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.
I’ll admit it, I am not as fast as I’d like to be. I always think that I will get things done quicker than I do. And, I always say that things are done when I mean they are “basically done”, which means that I still have a few things left to do (therefore not done). I like to think of it as being optimistic. Well, while I am being “optimistic”, a lot of other things aren’t getting done (mostly because I am busy working on the thing that I thought was already done).
The one thing usually not getting done is sawing. After all, the logs aren’t going anywhere and a lot of them are just getting better with age. I’ll let them sit for a while, depending on the species, and try to play it just right for special things, like spalting, to happen. Sometimes I push it too far and the log rots and becomes unusable. Species like ash and maple, which have a lot of sapwood, need to be milled sooner than the rest. They (especially maple) will quickly stain, spalt and then rot, while others will be fine. I often use this rotting process as a gauge to decide which log to mill next. I like all of the logs I bring in, and I don’t want any of them to turn into dirt before they get turned into lumber.
Through the years, as I have kept tabs on the disintegrating logs, I have learned what it means to be “durable”. In the books about different species of wood, they always list their durability, which I thought meant how they handle wear and tear, like from a hammer, but they mean from the weather. Turns out some woods last longer outside than others. I knew this, of course, but only from reading it. Now, after all of my “wood collecting”, I know it from watching it happen. Some woods go fast, but some never seem to go. And, they are not necessarily the first ones to come to mind.
I was inspired to write this because of the two that are extremely durable, but no one ever thinks to use outside – two of my best friends – walnut and cherry. These two just don’t rot. I should say the heartwood doesn’t rot. The sapwood on both of them rots as fast as any other sapwood, but the heartwood doesn’t rot. I commonly find old logs with no bark and sapwood that just flakes off in my hand, but the heartwood is fine. It might have cracks in it from the log drying out or bug holes from sitting too long, but the heartwood will be just as solid as the day it was cut down.
Of the species I mill, these are not the only ones that perform great outside, but they are the surprises. I bet almost no one would think of using walnut or cherry outside. They always end up inside because they are so nice, maybe too nice to put outside. I will tell you that this one has me baffled, and as of yet, I have no idea why this is. However, my main interest is to spread the word that walnut and cherry are great outdoor choices. Walnut may not be the best because the price is going up, but cherry is becoming an even better choice as its price is on the decline. If you don’t mind a few knots in your outdoor work, common-grade cherry is very affordable. And, if you are doing a high-end outdoor piece clear walnut may make sense. It is more expensive than Ipe (an imported wood great for outdoor work), but it is easier to work with and it just feels right to use an American wood.
Again, the sole reason I know that these woods are durable is from my own experience. If I have a walnut or cherry log and it doesn’t get cut right away, I don’t sweat it. I know that years down the road that logs from these two species will still have solid wood in them, while others have rotted away. The best example I have is from a recent post about a walnut that I found on the Missouri River. It was the driftiest piece of driftwood you will ever find and the inside still looked like new (click here to check out the post and video from the picture above and to see the inside of the log).
I thought my last posting about finishing troubles was pretty monumental, that it was big and in my past. Hopefully, it was something that I learned from and would never repeat. But, in a bid to never be outdone, I have attempted to outdo myself.
I recently worked on a bar top made from curly cherry. The finishing job was like any other finishing job in my mind – easy peasy lemon squeezy. All I had to do was mix up some lye and water, slather it on the cherry to darken it, sand the surface a bit and finish it with three coats of Krystal. The lye should take about 15 minutes, the sanding about 20 minutes and the three coats of Krystal about two hours. The longest part of the whole thing should have been waiting for the lye/water solution to dry, which was about two hours. But, as all good stories go, I ended up monkeying with it for about three days. My, how time flies when you’re screwing up a good finish.
I started with the lye and mixed it with water. My first test piece looked great, so I rolled with it. I wasn’t too worried about this step because it always seems like this phase of the process magically works itself out. As the lye sits on the piece drying, spots that I worried about just seem to fix themselves. Areas that looked too light blended seamlessly with areas that quickly turned dark. The only spots that didn’t darken perfectly were under errant splotches of glue, which I stained with another favorite, TransTint dye stain, this time in reddish-brown.
After I let the lye/water solution dry thoroughly, I sanded the entire top with 320 grit sandpaper. This step too, was no big deal. The lye darkens the wood pretty deeply, so even somewhat aggressive sanding won’t expose any new lighter-colored wood. At this point, I had put in no extra time and things were going smoothly. On to the next step, I said.
It was already time to start spraying, so I mixed up a batch of Krystal conversion varnish and catalyst. I also added a little lacquer thinner to make it flow nicer. My plan was, and always is, to shoot lightly on the first coat. The logic being that the first coat is really just to get the process started and to get the wood fibers locked in place. Normally, after the first coat, I either lightly sand with 400 grit paper or scrape flat surfaces with a razor blade to smooth things out for the next coat. In this case, however, I never got that far. The Krystal never set up. It went on nicely, but I let it sit for four hours and it was still tacky. That stuff is normally sandable in 30 minutes or so. Four hours was crazy, and I knew something was wrong. And, so it started.
I decided to remove the finish with lacquer thinner and start over. It wiped off like it was going to set up on the 12th – the 12th of never. At that point, I decided to take the finish out of the equation and ordered a fresh gallon. New finish never hurts anything.
The next day my new finish arrived, and I mixed up a batch. I shot the second first coat and it went on fine. Then, as I waited and stared at the finish (like all of us do), I noticed a couple of streaks that were bumpy. It looked like there was dust in the finish, but it wasn’t dust, it was more than dust. I couldn’t figure it out.
I waited for the finish to dry (I recommend that you always let the finish dry before you mess with it) then I sanded the bumpy spots. I sprayed the next coat and the bumpy spots were better, but still wanted to get bumpy. I had it narrowed down to two spots that just needed a little more love. I sanded them a bit extra to make sure they were really smooth. I sprayed away and the craziest thing happened. The two spots that I had just smoothed out wrinkled like crazy. They looked like I put stripper on them. I worked with those spots for a couple more tries, but they only got worse. Every time I sprayed, the margins of my repair bubbled up, and it became obvious that I was chasing my tail. Time to start over. Well, time to call the customer, tell him for the second day in a row that his top was not going to be done and start over.
At that point, I had come up with some ideas on the cause of my problems. My best guess was that the lye was messing with the chemical reaction in the Krystal that makes it set up. I haven’t had trouble with other finishes (mostly nitrocellulose lacquer and acrylic-modified lacquer) on top of lye, but this was the first time that I went over it with Krystal. The first first coat didn’t set up, which could be caused by the lye. After I cleaned that coat off, there may have only been a couple of small spots with a lot of lye in them, and those areas were exposed more every time I sanded.
I knew now that I need to make sure that the surface was clean and free of lye. I stripped down the second layers of finish with the help of lacquer thinner and started over, again. I reminded the bar top that I was going to win and that all of this resistance was futile, in hopes that it would stop with the temper tantrums and just behave. To make sure it behaved, I wiped and wiped and wiped some more on the surface with lacquer thinner to get every foreign substance out of my way.
Whatever I did, it finally worked. I sprayed the top with the first coat (for the third time) and it went on great. I shot two more coats and in about two hours delivered the top, late on the third night (I have a special policy of delivering free, late on Friday nights, after the customer has been by the shop two previous evenings in a feeble attempt to pick up their countertop). The customer was very understanding and I think, quite glad to see me. I was glad to see him too and get that thing out of the shop. Sort of….
The following Monday I got a call from the customer. I would normally dread a call so close to delivery because there had to be a problem, but I knew this was different. I was sure he was just calling to say how nice it looked and to thank me for going the extra mile. Not the case.
Two days earlier, on Saturday night, they had a Halloween party, which was the reason for the push to get the top done. Apparently, someone put a glow necklace on the top which proceeded to leak. The toxic chemical melted through the finish and even lightened up the lye. On top of that, along with a new bar top came new barstools with backrests and swivel seats, which swiveled nicely into the front of the bar, scraping off the finish. Back to the shop it came.
After playing with the finish it was obvious that I had adhesion issues, the finish just scraped off with my fingernail (not good for a bar top). After a break from the top, I sanded the whole thing down again, reapplied the lye, wiped it a lot with clean water and proceeded to reapply the Krystal finish. Most of it worked well, except for the front of the bar rail. It had the tiniest area of tiny bubbles that just didn’t lay down. Being a picker, I had to pick and it flaked off easily again, but only on the front. I had to work harder to get the finish off of the side rails. Below is a video of how easy the finish flaked off. Again, not good for a bar top.
S0, obviously I have a problem, one that I have never had before. The lye has worked fine for me in the past using regular lacquer. The difference this time is that I am using Krystal, which is a two part finish (conversion varnish). My best guess is that the lye is messing with the chemical reaction because my test pieces, which had no lye on them, stuck like crazy. To combat the problem, I first sprayed a sanding sealer and then put the Krystal on top. The plan is that the sanding sealer will provide a protective barrier between the lye and the Krystal. So far, so good. Hopefully, there are no new updates. They can only be bad.
I was meeting with a customer last week and we were going over the details of the job and discussing the wood that I was going to use for their bookshelves – cherry, as you might have guessed. I was going on about how much I like cherry and was making sure to plug the fact that I mill my own trees. During our discussion, which was mostly me talking and him nodding, he asked,”Well, how big do cherry trees get?” I knew then that he was wondering what I was wondering when I started cutting trees. How do you get big boards from such little orchard trees? I explained to him that it wasn’t the type of cherry tree he was picturing. It was an American Black Cherry, which grows in the forest, mixed with other hardwoods. His next question was, “But, it doesn’t have cherries does it?” As a matter of fact it does. They aren’t big and they are in a cluster that looks like grapes, but they are fruit that birds love to eat, and they are definitely cherries. Then I thought and quickly asked, “Are you ready to be shocked? I bet that you have one right here in your yard and don’t even know it.” I wasn’t going too far out on a limb because I had just driven down a long gravel drive with upland hardwoods to get to his house. I hadn’t specifically spotted a cherry tree, but I could smell them (not literally).
As we talked more, our discussion went back and forth from the piece of furniture that I am going to make to the wood that I am going to use, and we talked more about how big the cherry trees get. I explained that they get big like any hardwood lumber tree, but are on the smaller end of the scale overall. An average log size in this area is about 14″-15″ in diameter, inside the bark, on the skinny end. However, it isn’t uncommon for them to be larger. The main problem with larger and older logs is that they tend to have punky/rotten areas in the center of the log, so many bigger logs don’t get milled. For fun (as always) and to prove that they get bigger than orchard trees, I thought I would share a few photos of my larger finds. Notice that we are not phased at all by the size of the larger logs. It’s routine for us.
By the way, as I left his property, I saw a couple of small cherry trees and I am sure that there are more.
Almost a year ago, a tornado swept through the St. Louis area. After seeing the destruction, I was surprised no one was killed, and at the same time excited to start salvaging trees. I drove around the first day to get a feel for things, following the trail of downed trees and using bright blue tarps that covered damaged roofs as beacons when I started to stray from the path. The first job was to procure trees before they were cut up, so I had to hustle. It didn’t take long to realize that I was going to have a tough time efficiently covering a 10-mile path.
I went home that night and decided to look at Google maps in satellite view. I love to look at the satellite view normally, but now I had a reason. I imagined I could generally chart the path and pick out spots with the best trees. What I didn’t imagine is how well it helped me out in identifying specific trees. I was very lucky to find that the satellite photos for the area I was most interested in were taken in the early fall. In the early fall the trees are starting to change and they don’t just look like green blobs in the photos.
The ones that stood out the most were walnuts. They lose their leaves early, so in the photos they were bare. The cottonwoods were bare too, but that was it. I could scan the satellite images and find the bare trees, then go see if they were down. All but two that were down were walnuts. I got some walnuts out of the deal, but walnuts didn’t seem to be the most abundant species. As a matter of fact, I only found one block with a heavy concentration of walnuts, but it got me looking.
After closer examination, I realized that I could see the shape of the tree by its shadow on the ground. It told me if it had a long trunk (good for milling) or a short, bushy shape. The shape really helped me identify cherry. Cherry tends to have a wispy top, without much foliage and very little spread. They also tend to have stems with multiple leads. If they were alone in the photos, I could pick out cherry trees from the top. But, if not, and this is totally cool, I could jump down to street view and see the tree like I was driving down the road. This helped me verify that trees were worth looking at when I got calls from friends.
As I was going back to pick the images for this post, I realized that the photos had been updated and that the path of the tornado is visible from distant views. When I realized that, I took a look at Joplin. Wow! In Google, just type in Joplin, MO and click on the map. It looks like they took the photo within weeks of the tornado and the width of the path and the complete destruction is incredible. For contrast, type in Ferguson, MO and realize how much smaller this tornado was, and it was not small. I could have picked up trees all summer.
Some woods stain great – some don’t. Oak, walnut and elm come to mind as the great ones. They stain easily and consistently, with no blotches or uneven color. On the other end of the scale are woods like maple and cherry, which are also consistent – consistently frustrating. Hard maple is the worst of the worst, with some of it taking almost no stain (I compare it to trying to stain a piece of glass) and other areas, like end grain, sucking up all the stain in the can. Anywhere that the grain simply changes directions is a spot for blotches to show up.
Right up there with maple is cherry. Although you can get some cherry boards to stain perfectly, many will look like a first-grader did it (and not the one first-grader that pays attention in class). The other problem with cherry is that it is usually expected to be at least medium-dark, which means the wood has to be darkened up somehow. I have a few recommendations for hard-to-stain woods, but for cherry, I have a trick. If you know it, don’t say anything yet.
I don’t remember where I first heard of it, but I was told that lye darkens cherry. That’s right, lye, like the soap or Drano. I didn’t know anything about lye, so I did a little research. And, after using it many times, I can tell you that a little research is all I needed. It is amazingly simple and produces awesome results.
If I want a nice medium to dark cherry and don’t need to match a specific color, I will use lye before anything else. Lye is great because it does in seconds what would happen naturally in a very long time. It chemically changes the color of the wood, allowing all of the figure to show through without blotches. The new color created by the lye also goes below the surface to provide a measure of safety when sanding between coats of finish.
I use Red Devil lye (drain opener), which has apparently been discontinued. Lowe’s carries a crystal drain opener that is 100% sodium hydroxide (the active ingredient) or lye. I, however, have never used this product, so I cannot attest to its effectiveness.
To use the lye, simply mix with water. I use about two tablespoons to 16 oz. of water as a starting point. Test on a sample cherry board to see how dark it comes out – the change will be almost immediate. Add more lye to darken the color or more water to lighten it. To apply, use a nylon brush (natural hair brushes will melt away) to saturate the surface of the wood, keeping a wet edge and let it dry. That’s it.
Handle the lye mixture with caution and follow the safety instructions on the label. Specifically, wear rubber gloves and safety glasses, and make sure you have adequate ventilation.
Treat the wood as if you were using a water-based stain, by raising the grain before applying the lye. After the lye is dry, the wood can be finished and requires no treatment to neutralize the lye. I like to apply an oil finish before the topcoats to make the surface shimmer and really show off the magic of the lye.
No matter how you finish the piece, I think you’ll be amazed at how easily and quickly you can have a piece made from new 100-year-old cherry!