Tuesday, December 29, 2009















There are two basic styles of doors used in furniture; slab and panel, but there are several variations to choose from in these styles

Slab doors are just that, a slab of wood. They are usually a piece of solid wood, plywood, medium density fiberboard, etc. They can be plain or have some details to them, but they are usually used in lower quality furniture or in European style cabinets.

Panel doors consist of styles (vertical pieces), rails (horizontal pieces) and a panel of some type. A panel can be wood, glass, plastic, metal, cloth or pretty much any material that can be suspended between the styles & rails. Let’s look at some of the more popular panel styles for furniture.

Flat panel doors are the most basic of the family. The panel can be as simple as a piece of ¼” veneer plywood, although these tend to sound flimsy when they close. A better choice is to use a thicker panel. These require relief cuts to fit into the groove, but they do give the door a more substantial feel.


Raised panel doors as the name states, has the field of the panel raised from the edge. When designing your door panels there are several patterns to choose from. You can use a straight, curved or ogee patterns to name a few.




Cathedral Doors are another version of a panel door. While these can be flat panels, they are more often seen raised. The top rail is changed to incorporate a curve, or curves, giving you an additional decorative element.

These are just some basic facts about door designs used in furniture making. There’s no way I could cover everything in one quick article, so feel free to contact me if you’d like more information.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The chest that couldn’t be repaired – or could it?

I was recently contacted by a customer who had a cedar chest she wanted repaired. It was her mother’s hope chest that has been in the family for over 60 years. She didn’t want it cleaned up or refinished, she wanted it re-veneered. She spoke with several woodworkers about the job and they all said the same thing. Because of the curved top, it couldn’t be done. Then she called me.



I went to their home, looked at the chest and said “I’ll do it”. I must say the chest looked a little worn and had a few repairs that needed to be un-done.






The first step was to remove the old veneer. Some areas just flaked off, while others need a hot air gun, a putty knife and lots of patience.






Once that was done I used a chisel and a palm sander to smooth out the surface. There were several digs and tears in the cedar that needed to be repaired. A little wood filler and some final sanding and it was ready for the next step.





Using a mahogany veneer and contact cement the new face was applied. Special care was used on the curved top and the book-matched front. Some light sanding and it was time to re-assemble the chest.





Some custom mixed stain to match the original chest and I finish it off with several coats of urethane. Finally it was delivery day. Both mother and daughter were overwhelmed with the finished piece, especially after being told several times that the job could not be done.
Some pieces are too far gone to repair, but often times the repair is a matter of finding the correct craftsman. In this case the furniture was structurally sound and just needed some cosmetic work. A family now has a second chance to enjoy an heirloom piece.

Friday, November 13, 2009

What’s the difference between solid wood, real wood veneer and manufactured woods?

Real wood, all wood, simulated wood, you’ve heard it all, but what does it mean? What is the difference between them, and do you really want them in your furniture? We’ll look at three properties that show the differences. First let’s look at the definitions.

Solid wood – This is wood straight from the tree. Cut into boards, planed smooth and turned into furniture.

Plywood veneer – This is made by alternating thin sheets of wood at 90 degrees. Furniture quality wood veneer has few or no voids in the inner sheets and the outer sheets can be faced with any species of wood.

Manufactured woods – This is manufactured from wood chips or wood dust, combined with adhesives then pressed together into sheets.

So now that we’ve identified the materials, let’s look at how they differ.

Wood movement
· Plywood and manufactured woods are both very stable. While they do change in size it is very minimal due to the cross grain / adhesive construction.
· Solid wood is the most prone to seasonal movement. It varies between species but it is manageable.

Ability to hold fasteners
· The grain structure of solid wood allows the fasteners to bite and hold well.
· Plywood holds fasteners well across its face, but not on edge. The layers of wood don’t provide the continuous grain for the fasteners to grab.
· Due to the absence of grain in manufactured wood it has poor holding power both on the face and its edge.

Strength
· Due to the alternating grain in plywood it is very strong and is less likely to deflect.
· Solid wood also tends to be strong, but will bend more than veneer.
· Manufactured wood has minimal strength. It is very likely to bend or break when put under loads, like a shelf full of books.

Now that you know more about these materials, you can see why quality furniture is made with solid wood and veneers, but not with manufactured woods

Friday, October 30, 2009

What makes a good drawer?

Drawers are in our furniture and our cabinets. What makes some drawer work great, and others not so much? There are three things that effect drawer quality; materials, construction and sliding mechanisms.

Let’s start with materials. The highest quality drawer boxes are made from hardwoods such as maple. On high end work you may even find solid wood drawer bottoms, although veneers are the norm due to their strength and stability. One step down are boxes made from veneer plywood such as Baltic Birch. This type of plywood is not only is it strong, but the edges look good. The lowest quality drawers are made of some version of “twas” wood (thanks Walt). It twas wood, then it was ground up, mixed with glue and pressed into a board. This is the most likely to fail due to the lack of internal strength.

The next measure of drawer quality is construction. The best drawers will be assembled using dovetail joinery. It is strong and attractive, and when done well, they can’t fail. There are several methods of interlocking joints that work well but they are not as strong. The bottom of the barrel is a butt joint, two pieces of wood butt together. They are usually glued and nailed, but this is a very weak joint and usually doesn’t last. One more thing, the bottom should sit in a groove in the sides and drawer front, not just nailed on the bottom. Over time the weight of the items in the drawer will wear on the nails and eventually will cause the bottom to fall off.

A high end piece may work very well without any mechanical assistance but generally slides are required. It could be something simple like a wood on wood slide or a mechanical slide. These are generally used on dressers and larger drawer, so the need to stand up to a fair amount of wear and tear. Mechanical slides fall into two basic categories; rollers and ball bearings. Rollers are more popular due to their lower cost. Ball bearing slides are considerably stronger, smoother, and allow for over travel. Most drawers only open ¾ of the way making you reach in for items in the back. Over travel allows the back of the drawer to extend beyond the face frame.

Keep this information in mind the next time you buy a piece with a drawer in it, you’ll know what you’re getting into.

Friday, October 9, 2009

What do you need to know when buying a power tool?

Let me state that I’m not just a lifelong tool junkie; I also sold power tools for seven years. In those years I’ve trained with a lot of manufacturers and learned what makes a good tool, and what to avoid.

Rule #1: Buy the best tool you can afford. If you buy a cheap tool, odds are you’ll have to replace it faster than if you had bought a quality tool. That said; if it is something you will use once a year, you don’t need to get top of the line, just know what you getting into.

Rule #2: Make sure you compare apples to apples. A store brand 18v drill isn’t the same as one from a manufacturer like Makita or the like. Some manufacturers even make two grades of tools that look identical. They do this by exchanging bearings with nylon sleeves, and steel gears with aluminum or plastic. While the models make look the same, they will have a slightly different model number, and usually a significant price difference.

Rule #3 (and this is a personal one): Don’t buy store brand tools from big box stores. They tend to be less durable, less powerful, and harder to repair. Too many times I’ve met people who said “but they have a life time warranty” only to find out that the parts are not available, or they have to jump through hoops to get any satisfaction.

Rule #4: Do your research. Talk to contractors, go to a specialty tool store, or read woodworking magazines. Any good contractor will share their thoughts with you, and rarely will you find one of these stores that won’t help a weekend warrior. I’m a fan of books and magazines from The Taunton Press, who always have quality material.

Rule #5: Don’t get hung up on one manufacturer. Some people will only by DeWalt or Milwaukee, etc. There is a problem with this theory; every manufacturer has some great products, and some dogs (with the possible exception of Bosch). I believe that in the long run buying the best tool available is better than having a color coded tool chest.

OK, these may be the rantings of a tool junky, but I think if you use this information on your next tool purchase, you’ll end up with a tool that will last you a long time.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

How Are Wooden Kayaks Made?

I am frequently asked how wooden kayaks are made. It is a simple process, time consuming but simple. So here we go – in a nutshell.

I’m going to discuss how strip built boats are built. As the name suggests, you start with ¾” wide, ¼” thick cedar strips. Cedar is used because it is light weight and flexible.

Start by setting up a strong back and the kayak forms. The easiest way to explain those is the strong back is the spine, and the forms are the ribs. Setting them up carefully will ensure that you kayak will have smooth lines.

It is time to start striping your boat. Start with a full length strip; lay it carefully along where the hull and deck will meet.and staple it to the forms. Now lay a strip on the opposite side of the boat. From here you apply a strip on one side then the other. The strips are glued together with yellow glue, and stapled in place. This goes on until the entire hull is striped.

Next you strip the hull. The important thing to remember is that the strips between the hull and deck are not glued together at this point. The deck is filled in just like the hull with some adjustments for the cockpit.

Once the strips are all laid and the glue is dry, it’s time to smooth out your boat. The first step is to remove all the staples (yep, all of them). Next you can plane, file and sand the exterior of the boat smooth. Split the boat and smooth the interior as well. Now using fiberglass cloth and resin, coat the exterior of both halves and when that is dry and smooth, repeat on the interior.

Now the two halves are brought together with 2” fiberglass tape, inside and out. After multiple coats of resin the boat is sanded smooth and then covered with multiple coats of spar varnish. The final step is taking your boat to the nearest body of water, sliding in and going for the first of many paddles. I supposed I should mention that while this abbreviated how to, took a few paragraphs, plan on spending 200 plus hours, or five plus months into the creation of your boat.

Friday, September 4, 2009

What is the Process for Purchasing Custom Furniture?

A lot of people are interested in custom furniture, but they don’t know the process of going from idea to delivery. Like any creation, you have to start with a design. Some people know exactly what they want, but more often than not, you may only have a general idea.

Information gathering is the next step in the creative process. You have to take into account how the piece will be used, how will it fit into the existing d├ęcor and what size would be appropriate. Expect lots of questions at this stage. Let’s look at a desk for example. Questions that I frequently ask include: would you like drawers on both sides? Do you want drawers to hold file folders? Would you like a pencil drawer (that shallow one in the center)? Will the desk be used for a computer, and if so will it be a desk top? If yes, I then ask if they would like a storage area for the tower or CD’s, would they like a keyboard tray, will the printer go on the desk top or do we need to look elsewhere? The list goes on, and the questions vary from piece to piece, but you get the idea.

Once the basic information is gathered, it’s off to the drawing board. The design phase incorporates the information we’ve pulled together, and knowledge of standards, joinery, hardware and aesthetics. All of this is brought together and a sketch(s) is made. The designer and customer sit down review the sketch, make any changes, and once the final design is reached, it’s time for the numbers.

My quote process involves creating a cut list, or a list of every piece needed to build the furniture – by size. This information is then moved to a pricing sheet that gives me a cost for the materials. To that I add the cost of any hardware, finishing supplies, etc. Finally I estimate the labor required, and add these together for a sale price.

When the written quote is accepted the customer provides a down payment. On larger jobs, subsequent payments may be required throughout the construction process. Once the piece is finished and delivered the final payment is made.

While I may have skipped a step or two, say choosing a material and the actual building process, I hope that this has clarified any questions you may have on the process of purchasing custom furniture.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

What Woods Are Good for Building Outdoor Furniture?

In my last blog entry I talked about finishing outdoor furniture, then I realized that I hadn’t talked about what materials work well for these pieces. With that said, let’s jump in and cover that today.

Most woods do not work well out doors; they are prone to water damage, mold and fungus infection, and sun or UV degradation. These frequently lead to splitting and splintering which just lets the water, sun and microbes work its magic further into the wood. Paints and oil finishes delay this brake down but the upkeep of the finish on the wrong wood just delay’s the inevitable.

So if most woods don’t survive outside, which ones do, and why? The most readily available are the teak, cypress, mahogany and white oak families. Just to let you know, cypress includes redwood and cedar two popular exterior woods. Let’s look at these woods and what makes them special.

Teak contains natural oils that make it great for exterior uses. Not only do the oils protect the wood from water, but insects and pests too. Cypress, like teak, has natural oils that make it resistant to weather. Mahogany is also resistant to splintering and shrinkage, which makes it a good choice. White oak is rot resistant due to its particular cell structure. This structure, called tyloses, does not allow water to pass through the cell thus preventing the breakdown.

You may have noticed that pine isn’t in the list of good exterior woods. Most pines don’t do well out doors, they don’t have the oils or cell structure to fight off decay. One exception being southern long leaf pine, as that was prized for mast building. An option is pine that has been pressure treated (PT). This is a process where the chemicals are forced into the wood cells under high pressure, thus preventing rot. The down side to using pressure treated wood is that is usually unattractive, heavy and, oh yeah, filled with chemicals. PT is great for structural work, but not a great choice for furniture work.

So now you know what woods work well outside. Are there others, sure? Lots of exotics work well outdoors as well. The problem with most exotics is that they are expensive, and not always harvested under, shall we say, the best intentions? But that is a blog for another day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What is a good finish for outdoor woodwork?

There are two things that effect exterior finishes considerably more than interior finishes: sun and water. Because of this most finishes you would use inside won’t survive outside for very long. So with that said, what does work outside?

Finishes, both interior and exterior, come in two basic categories, film finishes and oil finishes. Film finishes build up a protective film on the outer surface of your furniture. These are finishes like urethane, varnish, lacquers, etc. Oil finishes are absorbed into cells of the wood and protect from within.

If you choose a film finish for an outdoor project, I’d recommend a good quality spar varnish, preferably one with UV protection. Spar varnish is different from a “standard” varnish, in that it is designed for exterior use. It is formulated to repel water and the detrimental effects of the sun. It is usually a gloss finish, but with some searching, you could probably find a semi-gloss or satin spar varnish as well. It does need to be maintained, with a new coat every year or two. This may require sanding any rough spots that have developed and a light sanding all over to give the new layers a tooth to hold on to.

Oil finishes work well outside as well, but you don’t get the same feel that you get from a film finish. Oil finishes let you feel the texture of the wood and give you more of a flat finish. Again, make sure you choose a finish that is formulated for exterior use. These are readily available in deck stains and the like. One advantage these have is that they come in several colors and opacity. Another advantage these have is that when it comes time to maintain the finish, you can simply clean off the piece and reapply a new coat.

So what’s the right finish for you? Well like most things in woodworking, it depends. It depends on the look and feel you want; as well as how much maintenance you are willing do in the long run.

Oh yeah, one more thing. The finish you choose is irrelevant if you start with a poor choice of wood, or worse, an old piece that is already starting to rot. That however is a topic for another blog.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How is Custom Furniture Priced – Pricing a Bookcase

This is an extension of my last article on pricing custom furniture. In this article I’ll price out a bookcase then change some materials and features. We’ll start with a simple design that is 48” tall, 36” wide and 12” deep. The center shelf will be fixed, and there will be two adjustable shelves.

We will build our first version out of red oak. So what would our book case cost? Based on current material pricing it would sell for $390.00. If we switch to poplar it would lower the price to $360.00. Changing our material to walnut makes the price jump to $505.00. How about an exotic like zebra wood? Well that will run you $750.00, almost double the oak price.

How about we switch from solid wood to cabinet grade plywood (veneer)? There is less preparation, and it can be just as strong, if not stronger, as solid wood. Again starting with red oak we’d be looking at $315.00, a $75.00 savings. A walnut veneer case would sell for $375.00 a savings of $130.00.

With these savings why wouldn’t you always go with veneer? Well, veneers are only 1/128” thick so if you get a scratch it is likely to penetrate the surface. That said, with proper care and a good finish, veneer furniture will last for years and years.

Now let’s take our solid oak bookcase and add a pair of doors to it. We’ll use middle of the road hinges and door pulls. If we go with raised panel doors our price moves from $390.00 to $515.00. Why? More materials and more labor increase the cost. Change the raised panel doors for glass and our new price is $480.00.

So what happens when we change the size? Well let’s go back to our original design and change the width from 36” to 24”. Remember we started with a cost of $390.00 and adjusting the width changes our price to $375.00. Why such a small a change? Because the material difference is minimal, but the labor stays the same. It takes as long to cut a 36” board as it does a 24” board. This is good to know because people often adjust the size in the hopes of getting a better price, when that little or no affect on the cost.

I hope this has given you some insight into what affects the pricing of custom furniture. Materials, design, and features all effect the final cost. I suggest you choose what you really want; you’ll have it for years to come. You don’t want to look back later and say “I wish I had spent a little more and bought what I wanted.

Friday, July 24, 2009

How is Custom Furniture Priced?

When people ask me about custom furniture, one of the first questions is how much will it cost. Well the answer to that is, “it depends”. Even if they are looking for a simple book case there are a lot of variables that affect the price. On a basic piece of furniture there are three major factors that determine the final price.

The first is material. Is it made of furniture grade plywood (veneer) or solid wood? Is it made of red oak or mahogany? The selection of materials can have a huge impact on the price of the finished piece.

The second thing that affects the price is how long it takes to build. The more details and flourish’s you want, the longer it takes to build. Also solid wood takes longer than plywood due to the extra work needed to mill it to size. Do you want doors? How about drawers? These things take time and add to the final cost.

Hardware is the next thing. Will you need drawer slides, hinges, drawer pulls, knobs, or something more exotic? Most people don’t realize how much variety there is for simple items like this. Drawer slides can range from $2.00 to $50.00, although I generally use slides closer to the $15.00 range. Hinges, knobs, or other hardware is all the same, the cost from one to the next can vary greatly. It just depends on your wants and needs.

With all that said, the thing to remember is that custom furniture doesn’t need to be expensive. A piece that has a design with clean lines and basic (but well made) hardware can be reasonably priced. You also have the value of getting the exact design you want, in the correct color that matches the rest of your decor. Add to that the knowledge that it will last a lifetime, and you’ll see that custom furniture is not an expense but an investment.

Stop by next time when I show you how I would price out a bookcase, changing some of the items we talked about here.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Can My Table Be Saved

YES! End tables, coffee table, desks, and more. They all have something in common. A surface that is just waiting for a scratch, ding, or water stain. A question I often hear is “Can my table be saved?” The good news is “yes” and often the repairs can be done by you.

FinishThe good news is that most tables have a tough finish that minimizes damage. The bad news is that the tougher the finish, the more difficult it is to repair. Urethanes and varnishes create a “plastic” protective film. In many cases repairs in this type of finish call for the entire surface to be stripped and re-applied. Other finishes like shellac or Danish oil can be spot repaired saving time, money, and the patina your furniture has acquired.

Damages
Dings and scratches are the worst. The good news is that if the scratch is minimal it can often be hidden with a wax “crayon”, touched up with stain, or filled with a shellac stick, a colored stick that is melted into a defect and sanded smooth. Dings are a little tougher. Repairs depend on the depth of the damage and can frequently be fixed with the use of a “Dutchman”. A Dutchman is a matching wooden plug, set into the surface while matching the grain as closely as possible. This type of repair is often best left to professionals.

Water stains, or those annoying white rings, are not as bad as they look, nor are they difficult to repair - usually. A glass set on a wooden surface is the most common cause. I always start with something simple. Wipe the area with isopropyl alcohol. The alcohol usually draws the moisture from the stain and you’re good as new. If that isn’t enough, the next step is to use some mineral oil, a mild abrasive called pumice and some elbow grease. While these two techniques usually work, there are always those few tough stains. For those it’s back to sanding and refinishing the surface as I mentioned above.