Steady Rest in Action

Hey Folks,

Here ’tis, doing what it should.



I should have listened to my Ol’ Man…*

Pop once told me that the surest way to make an ass of yourself was to use “seat of the pants” engineering.  All puns aside he was usually right, and as a mechanical engineer he  generally considered all the angles (sorry) before proceeding.  Unfortunately, I decided to  wing it when building a steady rest for my lathe.


When turning the walking stick, I had some problems with whip stocking.  Whip stocking is when the work piece starts translating (orbiting) instead of simply rotating.  It usually causes tool chattering and can easily ruin the work.  Using a steady rest keeps the piece in line and cutting smoothly.

So I decided to build a steady rest.  I grabbed up some leftovers I had laying around the shop and went to work.  Well, I had it more than half built before the wheels showed up in the post.  When assembled, the wheels are so large that the size range of adjustment is only about 2″. Duh


For walking sticks, that’s fine, but I was hoping to build a more useful tool.  For now, I’ll leave it be, but I think that I might also build a larger ring to accommodate the other parts. I probably won’t make a drawing first though, … sorry Pop.


*Apologies to Sir Elton (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road).

A Rare Beauty in Bloom

It’s Spring in Seattle and the dogwoods are in bloom.  The Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nutallii) is endemic to the west coast and is sadly threatened, in part, due to a fungal epidemic of Athracnose  (Discula sp.) .  Pacific Dogwood is an old growth understory plant* and like others of its type is also threatened by over harvest of old growth forests and modern logging practices.  The good news is that fungal resistant cultivars are being bred which will help reduce the spread of the disease.


*Yes, this tree is over sixty feet tall but compared to a mature douglas fir or western red cedar that is an understory plant.




“Stick” it to The Man

Although in this case, “The Man” is me.

A few years back, I managed to tear the cartilage in my left knee, while at the same time dislocating my knee cap.  While I only suffered two of the three symptoms of a classic “blown knee”, surgery was required and long story short, my dancing days are over.

On days when it is difficult to walk, I’ve been using a drug store cane as a mobility aid.  As you might guess, the drug store cane is pretty ugly, so I decided to make myself something more suitable for a gentleman wood worker.


I selected a piece of straight grain bubinga that was left over from Kris’ rocking chair.  I trimmed it out with some silver rings, a piece of water buffalo horn, and a piece of the holly, for which I sacrificed the extensor tendon of my right thumb.  But that’s another story.


A few hours on the lathe, some trial and error to get the length correct, and the finished product is ready for an afternoon stroll.



Playing with finishes

Hey Folks,


When making repeated iterations of the same item, it’s often difficult to keep focused on the process; even when the goal is to improve both the product and the process with each course.  I’ve been alternatively both busy and burnt out with building these little shaker bentwood boxes, and at times I’ve struggled to remain motivated.  The solution is to mix things up a bit without significantly changing the manufacturing process.

Once built, the boxes are essentially all the same.  The only differences are size and materials.  Some are made of cherry, some of walnut or maple, etc. Top and bottom plugs can be Douglas Fir or pine, but in general, they all look alike.

Enter the finishing process.  Finishing can make an enormous difference in the appearance of the final product, and offers the opportunity to add some real variety.

Traditionally, bentwood boxes were painted with milk paint, then finished with either oil or soft wax (usually beeswax softened with turpentine).  Over time, the beeswax would darken with collected dirt and pigments, and a distinct patina would develop.  I have tried to emulate this process by lightly distressing a milk painted box, then buffing it with dark brown wax to give it an aged appearance.


Most of my boxes (so far) are made of maple, because it’s relatively plentiful, easy to bend and finish.  But maple is a bit bland to look at, so most of them are painted.  Cherry, on the other hand, ages slowly over time to a beautiful dark red.  So my cherry boxes I’ve finished with a few coats of blond shellac.


Of course, you can also combine the two finishes for an impressive effect.


Shellac also lends itself well to tinting with soluble dyes, so now you’re only limited by your imagination.


Keeping it fresh can occasionally be a challenge, but sometimes changing only one thing will provide you with a entirely new perspective.



Things don’t go exactly as planned.  In fact, when bending wood, it happens more often than with most other operations.  I’ve come to take a fatalistic approach to bending projects, failures are to be expected, and allowed for.


The photo above shows the aftermath of a minor explosion.  When I inserted the tapered core into the band of my largest attempted bentwood box, the stressed wood split and sprung apart with a small bang.

I’ve been learning a lot about these little boxes.  Each one requires its own variation of technique to bend, secure and fasten it into the proper shape.  Small ones require a nimble dexterity to get the tiny tacks in place, while the larger take a firm hand and all the digits that you can muster to keep them together without splitting out between wooden fingers.

I spent most of my shop time last week roughing out stock for dozens of these boxes.  My work is cut out for me, and my education continues apace.


Something New

fullsizeoutput_3beHey Folks,

I’m taking a break from furniture to try something that I’ve always wanted to make, Shaker bentwood boxes.  These are lightweight oval boxes with telescopic lids, like a hat box.  They are made from thin bands of hardwood, with softwood tops and bottoms as plugs.  The whole thing is held together with copper tacks and wooden pegs, no glue.

These boxes were originally made by Shaker woodworkers in a variety of sizes that have since been standardized.  Today, they are often sold as a nesting collection, although there is no indication that the Shakers used them that way.  Usually, they were found in cupboards much like kitchen canisters.

Traditionally, they were painted with milk paint, then oiled or waxed.  Today, they are often finished with clear finishes to show off the wood.  In the photo above, two (made of maple with pine top and bottom) are painted with Barn Red, Old Fashioned Milk Paint, then scuffed with a ScotchBrite™ pad and buffed with dark wax.  The other two are made of black walnut with Douglas Fir top and bottom, and finished with oil and wax.

fullsizeoutput_3bbfullsizeoutput_3baThe boxes are traditionally bent by first heating in boiling water to make them pliable.  Since I don’t have a large boiling tray, I’ve been using my over large steam box to heat the bands.  It’s a bit of overkill, but it works well enough.  When the bands are sufficiently pliable, they are bent around solid softwood forms. When cooled, they are removed from the form and fastened with copper tacks, clenched on a pipe anvil.  Tapered oval cores are inserted in each end to re establish the proper shape as the oval dries overnight.  The band for the lid is bent around the outside of the larger, box band, and also allowed to dry overnight.


Next day, the top and bottom pieces are scribed, cut and fitted to the bands.  They have a slight taper to them so they fit like plugs. A boring table with a 5/64″ drill bit, precisely bores a number of holes 1/16″ up from the bottom (or top) edge and around the perimeter.  Tapered wooden plugs (toothpicks) are driven in to secure the tops and bottoms.

The boxes are traditionally left unfinished on the inside, although sometimes they were lined with fabric, and given hoop type handles to turn them into carriers for sewing notions etc.

So far, I’ve only made the #3 size.  I have forms and cores for sizes #0 through #5 and will be trying to complete a set soon.