Author Archives: villaggiowoodworks

Purposeful Prototypes

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Today, I found a picture on the internet of a simple stand to hold my phone and iPad.

I went down to the shop, took a scrap of 2×6 and cut two angled grooves in it.  Then some planing to make it look a little more interesting and to give it some feet.  Finally, I put it on my night stand and put it to work.

This stand isn’t finished.  Not only does it not have a finish applied, it still has layout lines drawn on the sides, tear out on the front and back, and plane tracks on the top.

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This simple block had some challenges that I hadn’t encountered before.  The angled grooves are something I’ve never cut before by hand,  and I needed a way to figure out how to make the “feet” without what I thought were the proper tools to do the job.

The only angle cutting I’ve done was for some test dovetails.  Cutting the angle while making a long rip was something new.  Then I had to figure out how to get the waste out without snapping off the front corner of the groove.

The feet would have been much easier to make with a rabbet block plane and I could have avoided much of the tear out if I would have taken my time, but perfect wasn’t the point.

There are so many things I want to make.  Things I’m afraid to make because they have techniques that I’ve never done before.  This simple project had new techniques for me and I now know I did some of them the wrong way, or at least, there was a better way to accomplish the tasks.  But, the point of making this was to have a stand to hold my phone and tablet, not to learn the proper way to accomplish a technique.

Too many times I find myself in front of the computer trying to figure out the “right” way to do something and I get paralyzed by all of the conflicting information.

Today, I tried something different.  I made a prototype.  I figured out how to do the techniques that were new to me on my own.  I made mistakes, and figured out how to fix them on my own and now that I have some knowledge, I know what questions to ask and what help to get.

So, if you’re like me and paralysis by over analysis plagues you, make a prototype and live with it for a while.  It may not be pretty, but it will give you that thing or piece of furniture you need.  You’ll learn from your own mistakes and have a better idea how to ask for help, and you might just find that you can make a few tweaks to make the final version better than your initial inspiration.

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Most Favorite Tool: First Aid Kit

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As dumb as it sounds, this little first aid kit is one of my favorite tools.

The kit is small, it only has a few band-aids, some Tylenol, and tweezers in it, but having it in my tool chest all the time means I don’t have to stop what I’m doing to run upstairs if I get a cut or splinter.  I can keep right on working.

A first aid kit is something everyone should have in their shop, but the advantage of a kit this small is that it’s right in with the rest of my tools.  If I have to move to a different location for any reason…first aid is always close by.


Chisels: What I Wish I Would Have Known

I always thought chisels were chisels.  So long as you had good steel, you had a good chisel.

No, I wasn’t confused by all the different types of chisels.  Yes, I know the difference between skew chisels and fishtail chisels.  That’s not my issue.

My lack of knowledge centered around the lands.

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That flat area where the side bevels meet the back are called lands or shoulders.  For most tasks, the lands don’t make a dang bit of difference, but for dovetails, they can make an already tricky task dang near impossible!

For most work where a chisel is used for chopping or paring, the lands don’t interfere with the work at all, so it doesn’t matter how thick they are.  However, cutting dovetails can pose very difficult if you don’t have a chisel that can work into the tight corner where the tail meets the baseline.

The solution is finding a chisel that has minimal lands, or grinding the lands down on your existing chisels.

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The top chisel here is a  stock cheap bench chisel, the bottom has seen the grinder and will now fit into the tight corners of dovetails.  This grinding solution works, but it isn’t ideal.

If you’re in the market for new chisels, it’s best to get your hands on a chisel before you buy.  If that’s not possible, check the specs.  If the manufacturer doesn’t mention the lands or shoulders, then look elsewhere.

Yes, tool steel and hardness are important, but if you can’t get the tool to do the job you need it to do, it’s nothing more than a paperweight.

-Mike Russo


Good Lighting Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive

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There are so many articles and web forum posts written about how important shop lighting is, and they are all correct.

One of the most vital tools in a hand tool shop is lighting.  The saying is true, if you can see the line, you can saw the line.  With inadequate lighting, it’s very difficult to accomplish even simple tasks.

Lighting in the hand tool shop is not only important to see your layout lines, it’s also one of the ways you determine how flat or square a board is.  Want to know if an edge is square to a face, put a square on the corner, and check for light under the square as you slide it back and forth along the edge of the board.

Raking light shows you imperfections in your surface prep that you may otherwise not notice until a finish is applied.

So, good lighting is important!

Where so many articles miss the mark is what what they consider to be “good lighting”.  Any article that involves “dedicated circuits  or “running wire” is one I’ll pass on for now.  Yes, in a power tool shop  it’s best to have your lights on a dedicated circuit.  You don’t want a breaker tripped by your table saw to also leave you in the dark, but this isn’t a big worry in a hand tool shop!

With hand tools, I need to see my lines and have the ability to set up a source of raking light easily.  A quick trip down the electrical supply isle at the big box store is all I need.

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These simple clip on utility work lights work great and they are less than $10.00 each.  I’ve got mine fitted with a compact florescent bulb that is a little closer to daylight than the cheap tubes that come in “shop lighting” fixtures you can find at the store.

I’ve got 4 of these over my 8 foot bench and they put out plenty of light.  I’ve also got a spare that can be used in a raking position rather easily.

If you are just getting started, grab 4 to 6 of these lights, a plug strip, and a few packs of bulbs.  Don’t worry if you don’t have  floor joist to clip the lights too, there are many creative ways to get the lights to where you need them.  (In my last shop, my bench was against a wall, and I had the lights clipped to a shelf high above the bench.)

Lighting is important, but you can get everything you need from some inexspensive clip on lights, and the best part is, if you ever have to move, the lights fit easily in a box waiting for their new home!

Go light up your shop and GET WOODWORKING!

-Mike Russo


Winding Sticks

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Ever since I became interested in hand tools, I knew I needed winding sticks.  This simple tool tells you if a board has twist or wind.

With a powered jointer, you run the board over a flat table with the knives in the middle.  So long as the board doesn’t rock as it’s going over the knives, it will eventually become flat on one side, then a powered planner makes the opposite side parallel.

With hand tools, you have to remove the high corners before you can ever hope to get the board totally flat.  This is where winding sticks shine.  With the contrasting inlays at the top of each stick, it is easy to see if the sticks are parallel with each other.  If they aren’t, your board has some amount of twist.

If you are just getting started with hand tools, you don’t “need” winding sticks.  A quick trip to the hardware store will give you two of the best winding sticks you could hope for.  3/4 or 1″ aluminum angle will make dandy winding sticks.

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With my metal sticks, I painted one with the last of some red spray paint that was left over from another project.  This made it easier to see which stick was which.  However, I wanted to try a project with some inlay.  The result turned out well.

The only secret to winding sticks is that the edges must be parallel to each other.  My sticks complicate that rule slightly.  When not in use, my sticks nest together.

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At the time, this seemed like a great feature however, in use, one of the sticks needs to be flipped around.

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 This makes it a little harder to true the sticks up.  If you plane them when they are nested together, any amount you might taper the sticks will be twice as bad when they are flipped around in use.  If planed when they are in the position they are used in, then any error will be noticeable when the sticks are nested.

The only real option is to plane the bottoms flat when the sticks are nested, then use a marking gauge to make a parallel line off the bottom.  If you plane to that line very carefully, then you’ll have two sticks that are parallel when they are facing each other, and when one flipped around facing away.

Two other features of these sticks that make them an upgrade from the metal sticks are the diamond inlay in the middle and the shortened sights.

The diamonds are not decorative   They show me where the center of the sticks are.  Putting the center of the winding sticks in the center of the stock helps to get a true reading of how much twist the stock has.

On my metal sticks, the sights were all the same color across the entire piece.  One stick was silver, the other was red.  This could make it hard to tell how far off from flat you really were.  Having sticks with sights that are only about 4″ long makes it much easier to see what’s really going on.

While it’s completely unnecessary to make wooden winding sticks with inlay, it is a nice exercise in some basic fundamentals of hand tool woodworking.  The sticks can be made with nothing more than a saw, chisel, and jack plane and the skills built will transfer to many other projects.  If you’re still using the metal angle like I was, go find a few nice pieces of wood and make yourself some nice sticks.  They’ll make you smile every time you use them!


Blog Roll: Logan Cabinet Shoppe

There are many great woodworking blogs, and I want to take the time to go through why I like the ones I read on a regular basis.

I’ve given a lot of thought on where I would start.  There are so many people publishing great content that it’s impossible to find one site that has had more influence on me than others.  I’ve learned tons of new things and I’ve discovered so many authors that have completely changed the way I look at woodworking.  When I stop to look back at who has had the most impact, who has made the biggest shift in my approach to the craft, there was only one place to start.

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Bob Rozaieski over at the Logan Cabinet Shoppe showed me that it is possible to work wood COMPLETELY by hand, QUICKLY, and in a VERY small space.

Bob’s shop is a 7×13 room in the back of his house.  His kit of tools is larger, and in many ways different, than what is discussed in the Anarchist’s Tool Chest, but Bob isn’t a hybrid woodworker.  He has not only studied the craft of woodworking, but also the history behind how things were done before dust spewing machines came around.

Bob’s site not only contains a very well written blog, but also a video podcast.  The podcast contains complete builds of full pieces of furniture, but also includes many skill building episodes.  Bob shows you everything from how to set up wooden planes and how to make a marking gauge, to how to build a full entertainment center, all completely by hand.

While Bob’s knowledge about hand tools is impressive, what really caught my interest was his workbench.

Bob’s uses a Nicholson style bench with some ideas from Moxon thrown in as well.  (He’s referred to it before as a Moxolson bench.)  He detailed it’s design and construction in his blog and on a series of podcasts.  This bench style is quick to build, sturdy, and relatively inexpensive.  Best of all, it can be easily built using nothing but home center lumber and hand tools!

Bob even took the time to revisit the bench after a year of use to give his viewers the ability to see what works and what few problems he’s faced.  This series of podcasts led the way for many Nicholson style benches to be built! (I’ve built two myself!)

So Bob, thank you for demonstrating that woodworking doesn’t have to involve  power tools or large spaces.  Keep the podcasts and blog posts coming!

-Mike Russo


First Project – the Saw Bench

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If working wood with hand tools instead of power tools is what interests you, then you have to have a saw bench.

No matter what you want to build, you’ll need a way to break larger stock down into smaller pieces.  The saw bench is the very first “tool” I use with every project I build.  Doesn’t matter if I’m working on an 8 foot workbench or a small box.  Everything starts with the saw bench.

A saw bench isn’t anything more than a low stool or sitting bench.  It’s about knee cap height and should be sized for you and your body and not built based on dimensions found in a plan.

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The benches that I use are completely cheating.  They have a two piece plastic bracket that holds the whole thing together with a long bolt and a wing nut.

If these are so nontraditional and even something I would consider cheating why do I use them?  Simple.  They work and require very little in tools and materials to get you up and running.  For me, getting started is always the hard part!

The sawhorse brackets can be purchased online from Lee Valley quite inexpensively.   Since saw benches are almost always used in pairs, do yourself a favor and buy two from the start.

In addition to the brackets, you’ll need one eight foot 2×6 and two eight foot 2×4’s to build two benches.  (You could also make the top from a 2×8 or even a 2×12, but a 2×6 fits nicely in the brackets and is all you really need for the top.

photo 1As far as tools go, you need a saw.  Chris Schwarz has talked about the Stanley Sharp Tooth Saws and I couldn’t agree more!  My saw is slightly different and a little more than the $10 Chris paid, but I like the wooden handle a little more, though it is still a little large for me.

In addition, you need a way to drill some holes.  The only assumption I’m going to make in your tool kit is that you will have a way to drill holes.  A cheap corded or cordless drill is all you need along with a small set of bits.  A larger bit like a forstner or spade bit would also be nice for this project, too.  (If you find that you really like hand tools, you can switch to an egg beater drill and a brace and bit later.  For now, stick with this one power tool.)

I’m sure some of you will want to know how to go about cutting the lumber to make a saw bench if you don’t have a saw bench.  No problem!  Use two 5 gal. buckets from the home center.  You can buy these for a few bucks and they’ll get put to other uses in your shop as time goes on.

To make the saw benches, it couldn’t be easier, measure from the floor to your knee cap.  Now, check the directions included with the bracket.  It’ll tell you exactly how long to cut the 2×4’s.  You’ll need to cut one end of each leg at an angle, but the directions give you a paper template to lay out the correct angle. Don’t worry if you don’t cut the angle perfectly, the brackets have some play in them so the legs will find a spot where they won’t wobble on their own.

To make the top, cut the 2×6 to somewhere between 2 and 3 feet.  It doesn’t really matter how long the top is.  Figure out where you are going to store these when they are not in use, and make sure the top is short enough to fit that space.  Now, cut a notch in one end of the 2×6.

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I would recommend against making the notch as long as I did.  This bench is about 2 ft long and the notch is about 6″.  This makes the legs sit a little too far in from the end so this bench is a little tippy.  The notch is only for ripping, and you could get by without it so either make a smaller notch (maybe 4″), or leave it out entirely.

The only other thing to do is drill the holes for the bolt.  First, dill a hole large enough and deep enough for the head of the bolt to sit below the surface of the 2×6, then drill a through hole larger than the threads of the bolt.

To assemble the benches, slide the bolt through the holes in the top, into the bracket, and into the bottom part of the bracket, then slip the legs in.  Tighten the wing nut just enough to hold everything together.  Flip the bench over and set it on the floor.  Push down on it a little and wiggle it back and forth just a bit so the legs find the place where they want to rest without making the bench wobble.  Tighten the wing nut all the way up and you’re done!

The nice things about building this from 2×4’s and a 2×6 is that almost all the edges are already rounded.  If you want, you can take some sandpaper and round over the edges that you cut, but you really don’t need to at this point.  Remember, someday when you have a larger tool kit you’ll make a nicer set of saw benches.  These just need to work!

Since you have some 2×6 left over, use it for sawing practice.  Chris Schwarz give some great tips on how to use a saw bench on his Popular Woodworking blog.  Make some practice rips and crosscuts so you are more familiar with how your body should be positioned and more importantly  how you should position the saw benches so you don’t accidentally cut into them.  (You can see, I cut into the ripping notch on mine the first time I used it.  Do as I say, not as I do!)

If you’d rather watch someone explain sawing mechanics, check out Bob Rozaieski at the Logan Cabinet Shoppe.  He has a great video on everything you could want to know about sawing.

Episode #4: The Mechanics of Sawing

Now, use up that scrap and get comfortable with the saw.  You’re going to need it!

-Mike Russo