Air Filter, Another Finish Experiment, Cleaning

I mentioned that I needed to do something about the dust getting into the rest of the house and ordered an air filtration system made by ShopFox. It arrived on Saturday and I have it set up in the shop now. So far it looks pretty good, but I haven’t done any serious sanding or wood turning yet, so we’ll see just how well it actually works once I get a new project started.

It looks well made, steel outer case, handle on top so you can move it around. Two stage filtration system. A 2″ thick pleated filter with a 2nd filter made of some kind of cloth like material on the inside. It weighs maybe 20 pounds, and while it’s intended to hang from the ceiling you can really just put it anywhere. This one is going to end up on a shelf in the shop because my ceiling is too low to hang it up without cracking my head open on it.
Controls are simple, an on/off switch and one to control motor speed. The timer function can only be used from the included remote control. The remote is a nice touch, but it only works when pointed directly at the back of the unit so the remote’s usefulness is seriously limited. Note the silly safety stickers on the back of this thing. Obviously they just slapped every sticker they had from their other machines, whether they were appropriate or not.

If you go shopping for one of these don’t let the hype in the advertising fool you. All these things are is a box with a fan and motor, with one or more filters in it. How well these things work is entirely dependent on the filters used and how much air the fans pull through the filters. And that’s it. Everything else is just fluff and nonsense you don’t need.

This one looks fairly robust. The outer case is sheet steel, looks well made, nice fit and finish to it. It has a 3 speed fan that looks like it should be more than capable of handling the size room it will be in. The only other control is a timer so you can set it to turn itself off after 1, 2 or 3 hours. It came fully assembled, with the filters already installed. I just took it out of the packing material, took it out of the plastic bag and turned it on. And supposedly the filters are cleanable/washable and can be reused. So we’ll see about that.

Anyway, I’ll keep you updated about how well it works and if it does a better job than the makeshift furnace filter taped to a box fan trick. Considering how much dust I generate when I’m sanding I may end up using both the Shopfox filter and the box fan trick.

A New Finish Experiment

I’m always looking for ways to finish wood that improves its appearance and that is easy to use. I’m also addicted to Youtube (sigh… the hours I’ve wasted there…) and learned about something called “OB Shine Juice”, some kind of miraculous, easy to use, virtually instant finish you just slap on and buff out and…

But like most of these “tricks”, it turns out that in real life, no, it’s not that easy to use, at least not any easier than most of the other methods I’ve used. And while it might be useful for somethings it isn’t some kind of miraculous super finish. And it has some serious drawbacks including the fact that it is potentially dangerous. The danger is slight, true, but it’s still there, and I’ll talk about that at the end of this segment. Is it useful? In some cases, yes. But it isn’t going to replace my usual finishing methods.

All you need to make OBSJ

You can’t buy this stuff, you have to make it, but there are only 3 ingredients and all are easily available and fairly cheap. Boiled linseed oil, shellac (most of the recipes call specifically for Zinsser shellac apparently because Zinsser seems to be the only company that still makes the stuff) and denatured alcohol. Just chuck equal parts of each into a bottle, shake it up, and there you go.

I didn’t have Zinsser’s on the shelf because I make my own shellac. I could have used my own but most of the recipes for this stuff called for Zinsser specifically, and I wanted to stick with the instructions exactly for this test. I ran down to the local hardware store and found some and scurried home with my prize.

Right off the bat I started to have doubts about all of this because as soon as I opened that can I began frowning.

Now the shellac I make is in that photo over there on the left, almost completely clear, no cloudiness, a nice golden amber color that dries clear and almost colorless, and the only thing you can smell when you open that jar is the alcohol. I’ve said before that I really, really like shellac. It’s a great sealer, sanding sealer, and even makes a pretty darn good final finish if you use one of the thicker cuts. So I figured the commercial stuff would look pretty much like what’s in that jar.

This is shellac? Seriously?

I was wrong. When I opened that can of Zinsser’s… Oh dear. This stuff was just nasty. I mean seriously nasty. Thick, cloudy, even muddy looking. And it smelled just as nasty as it looked. First thing I thought was that somehow I’d got a bad batch or something. So the next day I went to a different hardware store and bought another one. I popped it open and it was exactly the same. How old was this stuff, anyway? Shellac has a limited shelf life. I looked all over the can and I couldn’t find a manufacturing date or an expiration date or anything that might indicate when it was made. So for all I knew this stuff had been sitting on the shelf for years.

Well, I wanted to follow the instructions exactly so I mixed the stuff up using the Zinsser’s anyway. I mixed 4 oz of each of the three products and, frankly, it didn’t look very good. Or smell very good. But let’s try it and see what happens.

I had a small, simple ambrosia maple bowl on the lathe that I’d just finished sanding and decided to try it on that. The instructions for using the stuff are pretty simple. Just slather the stuff on using a paper towel until the wood doesn’t absorb it any more. Then spin up the lathe and start applying very, very light coats until the wood doesn’t seem to be absorbing anything and then start to slowly buff it out. So that’s what I did.

I didn’t have high hopes for this stuff, but I have to admit that it turned out fairly nice.

But to be honest, it isn’t as nice as I’d hoped it would be, and certainly isn’t as nice as the proponents of this stuff claim. Nor is it as easy to use as they claim. In fact it is considerably more time consuming and difficult to use properly than my usual method of just putting several seal coats of thin shellac on a piece of wood followed by carnauba wax and buffing it out.

First thing I discovered is dear lord do not use paper towels, which is what a lot of these guys recommend. Paper towels began to disintegrate almost immediately, leaving shreds of paper all over the wood. I ended up having to go over the whole thing with OOOO steel wool to remove the tiny paper shreds and start over using a piece of lint free fabric.

Second, this is not a fast process. They make it seem so fast and easy in the videos. It isn’t. It takes a considerable amount of time, and many, many coats of this stuff before it starts to get even close to glossy. And it took me quite a while before I began to figure out just how much pressure and how much ‘juice’ to use to get it to start to buff out properly.

Does it work, though? Sort of. The end result looks pretty good. I can see this being useful for projects that have a lot of detail and odd shapes where it would be difficult to get waxes or other finishes into all of the little nooks and crannies. But is it something I’ll use frequently? Probably not.

Now, the dangerous bit. I’m not joking around here – linseed oil is a serious fire hazard. It generates heat as it dries, a lot of heat. Enough to cause rags, paper towels, etc. to spontaneously combust. I like to think I am not a paranoid person, but linseed oil scares me because I’ve seen this happen in real life. This stuff can and will cause fires if you don’t handle it properly.

Is OB shine juice a potential fire hazard then? It is only one third linseed oil so the risk is probably minimal. But do you want to take the chance? I don’t. The rags I used for this project were soaked in a material that contains alcohol, which is highly flammable, plus linseed oil which can spontaneously combust. Do you think I’m going to keep that in the house? I may be crazy but I’m not stupid (I hope). They were immediately dumped into a container of water and taken outside and they’ll end up in the firepit. Am I being paranoid? Maybe. Don’t care. I’m not going to take the chance.

It seems that if there is a space anywhere where I can shove wood, there is wood shoved into that space.

Cleaning – ah, yes, cleaning… I was getting tired of not being able to find stuff and having to dig through all of the clutter in the shop. And finding piles of dust, dead spiders, cobwebs, bits of sandpaper, pieces of wood piled all over, etc. whenever I moved something. So I started cleaning up the shop and trying to organize things better.

And what do I do with some of this stuff? I have a $200 biscuit joiner that I used exactly once about 15 years ago that’s been gathering dust ever since. I have jigs that cost some serious money and were used once before I figured out that setting the damned jig up and doing test cuts to fine tune it took three times longer than just doing the job by hand. A half dozen plastic carrying cases for tools I don’t have any more (why didn’t I toss those years ago???). There’s an ancient Skil router with a bad collet that I can’t get parts for. I found three (three??? How did I end up with three???) scroll saws. A couple of dozen paper bags filled with screws and nails of every imaginable size. But of course none of them are ever the size I actually need for a specific project so I have to buy more. And then there are the bits and pieces that obviously came off of some tool, somewhere, but what tool? What were they used for? Should I just throw it away? Of course if I throw it away I’ll almost immediately remember that I really needed it…

And wood stuck away everywhere… Sheesh. But then is there even such a thing as having too much wood?

Anyway, it’s cleaning time!

Catching Up: Light Finished, Purple Thing, and What a Mess

That sort of arts & crafts style decorative light is finally completely finished. I made a matching lid for it, permanently installed an 120V LED lamp inside of it and I’m actually pretty pleased with it.

I think it turned out well. The only real issue is that the lid is a bit loose fitting and slides around about 1/8 of an inch or so. as you can see in the photo. The dopey camera in my iPhone simply cannot take a decent photo of lighted objects, but here’s one anyway. There’s no way to adjust the exposure or defeat the metering algorithms used in the iPhone camera, and I was too lazy to dig out the real camera to take a photo just for this, so this is what I’m stuck with. Oh, well. Anyway, I’m really pleased with this one.

The purple thing I showed you after I pulled it out of the pressure tank, that one – meh… I hate to call it a complete failure because it was an experiment and experiments often do fail for a variety of reasons. So if nothing else it was a learning experience. The resin turned out way, way too intensely colored, and the addition of the wood shavings didn’t help things at all. I’d hoped it would be useful as a lamp, but the resin was way too dark and there was too much wood shavings in the mix to permit it to be translucent.

It actually looked pretty promising when I first pulled it out of the mold and put it on the lathe. The color looked pretty nice on the surface. But once I got it going… If you’re interested in what a project like this looks like while in progress, here’s what it looks like after I started to work with it on the lathe and was roughing it out to shape.

Not exactly impressive looking, is it? Downright ugly, in fact. But that’s the case with almost all projects like this, the intermediate stages don’t look anything at all like the finished product that’s been sanded and polished. What it finally turned out to be was this.

This one is probably going to get thrown out.

Not exactly impressive, but not utterly horrible, I suppose. You can sort of see the wood shavings there in the resin, but overall it would have been better if they hadn’t been in there at all. And I used way too much coloring as well. I have to admit that there is a very good chance this one is going to end up in the trash. The only reason I finished it was because I wanted to see what the final result would be like.

But this is, after all, a learning process. I learn more from my mistakes than I do from anything else, so even this wasn’t a waste of time.

One interesting thing I’ve learned is that when you throw something like this into a pressure tank and let it sit at about 60 PSI it does some interesting things to the wood that I hadn’t noticed before. The wood parts looked completely normal, but they weren’t really, well, wood any more. It has been so thoroughly saturated with the resin that the wood behaved more like resin when I was machining this thing. I hadn’t noticed that before, so I imagine that the species of wood, its moisture content and other things may have something to do with that.

Oh, in case you’re interested, this is what it looks like when I’m actually working on a resin project on the lathe.

Do I really need to tell you that you absolutely have to wear protective gear when doing this? At the very least you need a good respirator with the proper filters and an impact resistant full face shield.

Holy cow it gets messy! If you’re using sharp tools, the resin, which is essentially just plastic, peels off in long, long thin strings that fly all over the place and cover me pretty much from head to foot.

Generally when I’m done working with the lathe I have to go over my whole body with the shop vac to get all of the dust and debris off me. Including vacuuming my hair.

Dust, dust everywhere.

I’ve been doing a lot of fiddling around with wood of late, and because my shop is located in the basement dust has become a significant issue, especially now that the weather has turned cold. I’m not talking about wood shavings and the like, that stuff is fairly easy to deal with. I mean the fine particulates that get into the air and can float around for a long time. During the warmer months it’s not a real problem. I stick exhaust fans in the windows and all the dust gets sucked outside. But now that the house is closed up, the dust is a real problem.

One cheap and easy to implement method of dust control that I’ve resorted to is the good old fashioned duct tape a furnace filter to a box fan trick. And that’s what I’ve done in the past. It really does work. Judging from how fast the filters get dirty, it pulls a lot of crap out of the air before it gets into the rest of the house. But judging from how often I’m having to change the furnace filters and the amount of dust still getting into the rest of the house, it isn’t adequate to deal with the situation any longer. So I went and bought an actual real air filtration system in the hopes it will deal with the problem better than my existing methods. That is supposed to be arriving Saturday. This one costs about $200 which I suppose isn’t ridiculously expensive. It’s supposed to filter down to 3 microns, whatever that means, but I’m told that’s pretty good. Once I get this thing set up and running I’ll let you know how it works out.

Before And After, Working with Resin, Christmas Cactus, and Stuff

I really should take more ‘before and after’ type photos of these little experiments because it’s interesting to see what a project looked like at the start and what it ended up as. My latest resin casting experiment started out looking like that over there on the right. Basically it looks like a vaguely iridescent plastic blob in a tub, and the end result is in that photo at the top.

If you want to see what it looks like lighted up there’s a short video way down at the end of this.

I didn’t take much care in designing this thing, I just basically chucked some wood scraps I thought were neat looking into the mold, mixed up some resin and dumped it in and this is what I got. I really need to take more care in planning out the actual design of what I want, especially for something that’s going to have a light in it as this one does. It doesn’t do much for the look of a lighted piece if there’s too much wood blocking the light from showing through.

My third experiment is currently in the pressure tank and should be ready for unmolding by Wednesday. This one is taller and wider than the previous two. And unlike the first two this one was actually done with some planning. The current one is going to be interesting for a couple of reasons. First it’s going to be more resin than wood. The previous two were mostly wood scraps with the voids filled with resin. Second, it’s a considerably larger pour than the others, about 40 ounces in total. I already don’t like the color. I had about 5 ounces of resin left over sitting in the mixing cup and looked at this morning and I’m disappointed with the coloring. But I won’t know for sure until I get it unmolded, shaped and lighted up, not just tea light holders like the first two. This one is designed to be an actual lamp. I already have a LED lamp insert ready to go for this one.

So, what have I learned?

First, there are an enormous number of different manufacturers and types of resin out there, and most of them aren’t going to be suitable for the kind of thing I’m doing. A lot of the ‘hobbyist’ kinds of resins are only intended for small, thin pours or for coating table and counter tops and that kind of thing. What I am doing are so-called ‘deep pours’ of two or more inches in depth, and the resin being used must be formulated to work that way.

Some of these resins are toxic. Read the specifications very, very carefully and follow all safety instructions. The stuff I’m using has no VOCs or fumes and is safe to use indoors with proper ventilation. Some of the stuff is downright nasty. So make sure you are aware of any safety concerns before using it.

Resin is not difficult to machine on the lathe. I’ve used both steel and carbide tools with equally good results. As long as the tools are very sharp there doesn’t seem to be a problem. It is, however, difficult to sand, and can clog sandpaper quickly, especially if spinning the object too fast in the lathe. What seems to happen is that friction will heat up the resin to the point of melting into the sandpaper and clogging it up. Keep lathe speed down, way down.

The longer a resin project sits, the more prone it is to chipping. The curing process continues long after the object is solid enough to work with, it seems. Of course this is going to be different with different types of resin. What works for me and the product I’m using may not work for others. With the stuff I’m using, the “sweet spot”, so to speak, seems to be 4 – 7 days. Before that, it’s too soft to work with. After that chipping becomes a concern. I can still work with it, but I have to be very careful, use very sharp tools, and be patient.

If you scrounge around Youtube and look at videos of guys turning resin projects, you’ll see them going to extraordinary, even obsessive lengths to polish the stuff, sanding it up to 4,000 grit or even higher, wet sanding (sorry, I did enough wet sanding when I worked in an autobody shop, I sure as heck don’t want to start dealing with that mess now) then using abrasive polishing pastes and buffing wheels and I don’t know what all else. That all seemed just a wee bit excessive to me. I rarely sand wood beyond 240 or 320 grit. Experience has told me that going farther than that isn’t going to make much difference, if any at all, on the final finish. And I wondered if that might be the case with resin. So I’ve been sanding my resin projects up to about 400 grit, then sealing the wood, a quick sand at 400, then carefully clean the piece and then slap a coat of wax on it and buff it out, and the stuff looks just as shiny and nice to me as the projects where these guys spend hours, even days polishing to perfection.

I only have two completed resin projects, of course, so my experience is extremely limited, so there is every chance I’m wrong about this. But so far I don’t see any reason to go to the extraordinary lengths some of these guys resort to in order to get a high gloss surface.

Anyway, I’m having fun with this and just ordered about $200 worth of resin so I can keep playing around. Hopefully this batch will be packaged better and won’t arrive with a punctured bottle.

Oh, the cactus! Almost forgot about that. It’s just coming into blossom right now and it looks like it’s going to be spectacular once it comes into full bloom.

Weather has been utterly amazing the last few days. Temps in the low 70s, sunny. It’s hard to believe we’re on the cusp of winter. We’ve been enjoying it while we can because we know what’s coming. Went out and drove around for a while in the convertible the other day. I actually put more miles on the bicycle this year than I did on the Corvette. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is a bit disappointing. All of our travel plans were disrupted by the virus. So we adapt and go on, right? That’s all you can do.

Here’s a short video of the new project while lighted up.

New Resin cast

I just pulled the new resin cast out of the pressure tank and it’s looking pretty good.

I really like the color on this one. It’s an iridescent emerald with a bit of bright yellow mixed in. It was in the pressure tank for 48 hours at 60 PSI to deal with bubbles and seems pretty clear as far as I can tell at this point. It’s nice and firm but a bit tacky to the touch so it needs to cure a while longer before I can start working with it.

There’s wood in there. Somewhere.

Now the question is what to do with the thing? I’m still leaning towards making a lamp out of it. I’ll see once I get it on the lathe and start working with it.

More Details on finishing, New BandSaw, plus Stuff

Someone asked what kind of wax and finish I’ve started using recently so here’s a bit more info.

The basic formula for the sanding sealer I use is one ounce (weight, not volume) of shellac flakes to one cup of denatured alcohol. Put the flakes into a glass jar that has a tight fitting lid. Add one cup of denatured alcohol. Give it a stir, put on the lid and let it sit for at least 24 hours. If there is still undissolved shellac at the bottom of the jar after 24 hours, give it a gentle shake and let it sit another 12 hours. By that time everything should have dissolved. Once it’s dissolved, pour it through a coffee filter into a clean jar and put an air tight lid on it, and it’s ready to use. It will be pretty thin. That’s ok because for this application I don’t want a thick product. You can make different “cuts”, i.e. concentrations, of shellac for different purposes. It’s pretty useful stuff for a woodworker. If you make it yourself it’s of better quality than the pre-made stuff you get at the home improvement stores. I am not sure how long of a shelf life it has, to be honest. I’d think that as long as you have it in an airtight container it should last for months.

Not sure why it looks so dark in the photo. It’s really a pale gold color in real life. Just made this batch earlier in the week.

I use it mostly as a sealer. I figured out (I think at least) that the reason the beeswax/tung oil finish was looking so poor after a couple of months was that it was being absorbed into the unsealed wood. Maybe. I do know that after I started putting on the sealer before the final finishes the projects look much better and doesn’t seem to degrade over time.

I use a disposable brush to put a thin coat on the raw wood after it’s been sanded. Don’t load up the brush and really slather it on, use just enough to cover the wood. A lot of it will absorb into the wood, especially on end grain, so I put on 2-3 thin coats. Then I buff it lightly with #OOOO steel wool. Wipe it down with a clean cloth and look for any imperfections or problem and sand and apply another coat if needed.

This is what walnut looks like after three coats of the shellac has been applied.

People with good eyes will note that this thing should have been sanded more. But this is going to be a pencil holder for my workbench so I don’t really care that much so I only sanded it up to 240 grit and I wasn’t real careful even doing that. It’s going to get beat up anyway. This has 3 coats of shellac on it.
There is no such thing as too many pencils in a shop.

Now you could just buff this out as-is, maybe put on a thicker cut or more coats as necessary to get a nice finish. Shellac makes a perfectly good wood finish all by itself and has an advantage in that it is repairable. You can just apply another coat, the alcohol will dissolve the existing shellac and it will all blend together. But shellac is fairly easy to damage and I want something a bit more durable and harder, so I’ve started using carnauba wax.

Carnauba is interesting stuff. It’s made from the leaves of a palm tree from South America. The stuff is incredibly useful. Go look it up over at Wikipedia if you want to know more.

I learned an interesting trick for applying the wax from watching videos on Youtube. I buy solid carnauba formed into a bar about the size of a candy bar. I spin the bowl or whatever on the lathe at about medium speed and press the bar against the spinning bowl.

This leaves a deposit of wax on the bowl. Then I turn up the speed on the lathe and buff it out with a clean cloth.

That generates enough friction to heat the wax up and melt it, leaving behind a nice, glossy surface.

BTW: the black stripe is India ink. It’s a great way to add accents to a piece. But if you use the ink make sure you seal the wood first or it will seep into the wood, sometimes traveling a considerable distance through the wood fibers.

As far as I’m concerned, there are a lot of advantages to this. It doesn’t take long to do. The shellac dries pretty quickly so I generally just leave the piece on the lathe during the whole process. It only takes a few minutes to apply a coat of the wax. The resulting finish looks pretty darn nice. And it seems to be pretty durable as well. Best of all there are no harsh or harmful chemicals in this stuff. Shellac and carnauba wax are both so safe they’re used as food ingredients. The alcohol evaporates within a few minutes. Some caution is necessary because of alcohol fumes, but that stuff is heck of a lot safer to use than many of the additives they put into commercial finishes.

It’s also reasonably cheap. That bar of wax cost me about $13 and it looks like it will last me a year or longer. It takes very little to cover a bowl. That 1 lb bag of shellac flakes cost me about $30. At the rate I’m using it that bag will last me over a year as well. The actual cost of the shellac works out to about $1.87 of shellac flakes per cup of liquid product at the rate I use it. Denatured alcohol sets me back $35/gallon, or $2.18 per cup. Rounding everything off, it costs me about $4 per 8 oz cup to make the liquid shellac I use. Now I could get commercially premade stuff for about that cost or even a bit less than that, but this way I know exactly what’s in the product I’m using. I don’t have to be afraid of some kind of weird chemicals being in the stuff that could be potentially harmful. Some commercial producers throw in additives to extend the shelf life because that can could be sitting on the shelf in a store for years before someone buys it. They also add coloring agents, chemicals to control evaporation rates and I don’t know what all else. And the quality seems much better than what I’ve bought commercially.

It does slightly alter the color of the wood, however. The lightest grade of shellac will add a sort of golden tone to woods, especially lighter colored woods. It generally isn’t all that noticeable, though. It is available in different colors that range into a deep, reddish brown.

Rikon Band Saw

I mentioned a week or so ago that I bought this. So far it looks like it’s a pretty nice saw, but it’s early days yet. I bought it from Amazon. It arrived well packed in a single big box weighing around 80 lbs. I had to use a handcart to get the thing down into the workshop. It does not come with a stand so I had to spend another $50 to get a stand for it. It went together pretty easily. It took longer to put the stand together than it took to put the saw together. The saw comes with all of the tools needed to put it together except for a screwdriver. The only thing I had to put on the saw was the table and a few bits and pieces, and do basic setup of the blade guides. The blade was pre-installed. Installing the table was a bit fiddly, and I think I’ll need to get in there and do a bit of fine tuning to get everything perfectly square.

So far it looks like a really nice saw. I’ve wanted one of these for a long time and it is already proving itself to be one of the more useful tools I have in the shop.

To be honest I didn’t really expect much from a bandsaw in this price range. I paid $430 for the Rikon and I assumed that despite the glowing reviews it would be under powered, be flimsy and have problems. I was wrong. Build quality seems to generally be excellent. The motor hasn’t bogged down even when cutting 4+ inch thick stock. Dust collection isn’t as good as I’d like it to be but even there it isn’t horrible. It does a good job cutting curves and circles.

It does have some minor issues that aren’t deal killers. They claim it has a full 5″ cutting capacity. It’s actually a bit less than that. It seems rather noisy when cutting, but I don’t have a lot of experience with bandsaws so this might be normal. I’m a bit concerned about the amount of sawdust that accumulates on the lower blade guides as shown in the photo up there. The fence is, well, a basic fence that pretty much works, but I’d have liked one a bit more sturdy. Still, at this price I should be grateful it comes with a useable fence at all.

Let’s see, what else is going on- oh, I have a new resin piece sitting in the pressure pot that should be coming out in 2 days. I’m using up some scrap wood and am going to try to make a small decorative lamp. I picked up some small LED lamp inserts with in-line switches for about $7 each that look like they should work. So we’ll see how that goes once the resin is cured and I get it out of the pot. I figure it will take at least 2 – 3 days for it to cure.

The weather has been, well, this is Wisconsin. The weather here is always a bit strange. I remember days when we literally had snow storms in the middle of May. In the last week we went from winter like conditions where the temperatures never got above 35 degrees and one or two snow falls, to temperatures now up in the mid to high sixties.

Not much is going on out in the gardens. MrsGF got bored yesterday and did some more cleanup in the gardens, but other than that most gardening stuff is going to be on hold until late winter when we start planning what to grow. And somehow that dopey rose bush in front of the house is still in flower.

I don’t know how this thing does it. After days of temperatures under 35 degrees, dipping down to about 20 at night, this thing is still flowering?

I picked up a really nice piece of ambrosia maple and I’m trying to figure out what to do with that. It looks like a really interesting piece of wood. The problem is it’s green. My moisture meter says it’s up about 35% moisture. That means I can’t just start whacking away at it. I’ll have to work it down into a rough shape and then let it sit and dry for a few weeks before I can actually finish it up.

A lot of wood turners love working with green wood because it is a lot easier to rough into shape on the lathe. I think these people are silly. Working with dry wood is, in my personal experience, not that much more difficult than working with the green stuff if your tools are sharp and you’re using the right techniques. I like to think I’m a patient person, but sitting around waiting weeks or even months for a green bowl blank to dry down? No thanks. Plus green wood warps, cracks and checks as it dries down and I’ve ended up with nice pieces of wood being tossed onto the scrap pile. So I’d much, much rather work with dry wood than green.

And that’s about it for now.

Tools Part VI: Thickness Planers and Jointers

A long time ago I said I was going to continue the tool series by talking about thickness planers and jointers. Of course I forgot all about that until just now. But I did remember. Eventually. So here goes.

Both of these tools can be really useful for anyone who fiddles around with wood, but both of these tools are expensive. A decent thickness planer is going to run you about $400 – $700, depending on the brand, features, etc. A decent jointer is going to be even more pricey. Prices on decent jointers (not the bench top models, I wouldn’t recommend those to most woodworkers) are a lot more than that. Jointers with the same features and capacity as mine look like they’re going for well over $1,000. The cheapest Jet brand (which is what I own) with the same features as mine is going for around $1,400.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, so the first question you have to ask is do you really need either of these tools to begin with? There’s no hard answer, really. It’s going to depend on your needs, of course. I know a lot of people who dabble in woodworking who get along quite well with buying the wood they need pre-cut and surfaced off the shelf at the local home improvement store. But if you’re building fine furniture, gluing up boards to make panels or table tops, doing renovations to old houses or need lumber that isn’t standard dimensions, you generally are going to need these tools.

Let’s take a look at the tools themselves.

A jointer and a thickness planer look very different, but when you look at them closely they seem to do pretty much the same kind of thing. They both have wide, rotating cutter heads that are designed to shave very thin amounts of wood off the entire width of a board. But the two machines actually perform different jobs.

The planer is used for two things. First it’s used to put a nice, smooth surface on rough surfaced, unfinished lumber you might buy direct from a sawmill. The second use is to mill lumber down to a specific thickness you need. You may, for example, only have 1/2″ thick boards laying around, but you need a board that is 3/8″ thick for a specific project. They come in really handy if you’re renovating an old house where the existing lumber used in the house doesn’t match current standards.

A jointer also does two jobs. First it’s used to prepare boards to be edge glued together to make panels by putting a smooth, perfectly square surface on the edges of a board. That’s where the name comes from, the fine art of joinery where pieces of wood are prepared to be joined together.

Second it is intended to take a board and make its surface perfectly flat by removing warps, twists and cupping. (I will warn you that I have issues with some of the things people claim about jointers. But I’ll come to that later.)

You can do all of these tasks by hand using hand planes, and for centuries that is exactly what woodworkers did. And it is a royal pain in the neck. I’ve used hand planes and sanders to smooth and flatten large hardwood table tops and panels and I can tell you from personal experience that is it is very tedious, time consuming, annoying, tiring, and requires a considerable amount of practice and skill to do it right.

But let’s get on with this and look at thickness planers first.

That’s my DeWalt up there. I’ve had this one for – heck, must be at least 10-15 years now.

As was the case with table saws, I’m not going to cover the big, floor mounted machines that are more suited to a professional manufacturing facility and stick with the smaller ones intended for use by the hobbyist or small furniture maker. These planers usually can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide. How thick of a board they can handle varies widely. Generally you want a planer that can handle at least 4″ thick stock. You may think you’ll never need to run 4 or 5 inch thick slabs of wood through a planer, but you’d be surprised. When building furniture I’ve had to run things like table legs up to almost 4 inches thick through mine.

Planers all work pretty much the same way. Here’s a really bad drawing of the ‘guts’ of a typical planer.

There is an enclosure in which is mounted a set of feed rollers to push/pull the board through the machine. The cutter head itself is a long roller which rotates at high speed in which there are mounted two or three razor sharp steel knives that run the length of the cutter head. As the cutter head rotates, the feed rollers push the board into the machine, and the cutter head spins along at thousands of RPM, slicing off a very thin amount of wood along the entire length of the board. There is some kind of mechanism which allows the height of the cutter and rollers to be raised or lowered as needed.

Sidenote: Helical cutters. For some years now helical cutter heads like the one over there on the right have been all the rage. Instead of straight knives running the width of the cutting head, you have the setup seen in the photo over there, rows of small, individual square carbide knives set into a helical pattern around the cutter head itself. The claim is that they do a better job than traditional straight knives, are quieter, take less power, and when they get dull, you just loosen the screw holding it down and rotate it 90 degrees to get a new edge. If you get one chipped, just rotate it or replace only that one cutter. In theory they look interesting. But my personal experience is that they don’t come anywhere close to living up to the hype. I’ll talk about these later. If I remember. I probably won’t.

When you’re looking at a thickness planer there are a few things you should be looking at.

First, how robust is the mechanism which raises and lowers the cutter the rollers that feed the wood through the machine? A considerable amount of force is needed to hold that wood down, push it through the planer, hold the cutter head absolutely straight and parallel, etc. How good is the drive system that actually moves all of that stuff up and down? On the cheaper planers what holds that cutter in place and moves it up and down are nothing more than a couple of cheap, threaded steel rods driven by plastic gears, with a lot of play in the threads, and rods that flex as soon as you start pushing wood into them.

How sturdy and well built is it in general? Thickness planers have to endure a lot of stress and need to be made well enough to deal with that. They also are subjected to significant pressures and forces that can cause it to flex and bend as wood is fed through it. It has to be sturdy enough so that the cutting head is maintained absolutely parallel to the bed of the planer when a board is being pushed through.

Next thing is those knives. Those knives in there take a real pounding. They’re spinning at thousands of RPM and are being hammered down into wood that can be extremely hard and even abrasive. They get a lot of abuse. Thanks to modern metallurgy most blades are able to handle it, but eventually they’re going to get dull or even chipped. That means they’re going to need to be removed and resharpened or replaced. So take into consideration how hard it is to get at those knives, remove them, get them sharpened (if necessary) and then reinstall them properly into that planer.

The first planer I had was a major pain in the neck. It was the cheapest one I could find at the time. And it was awful in just about every way you can imagine. Just getting at the blades was a horrible job that required dismantling half the machine. And then trying to get them reinstalled after I’d had them sharpened was a nightmare. It was a hair pullingly frustrating and fiddly job to get them aligned that required the use of a couple of special jigs and considerable foul language. And even then I didn’t get them exactly right. Same with my 2nd planer. My third, well, I’d learned my lesson and got one that required no adjustments or alignments.

Cutter head on my DeWalt. The blades are disposable, and there are pins on the cutter head that fit into holes in the blades so they are perfectly aligned when they’re installed. No need for jigs, adjustments, fiddling around trying to align things. Just unscrew about 8 bolts holding the blade, remove the old one, drop the new one in, tighten it down, and it’s ready to go.
Replacement blades. Note the indexing holes to fit pins on the cutter head so the blades are always perfectly aligned.

With mine there are no adjustments. When the blades are put into place and screwed down, they are aligned. The blades are easy to get at, too. Remove 4 screws to take off the top cover of the machine, 3 screws with “T” handles on them to get off the dust shroud, and there they are. 8 screws hold down each blade. There’s even a tool stored in the planer itself that fits all of the bolts I need to remove, and has magnets built in to handle the blades so I don’t have to risk slicing a finger off on the razor sharp blades. (You do not want to handle those blades with your bare hands. Seriously. There are still blood spots inside of my planer because I got a bit careless the last time I replaced the blades.)

There are other brands that have similar systems to make blade changing as easy as possible. I’d highly recommend a planer that has some kind of system to make getting those blades aligned as easy as possible because eventually they are going to need to be replaced or sharpened.

Sidenote: Replacing the blades is more expensive than just getting them resharpened of course, but it isn’t all that much more expensive. A set of 3 for my machine costs about $80, which sounds a bit steep but those are double sided. So you’re essentially getting two sets for that price. And to give you an idea of how long they last, I bought 3 sets of blades for mine in 2012 and I still have one set unused. A set of single sided off-brand blades is going for under $30.

Dust collection on this one is pretty good. Just about all of the dust, chips, shavings, etc. is sucked up and blown out a port on the back of the machine. I have it connected to a hose on my “dust collection system”. Well, I call it that. It’s really a whopping great shopvac

The next thing you need to consider is how you are going to deal with mountains of chips, shavings and dust these things put out. Thickness planers put out huge amounts of the stuff. If you live in a climate that allows you to work outside and just sweep everything up and toss it into the compost pile later, good for you. But I live in Wisconsin and it gets bloody cold up here, and trying to surface a dozen or so boards out in the driveway when it’s -30 and snowing is no fun. So you need to be able to deal with waste material before it gets all over your house and into your HVAC system.

The better ones will have all of the guts of the planer enclosed in shrouds with a blower that will blow everything out of a port that you can connect to a dust collection system. Most of the better ones will have some kind of provision for hooking it up to a dust collector of some sort. But a lot, especially the cheap ones, are completely open and will be spitting shavings and dust everywhere. A real dust collection system is ideal, but you can make due with a high capacity shop vac. But be prepared to empty that thing a lot.

Capacity: Most of the planers in this class claim they can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide, but I’ll let you in on a little secret, a lot of them, especially the cheaper ones, can’t. You try to chuck a 12″ wide white oak board through the average $350 thickness planer, the motor is going to bog down almost immediately and possibly even stall out completely. Or blow a circuit breaker. Or overheat the motor and burn it out if you do it too often. Oh, they’ll work fine for an 8 inch wide piece of spruce or softwood. They might be able to handle a 4 – 6 inch wide hardwood board, but that’s going to be about it.

If you look close at this pic of a wood sample I got you can see the “washboard” showing up as dark streaks running from the top of the photo to the bottom. That indicates that either the feed rate was too fast, the blades were dull, or the planer was having some other problem.

Which one should you buy? How much will it cost? It’s hard for me to make a specific recommendation because a lot is going to depend on what your budget is and what you’re going to be using it for. If you’re just going to be surfacing a few 6 inch wide boards a few times a week one of the cheaper planers will do a decent job for you. Just be aware that it is going to have “issues”, as they say. It might be difficult to get adjusted properly. For example, one side of the board might be 1/32 or more thinner than the other side. You might see a sort of washboard looking effect like in that photo up there. As long as you are aware that the planer isn’t going to be perfect and is going to have some problems that you will have to deal with, you might be able to get away with one of the ‘bargain’ machines.

But if you’re buying wood straight from a lumberyard like I do and everything going through the shop needs to be surfaced and milled to the right thickness, which is the case here, then you need to be looking at the more powerful and capable planers, not the inexpensive hobbyist models.

If you’re a pro or semi-pro woodworker, as I recommended with table saws avoid the ones with prices that seem too good to be true. I did some research before I wrote this and it seems that the “sweet spot” is in the $450 – $650 price range for thickness planers. Planers less expensive than that all seem to have various issues. The really cheap ones aren’t much good at all.

But at the other end of the spectrum I really don’t see any advantage to spending $700+ on a planer when a $600 or even $500 one will do just as good a job.

As I said, research, research, research before you pull out the credit card and buy one of these.

My personal recommendation? That DeWalt 735 up there is mine, and if mine ever blew up, I’d buy another one immediately. It’s selling for around $575 or so. I’ve had it for years, it’s handled white oak and ash boards up to 13 inches wide and everything else I’ve thrown at it. It produces a nice surface, especially at the slower feed rate, the blades are easy to change and it has a decent dust collection system.

Does the DeWalt have drawbacks? You bet. It’s loud for one thing. You’re probably going to want to wear hearing protection when you run it just to be on the safe side. Infeed and outfeed tables are an extra cost option. I don’t have them on mine, and they claim you don’t really need them, but I wish I did and keep telling myself I should get them. They’d come in handy when feeding long boards through it. It will occasionally spit wood chips back into the machine onto the table, and if I don’t clear it out before feeding another board through it can embed the chips into the underside of the board or scratch it. And the dust collection system built into it blows out so much air that it can overwhelm a wimpy, inefficient dust collection system.


As you can see, I use my jointer all the time. Makes a handy makeshift table. Just this morning I found out it makes a good spot for clamping down the light I use with my lathe.

Now let’s move on to jointers. A lot of experts will tell you that a jointer is an absolutely essential tool for any wood shop. I don’t agree. I think the average hobbyist woodworker can get along without a jointer just fine. Can they be useful? Yes. But I think their usefulness is overrated. The only thing I use mine for is edging boards before I glue them up into panels. But let’s look at what one of these things actually does.

Cutter head on my Jet jointer
The fence adjustment system on mine. It looks complicated but it isn’t that difficult to set up.

At first glance a jointer looks like it works like a thickness planer. There is a rotating cutter head on which there are mounted two or more very sharp blades which slice off thin amounts of wood as a board is pushed through it. But that’s where the resemblance ends. A jointer is open topped and has no feed rollers. You push the wood through it yourself. It has separate infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron, each of which can be adjusted independently. And it has a very beefy fence hopefully made of solid cast iron which has a rather elaborate adjustment system which lets you not only adjust the width of the cut, but also the angle of the fence.

I’m not going to waste your time and mine describing how a jointer works. A lot of people who are far better at this than I am have dealt with this. Here’s a link to an article at that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about jointers. So scoot on over there and read that, then come back. I’ll wait…

Ah, back already? So, now you know everything about jointers. Excellent. And now you probably want one. You might even actually need one. Maybe. But before you max out your credit card on one of these, read on.

close up of the working end of the outfeed table on mine. To the right of the adjustment wheel you can see the dovetail joint that the table rides on.

They are big, heavy and expensive. Good ones are going to have infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron that is machined to extremely close tolerances, mounted on more carefully machined cast iron that has been milled into very accurate sliding dovetail mounting systems. All that carefully machined cast iron is necessary because those tables and their mounting hardware have to be absolutely accurate, absolutely flat, and cannot flex or bend. Cast iron isn’t that expensive. What you’re paying for is the machining of those parts. That’s where the costs begin to mount.

Jointers are classified according to the maximum width of the board they can accommodate. A 6 inch jointer like mine can handle boards up to 6 inches wide. An 8 inch can handle 8 inch wide boards, and so on. And as the capacity goes up, so does the size and weight of the jointer, and the price. Even a 6 inch jointer is going to be at least 4 feet long and weigh over 200 lbs or more. Mine weighs in at around 250 lbs.

There is a classification of jointers that are much smaller and cheaper, the benchtop jointer. But there are problems with these. Yes, they can handle boards up to 6 or more inches wide, but what about length? How long a board you can shove through one of these is dependant on the length of the infeed and outfeed tables. You aren’t going to push a 6 foot board through a benchtop jointer. Or a 4 foot board. Or even a 3 foot board probably. Unless you’re only going to ever work with lumber that isn’t much more than two feet long, a benchtop jointer just isn’t going to work.

As is generally the case with most of this stuff, all of the name brand models are pretty much equivalent to one another and are generally of good quality and will do a good job for you. They get expensive pretty fast. I did a quick look around and the cheapest 6 inch jointer I saw that had decent reviews and good specifications was around $800, with prices going up from there. Jet doesn’t seem to make an open base model like mine any more, but it does have one that seems to be pretty much a clone of mine but with an enclosed base going for a whopping $1,500.

So the good ones are big and very heavy. That’s something you need to keep in mind if you buy one. How are you going to get it into your shop? Will it even fit into your shop? Do you have someone who can help you put it together? You aren’t going to be able to do it yourself.

Like I said at the start of this, I have some ‘issues’ with some of the things the experts claim about jointers. Oh, they work just fine and dandy and will do the things the experts claim. Sort of. But here is my primary problem with them. Yes they will ‘fix’ problems like cupped boards, but Wood moves. It is made up of fibers that swell, shrink, lengthen, shorten, all depending on ambient temperature, moisture content and other factors. Wood is always under internal stresses and tensions. Always. When those forces are not balanced, wood warps, cups, twists and bends. And that is what a jointer is supposed to cure. But does it really? In my experience what a jointer often does is similar to someone with the flu taking NyQuil. It makes you feel better by alleviating some of the symptoms, but you still have the flu. It doesn’t cure anything.

I have a special term for boards like this: Firewood.

You can run a cupped board like the one in that drawing over there through a jointer and you’ll end up with a nice, flat surface. But did it actually fix the problem, which was an imbalance of the stresses and other forces in the wood that made it bend like that in the first place? My personal experiences tell me that sometimes it will, but often it doesn’t, and after I’ve flattened that board out and put it on the shelf, I’ll come back a couple of weeks later and find that it will once again be warped, sometimes even worse than it had been before. Not all the time, not even half the time. But often enough that I am not going to risk using a board like that one in that drawing in a piece of furniture. So keep that in mind.

Let’s see, I was going to rant about something else, wasn’t I? Ah, I remember. Helical cutters.

These things are something of a fad in woodworking, and have been for some years now. All kinds of miraculous claims are made for these things. I almost bought into the hype and seriously considered retrofitting both my jointer and planer with these things. I’ve had some experience with equipment equipped with these things since then and I’m glad I didn’t give in to that temptation.

First of all, holy cow are these things expensive! If you opt for a helical cutter in a planer or jointer, expect it to add $250 – $400 or even more to the cost of the machine. There are kits available that will retrofit one of these into the more popular planers and jointers, and even those are enough to make your credit card weep. There are kits to retrofit my DeWalt 735, but I could literally buy a brand new 735 for the cost of a helical cutter head replacement. $500 to replace the cutter head on a planer that sells for $575? Seriously? When the stock cutter head system works just fine and dandy to begin with? No thanks.

I’ve worked with a few planers equipped with these things and they just didn’t live up to the hype. It’s entirely possible that the ones I worked with weren’t set up properly or something, but none of them produced a surface on the wood that was as good as what comes off my stock 735. I tried out a 735 that was equipped with a helical cutter head retrofit kit and the surface of the wood wasn’t any better than that coming out of my stock planer. And it seemed noiser and started bogging down on wide boards. I just don’t think they’re worth the money for the average hobbyist.

So to sum up:

Thickness planers – they’re nice to have, you probably need one, and unless you’re running large amounts of hardwood through it you can probably get along with one of the under $400 models if you can deal with the potential drawbacks. If you need a really good one with better capacity and need to use it a lot, look at the DeWalt 735.

Jointers – I still don’t think the average woodworker needs one. Certainly it isn’t an “absolute must have” as the experts claim it is. The cheap (sometimes not cheap because I’ve seen some of these things going for well over $600) benchtop sized ones are just about worthless if you’re working with lumber more than three feet long. The full sized ones are heavy, large, and massively expensive. They are a ‘must have’ if you are doing a lot of edge gluing to make panels. As for surfacing a warped or cupped board, yes, they will do that but I noted my issues with that earlier.

And that’s about it for now.

Finishing Wood, Doors and Stuff

Shameless plug: Before I get started I have to mention this before I forget. The best resource I ran across for learning about woodturning has been the YouTube videos of “Turn a wood bowl“. Kent has a lot of videos that cover just about everything from the basics to more advanced topics. He takes the time to actually explain why some things work and others won’t, what mistakes to avoid, etc. He doesn’t just cover turning, he talks about how to sharpen your tools, how to finish them, how to sand them, tips and tricks to make your life a lot easier. I learned more from him than from all the other resources I’ve found put together. Or visit his website

Many weeks ago we talked with the contractor/builder we’ve worked with for many years now about replacing a bunch of windows and our front door. He warned us that he was booked solid for the entire summer and it would be until mid to late fall before he could get around it. That was fine because we were in no hurry. One of the issues he was dealing with was massive delays in getting just about anything, especially anything that had to be custom made like our windows.

Ooo, it’s all shiny and stuff!

He finally got the door in the other day and came over and installed that, but we’re still waiting for the factory to finish the windows. But it isn’t just delays that he’s dealing with. There has been a massive increase in prices on even basic construction materials like 2×4 studs, OSB and plywood. It’s been a real struggle for him and his customers. His cost for basic materials has literally doubled in the last 10 months.

Anyway, he got the new door installed, which was one of the biggest issues we wanted to get taken care of before the snow flies. We’re hoping the window factory gets our order finished pretty soon here. Most of the windows we’re getting replaced would survive another winter, but one of them is in pretty bad shape. All we can do about that is keep our fingers crossed.


I am always learning new stuff all the time. That’s one of the most enjoyable things about all of the stuff I get involved with. Getting involved in woodturning has been a very enjoyable, occasionally frustrating, and quite satisfying experience.

One of the frustrating things has been putting a finish on the bowls, vases and other stuff I’ve been making. When I make furniture I’m working with wood that is of very high quality to begin with, with beautiful grain that already looks beautiful without doing anything to it. With something like white oak or ash I just use a light stain to accent the grain and give it a slightly darker color to match the traditional arts & crafts style I like, and then top it off with a simple paste wax that protects the wood and is easy to repair and renew when necessary.

But with bowls and the other stuff I turn out on the lathe it’s a different story. First I’m often working with scraps of wood left over from other projects that aren’t exactly what you’d call high quality wood to begin with. I have to deal with large amounts of end grain which can be a problem to work with, and other issues.

My go-to finish was a product that was primarily beeswax mixed with tung oil and cedar oil to soften it. It produced a nice, semi-satin sort of glow that looked quite beautiful. But now that I’ve been doing this for a while I’ve noticed that some of the early pieces I did that were finished with that stuff looked downright nasty. The finish was turning dull in spots, no longer reflecting light, looking, oh, muddy, I suppose you could call it. Basically it was a good thing I haven’t been selling these things because whoever bought one and saw that happening would not be happy about it.

Experimental bowl. African mahogany, refinished with undercoat of home made shellac sealer with carnauba wax topcoat.

So what the heck was going on? Why was the finish deteriorating like that? I took a close look at the pieces on which the finish seemed to be failing and realized I was making a very basic mistake. The finish was being absorbed by the wood fibers, basically being sucked into the wood instead of remaining on the surface. This was most apparent on the endgrain when I took a close look at it. And it is a very basic mistake I should have realized before I tried to finish the bowls. But to be fair I never had to deal with it before, really. With furniture you almost never even see the endgrain and don’t have to deal with it. With a turned object like a bowl, the endgrain can’t be hidden and has to be dealt with.

close up interior of bowl with the shellac and carnauba wax finish. It does put a nice shine on the wood. Hopefully it will be more durable than what I was using.

So I’m experimenting with different materials and techniques to deal with the situation. I’ve started making my own shellac finish now, using a thin cut to make a sanding sealer that will seal the pores of the wood so it can’t absorb the final finish. That has the added benefit of helping to fill in small imperfections in the wood so they aren’t so obvious when the final finish is applied. And I’ve switched from the beeswax product to carnauba wax.

The results are pretty good so far. It’s a bit more work. It adds a few additional steps to the whole process, light sanding between coats of shellac, and considerable buffing with the wax. But the early experiments looked so good that I’m taking some of the pieces with the deteriorating surface, re-sanding them and refinishing them with the new technique.

The frustrating thing is that I already knew all of this about wood absorbing the finish and looking nasty. I never had to deal with it before but I still should have remembered. But I’ve learned my lesson now. The new process takes longer, requires more sanding, but so far it seems like the end result is going to be worth it.

This is also an entirely food-safe process. I’m making my own shellac. The only ingredients in that are shellac, which is food safe (and sometimes actually an ingredient in food) mixed with alcohol. The alcohol is just a carrier for the shellac and evaporates. And the wax is pure carnauba which is also a food safe wax. No weird, toxic chemicals involved at all. If this does a good job and proves to be stable, this is probably going to become the standard way I finish wood projects.

FLowers and New Project Finished

If you’ve been reading this thing for any length of time you know I love gardening and flowers. It might be mid October and we’ve had some pretty cold weather, but some of the plantings around here are still going strong like the flowers above. I still can’t believe how big those flowers get. My hand is in the photo so you can get an idea of how big they get. We still have two flower beds with these guys in full flower.

The alyssum have been hanging on too. Beautiful little flowers that are incredibly fragrant. I can usually smell them as soon as I go out the back door of the garage where they’re planted.

And these guys up there can be depended on to keep going strong well into late fall until it starts getting really cold.

Cleaning up the yard this fall has been a lot easier now that the pear tree is gone. Having that tree collapse was kind of a blessing in disguise. We miss not having the pears, but we definitely do not miss the mess the tree made. Trying to clean up all the falling pears was an incredible pain in the neck, and we’re going to have a lot fewer leaves to deal with this year too.

MrsGF and I were discussing what to do back in that area now that the tree is gone. We’re going to have a much larger area with full sun there now so that’s going to expand the planting possibilities enormously. There was a small heart shaped garden there that we put in back in 2000 that was almost entirely shaded out by the tree. Next spring we’re going to be expanding that to the west into an oval shape that will include the tree stump, about 20 feet long and 6-8 feet wide. That new bed will probably be for ornamentals.

We thought about making it a raised bed but discarded that idea. That area is very well drained to begin with so we don’t have to worry about too much water as we do at the back of the house. We’re going to have to haul a ton of compost in though because the soil there is pretty poor. Not going to do anything with that until spring, though. We’re still sketching out ideas about the exact size and shape of the bed and what we’re going to plant in it.

And I’m still fiddling around with wood. I finished this thing last week.

That’s a vase, not a bowl, and one of the bigger things I’ve done. It’s about 10 inches tall and 6 inches wide, made from walnut and oak. It turned out reasonably well. I really like working with walnut. It machines beautifully and I love the color and grain. A glass insert goes inside so it could be used for fresh flowers, or leave out the insert and put in dried or silk flowers.

That vase started out looking like that monstrosity over there on the right. That was a block of glued up old bits of walnut and oak I found laying on the shelf that I didn’t have any plans for. And to be honest I had no actual idea of what it was going to be when I started this. Usually when I start something like this I have at least a general idea of what I want it to be, but not in this case. I really don’t recommend people just sort of “wing it”, but in this case it worked out in the end.

That was biggest thing I’ve ever tried to spin up on the lathe. It was so wide it just barely cleared the bed of the lathe. Usually I try to round square blocks off by knocking off the corners with a saw to make it balance better, but I don’t have a saw big enough to handle a 10 inch tall, 8 inch square block, so I just had to spin it up slow, keep my fingers crossed, and start chipping way at it.

That’s it for now. Hopefully next time I’ll be continuing the tool series and talk about thickness planers and jointers. Unless something else comes up first.

Tools Part V: Table saws

There’s no way to get around the fact that table saws are expensive. If you’re buying new, you’re looking at around $500 for a decent contractor style saw, up to several thousand dollars or more for a high end cabinet style saw. Can you buy used? You bet, and you can save a significant amount of money doing so, and even come up with some pretty good deals. But you need to be really, really careful when buying used because it’s easy to end up with, frankly, a piece of junk that may look good but is really completely worn out and will require expensive repairs before it can even be used. But I’m not going to get into used equipment in this, I’m going to stick with new saws.

Of course the first question is do you really need one? These things are big and expensive, so can you get along without one? That’s a question only you can answer, really. I’ll just say this – if you’re doing any kind of semi-serious woodworking, the table saw is pretty much the workhorse of any woodshop. It’s used for cutting boards to length, ripping boards to width, trimming panels, framing cabinet doors, making tenons, dadoes… The list goes on and on. If you think you need one, you probably do.

So let’s say you’ve decided you do need one. Before you max out the credit card, there are a few things you need to think about before you ever buy one. Things that most people don’t seem to think about until it’s too late.

My now 15 year old Jet. Observant readers will note that the blade guard is missing. I took that off because I had the throat plate out so I could take photos of the arbor under the table. Normally you never, ever take off any safety equipment on a saw. Never. Not if you want to keep all of your fingers, that is.

First thing to think about is the amount of space you have. These saws are big. They take up a lot of floor space. That’s my 15 year old Jet saw in that photo up there. It is 3 feet deep and 5 feet wide. So it is physically large. Plus you need enough clear space around it so you can work safely. If you want to rip a 6 foot board, for example, you need at least 6 feet in front of that saw, and 6 feet behind that saw, in order to slide that board through the saw. So you really need a minimum of at least around 14 – 15 feet. Cross cutting isn’t quite so bad. You’re almost never going to try to cross cut a board more than a few feet long.

Now most of us don’t have a lot of space to work in. I certainly don’t. My shop is a spare room down in the basement. It’s a good sized room, but if I didn’t have my big tools on wheeled bases so I can move them around there is no way I could fit everything in that room and still have room to work. Wheeled bases like the one on the left under my saw can be really helpful. But they do have drawbacks. They have to be sturdy enough to handle the weight of the tool, which can be hundreds of pounds. They absolutely must have lockdown levers you can work with your foot like mine do because you do not want that tool moving when you’re using it. So they can help, but you’re almost always going to be better off if you don’t need to add wheels. These tools ideally should be bolted directly to the floor because that makes them safer to use and helps to reduce vibration. But most of us don’t have ideal conditions, so you do what you need to.

Big honking motor.

The second thing you need to be concerned with before you buy a saw or any big piece of electrically powered equipment is your electrical service. Can the electrical service in your home, garage or wherever handle the load that will be placed on it by that saw? Look at the specifications of the motor on my saw in the photo up there. It draws 18 amps. But the average electrical circuit in most houses is only rated to handle 15 amps. Go look in your service panel, the circuit breaker box of your house. Chances are good that all the breakers, except the ones feeding an electric clothes dryer, central air system or electric stove, are going to be 15 amp. So just plugging that saw in and turning it on is going to exceed the rating of the average household electrical circuit. If you try running that saw you’re probably going to be tripping the breaker on a regular basis and in extreme cases even causing the wiring to overheat.

My house was completely rewired from top to bottom when we bought this place and we installed separate service panels specifically to feed the garage and my workshop so they could handle the extra load. I have 20 amp circuits feeding the outlets in the shop, not the normal 15 amp, so it can handle this kind of thing.

So before you buy a table saw or other big power tool, make sure your electrical service can handle the load. If necessary talk to a professional electrician about improving the capacity of your system. If heating up a cup of water in your microwave makes the house lights dim, you really, really need to talk to someone about doing some upgrades before you try to bring in a big power tool. I’m not telling you to rewire your whole house, but having a separate 20 amp circuit run to your work area is something you should consider if your equipment is a power hog like mine.

The third thing you need to be concerned with is just getting the thing home and into your workshop area. These saws are big and heavy. How are you going to get it delivered to your location? How are you even going to get it off the delivery truck? How are you going to get it into your workshop? How are you going to get it assembled? Getting my equipment into my basement workshop was a royal pain in the butt that involved hand carts, in one case a cart used to normally transport big vending machines that I had to rent with a powered stair climber built into it. And that’s not counting the bruises, strained muscles, smashed fingers and considerable amounts of foul language.

Sidenote: 120V versus 240V. If you look at the motor up there, you’ll see it can be rewired to run on 240V instead of 120. A lot of tools in this classification will have motors like that. Some will even require 240 only. Why? I won’t go into the technical details but generally speaking a motor runs more efficiently on 240 and there are advantages to going that route. But do you need to? Probably not. First you almost certainly aren’t going to have a 240V circuit in your house, and having one added is going to cost a significant amount of money. And second, you probably don’t need it anyway. Unless you are running a commercial production shop or something like that, the average woodworker isn’t going to need to jump to 240V tools.

SO let’s get on with this and talk about actual saws. Choosing a saw can be a bit overwhelming because there dozens of different types and brands on the market, each with it’s own advantages and disadvantages.

There are three basic types of table saws; contractor saws, hybrid saws, (which I think is actually a ridiculous and misleading thing to call them) and cabinet saws. To confuse things even more, I’m seeing what are really hybrid saws being marketed as contractor saws, and hybrid saws that look like cabinet style saws. I really think that classification system should be scrapped entirely and we should be using things like the saw’s capacity, but let’s ignore that.

contractor style table saw

Contractor saws are generally smaller, more compact, and often come with folding stands and wheels to make them easier to move around, and you’ll often find them at job sites being used by, well, contractors (duh). Once upon a time contractor style saws were, well, to be brutally honest they were almost all pretty much junk. But wow, have things changed in the last twenty years or so. Oh, the really cheap ones are still pretty much junk. But the better quality contractor saws are now damn near as good as the other types of saws. They’ve become more powerful, much better made and genuinely good. If you look at the major brand names and the higher priced models, well if I didn’t have my Jet I wouldn’t mind having one of these. The only real drawbacks are that they are still a bit less durable because they have to be light weight to be more or less portable. And because they have to be small, they don’t have the capacity of the full sized table saws. But that smaller size and lighter weight can be a genuine advantage for those of you who don’t have a lot of room for a saw. And the smaller capacity can be gotten around by building your own stand with infeed and outfeed extensions, side wings, etc.

Makita, DeWalt, Delta and a few other manufacturers make some pretty darn nice contractor style portable saws. They’re definitely worth looking at, especially if you have a tight budget. But as with any of this equipment, research, research, research! Get online and read reviews, evaluations, get on YouTube and look at the videos. Make notes about things you like and dislike. After all, even these “cheap” saws are going to set you back around $400 – $500 or more for a really good one.

Cabinet style saw. Generally you pay through the nose for this style saw and, frankly, for 95% of us the extra cost just isn’t worth it.

I’m going to do something I probably shouldn’t and toss the whole classification of cabinet saws out the door and forget about ’em. Why? Because cabinet saws are big, heavy, and securely bolted to a concrete floor once they’re put in place. They take up a lot of room. They often require 240V power. They generally require a fixed and high power dust collection system. And they’re expensive. You can expect to drop at least $2,500 or much, much more on a decent quality cabinet saw. And I think that’s utterly ridiculous because that saw isn’t going to work any better for the average woodworker than a $1,000 saw will.

And let’s just junk that whole “hybrid” classification too while we’re at it because it’s just silly and I have no idea why people started using that term anyway. And no one seems to actually adhere to the mostly nonexistent standards of that classification system anyway.

Note the wheels used to raise/lower the blade and change the angle on my saw. On this saw they’re separate, but on some there is only a single wheel with a lever that switches between angle adjustment or height adjustment. Which do you want? Doesn’t matter in the slightest as long as it works.

No matter what you call ’em, this style saw is a full sized table saw with a pretty hefty motor, usually 120V but often the motors can be rewired for 240 if you want, good sized tables that will handle just about any normal sawing job you need to do. And generally it has an open frame holding it up like my Jet up there in that photo and not a fully enclosed cabinet base, although as I noted, some are now coming with enclosed cabinets. It’s going to have a 10″ saw blade, a tilting arbor, hand wheels on the front and/or side to raise and lower the blade and to change the angle of the blade, a pretty good quality rip fence, a miter gauge that is most likely a piece of junk and should be replaced with one that is actually accurate and safe, and, of course, safety gear designed to keep you from cutting off bits of your body while using the saw, like anti-kickback devices, a riving knife, shield over the blade, etc, and a flat (hopefully) machined heavy steel or cast iron table with side wings to support larger pieces of wood.

Speaking of safety, I’m going to be talking about SawStop saws at the end of this just to give you a heads up

And no matter which brand you look at, they are all basically pretty much the same. I’m sure DeWalt, Jet, Delta, and the other major brands would argue with that, but when it comes right down to it they are. They’re all going to have similar features, have similar build quality, similar capacity, similar size, weight, everything. Personally I have a lot of Jet equipment, and I like it a lot, but I’m not going to tell you to run out and buy Jet because Jet’s saws aren’t going to be any better or worse than those being sold by Delta or Shop Fox or the other brands. And they’re all going to cost about the same as well, with no more than a couple of hundred bucks differences in price between saws with similar specifications.

So I’m not going to recommend a specific brand or even a specific model. Instead I’m going to talk about what you need to look for, and the things you may need to add or replace once you do buy it.

Stuff you should look for

The table should be nice and flat, well machined, and smooth so wood will slide easily over it. If it has table extensions as my saw does (those white plates on either side of the plain metal table) they should be absolutely flush with the surface of the main table

When the angle of the saw blade is set to 0, the table should be at exactly a 90 degree angle to the table. This is easy to check. Just raise up the saw blade and put a square on the table and butt it up to the blade. If it isn’t you should be able to do some fiddling to get it to that point. Hopefully you won’t have to.

The hole in the table the saw blade comes through is called the throat, and the removable plate that fits around the blade is the throat plate. It should be perfectly flush with the surface of the table, and there should be some way to adjust it to make sure it is flush. If you look at mine, you’ll see the throat plate has leveling screws recessed into the plate itself to allow it to be adjusted. If it isn’t perfectly flush with the table you can have the wood catching as you slide it through the saw and that can be dangerous.

The arbor. It may look simple but there is actually a lot of engineering in that design and if anything in there is off, it’s going to cause you potentially serious problems, ranging from the blade wobbling to excess vibrations.

The arbor is the shaft that the blade itself is bolted to which, in turn, is mounted on an assembly that permits the arbor and blade to be raised and lowered and tilted. The arbor should look and feel sturdy. There should be absolutely zero play when you try to move it, especially not in the bearings nor in the lifting and tilting mechanisms. Reach in there and grab the saw blade (carefully) and try wiggling it back and forth. The saw blade may flex, but ignore that. If the arbor, the bearings, the shafts, anything under there wiggles, moves, shifts position, makes clicking noises, anything that doesn’t seem quite right, avoid that saw like the plague. If any of that equipment down there isn’t absolutely perfect, you’ll never get that saw to work right.

The threads on the shaft should look relatively, oh, robust, shall we say? The pulley on which the drive belt rides should be perfectly square to the shaft itself. If it isn’t it is going to cause vibration problems.

Oh, and how easy is it to get at that arbor? You’re going to have to change that blade sooner or later. You may also want to swap the blade out for specialty blades as well. So you want to be able to have relatively easy access to the arbor to replace the blades.

Then there is the safety equipment. All saws will come with at least the minimum, which is some kind of splitter or riving knife to keep the wood from pinching on the blade, anti-kickback devices of some kind, and a shield over the blade.

You would think that the most dangerous thing about a saw is that spinning blade, and it is indeed very dangerous, but what can be even more dangerous is what is known as kickback. When the fibers in wood are cut, this can, oh, disturb the balance of forces in the piece of wood, so to speak. Internal stresses that were balanced before, become unbalanced when the fibers are cut, causing the wood to move, and squeeze around the saw blade, pinching against it. This can cause the wood to be launched at high speed directly back at the person using the saw. This isn’t just painful, it can literally be lethal. Some years ago a guy at a factory in Fond du Lac got killed when a piece of wood kicked back on the table saw he was using. So when I tell you that you never, ever take the safety gear off your saw, I mean you never, ever take the safety gear off your saw.

If you look at that photo up there you’ll see what looks like a wing with teeth just to the left of the throat plate. That’s an anti kickback pawl. There are two, one on each side. I would much rather have a riving knife, but that wasn’t generally available when I bought this saw. Riving knives are now considered to be one of the best ways to avoid kickback, and if you can get that on the saw you’re looking at, do it.

RIp fences on modern saws are generally pretty good, certainly more than adequate for anything you or I might be doing.

The rip fence: Once upon a time, when you bought a table saw generally the first thing you did was throw away the rip fence it came with and bought a good one. Seriously, they were often that bad. Fortunately those days are long gone, and the rip fences on modern saws, at least the better saws, are generally pretty good, even outstanding, and possibly nearly as good as the aftermarket ones.

Unless someone sets the saw up for you, you will almost always have to fiddle with it to get it properly aligned and square, but that’s generally not a difficult job.

A couple more things about rip fences. First, many, like mine, have distance indicators that supposedly show you the distance between the fence and the blade. Mine even has a dopey little magnifying lens built in and a “micro adjustment wheel”. And, well, yeah, don’t rely on any of that guff to actually work. Just get out your handy tape measure and actually measure the distance from the fence to the blade. Remember the old adage: measure twice, cut once.

Second, some people, even people who really should know better get freaked out when they find out that the back end of a lot of these fences don’t lock down when you push down on the locking lever. The front does, but the back doesn’t, and actually it will flex a bit if you push on it hard at the back. They believe this makes setting the distance between the blade and the fence inaccurate somehow. And wow, some of them get weird, even a bit obsessive about it and think this is the most horrible thing ever, and because it isn’t locked down their cuts aren’t going to be accurate.

And I suppose it would be a problem if there were any actual pressure against the back end of the fence. But there isn’t. Or shouldn’t be.

Think about it for a minute. The only thing you should really care about is the area of the fence that lies in front of the blade and the point at which the wood is in contact with the blade. That is what controls the distance between the fence and the blade, not the back of the fence. The back of the fence doesn’t do anything except provide a smooth route out of the saw for the wood and keep the board straight. It has nothing to do with the actual cut. There should be very little force against that fence in any case, and most of that force is going to be before and at the point the cut is actually being made. That is where accuracy is an issue. Not at the back end of the fence after the cut has been made.

If that fence is deflecting, then you do have a problem because it shouldn’t be. If it is, that means there is something mechanically wrong with your fence or its lockdown mechanism, or you are pushing the wood against the fence with way too much force. That fence is there to be a guide. Period. You shouldn’t be putting any kind of significant pressure against it as you guide the wood through the saw.

In fact, there are valid reasons not to lock down the back of that fence, IMO. The primary one is safety. There is no such thing as a perfectly aligned saw. If that fence is locked down tight at both ends and can’t give a bit at the back, and the saw blade isn’t absolutely, perfectly, 100% aligned with that fence, and the wood isn’t absolutely straight with perfect grain, under the right circumstances it’s going to cause the wood to bind up between the back of the blade and the fence and this is not a good thing. Having a bit of deflection at the back of the rip fence can be a good thing.

Now that being said, some saws come with fences that do lock at both ends, and you can get a lot of aftermarket fences that do, and people like them and even think they are absolutely necessary. I think they’re wrong, but well, hell, I think so-called “american cheese” should be banned because it is neither American nor cheese, and that hasn’t happened yet, so there you go. And don’t get me started on “Canadian bacon” or “English muffins”…

Oh, wait, I’m getting off topic, aren’t I? What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, saws. Let’s see, where did I leave off… Okay, I finished that up, what’s left? Oh, miter gauge.

A miter gauge is a special device you use to measure those funny hats that bishops wear…

Typical piece of junk miter gauge similar to what most saws come with.

Oh, all right, I admit it, that was a really horrible joke but I couldn’t help myself. A miter gauge is, well, one of these things over there on the left. It’s a type of guide. You butt the hunk of wood up against it and then push it forward into the saw. It sits on a long rectangular shaft that slips into a groove ground into the table of the saw. In theory, it keeps your wood at the proper angle as you feed it into the blade. Normally you keep it locked at 90 degrees, but you can adjust it so you can make angled cuts as well.

Note that I said “in theory”. That’s because most of these are, frankly, junk. They’re usually way too small to adequately support the wood you’re trying to cut, hard to adjust, the angle settings are inaccurate, and they are just generally not very well made all the way around. I mean, come on, look at mine over there. The pointer is basically a roofing nail they soldered into a hole and bent over for heaven’s sake.

Don’t worry, though, I’ll talk about miter gauges in detail when I get to the “optional stuff” section of all of this coming up soon.

Very soon, I hope, because you’re probably getting just as bored with this as I am by this point.

Now I was going to show you a picture of the on/off switch on mine saw but I seem to have lost it… Oh, wait, there it is. Here we go, that’s it over on the right. I will not pull any punches here. That switch totally sucks. It isn’t the “Start” button that’s the problem, it’s that “Stop” button. It’s in an awkward position. I have to fumble around for it if I’m not at the right angle to directly see it. It’s wobbly and I have to fiddle with it to get it to work. It’s potentially dangerous, even, because in an emergency you need to shut that damn saw off RIGHT NOW because you need to pick up the finger you just cut off and get to the ER so you don’t want to have to be standing there fumbling around trying to find and then push the damned button. You want a nice, big, easy to find and easier to push OFF button. Granted I could retrofit this thing with a much better kill switch, so to speak, but, well, I’m lazy, I’m cheap… Well, you get the idea. Most modern saws come with much better switches than this one has. Or should.

Dust. Lots and lots of dust…

Finally let’s talk about dust. Table saws are really good at turning very expensive wood into great, heaping piles of sawdust, and you need a way of dealing with it. One of the advantages of cabinet saws is that most of that dust is confined in the cabinet where it can be easily sucked up with a dust collection system.

Dust collection on saws in this class is pretty much, well, to be honest it’s pretty much a joke. Mine makes an attempt at it. It has a plastic plate that bolts to the bottom of the saw body with a big hole in it to attach a vac or dust collection system. But since the whole back end of the saw is open (has to be because the motor mount and belt run through there) I get dust flying everywhere whether I bother to hook up the vac to the port or not. True, having the vacuum on helps a lot, but it still chucks a lot of dust out the back. It isn’t as bad as, oh, a big power sander or a lathe, but these saws do produce a significant amount of dust and you need to be prepared to deal with it. Breathing this stuff is most definitely not good for you. And if your shop is inside of your house, it’s going to get everywhere. Be prepared to change your HVAC system filters a lot. A dust collection system would be nice, but most of us don’t have the money or space to stick in an expensive dust collection system. I certainly don’t. My dust collection system is a big shop vac and a 21 inch fan in the shop window sucking the stuff out of the house before it can get into everything.

There are a lot more things about table saws I could get into but these are some of the important things and I imagine you’re getting just about as bored as I am by this time, so let’s get on with this.

Money, money, money… So much money…

So, what is a decent table saw in this class going to cost? Well if you thought that spending $500 on a contractor style saw was bad, you might want to go take a lie down before I drop some of these prices on you. When I bought my Jet about fifteen years ago, I spent somewhere between $500 to $600. That was a lot of money. Well, still is a lot of money. My model saw isn’t made any more, but to get one with capabilities you can expect to pay somewhere between $1,100 to $1,500. A Jet in the same class as the one I have looks like it is selling for over $1,400. Yeah, that $500 contractor style saw is starting to look a bit better, isn’t it? I knew these things had gone up drastically in price since I bought mine, but it wasn’t until I started doing some research to write this that I realized that they’d doubled in price in the last fifteen years. Ouch.

Can you get cheaper ones? Sure. Should you consider the cheaper ones? Definitely. But be very, very careful out there.

If the price sounds too good to be true, it is. Stay away. I’ve seen saws with silly, even ridiculous brand names that I’ve never heard of before selling for just a couple of hundred bucks. There is a reason why that saw is selling for $700 less than a Delta or Powermatic or Shop fox or the other well known names, and that reason is that it is a piece of junk. You cannot make a 10 inch table saw of any kind of decent quality and sell it for $200. I’m sorry, you just can’t. Even if you find reviews online claiming that these things are the best thing ever, don’t believe it. Stick with recognizable brand names and buy from reputable retailers. Delta, Shop fox, Rigid, DeWalt, Jet, Grizzley, Milwaukee, Bosch, SawStop, Powermatic all make pretty darn good saws.

What about used? You can get some really good deals on used table saws, but be careful. You can pick up a real gem at a good price, or you can get burned. But do your research first. There are forums and articles and videos galore out there with advice on what to look for when buying used, so go do some digging.

Oh, one final note before I move on. I want to talk for a minute about so-called benchtop saws. If all you’re doing is, oh, cutting up 2″x2″ square bits of wood to make pen blanks or building HO scale models, one of these might be useful, but generally speaking they’re utterly useless for any kind of serious woodworking.


Now, let’s talk optional equipment and addons and other goodies people will try to sell you after you have a saw. Let’s get back to that crappy miter gauge first.

This one is sold by Woodcraft under their brand but is actually made by Incra.

Like I said, most of them aren’t worth much. If you’re doing work that requires accurately cutting angles and doing it safely, you’re going to want an aftermarket miter gauge like the one in the photo over there on the right. That is an Incra 1000SE. I’ve had it for a lot of years now but it is still in production. It is very, very accurate, easy to use, extendable, with built in hold down. The thing is just nice. Everything is adjustable so you can fine tune it to ridiculously tight tolerances. If you make fine furniture, picture frames, do cabinet making, anything that requires very accurate cuts, you need to consider throwing away the miter gauge that came with the saw and getting something like this. Kreg makes one that’s just as good as Incra’s and sells for a bit less.

And I’ll warn you right now it ain’t cheap. That thing is selling for around $190 right now. And you probably don’t need one as elaborate or accurate as this one is. I make furniture and picture frames and boxes and other things that require highly accurate cuts. I’d still encourage you to look into upgrading the miter gauge, though. There are much less elaborate versions that are significantly better than the ones most saws come with that sell for under $75.

Freud dado blade package. I should point out that dado blades are illegal in Europe. Apparently Europeans can’t be trusted with sharp objects? I know the UK was considering banning points on knives a few years ago. I wonder about people sometimes. I really do.

Dado saw blades: Well, first what’s a dado? Basically it’s a groove cut in a length of wood that will make a place to stick another piece of wood, like cutting slots in the carcase of a bookcase that the shelves will sit in. Rather than trying to chisel all that stuff out and probably screwing it up (I know I would) you get out your trusty dado blade, put together a stack with the right blades and shims to get the proper thickness, bolt it onto your saw, run the boards through, instant slot. Neat, clean, fast. Well, sometimes it’s neat, clean and fast. In actual use it’s a bit more difficult than that, but if you need to cut long grooves in wood, a dado blade comes in very handy. That’s my Freud in the photo up there. A set like that costs around $130 – $140. Do you need one? Heck, I don’t know. If you need one, you need one. If all you need to do is cut a slot in two boards, get a cheap one. If you need to make a lot of dadoes, get the more expensive, better quality ones. They’ll make a better cut with less chipping.

If I need a throat plate to accomodate a special saw, I just make my own.

And if you do get a dado blade, you’re going to need a different throat plate for your saw because it ain’t going to work with a 1/2 inch stacked dado cutter. You don’t need to buy one, though. You’re a woodworker, remember? Make your own. I do. All you need is a bit of hard maple (oak or ash would work too), a thickness planer, a jigsaw or scroll saw, and some sandpaper. Get a nice bit of hardwood. Use the thickness planer to shave it down to the thickness you need. Slap your existing throat plate onto the board and trace out the outline, then cut it out with a scroll saw and sand it down to get the fit right. Lower the saw all the way down. Slap the new throat plate into place, move the rip fence over the top of the new plate to hold it down, and with the saw running very slowly raise the blade up to cut through the new plate. Instant custom throat plate. Well, okay, not instant, but you get the idea.

Push sticks – Do I really have to tell you that you do not want to get your fingers anywhere near a saw blade spinning at about a gazillion RPM? I don’t? Good. You need push sticks to hold down and push the wood you are cutting. I buy ’em, make ’em myself, whatever. They’re easy to make, but they’re also really cheap to buy. I must have a dozen or more laying around because I keep misplacing the darned things. I have some I made for specific uses, like cutting larger panels that have fancy hand grips. Of course I couldn’t find them when I wanted to take a picture.

Stuff people will claim that you need but you really probably don’t

Special drive belts: If you start scrounging around on the internet or through woodworking magazines and the like sooner or later you’re going to run into an “expert” who will claim you need a special drive belt for your saw, specifically something called a “link belt”. They will claim that your standard V-belt is an abomination that is causing nasty vibrations, thumps and bumps and, oh, heck, I don’t know, probably causing the ice caps to melt, tuna to go extinct and my hair to fall out for all I know. Personally I think it’s a crock. I’ve used saws that were equipped with belts like these and I didn’t notice any difference at all in vibration, noise or anything else when compared with similar saws using normal V-belts.

Expensive aftermarket rip fences: Go back and read my comments about rip fences earlier. Most modern table saws in the price range I’m talking about here already come equipped with pretty good fences. I don’t see any need to “upgrade”. If you’re saw has a poor rip fence, by all means look into replacing it. There are good ones out there. Again, do some research.

Anti-vibration gubbins that bolt to your blade or arbor or on the legs of your saw: For a while I was seeing these things advertised all over the place, but it seems to have faded a bit in the last ten years or so. The claim was that your saw blade is a weak, wimpy thing that shakes and rattles and vibrates and is hurting the accuracy of your saw. Yeah, sure it is. If you have a decently made, good quality saw blade, no, it isn’t. And if you have a cheap, crappy, badly made saw blade, these things aren’t going to help in any case. Basically the ones I’ve seen are little more than big washers that do literally nothing. Clamping a big steel washer to the side of your saw blade is going to do nothing to balance that blade. And since the majority of the blade isn’t supported by that thing, it is still going to flex and shake if it isn’t well made.

Specialty jigs: There are a lot of companies out there who will gleefully sell you all kinds of jigs that are supposed to make life easier for you. I have to be honest and admit I’ve fallen for it and bought some of them. Learn from my mistakes. Most of them aren’t worth it. I make a lot of mortise and tenon joints for furniture, and I went and bought one of those things over there on the right, a special jig for making tenons. I dropped, oh, heck, it was probably around $130 or so on that sucker. Does it work? Uh, well, sort of? To be fair, yeah, it does. But here’s the problem. It takes so long to get it set up, takes so many test cuts to make sure the depth and width is set properly, that by the time I got the thing set to accurately make the actual tenon, I could have cut a half dozen of them using just my dado cutter and miter gauge. Seriously.

That’s the biggest problem with these jigs for making speciality cuts, they work but often are so fiddly and take so long to get set up that you’re better off not bothering and doing it by hand, especially if you only have to make a few cuts like that.

Of course on the other hand I did drop over $400 on my mortising machine and I wouldn’t give that up for anything. But if you’d ever had to make dozens of mortises the old fashioned way with a drill, wood chisels and a mallet, you’d know why.

SawStop saws:

The last thing I want to talk about are SawStop saws. I will say right up front that I like Sawstop saws. A lot.

The SawStop system consists of an electronics package together with a gadget that is something like the disc brake system on a car, only more so, and a drop system. Electronic sensors constantly monitor the saw. If it senses that you just shoved your finger into that saw blade, it instantly stops the saw and drops the blade down through the table. The demonstrations are undeniably impressive. They usually take a hotdog or piece of raw chicken and just barely touch the blade and Bang! It happens so fast that the saw just barely nicks the sausage or chicken before it stops and drops.

The system is, well, damn, it’s impressive. Look at the brief demo below.

I have worked with SawStop saws and they are very, very nice. We had them at the school district in the high school technical/engineering department. They are very, very safe. They work exactly like they show in that video. The merest touch of skin and BANG!, the saw shuts down virtually instantly.

But you’re going to pay for that safety. The cheapest one I’ve seen is $1,400 for their portable job site style saw. A “contractor” style saw goes for $1,700 (All things considered, that’s not really that bad of a price), and the cabinet style saws can run over $4,000.

So the safety system is impressive, but how does it work as an actual saw? Like I said I’ve used these things and they’re very good. The quality all the way around was well above average. They were accurate, powerful and pretty much top of the line saws.

Would I buy one? In a heartbeat. That’s how much I like them. If I personally was shopping for a table saw, the first one I’d be looking at is one of the Sawstop saws, probably that “contractor” style one for $1,700 or so. If I ever need to replace the Jet I have now, it will be a Sawstop that takes its place. No, I am not getting paid to say that. I like the saws that much.

The system isn’t cheap, obviously. If it does trip, the guts of the thing have to be replaced. There is a cartridge type thing you have to replace that will cost you about $70, plus the saw blade will have to be replaced. So let’s say it’ll cost you about $200 total to replace the cartridge and blade if it trips.

And it does have false alarms occasionally. We had it trigger when trying to cut pressure treated lumber, green lumber, things like that. But the false alarms were very rare. If I had one I’d buy a spare cartridge or two to have on hand just in case.

And here’s the thing you have to ask yourself, how much are your fingers worth? Spending $200 to replace a cartridge and saw blade is a hell of a lot expensive (and less painful) than a trip to the ER.

That’s it for now. Next time thickness planers and jointers and whatever else I can shovel in before I get bored.

Autumn is here

Well, okay, not according to the calendar. But as far as I’m concerned the seasons change not by the actual date but according to the weather conditions. We got hit with a hard frost the other day and that pretty much brings the growing season to an end for a lot of our plants. So that means it’s autumn no matter what the calendar may say.

And while it may be chilly outside, we’re still getting a new central air system put in tomorrow morning. Our old air conditioning system is probably pushing 25+ years, if not a bit more than that. It’s actually a bit amazing that it lasted this long. But it has a freon leak now, and while they could probably repair it, we’d still have a 25 year old AC system that could fail at any time just when we need it most. This is as good a time as any to get it done. Probably the ideal time, really. The air conditioning season is over, the heating season hasn’t started yet, so the company has the time to do it. So we might as well get it over with now so we’re ready when the heat comes next summer.

Gads, it’s going to be an expensive fall, though. The AC is going to run us $3,200 (this is a big house). The contractor just called and said our new windows and doors are now ordered so he’s going to be rolling in sometime in a couple of weeks to do that, that’s going to be over $7,000. Ouch. Still, it all needs to get done. Especially the windows. One window on the north side of the house is literally rotting away and won’t survive a winter and the exterior door is nearly as bad. So once that’s done we’ll be ready for cold weather. And we got a taste of that already as you can see from the frost covered grass below.

It got cold. The remote sensor for the thermometer is out on the front porch which is pretty sheltered, and that said it got down to 32 F so that means out in the yard and gardens it got well below 30. The grass out in the yard was white with frost before the sun came up and the roof was covered with frost, so it was pretty cold out there for a fairly extended period of time overnight.

This is the time of year when we’d normally have so many pears we didn’t know what to do with them, so it seems odd not having the tree any more. While I do miss having fresh pears, I don’t miss having the tree, to be honest. It collapsing and having to be removed wasn’t really a bad thing. If it were still there the whole area would be covered with a thick carpet of fallen pears, and those would be covered with bees, wasps and, well, it could get nasty out there. MrsGF and I would no sooner pick up 5 gallon buckets full of the things, and the tree would drop a few hundred more.

We’re already talking about what we’re going to do with that area. Now that it isn’t shaded out by the tree we can grow just about anything out there and we don’t have to worry about finding plants that can handle shade. We’re thinking about putting a raised bed out there or expanding the existing garden that was being shaded out by the tree that we had in flowers.

The frost brought an end to the tomatoes, of course. But that’s not a big loss because they were already well on the way to winding up anyway. The peppers are still doing fine, though. They aren’t as fragile as tomatoes are and are in a sheltered area that didn’t get hit with the frost.

The raised beds did very, very well again this year. Building those was the best thing we’ve done in the garden over the years. We cut back on the number of tomato plants drastically this year and still had more than we really needed. We planted onions around the outside edges of the raised bed and that worked out beautifully as well. The onions did really well. We didn’t have to buy a single onion all season. Just walk out to the garden and grab one. I am really going to miss that. I’m going to miss the flavor even more. Like just about everything else we grow the flavors are much more intense than the produce we get from the store.

We took a break and drove all the way to the lakeshore between Manitowoc and Two Rivers to have a picnic. Cold down there along the lakeshore, but wow, it was a beautiful day. Had a very pleasant afternoon down there. With Wisconsin’s infection rate now totally out of control and the county we live in having one of the highest infection rates in the state, opportunities to do anything are a bit restricted so just getting out and about was nice.

I haven’t talked about the virus and how it is effecting our lives because, well, you get enough of that everywhere else, don’t you? Still it’s very frustrating. This was supposed to be more or less under control by this time. Instead the number of new infections is hitting new records almost every day here in the state. It’s completely out of control here. ICUs around here are at full capacity and they’re trying to find beds in other hospitals in the state and, well, it’s scary. MrsGF and I are both in one or more high risk groups so… Well, you know. To top it off I pretty much have virus like symptoms all the time. I have upper respiratory allergies so I always have congestion, watery eyes, stuffed up sinuses, a slight cough, etc. Basically I have almost all of the early symptoms of the virus all the time except the fever. Sigh…

But enough of that. How about a rose instead?

Yes, we still have flowers despite the frost. Some of the flowers are pretty resistant to cold weather and are still doing fine, and we have a potted rose up on the front deck that’s still in full flower.

Let’s see, what else…

I’m going to take a stab at resin casting, which ought to be interesting. I’ve gotten reasonably good at wood turning and am now looking for a way to expand on that a bit by doing stuff like, well, this-

I doubt I’ll ever get as good as this guy, but what the heck, why not give it a try and see what happens? I’m rather impatient to give this a try. I have just about everything I need except for the resin and that should be here this week. I hope. More about that when it actually happens. A lot of the videos you see make it resin casting look easy. It isn’t. I expect my share of utter disasters as I get started with this.

And once again the importance of proper safety gear was proven to me rather dramatically when this happened:

Ouch, that could have been nasty. I was turning a bit of white oak when the tool got caught, hard, on an imperfection in the wood. Not only did the force snap the tool in half, it hit so hard it actually bent the tool rest on the lathe and I have to get a new tool rest. The metal part of the tool snapped clean out of the handle, splitting the handle in half, and flew up and hit me square in the face. If I hadn’t had the face shield on, well, it would have been nasty as I said.

MrsGF and some family members have once again been suggesting I try selling some of the stuff I’ve been cranking out. And I suppose that some of it is good enough that it might be marketable. But there are so many issues with trying to sell stuff and, well, is it worth the effort? I used to run my own business so I know a bit about all of the permits, red tape and tax issues that go along with operating a business legally. Emphasis on that word, legally. A lot of people try to slip under the radar, thinking that they’re too small and insignificant for the government to bother going after them if they try to ignore all of that. But do you really want to take that risk? Heck, even zoning can be a problem. You may be turning out some really neat stuff down there in your work room in the basement or that spare bedroom, and no one is going to bother you because it’s a hobby. But if you start selling it, well, now you are a business, a manufacturer, and a lot of communities have very strict zoning ordinances concerning manufacturing. Zoning boards are often very unforgiving. They don’t give a fig if all you’re making a few pens and selling ’em on Etsy. You’re making and selling stuff commercially so you are a manufacturer. Period. Things can be even more strict if you’re in a home owners association.

And then there’s pricing your stuff. I did a scrounge around Etsy the other day looking at the various vendors selling bowls and, well, either they’re losing their shirts on every sale or something funny is going on. I found one person selling 6 inch wide, two inch deep “hand crafted solid black walnut” bowls for $20. Seriously? You add up the cost of the wood, sand paper, the finishing materials, add in a bit to cover the cost of the tools, the lathe, etc., and you’re already losing money at that price. And that isn’t even beginning to add in the cost of Etsy’s fees, bookkeeping, filing taxes, or the maker’s time to produce the bowl. So yeah, either the maker is losing his shirt on every sale, or there’s something unethical going on. I did some quick estimates and I’d figure that just to break even I’d have to sell a bowl like that for about $35, and that would be essentially doing all the labor for free. And he’s running them out for $20?

So the thing is, even if I’m only turning out a bowl a week or so, it’s just not worth the hassle to try to go commercial and sell this stuff.

That’s all for now. I’m working on the next part in the tool series. That’s going to be covering the big stuff like table saws, jointers, planers and other big ticket items. I’m having to do some serious research because I’m not really up on what’s going on in the market right now. I’ve owned all of my big power tools for at least 10 – 15 years. One of the good things about big ticket items like this is that while they’re expensive, generally speaking they’ll last you a lifetime, so you only need to buy them once. Hopefully.

Sidenote: I rarely look at the viewer statistics but I did notice an interesting thing the other day. It seems a lot of my readers are from India. On a lot of days the number of visitors from India outnumber even those from the US. India is one of the most amazing places on the planet, so I’m delighted by that. I don’t understand how they found this goofy blog, but I’m thrilled they come and read this.