When You Work Alone, You're Always the Smartest Guy in the Room

Back in February, 2015, I posted an article about my plans to build an enclosed hanging tool cabinet.  It’s now September, 2016, and I still have nowhere to store my hand tools.  Gather ‘round, my friends, and hear my tale of woe… but fear not!  There’s a happy ending.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s review my short list of requirements from the original article:

  • Keep out the dust
  • Consolidate everything into one place
  • Greater capacity
  • Better protection for the tools

This is a reasonable list of requirements and, when taken at face value, an enclosed hanging tool cabinet should fulfill all of them.  So, I pulled out my pad of graph paper, sharpened my pencils, and started sketching my design ideas.  I sketched, and I sketched, and I sketched.  I pulled all my tools out and piled them up on every horizontal surface in my shop to better visualize the storage needs in the cabinet.  

    I was floundering and needed some inspiration, so I searched my woodworking archive.  I came across an old article by Chris Becksvoort where he described his method of using paper cutouts of his tools to design the interior layout of his tool cabinet.  I traced around my tools and started arranging them on a sheet of cardboard to come up with dimensions, but I was still unhappy with my designs.

    After months of discarded ideas, I finally hit upon my problem.  I had missed the fifth, and most important requirement:  flexibility.  Building an enclosed wall cabinet is a sensible solution if you already own most of the tools that will be stored in it.  Sure, you can always make room in the cabinet for a few new acquisitions, but I was trying to design a cabinet that would accommodate a tool collection that will change significantly over the years. I probably would have saved a lot of time and frustration on this project if I would have talked over my ideas with someone else, but since I work alone in the shop (making me the de facto “smartest guy in the room”), I got caught in an endless loop.

    So, now what?  Well, I’ve changed my strategy.  I’ve decided to move forward with a more modular tool storage solution.  The first piece of my new storage system is a hand plane till.  If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably already seen the progress pictures.  I’m almost finished with the build, and I’ll post an article here on the blog once it’s complete.  I’m amazed at how one simple realization unblocked my progress on this project.  Maybe the lesson learned here is that even when I'm alone in the shop, I’m STILL not the smartest guy in the room!


The Unexpected Journey

An idea is a point of departure and no more. As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought.
— Pablo Picasso

It’s funny how projects can take on a life of their own.  I’ll start a project with a picture in my mind of what I need and what activities will be required but, once work begins, the project almost always branches off in unexpected directions.  Eventually, the project concludes and I’m left with a result that is not at all what I intended, and yet the shadow of my original concept is there if I squint hard enough.

I just spent the last few weeks working on a home improvement project that morphed and changed many times throughout the process.  What started out as a simple plan to paint the living room quickly expanded to multiple rooms, had me cutting into drywall, doing electrical work, repairing plumbing, and shampooing carpets. The project was supposed to only take “a few days of work,” but instead ended up taking me weeks of nights and weekends to complete. The end result is so much better - so much grander - than my original concept that sometimes I can hardly believe that I’m the one that did it.

Woodworking projects are no different.  If you’ve never tried it before, come up with a simple concept and just start building.  Figure out the details as you go.  The project will lead you down paths that you never intended, and you might just surprise yourself with the end result.  It’s a lot of fun that you’ll miss out on if you only spend time building someone else’s plans.

Shop, Project

Sawbench - Part 3 (Final)

The finished sawbench.

We’re in the home stretch now!

Since I had the top boards ready-to-go, I started the glue-up.  Each board is held in place by two half-lap joints on the top of the legs.  The short cross rails that hold the base together created a platform to support the top boards across their width.  Gluing up these joints was straightforward; I just needed to ensure that the half lap joints were closed tight and that the top boards were sitting flat on the rails.

Gluing the top boards to the legs.

Boring the holes for the dowels.

I wanted some insurance on all of these half laps since the sawbench will be treated roughly over its lifetime.  So, I decided to peg all the joints with dowels.  I used an auger bit to bore out two holes in each joint.  The auger bit leaves a perfectly-sized hole with no tear out.  I cut the pegs from a 3/8” cherry dowel rod, added a little glue, and tapped them home with a hammer.  I left the dowels extra long until the glue dried and then I trimmed them flush.

Cutting down a 3/8" cherry dowel rod.  I tapered each dowel slightly with a chisel to make it easier to drive it into the joint.

The dowels are glued into the joint to peg it in place.  Notice also that the surfaces have not been flushed up around the joint yet.

Glamour shot #1

Glamour shot #2

The final surface prep was easy.  I used a block plane to flush up all the surfaces around the joints, and I applied two coats of Tried and True Original Wood Finish.  Once the finish dried, the sawbench was ready to work!  This was a fun project to build, and it’s a useful tool to have in the shop.

Shop, Project

Sawbench - Part 2

Final assembly of of the sawbench base.

With the stretchers complete, I turned my attention to the half-lap joints that connect the base to the top.  The top of the sawbench is made from two separate boards spaced apart to allow for a ripping notch.  I wanted to use hardwood for the top of the sawbench since it will have to withstand a fair amount of abuse, so I dug out an old off-cut of sappy cherry.  After I milled down the two top boards, I was able to set my marking gauge off of them, layout the half lap joinery on the top of the legs, and cut the joints using the same methods I outlined in my previous post.

All four legs are cut to join with the top boards.

Smoothing knotty material isn't much fun.

At this point, I had a decision to make.  My brain was in full-on joinery mode and I wanted to charge ahead and cut the corresponding notches on the top boards to complete the leg-to-top half laps.  The spacing on those notches was critical, however, because there’s no slop in the joints.  If I didn’t have the stretchers dry-fit perfectly when I laid out and cut the notches in the top boards, I’d be sunk after I glued up the base.  So, I decided to take a step back and glue up the stretchers and legs to lock in that spacing.  I ran my smoothing plane over all the parts before the glue-up, which wasn’t nearly as fun as it looks in the picture.  The construction grade lumber that I used for the base was filled with knots, which turned a simple task into a frustrating one.  There’s some tear-out on the legs, but this is just a sawbench, so I reached a point where the surfaces were good enough.  I glued up the stretchers and legs and was ready to confidently lay out and cut the notches on the top boards. 

Gluing the stretchers to the legs yields two trestle sub-assemblies.

Finishing up the top boards was straightforward: I cut the birds mouth and smoothed out the cuts with a block plane. Planing that end grain was a pleasure after working with the construction-grade stock earlier.  Finally, I cleaned up both boards with my smoothing plane.

Two boards of sappy cherry serve as the top of the sawbench.

Planing the end grain of the birds mouth on the top boards.

The top boards ready for glue-up.

I completed the assembly of the base by attaching the trestle sub-assemblies together with two short rails.  These rails have half laps cut into their ends, but I didn’t cut mating notches in the legs to avoid weakening the attachment point for the top boards.  I also decided not to glue these two rails on; they are attached with screws only.  This makes iteasier to partially disassemble the bench if repairs are ever needed.  Honestly, though, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever need to do that.  Time will tell if that was a good decision or not.  In the third and final installment of this build series, I’ll attach the top, peg all the joints, flush up all the mating surfaces, and apply a finish!

Shop, Project

Sawbench - Part 1

The sawbench is an exercise in half lap joints, which are easy and fun to cut with hand tools.

Breaking down rough stock causes logistical issues in most shops.  I don’t care if you use a jigsaw, a circular saw, a hand saw, or your teeth to break your project parts down to rough dimensions, you need a low, wide, and sturdy sawbench to support those heavy timbers.  Recently, I built a sawbench based on Tom Fidgen’s design.  I needed a wide platform at a height that allows me to hold the stock in place with my knee while cutting.  A bird’s mouth on one end and a ripping notch down the middle are additional nice-to-have features.

Shop projects are a great way to use up scrap lumber, so I dug around and found some scrap pieces of 2x4 and 2x3 for the base.  Unfortunately, I had used up most of my “good looking” construction scrap when I built the laminated wood top for my sharpening station, so I was stuck with some pretty gnarly boards in this case. Thankfully, they looked much better after I flattened, squared, and milled them down.  My goal was to maintain as much width and thickness as possible.  I’m not sure what the final dimensions of the base components ended up being, but it doesn’t matter because there’s no impact to the functionality of the sawbench.

These gnarly paint-splattered 2x4 and 2x3 scraps will become the base of my sawbench.

They looked a lot better after I milled them down.

Building this sawbench was an exercise in half lap joinery.  Half laps are easy, fun, and fast to cut with hand tools, so that’s how I cut all of mine.  I also think that Battleship is a great movie, however, so that automatically calls into question my other personal preferences (or so I’ve been told).  At any rate, you could also cut these joints on the table saw with a dado blade, but I’ve found it difficult to get a nice consistently tight fit using that method; I find the setup fussy.

Saw the shoulder of the half lap joint...

...and split off the bulk of the waste.

I started by cutting the shoulders on the two long stretchers.  These pieces are small enough that I could have just cut the cheeks with a tenon saw, but I really wanted to try splitting out the waste.  I’d never tried this method before, so it was a bit of a learning experience.  I used a chisel and a mallet and worked my way across the end grain, taking half of the waste with each pass.  Grain direction is key when splitting out the waste, so I took extra care when the grain wasn’t running perfectly straight.  Once I removed as much waste as I dared, I shaved the remaining material down close to my layout lines with the chisel and finished it off with the router plane.

I used a chisel to get close to my knife lines.

The router plane made everything flat and consistent.

Chopping out the waste in the leg to receive the stretcher.

With the stretchers completed, I laid out the mating joints on the legs with a marking knife, sawed the shoulders, and chopped out the waste.  Notice in the lead picture of this post that I purposely left the stretcher slightly proud and long.  This allowed me to plane everything flush after glue-up.

With the four half laps joining the stretchers and legs dry-fitted, I had two complete trestle sub-assemblies ready to go.  In the next post, I’ll cut the remaining joinery and assemble the base.  Stay tuned!