Making Modern Drawer Handles With Wood

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Deciding on the handle style for the mid century dresser wasn’t easy.  I knew that I did not want metal hardware – there are certainly some styles that go with the design, but it just seemed too easy to bolt them on to the front of piece and call it done.  I briefly entertained the idea of buying pre-made wooden pulls that would require insetting, but since there was no way I would find them in avodire I would have to settle for a different species (likely maple) and hope they would finish up in the same color.  With as much effort as I put into the construction of the piece, it was easy to decide that this was not an option.  It was clear that I needed to make the handles – but I did not want them to look “homemade”.  If that makes any sense!
Searched for ideas and found a style that looked agreeable with the design.  I made a mock up in poplar; the dimensions were a bit undersized and the top grip was a little thin, but I loved the way they looked.  So I proceeded with the real versions, making these minor adjustments on the fly.  Final dimensions ended at 4  3/4″ x 1  5/8″ x  5/8″  Here is how they were made:
  1. Rip 3″ strips of 3/4″ thick stock.  To keep workpieces large enough to work safely on power tools, I made 4-5 handles per length of board.  Center waste is removed before cutting into individual handles.
  2. Run a cove down the center using a 1 1/2″ diameter core box bit on the router table (multiple passes for safety!)thumb_IMG_0224_1024
  3. Mark the ends of each center void with a square. I flexed a business card to carry the lines inside the coves.thumb_IMG_0226_1024
  4. Use a 3/4″ Forstner bit to remove most of the waste on a drill press. Note, the void is not centered in the cove, it is about 1/8″ or so from one edge of where the cove starts – this is the top of the handle. Use a back stop to ensure the drill path is straight.thumb_IMG_0229_1024
  5.  Use a chisel to pare away remaining stock in the void.  To prevent long-grain tearout, pare very thin slivers.  Do not chop directly to the line! Experience….thumb_IMG_0230_1024
  6. Rasps and sandpaper finished the interior shaping.  My Moxon vice worked great for holding the work in position.thumb_IMG_0238_1024
  7. Cut to final height on the table saw. The top cut is actually a 7 degree angle, leaving a comfortable wedge shape grip to the handle – it gets thicker the closer it is to the drawer front.  Round over the handle grip and knock down the bottom lip of the cove with a block plane (the top of the handle protrudes a bit further than the bottom.thumb_IMG_0279_1024
  8.  Cut the long pieces into individual handles. For consistent width, I just made some marks on my cross-cut sled for reference.thumb_IMG_0275_1024
  9. Make a handle template in MDF to exact dimension desired.  Affix each handle to this template with double-sided tape and shape to size on a belt sander. Could also use a bearing guided router bit, but I was concerned about tearout.  With the sander method there is no guide or stop, so had to be careful not to hit the template and end up with differently shaped handles. (I did eat into it a bit here and there, but I won’t admit it if you ask.  Don’t let perfection get in the way of good enough!)thumb_IMG_0281_1024
  10.  Finally, more rasping and sanding to to get to final shape and finish.

When it came to installation the next trick was to get the handles glued to the same spot on each drawer, parallel with the horizontal lines of the piece.  I knew the glue would cause them to float around a bit if I tried to just clamp in place, so to accomplish this:

  1. I made a couple templates from MDF – one for the left side of the drawers, the other for the right (and marked accordingly).  Rather than trying to cut a perfectly size void in the middle of a single piece of MDF, templates were made to the exact size of the top drawer fronts using four pieces each, carefully cutting the center strip to the width of the handles, then gluing together using one of the handles to space the void properly.
  2. Made a couple of cauls from scrap blocks of wood.  I just used a block plane to mimic the cove in the handles, which nested into the handles with precision (almost like I planned it!).  With the flat side up, I could clamp to the drawer face with good, even pressure.   thumb_IMG_0458_1024
  3. Clamped the templates to the drawers, carefully aligned.thumb_IMG_0457_1024
  4. From there simply applied glue to the handles and placed into template, dropped in the cauls, and clamped.  I needed a fair amount of throat clearance to get to the cauls, so a couple old school wooden twin twists did the trick.thumb_IMG_0469_1024

With two templates I was able to making quick work of the process.  I am glad I decided to make these, they enhance the dresser very well.

Mid Century Dresser in Avodire

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These past few months I took on my most ambitious furniture project to date – a full size dresser for my daughter.  I wanted to add some visual depth to the standard box of drawers, which would be in the mid-century style.  My search for inspiration images lead to a fantastic collection of mid-century furniture photos compiled by a fellow name Whit Blazemore on flickr.

I settled on a step back design – the top drawer section (2×2) would set back a couple inches from the bottom section (1×3).  I also did not want to have any division between the drawers, the front would be uninterrupted. And since this was my first dresser I wanted to do it right with dovetails all around.  Norah's Dresser (20)

To accomplish these requirements, I knew that I would need some overhang on drawer fronts in various spots to cover the structural dividers within.  I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to pull this off, but I knew the case construction would be fairly standard so I started there and knew that I would figure out the final details as I went. Ultimately the top drawers ended up as false fronts hanging on side slides, and the bottom drawers have traditional center mounted run guides.

For the wood I used Avodire, a tropical African hardwood, which I discovered at Midwest Lumber’s purge a couple years ago.  I had never heard of Avodire before and was intrigued by its creamy light color.  I think I bought the whole supply!  I have enough left for a couple side tables.Norah's Dresser (3a)

As with most of the wood at Midwest, this stuff was probably sitting around in the rough for decades – so I really didn’t know what it would look like after it was milled.  In general I prefer clear, straight grained wood over the figured stuff, and after I had run through the machines I had a nice mix of both.  I used the straight grain boards for the sides, and moderate figure for the drawers and heavy figure for the top.  Poplar was the secondary wood for base, back, dividers and drawer sides and backs.

Case construction was half blind dovetails to connect the base, floating tenons to secure the top, and sliding dovetails for the concealed dividers.  Drawers were dovetailed all around.  I also made the handles out of Avodire as well, will put up a separate post on how those were made.Norah's Dresser (1)

For the finish I wanted to keep the wood as light as possible, so I only applied shellac that I mixed with Super Blond BT&C Tiger Flakes, and buffed to a soft luster with steel wool and Ruelle Restorations Natural Beeswax Paste.  The result is hallmark traits of a shellac/wax finish – sublime and soft to the touch!Norah's Dresser (3c)

Mid Century Cabinets

IMG_3273I recently finished a couple of mid century cabinets in walnut for our family room.  Nicole and I like the clean lines of this style, so we modeled the design from pictures of a few cabinets we liked.  The final dimensions were based on the space they were to occupy, along with the wood itself.  The smaller piece has a couple drawers and sliding panels to hold incidentals when coming and going from home (keys, glasses, diaper bag, hats, etc.) and the larger has only sliding panels to hold our daughter’s books.

The sliding panels are 1/2″ ply veneered with Italian Walnut from Veneer Supplies. This was my first go at veneer work – once I understood the process was surprised at how straightforward the work was.  For the smaller cabinet panels I used a manual vacuum press from Lee Valley with a couple MDF platens. These were notched with table saw kerfs to allow for efficient air removal and even pressure, which worked well.

The panels for the larger cabinet were too big for the bag – for these I used my workbench as a flat reference with the panels between plywood platens and clamped with maple battens.  The battens are V shaped on the bottom, rising about 1/8″ from the center to the ends.  I placed the “V” in the middle and of the platen and clamped the ends to each side of the the bench, which flattened the battens to the work, ensuring consistent pressure across the clamp surface.   Worked great, should have used this method on the smaller panels and saved my money on the vacuum bag!DSC00158

The case construction was straightforward – loose tenons and sliding dovetails. I carefully laid out the stopped grooves that the panels ride in (1/8″ deep on bottom,  7/16″ on top, cut on a router table).  There was some trial and error cutting the door panel rabbets on a test board, but once properly fitted and lightly waxed, they glide effortlessly with very little play.

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 IMG_2408Finished with boiled linseed oil and shellac and put into service!

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ATC and the Dutch Tool Chest

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After the thrill of those first shavings from the Veritas block plane I wondered what else I was missing out on in the hand tool world.  Still somewhat new to the craft, I was more bent on working with wood than doing in depth Internet R&D.  I have been involved with hobbies where more time was spent researching than participating (which sometimes is part of the fun), but I was determined to avoid this trap with woodworking.  If there was available time, it was to be spent making in the shop.

Regardless, I began to look into basic hand tools.  It did not take long for the Anarchist’s Tool Chest by Christopher Schwarz to surface.  A book (and accompanying video) about the essential hand tools needed in a wood shop was exactly what I was looking for.

Much has been written about the ATC in the woodworking community.  For someone new to hand tool woodworking, it has been an invaluable resource for guiding and prioritizing tool selection. The title clearly suggests a message beyond the tools – and it does challenge the disposable approach to consumer goods, the importance of creating and making, and supporting the individual efforts of those who create quality goods and services with meaningful purpose.

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So I began obtaining and incorporating hand tools into my woodworking projects. As my collection of hand tools grew, I stored them in a bright red Snap On toolbox.  Not the most ideal or convenient home for the tools, it did keep them protected and relatively dust free.  Although a fan of the ATC book in general, I was not particularly keen on the English tool chest design for a couple reasons.  First, my shop is in a slightly oversized two-car garage – and I am adamant about parking two vehicles in it.  I did not want to take up floor space with a large box that needed head clearance for opening a lid.  Second, despite a clever layout using sliding trays, it seemed like you had to still shuffle things around a bit to get to the tools, and bend over in doing so.

Since my tools stay in the shop, I decided to build a hanging wall cabinet.  I didn’t have a proper bench, but I knew where it would be placed once I did – and there was a nice spot on the wall in close proximity.  As I researched a good cabinet design for current and future tools, I stumbled upon an opportunity to make an heirloom quality workbench (more on that later – hint: FORP).  So now I hand an opportunity to take my tools on the road – at least once.

Around this time Chris posted a series of blog posts and videos about a tool chest of Dutch origin.  To my eye, this chest had a series of advantages over the English counterpart: a more compact footprint, easy to stack on a rolling chest, and possibly even wall mountable via French cleat.  The tools were logically positioned inside, all accessible without moving or sliding anything out of the way.  If elevated off the floor, the tools could be retrieved without the need to stoop or bend over.  And unlike a wall cabinet, it was portable.

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I read on the Lost Art Press blog that Chris would have his Dutchman on display at the Lie Nielsen event at Popular Woodworking’s headquarters in Cincinnati.  I live just north of the city, and had never been to LN event, so I thought I would take the opportunity to check both out.   After seeing it in person, I knew that the Dutch chest was the right choice for my shop. Chris kindly e-mailed the SketchUp drawing, but insisted the only key dimension was the 30-degree lid angle.  The rest was open for interpretation.

So I set about the construction, using pine for the case and white oak for the tills and accoutrements.  To the sides I dovetailed the base, screwed the tongue and groove back, and Miller Doweled the front panel.  Lee Valley strap hinges were used to attach the breadboard top, and black General Finishes milk paint was the final touch.

For the tool layout I stuck with a basic format, using a tool holder along the back for handled tools (mostly 1/2″ holes on 1 1/4″ center), and an open area for the planes in front. I did incorporate a couple of my own design and functional elements:

  •  A stepped till for the backsaws.  This made a nice transition from the plane floor to the tool rack, and allowed slightly better access to the saws:

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  • A little till to keep small try and combination squares in the front right:

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  • A space for a coping saw behind the panel saws mounted under the lid.  A wooden hook holds the saw in place when the lid is closed:

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I currently keep the chest on a plywood cabinet on casters, but will ultimately make a small chest with similar design features found on the Dutch.   It is a pure joy to work out of this chest!

Gifts of Wood

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I think that once you start kicking up some sawdust, it doesn’t take long to realize that a handmade project out of wood would make a good gift.  I wanted to build something for a few family members, so Nicole helped figure out what to make.

I ended up going with toolboxes. They would be of universal design – a four sided, open top box, with tall end pieces for a handle to span between. It would have a divided space and an open space, however the dividers would be removable – leave them in for a spiffy way to take a six pack and a sleeve of brats to a cookout, or take them out actually use as a toolbox. Sometimes you just need to take a few tools on the road, and this would be the way to do it.   

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The beauty of this design is that you could go with some butt joints and bang one together in an afternoon. But since these were gifts that would put my newfound woodworking obsession on display, I wanted to put a smidge more emphasis on craftmanship.  So I came up with a design that showcased some integrated joinery, beveled edges, and a comfortable, octagonal handle that would let the person carrying the box know that there was some attention to detail going on below.

For material, I decided on ambrosia maple – at first I thought the wormy grain patterns were a bit chaotic and haphazard. But the more I looked at the wood, the more it grew on me.  It brought some interest to the design, and I hoped the rustic patterns would encourage the recipients to put the boxes to use – even beat them up.  They would look great with some natural but hard-use aging.

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With the important decisions finalized, I began milling the wood and batching out the components (I was making four toolboxes). A couple bottles of beer were used to determine the width and sidewall height, and they were rewarded with a trip into my belly (that is my idea of R&D!). It was fun matching up the pieces to get as much harmony between the ends, sides and base as possible. 

One thing I underestimated about woodworking projects is the time it takes to complete a project.  Even the simplest designs have a lot of steps, and it just takes a lot longer to finish than you think it would.  After I finally got the assembly complete, the toolboxes were sanded, assembled, and sanded again.  Added six coats of wiping poly and let them cure for a few days.

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Nicole helped get them gift ready, which she is quite good at doing.  Rather unbelievably good.  There was a beer theme – the boxes would have a six pack of the recipients favorite beer (with custom labels),  and the open space was packed with snacks, including a homemade batch of beer bread (just add a can of beer and bake – it is delicious, almost dessert like).   A final detail was the vintage looking bottle opener attached on one side of each box.

The boxes were well received, and I had a lot of fun making them.

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Gimcrack Avoidance Mission

DSCF2001What to build next?  The co-sleeper allowed me to get a few basic skills under my belt, so I was ready to determine what was going to be splintered into shape next.  Clearly, the pending birth of a firstborn was not the best time to invest in new tools, but at least they were ready to go when I was a few months later.

I scoured the web for ideas – furniture sites, Pinterest, and even Pottery Barn.  Despite the success of the co-sleeper, Nicole was now afraid that I was going to turn our house into a gaudy collection of wooden kitsch and gimcrack.  So even though this would be my first piece of furniture, there would not be much leeway – it was imperative that it complimented the mid century modern/shabby chic style that was favored in our house.  Pressure = ON!

On Pinterest, a stout and stylish little end table caught my eye – a mitered box nested into a simple stick legged frame.  With its straight lines and minimalist modern appearance, it was a great model for a first time furniture project.  I clicked on the link, and saw that the table could be purchased for a mere $800!  The value was subjective of course, and though my creation would not be offered for sale in the free market, for some reason the market cost helped seal the deal. I would make a table with these lines, and it would be fashioned from walnut.

My jointer was a 6″ model (it was spring of 2012, and I was not aware of “hand” tools much beyond a cordless drill, random orbital sander, and a chisel), so my wood selection was limited to that width or less.  After getting stock to the right thickness with square edges, the first step was gluing up wider boards.  In hindsight, I could have done a better job working the grain to be a little more fluid around the end grain-free surfaces, but I was not sweating that level of detail at the time.

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The miter process ended up being easier than expected.  Naturally  I was concerned about having gaps in the corners, and wasn’t sure how to glue up a box that you couldn’t clamp edge to edge. Then I came across an article in Fine Woodworking that showed how to lay the boards out flat and in order, then tape them together at the joints. Once glue was applied to the joining edges, simply roll it up like a sleeping bag and tape the final edge together – no clamps required!  Then burnish the edges with a screwdriver to close up any hairline cracks and strengthen the corner, and let cure overnight.

Voila! A beautiful box with tight 45 degree corners!  And I even had enough insight to rabbet the rear edges to embed a back board!

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I used the box to finalize dimensions for the base, which was built with mortise and tenon joinery.  The whole thing was smoothed out with my old orbiting sander, after which I applied a boiled linseed oil and shellac finish (only because Tommy Mac used this method on  a recently viewed episode of Rough Cut).  My first real piece of furniture was ready to be entered into the homestead.

Over the past year, Norah has used the table for her book collection.  Several times a day, books are pulled from the table and loaded back in. Despite the heavy activity, the finish has held up quite well.

Having something made by your own hands influencing the look and function of a space is quite gratifying.  I was now two for two on successful projects and the shop was just getting warmed up!

A Twisted Board

It started with a seriously twisted chunk of poplar.

Norah’s grand appearance was (tentatively) scheduled in several months, and Nicole and I were reviewing sleeping arrangements.  Nicole had of course given the subject a tremendous level of consideration, and her R&D had unearthed a three sided bunk that could affix to the side of our bed.  This would allow Norah to sleep safely by our side until she could graduate to her crib.  The “co-sleeper” would cost several hundred dollars, so my argument was of the routine variety:  A. our (my) frugality would allow me to make one for far less, and B. my lack of follow through meant that it would not happen. We would thus get to “crib” stage like nearly every other parent who does not own a co-sleeper.  The plan was bulletproof.

Two days later, the seriously bowed poplar plank was in the garage, waiting to be formed into a co-sleeper.  Nicole had found a lumber yard and my bluff had been called.

Plan B. Cut the board into pieces, screw them together onto a frame fashioned from some weathered 2×4’s, and call it a day.  So I made my way to the garage and began making measurements.  I knew that imperfections were baked into Plan B,  but it did not take long to realize that due to the twists in the board, the ends would never come close to lining up.  And appearance aside, sleeping on such a warped board would give a spineless creature a bad back.  There is no way I could let my little girl spend more than a few seconds in such a place.

Plan C – I would do it right.  Acquire the tools needed to turn this contorted log flat and square, and provide my little gal with a safe place to rest.   I did take (and enjoy) high school shop class (it was the late eighties, just long enough ago for a school to really have a wood shop) – so I had a general knowledge of the tools needed to execute this plan. Due to fond memories of shop class and time spent watching The New Yankee Workshop as a youngster, setting up a basic wood shop in my garage had actually been on my “to do” list for some time.

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This warped plank proved to be the catalyst needed to finally make my wood shop a reality.  Did some research and soon acquired a jointer, planer and table saw.  The project allowed me to rekindle some basic power tool skills from the good ol’ shop days – including rough lumber milling, edge gluing, squaring up boards, cutting dados and grooves, and so on.

In the end, the twisted board turned into a nice co-sleeper – and an insatiable desire to make things out of wood.  And so it begins….