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 https://turnawoodbowl.com/

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.

Finishes

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.

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.

Frogs, Cactus and GF Makes A Thing

This little guy seems to wait for me to come and water the tomato plants in the evening. He sits there patiently watching me while I putter around with the hose and I swear he seems to grin when I shower him with the plants.

I went to a college that was focused on ecology and environment way, way, way back for a few semesters. I never did finish up with a degree, but that school did have an influence on me. One of the things I learned is that amphibians are sort of an early warning system when it comes to the environment. They are very sensitive to environmental degradation. If you have a thriving amphibian population, the environment you’re in is doing pretty good generally speaking. So the environment in our backyard must be doing pretty darn good because we have an abundance of frogs and toads. They can be a bit of a nuisance because I have to be really careful when I mow the law and watch out for the little guys. Usually they get out of the way but every once in a while one will hunker down in the grass and try to hide and I have to stop the more and move him.

Mr. Spiny is in full flower again!

That goofy cactus of ours has turned into a major attraction in the garden. I can’t believe how many people are amazed that we can actually grow cactus outdoors in Wisconsin and think we’re some kind of magicians or something. We aren’t, though. We just got lucky. This type of cactus thrives in the conditions we put it in. The soil in that corner is rather poor, and doesn’t hold water at all because both of the soil type and because there’s a drainage tile right under it. Almost nothing else would grow there at all and it turned into a dust bath for the local birds every summer. And to be honest, when we found Mr. Spiny on the town’s compost pile I honestly had no idea if he’d grow here or not. It wasn’t until later that I found out it’s a type of cactus that’s actually native to Wisconsin, although not usually found this far north and east.

Anyway, we now have three more of them.

MrsGF cut three pads off it, stuck ’em in the dirt, and guess what? Yeah, they’re growing too tucked away back there against the foundation wall of the house.

People seem to think we’re some kind of master gardeners or something. We aren’t. There’s no secret to growing plants. The right soil, proper amount of sunlight, proper amount of water, and compost, compost and more compost.

When we bought this place years ago, the soil here was utterly horrible. It was your typical backfill kind of stuff with a skim coat of topsoil that couldn’t have been more than a couple of inches deep. We were lucky enough to live two blocks away from the town’s compost site, and we can get as much as we want for free. So we’ve probably hauled literally a couple of tons of the stuff into the gardens around the house over the years.

Selecting the right plants is important as well. You can’t just find something that looks pretty, put it in and hope for the best. You have to carefully select the plants you use to suit the conditions they’re in. All plants have specific environmental conditions in which they thrive. Some, many, in fact, can survive in environments they aren’t really comfortable in, but they’ll never do as well as they should. If you’re careful to select plants for the soil, light and moisture conditions in a specific location, you’ve gone a long way towards having a successful garden.

And water. We just went through an extended dry period, together with extremely hot conditions. MrsGF and I were out there every single night watering everything in sight. We emptied our rain barrel in two days and had to resort to city water (I don’t want to see what our quarterly water bill is going to be) after that.

But you can overdo the watering too. Again it depends on the plants. Some can handle dry weather pretty well. Some thrive on it. Letting some plants get dry can improve the quality and flavor of the fruit. Some types of peppers for example will produce more flavorful fruit if they’re allowed to experience mild environmental stress like mild drought conditions. But it can be a delicate balance. Others can’t handle even slight drought conditions.

Enough of that. How about a flower?

GF Makes A – A Thing

If you’ve been following this blog or whatever it is for a while you know I do wood working. I build furniture and do carpentry and stuff like that. My oldest son got me one of those cheap Harbor Freight wood lathes ages ago and, well, to be honest when it comes to woodworking tools, you get what you pay for. So let’s just say it’s not exactly the best lathe in the world and leave it at that. But I got bored a few weeks ago and decided to see if it was good for anything at all and tried my hand at making a bowl out of some old scraps of white oak that were too small for anything. I glued ’em all up into a block, stuck it in the lathe, and this is what came out after I put a finish on it.

Considering this is the first bowl I’ve turned since, well, 1969 I think, I’m rather pleased with it. Especially since it’s made out of scraps of wood that otherwise would have ended up in the neighbor’s fire pit.

I should point out that MrsGF made the table runner it’s sitting on and the table is one I made out of white ash some years ago.

I’m encouraged enough to try again. I have a few chunks of really nice wood, cherry and black walnut, that would be suitable for turning into bowls, so I think I’ll keep playing around with this and see what happens. If things go well I might end up buying a good lathe and see what happens. But good lathes, even smaller ones, gets pretty expensive. A good quality lathe in the size I’d want runs somewhere around $700 – $1,000. Which is why I never bought one myself.

But enough. Time for me to get on the bike before the weather gets too hot!