From Start to Finish – Part 3 – Getting a Handle on It

During my last week with Doug there were many unfinished projects that I needed to wrap up including the wooden trays I have been working on for a while. Not only did I need to finish mine so I could bring them home, but Doug’s needed to be finished as well.

Doug decided we would take a day and work on them together; he would finish his and I would finish mine. So far the trays were all glued up, the handles had been cut and almost finished being sanded. The slip feather joints were complete and the edges of the trays had been sanded smooth.

To finish the handles I brought them home to hand sand them. I worked slowly on them until they were done then I brought them back to the shop and set them aside until they were ready to be glued and screwed on.

Looking at the trays Doug and I noticed that there was still glue stuck in corners and along the edges of the inside of the trays. We got chisels and worked on getting rid of it. Doug told me to be carful to not scratch or gauge the sides or the bottom of the trays. I tried my very hardest but was only slightly successful. It took me the same amount of time to remove the glue from one tray as it took Doug to remove it from three. He pointed this out saying, “Not to make you feel bad but I’ve done three and you are still on your first.” I couldn’t help it, it was awkward. But I got the hang of it a little better and the next three for me went faster.

When I was finally finished I used the orbital to go over the outside edges of the trays one last time and round the corners. Doug advised caution when doing this because when you are sanding an edge it’s putting pressure on one small spot on the sandpaper, which can wear it down a lot faster. If you wear it down too much you can go through the paper and ruin the pad underneath. This part didn’t take me too long, at least I though so.

Now the trays were ready to put handles on. The first step was to mark where the screws should go making sure they would be centered otherwise they would end up being crooked. I used the holes I had already drilled into the sides of the trays to figure out how far apart I should mark it. Next I drilled pilot holes making sure the holes were deep enough for the screws but not too deep that they would go all the way through.

The next step made me feel like a pansy. I had to screw the handles on. This in theory shouldn’t have been that hard; I had holes already drilled, everything lined up, all I had to do was stick a screw in and use an electric drill to do the rest. But I just couldn’t get it to go in. I pushed my hardest but the drill bit would just spin. It also make an awful creaking noise that made me feel like my handle was ready to split in half. So Doug drilled the first one for me, and the second one, and the third one. Each time I tried I was able to get it a little farther in before I had to call Doug over to help. By the last two I had it, I actually got them in and tight. Woohoo! And I thought I was strong, boy did those screws prove me wrong.

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Handles with plugs glued on

Now it was time to fill on the holes that the screws were in with the plugs I had made previously. I squeezed a small circle of glue onto a piece of wood and dipped the plugs in swirling them around to get the glue up the side. Then I poked them into the hole and whacked them with a hammer a few times to make sure they were all the way in. Then I set the trays aside to dry overnight.

When I came back the next day Doug showed me how to chisel off excess part of the plugs that were sticking out. He had me put a piece of wood underneath to protect the bottom of the tray in case the chisel slipped. This was a really good idea although it didn’t protect the trays form me; I still managed to gauge the bottoms with my chisel. To get off most of the excess I knocked if off one small slice at a time with a mallet and chisel. Then to get the very last bit off I carefully scraped it off with the chisel. I scratched up the sides, which had finish on it, pretty bad but Doug said I would be sanding it a bit anyway so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I also cracked one of the plugs and had to glue it back on and let it dry overnight before I could carefully chisel it off again.

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Almost finished trays

The last steps were to sand all the edges with fine grit sandpaper then slather it in a few coats of finish. I managed to get two coats on before the end of my last day. I will still need to sand it with 400 grit paper and buff it; I was able to take some sandpaper and duffy home with me so I will get to finish them.

These trays took me a long time to finish. Doug wasn’t expecting them to take so long but I am a beginner just starting out. I took my time and I did my best and I think they turned out very well. There are so many things I learned from this project. It seems like a small project but there were a lot of steps, I got to use a lot of tools, and I learned a whole bunch. I am excited to give some of my trays as gifts to friends and family and I can’t wait to use mine to see how well they hold up.

Also the last week I helped Doug make salt and pepper shakers and I got to make three sets for myself to bring home. I came close but I didn’t get to finish them, hopefully someday I will.

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Salt and pepper shakers

From Start to Finish – Part 2

Over the past couple weeks I have been working on and off towards finishing the trays. A lot has been done since my part 1 post.

After we had all the sides cut to length and the miters made, the next step was to decide what type of handles the trays would have. Doug wanted some of his to have routed handles and some with cherry handles. I decided I would do the same.

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Doug’s routed tray handles

We set up the router and Doug showed me how to make the handles. Instead of having my handles go only half way through the board I wanted them to go all the way through. Doug said that was usually done another way but since we had the router set up we could figure out how to make it happen with the router. Doug set up two boards on either side of the router spaced just wide enough for the tray side to fit. This would keep me safe and keep my board straight giving it a nice even cut. Doug tried it first to see how it would work. Then I did a few practice runs before starting on the real pieces. It worked!

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Hand routing the inside of my handles

After that I used a handheld router to round the inside of my handles and then sanded them smooth.

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Drilling holes to screw on the tray handles

Doug then designed the shape of the cherry handles and figured out their dimensions. With that information, I marked on the boards where to drill holes that would be used to screw the handles on. Then I used the drill press to drill the holes. I also used the drill press with a plug cutter bit to make plugs that would cover the screw and fill the hole.

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Making wood plugs

Once the holes were finished it was time to put finish on the inside of the boards. The outside will get finished later. I really enjoyed this process. It was calming for me and all my attention was on what I was doing. I found that if I held the board up to the light while I as putting the finish on I could see the spots that I missed easily. This allowed me to get nice, even coats.

About halfway through putting on the second coat I went to move the can to a closer spot and it slipped right out of my hand. It landed upside down and half of what was in the can spilled out and rapidly spread into a good sized pool. I walked over to Doug with a very ashamed look and told him. He acted quickly. He grabbed some rags and sawdust. I wiped up as much as I could then Doug sprinkled sawdust around to soak up the rest. I wiped that up and we repeated the process. We got it cleaned up to the point that you could barely see where it spilled. I felt so bad and Doug told me a story to make me feel better of a time he spilled a gallon of finish. It made me feel a bit better but I took down the info of what kind of what type of finish it was and surprised him a few days later with a new can of finish.

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Trays glued up using block and string method

When the finish was dry I finally got to glue the trays together. I did a few practice ones before making the three trays requested by Doug’s former customer. First I would put glue in dado joint then on the mitered edges then fit the pieces around the plywood panel making sure that the joints were tight and the inside of the corners lined up. Then I used a block and string method to hold the joints together and apply pressure while drying. I found that doing a dry run before gluing up avoided much difficulty. Every time I would skip the dry run and go right to gluing the pieces would never fit together and I would have to frantically try to manhandle (or should I say womanhandle) and hammer them together before the glue set. Once they were together I would lay the trays on a flat surface to make sure they didn’t rock at all.

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Angled table saw blade

The next step was to make the cherry handles. Doug showed me where his cherry wood stash was located and we picked out the boards we would use. Then we ripped it on the table saw to get it the right width. Doug designed the handles to be tapered inward on all four sides. That could be accomplished for the long sides on the table saw. I never knew this but apparently the blade can be rotated in to cut at an angle. Doug explained how this maneuver could be unsafe and what I could do to stay safe. We started with the blade relatively upright and moved it in gradually until the amount of taper was just right.

After that, the outer edge of the board was rounded with a router. Then we moved to the chop saw to cut the remaining handles to the right length at a slight angle. To get a straight downward cut, because the board is tapered, Doug stacked a few pieces of veneer to prop up the low end.

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Cherry handles cut to size

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Doug’s finished cherry handles

Once the handles were cut to size it was time to sand them. I saw that Doug used the belt sander to sand off the sharp corners and round the side edges of the handles but must have missed what he did after that. I looked at the handles he had finished and went to the belt sander to finish the rest. I tried so hard to make mine look like his but I couldn’t. I tried and I tried but it just didn’t look as smooth and perfect as his. Finally I gave Doug a look of desperation and he came over with a kind of “did you really mess this up” expression on his face. I told him that I was using the belt sander and I just couldn’t get mine to look as good and smooth as his. He laughed and told me he got the handle to that point through a series of three stages. First he used to belt sander to get the basic shape then the orbital sander to smooth it out and round it further, and finally he hand sanded it a little to top it off. Ah ha! That’s how he got it so nice. I felt much more confident about my ability after that.

I quickly finished the rest of the handles on belt sander then moved on to the orbital sander. Doug told me it was a little awkward at first but he had gotten used to sanding rounded edges with the orbital sander so I gave it a try. It took a short bit to get used to but it wasn’t bad. My hand got tired pretty fast so I switched hands and kept going. Woodworking is helping me become ambidextrous; sometimes I need to use my non-dominant hand to do things and now it’s becoming more coordinated. However, it’s interesting that the technique I use is different for each hand. What works for one doesn’t work for the other, they each have a mind of their own (or a different brain hemisphere).I got the handles as close to done as I could with the orbital sander then set them aside to be hand sanded at a later time.

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Doug showing me hot to make a slip feather joint

Next, Doug taught me how to make a slip feather joint. This is done by cutting a kerf into a miter joint and gluing a piece of wood into it. This adds extra strength to the joint. Guess which tool we used for this? Yep, the table saw; this is an amazing multipurpose tool. There is a special jig that a piece (in this case a tray) clamps into at a 45 degree angle. It fits into a track on the table saw so all a person needs to do it push it slowly forward and pull it back. I made two cuts on each corner; one near the top of the tray and one near the bottom of the tray. Then I glued the slip feathers that Doug made into the kerf cut.

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Kerf cut for slip feathers

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Making slip feather joints on the corners of the trays

When they were dry I used the band saw to cut the excess off. The goal is to get as close to the edge of the tray as possible without cutting into the tray. I tried my very best but my cuts were either far from the edge or I would accidentally cut into the tray. Neither was a big deal it just means I would need to sand more.

The last step I completed on the trays was to sand all the outside edges flat and smooth. Making sure the feathers were completely smooth and didn’t stick out.

I still haven’t finished the trays yet; there is just so much other stuff to do in the shop for Doug. I need to finish hand sanding the handles, put them on the trays, and put the finish on.

Stay tuned for more of my adventures in helping Doug, building a table, and finishing the trays.

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!