Writing Desk – Final Pieces of the Puzzle

With the light shining at the end of the tunnel, in hopes that it was not an oncoming train there were but a few more elements to fashion and fit and the desk construction would be complete.  Sort of.  In fact the final assembly did not take place until after the individual pieces were finished, but more about that later.  This final construction phase would perhaps be better named the final fitting phase.  This included the two top sections, one the writing surface and the other the horizontal back piece all cut from the same mahogany slab, and a little extra enhancement.  The back (horizontal) piece of the top was thinner than the writing surface by 1/4″ in keeping with the original.

The “construction” of the top pieces was ordinary to the point of mundane.  They only had to be cut to the right size for the places, planed and scraped with a rounded edge planed onto them, then fitted together in a butt joint.

Before the top was glued onto the sides with glue blocks it was the proper time to make the drawer stop.  I used a preposterously simple technique I have seen in many small-ish pieces of early 19th Century styled furniture like this replica.  A simple flat head wood screw served the purpose perfectly, with the additional benefit that as the dimensions of the case or drawer changed over time to to moisture cycles and any resultant compression set, the depth stop could be easily adjusted infinitely.

On final little whimsy was to add a hidden “whisky shelf” immediately above the drawer.  Since the top was slanted and fixed there was a fairly spacious void above the drawer, and it was not uncommon for a small shelf to be included inside to that a flask of libations could be kept there.  I made a “U” shaped shelf that could be accessed when the drawer was pulled part-way out, then tacked the shelf on to the fixed drawer guide rails with a spot of hot animal hide glue.

And now it was on to the finishing.

MJD Toolapalooza – Preview

Recently Mrs. Barn and I headed to central New York for the annual overdose of antique tools at Martin Donnelly’s compound in Avoca.  It is a phenomenal experience that I can commend heartily to anyone interested in pawing through nearly 100,000 tools, all for sale.  The really great thing about this auction is it is the “cleaning out the warehouse” sale of items left over from MJD’s other auction the preceding year.  The earlier auctions have a much higher portion of “collectible” tools, this one is mostly “user” tools with little collectible value.  Not all, but mostly.

Previewing the auction lots is a nearly impossible task unless you take the full week beforehand; we arrived there the morning of the auction that was beginning at 2PM.  I was able to get about five hours of looking prior to the opening gavel.

I began with the first 600 lots, which were the opening day’s salvo.  Most of these are located in the first of the dozen or so tents on the grounds (there is logic to this arrangement, and the 2nd evening barbecue is in this space so it gets cleaned out first.  Most of the box lots for the sale include groupings of tools, sometimes up to a couple hundred small tools.  It is a fairly rare lot that inlcudes only one tool, I would estimate that at about 5%.

In the first-day tent I found a few things that interested me, including this solid ebony smoothing plane.  It was part of a small lot with several ebony navigating tools included.

More common were lots like these which included anywhere from a couple dozen items to a couple hundred.

About 1-in-25 lots is oversized and thus in one of the several tents full of bins or palates.   After browsing through the box lots in tent #1 for a couple hours I wandered through these tents and found some real treasures to be sold later, especially on Day #2.  One palate of heavy iron included THE tool I went to bid on, an Emmert Universal Metalworking Vise.  I’d been on the hunt for one of these behemoths for many years, always losing out when the bidding entered the stratosphere.  Maybe this was the year.

There was stuff everywhere, including the largest selection of foot-powered machinery I had ever seen in one place.  There must have been about 50 of these machines, including the pedal-powered shaper my pal MikeM is trying out.

There was even an avenue of tool chests out along the driveway.

Another tent for oversized lots included this pile of several hundred pounds of Brazilian rosewood, cocobolo, Gaboon ebony, and even more.  It came from an old closed yacht manufacturer in Long Island.

Still more giant tents stuffed to the gills with tools, baskets, boxes, you name it.  This included a fair number of boxes I was interested, at the right price of course.

And this does not include the two-dozen small tents and tailgates of tool swapping out near one of the parking areas.  I have learned to have a lot of fun with the wheeling and dealing here and can often learn a lot of tool lore with the dealers.

This fellow had two older Panavises that my pal JohnH and I were interested in.  His wallet was the size of a hoagie roll.  One friend of mine who was selling here confessed that she used to make fun of old guys with big wads of cash in their pockets, the had to confess further that she had become one of them.

Soon the time raced to the point where folks filled the bidding tent, and the contest was ready to begin.  Martin Donnelly greeted the crowd then turned the show over to the auctioneers, whose goal is to gavel four or five lots per minute until all 3000+ are gone.  You snooze, you lose.

Black Swan Update – 3 is 2…

With all the disruption of two robust independent electricity producing systems going belly-up at the same time I decided to add another producer into the mix, is essence to modify the “two is one and one is none” rubric for logistical planners into “three is two, two is one, and one is none.”  In the absence of the hydro and solar electron hamsters I relied on my gas powered generators and a bunch of extension cords.

I decided to contact the local electrician to see if he could wire the generator into the service panel of the barn, and he suggested instead wiring it into the power system at the bottom of the hill, alongside the electrons provided by the hydro and solar units.  I got a quote, smacked my forehead and said, “Of course!”, and authorized the work.  Plus, since there was already a buried cable from the powerhouse to the cabin, could he perhaps also wire that into the system?  Sure, he sez.

The day came when he and his son, also an electrician, arrived to do the work.  The first step was to clear the work area, which translates into “ripping off the raggedy shelter over the electronics closet.”  I’d been wanting to do this anyhow in order to build a more proper enclosure for all these components so this was the time.

In no time flat they were abuzz with work, installing a new sub-service panel to provide for vastly improved current distribution.

After a bit of time they separated so one was completing the sub-service box to serve as a new router for the electricity and the other was making the modifications to the service panel inside the cabin, alowing it to be powered by the same auxiliary system.

By lunchtime they were finished and I test drove the system in all its iterations available at the time: inverter/battery bank power to the house or barn, gas generator power to the house or barn.


I spent a couple days making more proper housings for the system electronics and the generator and this chapter was complete.

Workbench Wednesday — Bench #2 , 1990, “Final” Version

Building on what I learned from the initial prototype of the portable restoration workbench I charged ahead with a “final” version.  I say “final” in quotes because this concept is one I have continued to tinker with even to this day, and a late entry in this series four or five months from now will focus on the most recent one.

For this first final version I used the same structural strategy for the top, modifying the stock weight being the only real modification.  On this second iteration I used 3/8″ A/C plywood for both the faces and ribs of the torsion box top rather than 1/4″ and 3/4″ luan for the same purpose on the prototype. Making the box approximately 3″ thick and placing the ribs in a 6″ x 6″ grid achieved a satisfactory result with essentially no change in weight while yielding a stout structure. In fact, I could do some pretty serious joinery and carving on the bench, which I couldn’t do with the prototype.


I wanted a large-capacity vise on my bench, but there was no point in defeating my original purpose by building a lightweight bench and then installing a heavy vise on it. The vise(s) I built opens about 12″ and employs aluminum threadstock for the screws, tapped holes in the endpiece of the top, and 2″ x 3″ x 24″ wood jaws. The screws pass through same-sized holes in the movable jaw, and terminate in simple wooden handles passing through holes drilled in the ends.

One pretty dramatic change in this function was to switch from standard steel threadstock to 1-inch aluminum rod stock that I had cut at a local machine shop (I already had the aluminum rod stock in my scrap barrel).  It’s been a long time since this project but I recall paying $25 for the job.   All it took was to set up the pieces in the lathe and cut the threads with a single pass, along with a single groove above the threads for some retaining collars.  I’m guessing it took ten minutes maximum, so $25 for a quarter hour of machine shop time sounds about right.  It might have been $25 for each pair of screws, but either way it seemed pretty reasonable.

My procedure for incorporating the vise into the bench top involved drilling oversized holes in the internal grid but not the added fixed jaw, so I couldn’t assemble the box all at once. I cut my grid pieces and glued them to one face of the torsion box using 315 gram hot hide glue, which was the adhesive employed throughout the project. After laying out for the vise screws, I drilled holes through the fixed jaw (the torsion box end pieces) to tap-out and received the threaded screws. I was unsure whether holes the same size as the aluminum rod stock used for the vise screws would be large enough to allow the screws to go through the grid members, given the inevitable wobble in the screws. To be on the safe side, I drilled larger holes through the grid to a slightly longer distance the desired vise opening dimension. The vise screws would then pass through these openings as the vise was closed. After I was sure the vise was fully operational, I glued the second face on the grid and the top was complete.

By fabricating simple leg end units with long folding diagonal braces, the problem of too much shimmying parallel to the long axis was overcome on the final bench. The leg units were fabricated from the clearest 2x construction lumber I could find, and the folding braces from 1/4″ x 1″ aluminum bar stock with 1″ x 1″ aluminum angle stock for the mounting brackets. The slightly heavier face plywood made it easy to screw all these elements to the underside.

The leg units were not installed symmetrical relative to the short axis, but rather were off-set by half the leg width so they could fold up next to each other rather than on top of each other. This way, the table could become a remarkably compact unit which needed absolutely no assembly or disassembly; it could just be folded up. Following final assembly I added a snap-on strap for carrying the bench like a large suitcase. By throwing the strap over my shoulder, I could easily carry the bench for long periods of time and maneuver it through pretty tight quarters.

Next week, some accessories.


Black Swan Update – Hydro

This is a rare blog without pictures as there is literally nothing to show.  It’s almost like Claude Rains telling you to move along because there is nothing to see.  But it is not without exciting information (to me, at least).

The return of the hydro turbine core last week was a time of great celebration.  I am delighted that I decided to return that unit to the manufacturer for the replacement of the rotor bearings; I did not want to be learning-on-the-job by trying something I had not really done before – replacing the bearings on an expensive, high-stress high-precision delicately balanced machine.  I know that come a zombie apocalypse I will have to do it myself or find someone locally who can, so I purchase two extra pairs of the sealed bearings necessary for the task.  Given existing performance projections that gives me another 25-30 years of functionality to the unit.

Reassembling the turbine unit took almost no time, 10-15 minutes or so.  Reinstalling it into the system took about the same amount of time.  Tracking down the location of the breached water line from unrelated storm damage that had occurred since I dismantled the turbine took the longest.  A tree branch had fallen and cracked the penstock (the 2″ PVC pipe from the water capture to the turbine) disrupting the water flow to the turbine, and once the damage was found the repair took only a few minutes.  I keep a good inventory of repair parts on hand since my water line is above ground, snaking through the forest for almost 1200 feet.  I would love to have the water line buried but with our climate, topography and geology it would require digging a three-foot-deep trench a quarter mile in rocky sub-soil.  Until I inherit a new family tree with gobs of money I will make do with the status quo.

Once the system was all together and running I knew instantly that something was dramatically different.  For starters, the turbine unit was so quiet I turned it over just to make sure it was running!  For the previous nine years ever since the system was installed, when the turbine was operating under full load it produced a whine that was distracting for quite a long distance.  Since it was that way from Day One I had no idea it was not supposed to be so.  But now?  Eerily quiet, just barely audible even at the stillness of dusk.  Although I know what to listen for I still have to strain a bit from the front porch to hear it working.

A second observation was that the output of the unit had increased a fair bit.  I have not yet installed the new digital metering unit for that part of the system, but I can tell the difference in the integral monitor which is nothing more than a blinking light indicating the input current to the charge controller.  All I can say is that it was blinking about twice as fast as I had come to expect for that particular water flow.

I wrote back to the fellow who replaced the bearings with these observations, and asked him if he noticed anything during his work (he succeeded the previous owner of the company since I purchased my unit a decade ago).  He confirmed that he noticed one of the bearings was not seated properly  and he took special care in aligning everything correctly.   It appears that the misalignment caused both a whine in the turbine in operation and also some substantial drag on the turbine rotor shaft.  Hence the “new” turbine is both quieter and more efficient in operation.

Who knows?  Maybe the properly aligned bearings will last 20 years instead of 8-10.

Needless to say I am thrilled with this outcome, and await the developments in the solar panel controller malfunction situation.

Writing Desk – Roundels and Straight Moldings

Though a minor piece of real estate on the desk, the roundels were certainly visually prominent.  Thanks to my four-jaw chuck on the lathe making them was a breeze.

My first step was to make a cylinder from some of the mahogany then turn the roundel profile on the end of the cylinder.  Once the profile was satisfactory I scored the lip of the roundel with a turning chisel then sawed off the circular wafer right on the lathe.

I repeated the process until I had excess roundels, then glued them in place.

In addition to the roundels there were bits of applied moldings to the field and bottom perimeter of the writing box and along the edges of the shelf.  After spending numerous hours making the curved moldings on the legs these seemed like a holiday.

I simply cut the moldings on the edges of a board then ripped them off for application to the surface of the box.

The half-round string moldings in the field of the writing box allowed me to use a set of pinch clamps I’d made years before.  These were featured in a Popular Woodworking article some time ago.

The only construction left to accomplish was to complete the top of the desk, then it would be on to the best part — finishing!

Ripple Soiree #2

Sometimes you get lemon peels, sometimes you get lemon meringue pie.

Thanks to a clearing on the calendar we’ll be convening the second Ripple Molding Soiree and Camp Out at The Barn the week of September 3.  As before the agenda will be to explore the theoretical and practical aspects of making ripple moldings and their machines.

I think all of last year’s participants are coming, including at least one newly completed ripple molding machine in tow.  For this year I know one of the participants is feverishly interested in making a bench top molding cutter to produce diminutive moldings and I am going to work on my prototype from last year and another Felibien-esque c.1675 model vaguely similar to the one we resurrected last year.

As before there will be no tuition fee, this is a mutual learning experience rather than a teaching/classroom event.  We’ll share whatever material costs are incurred and pay for our own meals (normally for a workshop I provide or pay for the mid-day meal).  If you are interested in participating feel free to drop me a line.

PS if this goes well my pal JohnH and I are hoping to teach a “Make A Ripple Molding Machine” workshop some time in 2019 and also make an instructional video on the same topic.

Dovetail Saw Rebuild


The rehabilitation of my first “brand name” dovetail saw began with dismantling all the components and re-thinking the proportional issues that rendered it an ill-fitted tool for me.  As I said before, the cutting edge (teeth) of the saw was about the only thing I liked about it, so that would be left alone but everything else was on the table.  Removing the handle was of course no more complicated than removing the saw nuts holding it on.  (I’d already mucked around with the handle before I took this picture.  Also, note the shallow bedding of the saw plate in the brass back).

Separating the back and the plate was not much more involved.  I set my Emmert vise to the horizontal position and tightened the saw plate in it.  With a mallet and a stick I gently drove the back off the plate.

I addressed the easiest part first, the handle.  I’ve been working wood for five decades but have not yet figure how to make holes smaller.  Given that limitation I was stymied in making the handle and its way oversized hand-opening the right size for my hand, but at least I could make it more comfortable.  I accomplished that by transforming it from a closed tote to an open tote, albeit a pretty ugly one.  This did allow for and encourage a more comfortable grip on it and is an immense improvement.  Still, I will make a whole new handle once I get a little ahead on the multitude of other projects occupying my days.

Next came the re-dimensioning of the saw plate which was just wa-a-ay to tall for my taste.  Previously the distance from the teeth to the top of the spine was almost 3-1/2 inches, a pretty excessive proportion for an 8-inch saw.  Some of this was due to how the plate was bedded in the back and some on the depth of the plate.  The plate was a very hard piece of tool steel, probably cold-rolled sheet that was effectively forged and thus too hard to saw through.  It was also too hard for my little sheet metal shear to cut through so I had to use a different approach.


Instead I scored the plate with a scribe along the line I wanted to cut.  I then used an engraving burin and took several passes along the scribed line to create a furrow, weakening the plate to the point where I could break off the excess.  It worked like a charm.

I finished this slightly jagged edge with a diamond stone and it was ready to go back in action.

My final major modification was to narrow the brass spine.  The saw was originally fitted with a bent back made from 1/8″ brass with a 1-1/8″ depth making it a stout, really heavy component.  On a saw this small it threw the balance way off, another feature I did not like.  I did not necessarily mind the depth of the back but it was just too massive as it was.  Using a hacksaw I ripped a proud quarter inch from its depth, then finished the edge with a file resulting in a brass spine that is almost 1/3 lighter and narrower than it was before.

One final modification was to re-set the plate fully bedded into the bent back, as opposed to the original bedding that was only about 1/4″ at the tip of the back.  The result of this combined with the cutting-down of the plate resulted in an 8-inch saw that was only about 2-1/4″ in overall depth versus the original 3-1/2″.  This improvement alone was worth the effort as it makes the saw feel like more of an extension of my hand rather than some barnacle stuck there.

With all the old pieces made new, the reassembled saw more closely resembles a tool I might use regularly.  The relatively heavy set for the teeth, at least when compared to my no-set tapered saw plate model, feels a little “wallow-y” in the kerf but performs well.  I can definitely see this old/new saw becoming part of my regular repertoire of options.

Workbench Wednesday — Bench #2 , 1990, Prototype(s)

Because of the rigidity and (light)weight requirements for the portable restoration workbench, the obvious choice for the top was a torsion box, the construction of which was virtually identical to those described in the woodworking literature. My first attempt used 1/4″ faces and 1/2″ ribs of luan plywood. The weight and rigidity were good, but the working surface of luan was a little too fragile.  Nevertheless it was a confirmational “proof of concept” exercise.

My first step was to make a simple torsion box as a test run.  It was near-perfect as the top and working surface.  I faced this prototype with cork on one side and plastic laminate on the other, and it remains in use in the shop to this day almost thirty years after being made.

Concept One – check.

My first inclination was to make a trestle base for the bench, but considering my master scheme this idea had some significant drawbacks. While easy to build and assemble, the knock-down/assemble/disassemble trestle requires multiple parts, and one of my stated intentions was to not build anything that required keeping track of lots of pieces. Instead, on my first attempt I tried using a pair of commercially available tubular-steel folding-table legs. These worked fine along the short axis of the bench but weren’t stiff enough along the long axis because of short diagonal braces.  Though a good concept, this shortcoming and the unnecessary weight of the steel legs made it a non-starter as a final option.  Even with those hefty legs the unit weighed in at only 55 pounds, well within the limit I wanted.

Concept Two – check.

As for the vises I simply used pieces of 2x stock cut to match the dimensions of the ends of the top combined with 3/8″ steel threadstock from the hardware store and some wood handles epoxied onto the ends.  Again the concept was successful but the fine-ness of the thread made the vises tedious to use.

Concept Three – check.

Finally I threw on a piece of upholstery webbing to serve as a shoulder strap so the folded bench could be carried and maneuvered easily.  That concept was an absolute winner.  Throwing the strap over my shoulder it was a breeze to navigate the twisting rabbit trail to a work site.

As a final test run I took the prototype to a job and it worked out just fine within the confines of the limitations enumerated above.  With what I learned from this it was time to move forward with a final iteration.

Check, check, check, and check.

By the way, this bench is still in use but as a food preparation station for the barbecue.

Make A Chair From A Tree

Like a multitude of fellow craftsmen my interest in traditional woodworking was fostered by the book Make A Chair from a Tree by John D. Alexander, Jr.  I probably bought it shortly after it as written, then a few years later I also purchased the excellent companion video.  I cannot recall now if that video included some delightful bantering with saw maven Tom Law, or if it was Tom’s video on saw sharpening that featured bantering with John Alexander.  Either way it was an engaging and delightful foray into learning.  (Actually one of my great curiosities is why the producers never made any more videos; their video with Tod Herrli is simply one of the best instructional videos I have ever seen on any topic.)

I never really became chair maker, my Gragg chair adventures notwithstanding, but the approach of thinking through then executing a project resonated with me.  Mr. Alexander’s blend of historical understanding, winsome wit and practical craft applications served him well as an evangelist for the cause.

The chronicle of his entire journey is recounted here by the inestimable Kara.

I read recently of his death not too terribly far short of 90 years, and reflected on the transforming power of solid scholarship blended with infectious enthusiasm.  Our paths never crossed in person, but I offer my condolences to those who knew and loved him.