Drill Press Restoration

September 22, 2014 § 4 Comments

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Sometime last year (or maybe it was the year before) I bought a vintage Walker Turner drill press off Craigslist. It was in good shape overall – nothing cracked or broken, just a fair amount of surface rust and grime. It was in working condition but I decided to do a complete restoration job anyway.

Restoration (or in some cases rehabilitation) projects can be very rewarding as well as educational. There is no better way to learn how a machine works than by completely dismantling it piece by piece, and then putting it all back together. When these older machines were built (in this case 1939), no part of them—not even the smallest screw—was built for obsolescence. Cleaning and re-using the original parts is a nod to the workers who made these fine machines. With this machine almost all the parts were still there. As I recall the only pieces missing were the knurled depth stops and one jam nut on the handle. A machinist friend turned some new depth stops and the jam nut was an easy hardware store replacement. The bearings were in good shape – all spun freely and cleaned up nicely. There were two open bearings which I simply repacked with grease. Although the paint wasn’t in terrible shape, I decided to repaint the main castings in a similar green. I brushed on the paint instead of spraying, and I actually like the little bit of texture it gives the cast iron. The Jacobs 33 chuck is such an industry standard that Jacobs still makes its chuck key.

I’ve restored a few machines now, and as such I’ve learned a few things. Here are some thoughts that may help someone ready to tackle their own project.

  • In an ideal world you do the restoration in one fell swoop, without any other projects vying for your time. For no matter how well you document the dismantling with pictures and notes, your memory of how things went together is invaluable. The more time between taking things apart and putting them back together, the more likely you will forget crucial information. That said…
  • Take plenty of pictures and notes when dismantling a tool. Sometimes your memory can easily mix things up, and a photograph can be irrefutable.
  • Get an exploded diagram parts list. This is almost mandatory for anything that has more than 10 parts. The great volunteers and contributors at Vintage Machinery have compiled original manuals and parts lists for countless vintage woodworking machines – all free to download. (And while you are there, consider dropping a few coins in their donation box).
  • Label or number all your parts as you lay them out to be cleaned. The easiest method is to just number them according to the parts diagram. Parts can look very similar, and if everything is clearly labeled, in theory you could come back in a year and resume your work.
  • I have a box of wire brushes, worn out sandpaper, picks, and other things that I bust out for a restoration project. They are all useful, but the single best accessory for making metal parts look new again is a wire wheel on a powered grinder. The brass wire wheels from Lee Valley are just terrific and save countless hours of scrubbing.
  • Think about your health. Wear gloves, set up a fan for ventilation, open the windows, work outside if you can. Restoration projects are messy and will require any number of chemicals – WD-40, mineral spirits, grease, liquid wrench, etc.
  • Get a scrap piece of soundboard or plywood and do all your work on that. Don’t do on it your nice bench, or even your not-so-nice bench. You could put plastic down but working on plastic is annoying.
  • Pick your battles. With this drill press there were a few things I didn’t do. I didn’t paint the underside of the base. I didn’t take apart the motor and replace the windings and bearings. I didn’t take apart the chuck because it only had surface rust and spun freely. If you’re afraid of screwing something up, ask yourself if it will really affect the use of the machine. In my case the motor sounded good so I decided not to open that Pandora’s box. At the end of the day your tool will be used, not placed on display at the Smithsonian.
  • Don’t obsess about paint color. If you need to re-paint the tool, take comfort in the knowledge that many manufacturers tweaked their colors over the years. For example, the Delta “blue” is not a single blue that was used for 80 years. Look up examples on Vintage Machinery, see what others have done with a web search, and pick something close. And hell, if you want to paint that vintage Delta a nice shade of hot pink, go for it. Purists will have a fit but it’s your tool.

Below are some pictures of the process and the restored drill press. Of course I completely forgot to take a nice series of “before” pictures. Let’s just say it looked like below, but with a nice layer of rust and tarnish on nearly every exposed surface. Next on the docket is a mitre box, and then a small Delta jointer.

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Typical setup during restoration

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Laying out parts

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Table and base with metal primer

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Pinion after brass wheel. It looked brand new.

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An invaluable source of information (and inspiration) for this restoration came from Bill Nance (skizzo) and his classic Woodnet thread from four years ago. I actually printed the entire thread to a pdf and referred to it often. If all forum threads were this good I would probably visit them more often.

With most things in woodworking, whatever you’ve done chances are that Jameel Abraham has done it better. Here are pictures of his restoration of a beautiful old Powermatic drill press.



Leopold Chairs

August 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

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I recently finished a couple of simple outdoor chairs that follow the “Leopold Bench” design made famous by the late conservationist and writer Aldo Leopold. He is credited with this simple design, and although none of his originals are still around, you still see versions of them scattered about parks and nature centers all across the United States, not to mention countless back yards. As a piece of furniture, they are quintessential utilitarian, and are simply meant to be strong and stable and easily built by anyone. Like anything, you can jazz them up with beautiful woods and add a few bells and whistles, but these were never intended to be heirloom items (mine were built with CVG Douglas-fir). Build it, stick it outside under a tree or on a deck and when it succumbs to Mother Nature, build another one.

Though most commonly seen as two-seater benches, many people have also narrowed them to be chairs as I’ve done here. I didn’t stray too far from the simple design. I did hollow the seat a little for comfort. It’s amazing how much longer you can comfortably sit on a chair or bench with a hollow seat as opposed to a flat piece of wood. Without a hollow, a cushion is almost mandatory after about 15 minutes. The back supports are also hollowed a little for comfort. The seat is angled back about 5 degrees, as much to shed rain as anything. No fancy joinery, just carriage bolts and screws keep everything together.

They are finished in milk paint with an outdoor additive. It’s been several years since I’ve used milk paint. User-friendly milk paint is not. Apparently I had forgotten that part. No matter how well you mix it, it’s still a gritty, weird consistency. Of course after I was done I realized I had forgotten to strain it through a paint strainer. Of course my challenges here were all due to my lack of experience with milk paint. Many others (especially chair makers) can do amazing things with this paint. General Finishes does make a “milk” paint that isn’t milk paint at all, but a modern acrylic paint that comes in milk-paintish colors. For those of us who grew up with latex, the General Finishes version is much more familiar. Still, the look of milk paint is unique, and you can only get that look with the real thing. And I suppose that is what keeps people going back. I set the chairs out in the sun for a few weeks to completely dry and then wiped them with a thinned spar varnish. Clear finishes are doomed to failure in any outdoor setting, and I don’t mind if the paint and the varnish gradually wear away.

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After a few coats of Ella Blue

For more on Aldo Leopold’s life and work, visit the Aldo Leopold Foundation website. And scroll down on this page for a short narrative about his benches.

There are two main distributors of milk paint – The Old Fashioned Milk Paint Company and The Real Milk Paint Company. Although they take a few pot shots at each other in their respective websites, I imagine the end result is much the same with either. Peter Galbert, one of those chairmakers that does amazing things with milk paint, describes the differences between the two here. He has lots of other posts about milk paint, and the beautiful finishes he puts on his world-class chairs.

Banging Something Together

June 11, 2014 Comments Off

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My list of things to build never gets any shorter. For each one that gets crossed off the list, three more get added. At one point I actually wrote them down. For some that might serve as motivation. For others it can be downright depressing. I don’t know where that list is, and it doesn’t much matter. I know what the important projects are, and those that aren’t important will get supplanted by something else anyway. My basement shop is a perfect example. I work at it spurts, then other things get priority. The important stuff will get built, eventually.

Summer brings an annual priority to building things for the outdoors. I have a few chairs that are almost done (in my classic fashion those were meant to be a quick weekend project – we are on weekend #6 at this point). The other day (while I was working on those chairs) Judy mentioned that she would like a low bench for some potted plants, rather than have them sit on the deck. As she finished explaining what she wanted, she ended with, “Now I don’t need anything fancy, just something banged together.”

I took no offense to that. My chair project is how all my “weekend” projects go. I figure out a design, and then say to myself, “Yeah, I can build that in a few days”. Weeks later I’m still chamfering edges and adding subtle curves and details here and there. But sometimes things really do need to get banged together, and function rather than form should be the priority. That isn’t advocating shoddy work, and you should never make anything intentionally ugly, but sometimes you need to pick your battles.

I went through my stash of 4/4 cedar and “banged together” these two little benches. I wouldn’t load too much weight on them (CVG red cedar is barely above balsa in strength), but for pots they should do just fine. Of course they still took longer than I anticipated, but for me they were built in light speed. I was told they are “cute”. Not a word I would personally advocate using in a critique of a woodworking piece but I’ll take it.

On a final note, I’ve added a few more tools to my For Sale page, including some squares, a bevel gauge, some nails, and an old plane iron.

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A Few Good Things Going On

April 12, 2014 Comments Off

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Photo courtesy kestreltool.com

Occasionally I stumble upon some interesting crowdfunding campaigns that catch my eye. I thought I would mention a few here in case anyone was interested in donating a few dollars. Kestrel Tool is a small toolmaking shop on Lopez Island in Washington. It began when Gregg Blomberg started making crooked knives and adzes to help keep the amazing Northwest Coast wood carving tradition alive. He is now ready to transition the business to new owner and tool maker Charlie Prince. It’s heartening to see a small business such as this continuing to the next generation. We’ve all heard of the small artisan shops that retire along with their founder. I’d like to think that is the exception rather than the rule. Kestrel Tool launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo to help with the transition. At the very least it’s worth watching the video and reading their page on Indiegogo.

Somewhat related to woodworking is the Kickstarter campaign for the trio band Underhill Rose. One third of that trio is Eleanor, Roy Underhill’s daughter. If you a reader of Roy’s books you might recognize Eleanor’s name as she was the illustrator of the detailed drawings in Roy’s last book, The Woodwright’s Guide, Working Wood with Wedge & Edge. Talented girl, that Eleanor. They have a lot of money to raise in just two weeks – I hope there is enough time left to reach their goal.


A little while back I posted about a herd of goats here in Portland that were occupying an empty lot. Well, progress demands that lot be developed, and in a few years a shiny new apartment and retail complex will open. Ground breaking will begin soon, so the goats need to move. After month’s of searching, a new home was found for the goats in another neighborhood here in Portland. The herd’s caretakers started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help with the move, and to provide some nice amenities at their new home. Each morning on the walk into work we make a point to stop by and see the goats. I’ll miss having them around.

Portland, OR is absolutely chock full of volunteer efforts and campaigns. It’s one of the things that ties the community together, and gives each neighborhood a point of pride. It’s funny how our support changes over the years, however. When we’re young we don’t have much money. We’re fresh out of school, just starting our careers and trying to make do on an entry-level salary. But while we may not have much extra cash, we typically have more time on our hands, so we volunteer that to the cause of choice. As we grow older, however, things slowly reverse. We tend to make more money, but “free” time becomes more and more precious. And so we volunteer with our checkbook, and donate our money instead of our time. Volunteer organizations need both, of course, and it’s up to each of us to try and reach a balance as best we can.

On a final note, it’s been a really nice spring here in Oregon, and the cherry trees and lilacs are in full bloom here in the neighborhood.

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Exhibition of Japanese Calligraphy

March 16, 2014 Comments Off

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This weekend we attended a demonstration on Japanese calligraphy at the Portland Japanese Garden by Master Yoshiyasu Fujii of the Meito Shodo Kai, a non-profit organization established in 1996 by students of the Akashi USA calligraphy schools. His wife Naoko began the presentation by displaying traditional Chinese characters that go back thousands of years. Japanese calligraphy traces its roots to the traditional Chinese art form. One of the more formal pieces that Fujii-sensei made during the presentation was his interpretation of ancient Chinese poetry.

Like any craft, it takes years of practice to truly become a master. They described how new students will often draw the same piece dozens of times to get it right. The same piece, over and over, each time being instructed on how to improve. It was truly incredible to see the speed at which Fujii-sensei used his brushes. At one point the moderator noted that it takes years to develop that speed and accuracy. While the final composure might seem random collection of characters, they all require a delicate symmetry. The spacing of each character, its size, the tapering and weight of each brushstroke – all of these are of paramount importance to bring the whole scene together.  It’s always a true pleasure to see a master craftsman work in front of your own eyes.

Yoshiyasu Fujii has a blog here, and if you open it in Google Chrome it will be (roughly) translated to English or perhaps whichever language you choose. The Facebook page for the Meito Shodo Kai is here, and there are some nice videos showing the brush strokes in action (and most of the site is in English). And a good article on Fujii-sensei from the Seattle Times can be found here.

Pictures of the exhibition and demonstration are below, followed by some pictures of the Portland Japanese Garden, one of the most authentic and beautiful examples of such a garden outside of Japan. Oh, and the picture of Fujii-sensei holding up a brush – that brush is made of Chinese goat hair and costs $10,000. That kind of makes the complaints on woodworking forums about the price of Lie Nielsen plane look rather silly.

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