How I Managed Without a Workbench: Part 1

It was years before I put together and used something that could be considered a workbench.

I’ve been wood working with various levels of seriousness since I was 5th grade.  The first workbench I used was my grandpa’s, a wall length counter-top with cabinets underneath.  The only vise was a metal working vise, but I learned how to use it to hold wooden work pieces without marring them.

Between then and now I’ve used various items as a workbench:

  • The floor
  • Any available table with a piece of cardboard under my project
  • My lap – depending on the task at hand could get a little dangerous
  • A trash can with a piece of plywood over the top
  • The handrail to my front steps – worked great for clamping long pieces to cut
  • Saw horses – usually with a piece of plywood across them

Each of these allowed me to get some work completed, but as you can imagine, for the most part they were “workbenches” of convenience (the best or only item available to me at the time).

I-Beams 1

The end of one of the I-Beams I used with my saw horses.

The saw horses were the first items I built something for in order to make them a more functional work bench.  I don’t even remember where I got the idea anymore, but I assembled a set of four I-Beams to lay across my saw horses.They are easy to assemble using three 8’x1″x2″s with glue and nails.  The picture here shows how they look.  The I-Beam configuration is stronger than just a 1″x2″ by itself and keeps a heavy workpiece from bowing the support.  Two or more of the I-Beams creates a solid foundation for a piece of plywood or MDF, giving me a work surface of nearly any size. With four saw horses and four I-Beams, I can arrange them in many combinations to accommodate a project.

For example, in the picture below, I have a small piece of plywood at one end of the I-beams for a work table to hold my staining supplies while the rest of the length holds the parts being stained.

Using to I-Beams to support some trim being stained.

Using to I-Beams to support some trim being stained.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is not a particularly complicated system. It does have its limitations.  There is not much weight in the set-up, so using them to, say, plane a board is difficult (but I have done it).

On the plus side, I can stack several pieces of MDF on them without a problem. They are great support for assembling large boxes or cabinets. I’ve used them as a stand for bench-top size machines. When the saw horses are folded up, the I-Beams store in a rack I have attached to the ceiling, taking virtually none of my limited shop space.

This was just a first step for me.  Basically, I was making the saw horses I already owned more functional by building sturdy I-Beams. With minimal investment in time and materials, I was able to expand my woodworking ability.

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Harebrained Woodworking Will Return September 2015

I’ve been away from the blog-o-sphere for a while, having been caught up in home improvement projects and life in general.  I believe it is time to come back and to that effect, I’ll start posting again on September 10, 2015 and have a new entry every two weeks.

Currently, I have planned a 3-part entry on how I managed without a workbench for several years.

Please check back in September.

Thanks for reading.

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Handy Tool Table on the Fly

Triton Multi-Stand

Sometimes I like to build and design on the fly.  When I do, I often work at making it a challenge for myself by creating some parameters.  Here is a typical list:

  • It must serve some purpose.
  • It should have as few parts as possible to serve that purpose.
  • I can only use materials already available in my garage.
  • Do my best to use materials “as is” instead of custom cutting everything.
  • Initial idea to finished product can only take … (usually an hour up to an afternoon, depending).

I’ll be the first to admit not everything that comes out of this process is a gem.  I have, however, solved some interesting problems in this way.

The Clamping Jaws in the Triton Multi-Stand

Case in point – I bought a Triton MSA 200 Multi-Stand.  My initial purpose for this devise was to catch long boards coming off of my table saw.  It can adjust to different heights and angles, but the interesting thing about this particular stand is it’s ability to clamp boards.  I asked myself, “How can I take advantage of the clamp to make the stand more useful?”

Project purpose:  A removable tabletop to set tools out of the way while I’m working on a project.  Sides on the table would keep items from rolling off and hitting the floor.

Number of parts:  6 – 1 table top, 4 sides, and 1 part to clamp in the jaws.

Materials in the garage:  I came across a square piece of 1/4″ plywood leftover from another project for the table top, two stray strips of 3/4″ plywood  for the sides, and a chunk of 2×4 needed for the clamp the stand.

Using materials:  The 1/4″ plywood could be used as I found it.  The 2 strips of plywood needed to be ripped in half to give me the 4 sides. From there I’d need some dadoes along the lengths and miters on the corners.  The 2×4 chunk just needed the edges squared up on the table saw.

Amount of time:  I couldn’t see why this would take more than one or two hours (not counting glue drying time).

2×4 Attached to Bottom

After squaring up the 2×4, I screwed it to the bottom of the plywood table base so I could clamp the whole thing in the Triton and complete assembly of the sides.

Next I ripped the plywood strips in half to create the 4 sides.  Using dadoes would allow me to glue the sides on easier and I wouldn’t need any nails.  Being under my self imposed time limit, I chose not to set up my dado stack and instead ran all 4 pieces over the table saw twice, moving my rip fence over 1/8″ on the second run to get the 1/4″ width I needed.  I took two of the sides, marked where the 45 degree miters would go, cut the miters, and glued them to the table on opposite sides.  So far, so good.

Dado cuts in sides.

Gluing on two sides. Notice the 45 degree corners.

When the glue was dry enough, I cut the 45 degree miters on the other two sides and attempted to place them along the table.  Here’s where things got difficult.  They didn’t fit.  I had gauged the first two sides correctly … if I had not decided to cut dadoes.  They were too long and would not allow the the second two sides to fit correctly.

Suddenly this was taking too long and felt more like work than fun.  Rip off the glued-on sides and use something else?  I couldn’t take parts off without causing damage.  Toss the whole thing across the garage and forget it?  Even though my self-imposed timer was tic, tic, ticking along, I wanted to see it through.

The solution:  My 45 degree miters would become rabbet corners.  The glued-on sides would have to be cut flush with the edges, and there would be enough length on the second pair of sides to cut the rabbets.

The new 90 degree rabbet corner joint.

The sides wouldn’t allow the project to sit flat on my table saw, but after some careful balancing, using of my rip fence as a guide, I managed to get them flush.  Once the rabbets in the second pair of sides were complete — Voila! I had tight-fitting 90 degree rabbeted corner joints and a tool table that took about 4 hours total.

Completed Tool Table

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How Not to Cut Parallel Dadoes

Paper Sorter CompletedThe Project: Paper sorter for my sister-in-law’s 1st grade classroom.

The Challenge: Lining up a series of dado cuts for shelves on four different pieces.

She wanted to replace her cardboard sorter that was falling apart. Why not just buy a new one? I was able to build two sorters out of MDF, hardboard, and some fir (relatively inexpensive materials that would last a great deal longer) for roughly half the cost of buying one cardboard sorter.

Paper Sorter AssemblyI used 5/8″ MDF for the sides, and 3/4″ MDF for the inner partitions (so I had enough room for dadoes on both sides), then used 1/4″ hardboard for the shelves.  Since the shelves only had to hold paper, I didn’t need any kind of support other than the 1/4″ dadoes in the sides and partitions.  However, they all needed to line up well enough so the final product was square and the shelves didn’t run askew.

My initial idea was to build a jig similar to those I’ve seen in magazines, two parallel sticks placed wide enough for the router to slide along them with two other sticks affixed at right angles on the ends attached from below so My Dado Router Jigthey sit level with the surface receiving the dado.  Rigs like this make accurately repeating cuts easy. Theoretically it’s a simple jig to build, only four parts and minimal measuring.

Jig in place for test cutsI had given myself a firm deadline of one weekend to get all of the work completed.  While attempting to keep this deadline, I rushed to cobble together this theoretically simple jig.  In short, it didn’t turn out square.  Luckily, (because I begrudingly learned some years ago: Do Test Cuts!) I found out before it caused any real problems.

After running a series of cuts on both sides of some scrap MDF, I figured out something was wrong.  The cuts lined up perfectly First round of test cuts.on one edge and were anywhere from 1/16″ to 1/8″ off on the opposite edge.  I went through a mental checklist of all that could have happened and finally, even though my pride didn’t want to let me do it, I checked the jig with a square.  Yup, that was the problem.

I tore it down, used a square to line up the parts, reassembled it, and ran some more test cuts.  Again they were lined up perfectly along one edge and off on the opposite.  Only this time they were closer to 1/16″ or less.  I checked the jig again and it seemed to measure 90 degrees in all corners, but the results of my test cuts proved something was still wrong. I’ll admit it could have been wishful measuring (akin to wishful thinking and can cause just as many problems).

It could have been any number of things:

  • Some of the screws followed their original holes enough to pull it undetectably off kilter.
  • Too much play between the rails for the router to run straight.
  • The pine I used for the rails wasn’t as straight as I thought.
  • The edges of all the parts weren’t square enough for the jig to work properly

I was frustrated by this point because I had used up lots of my precious time building and rebuilding this simple jig and still wasn’t close enough with my cuts to actually use it.  I scrapped the whole thing and came up with “Plan-B” … The table saw fence in the shop where I was working could go out the length I needed in order to cut all the dadoes.  I could make each cut on all four pieces before adjusting the fence for the next, ensuring that each cut lined up.

I have seen people use this type of router jig to cut repeated dadoes with great success. So, I know it’s not the basic concept of the jig. The problems I had could have been any item on my list or any combinations of those items.  It even could have been reasons I didn’t consider.  Most likely, though, I can chalk the whole thing up to rushing.  And that is what can be the root cause of everything on my list of possible problems.  I know now, when I’m making up deadlines, it is just as important to factor in time to properly build any jig I might need.

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Making Boxes With My Niece and Nephew

Kid Boxes

Every time Emma and Hudson, my niece (age 7) and nephew (age 4), come to visit they see all of the lumber, tools, and machines in my garage.  “Can we build something, Uncle Mark?” they asked once.  I put them off saying that we would build a box or something sometime.  The problem was they never forgot what I said.  So, over the next few visits, “Can we build a box this time, Uncle Mark?” I continued to put them off for one reason or another, amazed that they remembered each time to ask.

I finally got my act together and we were able to make the boxes I’d been promising.

My goal was to introduce them to actual woodworking skills rather than just glue a bunch of Popsicle sticks together – not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Keeping in mind their ages, meant I had to do any power tool or machine work, but I wanted to keep them involved with the actual construction of the boxes.  To that purpose, I cut parts ahead of time and used hand tools.

Some  1/4″ thick yellow pine roughly 5″ wide, leftover from a previous project, served as our material.  While the kids finished their game of Mario Galaxy, I cut parts by eyeballing four longer pieces and four shorter pieces (sides and ends). The measurements didn’t really mean that much because all Emma and Hudson cared about was building a box.

I used my combination square to transfer the board thickness to the ends of the sides so we could line up the drill for the brad pilot holes. The pilot holes served two purposes: 1) to help keep the lumber from splitting and 2) to keep the nails lined up while the kids pounded away with hammers.  They came into the garage while I was drawing the lines and were ready to work.

Kid Boxes, Drill, and Hammer

Kid Boxes, Drill, and Hammer

Admittedly, I initially grabbed my cordless drill for the pilot holes.  After setting  it down in front of them I had second thoughts; the weight, the power, and the little hands just didn’t seem a good combination.  I brought out my grandpa’s ol’ crank powered hand drill, an item they had never seen. While I held the drill steady, they turned the crank; therefore, they drilled the holes – three on each end of each of the sides.

We tightly clamped one box end for each kid into the Workmate, raised just above the level of the table top.  From there, I showed them how to line up the sides flush with the ends, place a nail in one of the holes, then hold it steady while they pound.  Emma was pretty good on her own.  I had to help Hudson hold his still while he hit the brads.  Then we flipped the assembly around, clamped the other end in the Workmate, and nailed the side to it.  Then we nailed the other side to the ends and had a four sided box without a bottom.

I measured the bottom of the box (the first actual measuring during this project) so I could make parts for the bottom.  The sides ended up about 6 1/2″ long and ends  about 4 1/2″ long.  I used a piece of scrap 1/8th inch plywood and cut the parts.  We drilled some more pilot holes then nailed the bottoms onto the boxes.  Now that we had an actual box, I drilled holes in the ends to add a rope handle, and the boxes were complete.

We left all the scribe lines, had some splits along the edges while nailing, not everything was flush, and there were some slight gaps in the joints.  But you know what?  We had fun, and they have something that they made.  Success here is defined by completing a project and practicing new skills.

Kid Boxes

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The Radial Arm Saw Question

Recently I learned that Craftsman has a recall on 8″, 9″, and 10″ radial arms saws sold between 1958 and 1992 as well as 8 1/2″ radial arm saws sold between 1990 and 1995.

Needless to say, that’s lots of saws and mine happens to be one included in the recall.

In short, the recall focuses around the fact that these machines were sold without a full blade guard.  A replacement guard is available, but it only fits certain saws. Mine is not one of those saws.

The option available for a Craftsman RAS that can’t take the replacement guard?  Ship the carriage and motor assembly to the recall people and they will send you $100.  (If you want more information about the recall, just go to for all of the details.)

Similar to my radial arm saw.

Similar to my radial arm saw.

This leaves me with and interesting choice: Keep a perfectly functional saw without a full blade guard or fundamentally sell the motor and carriage for a guaranteed $100. (Leaving me with a lot of machine parts I have to dispose of somehow.)

For some this isn’t worth spending any time thinking about.  A certain number of the woodworking population would just as soon take all existing RAS’s and push them over a cliff into a very deep canyon.   Getting $100 for the thing would just be gravy.

Many RAS’s in the home shop have been replaced by sliding miter saws and other machines. Tom McKenna, senior editor of Fine Woodworking, wrote a short blog entry back in 2010 about the disappearing radial arm saw, and there are lots of good reader responses as well, both pro and con towards the usefulness of this machine.

Why all the negative feelings?  In my opinion, the overriding reason is woodworkers see it as a one-trick pony that takes up too much shop space.  The only use most people seem to get out of one is crosscutting.  If that is all a person wanted from a machine, I would agree that a miter saw is a better choice (especially given a new radial arm saw these days costs over $1000).  The majority of work done with mine was simply crosscutting, mostly because my miter saw couldn’t handle the width of the laminated flooring I installed a few years ago.

Average Amount of Clutter on My Saw

Average Amount of Clutter on My Saw

I have to admit, however, that I haven’t gotten much use out of it lately.  I’ve since bought a table saw and built a crosscut sled for it, which I use often because it’s easy to switch from ripping to crosscutting.  Worse, it’s location in my garage (against the back wall) makes it easy for it to fall victim to clutter.  Even when I want to use it, it’s typically easier to pull out a different machine.  That’s no fault of the usefulness of the RAS, just my laziness.

I’m hesitant to cash in on the recall offer is that RAS’s are incredible multi-taskers.  Beyond crosscutting, they can miter, rip, bevel, and perform compound cuts of various types.  Because of the reach of the saw, it can crosscut multiple pieces at one time.  Dado and molding heads can be used on this machine.  With the purchase of a chuck (which is still available for my saw model and only costs around $12) it can be turned into a shaper, router, horizontal drill, disk sander, drum sander, buffing wheel.  I won’t even get into all of the various joinery that can be cut.  All of that potential usefulness is worth more to me than $100.

So for me, even though it’s more of a catchall right now, my answer to the question “Keep or Recall?” is Keep.

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How Flat Does Flat Need To Be?

All of the work I did lapping the soles of my hand planes brought me to the question of “How flat does flat need to be?” and it’s been rattling around in my head ever since.

My ultimate concern was how the flatness of the plane’s working surface might translate to the surface of my woodworking projects, so I decided to err on the side of caution and switch to a “flat” 1/4″ glass lapping plate.  What if I had continued using the granite lapping plate with the .003mm concave gap?  Sure, the sole of the plane would have been curved at the heel and toe.  Would it have worked well enough to create a flat surface on a piece of wood?  Was the curve on the heel and toe actually acceptable and I’m just too obsessed with “flatness” to let it go?

I looked into “flatness” by visiting the National Institute of Standards and Technology website – .  These are the people responsible for standardizing measurements and measuring methods for the whole country.  These are the people who make sure your gallon of gas is actually a gallon.  Surely these are the people who had the information on what was acceptable for “flatness.”

As it turns out I couldn’t locate an NIST official definition or what an acceptable industry standard of “flatness” might be.  I did come across publication #73-239 “Gage Block Flatness and Parallelism Measurement” by J.S. Beers and C.D. Tucker written in 1973. Their opinion of “flatness” in a gauge block (something that is supposed to be as flat as flat can be) is that “Typically commercially available reference flats, plane to  within 1 or 2 micro-inches over a 2.5 inch diameter are usually adequate.”  When you consider one micro inch is .000001 inches (1 millionth of an inch), that sounds awful flat to me, and if Beers and Tucker are OK with that standard, I think I can be as well.

I also looked at the “flatness” of some straight edges.  For example, the Veritas straight edge I used to measure the concave in my granite slab boasted of being machined to within .0010mm and another from Garrett Wade claimed to be machined to within .0005mm.

Then I thought about my .003mm gap which couldn’t be much more than the .0010mm standard of the straight edge I used.  If that .003mm gap caused me such problems, how could I trust the straight edge?

I took a closer look at the K-D Tools #161 feeler gauge I used to measure the gap in the first place.  I pulled out the .003 gauge and noticed something I didn’t notice when I originally used it.  There was a second number right below .003 and it is .076.  Now when I look at it, it is just as clear as a daylight.  What I thought was .003mm was actually .003″ and the other number is .076mm.  That gap is nowhere near as small as .003mm.  My feeler gauge can’t even measure as small as .003mm because it only goes down to .038mm, still a long way off when you are talking about “flatness.”

Originally I thought this concave gap measured .003mm but it was really .003" or .076mm

No wonder the sole of my plane took on the shape of the granite plate so quickly.  Lesson learned: Make sure you know how to ready your measuring tools.  As I have said all along, I want to share my mistakes as well as my successes.

My original question still stands though. How flat does flat need to be? What is an acceptable amount of “gap” on a surface whether it be a hand tool , machine, or woodworking project?  As far as a hand place goes, it does need to be much less than .076mm.

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