Back at Duncan’s

My two-month internship ended with Doug Adams and I’m now going back to Duncan MacMaster’s for one more month long internship. This will be my last internship while I am in school.

My first day back at Duncan’s was relaxing and short. It was just before Thanksgiving break so we spent the time catching up and discussing the upcoming projects. I told him all the things I had done and learned at Doug’s. Then Duncan showed me the projects he will be doing and the things I will get to help him with. One the biggest project I will be helping with is a console table made out of cherry for a local costumer who wants it before Christmas. Another project is a small Japanese style altar table for another local customer.

The first project Duncan gave me when I came in the next week was to work on the Japanese style alter table. Duncan had already started and mostly finished the little table. The top is a beautiful, old, odd shaped piece of wood the clients had found years ago. They wanted Duncan to make a Japanese alter table out of it for them. Duncan designed a square base to hold the beautiful piece of wood. He cut the top two inches or so off the base so an inner box could be attached allowing the top to slide on and off if needed.

The first step was to drill pilot holes in the top of the base where it would eventually be screwed onto the tabletop. I started by measuring and marking where the holes should go and set up a fence on the drill press so the piece would stay in place while drilling. Using a countersink drill bit I drilled the holes.

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Drilled pilot holes

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Inner box for alter table table base

Next I measured and cut the pieces for the inner box. Before gluing them up I double checked to make sure they all fit properly inside the top of the base. Then I glued the pieces together and one again made sure they fit properly into the base. After that I glued the inner box to the top of the base, clamped them, and set it aside to dry. The box that I glued inside the top of the base will slip into the bottom of the base and eventually be held on with wooden pegs.

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Inner box glued and clamped into Japanese alter table base

Meanwhile, Duncan had started the cherry console table. He had the top finished and the pieces for the legs, aprons, and drawer fronts cut. He had also partially cut the mortises in the legs using the table saw. This assured that the mortises would be perfectly straight and clean. But, due to the saw blade being round there was a little wood near the bottom of the mortise that didn’t get cut. My next assigned job was to finish the mortises and get them fully cleaned out. First I used the drill press to clean out as much as possible. This was fairly quick and easy because I only needed to make a few holes before I reached the point where the table saw had already cut. One I got to that point I could pop out the inner pieces of wood.

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Mortises cut on table saw and drilled on drill press

Next, Duncan handed me an assortment of Japanese chisels, each one allowing me to more easily work on different aspects of the mortise. I got the mortises cleaned out but detail work would need to be done once the tenons were finished and matched to the proper mortise to ensure as close to a perfect fit as possible.

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Mortises cleaned out with Japanese chisels

Duncan got the tenons cut to proper size on the table saw and handed them to me to cut a miter joint on the end of each. I made certain to cut them all the correct way.

Once the mortises were finished Duncan was able to taper the legs and fit the tenons on. Duncan had to hand plane a few areas on the legs to make the apron fit flush against them.

Next we sanded the legs. Duncan had me hand sand the top of the legs in such a way to keep the angle sharp where the legs taper off; if a pad sander were used on that area that angle would have rounded.

The next step I helped Duncan with was gluing the mortise and tenons together. Duncan had cut grooves out of a lip on then underside of the tabletop where the legs would fit. With the tabletop flipped upside down Duncan put all the pieces in their place and we did a dry fit making sure everything fit perfectly.

I still find glue ups to be stressful. First of all when you put the glue on you have to go as fast as possible. I am still very slow at this part for some reason. I had glued only a few surfaces on two mortises in the same time it took Duncan to glue all the tenons and the other two mortises. And secondly, although we had everything fitting perfectly for the dry run once the glue was on and the clock was ticking the pieces suddenly didn’t want to fit together. One of the legs wouldn’t go on all the way so Duncan whacked it several times with a hammer. This produced one of the loudest sounds I had heard up close; my ears were ringing. This wasn’t working so Duncan grabbed a large clamp and cranked it until the leg finally popped into place. Then we took smaller clamps and quickly popped all the joints together putting clamps on and taking them off and readjusting them until all the pieces finally popped together. Once everything fit we took all the clamps off and reclamped it in such a way to pull the mortise joints in tight onto the tenons.

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Table base glued up and clamped

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The “boxes” I made to go in-between the drawers

Once the joints had dried we unclamped it and I moved onto my next task; I was to make boxes that would fill in the space around the drawers. Duncan had already cut the long pieces so I measured and marked the short pieces that were still needed and cut them to size. I did this slowly cutting a little off at a time to make sure all the pieces came out the same size. Then I measured and marked where the screws should go on the correct boards then I drilled the pilot holes. Next I glued and clamped the pieces making sure to make them flush with each other. Then using the same pilot holes I had already drilled into some of the boards I now used them to drill into the other boards they are now attached to. Then I screwed the pieces together and unclamped them. Then I checked that they fit properly on the underside of the table.

It’s been a really good first week back. It’s been interesting and fascinating to see the way Duncan designs and builds furniture. He thinks about all the aspects of the function of the piece of furniture and incorporates supports where needed. He makes furniture to last and he puts his very best into it.

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What I Bring to the Table – Part 3 – Don’t Give Me Any Lip

My tabletop is all glued up and my mortises are almost done. Next it was time to make the tenons on the aprons that would go all the way around the table under the top. The tenoned aprons add extra strength and support to the table making it more rigid and sturdy. I had already squared and cut the boards, and the dimensions for the tenons had been pre defined in order to mark the mortises.

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Using tenoning jig to make tenons on my table aprons

I used the table saw with a tenoning jig (the same device I used to make the slip feather joints for the wooden trays). Doug helped me set the blade to the right height and the fence to the right distance from the blade. I clamped the boards in one at a time and ran each side of each end through the saw slowly.

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Little flappy pieces on each side of the tenon

This left little flappy pieces on each side of the tenon. To cut those off I set the blade just below the tenon and used a miter gauge to push the board through (I was cross cutting the wood with the width of the board greater than the length making this a dangerous maneuver without using the miter gauge to hold the board in place).

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Using a miter gauge to cut flaps off tenon

We made one tenon then used it to test the miters to make sure they would fit. All but one fit. One would need to be made bigger due to the mortise being a bit on the wide side.

Also using the miter gauge I cut little indents into each side of the tenons and then used the band saw to cut from the end to the indents making the tenons smaller all around than the apron.

Once all the tenons were made it was time to clean out the mortises all the way. I decided which tenons would go in what mortises then marked them with letters to keep track of them. One at a time I chiseled out the excess wood on the inside of the mortises checking often how the matching tenon fit.

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Cutting miter joints on the ends of my tenons

Doug had me make the tenons such that they would come together in a miter joint inside the mortise. This would give an extra gluing surface making the whole joint stronger. The tenons were longer than the depth of the mortises so once I had them all fitting so the tenon would hit the bottom of the mortise it was time to cut the miters. I did this one small cut at a time. I starting long then cut the miters down slowly checking them in the mortise each time until the shoulder of the apron fit flush against the leg.

One of my mortis joints was a little tight and after testing the tenon I tried to pull them apart. I rocked them back and forth and pulled and pulled but they wouldn’t budge. So with all of my weight over the mortise I held it down with one hand and with the other hand I pulled on the tenon with all my strength. Then WHAM, the tenon yanked free and slammed right into my face. For a split second I witnessed my body’s automatic fight or flight response take hold. Adrenaline kicked in and my muscles tensed; I was ready to attack whatever hurt me. Finally I came to my senses and realized my pain was self inflicted and there was no external threat. I was then able to calm down and asses the damage… my lip was swollen and sore, it had been cut on the inside as well as bleeding from a gash above my upper lip. I checked my teeth; they were still there and intact. Doug had gone inside his house a little while ago so I grabbed a tissue and headed in to tell him. His wife got me some ice and some gel to put on it. I left a little early that day to go home and nurse my wound. I was just really grateful that I had hit myself in the face with a piece of wood instead of misplacing my hand near a saw. The damage was minimal and would heal. This was just a lesson on how it is so important to pay attention to what you’re doing, where you’re body is, what the dangers are, and how to make it safe.

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My swollen and split lip

Though my lip was still sore and swollen I went to the shop the next day and finished my mortise and tenons. And when they were all done I got to have a fulfilling moment when doing a dry fit of my table base. Doug helped me do this to make sure everything went together tightly with no gaps and aligned properly. I got to step back and look at the product of all my hard work so far. I still have a lot more to do but my table was taking form; it was becoming real and tangible.

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Using a ruler and a clamp to make an arch in my aprons

I wanted to give the bottoms of my aprons and arch, so after making sure everything went together well Doug showed me a brilliant, easy way to make a perfect arch. He took a long ruler and put it in a clamp set to a shorter length than the ruler. This made a perfect, even arch which I was able to trace onto each apron. Then I took the aprons over to the band saw the cut as accurately as possible without touching the line I drew. Then I used the orbital sander to smooth the arches out and sand all the surfaces of the legs and the aprons.

Finally everything for the base was finished and ready to glue up. I did one last dry fit which I struggled with a bit on my own. To me everything seemed to fit well so I got Doug to help me glue it all up. This was stressful! I guess it didn’t fit as well as I thought because every joint we put together Doug commented on how it wasn’t fitting well. Then we checked that everything was square and measured the distance between the legs. The distance between the top of the legs and the bottom was off, so for some we clamped them closer and for others we stuck pieces of wood in between to push them apart. When we were finished Doug said, “That was not an easy glue up. It wasn’t the hardest I’ve done but it wasn’t easy.” Next time I will make sure to check my dry fit better so I can fix any problems before putting on the glue when there is no longer time to fix anything.

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My table base all glued up and clamped

There it was, my base all glued up. What an accomplishment! It wasn’t perfect and my table wasn’t finished but I am now so much closer. I had setbacks, frustrations, and an injury but I worked through them and will continue to do so. I now have only one more week left, let’s see if I can finish everything.

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!