It happens all the time, people call me and tell me about trees that are so big that they can’t get their arms around them and, unrelated but still slightly humorous, they tell me about their Chinese Elms. For the record, I have seen many trees that you can’t get your arms around (which doesn’t make that nutty measuring system any less ambiguous), but the Chinese Elms that I hear about have never, ever, ever, not once, actually been Chinese Elms – they have always been Siberian Elms.
I have gotten used to it now. If someone says they have a Chinese Elm, I just assume that it is a Siberian Elm. It isn’t that big of a deal, except that there really is a Chinese Elm and I often wonder if the next call about a Chinese Elm will, in fact, yield a Chinese Elm. I like both American Elm and Siberian Elm and assume that I would like Chinese Elm as well, and I don’t want to miss my chance to mill one if it ever comes along.
The elm issue moved to the forefront after a recent trip to the Missouri Botanical Gardens when I ran across an actual Chinese Elm conveniently marked with a little official sign. I have never seen one in real life, at least that I know of, and this was a great opportunity for a close-up view of a confirmed Chinese elm tree. I took that opportunity to snap some photos for comparison. Nonetheless, just assume that your Chinese elm is actually a Siberian elm, unless it looks a lot like the photos below.
I was working in the shop last week doing some adze work on a couple of hollow beams and remembered back to my frustrating first days using an adze. I recalled a couple of tips that I wanted to share in this latest Quick Tip video:
For an extended description of the hollow beam making process and more adze fun click here to read How to Turn New Wood Into Antique Beams.
At the end of May, my daughter and pickiest customer Mira, turned eight and planned to have a mermaid swimming party at Grandma’s house. Grandma has a swimming pool and we knew that she would be willing to heat it for an early-season swim, so it was an easy choice. The difficult part was finding mermaid themed items that met with Mira’s approval and weren’t for little girls (Ariel, A.K.A. The Little Mermaid, is not cool when you are eight).
While searching for party decorations, my wife, Chris, came across a little sign that she thought was cute and asked if I could make one for the party. It said, “Mermaid Lagoon” and it was pretty simple, and since it was right up my alley, being made of wood and all, I said “Yes”.
I dug out some cypress that had lots of knots and a good rustic look and started cutting. I wanted the sign to be bigger (who wouldn’t) than the one in the photo, so I cut the boards about two feet long to make the height. I trimmed the ends at random lengths, some at a slight angle, until I had enough to make the sign about three feet wide. It went quick, especially since I had no formal plan. If a board didn’t look right, I just trimmed it more or flipped it around or just grabbed another board. I love that kind of woodworking; no tape measure, no pencil, no worries.
After I nailed the boards together, I painted them with a wash of blue/green paint. I already had some bright blue paint in the shop and added green Transtint to get the color right. I thinned the paint down with water and brushed it on as quick as possible. While it was still wet, I wiped it off like it was a stain to show the wood below.
Once the paint was dry, I did the lettering, which I laid out and printed from the computer. I cut out the words with an X-acto knife and used a light coat of Super 77 spray adhesive to hold it in place while I painted it. A light mist of white spray paint did the trick, making the words legible but not too pronounced.
After the sign panel was assembled and painted, I needed to come up with a post. My first attempt was a weathered piece of oak 2″x4″. It had the right look and feel since it was old and gray, but I thought that Mira might not approve since it just looked like an old board, so I continued to search for a better way to display it.
A quick walk to the other end of the shop revealed a piece of driftwood that was perfect. It was the right size and height, and with just a little block added to the bottom, it sat up beautifully crooked. Plus, I wouldn’t have to pound it in the concrete-like ground since it would stand up on its own. That piece of white oak driftwood couldn’t have worked out better.
All that was left to do was screw the sign to the post, which took a grand total of 30 seconds. If it was going to be for long-term use I would have been more serious about it, but two 3″ deck screws worked just fine and quickly put this job to bed.
I was pleased as punch. I showed it to everyone within shouting distance of the shop and couldn’t wait to bring it home and show the girls. They were pleasantly surprised at how it turned out and I was pleasantly surprised that Mira quickly approved it (I was still a bit worried that my unauthorized driftwood addition might have been a bit aggressive in her mind (even though it was perfect)). We capped the whole thing off with hot glue, a few seashells and then perfect weather for a “Mermaid Lagoon” swimming party.
The sign now resides in my shop, where it generates many inquiries, but as of today, no more official orders for driftwood mermaid signs.
If you want to make something look older, just add some worm holes. Sounds simple enough, but there is a major difference between just poking holes in the wood and making the holes look authentic. Now that the all natural, rustic wood look is in style, even new, or at least not very old wood often benefits from more character, and I am here to show you how to really do it.
First off, let me assure you that I have a lot of experience in this field. I often build pieces that need to be “wormed up” in some regard, either to make new wood look old or to make old wood look even older. Especially on projects like beams and mantels, worm holes help add a lot of age to a piece.
Much of the wood that I use already has worm holes in it because I let the logs sit awhile outside before I mill them into lumber (sometimes even on purpose), so I have a head start, but there will still often be spots without bug holes where the wood needs a little extra love, like in the following video:
To get things started, it helps to first look at truly worm-eaten wood. There are consistencies even in what looks to be very inconsistent patterns. Here are a few principles that hold up in most wormy wood:
1.) Hole sizes vary: Even similar-sized holes are not the same. Your method for creating holes should easily produce random results.
2.) Worms tend to focus their efforts: Holes will usually have an area of focus, with more holes in the center of an infected area fading out to fewer holes.
3.) Not all holes are perpendicular to the surface: While most holes are just that – holes, many are oblong and some are more like trails.
4.) The bugs that make the worm holes often enter around defects in the wood: Soft or punky wood, spalted wood, cracks, and sapwood are all areas that will focus worm activity. Good, strong, solid heartwood is the last area to be bug infested.
5.) Small holes outnumber the big ones: Older wood that has been attacked by multiple insects will have lots of tiny holes (1/16′ diameter), some medium-sized holes (1/8″ diameter), and just a few big holes (up to 1/4″ diameter).
Here are some photos of authentic worm holes. If you can copy any these patterns you will be off to a good start.
Here are some of my tricks for achieving realistic results:
Small holes. You’ll be tempted to use a drill bit for the smallest holes, but it isn’t the best choice. Tiny drill bits break easy and the size is too consistent. Plus, they pull out wood fibers that make the edge of the holes fuzzy. Instead use a nail or a scratch awl sharpened to a long fine point. A scratch awl is the best choice because it can be used without a hammer and produces speedy results. The long point will make different sized holes depending on how deep it is pushed into the wood. Push the scratch awl in the wood at different angles and different depths.
- Large holes. Use a twist drill bit for the larger holes. Be sure to drill deep enough that you can’t see the bottom of the holes and to vary the drill angle. Put the bigger holes in the softer wood. Sapwood, punky wood and areas around defects are a good place to start. Mix up the sizes in the 1/8-3/16″ range for a more natural look.
- Oblong holes. Some of the larger holes tend look like small jelly beans. Drill in fairly deep and then use the side of the drill bit to cut a short trail. The result is similar to two holes drilled right next to each other.
- Trails. Trails are often left just under the bark in bug infested logs and sometimes inside the log. Use a twist drill bit about 1/8-3/16″ in diameter and drag the bit in different lengths of crooked lines. Be sure to make some of the areas have more depth. Think of the trail as a river with shallow areas and deeper pools. Trails can have one, both or none of the ends finishing in a hole. Mix it up and have a few ends disappear into holes made with the same drill bit.
One of the most important things to remember when making worm holes or using any other techniques to age wood is to really go for it. You won’t destroy a piece of furniture by adding a few more holes or dents, and you can only miss by doing too little to the surface.
I often see furniture, especially mass-produced furniture, that will have some sort of distressing that looks like it was just phoned in. Usually, someone quickly takes a chain to the surface or pokes a few holes and calls it a day. Don’t do that. Pay attention to Mother Nature’s work and try to duplicate it. And, most importantly, have fun doing it.
Sometimes in life you need a tool that you don’t own, don’t have handy or don’t have any idea where it is. I have this problem a lot and it is usually closely related to the fact that I don’t put my tools back as I use them. I subscribe to the “leave it close to where it is most likely to be used next” method of organization, which somehow, always leaves a tool a long way from where it is actually needed next.
I had this same problem when setting up to spray a two-part conversion varnish finish. I had all of my supplies, but no empty cottage cheese containers to work out my ratios. You don’t have to use cottage cheese containers, but I always had some handy and had used them consistently after I figured out how high the finish should be in the container and how much catalyst to add. The mixture is actually pretty simple–one batch of finish, plus 10% catalyst.
One thing I never liked about my cottage cheese container system was that I had worked out how much I needed for a full pot on my spray gun, but beyond that it wasn’t easily adjustable. If I only needed a little finish, I didn’t have a system for figuring that out. A scale would have worked great, or even measuring cups would have been nice. Heck, anything related in any way to weights and measures would have helped. But I am never that prepared.
So, there I was, looking around the shop for empty containers and finding none, but I had a revelation. One of the containers I did find had some old finish in it, and I could see the level of the finish inside the container by looking through the white plastic, and I realized that I was just inches away from having a measuring cup, except my cup didn’t have any measurements on it. No good – right? Actually, not so bad. I could make up my own measuring system (inspired by Bill Cosby and his story about Noah, I call them cubits) and mark them on the side, if I could just find an empty container.
Then the wandering begins, looking around the shop for something that might work. Then the digging begins, as I move everything in my finishing area to try and uncover an empty container. Then the cussing begins as I still find nothing to mix the finish in before I put it in my spray cup. Then… Wait! Hold on a minute! My spray cup. That is the one and only, now very clean and very empty container in the shop, just waiting to have something put in it.
Now, I am really on to something, but I can’t see through the aluminum cup to mark my cubits on the outside. If only the cup was clear. I needed a way to see how much was in the cup without being able to see through the cup. I needed some sort of stick, something that you dip in fluids (I don’t know what I would call that thing). And, you know what would be even more awesome? If whatever I used could always be found and be something that I would never have to worry about putting away. Yes, an actual stick of wood as a dipstick. Genius.
But wait, it gets even better. Since the stick didn’t have any measurements on it, I could make my own and make a different one for each batch. I could make any adjustments I needed . All I had to do was transfer my cubit measuring system to the stick, and I was in business.
I labored a bit over my cubits and how long they would be. They couldn’t be an inch because that name was already taken. Same with a half an inch and a quarter of an inch. Any measuring system I was going to use was based on an inch and that’s just not how cubits work. Everyone knows that no one knows how big a cubit really is, so it couldn’t be based on anything that already exists. The good news for the cubits of the world is that I still can’t tell you how long they are, but luckily it doesn’t matter.
The first step was to fill up my cup with finish. With the new fancy cubit ratio measuring system it didn’t matter how much I used, just as long as it was enough to do the job. Then I walked less than two feet and grabbed the nearest, short scrap of clean wood and dipped it in the finish. The highest point on the stick to get wet was now the new cubit.
I marked the high point (cubit) on the stick with a pencil and then marked a second point 10% higher to indicate how much catalyst to add. There are two ways to figure where the 10% mark goes. The most accurate way is just to measure the length of your cubit, say 5 inches and multiply by .10, which equals .5 or 1/2″. I like this method because it’s accurate and uses just a tape measure and simple math, but it isn’t as simple as it could be. My new and improved method (though admittedly slightly less accurate) is to, by eye, divide my cubit in half, then in half again, and then in half again. At that point I have a mark that is about 12.5% of the full cubit. Then again by eye I deduct a few percentage points so I am in the 10% range, and then transfer that mark to the top side of the cubit line. It takes no tape measure and no math.
Here’s a quick rundown of the process:
The new and improved, super-simplified, cubit measuring system works for any fluid mixing in a straight-sided container and is accurate (as long as you aren’t blind). It is simple simon and knocks the whole process down to a stick and a pencil. And, if I can’t find those two things buried in the shop somewhere, then I am really in trouble.