Saturday, February 22, 2014

My Favorite Woods

When I first started woodworking many years ago, I exclusively used 2x4s, 1x6s, and sometimes sheets of cheap, low-grade plywood because they fell into my budget.  As an added bonus, it wouldn't break the bank if I had to buy a few more pieces because I screwed something up in cutting.  The cheap everyday 2x4s you find in home store are usually made from spruce, not the best wood, but something great to learn on and keep a budget low.  These boards aren't really designed for fine wood working, more structural and framing work.  (So don't expect every board to be straight, have no knots, or be warp-free.)

When I started making cutting boards and scrolling, I decided to try a few other different, more expensive woods.  Although the wood does cost a lot more, I find not only the quality of the finished product, but also the ease with which some of these woods work make them worth the extra money.


Nothing beats the creamy texture of Maple for a clean, professional look.  No only is maple great for kitchen cabinets, it is my preferred base wood for all of the cutting boards I make.  Maple is a durable, tight-grained, and has tremendous antimicrobial properties, which makes it ideal for kitchen utensils and wooden bowls.

A maple bowl set up on the lathe.
Maple also looks great in furniture, and can brighten up any room if left natural (unstained).  Plus, how many other woods also produce a sap that tastes great with butter on your breakfast waffle.

Although I almost exclusively use hard maple, it comes in many other varieties such as soft, silver, black, and big leaf.  Depending on the tree, you may also hit a gold mine with irregular figuring, such as birds eye, curly, and tiger.


Over eight years ago, when I first started making cutting boards, I stumbled on a rich, purple wood while at my local hardwood dealer.  Known as purpleheart, it is imported to the US from anywhere from Mexico to Brazil.  Purpleheart is usually straight grained and very hard.  Because of its price, I usually only use purpleheart wood for small turnings or as an accent color to large pieces.

There are two things about purpleheart wood I find very interesting as a wood worker.  First, it does very well around moisture and is fairly rot resistance.  Also, its color is very sensitive to the exposure of UV rays.  When it is first cut, it is a very deep brown-gray color.  After a day or so exposed to sunlight, it turns the beautiful purple color most of us are familiar with.  After quite some time (a few years) it can turn either a deep, dark, almost black color, or dark gray.  This would all depend on exposure to the elements and if the wood was coated with anything.  One way to protect the beautiful purple color would be to use a UV-protected finish, such as a spar urethane.

Animals for a Noah's Ark display, the elephant in Purpleheart and the male lion in Walnut.


Walnut is an American classic, and was widely used for furniture during the time of American Colonization.  Although primarily a very rich deep brown color, the sapwood is extremely light in color and the heartwood may have shades of purple and red mixed in the brown.  It is common practice for a mill to steam walnut even out all of the colors into the recognizable brown color.  Although there are many different species of walnut around the world, most walnut you find in the US is either Claro Walnut from the western US, or Black Walnut from the eastern half.

I really like walnut for the interesting textures in the wood and the deep brown color it provides.  If you are lucky enough, you might also find some fantastic burl in your local hardwood distributor.  Walnut is quite durable, works very nicely, and looks great without staining.


Another species popular in woodworking during the Colonial Era was Mahogany.  Mahogany was heavily exported from the Caribbean to England and its American Colonies during the 18th century.  The rich reddish-brown hue and silky texture made Mahogany a highly demanded wood for furniture during this time period.  As a result of this, demand for Mahogany furniture want up, and a couple of hundred years later the supply of this species dwindled from over harvesting.

A few species different from the original, but similar in look, are used today.  The two I am familiar with are known as Honduran Mahogany and African Mahogany.  Honduran Mahogany is much rarer and more expensive than its African cousin.  Mahogany is still used today in the making of musical instruments for the warm tones it lends to guitars and other stringed instruments.

Mahogany is a pleasure to work with because it cuts and machines very easily while providing great rot-resistant properties and a beautiful finished product.  African Mahogany tends to be my wood of choice, mainly due to its availability and reasonable price.  Because of its higher price, Honduran Mahogany is often only used today by furniture repair specialists to replace the broken pieces within furniture during restoration.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Farmers' Market Experience

Olde Towne Farmers' Market

Mother's Day weekend of this year I officially set up my first retail space at the Olde Towne Farmers' Market in Portsmouth, VA.  I wasn't expecting to sell much, just enough to give me a little extra cash and some money to purchase new supplies and equipment for the workshop.  I stuck to a pretty basic layout and implemented a few ideas on ambiance from an artist friend of mine, Chad, who sells his blown glass.

Considering I did fairly well the first time out, I packed up my truck again this past weekend, and ventured out for Round 2 of the Farmers' Market experience. Between what Chad taught me, my formal education in business, and first-hand experience, the following are a few things I implemented.

Folding Tables Are Your Greatest Nemesis

It is really easy to pack up your boxes, grab a couple of table cloths, and pop open a couple of folding tables to display your wares.  That was my initial plan until Chad stepped in.  After many years as an artist and getting "Best In Show" at the Gosport Arts Festival, I figure Chad probably knows his stuff better than I do.  He was the one who taught me "Folding tables are your greatest nemesis."  The logic makes sense - while it may be easy for me to set up this way, it does not lend itself to the unique nature of my product.  Chad suggested I make pedestals and find other appealing ways to display my art.  One suggestion I really liked was to find a unique way to display my wine stoppers using wine bottles set at different heights.

Showcase Items With Varying Price Points

Many people may love your work, but either do not want to spend big bucks on your work or may not have enough to buy your really nice items.  The coming weeks before my first farmers' market, I spent a little extra time making small items.  Refrigerator magnets and small tins of cutting board conditioner were available right alongside my cutting boards and wine stoppers.  I will try to think of more ideas of items to showcase in the $5-20 range in subsequent shows.

Everyone Loves a Sale

A simple rule of economics is you can temporarily increase demand for a product by reducing its price for a short period of time - also known as a sale.  In order for your sale to have a chance to be successful, you have to give a very intriguing discount, advertise it, and make it a limited time off.  To try this experiment, I marked my cutting boards 30% off and advertised it on Facebook and with a bright yellow and black sign at the Farmers Market, so it could not be missed.  While at the Olde Towne Farmers' Market this past weekend, the organizers told me I would be permitted to post any sales on their Facebook page prior to the event.  

As a result of the sale, I sold most of my stock of cutting boards, had an online request to buy one, and even took order to make a few in the coming weeks and honor the sale price.  While I slightly reduced my profit margins per product, I almost quadrupled my sales from the previous month.  Find me a business person who would turn that down.

About Portsmouth, VA

For anyone looking to head to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area, consider spending some time in Portsmouth.  It is a very nice city with a small town feel.  History buffs will love the many museums and ties to major events all the way back to the Early Colonial Era, as told by Colonel William Crawford and his friends.  For more information on visiting Portsmouth, go to

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

World's Only Reusable Tack Cloth

After working with wood for many years, you are always on the hunt for the quickest, cheapest, and most efficient methods to get your end result.  When you finish your final coat of sanding, the traditional method of prepping for finish is to use a tack cloth to remove all dust from your piece.  While using a traditional tack cloth can be effective, I didn't like their sticky feel, they could leave residue of your work, and since they are not reusable it could get expensive if you do a lot of woodworking.  A few years back, I searched for an alternative and found the same rag I use when waxing my car was also a great reusable tack cloth.

It is important to remove all sawdust before applying a finish.

Microfiber came on the scene fairly recently, but has already replaced many cloths for a variety of different reasons.  Microfiber cleaning cloths soak up more wet material than other rags, are less likely to scratch, and pick up more dry debris as well.  This last benefit is of particular interest in their application as a tack cloth.  Their ability to pick up microscopic particles, such as sawdust, make them extremely effective for surface prep.

One of the nicest features of using a microfiber cloth as a tack cloth, is the ability to reuse it time and again.  After a while, your microfiber cloth may become full and temporarily stop picking up sawdust.  A few good shakes will release a lot of the sawdust and it's back to picking up more sawdust.  This will only be effective a handful of times, so it's to keep a couple extra on hand.  Since they are so cheap, you won't break the bank keeping a half dozen in stock.

Notice how much sawdust the top of this microfiber rag picked up.

While microfiber cloths get the job done, there is still an ever so slight layer of leftover sawdust.  I normally finish off my project with a quick wipe of mineral spirits and let it dry.  I would typically do this with any method of dust removal, but I felt compelled to share this so as to produce the best finish on your handy work.

Besides being my favorite tack cloths, microfiber rags have many other great uses:

  • Automobile detailing
  • Dusting furniture
  • Polishing silverware or other metals
  • Drying dishes
  • Cleaning photography lenses

After your day is done, throw your microfiber rags in a washing machine with ordinary laundry soap.  When drying, it is important not to use fabric softner, the static is what keeps these workhorses at peak efficiency.  Many fabric softners leave a waxy residue that may also wreak havoc on the finish of your project.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Furniture Restoration Project - Cloning 80 Chairs

Andrea DiCarlo's LaBella in Ghent is a true gem of Norfolk, VA.  Every meal comes out to your table tasting great and its presentation is immaculate. Andrea's family has been in the restaurant business for generations, with recipes as authentic as teenage girl's crush on Justin Bieber.

It is because of this he surprised me when asking for help with a recent restaurant expansion..  I know nothing about restaurants except how to order a meal and eat the food, so I was definitely intrigued.

Original chair with fish-shaped hole.

The Concept

By expanding his restaurant, he more than doubled the indoor seating.  We talked about the tables and chairs the was going to use, but he was really interested in one thing - how to take the eighty-one chairs he purchased and give them a unique design.  Although the fish-shaped hole in these chairs was classy, he desired to create a more simple look for his seats.

A friend of his had carefully marked and cut the fish out of one chair to make a prototype of what he wanted.  The idea was basically to cut out a rectangle around the fish to give the chairs a much more simple look. A great idea, but ho do you replicate eighty-one chairs to look exactly the same?

Gluing the plywood strips along the curved back of the chair.

Sizing Everything Up

In order to clone the chairs, my idea was to make a template to fit on the back of the chair and run a router with a flush cut bit over the hole in the template.  Since the chair had a curved back, my plan was to laminate the template from 1/4" lauan plywood following the curved back of the chair.  Contact cement was the best bet for a strong hold and a quick dry on the template.  I used the prototype chair as a guide for my work.

An exact fit for every single chair.

Working On an Exact Fit  

The template also had to fit in exactly the same spot on the chair, not only vertically but also horizontally.  After laminating two layers of plywood, I used firring strips screwed to the the template to create a resting point on the top of the chair.  This way, the rectangular opening would be the same size and the same place on every chair.

New chair with rectangular hole.

Creating the Clones

Unfortunately, I did not have the necessary time to actually route the holes for these chairs.  Andrea's friend and employee, Victor, cut down all eighty-one chairs, stained the new wood, and applied polyurethane.  The chairs came out looking great, just like the rest of the restaurant expansion.

If you ever get a chance to come out to Norfolk, VA, stop by Andrea's La Bella in Ghent to check out the chairs and enjoy some of the best Italian food.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Cleaning an Oil Stone

With so many woodworkers today using Japanese water stones, slow speed grinders, and advanced sharpening systems made by brands like Tormek and Work Sharp, the classic oil stone seems to have fallen by the wayside in popularity.  I personally like the oil stone method for two reasons, limited expense and low maintenance.  In many cases I do desire additional honing of chisels or hand plane irons, but will just use fine grit sandpaper with water or mineral spirits for lubrication.

Recently I wandered across an oil stone at least 60 years old whose surface was pretty heavily clogged.  It looked to be a nice stone and chose to revive it instead of tossing it.  I knew there were two main things I needed to expel from the stone: oil and built up minute bits of metal.

Finding a Proper Solvent

To remove the honing oil from the stone, I was going to need something fairly volatile with a low viscosity.  Not only should this solvent cut the oil from the stone, it would also most likely serve as a lubricant to expunge the tiny bits of metal.  It would also have to be fairly inexpensive, since I would need a good amount to soak the stone in.  After a little online research, I decided to try using charcoal lighter fluid.

Items Needed for This Task

Old Oil Stone
Cheap Plastic Shoebox with a Lid
Charcoal Lighter Fluid
Small Wire Brush
Scrap Wire
Safety Gear (goggles, gloves, respirator)

The Setup

Coil up the wire, pull it apart, and flatten it as much as you can, like in the picture.  The wire will be placed under the stone to slightly lift it and allow more surface contact between the lighter fluid and your stone. Place the wire in the container and the stone on top of it.  Pour the lighter fluid into the container and submerge the stone to at least the halfway point.  Put the lid on the container and leave it alone for at least a couple of hours.  It may take a while to work the oil out of stone, especially if it is an old stone.  I left mine overnight in the detached garage.

*** Do not attempt this project near any sparks, flames, pilot lights, or people smoking. ***

(They call it lighter fluid for a reason.)

Much, Much Later

After some time has passed, come back and check on your stone.  Look in the lighter fluid for blobs of oil.  I found some at the bottom of mine, even though the stone had sat untouched for decades.  You might also find some very fine black or dark gray bits of metal in the fluid.

At this point, you may want to wear rubber chemical gloves, the lighter fluid can dry your hands out pretty bad.  I also might suggest doing the next step wearing goggles and in a well-ventilated area.  You may also choose to wear a respirator, the fumes can be pretty nasty.

My stone was still caked pretty good, so I decided to hit it with a small wire brush.  These are great tools for restoration and can be found with the welding supplies at your local big box store.  Working it with the wire brush helped the gunk was slowly come out.  I found the best method was briskly rubbing in a circular motion,dipping the brush in the lighter fluid to wash it out and keep the stone lubricated.  The wetter you keep the stone, the easier and faster this process will be.


After a few overnight soakings coupled with scrubbing, my stone ended up 95% cleaner.  I will say there are a few select areas I was having trouble completely cleaning.  I think this process maybe good for regular oil stone cleaning, but is probably not the best for reviving a age old stone to its former glory.

I may consider coming back and soaking again, using a wire cup brush on my angle grinder if necessary.  Then again, I may search online for another method just to try something different.  If you have any other ideas, please leave them in the comments section - I would love to hear from you.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Classic Hand Saw Like This Is Hard to Find

There was a time when most every household in America owned a hand saw.  This hand saw was sometimes used for making furniture and cabinets, but the majority of the time it was used to make repairs around the house or build things necessary for everyday living.  Electric circular saws were too expensive for the average person to afford, so the need for a good crosscut was paramount.  It always had a comfortable wooden handle, was usually 26" in length, had a minimum setting of 10-12 tpi (teeth per inch), was made in the US, and it bore a medallion of the saw manufacturer on the handle.

I recently was given the opportunity to try out a saw that fit this same criteria, the Great Neck N2610.

My Search for a Modern Saw

Walk down the hand tool aisle of your big box stores today and you will find quite a few differences between the tools of today the classics of yesterday.  Most crosscut saws today feature carbide teeth, set at 6-8 tpi, with plastic handles. They butcher end grain and are less comfortable than the saw our parents and grandparents used.  I also found most hand saws today are 20" in length.  These tools are made to use, abuse, wear down, and throw away.

The other hand saw option you have is to purchase a very expensive high end saw at a woodworking specialty store.  I have no quarrel with these saws, they are very nice and high quality.  Attached to the high quality is also a high price tag.  It is relatively impossible to find a saw in this category for less than $100.  My purpose was to find a solid hand saw the average American could afford on a budget.

The Great Neck N2610

I emailed the Great Neck Tool company after reading a few reviews of this product.  Within no time, they sent me a N2610 in exchange for an honest review of their product.  I was a big fan of the this saw from the moment I held it.  I became a very big fan after cutting my first piece of lumber.  Here is how this saw stood out from the pack:

Comfortable Handle

The handle was large and made of wood.  My hand slid in and it fit well, offering the opportunity to saw comfortably for a long period of time.  I also found the wood easier to grip than many of the plastic handles out there today.  Anyone who has ever done a lot of hand sawing will tell you this is probably one of the most important features of a hand saw.

The Cut

When you look at tpi, you have to balance speed of cutting with the quality of the cut.  The lower your teeth per inch, the faster the cut and the rougher the finished product.  Although it may not seem so, there is a big difference between 8 tpi and 10 tpi.   In my opinion, the best cut for a beginning woodworker comes from a 10-12 tpi saw.  The Great Neck N2610 was no exception, it cut effectively without shredding the edges of the end grain.  A quick clean up with a file and some light sanding will leave the edge of your work ready to accept stain.

Full Sized

Apparently, I missed the boat somewhere.  When did a 20 inch saw become the standard?  To my knowledge, Disston Tools, America's leading hand saw maker for over a century, did not manufacture a 20" standard cross cut saw.  If you use the entire length of the saw, a 26" hand saw cuts much faster than a 20" model.  The full 26" length of this saw was definitely a feature I liked.

A Few More Details

After speaking with a company representative, I learned Great Neck has been producing this exact same saw for about 30 to 40 years without any changes in design.  Although improvements have been made to the process, the product itself has remained untouched.

Another thing which hasn't changed is where these saws are manufactured.  The N2610 is a proud product to wear the label "Made in the USA."  Around since 1919, Great Neck Tools started out in the tool industry making saws in this country, and it still makes them here today.

Care for Your Handsaw

The blade of this handsaw is a chrome nickel steel blade with a water based lacquer, pretty much an industry standard for your general hand saw.  After you are done sawing for the day, Great Neck suggests a light coat of oil be applied to prevent any rust from forming on the blade.  I gave mine a quick shot of AmsOil on a rag and a light wiping and the saw was ready for storage until the next project.


The saw was a real pleasure to cut with and left a nice edge for any saw under $30.  This saw cut just as well as a Disston I own, perhaps even a little better.  I feel with its features at the price point given, you would be hard pressed to find a better saw.  In fact, citing reasons previously stated, I believe this saw is in a category all its own.

You can read more about Great Neck Tools, the multiple brands they own, and the wide array of tools they produce at the website  

Monday, February 11, 2013

DIY Non-Marring Hammer with an Old School Twist

When disassembling furniture for repair, it is important to keep the parts in pristine condition so when reassembled you can make the piece look brand new.  Sometimes softer woods have a habit of very easily taking dents or nicks.

I ran across a situation the other day where I was disassembling a piece of knotty pine furniture and needed a non-marring hammer to break apart glued joints.  I started by using a rubber mallet, but had to stop when I found it left some dents in the wood.  Wanting to preserve the pieces in their original condition, I knew another solution was out there.

I recalled a while back reading up on furniture restoration, a hammer wrapper with rags could be a substitute for a non-marring hammer.  This sounded like a good time to put it to the test.

To make my hammer, I used:

- 3 pound sledge hammer (or other hammer with flat ends)
- 8 shop rags
- 1 large zip tie

Step 1

Lay all 8 rags flat and place the hammer in the middle.

Step 2

Wrap your rags as evenly as you can around the head of the hammer.

Step 3

Put a zip tie around the rags as close tot he head of the hammer as you can.  To tighten it very tight, use a pair of pliers to pinch near the excess zip tie material and rock it back and forth.  After it is snug, cut off the end of the zip tie.

To my surprise, this hammer left no dents or marks in the wood even though I swung it very hard.  Making it took less than five minutes, but the best part is it was made for free with things most of us already have lying around our garage.