Blended Woodworking

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Saw Till – Grooves, Mortises, and Through Tenons

With the sides completed and the other components cut close to final dimensions I proceed to cut all of the grooves using my tablesaw and a dado stack.  My saw till design requires 1/4″ grooves on several pieces including the inside of the till sides, the top and bottom rails, and all the stiles for the back panel.  If I were only cutting grooves in the stiles and rails I would approximately center the dado head on the stock and then make two passes, one with each face against the fence.  This ensures that the groove is centered and it makes mortising much simpler later on. 

I can’t use that approach on the saw till since I have to cut grooves on the sides.  With the curved profile and the groove offset to the back I obviously can’t flip the sides to center the groove.  Therefore I select and label all of the face sides of my components.  Since I have to route the groove in my sides with the back edge against the fence I make sure to run the grooves on all of the rails and stiles with the back face towards the fence.  This way any discrepancies in the centering of the groove on the stock will all stack to the same side.

With the grooves cut I turn my attention toward cutting the mortises within the groove.  Typically I would cut my mortises using my hollow chisel mortiser.  However on this project the sides were too wide to fit within the clamping area and the top and bottom rail were too wide to fit under the chisel.  This left me with two options to cut the mortises – use a router or a chisel.  Since I dislike balancing top heavy routers on the sides of narrow boards while chips hit me in the face I opted for the chisel approach.  The router probably would have been faster, but the chisel allowed me to listen to a new CD I purchased while doing the work.

Chiseling by hand isn’t too difficult in this project since the mortises are fairly narrow and shallow.  Using a softer wood like poplar also makes chopping the mortises a lot easier.  If I was using hard maple I probably would have gotten out the router.  The grooves that were cut on the table saw can be used as guides for most of the mortising - as long as you have a chisel which matches the width of your groove.

While chiseling the top and bottom rails I clamped the rails together with handscrew clamps and then clamped the handscrews to the bench.  This keeps the rails stable while mortising and prevents tipping.  A dedicated mortise chisel helps immensely with this type of work and I used one of my Ray Iles pigsticker chisels.  The trick with mortising is to make a series of shallow cuts which define the mortise.  Stop short of both ends of the cut so that you can use those edges for levering out the waste.  From there it is just a lot of bashing and prying. Draw a line on the back of your chisel with a sharpie marker to act as a depth gauge.

Chopping the mortises in the case sides is a little bit trickier since I am using through mortise and tenon joinery and the mortise edges will show.  Therefore it must be as clean and precise as possible – this is a little tougher when chiseling by hand.  First mark out the edges of your mortise using a marking gauge.  You can set your marking gauge to the edges of the grooves on the inside faces of the saw till sides.  Try to go as deep as possible with the marking gauge since this will result in a cleaner surface.  Take your time on the first pass of chops and be as accurate as possible.  If you get past this stage cleanly you are almost home free.  Since the inside of the grooves will be hidden I bashed the waste through rather than prying it out in an attempt to keep the show face cleaner.  Just make sure to make cuts at the ends of your mortise within the groove to avoid blowouts in the grooves as you chisel the waste through.

With the mortises cut I went back to the tablesaw to cut the tenons.  Since the top and bottom rails are almost 10 inches wide cutting these tenons by hand is pretty much out of the question.  If you have a dado stack and an accurate miter gauge you can cut very accurate tenons with exceptionally clean shoulders.  Make sure to sneak up on the cut and use a test piece to check your progress – don’t forget that the grooves may not be centered so if you didn’t quite get nail the location then you will need to cut the face cheeks and the back cheeks with separate setups.  I was close enough so I used a single setup and will just plane out any small discrepancies on the panel once it is glued up.

Make sure you cut all of your parts at once.  I lost a stile somewhere along the way and didn’t realize it until I had torn down my setup and put back my dado blade.  I ended up cutting that tenon by hand rather than setting everything back up because it was quicker.

The tenons on the top and bottom rail are split with a shoulder in the middle.  This is necessary due to the difference in grain orientation between the rails and the case sides.  One wide tenon glued into the case side would be likely to split down the road.  It would also significantly weaken the case sides since the tenons are through tenons.  With the cheeks already cut on the tablesaw I finish the tenon cuts using backsaws and a coping saw.  Notice my newly made Moxon twin screw vise.  I still need to get around to writing that post.

With all of the mortises and tenons cut I did a a dry fit.  I had to touch up a few tenon cheeks here or there with a shoulder plane, but everything went together well.  You can see the dry fit of the top and bottom rails into the sides below.  I forgot to take a picture of the dry fit with the stiles in place.

Here is a close up of one of the through tenons without glue.  Not too shabby for a hand cut mortise.


Saw Till – Shaping the Sides

Happy New Year.

Over the past few days I have been making fairly steady progress on the saw till.  I have milled up all of the lumber, cut the sides to shape, and cut most of the mortise and tenon joinery.   I still have to complete the dovetails, dados, and drawers, but I am off to a good start.  I wanted to share some of the details here on the blog to provide some insight into my methods of work and how I blend hand tools and power tools.

I typically mill my lumber by machine and this project is no different.  Occasionally I will flatten very wide or very small pieces of wood using hand planes.  Since almost all of the material on this project is milled to 3/4″ thickness I mill all of my lumber at once and I make sure that all of my material goes through the final pass of the planer at the same setting.  This is really a critical step that I used to think was common practice.  However, after attending a few classes I saw many students who milled up their lumber at different times and to slightly different thicknesses – although not necessarily intentionally.  If you intend to cut any joinery using machine assistance do not overlook the importance of this step.  If you are going to cut all of your joinery with hand tools then it is probably not as critical due to the difference in layout and fitting of joints, but it surely doesn’t hurt.

This was the first  project where I have printed out templates directly from my sketchup designs.  Typically I attempt to layout shapes by tracing around a french curve or by bending thin uniform thickness pieces of MDF until I get the curve I want.  Bending thin strips of wood (rather than MDF) usually results in a less fair curve due to slight variations in the grain of the wood.  Printing a template from sketchup worked out well, although the saw till side was fairly large and taping 12 pieces of paper with the slightly overlapping printout was somewhat tedious and annoying.  I am sure this method is much more efficient for smaller shapes.

With the case sides laid out I cut out one of the sides on the bandsaw as close to the line as I could manage.  Any cuts which needed to be square or parallel I made on the tablesaw rather than the bandsaw.  With the first side cut out I refined all of the curves down to the line using spokeshaves for the larger curves and rasps and files for the tighter curves.  As you are refining the curves constantly feel the curves for small bumps or valleys – these are much easier detected with your fingers than with your eyes.  The short bed of the spokeshave will tend to follow bumps and valleys rather than correct them.  By skewing the spokeshave in the cut you present a longer bed area to the work and you tend to get a much fairer curve.  I finished using 150 grit sandpaper to smooth any small traces of chatter or any scratches left by the raps or files. 

Once the first side was shaped to my liking I cut out the second side on the bandsaw – this time leaving approximately 1/16 inch of excess material on the waste side of the line.  With the side roughed out I use double stick tape to attach the finished side to the rough side and then pattern route it using my router table.  I typically use a helix laminate trim bit for this operation because I find that the skewed cutter tends to produce less tearout and chipout than a standard flush trim bit.  On mild grained poplar I could have used a standard flush trim bit with no issues, but why risk it.  When you pattern route, always make sure that your pattern is firmly attached and always use some sort of push stick.  You can see my setup below.  

Before I separate the sides I will finish sand the profiles and clean up any issues.  The larger surface of the two sides together makes sanding easier and tends to prevent unintentional rounding caused by hand sanding.

In the next post I will discuss cutting the grooves and mortise and tenon joinery.


An old Saw Till Article

I was talking with Chris Schwarz this morning and he brought up my saw till post.  Apparently Popular Woodworking published an article on the OldTools saw till back in the August 2000 issue of the magazine.  I wasn’t aware of this since I hadn’t even started in woodworking back then.  I was attending the University of Southern California at the time and I was living in a two bedroom apartment with 5 other guys trying to save money - Los Angeles is expensive.  It is pretty tough to practice woodworking under those types of living conditions – especially with a college budget.

According to Chris he saw the saw till on the OldTools list serve and persuaded Samuel Peterson to write an article for the magazine.  Chris said he had to push pretty hard to get approval for the article since at the time Popular Woodworking and other magazines weren’t publishing much, if any, handtool content.  This was one of the first handtool oriented articles that Chris was able to get published in Popular Woodworking.  Samuel Peterson built the saw till and mailed it to Chris so that it could be photographed for the magazine.  After the piece was photographed and the August 2000 issue was sent to the printer Chris repackaged the saw till and sent it back to Samuel Peterson.  However, the saw till didn’t survive the return trip.  The cross grain dovetails for the top rail were damaged in shipping – some solid evidence justifying some of my joinery changes.

Chris emailed me a copy of the original article and gave me permission to post it here on my blog.  You can download the file here -  Galoot Sawtill.

The article is only 2 pages long – and there is less than one page of text.  Even so, a significant portion of the article is spent describing what a galoot is and attempting to justify the use of handtools.  Popular Woodworking has sure come a long way in the past 10 years.  Hopefully the rest of the woodworking community continues to follow suit.  Thankfully we have people like Chris Schwarz out there helping to bring handtools back to their proper status.


A Home for Saws

Now that my tall chest is completed I have decided that I need some better shop organization.  Therefore my next project will be something for the shop. 

Last January I was planning to make a tool cabinet to go over my bench.  I still haven’t given up on this idea, but I decided to wait a little longer to let my thoughts and work habits gel.  I still go back and forth quite a bit on how exactly I want to store my tools.  When I was considering a tool cabinet I had all of my planes in a recycled kitchen cabinet in the corner of my shop and I thought they would work much better in a dedicated cabinet over my bench.  Shortly after that post I reorganized and started storing my planes on a shelf under my bench.  I like this arrangement and may design a more dedicated plane storage shelf on my next workbench build.  Therefore I may not need to store my planes in the tool cabinet.  These are the types of things I want to work out before I build the cabinet.

There is however one tool storage issue that I have been struggling with for years now – where to store my saws.  Saws are not as easy to store as  planes, chisels, etc.  There are no saw socks or saw rolls.  They are long and awkward and sharp and they take up a lot of space when they are lying on the floor of the shop.  I have acquired a few more recently and things are starting to get out of hand.  Therefore my next project will be a home for my saws.

For years now I have been admiring the OldTools Saw Till.  I have been admiring it for so long now that the original web page for the saw till no longer exists.  The link I provided is actually an archive of the old web page.  While I like the general concept and form of the OldTools saw till design, there are a few things that I plan to do differently. 

The first and most important change I made was to the size of the saw till.  The original design was 36″ wide.  However, I think I have enough space to accommodate a 42″ wide saw till.  Clearly, when it comes to tool storage (especially saws – it’s a sickness), more capacity is always better.  Therefore, I widened my till by 6″.  This also provides a few more inches of capacity for each of the drawers.  I felt this extra capacity was significant so that I could fit my longest saw files with handles in the saw till drawers.  The drawers are now 13″ wide.  While making these changes I decided to make the saw till slightly taller as well.  The original till was 41.5″ tall.  I added half an inch to the bottom of the till making the drawers 5.5″ deep rather than 5″ deep.  This makes the overall proportions of the till a perfect square (42″ x 42″).  This also makes the lower drawer section (now 7″ tall including bottom and shelf) a 1/6 ratio of the overall height and width of the tool cabinet.  You gotta love nice proportions.

The next big change involved an overhaul of the joinery.  The original OldTools saw till had dovetails on the bottom of the till and on the top rail of the till.  The dovetails on the bottom were fine, but the dovetails on the top rail were somewhat awkward since they ran across the grain leaving weak areas.  I replaced the dovetail joinery on the top rail with wedged through mortise and tenon joinery.  I feel this joinery is more appropriate than the dovetails given the grain orientation.  However, in the spirit of overkill, I also made a few more enhancements.  I added a wider bottom rail that goes all the way to the bottom of the till.  This bottom rail also has wedged through mortise and tenon joinery.  The bottom and top rails are part of one large frame and panel assembly and are attached to the stiles with mortise and tenon joinery.  The outermost stiles have a 1/4″x1/4″ tongue along their edges which is glued into a corresponding 1/4″x1/4″ groove that runs along the length of the till sides.  I left the dovetails on the bottom of the till alone since this is a very strong joint.  I also left the shelf and divider dado joinery alone.  I toyed with the idea of sliding dovetails, but the joinery is already probably overkill on this saw till.

The final change I made was purely aesthetic.  The sides of the OldTools saw till were designed to be cut from a single board with as little waste as possible.  The profile was designed to be an inverted match.  While this profile was okay, I just wasn’t completely happy with it.  I experimented with the side profile and ended up with a sort of elliptical cove and ovolo shape with a fillet.  You can still invert the pattern and cut it out of one long board, but you need an additional 10 inches of length or so to accommodate the additional waste in the pattern.  I wasn’t too concerned with the extra waste since I am making my saw till out of poplar and painting it.  Therefore, the extra waste will cost me about $1.50.  You can make the sides with even less waste if you are willing to do a glue up.  The pattern breaks down nicely on 6 inch wide stock. 

Anyway – enough babbling about joinery, proportions, and profiles.  Below are the pictures of my new and improved saw till design. 

Isometric view:

Front View:

Side View:

As you can see I didn’t bother adding kerfs to the kerf board or adding the shelf for the joinery saws.  These details depend on the saws that you own and since they are likely to be screwed to the frame and panel assembly once everything is in place their exact position isn’t important during the building process.

If you like the design improvements and are interested in building your own saw till I have included my sketchup design as a download.  I took the extra time to show all of the joinery so it should be clear how the saw till is assembled.  I didn’t bother modeling any of the drawer components other than the drawer fronts since I figure most people understand how a basic drawer is assembled.  As an added bonus – when you open the model there is a component called “detailed till side” which was modeled with 100 segments per circle instead of the standard 24 for smoother lines.  You can print out this component in a 1:1 scale and use it as a pattern for the case sides.

You can download the sketchup file here: Saw Till SketchUp File

I will be posting updates on the blog during the saw till build so hopefully you will come back and follow along.