Archive for the ‘Woodworking’ Category

Veneer Weave

Thursday, July 1st, 2010

The qualified success* of the laminate veneer pen stand I made needs qualification.

Laminate veneer can be very strong, even when bent into curves.  Lots of plywood is just laminate veneer, and everybody depends on plywood for the workaday sheet wood needs of their life.  Curved wood is more interesting, though, particularly for someone interested in certain eras of furniture and art.

I made this little weave some time ago, using a tube of wrapping paper as the jig and duct tape as clamps.

The two strips are made up of two pieces of edge veneer, and they are glued together at the points where the two strips meet, and the component veneers are glued back-to-back along their entire lengths.

While I’m not entirely surprised at how strong this is, given the use of woven patterns for roofs, chair seats, baskets, and battleship masts, it’s still gratifying to see how resilient this assembly is:

It’s flexing, but it is also holding.  What is it being crushed by?


The weave sprang right back after removal of the book.  I’d like to figure out a way to use the larger (3/4″) strips of edge veneer to make some sort of three-dimensional structure that is useful, contra the weedy little 3/16 strips used in the aforementioned inkwell.

*note: not guaranteed to be a success at all

Clamps 1

Monday, June 28th, 2010

I think I need more clamps.

L to R: spring clamp, horrible misuse of a freebie adjustable wrench, chemistry lab hose stop clamp, too-big c clamp, hose stop clamp, slightly too-big c clamp, just right c clamp, on-sale-at-the-drugstore “vise grip” that is so bad it merits its own post, spring clamp.  3 proper for 9 used.

(Yes, that surface is curved.  My photography is (generally) not quite bad enough to be that distorted.)  (Nested parens reveal functional programming language experience.)

Review: A Splintered History of Wood

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010


I received Spike Carlsen’s book A Splintered History of Wood as a gift this past Christmas, and have read it a few times since then.  It is one of my favorite sorts of books; each chapter is an overview of a related topic.  In this case, of course, the central theme is “wood and its uses”.  I like this format because, if the author is any good at all, each chapter will be full of interesting “hooks” that can capture one’s interest.  Since the author will likely not know the specifics about a wide range of fields, the effect is usually sort of a travelogue, reading interviews of specialists and getting secondhand tours of relevant places.  Of course, each of these experts wants the author, and reader, to be interested, and so the result is that each topic has some of its most interesting points picked out and presented.  And like a book of short stories, if you find the current topic uninteresting, just wait for a few pages.

I am at a loss to think of a person for whom belt sander racing could be considered uninteresting, particularly when one is told of the fabled “open modified” class.  However, belt sander racing is headlined as a topic on the cover of the book.  Does the rest of the book hold up to this promise?

Basically, yes.  I noted above that the formula works if the author is any good at all, and Mr. Carlsen has evidently done much writing for various craft and woodworking publications.  Writing for a broad audience, his writing is solid (workmanlike?), and enthusiastic while maintaining restraint.  There were a few points at which I would have wished for a slightly less heavy tone, but this may be unavoidable when required to teach, in text only, how to turn a pile of lumber into a baseball bat or somesuch.  More illustrations might have helped with this, but some of this is innate to the material.  I get the sense that Mr. Carlsen excels at getting along with the varied people met in the book, and their enthusiasms are what really carries much of the book.

Because of these enthusiasms, my favorite parts of the book discuss the use of wood in sports and music.  While other sections of the book cover things that I know a little about already, such as the Swedish Vasa and the Loretto Chapel staircase, or are discussions of woods that are interesting but that I am unlikely to come across (45000 year old kauri wood), some topics make me want to take up (another) hobby, if only as entertaining research.  I know a little about baseball and music, but not enough to have heard even relatively basic lore.  Everyone knows somebody who is enthusiastic about these topics, and the book, if nothing else, contains good conversation material.  What is a baseball bat made of?  I hadn’t really thought about it, but there’s a company betting their jobs on a different theory from the established one.  Everyone has wondered what makes a Stradivarius a, well, a Stradivarius, with a name (Hammer, Il Cremonese, The Fleming) and pedigree, but probably hasn’t had a few of the theories presented.  After the best chapters of the book, one wants to go to the library and pick up a few of the threads that are dangled those interviewed.  While I’m unlikely to follow Wild Mountain Man Ray Murphy into chainsaw carving belt buckles while they are being worn, I can see wanting to learn more about the Forest Products Laboratory’s forensic history, or to spend time considering George de la Tour’s St. Joseph in the Carpenter Shop.  And I would very much like to spend time at the National Music Museum in South Dakota, with its 13000 instruments.

All in all, an interesting book, and a fun read.

Clef inkstand

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

Let’s discuss something that involves a few, simple parts:


Like most things that require a few, simple parts, I had to get several tools and spend several times the amount of time I estimated.

If you want to make something curved out of wood, you have a few options.  If it is the 1700s, and you are building a ship in the U.S., and you need strong pieces, you find a tree with the curve you want, cut it down, dress the wood, and use that.  If you don’t need strength, need it done now, and have a brand new bandsaw, you might just cut the shape out of whatever you have handy.  If the curve you want isn’t more than 90 degrees or so, and you want to do it properly, you steam bend the wood.  If you want to cheat, you use flexible plywood.  If you won’t or can’t use flexible plywood, want to do it without steaming anything, and have a lot of veneer around, you make laminar curves, which can allow you to do truly odd compound curves.

To make laminar curves, you start with a few pieces of thin, flexible piece of wood (like veneer).  Layer the pieces, putting a skim of glue between each layer.  Before the glue sets, bend/twist the assembly into the shape you want, allowing the layers to shift over each other as they flex.  The tricky bit is that you need to find a way to hold the wood into whatever shape you want it to finish in.  For big stuff, you’ll want to make a frame to hold it in the right shape, and to allow use of pipe clamps between the halves of the jig.  For small work, spring clamps are useful.

How hard could it be, right?  I figured I could make something small out of strip veneer, the sort that you use to cover the edges of plywood; it comes in a roll, is usually 3/4″ wide, and often has heat-activated adhesive on the back so that you can iron it on.  This latter idea works better than you would expect.  3M or a competitor are to be credited.  The working assumption was that this veneer tape is thin and narrow enough to allow more interesting curves to be made, and that it is cheap.  What to make?  How about a little inkstand?

I got a hole saw of the same diameter of my ink bottle, a small grommet kit from the local craft store, and the veneer.  I cut a disk of (I think) poplar, that I had handy, and I had a bit of cork lying around, so I cut a little bit of it out in the shape shown above.   I glued one of the grommets in the “doughnut hole” created by the guide bit of the hole saw to hide a little damage around the hole.

I cut the veneer down the middle, and stained it.  What color to paint the inkstand base?  I’m not terribly clumsy, but figured black would be a good bet for the bottom of an inkstand.  This decision was aided by the presence of a black rattlecan in my “misc.” drawer.  Done.


I decided to use grommets around the base to hold the two layers of veneer to each other.  Because I was going to oppose the glued sides of the two strips of veneer, and because the veneer had been stored in a roll, I essentially had to coerce two opposed springs together.  (As an aside, I really hate doing anything with springs.  They can’t be reasoned around, and you usually can’t “cheat” setting them up.  Force is usually the only option.)  The grommets would aid glue-up by allowing me to divide the work into several sections.  To prepare, I mocked up the pattern I wanted, and then drilled holes through the veneer at the correct places.  Do note that the holes are at different positions on the two strips, since the curve of one has a larger radius than the other when in place.  I then hammered the grommets into place.  Once I was sure that this part of the veneer would stay in place, I heated it with a travel iron (the only use of my travel iron – it works poorly on clothing) to encourage the veneer’s heat-sensitive glue to melt together.

The rest of the veneer curving was accomplished a little at a time, using the iron, tape and a $.38 spring clamp that proved more useful in 15 minutes than many tools I own have proven themselves in a decade.  Time, place, tool, etc.  A little cleanup with a razor blade, and:


It looks rather like a treble clef, I think.  This may just be due to the mental associations with old dip pens, though.  It’s hard to think of them apart from french doors, parchment, classical music, and a breeze bearing the noise of carriage wheels on cobbles.


The pen support really isn’t strong enough.  It can hold the cheap plastic pen for a while before fatiguing, but anything heavier would bear it down.  A third layer or a wire core might help.  Still, a useful exercise to find out the limits of small laminar curves.

16 inch combination square

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

While I have been working on things, you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at this site.  One project is waiting on parts, one is stalled while I make a design decision,and one is stalled pending me figuring out what is wrong with a circuit.

The desk is coming along but has hit the point where you realize that your careful measurements and plans ran afoul of your ability and materials.  The below tool is one of my proudest acquisitions:


This is a Craftsman 16″ combination square.  It’s a 90″ square, 45″ try angle, 16″ steel ruler, level, and has a scribe tucked into the “grip” below the level.  It is a metalworker’s tool (as indicated by the scribe) that is useful to woodworkers.  For some reason, I consider this to be a very “grownup” tool.  My father has one, and it was never used for measuring by we children.  Wooden freebie rulers from local political campaigns and hardware stores were for the kids.  (I don’t know who the town supervisor is of my hometown, but I’ll forever remember the name of the politician who gave out that ruler, probably 20 years ago.)  In hindsight, dad was probably worried about us damaging the level or losing the ruler.  It is well made, tough, and the ruler, being steel, has square, undented ends, unlike the aforementioned wooden rulers.

In any case, I was happy when I finally purchased one several years ago.  It sits well in the hand, a product of many decades of product evolution.  Amazingly, it is still available for less than $20. I am astonished at the level of precision available for this price.  I am not a machinist; I do not require thousandths of an inch tolerance and do not know if this square provides it (I doubt it).  The level of finish offered in a tool that today costs as much as a pretty good steak would make it suitable for those at the highest point of their profession a few generations ago.  I had a discussion with a friend a while ago, and we realized that possession of an inexpensive modern micrometer, available today for $10 or so, would be worth a small fortune 150 years ago.  (Note: my 1902 Sears catalog does not seem to  have the pages that would contain precision instruments.  More’s the pity.)

I hear the response, “And?  Many new things would have been impressive long ago.”  I suppose, that when I look at this square, I see the history of the tool: wooden blocks, then carefully chosen and put together wood squares, made of hard wood, which you can’t get wet, then brass, rough iron, heavy and subject to temperature variations and tarnish, steel, and finally this aluminum tool.  While I am impressed by currently new technologies, I have a similar well of fascination for the amount of power that can be found in the average suburban basement.  Metallurgy, machining technologies, theoretical science, engineering, and the simple evolution of use all come together in an inexpensive item, available to just about everyone.  Thinking further on it, the ability to measure accurately figures in no small role in these developments, as well.  The more tool power available to the individual, the more development we can have, I think.

There is, however, a temptation posed by this square.  No matter how precisely you measure when woodworking, something will not fit.  The drill bit wanders a little, or is shunted a little aside by a knot, or you put it in at 93 degrees instead of 90.  The wood is sniped a bit at the end.  The jigsaw blade cut just off the perpendicular.  The plane caught on something.  You made all of your measurements from a slightly crooked reference.  Skill and good tool maintenance can help avoid most of these, but error adds up when measuring and fitting.  The owner of Sippican Cottage Furniture explains it better than I could here, but the gist of it is:  use the actual workpiece involved as the reference whenever possible.  Use the same reference for all of the same parts.  That way you only have one step to mess up, instead of chaining errors together.  The precision offered by the combination square made you think you could work  the wood like you could the paper on which you did your design work.

The above comments may or may not be an explanation of the issues I am having with my desk project.