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.

What I Bring to the Table – Part 2 – One by One

Now things start to get exciting with my table. It is time to make the mortise and tenons.

The first step was to mark out my mortises. I had to stay home one afternoon so Doug sent this home with me for homework. This time I was smart enough to bring measuring instruments home with me so I didn’t have the same problem as last time. He showed me how to do the first one and walked me through the measurements and how to accurately mark my mortise as he drew on one of the legs. When he was finished he erased all he had drawn so I could start fresh.

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Marking my mortises

When I got home I struggled for a moment with my brain to remember the dimensions Doug had so clearly laid out.  Slowly it came back. I started by picking out the worst looking ends (the ends with the most chip out) to be the top, and of those, the two worst sides of each board to be where my mortises would go; that way the most awful looking parts of the legs wouldn’t be seen.  The first one took the longest but once I had my first one marked out the others went quickly.  When I brought them in the next day, Doug said they weren’t perfect but they were good enough.

Next I drew a line down the center of my marked mortises that I would use as a guide to drill out as much as I could. Doug set up the drill press and warned me that the bit he put on wasn’t the best and may not work. He was right. The bit would clog right away and drilling would have taken forever so he put on a new bit. This one wasn’t ideal but at least it would work, however, it was pretty sloppy. No matter how hard I held the board down it would move and and the drill would migrate outside my mortise lines. I felt better that it happened for Doug too. I wasn’t able to drill out as much as I would have liked and that meant I would have to chisel out more by hand later.

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Drilling my mortises

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Chiseling my mortises

Once the drilling was finished it was time to hand chisel out the rest. This was tiring work. I remember making the mortises for the chest I made at Duncan’s and the pine was so easy to cut through, maple is so hard! I used a wooden mallet, mortising chisels made out of really hard steel for the heavy-duty stuff and Japanese chisels for smaller less hardcore work. I whacked and I whacked and I scraped and I scraped and one by one I got my mortises to an approximate finished stage; I would do the finishing touches on them once I had the tenons made.

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Mostly finished mortises

I inspected my work then turned to Doug and said, “I feel like this is the ugliest thing I have ever made.” To which he responded, “Welcome to working with maple.” We then had a discussion on how I felt I was doing and why. I haven’t really done this before so I didn’t really know what I was doing and every time I dug my chisel in I just hoped for the best. Doug kept reassuring me that they were fine mortises but because of that lack of experience and not knowing what I was doing I felt like it was just luck. It’s true that they didn’t look that great and a major reason why is because maple is hard to work with, the grain was convoluted, and the drilling didn’t go that well. But like I said, my mortises turned out all right. I wasn’t really putting myself down; I knew I was a beginner and that the more I do the more comfortable, confident, and knowledgeable I will become. If I keep going I won’t be able to pin it on luck, I’ll have experience and understanding to back me up.

I set my mortise joints aside and went to work on the table top for a break. My first task was to figure out which board I wanted where. This board here, that board there, flip them over, rearrange them, put them back. I tried every possible combination a couple of times before deciding on one of my earliest combinations – it always seems to work like that. Then I marked the boards so I could easily line them up later when gluing or if they got moved around.

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Ready to glue up the table top

Then it was time to do a dry fit to make sure everything would fit tight and flush. I lined my boards up and clamped them tight together. Good thing for the dry run, a couple of the edges weren’t completely flat and I had to run them through the jointer. Then I did another dry fit, this time they were perfect. Doug had something he needed to get done so he said if I was feeling brave I could attempt to do the glue up alone. I accepted the challenge and gathered the needed supplies. I had the clamps set up, the boards positioned, and the glue in hand, I was ready. On your marks, get set, GO! As fast as I could I squeezed and slathered glue on each edge, laid the boards flat, and matched them up. Then I put the final clamp on top and cranked them tight. The glue was slippery and the boards kept moving out of place. I would move them back into place and crank the clamps a little tighter only to have them move again. I just kept realigning them and cranking a little tighter until they were finally together. I used far more glue than I needed and it oozed and dripped from the joints. I grabbed a piece of paper and attempted to scrape all the excess off. Pretty soon I was covered in glue too. After I wiped my hands clean Doug came over to look at how I did. He congratulated me saying it was no easy feat to do glue up job alone.

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Tabletop glued and clamped

Slowly and steadily I’m working my way towards a complete table, though I still have quite a ways to go. My days are also split between working on my table and helping Doug. All in all things are going well and I’m excited!

A Box Full of Love – Part 3 – Making the Lid

For my box lid Duncan had me make a frame and panel lid. Frame and panels have a frame around a free-floating panel; it’s decorative and yet it allows for expansion and contraction to happen without tearing apart. It is often used for doors and cabinets, etc.

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Box Lid Plans

Duncan asked me what technique I wanted to use to join the edges and I chose mortise and tenon. He then helped me figure out the dimensions and sketch it up.

Then again I sorted and picked out a nice 2×4 to use as the frame and went through the whole squaring and straightening process using the jointer, planer, table saw, and chop saw. When it was all ready I cut the pieces to size.

Duncan, and his amazing ability with sizes and measurements, quickly figured out a good size for the tenons. Using the table saw and a scrap piece of wood we cut a practice tenon. When we knew it would work we started cutting the actual tenons on the short pieces of wood. To finish them up, I used a Japanese hand saw and made a cut straight down each end to make it the proper size then used a Japanese chisel to clean them up.

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Making Tenons

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Finishing Tenons

When I had the tenons cleaned up I measured and marked the mortises on my long pieces. To make the mortises I used drill press. Duncan showed my how to do this with the first mortise. He found a drill bit the same diameter as the width of the mortise. Then, to start, he made two holes, one on either side of the mortise with the outside of the drill lined up with the inside of my pencil mark. Then he made slightly overlapping holes all the way from one side to the other.  The drill bit went a little lower down than the tenon will be going; he does this because it is very difficult to perfectly clean the bottom of the mortise but if it’s deeper the leftover rough stuff doesn’t get in the way. When this was done he took a wide Japanese chisel to clean up the long edges and a small, thin chisel for cleaning the ends up. He pointed out that it’s important to make sure the chisel is going straight down otherwise you end up chiseling diagonally. He showed me how to position my body so the chisel was centered on me; this makes it easier to see whether or not it’s straight. Duncan also suggested checking how the tenon fits often so as to not make it too loose and take out too much wood. Checking also allows you to find the spots that are too tight and stick. Then he left me to finish the rest. Throughout the process he would check on me and give me tips on how to make the mortise and tenon fit better together and how to make sure the outside edges of the boards lined up.

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Mortise Joint

I would shave a bit off this side then check. It would stick in one spot so I’d take it out and shave a little more off there. I continued to work like this until I had all the tenons fitting as good as I could get them in the mortises. I thought they were pretty good and that I’d be ready to glue them up but when Duncan came to check them they ended up being not as good as I thought. They were all just a little loose due to me chiseling out one side a little unevenly. Oops, I guess I didn’t get that chisel straight up and down like Duncan told me too. Oh well, not so bad, it was a slight mistake which I will try correcting and doing better next time. It was also an easy fix; I just needed to glue a very thin piece of veneer on the inside of the mortise where I had taken too much out. Then I clamped it and let it dry. After it was dry I retested the mortise and tenons and had to repeat the process on two of them that were still a little loose. The reason Duncan had me do this is because the glue doesn’t act like a filler, it needs to have surface-to-surface contact for it to hold strong.

Finally they all fit nice and snug but before gluing them up it was time to make the panel piece for the lid.

Again I found a board, straightened it, and cut it to size. Then Duncan showed me how to use the table saw to make a rabbet on the edge. I did that all the way around the panel. Then, with the frame, he showed me how to make a dado groove that my newly made rabbeted panel would fit into.

We made one cut at a time checking the width of the dado joint on the width of rabbet joint. Again it shouldn’t be too loose. I would saw a little then check it on the panel to see if it fit and make sure it wasn’t too loose. I marked the side that fit together the best so I could make sure to match them up when it was time to put everything together.

Throughout the entire process of making the lid, Duncan would spout out tiny numbered fractions and try to show me on the ruler saying something like, “It’s 3/8 plus 1/32 right?” and I’d just nod. I couldn’t see all the teeny tiny lines and when I did it would take me quite a while to count them and sort it all out. Duncan could just look and know exactly what it was. I will need to sit down with a ruler and study it. So many little lines! However, they are all different sizes, which does make it a little easier to see, but I’ll still need to study a ruler.

Finally I got to hand plane all the sides and edges of of my lid pieces till they were smooth and shiny.  With the hand plane I also beveled the top edge of my panel.

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Beveling the Panel

Now all the pieces were finished and all I had left to do was glue them together. First I did a dry run to make sure everything went together properly. Yay, they did! Duncan walked me through and helped me glue the pieces up. First we took the two long pieces with the mortises and glued one tenon into each making two L shapes. We clamped them firmly and let them dry for a while. After, we unclamped them then fit floating panel in the dado groove and glued to L pieces together. Then again we clamped all the pieces firmly and let dry.

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Lid Glued Together

My box was done and my lid was done. The final step before it was whole was attaching them together. Duncan dug out some brass hinges and picked out two matching ones that were a good size. I figured out where to place them on the top of my box and traced the hinges. I used a knife to score my back line to keep the grain from chipping out.  Then I took tiny Japanese hand saw and cut along the outside edges about 1/16 of an inch down. After, I took a chisel and hammer and gave the chisel a firm hit or two moving over a little all the way across the length of where the hinge would go. This loosens up the wood so I could take the chisel and scrape it out neatly. When I finished, I made sure the hinges were flush. Next I did a similar process on the lid only it was a bit trickier because the hinge would be in the center of the wood instead of on the edge. It took me a bit longer to get it even and smooth so the hinge would fit level but I kept at it and finally accomplished it.

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Chiseling Out for the Hinges

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Attaching the Hinge

I screwed the hinges to the lid then fit it onto the box and screwed it on.  I finished by putting two coats of hard oil finish on it. This would protect it and allow me to clean it more easily.

“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” All of the pieces I had worked so hard on and put so much attention on had come together beautifully and I now had a small chest. It was fulfilling to have that sense of achievement after finishing my box. I learned so much with this project and am really happy about it.

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My Finished Box

Sometime during the next week I finally brought my box home. When I came in the door my three year old son comes up to me and says, “Mommy, what a pretty box you made!” It was so sweet. Then he proceeds to bring his toys out of his room and puts them in my new box. I tell him it’s not his; it’s for all of us to share. He got really mad and insisted it was in fact his box. I promised him it would not be the last box I would make and the next one would be an even bigger box for him that could fit a lot of toys. I can’t wait to make it for him.