From Start to Finish – Part 1

Doug had gotten a request from a previous customer to make some wooden trays. She had purchased some from him a while back and loved them so much she wanted a few more. Doug decided this would be a great start to finish project for me that I would be in charge of and work on by myself. In doing so I would get to make a few extra for myself to keep or give away as gifts. Doug would also have me make extra that he would be selling. We decided on 12 trays in total. The trays will have poplar edges and a plywood panel bottom.

We figured out the dimensions of the trays based on what the customer requested. Then we went on a hunt through Doug’s shop for the materials. Doug liked poplar wood for the trays so we sorted through his large stash. Doug would take out his measuring tape and rapidly spout out numbers easily breaking down the sizes in his head and figuring out how many tray sides we could get out of one board. It was far too fast for me to follow along. He had to stop and break it down slowly for me. I got it just not as fast as he does; he has had many years of practicing. He then went on to explain how important it is to learn how to figure out what you want, what available material you have, and how to make it work.

Once we had all the dimensions figured out and the poplar ready Doug had me set up the table saw and cut all the edges. When setting up the table saw you need to set the width (which is measured from the outside of the blade to the fence) and the blade height to make sure the blade isn’t set too high (which can be dangerous) or too low. The table saw is a serious tool and needs to be respected and used safely. Doug is very adamant about safety and I really appreciate it. If the space between the blade and fence is less than 6” a push stick is to be used. When I am running a board through the table saw I am to be focusing on where my hands are and where they are putting pressure in case they slip; where are they going to go? I also need to focus on the board, make sure it is flush against the fence and flat on the table otherwise I won’t get a straight cut. It takes a bit to get used to and sometimes it was a bit tricky because some of the boards weren’t straight so I couldn’t get them flush against the fence. I did my best though. It also took a bit to get used to where to place my hands and fingers to get the right pressure to keep the board in line, I got little nicks and shallow cuts on my fingers from the sharp corners of the boards rubbing against them.

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Poplar boards cut on table saw for trays

After all the boards were cut to the right width it was time to sand them all smooth. It was so much sanding! It took me an entire morning plus half of an afternoon to sand all the boards. My shoulders and neck were cramping and I had to take several breaks to get feeling back into my arms that would go numb from the vibration of the orbital sander. This was not my favorite part of the process.

Eventually I finished sanding and got to move on to making dado grooves that the plywood panel will fit into. I used the table saw again for this. I am getting tons of good practice and added a few more small cuts on my fingers as well as a nice blister on my pointer finger. To make the dado I made three passes over the normal blade moving the fence just slightly over each time until the desired width of the dado was reached and the 1/4 “ plywood fit nicely.

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Dado grooves

The next step was to round the edges with a router. Doug liked the idea of having all four edges rounded. He showed me how to set up and use the router and jig. He clamped a board down that was centered on the router that would act as a fence to keep my work straight and even and provide some safety. He had me use a push stick for this as well to be extra cautious.

I started out thinking this is pretty easy but soon found it to be strenuous. My body has a way to go before it adapts to the specific ways I need to use it. My hands started cramping badly, like a charley horse, especially the big muscle under my thumb. I needed to put quite a bit of pressure on the board to keep it against the fence so my edge would turn out nice. I must have tried half a dozen different ways of holding my hands, and none of them were comfortable for very long; they all made my hand sore. I suffered through it, kept going, and finished!

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Routered edges

The next morning I hand sanded every board to get any marks the router made. At first this task wasn’t so bad but after a while I was tensing up. I finally discovered that if I relaxed my muscles while I did this it was a lot less strenuous. This meant playing around with different ways of holding the board and sandpaper. I find that with everything I do in woodworking I need to have a firm grip on things yet keep as many muscles relaxed as possible. I also need to make sure I am in a comfortable position otherwise things get uncomfortable real fast. After mentioning to Doug that I was sore from tensing my muscles he said, “Welcome to woodworking!” By this he meant woodworking is a physical job and it takes the body a while to get used to it. I know as I continue I will find comfortable ways to hold tools and position my body, and the specific muscles used for these tasks will get stronger and have more endurance.

That afternoon Doug had me sort the boards into groups of four that would make up the four sides of the tray. He said this was where the design element came in. I got to go through all the boards and pick which ones went together best. I spent a long time deciding which pieces to put together. After a while Doug came over and told me I was probably over thinking it. I probably was but I enjoyed it.

Once I had them grouped together to my satisfaction I started cutting the miter joints on the chop saw. Doug had me make a miter cut on one side of every board first then go back and make the cut on the other side. He showed me how to set up a stopper by clamping a board down a certain distance away from the chop saw that I can push one end of the board against. This makes sure all the boards are cut to the same length. It’s a bit of a process to set it up and it takes a little time but if a lot of boards all need to be cut to the same length this can be very time saving and accurate.

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Using a stopper to cut miter joints

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Miter cuts

On Friday I finished the miter cuts and chose which sets of four I liked the most for my own boxes. Doug chose which ones would be made for the client. The left over ones would be for Doug to sell.  We also decided on what types of handles the boxes would get. Some of them will have routered handles, some of them will have cherry wood handles, and some will have no handles.

I am really enjoying having a start to finish project to work on. The first week I was just plugged into whatever Doug was working on. It was fun in it’s own way but I think having a project to work on is best for learning. I still need to design a small table that I will build for myself; I’m really excited for that!

I didn’t get to finish the trays last week so stay tuned for part 2!

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