Blanket Chest

February 22, 2015 § 1 Comment

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One unfinished project that spent an embarrassingly long time sitting in the shop was a blanket chest I built as part of a two-day class. It was mostly done except for a little fine tuning, assembly, and a finish. A little while back I finally completed the chest. The construction is standard for a blanket chest – four sides dovetailed together, fitted with a plywood bottom and a solid one-piece top. I decided to try a milk paint finish for the outside. The wood is alder, and three narrower boards were glued up to the get the requisite width for both the sides and top. Not a lot of care was taken in matching the grain, so the narrow boards would have certainly been evident with a clear finish.

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Several years ago Peter Galbert described a recipe for a brown milk paint finish that he used on some of his Windsor chairs. I kept that in the back of my mind for some future project, and well, the future was now as I figured it would be perfect for this chest. Click on the link above for the recipe, but it basically involves a combination of black and red milk paints, and using a stain rather than straight water for mixing with the paint. He used Van Dyke brown crystals for the stain; I substituted TransTint walnut dye instead. Like all milk paint adventures, I was skeptical all along the way. Then after the final coats of oil and varnish, the whole thing really came together. There is one thing I didn’t get right. Peter describes applying the stain to the wood as an initial step. I did this with the dye but I didn’t get a nice even coat, and there was rather splotchy in places. And sure enough, that unevenness cascaded all the way through all the layers of paint. If I use this recipe next time I’ll probably just skip the initial stain, and just start with the paint.

For the inside, I just applied several coats of shellac. I also fit some thin aromatic cedar half-lapped boards to the bottom in keeping with the spirit of a blanket chest. I like working with alder, a tree native to the Pacific Northwest. It’s easy to work and relatively inexpensive. It is often used a secondary wood, much the same as poplar. Unlike poplar, however, alder is quite attractive and can certainly stand on its own as a primary wood. Alder is quite soft, however, and the alder tree does not get particularly large, so wide boards are very uncommon.

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The Junky Cabinet Project

November 16, 2014 Comments Off on The Junky Cabinet Project

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A full basement has its advantages. For one, it allows me to have a workshop. It also provides a good amount of storage space, both for the things you want to frequently access and for the things you don’t care to see anymore. We don’t have a garage and our house has but one closet, so the extra space in the basement is appreciated. While our yard is small we do have a garden, and no matter how big or small a yard, it requires work and routine maintenance. Until I build that garden shed, we store our garden tools in the basement, as well as pile of garden-related items like seeds, flower pots, copper-blocker (slugs!), etc. Until now all those little garden things have been relegated to a table in a small area of the basement. At first it was well organized, but then looked like this:

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I wanted to organize the space but I didn’t want to create a six-month project. To jump start things I started with a few pre-built cabinets, and figured no matter how ugly they might be I could turn them into something respectable. There are many salvage stores here in town that accept materials from homes that are deconstructed (as opposed to demolished, thrown into debris bins, and sent straight to a landfill). The largest and most recognized is The Rebuilding Center, which is always stuffed with dimensional lumber, moldings, flooring, countertops,  sinks, and cabinets. I found these two cabinets that would fit the bill.

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These cabinets are what I would describe as junky builders-grade “furniture” in every way. The carcasses are made from cheap plywood and all the faces are flat-sawn red oak. Neither of those are a good look. All the joinery is butt joints, glue, and staples. The hardware was 70s-style porcelain something or others. But they were cheap, the right size, and I wasn’t looking for fine furniture here. This was a piece that was just meant to be functional, and most of the time it would literally sit in the dark.

The build here was fairly simple. First I stripped the varnish off the oak faces because I wanted to paint everything. Stripping paint or an old clear finish is miserable work. I have a bottle of Soy-Gel which works quite well. It’s not as fast as the rattle-can stuff from the hardware store but it doesn’t water your eyes either. The cabinets were from the same set so their height and depth dimensions were consistent. This allowed me to screw them together to make one 4-foot long cabinet. I cut the sides to be flush with the bottom of the cabinet and put everything on casters, which kept the finished height at a typical 36″. To cover the plywood sides, I nailed on some reclaimed CVG Douglas-fir boards to give a beadboard look.

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What fun.

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Then came the paint. Each time I use milk paint I swear it will be last time. Mixing it up, trying to get the right consistency, siphoning off the foam, trying to guess the amount needed because it doesn’t keep for more than a few days – the list goes on. But then I finish painting, take a few steps back and say, “Damn. That looks pretty good.” There is just no other paint that can create that kind of look. In this case I first put down one coat of black, followed by two coats of barn red. After letting it dry for a few days, I lightly smoothed it with some steel wool and then applied a few coats of oil/varnish blend, which darkened it somewhat and gave it a nice sheen.

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And of course it needed a top. Nothing fancy here, I simply picked up a 2 ft by 4 ft piece of veneer plywood, wrapped it with some cherry, and added a backstop, also in cherry. After wiping several coats of thinned polyurethane on the top, I called the project done. At some point I might swap out that awful hardware, though.

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And a few days later, the gardening supplies looked much happier. (Please focus on the cabinet, not the foundation wall behind).

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In other news (if you’ve made it all the way down here), I’ve added a few more tools to my For Sale page. There are a few rasps there, as well as some chisels. Let me know if you’re interested in any of them.


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 Comments Off on Leopold Chairs

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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 on Banging Something Together

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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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