ thick. Lumber rough cut right at 1″ thick often doesn’t dry, joint flat and plane entirely to 3/4″ or more in thickness. As well as being cut thin, the lumber is usually cut inconsistently – a result of inexperienced sawyers, poor-performing equipment and no real need to worry about consistency of cutting. It’s not easy (and more work) to make sure all of the lumber coming off of a sawmill is the same thickness from end to end of each and every board.
- Best boards already used: This one is self-explanatory and obvious. You would use the best boards first too. It just makes sense that the lumber which remains may not be the best boards out of a log.
All of these reasons explain why the lumber won’t be as good as you would hope, but it is also helpful to see examples of what makes lower grade lumber. Click on the video link to see a recent batch of walnut I purchased and what I found in the stack. And, remember when purchasing used lumber, just don’t pay too much.
Old Orange Kitchen Cabinets Get Updated
We recently delivered a live-edge maple slab door to a customer and there was a lot of talk about making sure the maple wasn’t too yellow. She had her maple floors refinished as part of her house remodel and she was worried about the color of the new maple door. It wasn’t too much of an issue because the maple slab had an array of colors, including black epoxy, but when we were installing the door it became clear why she was worried about the color. Turns out she had a kitchen full of maple cabinets which had turned amber orange over the years and now clashed with the refinished maple floors.
I saw what she saw – bright white, newly and expertly refinished maple floors underneath old, crusty and orange maple cabinets. The cabinets were still in decent shape but they definitely needed some help to not look so old. She picked the right day to ask if there was anything that could be done about the color because I was riding high from a successful install of a very cool door and there was no way I was going to act like I couldn’t do it.
I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to go about it, but I knew it would start with sanding. And, since everything in the kitchen, including the crown moulding was made from maple-veneered panels with an mdf core, I spent a lot of time very carefully sanding. After I had my parts sanded to an even and much lighter color, I started to apply the Raw Sealer finish from Basic Coatings. I chose this finish for one main reason, and that is because it is the exact same finish the flooring company used. I could have used another water-based finish with a white additive, but I figured why fight it? Use what they used on the floor and I should have the best chance of matching it.
The Raw Sealer has a very small amount of white added to it and I found that I wasn’t getting enough white in the finish until I was up to about six coats on my test pieces, so I decided to add some more white. I added enough white latex paint (about two tablespoons per quart) until the finish was the right amount of white in two or three coats instead of six. The white paint added brightness and covered the yellow orange of the maple, and it will work to retain the original color since the paint won’t yellow. It worked like a white wash for the cabinets and really did the trick.
The most difficult part of the job, besides the tedious sanding, was applying the finish with the white added. It needed to be applied evenly, so I needed to make sure my gun was working great and so was I. There were a few times where the color didn’t look too even or the gun sprayed a little wacky, but I was able to quickly wipe that panel off with a wet rag before the finish dried and reapply.
I spent a lot of hours on this job (more than budgeted, of course), but I think it came out great and I might even be convinced to do it again someday in the distant future. Click on the video link to see what I started with and how it all ended up.
Festool Domino Connectors Pull It Together
About two years ago we started using Festool Domino connectors in the shop because we were working on a trade show display which needed to pack flat for shipping. The metal connectors are made specifically for this occasion, and if you have ever put together a piece of breakdown furniture (think Ikea), you have probably used something similar.
The connectors work great, fit into a normal Domino slot and are easy to use, but since they do require an access hole to tighten the lockscrew, they can’t be used everywhere. And, just like a Kreg screw connection, there will be never-ending discussions about whether or not this is “real woodworking”. Regardless of how real they are, the connectors have found a place in our shop and recently we found another great use for them.
Jeff, our building and finishing extraordinaire (he can do it all), was working on a desk which came together at some funky angles and decided to try the Domino connectors for alignment and clamping, and it worked great. The corner joint, which he glued together, lined up perfectly and pulled together tightly. Previously, we used other variations of under counter hardware an/or wacky clamping setups to pull the joint together and they always seemed a bit amateurish, like we were just making it up as we went, and often we were. But, not now.
Now, we are using the Festool Domino connectors not only for pieces which need to breakdown, but also for connecting and clamping those hard-to-clamp joints. And, just recently, we built a big walnut bar which required both, in the same piece. We had several joints which needed to clamp together permanently, and since the bar was very big and U-shaped, it needed to come apart in the corner to be assembled on site. The Domino connectors worked perfectly in this case, and I am sure you will be seeing more of them in the future.
Click on the video below to see how the project came together and how the connectors made it all possible.
Not All Trees Are Created Equal
Recently, I got a call about a walnut tree which fell in a storm. The homeowner knew it was a walnut and gave me a call to see about doing something with it, hoping to sell it. I get these calls regularly, especially for walnuts, and I always follow up so I don’t miss the good ones.
Even though most of the calls are about walnuts, most of the walnuts aren’t much to talk about. I’ll ask questions about the diameter, where they and their tree live and why they took it down, and though these questions will get answered, the overwhelming theme is, “It’s a walnut”.
Well, just because it is a walnut doesn’t mean it is a good walnut. I have received plenty of calls where I never bothered to pick up the tree because I could tell that the tree wasn’t great and the owner was way too attached, and often, they want me to take down the tree.
I only pay for a few trees a year. I don’t really mill that many logs overall, and they are readily available just for the asking, so there isn’t much incentive for me to spend money on them (really, almost all of the logs I get are free). But, this one was different. It met all of my criteria for a tree to both spend the time and effort to retrieve it and to also pay the homeowner.
So, what makes a tree stand out from the rest and why is this one worth paying for?
First off, yes, it is walnut. You now have my attention. Species does matter and walnut is at the top of the food chain for our local trees here in the St. Louis area. For example, walnut currently sells for $12 bf. while other hardwoods like hard maple, white oak and cherry are in the $4-$7 bf. range. But that doesn’t make it a good tree, that just makes it worth a good close look.
Diameter is currently the biggest driver for me deciding how bad I need a log. The bigger the diameter, the more options there are and the more wood overall. I draw the line at 24″ in diameter on the skinny end of the log, inside the bark. Any smaller than that is a tree which I can easily find and usually procure without spending money. Though smaller logs do still have value, they don’t have enough value and I will not pay for a log under this size. The 24″ size gives me the option to make bookmatched dining room tables (usually 42″ wide) out of only two pieces. If we end up going to a three-piece table top, I only really need an 18″ diameter log and those are widely available at no cost. This walnut was over 24″ in diameter at 30′ from the ground, so it was the perfect size for what we do. Length isn’t usually a problem, but I do sometimes get calls about big diameter trees with very short trunks which branch off close to the ground. The longer the main trunk the better and this tree had a super long trunk.
Location is the second thing I ask about when discussing a tree because it affects so many aspects of the growth and my ability to process it. First off, the location affects the way the tree grows overall. A tree which grew in the open is usually short, wide and branchy. This one obviously, started its life with trees around it and reached up, producing a nice long trunk. I am cutting this tree into slabs, but it would also produce very nice, straight-grained, knot-free lumber.
Location also affects what is in the tree, specifically metal like nails, screws, hooks, chains and wire. Trees which grew in a bad neighborhood, in a small yard usually have a tough life and are full of problem-causing metal. This walnut spent its life in a nice, big front yard in a happy neighborhood on a street which I know has produced a lot of nice trees and shows no signs of metal.
Location also affects how easy it is to access. I get a lot of calls about trees at the bottom of a hill in a back yard with a little gate and no way to get to the log. This tree was in the level front yard right next to the driveway with nothing around it. Access couldn’t be easier.
Overall health of the tree and quality of the logs is the last thing I look at. In this tree I looked for scarring from lightning strikes, busted branches, possible hollow spots and rot. The roots showed a little bit of decay, which could have led to some hollowness in the bottom of the tree, but it was minimal and ended up not affecting the logs. There were some busted branches from the fall, but all of the main pieces showed no signs of breakage. It was entirely solid and sound. On walnuts, the speed of growth also affects how wide the sapwood (white outer layer of wood) is on the log. If it grows very slow, the sapwood may only be 1/4″ wide, while on super-fast-growing trees in a wet, wide open yard might have sapwood which is over 3″ wide. I’m looking for a good balance for live edge tabletops with the sapwood about 1″ to 1-1/2″ wide, and again, this tree was perfect.
Everything about this tree was as I would have specified and the fact that it was already down and most of the top cleaned up made my assessment easy. It was nice to be able to get a look at the cut branches at the top and the busted roots at the bottom to get an idea of the quality of the inside. I could have only had a better look at the inside of the log if it was cut to length, but I told the homeowner that I wanted to decide where to cut it and do that myself. Besides getting my chainsaw stuck and my crane giving up at the end, this experience and this tree was as good as it gets in my business.
Back to the River
We are still finishing up our move from St. Charles to O’Fallon and trying to get as many jobs completed during the move as possible. It has turned out to be more roadblocky than the optimist in me is willing to admit, but we have been able to deliver a couple of things which were wrapped up before the shop was completely disassembled.
Our latest delivery was to Golden Eagle, Illinois, just across the Golden Eagle ferry from St. Charles. It is mostly farmland on rolling hills overlooking the Mississippi River and into St. Charles. The view is great and the feel is right for me. I even entertained putting the new shop and/or sawmill in that area to make a destination operation, but ultimately decided it was just too difficult to get to on a regular basis, and at $18 per round trip ferry it would be quite unaffordable.
Even so, I still think it is a pretty cool area and thought everyone might like the view from the other side of the river. Click on the video below to see this live edge walnut table delivery.
We’re Moving: It’s Officially Official
After 10 years in St. Charles, MO we are moving a bit west to 821 Midpoint in O’fallon, MO. We started moving in earnest last week, and this past weekend I officially pulled the plug on the tools in the old shop. There is no turning back now! The new building is a 12 minute drive west of the old location on Highway 70. It is a nice stand-alone building which can easily be found by just Googling the address. No need to aimlessly wander around a giant building trying to find the wood shop buried in the back corner. We don’t have a sign yet at the new location (of course), but you won’t need it.
This Saturday will start our conversion to the new shop. By then, all of the wood and most of the slabs will be at the new location. So, if you are planning to visit on Saturday morning (open 8-12), please report to the new shop. From then on, 821 Midpoint will be our official location.
To kick it off, I put together an announcement video so you can see the outside of the shop (that was the day I got the keys) and our first moving video. Click on the video below to check out the progress.
Installing a Spalted Sycamore Fireplace Mantel
Years ago, I posted a video of me installing a mantel which was shot by my daughter Mira, who was nine years old at the time. The video did a fine job of covering how to install a mantel and has gotten a lot of views through the years, but it has also been heckled quite a bit. Most of the criticisms (which I have since deleted) revolved around the lack of a tripod and the poor videographer.
I was attempting to get my daughter involved in the business even though she had no interest in woodworking, so I thought shooting video with the big camera might do the trick. Though the video is indeed shaky, we had a fun time doing it and it has served its purpose, allowing customers to have a reference to watch so they can see for themselves how to install a mantel.
Ever since the negative comments started rolling in, I have wanted to reshoot a mantel install video and now I have finally done it. This time, I used a tripod and Mira wasn’t involved, so if anyone has a problem with the video, they probably just have a problem with me.
This install video is specific to the piece of spalted sycamore I used and the fireplace it went on, but all of the techniques are the same ones I use on most mantel installs. If you are installing a mantel and have any specific questions on how to do it, feel free to ask. I will respond and add it to my next mantel video. In the meantime, check out the video below to see how I do it and the small changes I’ve made through the years.
How To Install a Bartop
One of the trickiest parts of making a new bartop is installing it. The biggest problem is we can’t, or at least we probably don’t want to, just drill through the top. If we could, the job would be much easier and this blog post and video would be much shorter.
Assuming that the bartop is going to be placed on a half wall and not on a run of cabinets, the two areas of concern are giving the top support and providing a way to anchor it down. Adding steel plates underneath, solves both of the problems. We use 3″ wide x 1/2″ thick steel plates attached to the top of the half wall, which then fit into recesses routered into the bottom side of the bartop. We use a CNC router because we have one, but this can be done just as well with a handheld router and a jig. We cut the slots 1/2″ deep, 3-1/2″ wide and 1/2″ longer than the steel. The length of each piece of steel and the placement is up to you and different with every top.
We first fit the bartop to the space using cardboard templates made to fit the existing conditions. Once the tops fit, we then mark the locations of the slots, remove the tops one last time and secure the steel before putting on the tops for the final time. You will be tempted to skip this step by just measuring the layout, but I can tell you from experience, nothing in the world lines up where you think it will and there is a great chance that you will be removing the top again anyway. Of course, if the top is giant and hard to move, or if you are just feeling lucky, go ahead and measure and see what happens. Your odds of getting the steel to fit in the slots the first time will be increased with bigger slots. However, I personally lean towards a tighter fit because I think it looks more professional, despite the fact that it will probably never be seen.
After the steel is in and the the bartop is back in place, it just takes a few minutes to screw down the top. We drill all of the holes in the 1/2″ thick steel on a drill press to make it easier, but it can be done on site with a handheld drill (it just takes a bit longer). A screw at each end of the steel plates is all it takes to hold the bartop in place.
In the video below, the bartop is L-shaped, so each piece gets some additional support from the opposing piece. The two pieces are aligned with loose dominos and pulled together with dogbone connectors, which are commonly used for countertops. Click on the video below to see how we do it and to see how the top was built.
Installing New French Doors
Installing doors isn’t the quickest and easiest thing to do. They need to fit well, with even gaps all around and they need to shut securely, but easily. It is a demanding task, which I decided to make even more so by adding a second door to the mix.
While challenging, you’ll get no complaints from me. I like this little finicky stuff almost as much as I like sanding. And, while that sounds like sarcasm, it is true. I really do like both. I find it rather relaxing to just chill out and get into the work. When I was working on these doors and shooting the video for it, I even thought about making a “slow” woodworking video, with the beautiful weather and the birds chirping and me just chiseling away. Maybe that will be for another video, when everyone is clamoring for me to slow down the action a bit and make the videos much longer (I expect that to happen on the 12th).
In the meantime, click on the link below to see my zen video on installing a set of mahogany french doors at regular speed.