Setting Up Shop: The Most Useful Power Tools
When customers visit my shop we usually start by talking about their wood needs. If it is someone’s first time to visit I also try to get to know them, what they are looking for and what they are expecting from me. Half of them are just looking for rough cut wood, while the others are looking for wood that is processed a little bit more, perhaps jointed or planed, or even sanded. During our time together I get to understand their needs and abilities, and our discussion usually turns to the tools they have in their shop.
I am often surprised at what tools woodworkers don’t use or own, especially when they are some of the few that I find essential. Sometimes it’s just the difference between hand tool and power tool guys, but sometimes it’s just from lack of experience or the fact that they haven’t given it too much thought. Most likely they just buy tools as they need them and never really considered what tools would give them the most bang for the buck.
Since this is a common conversation, I decided to compile the following list of what I think are the most useful power tools and should be the building blocks of any woodworking shop:
Table saw. Of all of the tools in the shop, the table saw is the most useful and versatile. It excels at making straight cuts, and with the addition of any of a million jigs, can be made to perform an amazing number of tasks with repeatability and precision. I use the table saw for roughing out smaller parts from larger pieces, all the way through trimming parts to final size. The only limit to the table saw is that the piece needs to be small enough to be pushed through it. Above a certain size, the table saw becomes less useful and even impossible to use as the saw needs to be brought to the piece, instead of the piece being brought to the saw.
The table saw is best suited for making rip cuts, which are cuts along the length of the board, but with a crosscutting jig, the table saw can do just as well on crosscuts, which are cuts across the board. I even use the table saw for resawing thick lumber into thinner boards. The bandsaw is usually the tool for resawing, but any lumber under 6″ wide can be resawn on a 10″ table saw by cutting from both sides of the board.
Besides just making through cuts, the table saw can also cut dados, rabbets and other grooves with just a few adjustments. And, with the addition of profiled cutters and a creative mind, the table saw can be used to make all kinds of mouldings, including large crown mouldings.
The table saw also works amazingly well as a table. Mine is big enough to not only hold stuff, but serve as an assembly table when necessary. The table of the table saw is set apart from other tables because it is commonly the only one open and available in the shop. I try to keep it clear enough to actually use, which means that at least part of the top is usually available and ready to be used as a table or maybe even a saw.
Thickness Planer. Running a rough board through the planer is always fun. Even after sending billions of board feet through a planer, it never gets old. The amazing thing is that beyond making the wood look good, the planer can size lumber in ways other tools can’t.
I have met a lot of customers that don’t have a planer. And, while it is possible to operate without one, I believe that once you own one, you will find it hard to believe that you ever ran a shop without it. For me, it is along the same line of thinking for spray guns, where I say, “Stop thinking about buying a spray gun.”
Even if you buy your lumber already planed, you will still encounter many circumstances that require the use of a planer. For example, you might want to build a simple and delicate jewelry box out of small scrap pieces lying around the shop, and you will end up making a small and clunky jewelry box because all of your lumber is 3/4″ thick, and that’s how it is going to stay. That is just the first example. Think about all of the other times that you will pick up a piece of lumber in the shop and it will be the wrong thickness, either just slightly wrong or in an entirely different size category. A planer is a real problem solver and can fix all of that.
If you work with rough lumber, a planer will be absolutely necessary, except for the most rustic of projects. Every piece of rough cut lumber ends up somewhat not straight, not flat and not consistent in thickness, either from variations during the sawing or from stresses which occur while the wood dries. The planer, combined with the jointer, is a one-two punch to remove these variations and produce straight, flat and consistently thick lumber. The reason the planer is ahead of the jointer on this list is that some lumber is straight enough and flat enough to plane without jointing if the job is a little less finicky, thereby skipping the jointer.
Jointer. I use my jointer a lot. When preparing rough lumber it sees as much action as the planer. As a matter of fact, almost every piece of lumber in my shop gets surfaced on the wide face to straighten things out before it even heads to the planer. Without the jointer, my life would just be a crooked, twisty mess of painful attempts to make things seem straight.
One of the misconceptions about planers is that they make lumber straight. They do some straightening, but they don’t make lumber straight. That is what jointers do. Many lumber mills just send rough lumber through the planer allowing the board to exit the machine with the same ups and downs and whoops that is entered with, only now to a consistent thickness. This is especially apparent when gluing up a couple of these roller coaster type of boards and trying to get them to line up. After a couple of those glue-ups, you will swear by lumber that has seen the jointer before the planer, and never skip the jointer.
Besides flattening lumber, the jointer also puts a straight edge on lumber for joining two boards together and for running through other machines. I also use the jointer for making small adjustments during the final fitting of parts like drawer fronts, where small changes can make a big difference.
With these three power tools (and a few hand tools), I feel like I could make about 80% of the jobs that come through my shop on a daily basis. Obviously, some jobs will require more specialized power tools to complete, but these three probably find their way into almost all of my work. With that said, there are a few other tools that I couldn’t imagine being without and I feel need to be added to the list.
Spray gun. Not every woodworking job gets a film finish, but most of mine do. And of those, every one will meet a spray gun. For a million reasons, including making finishing fast and fun, I recommend using a spray gun whenever possible. It will raise your game and make you n0t hate finishing. (Click here to read my thoughts on purchasing a spray gun).
Chop saw (compound miter saw). I do a mix of woodworking from furniture to built-ins and even finish carpentry, and I find myself regularly using the chop saw. Even if used for nothing more than roughly cutting a long board into two shorter ones to fit in a car, this tool earns its keep. It is especially useful (with the help of an outfeed table) on long pieces that are precarious to push through a table saw. But, since a table saw with a jig can perform many of the same functions, this tool doesn’t make it to the essential list. With that said, I expect to have a chop saw wherever I am working, whether it be in the shop or at an install. If this was a post about on-site woodworking and trim carpentry, the chop saw might be the #1 tool.
Impact driver. I am a giant fan of impact drivers. I have been using them for a while now and can’t really remember my life before them (Click here to read more about my introduction to impact drivers). This is the one tool that I always have with me, and I expect to be within easy reach. So much so, that I own three of them and could imagine myself with a couple more. Like the chop saw, if this was a list of on-site or installation tools, the impact driver would be near the top.
Tape measure. I know this isn’t a power tool, but it is the one tool that you should always have with you. It is a pet peeve of mine – if you are planning on building something, or you are actually building it, have a tape measure with you. If you are in the shop, on the job site, or even at Home Depot make sure you have a tape measure with you or at least one very handy (Home Depot probably isn’t the best example, since they have them widely available, but you get the point). Without a tape measure, not much beyond rough work can get done. (Click here to read about my favorite tape measure).
New Drone Sander Makes Quick Work of Toughest Projects
For all of you out there that hate sanding, there is a new fun-to-use tool that takes almost all the work out of it, and may even make it fun. The new “Whirl-Whizz” sander combines the sanding power of four orbital sanders with the joy of playing with your favorite christmas present to make short work of even the most difficult sanding.
“We always had trouble finding anyone that wanted to sand the bottom of our slab tables and other hard to reach surfaces, like wood beams and ceilings,” says Scott Wunder from WunderWoods Custom Hardwoods. “That was until we started using the “Whirl-Whizz.” Now everyone in the shop wants to sand. Our only problem now is making sure that we have enough sandpaper on hand”.
The “Whirl-Whizz” sander looks like a standard hobby drone with just a few modifications, but don’t be fooled, this thing is a real workhorse. The four thin plastic spinning rotors provide the perfect balance between power and finesse by pulling the sander strongly to the surface, but deflecting and riding any slight contour changes throughout the process. The end result is a super smooth, consistently sanded surface that requires no hand sanding – that’s right, no more hand sanding.
“This thing works so good that the guys started using it in places that it was never meant to go,” Wunder continued. “After they figured out how to get it to spots other than the underside of horizontal surfaces, they found it worked better than any sander they had ever used. Before long they were sanding every surface with it, top, bottom, vertical, horizontal – it didn’t matter. If they could get the “Whirl-Whizz” to run into it, then they would sand it.”
As a busy business owner with lots of sanding to get done, Wunder has ordered ten more units to make sure that he always has a sander at the ready. The current average life span of the “Whirl-Whizz” sander, including rotor wear and incidental contact with unintended targets is about 15 minutes, but Wunder expects those numbers to go up as everyone at WunderWoods gets better at operating this new generation of sander. “Every new tool takes a while to master, and this is no different,” Wunder said defending his team. “A new battery will sand for approximately six minutes. As those batteries get older and have to spend more time on the charger, the life-span of each of our units will increase as it is used less. It really is just a matter of time.”
Another benefit to shop owners besides the flawless results is that every “Whirl-Whizz” sander features an on board camera, which can be used for up-close inspection of a surface. By simply pushing a button for a still picture or holding the button for a video, it is now ultra easy to see what is really going on close-up. Many shop managers use the camera system remotely on their phone to make sure that their employees are performing as expected, even when they are away. At WunderWoods however, Scott points out, “We are having so much fun with the “Whirl-Whizz” that I didn’t even know it had a camera.”
How Much Lacquer Thinner Should I Use?
Today, I was having a conversation with one of my customers about spraying a conversion varnish (Krystal, from M.L. Campbell) and the problems he was having with getting it to lay down nicely after it was sprayed. He said that he applied is wet enough to blend together and not be rough, but that he had a lot of orange peel in the finish. After discussing the possible causes of the orange peel it became obvious that he needed to add lacquer thinner to the mix, which he did not do.
This customer is new to spraying conversion varnish, which is a two-part mix that sets up and hardens chemically like epoxy, forming a super durable finish. The information on the can talked about the 10:1 ratio of finish to catalyst, but apparently didn’t mention a thing about thinning with lacquer thinner, so he used none. Even if it was mentioned, I assume that he was worried enough about getting the ratio correct (click here to learn how to easily get the proper mixing ratios) and not messing up the mix that he never imagined he could, or even that he should add lacquer thinner.
In this case, my customer was getting orange peel because the finish was too thick for his two-stage turbine. The kids at the finish distributor led him to believe that he shouldn’t need to add thinner, but they did not ask about the power of his spray equipment, assuming that he probably had a turbine strong enough to finely atomize the finish without thinning.
I continued to discuss the need to add thinner with my customer, and pointed out that a non-thinned finish requires more turbine power than he currently has. If he owned a 4-stage or 5-stage turbine, he could probably use the finish without thinner, but not with just a 2-stage. I speak from experience on this one, because my everyday gun is an older 2-stage model, and it requires at least a bit of thinning on almost everything I spray. I am okay with this apparent shortcoming because I am a proponent of applying multiple thin coats, as compared to fewer thick coats, which I believe are just inviting trouble.
As our conversation continued, he asked the million dollar question, “How much lacquer thinner do you add?” For me, the simple answer is, “Until it sprays good,” which is very ambiguous I know, but true. I have an advantage because I have sprayed more than him and I have an idea where I am headed, but I don’t truly know until I shoot a sample board with it and see how things are flowing (which I do every time before I spray the real thing). I spray a sample piece of wood standing up vertically to make sure that I can get a fully wet and flat surface with no runs or sags and to get a feel for how fast I need to move the gun to make all of that happen. If the sample surface looks good, I move on and spray the real thing. If I have issues, it is usually because the finish is a bit thick, so I add lacquer thinner until the finish sprays smoothly without orange peel and without runs.
Another, more technical way to determine the correct amount of thinner is to use a viscosity cup. A viscosity cup is shaped like a funnel and determines how thick a fluid is by the time it takes to empty the cup. A thin fluid will empty in just a couple of seconds, while a thick fluid might take 30 seconds or more. When I started spraying and used a viscosity cup, about 15 seconds was the right amount for my gun, but it will vary from gun to gun. When learning to spray, I recommend using a viscosity cup and to follow the manufacturers recommendations. If nothing else, this will give you a good starting point from which you can make later changes and have a way to achieve consistent results. After you spray for a while, there will be less mystery, and you will know from one test shot what needs to be adjusted, even without the viscosity cup.
When my customer asked about adding lacquer thinner, I know he was worried about possibly adding too much, and after thinking about it, I don’t know that you can add too much. I can follow the logic that adding too much thinner may change the chemistry, but I mix the 10:1 ratio of conversion varnish to catalyst first and then add the thinner, so there should still be the same amount of resin and catalyst, just with more space between them, in the form of lacquer thinner which will quickly evaporate and let the two parts do their thing. Even with other lacquer products, which includes sealers, nitrocellulose lacquers and modified lacquers, I can’t think of any time that I have ever had a problem because I added too much thinner.
I’m sure finish manufacturers would disagree and warn you to not be so cavalier about it, but I sure wouldn’t worry about adding too much thinner. Simply add enough thinner until your spray gun is able to apply a nice, even and wet film that flows out flat and dries without sagging. Even if you do mix it a bit thin, feel confident knowing that you can always compensate by moving more quickly or reducing the amount of fluid coming out of the tip of the gun.
Lucas Sawmill Is Small But Mighty
My sawmilling adventures began with an Alaskan chainsaw mill, which is just an attachment for a chainsaw to allow it to repeatedly cut a log lengthwise into lumber. It wasn’t anything fancy, and while it produced fine lumber, it was painfully slow to use. It didn’t take too many hours of me directly sucking in sawdust and fumes, while sweating my butt off, to start shopping for a more capable sawmill.
When I started my search, I considered bandsaws made by companies smaller than Wood-Mizer or TimberKing or Baker in a quest to also find smaller prices. While searching, I found several mills that looked suitable in the $5,000-$10,000 range, and I also came across a new “swing mill” from Australia called a Lucas mill.
The bandsaws looked to be a good choice as far as production went, but I didn’t have any way to move logs at the time, so the Lucas won out. It’s ability to easily break down and set up on site, while fitting in the bed of a pickup truck made it the clear choice, especially for larger logs. I say clear choice, but it wasn’t an easy choice. I didn’t like that the basic mill, fitted with a circular blade, was limited to 6″ or 8″ wide lumber without the optional slabbing bar attachment. And, my biggest fear was that this new mill from Australia, that I knew nothing about, might not be as good as it appeared in the videos.
Unfortunately, my fears were NOT immediately allayed. I went to pick up the more than $10,000 sawmill at the shipping terminal, and I couldn’t help but feel like I way overpaid for the amount of merchandise I picked up (Did I mentioned that it fits in the bed of my pickup truck?). There was only a sawhead, two long rails, and a few other miscellaneous metal parts that formed the frame ends. Besides that, the kit included a sharpener and some other odds and ends, but none of it added up to very much. I started doing the cost per piece arithmetic in my head, and it wasn’t looking good.
Regardless of my buyer’s remorse, I was tickled to have a “real” sawmill and set it up in my back yard the very first chance I got. After just a short time reviewing the directions, I had the sawmill set up and ready to cut. Even for someone who had never set one up, the Lucas went together fast. It was then that I realized what I had paid for. I didn’t pay for lots and lots of parts and extra bulk. I paid for an impressively designed machine, with an amazingly small stature, than can tackle the biggest logs. I paid for all of the research and design that went into the mill by the Lucas boys, and I paid to not lug around thousands of extra pounds, and I paid for everything to go together with minimal effort and a minimal number of steps. I got all of that and more.
From a design standpoint, I can confidently say that every part of the Lucas mill is well-planned and simplified beyond belief. The only mechanisms that I have ever had a problem with are the winches that raise and lower the ends of the long rails. They work perfectly fine and they are quite smooth, but they can be dangerous. When fully loaded with weight, it is possible to release the winch and lose control, resulting in a violently swinging handle that can smash your arm and allow the sawhead to come crashing down. I know from personal experience, as this has happened to me more than once, with the last instance leaving me at the hospital with a possible broken arm (luckily it was just a very bad contusion). If they were to ask, I would recommend that the winch system be built like the raising and lowering mechanism on my TimberKing 1220 manual mill, which magically is able to easily raise and lower the sawhead with complete control and without the possibility of having a disastrous crash. I have no idea how it works, but it smoothly operates the sawhead with a very heavy 15 hp electric motor attached to it like it isn’t there at all.
Now that you know to watch your arm and to be careful when lowering the sawhead on the Lucas mill, I can continue telling you how wonderful the Lucas mill is. First off, realize that I bought a Lucas mill in 1995, so I have been using one for about 2o years now, and I still use it on a regular basis. It is a very versatile machine that can handle big logs with ease. I often get asked how big of a log I can handle, and with the Lucas mill in my corner, I can just answer, “Yes.”
Currently, I use the 8″ model, which means that with the 21″ diameter circular blade attached it can produce up to 8″ x 8″ dimensional lumber. I rarely cut 8″ x 8″, but the mill can easily be adjusted to cut any dimensions under 8″. I often cut 1″ and 2″ thick lumber by 8″ wide.
The Lucas mill is called a “swing” mill because the blade can flip or swing with the pull of a lever from the horizontal to vertical position and right back again. The cool part is that both of the cuts line up with each other and work in concert to produce accurate and straight, completely edged lumber without a dedicated edger or any extra handling. In contrast, to edge lumber on a bandsaw mill requires flitches (lumber with bark edges) to be stood up in the mill and cut one or two more times to produce lumber with four square edges.
When cutting dimensional lumber I can easily work by myself making the vertical cut walking backward, then making the horizontal cut walking forward and finishing by sliding the cut board backward and out of the way. After a quick repositioning of the sawhead and a flip of the blade, I am back to cutting another piece of lumber. When cutting dimensional lumber like this I get in a rhythm–walk backward, flip blade, walk forward, slide board, move and flip blade, then repeat. The first cuts on the outside of the log are firewood, but after one pass across the top of the log and then dropping the mill to the next set of cuts, almost every pass produces an edged piece of lumber.
When I first got my Lucas mill I used it with the circular blade most of the time. Everything I produced was fully edged. Big slabs weren’t in style, so I didn’t even own a slabber, let alone use one. Now things are different. Live edges are in and so are big slabs, so the slabber is on the mill most of the time. The slabber is an attachment that turns the sawhead into a giant 2o hp chainsaw mill, with a maximum cut of 64″ wide.
I use the Lucas mill with the slabber attachment to cut all of my big logs that will produce slabs for table tops. With the slabber attachment the Lucas is not fast, but it can cut much wider than my bandsaw mill (maximum cut of 29″ wide), and it doesn’t make sporadic wavy cuts like the bandsaw mill. Knowing that I won’t get a miscut on a high-priced piece of wood gives me a great piece of mind.
These days when the slabbing attachment isn’t on the mill, the circular blade is, but not for milling lumber. I have been using it to flatten my kiln-dried slabs, and as long as the blade is sharp, it works great. After I move the slab into position, I just skim the surface with the mill to remove the high spots. Next, I flip the slab, drop the mill a bit and skim the other side. The end result is a perfectly flat slab, ready for final planing. The kids at Lucas sell planing and sanding attachments, but I haven’t used or purchased either one since I finish almost all of the slabs with the power hand planer or wide-belt sander.
Every time I use the Lucas mill, I am reminded how well it works, from quickly setting it up to making small adjustments, everything is simple. And, I know when I show customers how capable it is, they are impressed that such a lightweight, easy-to-setup mill can do so much.
Note: While Lucas is more than welcome to pay me to endorse their mills, as of now they do not. This was written for educational purposes and to let others know how my slabs are produced.
Antiques Roadshow Find or Nakashima Knockoff?
Last week a friend of mine, John, was at my shop telling me about a chair that he found on Craigslist. It wasn’t in perfect shape, and the wood was stained with red blotches that he said looked like Kool-Aid, and he joked that they were more likely blood. It was, however, well built, in good shape overall and had not been repaired, so he shelled out the asking price of $20.
After getting the chair back to his house, John quickly got to work sanding on the chair by hand to remove the stains and then followed the sanding with a little Danish oil to make the chair look like new.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened and I don’t know that it is important to the story, but another friend of ours stopped by John’s house and between the two of them they realized that the bottom of the chair seat was signed. Luckily, John hadn’t sanded the bottom of the seat and everything that was written on it was still very clear. They found, in large letters, lightly written in pencil, an inscription that says “Cotton Rocker” and in bold, black ink what appears to be, “George Nakashima, March 1974”.
It didn’t take long after hearing the story for me to end up at John’s house, so I could see the chair for myself. I wasn’t expecting much and imagined that I would know right away that the chair wasn’t a legitimate Nakashima, not because I am a Nakashima expert, but because I know wood and something was bound to be obviously wrong with the materials or construction.
My initial concern was that John destroyed any possible value with a wild bit of overly aggressive sanding, but that wasn’t the case. The chair looked great, and after a little more interrogating, I discerned that it didn’t take much work to remove the stains. And, though it didn’t necessarily help, nothing John did permanently damaged the chair.
After I gave the chair a quick look, I plopped myself down and took it for a test rock. The chair is a bit low for me, but it makes sense for someone who is probably a foot shorter, like Mr. Nakashima himself. Both the seat and back are wide and provide great support while still being flexible and comfortable. As a matter of fact, it is probably the most comfortable, all-wood chair that I have ever sat in.
I sat and rocked for a short time while we talked more about the chair and my disbelief that he found it on Craigslist for $20. It was beginning to look like it was the real deal, but even if it wasn’t, the price was fantastic for a chair of this quality. He definitely did not overpay.
After I rocked for a bit, I decided to really do some detective work. I started by looking closely at the wood. The walnut had the right patina for being around 40 years old and the spindles were made of hickory, which later research verified was appropriate.
The only thing that seemed odd to me was the wood selected for the seat. When I think of George Nakashima, I think of wood and the way that he respected it and the way that he would make sure that the wood was selected with as much care as the actual construction – this seat seems to be less so. While not wrong, the seat is composed of seven pieces of walnut that appear to be selected on a Friday just before quitting time. I imagine Nakashima making his seats out of a single piece or two pieces of matched woods and it looks like this walnut wasn’t even from the same tree, which is a bit hard for me to swallow, especially knowing that Nakashima was known for having plenty of wood on hand.
Everything else about the chair oozes quality and makes me believe that it is a Nakashima product or was made by someone who appreciated his work and tried hard to duplicate it. All of the proportions are well-found, with a great balance between strength and delicateness. The hickory spindles are almost dainty, but offer more than enough support to the backrest, which is equally small, but more than adequate. The details that I really noticed and appreciated, are the two spindles that extend through the top of the backrest. They protrude so little that they are almost unnoticed, but they reach up just far enough to be a detail that connotes fine craftsmanship.
The overwhelming clue to me that this may truly be a Nakashima piece of woodwork is that the chair is 100% solid, with no signs of loose joints or repairs. It is a testament to the fact that this chair was built with care from the original maker, which I am guessing is George Nakashima or someone who spent lots of time with Mr. Nakashima.
While doing a little research on Nakashima and trying to find a photo of a similar signature (which I did not), I found some recent examples of authentic chairs that have sold at auction. It looks like similar chairs, like the one below, are selling currently for between $2,500 and $10,000. I assume that John’s chair will be at the lower end of the spectrum, even if it is found to be the real thing, since it is not in original mint condition. Even so, it is a heck of a find for $20.
John plans to keep the chair and enjoy it for now. I told him that I thought it was a great idea because I don’t see it going down in value and it will give him time to try to find out more about that specific chair.
If you have any insights on how to determine the legitimacy of this piece, we would love to hear about it. I know John would love to determine if it is an actual Nakashima chair. I guess he could always go on Antiques Roadshow and find out for sure.
John heard back from the kids at Nakashima and it turns out that it is an original. They even have the original paperwork and will authenticate it for him. Lucky John!
You Need to be a Badass to Brush a Finish
Most woodworkers that I have met, try to finish their own projects, and while they may do great woodwork their finish often falls short and lets the world know that their project was not finished by a professional woodworker or finisher. The typical look of the less-than-perfect finish is one of obvious and often errant brush strokes. While I think it is possible that some of these finishing jobs are seen as perfectly acceptable by less discerning eyes, I would like to think that the applier of these lackluster finishes knows and sees that they could do better, but are at a loss for how to correct the problem.
My first solution, and always my first recommendation, is to purchase a high-quality spray gun and start spraying your finish. A spray gun is quick, capable of producing a flawless finish and may even make finishing fun. There are lots of reasons why you may not feel comfortable spraying a finish, but there are at least 492 reasons why you should spray your finish–the first 485 being that you need to be a badass to brush a good finish.
Brushing a good finish requires an amazing level of patience, attention to detail and a willingness to not cut corners. It can be done, but often the person that relegates themselves to brushing a finish is usually the same person that struggles to produce a good finish because they aren’t patient, aren’t paying close attention and are trying to do as little work as possible to call the job done. It is a crazy irony of a situation, but it happens all the time.
Now, first let me be clear, I don’t have a problem with brushing a finish. I think it is perfectly acceptable and sometimes required, but it has to be done right just to not look bad, never mind looking great. Luckily, there really are just a few tidbits to keep in mind that are the keys to a beautiful brushed finish.
Apply Thin Coats
You will be tempted, at all stages of finishing and throughout your entire life, to apply a finish that is thick and wet. Often this is under the misguided notion that thicker is better and it will speed things up, but nothing is further from the truth. A thick finish coat is the first and deadliest weapon in the unprofessional finishers arsenal. No matter how well you apply a thick coat of finish, it will somehow, somewhere on your woodworking be less than perfect and scream, “This dude doesn’t know what he is doing!”
Thick finish coats show deeper, more obvious brush strokes because they are just that, deeper. Thicker coats also tend to run and, at very least, sag. And, the last thing, that shouldn’t be underestimated, is that thicker finish coats take much longer to dry, which allows more debris to get in your finish, lengthens the dry time between coats and often leads to blemishes from handling a piece before it is dry. There is, as far as I can tell, nothing to be gained by brushing on a finish in thick coats versus thinner coats.
Applying thinner coats can and should be thought of in two ways. The first is simply the amount of finish moved from your brush to the surface. When applying the finish, put on just enough material to cover the surface and nothing more – do not leave puddles. There should be so little on the surface that it is impossible for the finish to run or sag. The second way to think about thinner coats is in the viscosity or the thickness of the material itself. Thinner material will flow fast, like water and thicker material will flow slow, like syrup. Make sure your finish is not too thick by adding the proper solvent for your finish, like water, mineral spirits, alcohol or lacquer thinner if needed. Many finishes will be fine directly out of the can, but some thicker finishes will benefit from a little thinning. Be sure to read the can for proper thinning options and test your finish on a piece of scrap material first to see how it flows and lays down.
Pay Attention to Your Brush Strokes
No matter how well you apply a finish with a brush, brush strokes will most likely be visible at some point. The good news is that wood has a grain to it that can help hide the brush strokes. The secret is to apply the finish with brush strokes that follow the grain. Don’t go all willy nilly and just slop it on. This is where the patience and attention to detail really come into play and where you have to let your inner badass shine.
Plan out your brush strokes so there aren’t any unintentional stops or starts. Where parts meet make sure to stop and start where they stop and start. On mitered corners, start with the brush at a 45 degree angle so the brush marks only follow the grain of each board.
Lastly, make sure that your brush strokes follow the full length of the work. If a single piece of wood is 30′ long, your brush strokes should be 30′ long in a single uninterrupted and reasonably straight pass. It may sound a bit overboard, but that is what it takes to do this correctly.
Keep a Wet Edge
Working with a brush is not fast. While you are messing around with the application and focusing on your brush strokes, it is possible for some finishes (especially paints) to start to dry while you are applying them, requiring you to step up your game even more. It is important to keep a wet edge while you are working, so each new brush stroke blends with the previous one. If you move too slow and the finish has dried or started to dry, you will basically be applying two coats as opposed to only one. If you are finishing woodwork, this will cause the finish to have an unevenness about it, either because of a difference in the sheen or in the way it fills the wood pores.
When working large open areas, plan out your approach and move quickly. Do what you can to quickly get the finish on the surface and then focus on your brush strokes to finalize things. A small-nap roller can even be used to help speed up delivery to the surface before final brushing. If you have a choice, work in cooler temperatures (always out of the sun) and with reduced airflow to slow down the drying.
Any finish application, whether brushed or sprayed will benefit from being horizontal. Having your pieces flat on a work surface during finishing allows you to fully see what you are doing, especially with good reflected light and helps the finish to level out while drying. The other obvious benefit is that you should get no runs on a horizontal application unless you are extremely talented. You may find it worthwhile to completely finish your piece before assembly so you can keep all of your parts horizontal.
Choose the Right Brush
There is much to be said about brushes, but for me it comes down to one simple rule. Don’t ever use a cheap brush. Don’t even let them in your shop. If you have a cheap brush in your shop (you know, the one that you were only going to use for applying glue or something else non-technical), you will inevitably end up trying to use it for some sort of real finishing and it will not turn out well. I would argue that it is better to not finish at all than to try to finish with the only brush you could find in the shop which was purchased in a 10-pack at the dollar store. Using a good brush gives you at least a fighting chance. For those of you that want a bit more technical input, remember to use natural bristles only for oil-based finishes and synthetic bristles for either water-based or oil-based finishes. It all comes down to the fact that natural bristles don’t like to be soaked in water and synthetic bristles can be soaked in anything.
There you have it. Five simple little rules, all of which if you completely follow, still only give you about a 50% chance of producing a beautiful brushed finish. The other 50% is dependent entirely on your willingness to not take anything that resembles a shortcut and on you being a badass every step of the way.
Sharpen Your Bandsaw Blade on the Mill
Through the years I have dulled a lot of bandsaw blades on my sawmill, and for the longest time, I have struggled with keeping them sharp. I have tried multiple tools and methods to get this done, but only within the last year do I feel like I have found a good solution.
The problem starts with the bandsaw blade itself. It is a finicky conglomeration of bent teeth, cut from a thin piece of flexible steel that is somehow supposed to cut a straight line, not only from front to back, but also side to side, and if it isn’t well machined and sharp, there isn’t a snowball’s chance that this is going to happen.
Early in my career, when a new saw blade dulled and started to cut waves, I would try things like adding tension to the blade, slowing down my feed rate or even adjusting my blade guides. No matter what I tried, a dull blade would still make a wavy cut. However, if I used the exact same setup but installed a new blade, the cut would be perfect again. As a matter of fact, almost every other adjustment could be less than perfect and a sharp blade would still make a good cut. From 15 years of experience, it is clear that I need to keep my saw blade sharp and touch nothing else.
My standard course of action is to put on a new or newly sharpened blade from Wood-Mizer when my cut starts getting wavy. This is a great way to live. Nothing cuts like a brand new blade, and it feels like a treat to put one on. Even the resharpened blades cut great since they get a complete factory treatment, including cleaning and full tooth grinding and setting. I have always had great results from Wood-Mizer, and I highly recommend their new blades and resharpening service. (Disclaimer: I am not being paid by Wood-Mizer and Wood-Mizer doesn’t know I’m writing this post – they probably don’t even know I exist.)
The problem for me was that time in between cutting like new and cutting like crap. I would have a blade that was cutting great, but I could feel it pulling hard and on the verge of cutting poorly. I didn’t want to pull it off of the saw because it was running so well, but at the same time I knew my time was limited. If I could just get an edge back, I could keep cutting with the same blade and not have to mess with sending the blade off to be sharpened, and I would save $7 (by the way, I think $7 is a great price for the quality of service, but I would rather not spend it if I don’t have to). So, off I went, looking for a way to sharpen blades on my own.
In the past, I tried using a manual sharpener that came with my first bandsaw mill. It functioned like it was designed to, but the results weren’t great. Besides having to take the blade off of the mill and set it up in the sharpener, it used a stone that wore down quickly and wouldn’t maintain a flat, consistent face on the tooth (looking back, I probably should have tried some other stone options, but I didn’t).
Later, I tried a few other approaches. The first was using my chainsaw grinder, like the one below, which had a similar problem to the first grinder. The small stones would wear down quickly and the thin bandsaw blade would basically cut the stones in half.
The next attempt used a sanding disc on a drill. I liked the idea of using sandpaper because it maintained a flat surface during grinding – it would wear down, but not change shape. This one showed potential, but it was incredibly hard to control because the spinning motion pulled the drill up and away from the blade.
I finally gave up, feeling like I had exhausted every option cheaper than buying a fully automatic grinder like the factory has, but I never gave up on the idea of sandpaper as a good abrasive that doesn’t change shape.
Up to that point, all of my attempts focused on sharpening the saw by grinding the front of the tooth. There was nothing else I could think of that would fit between the teeth and grind the front of them. But, then I thought about grinding the top of the teeth. This surface is easier to get to and taking material off of the top will still lead to a sharp point – it doesn’t really matter which face gets ground down.
I started off with my 3″ Porter-Cable belt sander just to try things out and it worked great. I could sand the top edge of the tooth with control and the speed was slow enough to not feel like I was burning the metal (which softens the teeth). The only problem was the weight of the belt sander, which might as well have been 1,000 lbs. because there was no way I could hold it to sharpen all of the teeth on the blade.
At the time I didn’t own a small belt sander, so I took a gamble and purchased a Porter-Cable 371 compact belt sander. I figured that even if it didn’t work for the blade sharpening I would at least have another tool in my woodworking arsenal and that there were going to be plenty of times when a small belt sander would come in handy. Finding other uses for the new sander hasn’t been much of an issue though, because it works great to sharpen blades, and it is always parked (plugged in) right next to my saw, ready for the next dull one to come along.
I simply leave the blade on the saw and grind just enough off of the top of each tooth to get the edge back. I use my free hand to steady the blade and to advance the saw to the next tooth. In a matter of just a few minutes I can be back to cutting, feeling like I have beat the system.
Now, there are limits to sharpening your saw like this. First off, no matter how good you get with the sander, the blade will not be as good as a new one or one that has had a full factory grind and set because this grinding is changing the geometry of the already finicky blade. And, it will do nothing to improve a blade that was just generally running badly or running badly for a specific reason like hitting a rock or metal (all of these problem blades get sent out for a full resharpening). It will, however, make a blade that was running well continue to run well and make flat, straight cuts for much longer.
Generally, it seems to work out that I touch up a blade with the sander a time or two and then send it out for full service or, for some of them, they keep working great and I keep sharpening them with the sander until they break. For all of the others, I hit something along the way (dirt, rocks, concrete, nails, hooks, cable, wire, screw-eyes, barbed wire, fence posts, screws, license plates, horseshoes, railroad spikes, chain, conduit, hangers) that either destroys the blade or dulls it enough that it needs a full regrind.
Even if I don’t use this method all of the time, it is nice to have another option to get back to cutting. If nothing else, I personally love the comfort of knowing that when I get down to my last new blade (and forgot for the second week in a row to order new ones) that I won’t be stuck cutting wavy lumber.
Grow Exhibit Opens at the St. Louis Science Center
If you have driven down Highway 40 in St. Louis recently, you may have noticed a new structure being erected next to the St. Louis Science Center where the “temporary” Exploradome once stood. After 16 years in service, the inflated building was past its prime and too expensive to operate, so it was replaced with a new, permanent agriculture exhibit called Grow.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the new building that features massive bent laminated beams which create a beautiful swoosh of a roof. Just outside the entrance of the new building is a vermiculture display that I built for the exhibit. While it pales in comparison to the woodwork that went into making the building, I like to think it makes a nice little earth-friendly welcome mat for visitors.
The vermiculture unit, designed by Mark Cooley, uses worms to make compost. Built out of locally salvaged Eastern Red Cedar, the two-compartment structure is set up to have green waste loaded in the top and compost extracted from the bottom after the worms have done their job eating the contents. The two compartments, which are side by side, are divided by a wire mesh that allows the worms to move between compartments. This particular unit has glass panels to allow for viewing of the interior from the front of the display, though the glass is not required for use.
This project was a bit out of the norm for me since it was more carpentry than fine woodworking, but it was a fun change to build something that wasn’t so fussy. I had the most fun when I was able to find some logs in my shop already standing against the wall for the project. They were left over from another project, and I was able to just carry them to the sawmill and cut the parts I needed. I chuckled to myself while I was doing it because I have never just hand carried logs to the sawmill that were standing in the shop like sticks of lumber. It was only possible because cedar is lightweight and the logs were small, but I still had more than enough to make this project.
Cedar mills like butter on the sawmill, even when dry, and since it was going outside I didn’t need to do any extra drying. I was able to mill it, plane it and assemble it right away, which made it feel more like I was building a fort or a treehouse, especially since I never get to knock something out like that. It reminded me a lot of the Mermaid Lagoon sign I made for Mira a few years ago, since both went together expeditiously. There were a few critical measurements to maintain, like the size of the footprint, but everything else was somewhat negotiable as long as it looked and worked like Mark Cooley’s design.
The vermiculture unit is nestled in the Grow exhibit along a mulch path surrounded by plantings that are arranged like a garden or small farm field. Nearby are live chickens, two new tractors, a greenhouse and a dairy demonstration area. Inside the building are electronic, hands-on displays that focus more on the places that generate food, from the species of plants to different farm settings. Outside, on the North side of the building, are a couple of displays that focus on water, with a chance for the kids to interact with displays that are both hands-on and hands-wet.
The St. Louis Science Center and the new Grow exhibit are free to all visitors. It opens Monday-Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday at 11:00 a.m. The Science Center closes at 5:30 p.m. during peak summer hours (May 28-Sep. 5, 2016) and at 4:30 p.m. during off-peak hours.
Today’s Glues are Super Strong
When customers stop by to peruse the lumber and slabs I have for sale, they inevitably end up near the back of my shop, where I do my woodworking. They like to see what I am up to and discuss woodworking in general. Lately, I have been making a lot of live-edge tops, so I usually have at least one being glued up, and I can guarantee you that the first question is going to be, “What do you use to join those two pieces of wood together?” They are expecting a dramatic answer full of technical jargon, like tongue and groove or sliding dovetail or dominos or even biscuits, but I always disappoint them and just say, “glue”. I like to say it in a sort of caveman fashion for dramatic effect and a bit of humor, but then I quickly jump in and fill the awkward silence with a more detailed explanation, especially since I can tell that just blurting out the word “glue” isn’t going to be enough.
I use Titebond original wood glue with the red cap. There is Titebond II and III for more water-resistency, but I usually stick to the original unless it is a project that is prone to getting very wet. I like that the original cleans up easily with water and that even dried glue can be soaked and removed from brushes and clothing. I don’t prefer Titebond for any special reason, except that it is widely used and widely available. I would just as confidently use other name-brand wood glues and expect similar results.
The glues available today are strong, super strong, stronger than the wood itself. To prove this, I always save the end cuts from my glue-ups, so I can break them later for demonstration purposes for customers and inspection purposes for myself. If the glue is fully dry (results are not guaranteed if the glue is still wet), the glued-up scraps will always break somewhere in the wood. Even if it does happen to spilt close to the glue line, there is always plenty of wood stuck to the glue to make anyone doubting the strength of the joint to become a believer.
In comparison, I have worked with plenty of reclaimed wood, especially old oak church pews, that have a tendency to split along the glue joints. When closely inspected, it is clear that the old glue had become dry and brittle, and though it stuck to both surfaces, the glue itself broke down, like old plastic that has been outside too long. Most likely, the older glues, while strong at the time, weren’t formulated correctly to stay flexible over time. Current glues are formulated to hold strong and not break down during regular indoor use. Note that I wrote “indoor” use – for outdoor use, all bets are off. From extreme wood movement to glue breakdown, there is simply too much wear and tear outdoors for the glue to hold a jointed edge together on its own without any eventual failures.
So, we know that the glue is strong and is more than capable of holding a joint together, but just how strong is it? There is probably some value on some fancy scale to tell you exactly how strong the joint is, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as you know that it is stronger than the wood. At that point, to know the strength for sure, you would need to know the strength not only of the wood you are working with, but the weakest point in any given spot in a board, which you just can’t know, so I say stop worrying about it. Just know that it is more than strong enough to do the job.
Now, for the glue to work correctly, your machining and joints need to be reasonably good. I say, “reasonably” good because I think there is a lot of wiggle room here. Obviously, if everything is perfectly square and straight, there is no question about your joint integrity. You can simply coat the joint with glue, apply just enough pressure to pull everything together, and you will end up with a strong, wonderfully impressive joint. But, what if your jointed edges are square but the boards are long and have a bit of a bow and they will require a bit of extra clamp pressure to pull them together, is that gonna work? Heck yeah! Did I mention the glue is strong? A little extra clamp pressure is fine.
What about a lot of clamp pressure? Now this is where the “reasonably” good part comes into play. I say if you are doing a glue-up and you feel like you have applied so much pressure to pull things together that it just feels wrong, then you should probably work on the joint some more. But, here’s the kicker. I can tell you that I have been involved in more glue-ups than I should admit to that have required an inordinate amount of clamp pressure, and to this day (knock on wood), I have never had a joint fail. Maybe I have just been lucky, since I have done tons of glue-ups, but I use this as a real world testament to the strength of the current glues.
The problem with needing a lot of clamp pressure to pull joints together is two-fold. The first issue is that there are built-in forces that are always trying open the joint with the same amount of pressure it took to close up the joint, which can be significant. The other issue, and the one that is commonly more worrisome, is that more clamp pressure means less glue in the joint. The concern being that if all of the glue is squeezed out then obviously there is nothing to hold the wood together. As far as I can tell, especially since I have not had a failure yet, is that this isn’t easily accomplished. I am not saying it isn’t possible, but it isn’t easy. Many woods have open pores that will hold glue no matter how much pressure you give them (think oak and walnut), and if you are fighting at all to pull a joint together, that means that somewhere along the line things are loose enough to hold some glue. Sure, it might completely squeeze out in one spot and make the joint a bit weaker, but in other spots the glue will hold like it is supposed to and keep things from coming apart.
With all of this cavalier talk about crappy joints with extra clamp pressure, you still have to show some restraint. There are going to be times when you can’t rely on just the glue, no matter how strong it is, to hold everything together and you will need to rework your joints for a better fit. A couple of instances come to mind. Some woods have very tight grain that is smooth and won’t hold much glue (think hard maple), so it is possible to end up with a joint that has almost no glue in it. The second instance where more jointing work will be required is if the boards are tight in the middle and loose on the ends. The ends are where a top will want to naturally split, so trying to use extra pressure in this case, is inviting an issue down the road. I feel a million times more confident closing up a gap in the middle of a glue-up than I do the ends, knowing that the entire joint is holding things together, not just the glue on the ends.
One last category that requires a little extra attention is exotic wood. Some have oils in them that just won’t glue properly. They need to be cleaned with lacquer thinner before gluing to provide a good surface and they are often extra hard, so they don’t absorb much glue. I have had problems with bloodwood in the past, which fell apart during my initial tests because I had not cleaned the wood enough. To be safe, I cleaned the wood even more and roughed up the surface a bit with sandpaper to give the glue something to grab. Before the sanding, the edges were just too hard and too smooth. Since then, the extra hard and oily exotics scare me, so I would never force a glue joint with them. I trust the current glues a lot, but there are limits.
Assuming that you have decent joints and wood that will accept glue, all you have to do is make sure that both surfaces are coated with wood glue and clamp them together until the seam is tight. That is really all there is to it and all that is done at almost every professional shop I can think of. You don’t need any special tricks at all, just “glue,” I remind you in my caveman voice.
Random Width Flooring: Efficient Use of a Valuable Resource
In the normal course of my business, I am sometimes asked to make flooring out of my customers’ logs. Because I mill the logs into random width boards, I would often get stuck with trying to determine the best width to make the flooring, knowing that no single width would have that great of a yield. No matter the width I chose, there would always be plenty of boards with lots of waste. If I chose 3″ wide flooring, I can guarantee you that an astonishing number of the rough cut boards would just happen to measure 8-3/4″ wide, which would yield two 3″ wide boards and one wide scrap piece, absolutely killing me.
In the past, I have tried to decide the width ahead of milling the logs and pick out which cut was going to be flooring and which was going to be another product, like siding. It seemed simple enough, if the board I was cutting was long and clear with no knot holes, I would cut siding, and if it was knotty and was going to produce only short pieces that were good, I would cut them for flooring. All I really had to do was sort the lumber into two piles while I was working. But, it wasn’t that easy.
Some logs would have a side that was good for producing siding, but the next side was only good for flooring. When I flipped the log over to a new side, my width was determined by how much I cut off of the last side, and it was always random. So, no matter what I did, even if I was cutting for a specific product, I would get stuck with lots of random width boards.
As I mentioned, wasting lumber kills me, and every time I ripped random-width boards down to some set width, leaving wide scraps on the floor, I thought about how to stop wasting so much wood – then it clicked. Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me a floor he made for his own house out of random width boards. As far as I know, he only did it because he thought it would look different and make his house have a special touch that would only come from someone who made their own flooring. His floor was white oak with tons of character, in three different widths. It was beautiful, and it seemed to me that I could use these random widths in some form to stop wasting wood.
I don’t remember a specific moment when I had the epiphany (though I am sure I must have had one), but I figured out that using just three widths, 3″, 4″, and 5″ would cover every width of board I could produce and always leave me with less than 1″ of waste per board.
Think about it. 3″, 4″, and 5″ wide, rough lumber is covered right off of the bat since they are already useable widths. After that is a 6″ wide board, which will just be ripped into two 3″ wide strips. A 7″ board gets ripped to a 3″ and a 4″ strip, while an 8″ board turns into two 4″ strips or a 5″ and a 3″, whichever is preferred. Any width of rough lumber over 6″ wide can be broken down in some way with just the three target widths of 3″, 4″ and 5″. By the way, these are the rough cut widths. The finished tongue and groove flooring will end up with a face about 1/2″ less in width.
Random width flooring looks different, but not too different. At first glance, the viewer only notices the beautiful wood, and then after closer inspection notices the three widths, which lets them know subconsciously that the flooring is special. It stands out because it isn’t all one width like typical hardwood flooring, and most people have never seen or even thought of using random-width flooring. But, I say, “Don’t be scared of it.” It is different and not typical, but in a good way, especially when it comes to waste.