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  

Three Phases of Projects: Phase 3-Build


After you’ve designed and tested your project, you’re probably sick to death of it. But now is the time the work really begins – building and applying a finish.


This is the time you need the most patience and attention to detail. You certainly wouldn’t want to have wasted all the effort of perfecting the look on paper and making sure it will work in the real world with your testing.


Carefully select the lumber you plan to use (buy it a week or more before you plan to build so the lumber can acclimate to the conditions in your shop). Sort through the bins at your supplier for the best possible pieces. If your project is going to be stained, look for consistent color and grain patterns. Buy a little more than you’ll need too – just in case you have a mishap or two, and for testing the stain you plan to use.


Which leads me to the next item – don’t jump right into apply a stain on your project. Test it on the a scrap piece from the build – a cutoff or a scrap rip – so you’ll know how the stain will look.


I won’t get into the assembly too much – your test build should handle that – but be sure to cover the basics like checking for square (if applicable), proper sanding (with the grain, progress from coarse grit to a finer grit), and scraping off and residual glue. Any glue left on the project will cause discoloration once the stain is applied.


Be sure when you fill nail/brad holes, etc., that you use a wood filler that’s close to the color of the stain you plan to use, not the wood. Wood filler does not absorb stain as well as wood.


Use a pre-stain conditioner (follow the directions on set time) to achieve a consistent stain finish throughout the project, and shine a shop light across the project to make sure you’ve applied an even finish. One last little finish check – position the project in the location you plan to keep it in your home and see how it looks. You can sand and re-stain if necessary.

The projects below are the final versions of the project sketch and test build in the previous blogs. Notice that they combine both stain and paint.

Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 9:57 pm  Comments (1)  

Three Phases of Projects: Phase 2-Test


Test building is something I do constantly, especially for pieces destined to become published project instructions. Over, and over, and over, particularly if the project is something I’m designing for a beginner to build and has the look of a project requiring more skill. 

And it’s another reason why I tend to keep and store scrap wood – scrap wood use #2 if you’re keeping a tally. 

Odd bits of plywood are may favorite pieces because I can cut them to any length and width. Any scrap will do, although I tend to not keep much scrap treated lumber around, and I wouldn’t test build it except for very specific circumstances. 

Below is the test build of the sketch I posted from the last blog. 


Notice that it is all plywood, and is darn close to the sketch. Well, it didn’t get that way on the first try. I played around with a couple of different ways of making the step and the bottom of the storage area in the back. I settled on one solid piece extending from the front to the back. 

And that’s what test building is all about – toying around until you come up with the best (strength, accuracy, ease) solution for the project and for yourself. Some woodworkers recommend test building in a smaller scale than the final project will be. I’m not a big fan of that – I’d rather build as close to the original size as I can. I feel there are subtle differences that could become an issue when jumping around from one size to another. Besides, that’s extra work to convert the size of a project. 

Hold onto a bit of scrap to have a ready supply for your test building, and by all means make notes and keep them close at hand in the shop – a building bible if you will. Every project I build has some sort of notes associated with it, and are filed (maybe not as neatly as I would like) so I can access them right away. 

Published in: on March 25, 2010 at 9:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

Three Phases of a Project: Phase 1-Design


Woodworkers of any skill level will benefit from thinking of projects in three phases: Design; Test; Build. 


I rarely touch a piece of wood without first sketching out a plan. On occasion I will simply scribble something out on a scratch piece of paper (sometimes I’ve used scrap wood), but most of the time I play around with a design on the computer using SketchUp. 

I won’t go into detail now about SketchUp, but I think it’s the greatest development for woodworkers since power tools. The bonus is that the basic program, which gives the average woodworker all the tools needed, is FREE. I’ve been working in it for years and don’t go a day without using it. Go Google it, which is appropriate because it’s a Google product. It’s easy to use and won’t take you long to learn. 

Sketching a project first seems like a no-brainer, but I can recall not so long ago that I would just go out in the shop and work at a project just because I had the “itch” to build something. Sometimes I would walk away with something worthwhile. Plenty of times I walked away very frustrated… 

In this design phase, you can work out all the kinks of the actual design. In a program like SketchUp (or any CAD program) you can view the project from every angle and perspective and know what it’s going to mostly look like when finished. You can work out proportion and size without cutting a single piece of wood. It’s the best starting point you can have for a project. 

Make sure you know some general standards for project proportions first – there are plenty of resources online, or you can simply measure some examples of what you want to build and start from there. I’ll follow up in a different blog some standard measurements for chairs, tables, and benches. But don’t be afraid to experiment with proportion, sometimes subtle changes can make huge differences and create a whole new look. 

And I recommend you always sleep on a sketch/design, then show it to at least three people for their opinions. I use that as a rule of thumb for my personal and professional projects. Check your ego though, because your perfect project may turn off some folks. 

Below is an example of a sketch (done in SketchUp) of a personal project that eventually made its way out of my shop. In the next blog in this series, you’ll see a photo of it in the Test phase, which will help illustrate the progression of a project. 


Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 2:46 am  Comments (1)  

Hide Them Screws


I’m a major fan of pocket hole joinery – I use it in both personal projects and in projects destined to be woodworking plans. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s relatively free of frustration, and it encourages beginners to build. 

Another great benefit – you can “hide” screws. Take a look at the bench below. 


Now, there are four visible screws, on in each corner, but all of the other screws used to build this bench are completely hidden. If you’ve used pocket hole joinery before, you’ll get that the long and short rails have pocket holes drilled on the ends of the back faces, and that’s how they are joined to the legs. 

What you may not get is that there are pocket holes drilled on the sides of the back faces of the rails (and on a center stretcher not visible in the photo). This allows the pocket hole screws to drive into the seat slats, securing them to the bench assembly. 

This isn’t a new technique at all – many table projects in particular use this method, either via countersunk holes in the frame or with modified corner braces of one type or another. But I find pocket holes to be much easier, and a much faster. Just make sure you properly measure and place the pocket holes so you don’t run into any surprises during assembly. 

“Hiding” the screws gives you a much cleaner appearance and no holes to fill on the outer part of a project. 

Here are the plans for building a similar bench

Published in: on March 22, 2010 at 12:33 am  Leave a Comment  

Make Your Own Detail Sander

Those hard to reach spots on a project are nearly impossible to sand with a power sander, and sometimes are even difficult to manage with a rotary tool. My solution is a shop-made hand-powered detail sander. 

I took some scrap that seemed to fit nicely in my hand – roughly 5/8″ x 3/4″ pine – and cut it to about 7″ long. Then I placed one end roughly in the center of the palm of my hand and positioned my forefinger on the 3/4″ face. I marked the position of the end and first joint of my forefinger, and marked a “dip” on the 5/8″ edge that I felt corresponded with the curve of my finger. Next, I marked a rough “spearhead” shape on the end nearest the finger mark (3/4″ face), then on the 5/8″ edge marked a slight angle.

Then it was over to the band saw to shape the piece. After some hand sanding, it was ready for some self-adhesive sandpaper. I cut a piece slightly wider than the “spearhead” and a couple of inches long, put it in place, and trimmed off the excess.

This will be great for detail work, and I now feel confident that I could make one any size or shape I needed for any specific job. When the sandpaper is worn out, I’ll just peel it off and cut more to fit.

Published in: on March 14, 2010 at 3:54 pm  Comments (5)  

DIY: Mailbox Refresh

Today my honey and I took care of a honey-do that amazed us with the result we got.

Our mailbox and post have been in sad shape for a while. But really, how important is that in relation to other things you normally have to take care of around the house? The post (metal, ornate, huge, and quite attractive) was in need of some scraping down and a new paint job, and the box (plain ‘ol black) needed new numbers (they were faded) and a little touch up too.

I had purchased new reflective numbers and paint several months ago, but let time slip by (plus we’ve had a lot of rain), and just forgot about it. Today’s great weather inspired us to action.

Now, we could have tossed the mailbox and picked up a new one (as I think most folks would), but I wanted to give paint a try. After a bit of elbow grease we were prepped. Then – Rust-Oleum Universal ( Gloss spray paint to the rescue! I used a piece of cardboard as a shield for over spray and went to work. In just a minute, I had what looked like a brand new box!

Then I went to work on the post. It has a lot of detail (a sort of Victorian-looking post), so there was a bit of a challenge getting all the nooks and crannies covered. This is where the Universal is great. You can pretty much spray in any position (I had the can nearly upside down) and have consistent performance. I have used it on a lot of small wood projects, but not on a large, vertical piece.

Our next door neighbor stopped as he was driving by and was amazed at the result we got. He even joked (a bit too fervently) about my wife and I working on his post and box when were finished. I hope he’s not still waiting for us to stop by…

Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 1:25 am  Leave a Comment  

Board Stretcher

Got your attention?

I ran into a problem today with some stock. I picked up  three boards the other day for a test build – 1x12s to be exact. Today is the first time I started working with them and discovered that one was 11″ wide instead of the normal actual 11 1/4″ a 1×12 should be. A problem because the plan called for 11 1/4″ parts.

Could I have run back and purchased another 1×12? Sure, but I’ve screwed up enough times that I had a quick solution.

I keep random strips leftover from rip cuts, as I mentioned in the Spacer blog. So, I searched through my stack until I found a 1/4″ thick strip. Now, this was a test build, and it’s eventually going to be painted, so I wasn’t too worried about matching wood. This strip was not the same species as the original board.

I cut the strip slightly longer than the original board length, then attached it using molding glue and 3/4″ brads (molding glue sets up quickly). I let the glue dry, then trimmed off the excess. That edge of the board was then positioned in the back of the project. No one would ever guess once it’s filled, sanded, primed, and painted.

Published in: on March 5, 2010 at 3:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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