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Sometimes Log Is Like A Box Of Chocolates

As a practice session for the impending commencement of the second video, “Making A Gragg Chair”, I trekked up the mountain to the pile of “good” logs I had culled from the firewood-harvesting sessions.  One in particular caught my fancy, a large red oak about 24″ in diameter, looking straight and true for its seven-foot length.  I decided to work it with “wedge and sledge” to both get my stamina up to speed but perhaps even yield enough material to make a pile of useful things.

Within ten minutes I knew all I had was a pretty spectacular pile of firewood, albeit unprocessed.  After I opened a nice split on the end grain and started working down the sides of the log the core of the log separated, essentially ruining it as a workpiece.

To make matters worse, the intertlaced grain inside the log caused it to start eating wedges.  It took me more time to extract the wedges than anything else.

Oh well, as the Gump of the Forest says, “Sometimes log is like a box of chocolates.”  And this one had something unpleasant inside.  At least I’ll get another thousand pounds of firewood from the experience.

A life of woodworking is a humbling one.

Openings For “Historic Finishing” Class

Due to some students’ family emergencies I’ve had a couple openings for the upcoming Historic Finishing workshop at the Barn.  If this interests you please contact me within the next week, as the class begins in ten days.  You can either leave me a note in the Comment section for this Post or directly at info at donsbarn dot com.  It seems as though our “Contct” link has a hiccup.

Always On The Lookout


While preparing for the upcoming “Historic Finishing” workshop at The Barn the last weekend of this month I was struck by my good fortune in acquiring an excellent inventory of vintage finishing rags.  This pile was particularly peculiar as it came from an antique shop twenty miles from town, out in the prairie of Nebraska.  The main emphasis for the establishment was rural and agricultural collectibles, but in my browsing I came across a large box of muslin feed sacks.  These had been carefully — almost lovingly — washed and folded, and were in astonishing condition.  No holes, no stains, and a wonderful nap of both sturdiness and suppleness.  In short, perfect for the finishing shop.

I bought the entire pile of these wondrous rags, I think for about 20 dollars. There were about 60 complete feed/seed bags in the box, which means a price of 33 cents apiece.  I’ve seen similar items going for up to $10 at shi-shi antique boutigues (seriously who “decorates” with feed sacks?).

Students in the upcoming workshop will get to give them a test drive as each will make several polishing pads, some for applying spirit varnish, some for abrasion polishing with pumice and tripoli.

So always be on the lookout.  You just never know when you might come across a box of treasure.

Nice Pic

In Eastern landscape design (as in “the Orient,” not New England) is the concept of creating spaces where the mere addition of snow creates sculpture.

We got to see that a couple weeks ago, as winter was fighting hard against the inevitable encroachment of Spring.


Desk Veneering – Writing Box


Veneering three sides of the writing box was so straightforward it almost does not deserve its own blog, except for that fourth side, the one with the drawer front.  On the two sides and back it was simply a matter of cutting the veneer and gluing them down.  I used cauls and clamps because the veneer was so thick I simply was not confident of my skills in hammering veneer of this thickness.

Once again the beauty of sawn veneer revealed itself as the thickness allowed for the surfaces to be planed once the application was complete.

The drawer front was actually a challenge and a lot of fun, as I wanted the veneer to present an uninterrupted grain pattern.  That meant I had to cut out the field of the drawer front from the border on the writing box itself.

Using a straightedge and one of my Japanese saws with curved teeth I carefully layed out the cuts and started making them.


Once that was done the veneer was glued to the drawer front and the surround, mirroring precisely the veneer from the opposite side.  The result was not unpleasing.

I added the beadwork drawer trim and set the writing desk aside while I went to work on the veneer “fancy work” on the legs.  That took several weeks and by the time I returned to the writing box and drawer to begin the finishing, catastrophe struck.

Stay tuned for that tale of woe.

A Twin-Screw Nicholson Bench Prototype

I’ve been invited by a group of woodworker’s in northwest Arkansas to teach a week-long workshop in traditional hand-tool woodworking this summer, and the starting point for the week’s exercises is the most important tool: the workbench.  Each participant will build themselves a 6-foot workbench that will not only be the work platform for the week but will serve them as a heritage tool for generations to come.  The sensible choice for the form of the workbench is the English Nicholson bench, given not only the time demands but the fact that I think so very highly of the form, its ease of construction, and superb performance.  I have made no secret of my preference for the Nicholson if I was a beginning woodworker and could make and have only one bench for the rest of my days.  It’s a moot point for me personally as I have lots of space and the means to build whatever (and how many) workbenches I want, but for either a beginner or someone with time and resource constraints, I think this is the path to follow.

If I recall correctly Mike Siemsen shows building a Nicholson with a panel saw, brace and two five-gallon buckets, but I had my circular saw and power drill as the primary tools and used my butterfly sawhorse as the construction platform.  I was able to build the basic bench before lunch time, and another half day tuning it up to full functionality.

You can follow along as I unfold the project step-by-step in the coming posts.


All Around Patching Material for the Shop

My love of reading and the knowledge and learning contained in books led me to adopt the moniker DonLibro when I first joined the Professional Refinishers Group lightly moderated forum (or “Groop”) many, many moons ago.  This served a utilitarian function as well, as there were a couple of other Dons in the Groop, so it helped the other Groopsters know who to get mad at for any particular comment.  As my eyesight fades and reading becomes comparatively less effortless, and especially when working in the shop, I have become an audio learner and am invariably listening to something on my vintage mp3 players.  Given the fairly dynamic posture of working physically I find myself going through at last a couple sets of earbuds a year, and even though I buy them at the Dollar General it irritates me when I get caught on something and damage them.  Such an occurrence recently led me to discover a new use of a standard shop product.

I was drilling some holes for holdfasts on a new workbench I was building for a friend, concentrating on keeping the auger bit and its drilling jig working in concert.  Bending over the setup, the wire for the earpiece got tangled with the bit and was yanked out of my ear and the rubber casing thrashed.  I stopped and extracted the earbud set and took them to the bench to give a look to see the damage.  The whole unit was a knotted mess, and you could see the bare copper of the wires feeding the micro speakers that comprise such a unit.  But surprisingly they still worked just fine.  I thought about wrapping the damaged area with electricians tape but the proportions made this a ridiculous proposition.  I went over to my adhesives and caulk shelf to see if there was anything there that might help.  Sure enough, just on the next higher shelf was the answer; rubber grip coating for tool handles from the hardware store.

Gently unwinding the knotted cable to the ear bud I then swabbed those few inches with some of the rubber liquid, and ten minutes later the earpiece went back to work and into my ear.

Another pet peeve of mine is gloves that wear out before their time, whether they are $4 thermal “disposable” gloves from Atlas I buy by the dozen or $30 “high end” work gloves from the hardware store.  I find the same liquid rubber restores and extends the life of these gloves, sometimes for another hundred hours of work, sometimes more or less.

I remain on the lookout for places I can use this material in the shop, and will report back when I find them.

“Hollywood Don” Update

I recently reviewed the initial undertaking of the video franchise, a 6-minute introduction to the whole enterprise.  Other than my face being on the screen too much, it seems just fine.   It’s 99% complete, needing only a fifteen second segment to be shot and inserted, which we will do perhaps as early as next week.

The first full-length spectacle, “Veneer Repair,” is in the can, and I am reviewing it for content and continuity right now.  I’ll blog about that soon.

I have decided that since this is our first full-length offering we will post it for free watching, with a “Donate” option for those viewers who found it useful, and a “Get a 100% refund” for those who did not.

Our second video, “Making A Gragg Chair” will begin filming as soon as we can get our calendars and the weather in sync.  We are expecting several episodes of possibly substantial snow over the coming days, and since there will be a fair bit of the filming “on location” (read: outdoors) while I harvest the oak stock, we are at the mercy of larger forces.

Stay tuned.

PS  my video collaborator Chris Swecker is absolutely first rate, and I am blessed by his return to the hinterboonies where he grew up.  I truly hope this can mature into producing the dozens of videos I have in mind.

Planing Stop For A Torsion Box Workbench

I’ve waxed ecstatic occasionally about my little workbench that has been my workshop companion for three decades, a trestle-based torsion-box bench with an Emmert K1 on one corner, an end vise on the other corner, and a 48″ twin-screw face vise on the back side.  I used the basic design to build a bench for my pal Tom, only a little bit bigger.

One hitch to this bench design is that the hollow top precludes a simple rising planing stop (or holdfasts) that can be easily incorporated into solid slab bench tops, and some time ago we independently figured out a couple of good responses to the planing stop dilemma.  My solution to the problem was to make a simple “L” bracket that could be placed in either the Emmert or the twin-screw to allow for planing flat surfaces.  Admittedly, since the workbench is only 48″ long the workpieces would not be to large anyway.  (I find this accessory works perfectly in my pseudo-Studley bench as well)  Anything larger would be done on my big Roubo or Nicholson or planing beam anyway.

Tom took a different route to his bench, in that he made rising stops that are affixed to both ends of his bench with screws-and-knobs running through slotted openings in the stop.  It works like a charm.

Writing Desk Veneer Prep

Both the writing box and the legs for the desk are fully veneered on their faces, and in a most prominent manner.  In keeping with the client’s request to make the complete piece from technology appropriate to the 18-teens I sawed and prepared all the veneers by hand.

For the writing box I used a superb piece of Cuban mahogany I had been saving for nearly 40 years.  I did  not know back then what I was saving it for, but I knew it would be something special.  The board was just the right length and width to allow me to wrap the entire box’s full sides and back en toto and continuously, I made the back and the drawer front match which turned out nicely.

Using a variety of saws, my pal Tom and I sliced off two full leaves of veneer, about a shy 1/8″ thickness.  We were not excessively experienced at the task and chose to err on the side of safely rather than efficiency.  The density of the mahogany made it a real workout, but the results were definitely worth it.  Sawn veneer is such a delight to work with; I have a sizable stash of sliced veneer and to tell you the truth I use it more in gluing up small pieces of plywood than anything else.  Well, that and making sample boards for students to use in finishing classes.

With the thick sawn veneer I can actually plane it by hand to prepare it for use.  I usually concentrated on the underside, that is the side that would be glued to the substrate, hitting it quickly with a succession of the scrub plane, a fore plane, and the toothing plane.

For the veneer on the legs, the central decorative fields were comprised of flame crotch mahogany.  I had purchased some big 3/4″ slabs of that but they had warped so severely that dealing with it was a challenge.  Even cutting them down considerably they were still a squirrely mess of end grain.  I wound up sawing these almost 1/4″ then planing them flat.  Now that was an exasperating adventure.

To work the pieces I made a special planing jig with thin stops on two edges,  I’d put the veneer on a piece of rubber matting, push it into the corner and set to work.

The scrub plane was too aggressive, so most of the work in flattening and thinning the stock was done with a vintage Stanley spoon bottom palm plane and some luthier’s planes, followed again by the toothing plane.


The results were pleasing albeit aggravating.