Think Outside The Paint Can

I like playing around with finishes, experimenting with techniques that give interesting looks. 

This one isn’t all that creative, but it had a few people guessing when they saw it. 


This picture frame was for a co-worker who likes natural, organic things. I knew I wanted to use green, but I didn’t want a plain old solid paint. So, I simply thinned out some water-based paint – Valspar Hunter Green (right off the shelf at Lowe’s). 

I used a quart paint cup and added a few ounces of paint, and added water until I got a very thin mixture. Then it was just a matter of applying the mixture, wiping it in, and wiping it off. I didn’t let it sit for long and buffed in the mixture where I may have missed with brush strokes. 

I didn’t sand the wood either, which helped in uneven absorption. This added to the look I was trying to achieve. So I guess you could say I did all the “wrong” things with this one, to get the “right” look. 

And it worked. Most folks who saw it thought I had used some sort of stain. It was fun to see the reaction when I told them how I really did it. 

Experiment with finishes to avoid the same old look everyone else gets. Play around with organic materials (coffee, tea), and food coloring. You’ll be pleasantly surprised and have a look that no one else has achieved. 

Note: Be sure to limit the use of toxic materials (like acids and industrial cleaners/solvents – use your noggin’ please), and try your experiments on scrap wood first before you apply it to a finished project. 

Published in: Uncategorized on April 29, 2010 at 7:24 pm  Comments (2)  

To Pre-Finish Or Not To Pre-Finish

It’s a debate that’s been around a while – should you/can you apply a finish to a project before final assembly, or should you do it all at the end.

There’s no definitive answer, and “it depends” is the simple response.

The primary advantage to pre-finishing is the ability to apply a finish in hard-to-reach areas – for example, small or narrow parts that are spaced closely together.

The main thing to watch out for when pre-finishing is an area to be glued. By applying a finish to such an area, you essential eliminate a place for the glue to adhere (wood fibers). Try gluing two parts together that have been stained and see what happens.

When you do want to pre-finish, be sure to use a painter’s tape to cover up gluing surfaces. I’ve used the new Frog Tape (it’s green), which is promoted as being better than any previous tape. I have to agree, while it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s the best of its type that I’ve used.

I also recommend a finish-as-you-go approach. Simply apply a finish at each step of a project, after a particular portion of assembly. This gets a bit tricky when you apply stain because you’ll need to watch the amount of time you leave the stain on the project before wiping or buffing.

Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 6:04 pm  Comments (2)  

What’s The Hurry? Learn To Go Slow

I think I’ve heard old timers (you know who you are) complain more about younger woodworkers rushing through projects than any other complaint they may have about “those whippersnappers” who’ve taken up the craft.

The one tool that seems to bother them most is the band saw-whippersnappers seem to try to force the wood past the blade so fast that they are getting horrible jagged cuts that take up any time saved by having to be sanded, and sanded, and sanded…

I’m reminded of this every time I think back to one project. In the process of making this project, I cut through some 2x red oak (made from laminated 1x) and used both the band saw and jigsaw. Now, being between the age of a whippersnapper and an old timer I have the characteristics of both – the impatience of youth, yet the smarts to know better. Still, I made the mistake a time or two of rushing when using the band saw, which is especially a problem with the combination of a hardwood that is 1 1/2 inches thick. Fortunately, I only had to make the mistake twice before I settled down and took my sweet time.

Still, I had to work over a particularly long arc I cut on two parts (my two mistakes), so the belt sander came out and did its duty for a while, costing me much more time than I saved by rushing earlier.

The lesson: Take your time to do it right and do it carefully.

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 9:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sometimes You Don’t Need To Re-Invent The Wheel

I hit a wall today working on a design for a project. 

For a few weeks I had been toying with a design and just wasn’t happy with one little detail. The core construction wasn’t an issue – that’s solid. But an artistic touch was needed for one part, and I couldn’t make up my mind. 

What did I do? Pull out a couple of 30-year-old woodworking books on loan from my father. You see, I’m a firm believer that the best projects are those that any generation would want to build, be it 30 years ago, today, or 30 years from now. I spend so much of my time designing projects that meet a long list of criteria: time, ease, expense, etc., etc., that I often miss the forest for the trees. 

Granted, I have a tendency to over-design and over-complicate a project with the first sketch/rendering, but I always simplify and peel off layers to come up with an elegant construct. Looking at project plans from three decades ago grounded me a bit and made me realize that I didn’t need all the detail I was trying to design. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) should be tattooed on my forehead as a reminder. 

To me, woodworking has forever been about ingenuity – getting the best result consistently from the least amount of effort. Why else would woodworkers spend nearly as much time creating jigs and setups as they do on completing a project? 

Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 9:27 pm  Comments (2)  

Study Your Lumber

While working on a project recently, I realized there is a skill I’ve developed that I pretty much take for granted. At this point, I don’t give a second thought to how I select a piece of lumber for a particular part in a project, other than its nominal dimension. 

But really, I do. When I’m at the store, I start my selection process. I’m looking for color, grain pattern, and any twists, wanes, or cups in the wood. Yeah, I’m that guy blocking the aisle while holding one end of a board at eye level, the other eye closed. I’m on autopilot then. 

When I’m in the shop, looking at the next part in my cut list, I’m already scanning the pile sitting before me, calculating which end (or middle sometimes) of the board I’m going to use. Autopilot again. 

Before I cut the piece, I’m analyzing grain pattern, and determining which face will be on the inside, or outside of the project. I’m looking for any imperfection that I either want to hide, or highlight, in the project. 

Perfect example. I wanted to use part of a board that had a nice wavy grain pattern, but a knot was prominent. By slightly adjusting where I cut (I had enough wiggle room on the stock) I was able to highlight the pattern, yet hide the knot. How? About 1 1/4″ of the part was going to be hidden by another part, so I adjusted the cut line to just conceal the knot, yet reveal the grain pattern I wanted. Sounds like I spent a long time analyzing that, but really it was just a couple of seconds. 

The point is, if you get into the practice of really studying the lumber you’re working with, and know the nuances of the project you’re building, you’ll be able to get great results without pulling out your hair.

Published in: on April 17, 2010 at 9:20 pm  Comments (4)  

Torque Down!

That little dial near the end of your drill that has the little numbers and then the symbol that looks like a drill bit. You know you’re supposed to use that, right? 

I’m no longer surprised when I find people who use their drill/driver without changing the setting (mainly because I come across SO many people who do it). They both drill and drive without changing that little dial. The clutch, as it’s called, basically keeps the drill from rotating once it reaches a certain resistance. Ever hear that clicking sound coming from a drill when watching home improvement shows? There you go. 

You should only set your drill/driver’s clutch strong enough to drive screws to the desired point – in most cases, slightly below the surface of the wood or whatever material is in your project. Farther is not necessarily better in this case. Over driving screws can lead to splitting a project part, which then gives you a weaker assembly. You might not even see the split, so be careful. You can even snap off the heads of screws by having the clutch set too high! 

When drilling, be sure to set the tool’s clutch to the highest setting. Most drills now have a little symbol in the shape of a drill bit at this setting. That gives your drill the maximum torque. With cordless drills, the higher the volts, the more torque (18v will give you more than 12v). 

One side note on drilling – when making a pilot hole (some people call this pre-drilling for a screw) be sure to drill with a bit that is the size of the shank of the screw, not the threads. 

Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 9:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

Project Design: Think Of Your Audience

Not long ago, I went off on a little rant when I was provided links to a couple of videos about a “simple” project.

The audience for this particular organization (I’ll keep the name to myself) is supposed to be pretty much beginners with minimal tools and who want to finish projects as quickly and efficiently as possible. This project didn’t match the audience.  

Several issues I had with the project:  

– It used a material that wasn’t readily available or just lying around, as the video host just happened to have (cherry plywood), and is expensive. Then the cherry veneer was defaced as part of the project design. Blasphemy!  

– It used a cutting technique that can be difficult to master for intermediate skilled folks and not even close to being attainable by a beginner  

– It used a “clamping” method that isn’t the easiest and no clear mention of using fasteners in the assembly  

– It required tools that beginners most likely wouldn’t have nor be able to use well enough to accomplish the task  

– No instruction for making a particular integral part needed in the project  

This project ticked me off not only for the above reasons, but also for the nonchalant manner in which it was presented. The comments on the videos reflected this, as well as the level of difficulty and requirement for expensive tools.  

As a professional project designer, builder, and writer, I took great exception to the presentation and the project. Now I admit, it’s quite easy to play Monday morning quarterback on a project design – I’m sure there are plenty of my projects that are torn to shreds later by folks that I never hear about. But I always have justifications for my projects, whether it be the skill level needed, or the fact that I may have certain limitations or requirements necessitated by the particular client.  

I take great care to make sure that the plans created are also repeatable – sort of like the scientific method approach to experiments. What’s the point in making a plan or demonstrating a project if I would be the only one who could get the result consistently each time I did it?  

In future blogs I’ll detail my approach to project design in relation to skill levels to sort of “clear the air” on this pet peeve.

Published in: on April 10, 2010 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s Not Only Hip, But Necessary To Be Square


You know you can’t just slap together a project and expect it to be perfectly straight, square and at right angles. 

A squaring jig is a good first step on the path to woodworking near-perfection. Let’s face it, you’re not going to make a perfect project, and anyone who claims perfection needs to being wearing high boots. 

This jig is simply a right angle with raised edges. There are tons of ways to make one, but that’s the basic principle. I’ve created permanent jigs and temporary jigs, but for each one I’ve used an engineer’s square to set the right angle. 

Invest in a good quality square because you can use it in tons of applications, not only in created a squaring jig, but in calibrating tools too. And store it in a safe place where it won’t get lost, banged up, or borrowed (I don’t lend mine out – ever). 

Now about the jig. An easy, basic one can be made simply with a hardwood plywood base, and hardwood rails for the raised edges. You’ll need to make sure those rails are dead-straight. 

You can also use metal angles found at your local home improvement center. In either type, use the engineer’s square to set the raised edges at a right angle and attach them to the plywood base using screws. You’ll want to countersink the screw holes – make sure you use the proper countersink bit for the metal angles. I’ve used an old bit that was needing to be replaced and tossed when doing this – it certainly was ready to go by the time I was done. 

One more tip – make sure your edges are plenty big enough to allow for clamping along their sides. 


Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 9:24 pm  Comments (1)  

Keep Your Mind On What You’re Doing


I had two incidents this week related to shop safety that were both stupid and worthy of mentioning. They were silly mistakes, and I know better, but I’m not ashamed to admit them.

First, I had a couple of layers of skin torn off of a small area on my left pinky. How? I was tightening a stepped drill bit (for drilling pocket holes) in a keyless chuck and was gripping the chuck in one hand while pulling the drill trigger in another. My mistake? My last couple of fingers were resting on the bit. At first I thought nothing of it – I usually catch a few nicks and cuts during any project – but after my hand felt sticky I realized I was bleeding. I bled through the first adhesive bandage, and wound up putting a second one on top of it.

Second, and this was today, I was driving 2 1/2″ pocket hole screws into 2x stock. I was in an awkward position (drilling left-handed while being right-handed) and the drill and bit slipped out of the screw head. Stupidly, I had my right arm right in the path of the drill bit and took quite a bit of force on the forearm. Not much blood, but a nice little knot throbs on my forearm now.

Overall, these mistakes can be attributed to one simple mistake. Haste. In the first scenario, I was pushing myself unnecessarily to prepare tools for a video shoot. In the second, I didn’t take the time to place myself in a better position for driving the screw and forgot a basic rule – never put a body part in the path, even if obstructed, of a power tool.

Keep your mind on what you’re doing in the shop, folks, right then and there, and not on what’s happening next.

Published in: on April 4, 2010 at 9:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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