Good Tools Work for You, Not Against You

Nearly every tool is designed with compromises. In some cases, the compromise is made to increase the ease of production (and therefore lower cost). Other times, the compromise is made to make the tool more appealing to a broader audience.

After using a tool for a while, these compromises become very clear. You’ll think, “I wish this power cord was longer”, “this handle hurts my hand”, “it’s hard to read these scales”, or “why can’t I cut a straight line?” Okay, maybe that last one is user error, but you get the point.

Once you understand the compromises you can identify the root cause(s) of the problem and begin to theorize possible solutions. I never shy away from modifying my tools to make them work better for me, as my philosophy reminds me that tools are meant to be utilized, and anything that makes them work better for me, or easier for me to use, is a worthwhile modification. Of course, this customization may or may not benefit others, since I am making these changes thinking about only myself.
The Intuitive Handsaw
This momentous video (13:03) highlights some compromises, specific issues, root causes, possible solutions, and technique modifications that can improve tool performance.

My Tripot: Turning the Base

Fascinated with the form of the tripot, and interested to see what was involved in making one, I have started my own. I couldn’t think of a better way to understand and appreciate it than to make one myself.

In my first article about making my tripot, I showed how I shaped most of the exterior using a router and lathe together. Since then, I hollowed out each vessel starting with a drill bit to establish the depth of each pot, then using turning tools to reduce the wall thickness and shape the interior. For each pot, I had to mount the pot being worked on centred on the lathe axis, then mount counterbalances to allow the lathe to run without excessive vibration.

To accomplish this, I attached a disc of 1/2″ plywood between the face plate and tripot to which I strategically screwed scrap wood opposite to the bulk of the off-axis tripot mass. Pieces of the first tripot attempt worked perfectly.

After drilling out the centre with a drill bit mounted in the tailstock, I used a bowl gouge to hollow the vessel. A purpose-built hollowing tool would have allowed me more freedom in design (for example, creating more of a vase shape and less of a bowl shape) and provided greater control and safety, but since I don’t own such a tool and wasn’t prepared to purchase one, I made do. My confidence with the bowl gouge improved substantially with these intimidating cuts – many of which were well beyond the tool rest in tight quarters.

After hollowing each pot, I sanded the inside to completion, working through grits from 80 to 220. I found that Mirka Abranet cut more quickly than any of the abrasive papers I tried. Sanding the inside of small pots is not fun, and I wanted to finish and move on as quickly as possible. To assist in sanding, I improvised a tool to sand the inside bottoms by applying adhesive-backed hook strips to a 1/2″ steel drill rod.

To this tool, I attached the loop-backed strips of Abranet and chucked it in a heavy-duty drill for power sanding and ran the drill clockwise while the lathe turned the pot counter-clockwise.

While it might be safe and acceptable to hold sandpaper in your hand to sand the inside of a larger bowl, the small scale of this vessel, coupled with the fact that there are several other larger pots whirling around it, meant that I didn’t want my hands anywhere near the workpiece. So I chucked up a sleeveless sanding drum in my drill and fitted it with a piece of Abranet. I intentionally left it proud of the drum’s end to help sand the transition from side wall to bottom.

Again, I ran the lathe and drill in opposite directions This made for an efficient and satisfying sanding experience.

After all three pots were hollowed and sanded, I took the tripot off the lathe and cut off the waste at the base using the bandsaw.

I turned a tenon on a piece of clear pine to exactly fit the opening of the largest vessel and used this jam chuck to mount the tripot on the lathe facing the opposite direction to shape the base.

I tried using a pointed live centre before switching to a cup centre which allowed me to adjust the positioning of the bottom of the pot to ensure the pot was running fairly true.

I used a bowl gouge to turn the bottom round as far as I could without removing too much material from the other two pots.

This video (7:47) shows how the base was turned.

Then I created another jam chuck for the next tripot vessel and repeated the process, before sanding and carving to refine the shape. That’ll be the focus of the next segment on making my tripot.

My Tripot: Shaping the Exterior

Fascinated with the form of the tripot, and interested to see what was involved in making one, I have started my own. I couldn’t think of a better way to understand and appreciate it than to make one myself.

Loosely following an article in Woodwork by Hugh McKay on his process of making a pentapot (five vessels in one), I began work on my own.

First, I played around with a sheet of paper and a compass to lay out the overall sizes of the three vessels for my tripot. I wanted their diameters to be significantly different for interest. Since most of the shaping is done on the lathe, I knew that I needed the other two pots to clear the lathe bed when any one was mounted on centres. That limited the overall size of the piece I could make. I figured that it was also important that the three pots meet in the middle, and for the walls to not overlap so much that, when hollowing them out, the cavities would meet.

Once I had a layout that met my criteria, I transferred it to a piece of 1/4” MDF which became my template. I’m not sure this was really necessary, but it was one of the steps McKay used in the creation of his pots (the template did help me when I needed to start again… more on that later).

I chose a chunk of black locust about 8” thick. At the bandsaw, I squared up the blank, ensuring both ends were parallel to each other. I carefully positioned my template on the end grain, avoiding any checks, bark, or knots that could have compromised the strength of the tripot.  With a short screw in the centre of each circle representing a pot, I fastened the template to the black locust. Carefully, I cut to the lines using my bandsaw.

Next, I determined how tall to make each pot. I had to remember to accommodate for some chucking wastage at one end, where the screws would go in to hold the face plate. Again, following the recommendation of McKay, I used a drill press and forstner bit to remove the bulk of the waste. Boring into the end grain of a hard wood was not quick, and the results were not especially clean, with stalagmites and brad point divots abounding. I quickly cleaned up the resulting surface with a hand saw and chisels.

To profile the exterior, the pot could not be simply spun on the lathe and a gouge be presented to the work unless you were impossibly good at quickly applying and removing the tool as the other two vessels off-axis came around at you. Instead, shaping is done with a router with the work mounted on an unplugged lathe. This required some jigging.

I created a plywood platform that got mounted to the lathe bed. For my smallest router, which I had chosen to use for the shaping, I built a cradle to hold it securely in line with the lathe’s axis when resting on the platform. Lastly, I cut a template for the router to follow.

For a clean cut, ease of control, and long reach, I chose to mount a 1/4” up-spiral solid carbide router bit in the trim router. With a pot screwed to a faceplate and mounted on the lathe, I used the router to estimate where to position the template to remove the minimum amount of material, while creating a fully shaped vessel without flat spots. I clamped the template with a pair of clamps and got ready to start routing.

My left hand was on the wheel controlling the rotation of the lathe, and my right hand moved the router on the platform. Taking shallow bites, I slowly worked my way around the pot as far as I could. It took patience and focus to take only small bites, and to keep the router firmly on the platform. Several times, the router caught, tipped forward, and ended up carving deep holes in the side of the pot, requiring me to re-adjust the template to remove the divots. In the end, I ended up deciding that there was not going to be enough material left to make it worth continuing.

I started again. This is where that template came in handy. I simply screwed it to a new piece of locust and cut it out again at the bandsaw. After determining the height of the pots, I cut across the tops of the pots with a coarse handsaw, then split away the waste with a chisel and mallet. This was much quicker and cleaner than using a forstner bit.

At the lathe, I took the shaping process much more cautiously. Analyzing my previous failure, I realized that I would have a better chance of success if I: clamped the router to the platform to avoid tipping; didn’t use a spiral bit to prevent the bit from wanting to pull itself into the work; used a router bit with a short cutting length and a bearing to keep the cutting part from engaging with the other two vessels; and screwed the template securely to the platform. I took all these precautions for the second attempt.

In this video, I describe my setup, and demonstrate the shaping method.

My process worked well, and the extra precautions I took were worth the effort.

After routing all three pots as much as I could, there were a few spots that the router couldn’t access. I cleaned those up with skew chisels and carving gouges.

Next up: hollowing!

Stacked Veneer Experiment with a Shocking Lesson

You’re probably aware that I like to incorporate a twist in my designs.

For some time, I’ve had this idea to laminate a stack of veneer in a twisted manner, so each subsequent piece of veneer is rotated just a degree or two. I suspected that, due to the difference in appearance between long grain and end grain, I would see a gradual lightness/darkness shift along the surface.

To test my theory and see what it would really look like, I cut cherry veneer into 2-3/4 inch squares with my bandsaw, because is was the quickest and easiest way I knew. I chose cherry because of the marked difference in darkness between its long grain and end grain, for better contrast.

I also grabbed two Quick Grip XL clamps, a bottle of Titebond Extend wood glue and prepared some small pieces of melamine as cauls to permit even distribution of clamping force and help ensure the faces stay flat.

Working efficiently and methodically, I spread glue on one face of a piece of veneer and placed another piece of veneer on it, rotated one veneer thickness counter-clockwise. I repeated the process for about a dozen pieces, then put the assembly between cauls and clamped them tightly. I glued together another dozen, then glued it to the previous dozen and put everything back in the clamps, continuing until I had two stacks each about 1″ high. The whole process took about an hour.

After a full day of drying, I unclamped the twisted veneer stacks and trimmed the uneven edges. The yield wasn’t particularly high, so I didn’t have many options for a finished product. I did have some pen kits on hand, so I decided to make a pen with the veneer. I cut one stack into 5/8″ squares, then glued them together, again rotated the thickness of one veneer.

I built a mini router jig to true up the pen blanks then drilled out the centres and mounted them on the lathe.

Once that dried, I made the pen. As I neared completion, I noticed some darker rings in the wood. They puzzled me, and I wondered if I had somehow put some veneer pieces in indirectly. Anyhow, I finished the pen and this is the result.

The twisted design I had attempted to produce was evident, and even more pronounced when I applied a thin coat of oil-based polyurethane to accentuate the long grain/end grain difference. But those rings!

After carrying the pen around for a few days, it struck me that the dark lines were caused when I put a dozen pieces of veneer in clamps to work on another stack, then glued them together! Somehow, this resulted in a darker veneer. How? Did the PVA glue absorb more into these pieces?

To avoid those dark laminations, I may have to glue all the veneers together in one shot before the glue starts to set. A glue with a longer open time would definitely be an asset. Or maybe a different glue, such as a plastic resin or epoxy would work. Or maybe if I just soaked the veneer in water first, the PVA glue would dry more slowly and encourage equal penetration.

If somebody can offer an insight as to why this happens, or if you have your own theory on how to prevent it, I’d love to hear it.

Featured by Canadian Woodworking Woodworking Magazine

I am featured in Canadian Woodworking Magazine’s June/July issue! Pick up your copy today, get a digital subscription online, or preview the issue on the magazine’s website.

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The magazine also produced an accompanying slideshow. Watch it here.

Mounting Shelves and Pictures on Walls

Since moving into our new house last year, I have hung dozens of pictures and shelves. Okay, maybe not dozens, but very likely a dozen. Every time, the challenges are the same: what is the best location, where are the studs, and is it level?

While not immediately obvious, we always do reach a consensus of where best to hang the shelf or picture.

I am also fortunate to have a trusting family that doesn’t second-guess my ability to mount things level. However, I have certainly hung more than one where my “helper” is peering over my shoulder at the level and reminding me that it’s slightly slanted.

“Thanks, but why don’t you try levelling this a round clock?”

Not only is this not helpful, but it actually makes the process more aggravating. Sometimes I want to use the level in a very different way from which it was intended.

Besides that, I find playing “find the stud” is irritating enough (I’m pretty sure that whoever framed my house was an M.C. Escher fan). Instead of a stud finder, I need a pair of X-ray goggles. Or a treasure map.

While I’m still saving up for X-ray goggles and searching for that map, I have found a solution to make finding level easier, and I recently got to try it mounting one of my #WSBO wall shelves. Check it out: the First Guess Gravity Gauge.

Working Efficiently in a Small Shop

It can be a challenge to work efficiently in a small shop, but I have arranged the equipment in the space of a 1-car garage to allow me to build with components up to five feet in length without having to rearrange. In fact, the only machine that is on wheels is my 13″ thickness planer.

Most of the things I build involve components not longer than five feet, so work goes very smoothly. Some machines have the capacity to work with stock greater than five feet as they sit and I sometimes take advantage of that, and other times I use a hand-held tool instead.

I have written an article for Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement Magazine that will appear in a future issue describing my layout, the benefits, and why it works well for me. If you work in a shop with limited space, I think that you’ll find the article interesting.

This time-lapse video was recorded during the Wall Shelf Build-Off, and illustrates my workflow in the shop, and how I use the limited space that I have. Duration: (10:18)

For more pictures of my shop, check out this post: Welcome to the New Shop.

Simpler Edge Joints

Quite often, I need a wider board than what I have available. Usually, that means gluing up two or more boards edge to edge.

Since, in this situation, I am usually making a highly visible part such as a table top or cabinet side, I am very careful to match not only the grain pattern of the neighbouring boards, but the exact colour shading as well.

The surface of this box is comprised of between 8 and 20 strips edge-glued together. I honestly don’t remember how many strips were used, and they were assembled in such a way that the seams aren’t distinguishable.

It’s a very time consuming process, as I need to flip, rotate, slide and shuffle the boards every possible way to get the best match possible. In some cases, I need to trim boards narrower or taper them to get a better match.

Jigsaw Puzzle Table1

With two boards, it’s not too slow of a process (there are only 16 different ways to match them if you don’t count sliding), but each additional board adds more combinations.

Once I have the boards arranged best, I draw a cabinetmaker’s triangle across them to clearly indicate the optimum alignment. Then I joint the edges, testing the fit as I go, until I have a light-tight joint ready for glue-up.

While I haven’t actually timed these processes, it seems as if I spend more time preparing the joint as I do arranging boards. This means that putting together a 5-piece table top can take upwards of 3 hours.

Some woodworkers simply accept that fine work takes time, and are content to keep doing things the same way. I, on the other hand, am always looking for better and more efficient ways to get work done. It came to me that, with the right tools, I could drastically reduce the amount of time required to prepare edges for gluing.

This video walks you through my thought process, the tools and techniques I use, and why they work. Duration: 8:02

Routing the Puzzle Pieces for Puzzle Table

After gluing up the four sides, my next step was to rout in the puzzle pieces.

I used three combination squares referenced off of each edge to lay out a grid, which represented the size and location of the puzzle pieces.

Puzzle Table10

Pencil can be difficult to see on black walnut, but I found that roughing up the planed surface with 120-grit sandpaper made the lines easier to see.

Puzzle Table11

I routed the jigsaw puzzle design with a 1/8″ spiral bit, doing one line at a time.

Puzzle Table12 It was very gratifying to see one surface completed.

Puzzle Table13

Next, I rolled the cube and continued routing puzzle pieces into the other faces.

Puzzle Table14

One-Step Joinery

No matter how much time I have, there never seems to be enough. For that reason, I make many of my decisions based on efficiency. My decision to use a hand tool or a power tool for a given task is dependent on what I feel is more efficient for the task at hand.

In my effort to be more efficient, I also examine the processes that I’ve learned along the way and assess whether or not steps can be eliminated to save time. I encourage you to do the same, and if you think of any shortcuts, please share them here in the comments section.

In this video (duration: 10:41), I talk more about my thought process and explain my one-step joinery procedure which saves a lot of unnecessary time laying out, cutting, and fitting dovetail joints.