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The technique I settled on worked fairly well. Using long winding sticks, I got the ends of the slab in the same plane using both hand planes and my Makita power planer. Then I used a 8' long straightedge and the same tools to connect the ends along the sides. This left me with a rectangle around the edges of the slab that was in the same plane. Finally I just used a straightedge side to side along the length. It worked.
That left me with a slab that was quite flat but with a lot of cracks and knots and substantial tearout. This is the point at which you want to use epoxy to fill in the cracks and knots. I chose to use T-88 epoxy, which I had on hand, because it disappears under varnish and dries very slowly. The problem I encountered is that it dried so slowly that it got absorbed and the level would drop below the surface. In places it ran completely through the slab onto the floor. To remedy this, I taped the cracks and knots on the bottom and overfilled the cracks and knots. This worked but made for a lot of work subsequently levelling the epoxy but the epoxy would still soak in so much that I had trouble maintaining the level. Finally I mixed fine sawdust into the epoxy and this solved the problem. I am not sure how else to do it. I think a faster setting epoxy might be better.
As I wrote earlier, I couldn't figure out a good way to deal with all the tearout. The hand tool that worked best was a cabinet scraper but it took forever because of the depth of the tearout. I finally gave up and turned to a belt sander, which I haven't used in years. I got better at it eventually and, by keeping it moving, I was able to smooth the slab without introducing too must unevenness. I started with the bottom, so I am hopeful that I can do better on the top. What I may do is use the belt sander to get as close as possible and then spend a lot of time with the cabinet scraper. If you know of a better way, I 'd like to hear it. As I have told you, a plane, no matter how sharp, will simply not work because of the soft douglas-fir and the swirling grain.
The epoxy fill actually turned out much better than I expected. Especially with the sawdust, it blends in quite well and looks good.
I had turned the heavy slab over to the rough side, so I decided to work on it first and got an unpleasant surprise. The now much dryer slab was decidedly more prone to tearout. Cracks had open up and these tended to widen with anything but straight on planing. With all of the twists and turns in the grain, especially around the big knots, planing with the grain was impossible. I sharpened my planes very carefully but nothing I tried could avoid deep tearout. Finally I just let it tearout and then used a belt sander for final surfacing. Not very satisfying, but it worked. I was able to avoid all but one dip with the belt sander. The slab is currently 2 3/8" thick so I have removed 3/4" of material!
Douglas-fir is obviously not the ideal species to make a table slab from because it is so soft and prone to tearout. However, this is what we wanted--it is after all the Oregon state tree--so we just have to accept its challenges. I've come to understand that a 37" wide live edge douglas-fir slab with lots of knots in it isn't going to resemble fine furniture and that this is part of its aesthetic. Now that I look at these slabs in pubs and restaurants more closely, I see that they are all that way.
I almost went over to the dark side. Surfacing this slab clearly showed why the standard way is attractive. If you build rails along the sides of the slab and then make a sled for a powered router to ride in across the slab, you can get a flat slab with little or no tearout and not a whole lot of hard work. I didn't do this, but it was at the cost of many hours of hard work and a slab that isn't perfectly flat, although it's close. Once I get this side done, I have to turn the slab over and do the other side again.
This project has turned out to be far more challenging than I thought it would be. Just about everything I thought would work didn't. Looking back, I should have done more research. So, in the interest of saving you from my fate, I am going to go over some things I learned in the next few posts.
I paid $30. Online prices are all over, so I don't know whether this is a good deal or not, but I am pleased to have the set.
An interesting and puzzling, to me at least, sidenote is where the 32 1/2 comes from. The bits are graduated from 1/4" to 1" by sixteenths and, if you add up the thirteen bits, the sum is 130/16. Dividing the numerator and denominator by 4 yields (32 1/2)/4. Odd.
The next test I conducted was to see if they would bore a hole in 5/4 dry white oak. The Stanley and Russell Jennings bits did fine but the Stanley stalled. Looking at it, it appeared that the threads on the snail clogged up. I then used a trick that Bob Rozaieski shared. I bored a hole in the alder just to the depth of the lead screw and covered the threads on the lead screw with green honing compound. Then I threaded it into the hole and worked it back and forth several dozen times. I re-attempted to bore a hole with the bit and it worked fine. Clearly the snail needs to be clean and polished to do its job well.
So what's up? It's not clear to me whether one design is superior to the other. I cannot provide a technical explanation of the relative merits of double threaded and single threaded snails on auger bits. The most important thing seems to be to make sure they are tuned-up very well. Looking back, I think the problem I had with the Irwin pattern bits in hardwood was a result of maintenance not design.
He cuts the slabs on a chainsaw mill on steroids: 23 hp and a 6' cutting width.
Finally, I found the one I wanted, 3" thick, 37" wide and 11' long.
Problem was, my pickup bed is only 6' long, just over 7' with the tailgate down and we had to go home on an interstate, but what the heck. I hadn't really thought through what we would do when we got home with an approximately 300 lb. slab, so here's what we did. We backed right up to my workbench:
Then we rolled if off on dowels:
I cut off 3' so the tabletop will be 8' long. Never having tried to flatten anything anywhere near this big, I started with a scrub plane but it was just way too much for me, so I turned to some power tools:
This picture doesn't convey how massive the slab is, so remember that you are looking at 24 sq. ft.! It also doesn't reveal all the swirling grain around the knots, which is really beautiful. I removed 3/8" of material, partly because it took me a while to figure out what I should be doing, so I am thinking that the final table top will end up around 2 3/8" thick. It's not perfectly flat, but is within 1/32". This is what I hope is the bottom of the table, but I don't know for sure because the slab is so heavy I can't turn it over to find out. For that I am going to have to round up the neighbors. Barely noticeable in the picture is that I sealed the end grain with paraffin by melting it and painting it on, which seems to be working.
This slab had been drying for over a year and feels quite dry, but it has a ways to go. My plan is to flatten both sides and then let it dry in the garage for the summer months before resuming work on it in the fall. That probably means I will have to do some more flattening but I have plenty of material. I just felt like doing some work on it now.
The bark is all there and I have decided to keep it, so it's going to be challenging to figure out a way to finish it. I put spray polyurethane on the bark of the alder coffee table I made and it is holding up, but the bark on this table will have a lot more contact with people and chairs. The good news is that this bark is a lot stronger and more stable than the alder bark. Over the summer I am going to try some experiments on scrap pieces of bark. One thought I had is to thin epoxy and paint it on. I've read that you can heat it up or dilute it with alcohol to thin it.
Polishing the sides of your scrapers to a mirror finish can be very useful, because that way you can use one of your finely honed plane blades to shave right in your workshop without needing a shaving mirror. Which brings me to another subject. I am happy if I can get my plane blades and chisels sharp enough that they will shave hair off my arm, which you don't need a mirror for. I know that some woodworkers think this is not good enough and that the hair should "jump" or "fly" off your arm. I once accidentally got one of my plane blades this sharp and it scared me. I was afraid that a blade this sharp would make the shavings jump off the workpiece and hit me in the face or eye, and I don't wear a face shield when planing. That could cause a lost time injury.
A while after the scraper class I took a class on sharpening plane blades and chisels taught by a foreman at a local high-end woodworking business. He does all the sharpening for his crew. One of the things he did was prepare a new chisel. He flattened the back on a belt sander, went to a grinder to create the bevel he wanted and finished off on a diamond plate, all freehand. The entire process took less than 5 minutes. This class was at the opposite end of the spectrum from the scraping class; it emphasized the practical and wasted no time. I don't recall a single jig. We all left with tools that weren't great but were usably sharp. I do considerably better than this now, but it was a good starting point.
We all have to decide where we want to be on this spectrum. Experiences like this turned me into a rather slovenly woodworker. As a result, I don't flatten the backs of my chisels all the way to the handle, I use the dastardly "ruler trick" on my plane blades, I can't see my reflection in the sides of my scrapers ... I could go on, but you get the idea.
In case you're wondering, I did eventually learn to sharpen and use scrapers. When enough time had passed after the class for my inferiority complex to die down, I spent a few minutes watching Youtube videos, gave it a shot, then another and another, each time trying to figure out why things got better, or didn't. Eventually I got the hang of it. I really like scrapers now. They usually make shavings but they aren't usable as shaving mirrors. That's the way I like it.
There are woodworkers that are really into sharpening. For some, it seems to be almost a meditative experience. There is nothing at all wrong with this and I am in awe of them, in fact somewhat envious. Really. I wish I could lose myself in sharpening the way they do. Instead, I ask myself whether the extra sharpness results in better woodworking. How long do these superior edges stay sharper in practice? I suspect not very long, but I don't know.
Calculus taught me to see processes in optimization terms. As your tools get sharper your woodworking gets better, first rapidly, then more slowly. You reach a point where extra effort isn't worth it. That's my mental model, which has its own limitations.
As for classes, what you learn in classes is partly a function of the skill of the instructor as a woodworker and partly a function of his or her skill as an instructor. This will sound arrogant, but I could teach a much much better class on sharpening and using scrapers than the one I took, even though I don't have near the skill with them.
I had some cherry, so, just for grins, I decided to try it for comparison. What a difference. I know this is obvious, but I had forgotten how dramatic it is. The cherry seemed almost like paper. It was a lot of fun to work with after the white oak. Although I like to use up stock I have on hand, I think I am going to keep the white oak in reserve for projects that really need it. There are a lot of projects where white oak's strengths are very valuable. Tea boxes aren't one of them.
Even though I didn't want to do exactly what he suggested, Gerry's comment was the insight I needed and I knew immediately what I did want to do. My prototypes taught me that my ideal stool would have the wooden bicycle seat mounted on a long thin stem and Gerry's idea was that it should be attached to a heavy round object at the base. I retrieved a 10 lb. weight from my weightlifting machine, drilled four counterbored holes in it, cut off two short pieces of 2x4, grabbed a scrap of closet rod, drilled two 1 1/2" holes and there it was, exactly what I had been groping for all this time:Andy: How about a circle for the base, with the seat pedestal set to one side. If the base was 1 1/2 -2" thick you could ease the bottom front to accommodate rolling forward as well as right and left. A dense hardwood might give the weight needed to keep it upright.
I know this is arguably ugly, but it works great and does have a certain modernist appeal. You really have to work at it to knock this stool over and the rounded edge on the weight lets it move easily in all directions. It's very comfortable and allows a wide range of movement.
This one doesn't incorporate height adjustment because I knew exactly how high I wanted it to be, but it wouldn't be difficult to add. I am not sure if this is a coincidence, but the height I chose by feel is exactly 1/2" less than my inseam. The important thing is that your knees be slightly bent.
This sort of active stool, as I have called it, is obviously not for everyone. The bicycle seat is ideal because you can move around without sliding, but you probably have to be a bicycle rider to appreciate this. I don't think you can appreciate this stool without trying it. For me, though, it is the ideal shop stool, just what I wanted.
I look at it now and can't understand what took me so long. Now that I can see it, this design seems so obvious that it is almost embarrassing that I floundered around.
I am done.
This is my best shot at making you laugh and shake your head. I do both each time I dust my shop this way. At a minimum, it is unorthodox, at maximum it is absurd. How did this start? I was getting frustrated one day because countless dust nibs were interfering with my feeble attempts at finishing. In desperation, I opened the garage doors, fired up my blower and blew the whole garage out thoroughly. Then I let a fan run for a few minutes and, to my surprise, the dust was gone. I guess you can put this down as one advantage of garage workshops. In my defense, it does take two minutes.
The best way to deal with dust is to have a separate area for hand tool woodworking that is walled off from machines, sandpaper, and other sources of fine dust. For a variety of reasons that I won't bore you with, that isn't feasible in my case, so this is what I am left with. Rescue me from my perversion; tell me a better way.
I have wall shelves in my garage shop and my tools (and everything else on those shelves) get very dusty. I never thought a tool chest would be a good idea because you have to move so many things to get at the tool you need, which just happens to be at the bottom. Can you comment on your experiences with this?
My shop is not dusty. I intend to share a video here showing why. It may make you laugh and perhaps cringe but it works. Nevertheless, I would not store many of my best tools on shelves. We have had 54" of rain in the last six months, so rust is a concern. I think you need a mixture of storage types and there are a lot of items in a garage woodshop that do just fine on shelves, but most tools are not among them. To store mine, I am an enthusiastic advocate of tool chests.
Like Matt, I don't want to paw around looking for a tool. You can minimize this by making shallow tills, making custom holders for your tools that make them easy to access and using the inside of the top. I made three tills of different depths but, if I had it to do over again, I might make four. For many of us, tool chests can be quite deep to accommodate them. My opinion is that you can determine the maximum depth for your tool chest by measuring the distance between your armpit and your second knuckle on your forefinger.
Reality for many of us is different; woodworking happens either in the basement or in the garage. I am luckier than many in that I have a three-car garage, but it has to accommodate four hobbies-- gardening, tent camping, biking and woodworking--as well as the usual paraphernalia for home maintenance. (The cars stay in the driveway.) Woodworking gets the lion's share, but the space is just plain awkward. It's not big enough, there's not a lot of available wall space, it can be too cold and there is almost no natural light when the garage doors are closed. These are issues faced by many woodworkers and I hope this discussion will be useful.
Here's the garage from the street:
The two bays on the left are 20' deep and the one on the right is 24' deep. The overall width is 31'. The ceilings are 9 1/2' high.
My bench has been on the right side behind the single door since we moved here almost 4 years ago and I am keeping it there. One goal I have is to store everything I use regularly at the bench no more than a step or two from it. I've been short on accessible storage next to my bench, so the first thing I did this spring was build floor to ceiling shelves along the right side of it:
60 lineal feet of shelves was a big improvement, although I do have to use a ladder to reach the top shelf. An alternative favored by many is to install wall cabinets for tools, which would look nicer but not be more functional. My personal preference is shelves. They cost very little, are quick to build and have a lot more capacity. Extending them to the ceiling allowed me to secure them to the top plate.
On the left side of the bench, I have my tool chest and an antique butcher block that I will be using as a joinery bench. I raised it up to be 38" off the ground.
This let me put my main bench back down to palm height, 35" in my case.
The flooring is utility mats made from recycled tires that I got at a ranch store. As far as I am concerned, they are ideal because they create a vapor barrier, are easy on the feet and protect dropped tools.
Working at the bench in good weather is great because I can put the garage door up and have lots of natural light. Because the garage doors lack windows, the shop feels like a dungeon when they are closed, even though I have half a dozen LED fixtures. I had hoped to replace one section of the door with one that has windows, but neither the manufacturer nor the local distributor would consider it. The best they can offer is a brand new door with the top two of four sections containing windows, at a cost of $1,200. I am considering it but it aggravates me to replace a perfectly good door. Right now I am thinking about building my own replacement section using polycarbonate for windows. It looks like I could just unbolt the existing one and bolt on a replacement, using the existing steel supports around the perimeter and the same hinges. I think I could keep it light enough to operate properly.
I'd really like to have no power tools in this space, but the deeper bay, electrical connections and other issues don't allow it, so I put the three power tools that I would replace if they failed in the back: my bandsaw, drill press and power planer:
On the right, I have more shelves that are used primarily for hand power tools, paint and home maintenance supplies.
I am pretty satisfied with this section of the garage. Once I solve the natural light issue, the remaining challenge will be heat for the winter months. I'll post about that later.
I am sure the list will grow and change over time, but these are the ones I settled on:
- dovetail saw, crosscut backsaw, flush cut saw and fret saw
- #4 bench plane, router plane and fence, shoulder plane
- set of chisels
- small combination square
- hook rule
- eggbeater drill and bits
- marking gauge
- measuring tape
- double-sided diamond stone
- scrapers and burnisher
- mechanical pencils
I had a canvas tool roll and this works well for a spokeshave, chisels, a marking knife and gauge, a screwdriver etc. The mallet can be loose:
I put the smaller tools into the top tray:
A final verdict will have to await field trials but I think this project is a success. At minimal cost, I have a travel toolbox and bench that seems highly functional and versatile. The big issue is working height, because 12" on top of a picnic table is on the high end. If it's too high, I will try it on the seat instead. Another possibility is to use legs and anchor them to the table so they wouldn't tip and slide.
My hope is that others will come up with their versions of a portable workbench and toolbox too. The only other one that I am aware of is the Milkman's workbench that Chris Schwarz built. I don't like it at all, but it does have the advantage of solving the working height problem. You could make a separate toolbox instead of having a single unit like I made. If you got rid of the vises and just made a laminated top I think it could be quite nice.
Sometimes things I do in the shop turn out worse than expected for no reason I can discern and sometimes the opposite occurs. This time, it was the latter. The dovetails fit off the saw with almost no gaps. Part of this is because I took advantage of the fact that douglas-fir is compressible and intentionally made the fit a little tight. Here's the front of the box:
Here's the toolbox inside the bench:
So, now it's time to fill it.