Branching Out

This site has been dormant for quite some time, but like Brood X cicadas and humans re-emerging post-pandemic, this seems like a good time for a revival.

In part, this re-emergence is due to my diving into a new hobby since the pandemic began — woodworking. At the start of the pandemic, we had a little-used basement with a couch and a TV. By the end, that basement had turned into a full-scale shop with a bandsaw, table saw, router table, workbench, dozens of clamps, shelves and more.

It all started with a present for my wife — some small wooden tables to place in our Florida room out back where she could put her orchids. I figured I could custom-make the tables to fit our space just right. I didn’t figure that it would launch me into an entirely new hobby.

Orchid table

I started with one table, which I made with a friend’s table saw and miter saw and that was that.

Oh, but it wasn’t.

My wife decided she needed more, so I bought a track saw and made two more. That was really the first step into the deep.

Then the pandemic began and I needed a place to work from home. The Florida room would do nicely, but the card table I was using was far from ideal. So, I built a simple desk.

Again, nothing special. I borrowed a router to ease the corners, but I did buy a palm sander and dust collector to clean it up.

The desk and orchid tables were nice and the Florida room was turning into a pleasant place from which to work. But it needed something more. It needed a place to rest. It needed a couch.

The couch was relatively easy… just some cleaned-up two-by-fours with joined together with pocket screws. I bought some cushions online, gave the wood a paint job and voila! I had a nice home office — when the cat let me, anyway.

Shortly thereafter, I took a trip to visit my brother and dad in Ohio (We took proper covid precautions) where we happened in on an Amish woodworking store. Big mistake.

I wanted it all. But, don’t think the Amish don’t know the value of a hand tool. You won’t find deals here. Just good tools at robust prices. Nevertheless, I bought a couple of things and also picked up some great old wood from my brother’s farm — mostly old hickory and oak.

Then, just my luck. An old friend had some tools he wanted to get rid of and asked if I wanted to take them. They’d be free… I just had to come get them. It was an extremely generous offer, especially since he was handing off an excellent band saw and table saw, plus a variety of smaller tools including a router, router table, dust collector, scroll saw and more.

Once I got them back to my house, I spent some time restoring the tools, as they had rusted from being in an unheated garage.

After acquiring these great power tools, I found myself also collecting old hand tools, like this array of hand planes.

Did I need so many hand planes? No, of course not! But, are they kind of awesome? Yes, they are! I cleaned them up, knocking down the rust, restoring the knobs and totes, flattening the soles and resharpening the blades. By the time I was done, they were glorious again.

Several became presents, while others I sold on eBay. It made me happy to bring these 100-year-old planes back to life and out of landfills.

By now, I was fully invested in this enterprise and needed a workbench. A friend suggested I make this Nicholson Knock-Down Bench, as it would make it easy for me to take it apart and move it when the time comes. I liked the idea and got started on it right away.

I was so happy with the results, I later made one with my dad for his own basement workshop. Later, I added flip-up caster wheels to make it easy to roll the bench around as needed.

My wife had been fully behind this transformation, but she also demanded results. What was this workshop going to do for her? I noticed the stacks of books in her home office and decided I could quickly put together a bookshelf for her, using a method described on an episode of Ask This Old House that relied on stair treads. It’s a smart idea and pretty simple.

Meanwhile, a friend of my sister’s was moving to a retirement home and needed to empty out his workshop. He had a drill press, clamps galore, a trim router and much more. I bought as much as I could and was thrilled with my haul. But it also meant I needed to do some serious organizational work.

First up was a stand for the drill press. I based mine on one from Fix This, Build That, and was happy with the results. Then I made a “clamp cart” to hold all of the clamps I bought.

With my shop coming together so nicely, I wanted to get into some more projects. With the wood my brother gave me, I decided to make some end-grain cutting boards, again deriving inspiration from a project on Ask This Old House.

The boards I started with were replete with worm holes, cracks and other fissures. I filled as much as I could with food-safe epoxy and then made strategic cuts around the rest. I ended up making something like 16 cutting boards, many of which ended up as presents. I was pretty happy with the results. I did deviate from Tommy’s process, though, and flattened the cutting boards using a router and a jig rather than sending them through a planer, which seemed like a bad idea based on everything I read online.

Around this time, my sister and sister-in-law were moving to a new place and I thought a house-warming present would be appropriate. As book lovers with too many books, I decided on a Little Free Library.

I built the shell out of plywood, putting vents in the bottom for air circulation, and creating spaces for both large and small books. After priming the library, I build a mortise-and-tenoned door out of extra hickory, and roofed the top with tin and cedar shingles. I was really happy with how it came out.

Then it was time for more shop organization. I decided rolling shelves I could slip into closets would work well. This was a quick build and gives me the flexibility I need to roll tools and stuff around in order to make space to work — a real problem, since the basement is also home to a china hutch and a piano, plus it has to store my bike and provide access to a basement bedroom and the laundry room. It’s not ideal, but I shouldn’t complain.

With some space recovered, thanks to my rolling shelves, I turned my attention to building another present — this one a jewelry box for my daughter’s 18th birthday. I decided to try my hand at inlay and hand-cut dovetails — both easier said than done!

For the outer box, I used oak and I did a fun thing with it — a runaround grain pattern where the grain connects on each corner. This is done by re-sawing pieces — kind of like slicing a boneless chicken breast in half — and looping the pieces back to each other. The effect is that the grain runs around each corner with no start or end. The inlays are cherry and purple heart.

For the inner tray, I used hickory and hand-sawn dovetails. All in all, it came out pretty well, I think, and she seemed pleased.

With the scrap wood I was building up, I made a few bird feeders and bird houses, and then my daughter had the bright idea of making a cat house, which she upholstered. I also made a cute little butter dish out of a block of teak using a machining machine in a friend’s shop.

In a sense, the cat house was my first “commission,” and now more were coming. A friend who teaches yoga asked for wooden wedges he said were “paschimottanasana wedges.” That seemed like an easy thing to do, but it turned out to be trickier than it first appeared. The wedges are 15 inches wide, four inches tall, with the flat portion under the wedge measuring 10-½ inches deep. Making a 15×10.5×4 block is no problem, but cutting it at an angle — not so easy! I managed to make a jig and do it with the bandsaw and then clean it up with hand planes, but it wasn’t as simple as I assumed it would be.

As spring began to make an appearance, I wanted to bring some gardening back into my life. Nothing like sweet cherry tomatoes or fresh lettuce to bring the taste of spring to the dining table. I found some plans for raised garden beds and made two.

I also decided to make some outdoor furniture, again inspired by a segment of Ask This Old House.

My next “commission” came from my sister and sister in law who decided that while the Little Free Library was great for books they wanted to give away, they had lots more they needed to shelve inside — with no place to put them. So, I drew up plans for a Shaker-style bookshelf sized perfectly for the spot they had in mind.

Is it perfect? No. But, I was pretty happy with the results. My poor sisters, though… the price of lumber made this bookshelf almost twice as much as it would have been a year ago. Oof.

After the bookshelves, I turned to another shop project: a new router table. I wanted one that had storage and that was a little more stable than before. I also really wanted to add a router lift. So, cribbing from some plans I found on a few different sites, I made this sweet table with built-in bit holders and dust collection port.

My most recent project is another box. My daughter liked the jewelry box so much, she decided she wanted another box for other stuff. So, I made a larger, simpler one out of oak and hickory, this time using box (or finger) joints to give it a pretty face.

If I had been thinking from the start, I would have taken more in-process photos and made a post about each item, but I didn’t. So, here’s a year-plus of pandemic hobbying in a single post.

What’s next? Well, for starters, I’m offering to build Adirondack chairs for folks for a price. I’ve posted in a few places and will likely add a post here with more details. Then, I’m not sure. Maybe more boxes as presents. And I need to start thinking about the holidays, too!

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