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Was it the wrong process or the wrong tool?

I have been a woodworker for more than 33 years and during these many years, and as you would expect, I have learned a lot about woodworking. I like to think that I can simply look at an interesting piece of furniture and, in my mind, begin to build it. Run through the steps I’d take to create my version of it. For me, part of the fun of woodworking is coming up with a sound process for making an object.

I posted the photo above on Instagram and was proud of what the photo portrayed. The image shows the front and rear stretchers for my new workbench coming to life. There is an organized workbench, my new tool cabinet in the background and the stretchers well on their way towards completion. The photo made me smile for these reasons, but also because I had conquered a design dilemma which had been secretly troubling me for several weeks.

Original front/back stretcher design.

My dilemma: Find a better way to cut the wedge mortises on the front and rear stretchers. The wedges need an angled mortise as seen above. My original plan for making these four mortises meant I would have to make eight angled dadoes using two boards for each stretcher; an extremely error prone exercise.

One morning, while driving out of my neighborhood, a stroke of genius hit me. I would make the stretchers three boards wide and design the center board so that room is made for the wedge…

The new front/rear stretcher design (a copy pulled forward for easier viewing).

A detailed view, new design, front and rear stretchers.

This new design uses a total of five parts: two outer boards shown in blue above and an inner core made of three parts shown in red and yellow. The logic of this design was mostly driven by my desire for an easier way to make the mortise for the wedges (shown in green), avoiding a lot of chopping the mortises with a chisel – the wood is red oak. And this new design enables me to add some width to the stretchers.

The process I concocted for achieving the final stretcher was this:

  1. Glue a red board to a blue board.
  2. Glue the yellow parts to the same blue board.
  3. Run the combined boards through the planer. The blue boards are 7/8″ thick. The red and yellow parts are 3/4″ thick.
  4. Then glue on the second blue board and send the completed stretcher through the planer to get 7/8″ on the second blue board.
  5. With a router, cut away the material at each end to create the long tenon.

After completing steps one and two, I began to plane this two board thick glue-up. This all began to go wrong when I sent the side with the wedge mortise through my planer. The cut-out for the mortise made it possible for the two board glue-up to move around considerably in the planer creating a terrible scoop in three places. See the illustration which best shows the result…

Note the scalloped shape before and after the wedge mortise cut-out.

Now, a planer is usually one of the loudest tools in the workshop when everything is going well. It is much louder when it is taking a deep, nasty cut all at one time. A deep cut is what happened when I sent this stretcher through the planer which essentially made it unusable.

Note the nasty cut.

So, I quickly went from a moment of being Instagram proud to a feeling of workshop stupidity. Even after 33 years of experience, woodworking can be so incredibly humbling. I thought there was a possibility that something would go wrong when the planer met the wedge mortise, but I wasn’t sure what would happen. I am lucky a more serious problem didn’t happen.

I think my process or the how I wanted to create these stretchers is sound, but I simply picked the wrong tool for the job. Since I had a second stretcher to complete (which hadn’t been ruined), I made a few passes over my power jointer which easily gave me the result I wanted. I did not originally choose my jointer for this task because the jointer can be somewhat inaccurate (like a tapered cut).

Now I am in the process of making a replacement stretcher for the one I messed up. By tonight the replacement will be ready for the outer board to be glued in place and I’ll be back on track. I hope to have the tenons for each end of the stretchers formed by the end of the week.

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Moravian Workbench: Leg Assembly Is Complete

It has been a long, long time since I last reported on the progress with my Moravian workbench. I have been taking my time cutting the four different leg joints to ensure I get them right (or reasonably close to right). My methods have relied heavily on power tools for the bulk of fabrication and then gaining a tight tenon fit using hand tools.

Warning: this is a long blog post with a lot of photos. Let’s dive in by reviewing the various leg joinery…

Note how each leg is built up from four boards.

As far as I can remember, I have never made a through mortise and tenon joint. This joint is difficult to make well because the fit between the tenon and mortise can be easily seen. Making a nice, tight, square mortise and then duplicating that same shape on the mating tenon is time-consuming and even a little stressful.

After having made the dovetail joint at the base of the leg (something I did twice before I was happy with the result), I made the angled mortise which will ultimately house the through tenon from the front and rear stretchers. I created a jig which was screwed to my table saw miter gauge to form the outer boundary of the mortise and then removed the waste with my router and did a little touch up work with a chisel and rasp.

The last photo above shows how I had to then make a mirror dado in the opposite half of the leg. You can see a tiny sliver of wood broken away along the left edge of the mortise. Because cedar is so super, super, super soft, little pieces of wood have broken away here and there (this wood is ridiculously soft).

Then I turned my attention to the through mortise joint mid-way up the leg. I drilled out the bulk of the waste with my old, rickety, tiny bench top drill press (such a drill press is better than no drill press at all). I then chiseled to my scribe lines. The resulting joint was sloppy due to the soft nature of the cedar I’m using. I learned that I needed a razor-sharp chisel at all times, otherwise the cedar would tear rather than cut. Tearing causes a poor shape to the outer edges of the mortises (and the interior as well).

So, I turned to template routing; I made the mortise slightly larger to compensate for the irregular cut of the original mortise and then made a template which I used on both sides of the leg since my plunge router couldn’t obtain the depth needed to make the mortise from one side.

The jig registers off the bottom edge of the leg and then is centered on the leg hopefully making the cut from opposite sides of the leg align. This went remarkably well and following a little clean-up with a chisel, I called these mortises done.

Next was the open mortise at the top of the leg. For this joint, I carefully marked the boundary of the mortise and called on a jig I originally made for the dovetail stretchers which enables me to stand the leg up vertically and make cuts at the table saw.

Then drill press and chisel work completed this mortise. Of course, I had to repeat all of this for each leg; a sloooowwww process. These were complicated cuts in which I wanted a pretty high level of precision. I am happy with the results.

Next – time to form the middle and upper stretchers along with their needed tenons. I cut the overall length of the stretchers long so they would extend through the leg mortises enabling me to trim them flush later. To cut the tenons, I simply determined the location for cheek cuts using a stop block at the table saw, and then made repeated passes to remove the waste.

Some people say that a rabbeting block plane is a poor choice for sneaking up on a proper fit for a mortise and tenon joint; saying that a shoulder plane is best for this task. For these long, wide tenons, this block plane worked wonderfully. I am sure for a shorter tenon a heavy shoulder plane is the tool of choice, but in my situation where I am forming tenons only a few times a year, I think the rabbeting block plane is a prudent option.

Then it was time to add the splayed angle to the top and bottom of each leg and cut a matching edge to the top of the upper stretcher. Finally, I began glue-up.

I turned to using blue tape and a Sharpie to number the joints helping me keep all the parts aligned correctly. Pencil dents the super soft cedar. I do like the color though. Cedar is a handsome wood, but it being so soft, I’m not sure I’ll use it very often in future projects.

One last task for the leg assemblies was to trim the tenons for the middle and upper stretchers. To do this, I add two slender strips of wood to the base of my plunge router using hot melt glue. This elevates the base above the leg and the tenons. After several passes with the router and some clean-up with my block plane and sander, the leg assemblies are finished.

Next, I’ll begin work on the stretchers which run across the lower front and back of the workbench. Theses will take a lot of fabrication too. They will need tenons at each end and within these tenons, I’ll need to cut away stock to allow the keys to slide in place.

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Asa Christiana’s “Build Stuff With Wood”

There is no question what this book is about. The title is super direct; super simple: Build Stuff With Wood. Asa Christiana’s new book from Taunton Press could one day become a “must have” book for aspiring woodworkers. Why? The mission of this book is to help woodworking newbies gain confidence and new skills by building stuff that looks good and requires only basic tools. This isn’t a book about building bird houses (not that there is anything wrong with that). Rather the projects are simple, varied and have been designed with a dose of style. Yet, the thirteen projects are a natural progression of skill and material choice and are meant to move the woodworker along in his/her path with sawdust.

Asa Christiana is best known for his time as editor of Fine Woodworking magazine. As such Asa rubbed elbows with some of the finest woodworkers around. Hence the forward by Nick Offerman who wrote the cover article for Fine Woodworking #222, Nov/Dec, 2012. Concerning Asa, Nick Offerman compared the editor of perhaps the best woodworking magazine this way: “In superhero terms, he was Professor Xavier to the X-Men (and women) in the pages of FWW, and so I was as giddy as a dancing faun to make his acquaintance.” Nick had met Asa on the set of Martha Stewart’s TV show.

About Build Stuff With Wood, Nick says: “My favorite aspect of this book is the flat-out fun that courses through the creation of every project. Asa suggests some really hip furniture designs, but it’s also readily apparent that you can alter his plans to meet your own desires.” “With Asa’s clear and affable writing, a simple set of tools, and the affordable materials available at any home improvement store, the world is indeed your oyster. Have fun!”

Getting started the practical way
Build Stuff With Wood begins with a realization of what motivates creative types to make. Asa confidently talks about getting started in woodworking, to approach the craft with an open mind and a willingness to challenge the rules of design and material options. In fact the book takes a good look at design options on several of the projects included.

Project 1: A circular saw guide.

Also early on, Asa includes a chapter on tools and lumber. He came up with a list of 11 tools with which you can build 100 projects. While the woodworker can begin buying big-ticket tools, the list and the chapter on tools is realistic for the beginner. For example a table saw is not even listed among Asa’s 11 tools. For ripping stock (one of the main tasks a table saw does), the first project is a circular saw guide for ripping and trimming wood.

While project lumber or plywood can be acquired at the local home improvement store, Asa introduces the reader to the lumber yard and the world of luscious lumber. Projects in Make Stuff With Wood include a cutting board made from quarter-sawn white oak and a table made from live edge lumber. Crisp photos show the enticing grain of ray flecked oak and the deep, seductive color of walnut. Asa talks about sourcing such material making this task much less intimidating.

The initial work surface.

More about the projects
Project two – the rolling workstation is an example of the practical approach Asa commends to us. What you see in the photo above is a surplus cabinet in which Asa added the beefy top and rolling base. He painted the sides a nice bright color and the result is a good initial work surface with adequate storage and something that adds a shot of color to the workshop (I’m a fan of color in the workshop).

In addition to the circular saw guide and the rolling workstation, the thirteen projects found in the book include a creative twist on a bottle opener, handy cornhole platforms, a contemporary outdoor bench and planters, a white oak cutting board, two options for a modern coffee table…

Note the medullary ray fleck in this handsome cutting board.

Design options for a modern coffee table.

…also in Build Stuff With Wood, the live edge table with two leg options, floating shelves, a hanging lamp with veneer shade, a table design which can double as a stackable bookcase…

The hanging lamp with veneer shade.

The table/bookcase project (note the wedged dowels).

The book closes out with a cool smartphone holder/speaker project which actually has some challenging construction steps.

Build Stuff With Wood is a really interesting book and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is thinking about getting started woodworking or even if you want to get some nicely designed projects completed quickly. Nick Offerman called Asa’s design style as “hip” and I agree (examples: especially the hanging lamp, coffee table and slab table). Along with the handsome look of the projects and the materials used, the “stuff” in this book are constructed with simplicity in mind and don’t require you to load up your credit card with tool purchases. This book goes on my list of things recommended for new woodworkers and more experienced types as well.

You can purchase Build Stuff With Wood at

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Have a question or comment about this post? Leave me a comment below; but I also like email. Use my contact form to send me an email (click here).