Friday, December 7, 2012

The Idle Woodworker Blog was Featured on

I would like to thank Ryan Kunkle from the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania for featuring my Christmas Platform blog post in his Model Railroad Blog a few days back.  Ryan has some great articles regarding designing and setting up very aesthetic model railroad scenes.

A big reason any I began blogging at the end of last year was the limited information available for certain projects, such as a Christmas Train Platform.  By sharing information and things I have learned, I was hoping to inspire others in their own projects.  

Keep an eye out for upcoming posts as we finish up 2012 and head into 2013.  

I promise to finish the Depression-Era Vanity I introduced you to back in June, as well as test drive and review a hand saw the Great Neck Tools company will be sending my way.  A few other things in the works are farmhouse-inspired kitchen pieces I designed, removing tool rust with electrolysis, and some tools I originally thought were limited, but now cannot live without.

As for the Minwax Facebook contest, I did not win the big trip, but still receive a great consolation prize.  Congrats to Tom P. of Indiana, PA for his truly wonderful restoration of a family heirloom grandfather clock.  I really appreciate all of your votes, it is wonderful thing to know your work is truly appreciated.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Shop Safety - Which Safety Glasses are the Best?

I once asked a wise and experienced wood worker, "Which safety glasses are the best?".  His answer was simple - "The ones you wear."

If you've ever tried using an uncomfortable pair of safety glasses, then you completely understand the answer.  You got to a store, look at all the safety glasses in their blister packaging, and wonder two things - are they safe and how much do they cost.  You accept since they are protective eye wear, they may not be the most comfortable glasses you have ever worn.

But recently, I stumbled into my local Woodcraft store in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area and ran across a display for their safety glasses.  I have been looking for a good pair for some time now and willing to shell out $20-25 for a comfortable pair.  They had samples to try on, which was a welcome addition to the standard guesswork.

Fastcap Safety Glasses
What a difference in the feel of these glasses and other eye protection I have worn.  They not only are comfortable, the way they wrap around and contour my head give me an unobstructed view and good protection from flying debris.  And at $6 a pair, it was a price that wouldn't break the bank.

Online Woodcraft Fastcap Safety Glasses Page

On Sunday I had some modifications to my lumber storage to make, so I tried them out.  Comfortable and good protection, as I had expected.  Two thumbs up for safety, and a choice I can comfortably work with in the shop.

For those who are interested in additional options, Fastcap safety glasses at Woodcraft come in clear, dark, amber, mirrors, with bifocals, and as googles.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Building with Pallet Wood other types of Reclaimed Lumber

There are many times woodworkers search for alternative sources of lumber to get the look, texture, or pricing they desire, since the conventional sources of wood may not easily give the desired end product.  When trying for a vintage look or working within a desired budget, these secondary choices can supply a plethora of wood that cannot be found at your big box home improvement store.

On a recent post, I discussed building a project out of pallet wood.  Pallet wood and other sources reclaimed lumber can give a project a great vintage look, but there are a few cautions your should follow whenever selecting and working with it.  For the purposes of this article, I will break down the category of reclaimed lumber into two groups, newer lumber and old lumber.

New Lumber

Newer lumber was harvested within the past 10 or so years and can be easy to find and very inexpensive.  In fact, most sources are completely free, providing you supply the labor and transport.  The best example of this is pallet wood.  There are so many books, websites, and other sources out there reclaimed covering pallet wood construction projects.  As a matter of fact, a Google search of "pallet furniture" results in almost 2.5 million web results and almost 3 million web images.  Its popularity is without question - free wood is a hot trend in today's questionable economy.

However, it would be best err on the side of caution when building with pallet wood.  Many times pallet wood is treated with insecticides and herbicides, and may be contaminated with bacteria if it as used to transport food.  I personally would never build something to go inside my home.  Additionally, if you build anything meant for children or animals, it is best to use another type of lumber.  A good example of what I feel comfortable using pallet wood for is the Halloween graveyard fence project.  Not all pallet wood is harmful, but it is near impossible to determine which wood has been treated and which is untreated.

Old Lumber

Old lumber can be very old, even dating to the 19th century, and may have once been siding or structure of an old building.  Sometimes old barns or sawmills may have lumber stored in them, or the reclaimed would can come from boxcars, mine shafts, or flooring.  Pine and oak are most common in my state, Virginia, but other areas of the country may have different species of wood.

Old lumber is a great source of well seasoned wood, but it is not without hazards.  Sometimes insect infestations, wood rot, mold, and fungi have ravaged these buildings.  In addition, many of these old building were painted with lead paint.  Although the painted surface may have a great patina and show a well worn look, I personally would not construct anything with still had the original lead paint on its surface.  I also would never construct anything for children made from this wood.

Rough Sawn and Full of Nails

All reclaimed number may have instances where nails and a rough cut surface would exist, so it is best handled carefully with work gloves.  It is best to plane or sand the wood to a smoother surface if you expect frequent contact these pieces.  Again, for a Halloween decoration in your yard, rough cut may be great, but for a bench it will be best to have a smooth, splinter-free surface.

Before cutting, planing, or drilling, you will definitely want to remove any old nails or fasteners.  Tap them with a hammer on the sharp side and use scrap wood to get good leverage and protect your product when prying them out with the claw of your hammer or pry bar.  Run a metal detector over the wood and make sure there isn't anything left behind.  Sometimes the heads of old rusted nails may break off and get stuck in old lumber, leaving a damaging and dangerous situation when working with power tools. These can be removed by tapping them out  from the backside with a small punch.

Specialty Woods

In some cases there are specialty woods which may be salvaged for their grain, color, hardness, resistance to rot, or possibly another reason.  A good example would be Teak, which is often used outdoors and on boats for its resistance to rot.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Please Vote for the Tool/Blanket Chest Conversion

Great news - yesterday I found my Depression Era Blanket/Tool Chest Conversion project was chosen by a panel of judges as a finalist in the Miracle Makeover Contest by Minwax.  If enough Facebook users vote for my project, I will win a trip to Ashville, NC for a private lesson with Bruce Johnson, a master furniture refinisher, a piece of unfinished furniture, and some Minwax product to finish it.

I appreciate the judges selecting my project as a finalist in the Minwax contest.  Very humbling, indeed.

If you want to read about the entire conversion you can read the individual blog posts:

Depression Era Tool Chest Conversion Part 1 - Part 2

If you have a Facebook page and would like to vote for me, I would certainly appreciate it.  You can vote once a day, every day until November 18.  I won't complain if you decide to vote more than once.

You can follow this link to my entry in the contest:

Minwax Contest Entry - PleaseVote
(Link has been removed that the contest is now over.  Thank you for your votes.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Easy Halloween Graveyard Fence

What would your front yard be like on a creepy Halloween night without a graveyard?  A collection of tombstones with a fence out front makes for the perfect trick-or-treating ambiance.  Tombstones can be made or found very cheap at any drug store chain.  To add a little extra something, you can nail two boards together and make crosses to stick in the ground as well.

My Halloween fence was very easy and very inexpensive.  In fact, after it was all said and done, making them took only a few hours and cost me only a few cans of spray paint I had sitting in my garage and about $6 in conduit clamps from Lowes. Even the wood, which can be obtained from shipping pallets, can cost nothing.

Cut angles at the top of your pickets

Step 1 - Cut and Arrange Your Fence Pickets

I started by taking five boards and cutting them at an angle near the top.  It really doesn't even matter exactly what angle you choose, just be somewhere between 30 and 60 degrees.  The randomness of your angles add extra effect to the final product.  Arrange your pickets similar to the drawing to the right.

Basic fence before finishing

Step 2 - Add the Fence Rails

Then I take two slightly longer boards and lay them across the original boards as your rails.  Exact dimensions are not necessary, eyeballing everything is good enough for Halloween decorations.  You may even choose to lay these boards at a slight angle.  After you have everything laid out, nail the boards together.  I used a total of twenty 1 1/4" nails in total.

Pound the stakes in, the slide the straps over them

Step 3 - Add the Stakes

The first time I made these, I pounded wood stakes into the ground and screwed the fence to them.  I thought it was a great idea, but it was a bear getting things lined up properly and securing everything.  Then I came up with the idea of using conduit straps.  By lining up 1/2" green steel garden stakes with the straps, I found this very secure.   The strap/stake concept I used held my fence sections firmly in the ground during Hurricane Sandy this year.

Line up your straps and screw them halfway in.  Pound your stakes in, then slide the fence section down over the stakes.  Tighten the screws on the straps for a good grip. 

Spanish moss adds a nice "aged" touch to the fence

Step 4 - Paint and Decorate Your Fence

To paint this fence, I used a combination of green, black, beige, and brown.  First, I sprayed each color in a large camouflage pattern, using some of each color.  It looked pretty cheesy, but that was only a base coat.  Then, using the darker colors, I sprayed a light mist or black and brown over the whole fence.  It gave it a nice aged look. I finished off my fences by stapling a little Spanish moss or wrapping ivy vine cuttings around the pickets.

Make two, three, four, or as many as you want.  You can start out small and add a few more fence sections every year.  They store flat and out of the way, making this a no-brainer for reusable Halloween yard decorations.  I currently have six in my front yard and am ready for my trick-or-treaters to show up again this year.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The Importance of Old Hand Tools

In an effort to break from refinishing blogs, I would to write a little bit about old hand tools and why I still use them almost every chance I get.  Woodworking and refinishing may be my favorite hobbies, but collecting old tools runs very close behind. Up until about 100 years ago, the average person did not own a single power tool - everything a homeowner made was exclusively by hand.

Classic Stanley Handyman Plane

So why would today's craftsman even bother using hand tools when power tools make it faster and easier to product good quality product?  There are five main reasons I choose to use a number of old hand tools:

Price - If I had an empty garage and a $200 tool budget, almost every piece of equipment I would buy would be a hand tool (the only exception would be an electric drill.)  You get more for your money with hand tools, and could outfit your entire shop on a minimal budget.

Durability - This may not be the case with the hand tools made today, but the durability of an average hand tool over 30 years old is usually very good. In an age when premium brand power tools may only come with a one year warranty, the lifetime of a classic hand tool, with care, can last generations.

Intimacy with the Craft - Some woodworkers, such as Roy Underhill, see the use of power tools as a step away from the traditional craft, making wood working more business and less art. While a power tool may help you produce volume, properly tuned hand tools can help you produce quality and detail.

Yankee Push Drills are so great, they deserve their own blog post
Efficiency - If you are not producing multiple copies of the same piece, you may find hand tools can make you more efficient and saved time.  The time to set up your table saw, jig, router, or other power tool may nullify the time saved when only making one or two passes. 

Experience - Why do we still make our children memorize multiplication tables when you can buy a calculator for less than $5?  Doing something by hand the long way can train your brain to develop its own shortcuts and recognize patterns or mistakes.  The same can be true for woodworking, where your experience from using hand tools can make you even more competent using power tools.  In fact, most professional furniture trade schools first cover mastery of hand planes, chisels, and turning before you plug in your first power tool.

My grandfather sharpened his own hand saw, an art long lost.

I was recently blessed with the opportunity to go through my grandfather's tools and select the pieces I would take home and use in my own shop.  I feel very honored to be able to use the same tools which have shaped so many pieces of furniture and metalwork from my family's generations.

To carry on these traditions is truly a very humbling experience.  All of the photos listed in this blog post are not only classic hand tools, to me they are also family heirlooms.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Depression Era Tool Chest Conversion - Continued

(Part 2 of 2)

With many years of use, love, and wear, this tool chest will need a sound refinishing before put to work as a blanket chest. This blogpost will cover my preferred method for stripping, repairing, and refinishing furniture. 

Part 1 of 2 can be found here.

 6. Polish the Hardware

With over 80 years of tarnish, hand polishing was not a viable option for the brass hardware.  I instead decided to use my electric buffer, which is nothing more than a bench grinder fitted with a $5 polishing/buffing wheel.  

When polishing hardware, I use gloves to protect my fingers from accidental contact with the buffing wheel.  After you turn on your buffer, apply some brass cleaning/polishing compound to the wheel.  Then simply push your piece against the front of the wheel slightly toward the bottom, and hold on very tightly.  Don't forget to polish the screws as well; I use a set of pliers to hold the screw in place.  

80 years of tarnish can be removed in 5 minutes
When the wheel starts clogging, I will keep the motor running and gently use a wire brush to clean the muck off.  The most important things you can do when polishing is protect your fingers and hold your pieces tight - even the slower speed grinders spin at a minimum of 1750  rpm and can send a work piece flying across the shop.

7. Match missing screws

When I write my book on how to be a world class antique restoration expert, I'll include a chapter on how it is easier to fabricate replacement hardware than it is to buy a suitable match. 
If you are fortunate enough to restore a piece of furniture with all pieces of hardware and screws intact, count your blessings.  In most cases, a piece that fits this description has been cared for so well, there is no reason to refinish it.  Too often hardware is either missing or damaged, sending you on a scavenger hunt for the exact same pieces or something close enough to match. 

Fortunately, I was only missing a few screws.  After a little searching, I found what I was looking for.  Sometimes you can find them in the big-box home improvement store, but my best success has always been the locally-owned hardware store.  When matching a screw, the following information is critical :

12 Screw Head Types - Click to Enlarge
Drive Type - Slotted and Phillips are the most common drive types
Material - Brass, Brass Plated*, Stainless, Zinc Plated, Copper
Length - total length of the screw to be submerged in the wood
Head Size -  inch increments or denoted with "#"
Head Type - Flat, Pan, Round, etc.
Screw Diameter - This is dependent on the hole size you are using
Thread Count - It's really not necessary to know the exact thread count, just remember you must choose the right screw for wood or metal.

* I always prefer solid brass over brass plated anything.  If you expect to have the piece for many years, you'll thank yourself for the extra few dollars spent with solid brass.

8. The Aromatic Cedar Insert

Cutting the aromatic cedar to size
This being my first time working with cedar, I decided to do some research.  I found it makes no difference whether you cover just the bottom of the chest or the entire inside, the aroma is pretty pungent either way.  After time, the scent will wear out, but with a light sanding you can bring back that great smell.

Sanding for a new, fresh aroma
Plain ordinary cedar will not work as well as "aromatic" cedar.  The easiest way to find this stuff is as tongue-and-groove closet lining from your local hardware store.  I decided to make an insert by cutting my to size and nailing it to two 1x4s.  This way, when the smell wears out and it comes time to sand it down, I can pull the entire insert out instead of fighting with my sander deep down in the corners.

The Finished Project

Now our restoration is finished and we can decide to keep the tool chest as is, or add a few small touches.  I decided to purchase a lid support so I could prop the chest open.  At this point, you could also add on handles, a new lock, name plates, or engravings.

 Whatever you decide to do, the important this is to make it uniquely yours.

Tool Chest before restoration

Blanket Chest after restoration

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Depression Era Tool Chest Conversion

(Part 1 of 2)

With many years of use, love, and wear, this tool chest will need a sound refinishing before put to work as a blanket chest. This blogpost will cover my preferred method for stripping, repairing, and refinishing furniture. 

 1. Determine Type of Finish

The first step before diving into this refinishing project was to determine exactly what type of finish with which you are dealing.  Most finishes from Depression Era furniture were multiple coats lacquer.  To check for this finish, I put some lacquer thinner on a rag and tried to wipe away the old finish.  With no such luck, I realized this finish is varnish or very tough to remove.  My best option at this point would be to strip and completely refinish.

2. Remove the Hardware

Before stripping, I removed the eight brass corners, three hinges, and the locking mechanism.  Keeping as much as possible of the original hardware is important for any refinish job. I put these in a small plastic zipper bag, such as these, and stored them in a safe place.

3. Replace Broken Pieces

On the side of the tool chest, a piece of trim was split near the corner.  Replacing this piece is critical in getting the finished product to look great, so I re-created the piece with some red oak.  I concluded the tool chest was white oak, but decided to use red oak since it is easier to come byand I had some lying around the shop.  It is more important to the match grain pattern of the oak rather than color, since I can always stain or dye the replacement piece.  To ensure the proper thickness of the new piece, I used my thickness planer to thin out the replacement part and cut it to size.

The original piece was split.
I made a copy to look like the original.
Here is our tool chest with the new piece added.

4. Remove Old Finish *

After replacing the damaged piece, I stripped the entire outside of the tool chest using a chemical stripper.  It is important to work the residue from the stripper onto the replacement part, matching the patina from the rest of the piece and hiding your repair from the casual observer.  A final wash of lacquer thinner or other post-stripping cleaner should be used to remove all leftover residue and give you a clean surface for staining.

* BE SAFE - Always use chemical strippers, stains, paints, and topcoats in a well-ventiallated area. Wear safety protection, as chemical burns can be a real Debbie Downer on your skin and in your eyes.  Always have a plan ready in case of skin and/or eye contact, and ingestion.

5. Apply a New Stain and Finish Coat * 

I prefer to stain with a rag instead of a brush.  Woodworkers traditionally use both methods, but I feel staining with a rag gives me better control over the amount of overlapping and results in a much better finished product.  Remember to follow all instructions and wipe away the excess stain after a few minutes, or your stain will completely dry and leave a a thin layer of unsightly scum which will not take a final finish very well.  Finish with a few sealing coats of your choice.  I chose a semi-gloss lacquer to visually bring out the depth of the scratches and dents on the surface.


Are We Done?

Now that we have this great new finish and protective coat, what next?  In Part 2 of our project, we will learn how to properly polish 80+ years of brass tarnish, finding proper replacement hardware, and adding the aromatic cedar.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Upcoming Projects

After some time off at the shop taking care of pressing issues, I am happy to say Memorial Day Weekend was a welcome return to my saws, chisels, hand planes, and hammers. A dire need for shop space has also brought me back to where my experience in woodworking began, refinishing. There are two particular pieces I have had sitting around for quite some time and I am looking forward to having them done and gone, giving me more floorspace in my shop and my guest bedroom.

The Lady's Vanity

The first is a piece is a lady's vanity from the 1930s. With no maker's mark in any of the drawers, one could only assume it was part of a larger set. It appears to be made of walnut, some veneered plywood, and oak, tinted with a dark red stain/dye, with a final coating of lacquer. The mirror is in pretty good condition, just a few scratches on the frame and mirror posts. The body of the vanity was in good usable condition, but there two glaring issues which are in need of repair.

  • The veneer on the top is coming loose, and in a few places, was missing. It would be essential to re-glue the old veneer and patch the missing pieces.
  • On the left hand side there is a massive burn, possibly being set next to a radiator or something even hotter.

The Classic Toolbox

The second piece once belonged to my to my neighbor's grandfather, and we estimate it at also being from the 1930s. It is a very larger toolbox, made of oak, and in a very "well loved" condition. Between the many scratches and crazing*, it also had a split piece of wood on it in need of replacement.

While this was a very wonderful piece, my need for a large, chest-styled toolbox was minimal, as was the room in my garage to use it as such. This tool chest would serve as a nice blanket chest, especially if it were lined with aromatic cedar. In additional, all eight brass chest corners appeared to be in great condition, just well aged. Buffed to a shine, or shown with a slight aged brass patina, these chest corners would offset nice against the dark wood.

I will reserve future blog posts for the restoration of these pieces, so be sure to check back in the coming weeks for updates.

* Crazing is when a furniture's finish shows tiny cracks, resulting from the shrinkage of the finish. This can be attributed to many, many moons spent in direct sunlight (by a window) or from issues regarding humidity.