Sanding is one of those things that is low on the priority list but high on the necessity list. Very few of us want to do it, but we all know that we have to do it. And, even though most of us aren’t excited about it, the quality of a sanding job can be the difference between a masterpiece and a large paperweight. Poor sanding techniques cannot only ruin the actual piece but can also ruin the finish. No single tool in the shop can be so disastrous (note that I didn’t say bloody).
It all starts with the right mindset. Often sanding is viewed as an obstacle, something that gets in the way of actually finishing, but it is the opposite. Sanding is finishing. Treat is as a separate and integral first part of the finishing process.
Be happy about it. If you break a woodworking project into two halves, the second half would be the finishing, which starts with sanding. Celebrate that your project is more than halfway finished and sand with a smile on your face. If you aren’t happy about it, at least try to fake it.
Don’t be lazy. Laziness shows up in the worst ways. Hard to reach areas will still have saw marks. Wide open areas will have chatter marks from the planer. Glue joints won’t be flush. If you don’t want to put in the time to sand, don’t be a woodworker!(Wow! That was harsh.)
Be disciplined. Don’t sand just because you are supposed to. Sand with a purpose, achieve the goal, and stop. Lack of discipline only creates more problems. Sanding through veneer, sanding through topcoats or stain, sanding across the grain, and rounding off edges too much (and this is only a partial list) all come from a lack of discipline.
Obviously, I think sanding (good sanding) is critical. Think about the four points above next time you are sanding and see where you land. It may be the difference between woodworking success or failure.
I went shopping for new tools last year after my fire. One of my best finds is a 36″ AEM (now TimeSavers) widebelt sander, affectionately known in the shop as the “FriendMaker”. It is a 20hp wood-eating machine that is in great shape for its age. I would say it is perfect, or at least now I would. The only problem that I found after I ran it was a groove or three in the front sanding drum. I didn’t know a lot about this sander and told myself that it would be alright if the drum wasn’t flat because the platen, which is a flat bar that presses the sandpaper to the wood would smooth things out. And it did (kind of), when it wasn’t falling apart.
The platen is a piece of aluminum about 37″ long and 1-1/2″ wide. It has a piece of stout felt attached to it that is covered with a separate piece of graphite fabric. The graphite reduces the friction and allows the machine to apply pressure to the backside of the sandpaper without burning through everything. The sander had the platen in it when I got it, and I assumed that it should be in there all the time, so I used it all the time. I was getting decent results, even with the grooves in the front drum, but I was going through graphite and felt quickly. I had to baby the machine and the graphite was still wearing out. I finally broke down and called TimeSavers to talk to a tech guy.
The good news was that the tech guy knew what he was talking about. The bad news was that he assumed I did to, even after I told him that the machine was new to me, that I had never used it or one like it before and that he should assume that I knew nothing about it. It took me close to a half an hour of going back and forth to finally figure out that it isn’t necessary to use the platen all the time. If I wanted, I could run it without the platen. Well, now I was listening (not that I wasn’t before). Turns out that the platen is for finish sanding and shouldn’t be used to take off more than .005″ at a time. It was for smoother grits, like 150 and up. The platen spreads out the sanding pressure to keep the sanding scratches from going too deep. Good to know.
Now things started to make sense. I had read that my sander could take up to 1/8″ per pass on rougher grits. That was a crazy number compared to .005″, and I am all about crazy. If I could take that much off at a time it would be a real game changer for me. The problem I faced with my new aggressive sanding technique was that the front drum, which is rubber coated, had those grooves in it that I mentioned earlier. Smaller pieces could run through and avoid the bad spots, but bigger pieces couldn’t. And many times the smaller pieces would drift into the zone with the groove and come out with high spots. I wanted to fix it, but it looked like a daunting task. There is no obvious way to get the drum out, and I had heard that redoing the drum would cost thousands. As much as I am all about crazy, I am also about cheap. Thousands for a resurfaced drum was not in the cards for a machine that I got for $2,500.
So, I coasted. I used the sander almost every day and tried to avoid the bad spots. I even put the platen in when it was vital for the part to be flat. No matter how careful I was, parts would still come out with hidden ridges, the sneaky kind that only show up in the finish, when you want them the least. I kept coasting until, out of pure coincidence, the guy that sold the exact machine to the original owner stopped by my shop trying to sell me new machinery. He asked me how the sander was working, and I told him about the drum and the grooves that were ruining my life. He casually mentioned that I could “dress the drum” if there was enough of it left. He took a look at it and assured me that I could fix the drum on my own. All I had to do was search the internet for info and videos on “dressing the drum”.
Searching I went. No videos. The only thing I found was one posting on WoodWeb about how to dress the drum. I was really hoping for a video because I wasn’t in a hurry to destroy the drum and mandate the purchase of a new one. However, the one posting was all I could find. I read it and it made sense, so I stopped looking and decided to give it a whirl. It ended up being quite easy and intuitive. I just never would have thought of sanding the rubber drum on my own, but once I knew it was an option it all made sense.
Because I couldn’t find a video on how to do it I decided to make my own. I’ve been wanting to start making videos because I think the videos can be a lot clearer than still shots. I don’t like seeing or hearing myself, but I decided it is something I just need to work through. So, here it is, my video on “Dressing the Drum on a Widebelt Sander” (just click the photo of the sander below). Next up is a full-time, non-judgemental cameraman.
The premise of the whole event is that a flat board covered with sandpaper is sent through the machine (with the sanding belt removed) and sands the rubber drum smooth. It starts with a new 36 grit sanding belt and a piece of 1/2″ thick MDF with radiused leading edges. The width of the MDF is determined by the throat opening of the machine and what is the widest piece that will fit through it. In my case, it is about 39″ wide. The length of the MDF is based on the width of the sandpaper minus 2″. The minus 2″ is so the paper can completely cover the two radiused edges. My paper is 37″ wide, so the MDF is 35″ long. The new sanding belt that is applied to the MDF runs at a 90 degree angle or perpendicular to the way it normally runs. Doing this allows the MDF to be a little wider than the drum and to be sure the drum gets completely sanded on each pass. The key is to have a wide, flat, consistent-thickness sanding block to send through the machine. After the MDF and sandpaper are cut, apply the sandpaper to the MDF with spray adhesive (3M SUPER 77) and trim everything flush.
I was instructed on WoodWeb to use a high feed speed, low grit and very shallow cuts since the rubber could just melt instead of being sanded. It didn’t take long. I took light passes and was done way before I got the video shot. In all, I only sent the MDF sandpaper block through 10 times to remove the 1/16″ deep grooves.
Now, I use the drum all the time and never use the platen. I consistently and confidently take of 1/16″ or more per pass (even on wide stuff) with the 36 grit and 1/64″ with the 100 grit. It is amazing how different my life has been since I “dressed the drum” on my sander.
Last week, I was asked to speak at the annual conference for the Midwest Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture (a surprisingly lively bunch). While I was working on my presentation and looking through old photos, I came across photos of the kitchen at our last house and was reminded of a story that I think is worth retelling. The kitchen at our last house was made from quartersawn sycamore and all of it came from one giant log. This is the story of that giant log.
One day I was out looking for logs and stopped by St. Louis Composting, where they see a lot of logs that they turn into mulch. Every time I have been there I can have my pick of logs as long as they are not desirable in any way to anyone else, especially someone who might pay for them. That normally leaves me with short, rotten, crooked, hollow and busted pieces from undesirable species of trees (mostly sweetgum, pin oak and cottonwood). But this day I got lucky. I found a log that looked bad on the outside, but was great on the inside.
It certainly did not look like a log of my dreams, but it caught my attention because it was big. For some reason, probably because it was so big, no one had cut it to firewood length yet. From all aspects it deserved it. The log was old and gray with no bark and plenty of cracks, and it was rotten in spots. Maybe it wasn’t cut up yet because everyone thought it was too rotten or because they somehow knew it was a sycamore and thought it wasn’t good enough for firewood (you would be surprised how snobby people are about their firewood, even when it is free).
No matter what the reason, it was there. It was long too. Big and long, now you really have my attention. The log was 13 feet long and scaled at about 1,000 bd. ft. It was giant.
I knew right away I wanted it. Heck, as long as it wasn’t a cottonwood, pin oak or sweet gum I wanted it. But, I also knew that my crane wouldn’t pick it up. Luckily, they have very big loaders at St. Louis Composting and for $20 they agreed to load it for me. After I paid the loader operator he scurried over with the loader and scooped the log with his bucket. The log didn’t fit in the bucket, but it rested nicely on the front while he maneuvered over to my truck. This guy apparently had a lot of other material to move and was in a hurry. He moved quickly to the side of my truck, but slowed down like I expected when he got close.
What I didn’t expect him to do was to dump the log on my truck from a couple of feet in the air. When he did, I sank to my knees, all the way to my knees, completely in sync with my truck. Both of us quickly squatted to the ground and very slowly bounced back up. “Holy S—,” I thought. My heart was jumping out of my chest. I couldn’t believe it. Was it this dudes first day? I was sure that my truck was now destroyed, if not permanently disfigured. There was just no way on this great earth of ours that my old 1977 Chevy C60 could take a hit like that. But, somehow it did, and it bounced back.
My first thought (once I could breathe) was to ask for my $20 back, but as far as I could tell nothing was broke. I knew my truck could handle a lot of weight, I just didn’t think it could take it all at once and with such force, but I guess I was wrong. I threw some straps on the log and headed back.
On the way back I was something to see. I felt like the coolest kid in school. I could feel everyone staring at me. Ill-informed do-gooder dads were pointing out my truck to the kids in the back seat and explaining how long it takes a (insert tree name here, as long as it isn’t sycamore, or it won’t be funny) tree to get to that size. Policeman were stopping gawkers at intersections worried that they might be too distracted by looking at my huge log (could have gone so many ways with that one). Other drivers pulled up next to me and yelled, “Did you load that yourself?” By the way, that last one really happened. All was right with the world. At least for a time.
When I got back to the sawmill, I jumped out to open the gate and noticed a smell of something burning… maybe rubber, I thought. I took a walk around my truck and all six of my tires were still good. The smell got stronger when I came back around to the front of the truck, and now smoke was coming out of the front end from under the hood. Quickly, like a really slow jack rabbit, I opened the hood and jumped up on my bumper to see what was burning. To my surprise, it was the battery, but I wasn’t surprised to see why. The battery was now laying on my exhaust manifold. The truck was bounced so hard that the battery (which was not properly secured) was flung out of the battery tray and onto the exhaust manifold and it was very melty.
That guy at St. Louis Composting with that giant loader managed to dislodge my battery from its cute little tray with one whack. In all of the time I have driven this truck (all without the battery properly secured) it has never popped out of that tray. And, I have hit some big bumps, many of them way too hard and way too fast and the battery has always stayed put. I just wish I had some video of it, so I could see my truck go all the way to the ground and bounce back up and say, “Thank you, Sir. May I have another?”
After it was all said and done, I had a new battery and after even more was said and done I had new kitchen full of cabinets made from one giant sycamore log.
This is your reminder to go to the St. Louis Woodworking Show and, while you are there, stop by the booth for the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild. It is a collection of approximately 100 woodworkers, most of them hobbyists, that get together to talk about wood, and we are always looking for new members. Say hi and see what it is all about.
The St. Louis show (which is actually across the river in Collinsville, IL) is usually around Valentine’s Day and this year will be February 8th through February 10th. The admission is $12, but it’s still worth the money. You will see lots of exhibitors giving short seminars as you stroll the aisles, and you can also sign-up for longer, more in-depth seminars on specific topics. All of the major woodworking tool companies are usually represented, which makes this a great place to compare tools side-by-side before you let go of the cash.
This year’s show is Friday, February 8th from 12-6pm, Saturday, February 9th from 10am -6pm and Sunday, February 10th from 10am-4pm. The woodworking show is big – smaller than it used to be, but still big. If you have ever thought about building something out of wood, you will enjoy the show. Unfortunately, and quite surprisingly, there isn’t a lot of wood at the show, but there are a lot of tools, and all of them are for sale. This is a selling show, not just a “see how cool the tools are” show. Plenty of attendees will be filling their trucks with tools that they have waited until now to purchase.
I remember the first time I went to this show and was amazed at how many woodworkers are out there. I, of course, was looking at it from a lumber producers viewpoint and only saw a huge ocean of potential customers, and every one of them spending money like crazy. From then on, I was hooked. I go to the show every year (lately, to man the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild booth), and I am still amazed at how many people are woodworkers or are dreaming about woodworking. If you are in one of these two groups, go to the show. You won’t be sorry. And, don’t forget to take your wallet!
Through my sawmilling days, I have cut a lot of Osage Orange for guys that build bows. I would supply some guys with pieces to make self bows, which are bows made from a single piece of wood and others with strips of wood that they laminated together to make the bow. I gravitated to the wood for the laminated bows because it didn’t have to be as perfect as the wood for self bows and Osage doesn’t yield much perfect wood. I was often surprised by the pieces that were still deemed acceptable despite their flaws. Apparently, the laminated bows are much more forgiving.
Knowing this, and being part idiot, I decided my first bow should be a self bow. I wasn’t going to make anything special, just something we could call a bow and shoot like in the movie “Brave”. Mira, my six-year-old daughter was excited to make a bow just like Merida’s, and I was glad to have an excuse to make one. I have fond memories of shooting my dad’s bow from when he was a kid. Hopefully, Mira would share my joy.
The experience started out with a trip to the library, where we picked up a few books about archery. It didn’t take Mira long to gravitate to a Native American (the book from the 1980′s said Indian) book about bow making. She quickly found the style she wanted, along with the appropriates decorations. She had a vision. I read the book and learned how a self bow should be cut from the tree and realized that a good bow stave could be cut out of slabs from the sawmill. I thought, “I have a sawmill… and slabs.” Wahla!
The following Saturday we headed up to the sawmill. It is never as fun for Mira as I think it should be, so I quickly picked out some slabs (two cherry and one ash) and headed home. The book that I read said that the wood for the bow wasn’t critical and Indians made bows out of many different kinds of woods, not only Osage and Hickory. Mira and I decided on cherry as the main wood, and I grabbed the ash as a backup. I didn’t expect much from the ash because it is the first to get borers that would make it worthless for a bow, but I didn’t see any outward signs of problems on any of the slabs.
On Sunday we set up in the garage and I started marking wood, cutting staves and trying to hustle so Mira wouldn’t lose interest. The saw was loud and dusty and lacked much enjoyment for Mira, who spent most of the time covering her ears with my radio earmuffs (love those things, by the way). While I got in to it, Mira pulled out a long Catalpa bean that she had grabbed off of tree in grandma’s neighborhood. It was shaped a little like a bow, so she informed me that it was going to be her bow. I wasn’t happy that I had already lost her, but helped her on the Catalpa bow while mine took shape.
Mira got out the ribbon and made a handle and added tassles on the end, just like the book. Meanwhile, I tried to string mine up – Snap! It broke on the end, exposing a rotten area that had no business being in a bow. After that, I strung up Mira’s catalpa bean with some fishing line and she got to work looking for an arrow. I stopped working on mine and helped her with a stick that needed to be whittled and have a nock carved in the end. We set up some cans for target practice, and from more than 1/2 yard away Mira started knocking them off – her bow worked!
Now, I was excited. I checked over my next stave carefully and started to cut. Everything went great. I cut it out with a jigsaw to rough the shape and went to string it up – Snap again! By then Mira was ready for a real arrow, and I was ready to move on. We took Mira’s arrow with no feathers and started working on the flecthings. Lucky for us, Mira collects feathers, and I had read the chapter on arrow making. I never expected to make our own arrow, but that ended up being the easy part. Just rip a feather down the middle, cut it to size leaving tabs on the ends and stick them on. We didn’t even bother gluing them and just used tape. It worked great.
After the original bow finally broke (thanks grandpa!), we grabbed some more beans and made enough bows for the kids in the neighborhood. The bows don’t shoot very far, but they shoot further than mine ever did.
Before you answer that question, let’s discuss.
Everything I read regarding safety in the shop says don’t wear gloves when operating machinery. Gloves can get caught in moving parts and suck you in. It makes sense. Don’t wear loose clothing, tie back your hair and don’t wear gloves. But, I am not one to just let things go unquestioned. Are gloves in the shop really that dangerous?
I almost always wear gloves in the shop, even while operating machinery. They are tight-fitting cloth gloves with nitrile-dipped palms from Home Depot. I like them because they are inexpensive, fit great, aren’t too hot, and give me excellent grip. I especially like to wear them when I am using the jointer, but I find the grip to be helpful any time that I am pushing smooth-planed wood through a tool like the table saw.
I use the jointer (mine is 12″ wide) to flatten the wide face of all of my lumber before it goes through the thickness planer, leaving it flat and straight. On wider, longer and heavier boards it takes a lot of force to move them across the jointer. Often, I am really leaning into it and the gloves are the only way that I can get enough grip. I know push blocks are recommended, but they are slow and very cumbersome to use when you are faced with several days of jointing rough lumber.
On the table saw and router table, the enemy is smooth wood. I constantly envision myself losing my grip and pushing my hand right into the action. Guards, of course, would help, but we all know that there isn’t one on my table saw and there probably isn’t one on yours either. On the router table it is easier to cover the cutter and be productive, but I still want a good grip, so that I don’t jam my hand into the bit. I think gloves are the answer.
So, why are gloves dangerous? They are dangerous because if you accidentally touch that table saw blade, instead of just getting cut, you will get cut, sucked in, and cut some more. To that, I say, “Well, don’t touch the blade.” I have been doing this a long time and I still get a little nervous when my hand is getting in the vicinity of the blade. I pay attention, think about what could go wrong and try to avoid it. I always picture myself at my college bakery job at 3 a.m. making donuts. I am tired, the floor is covered with grease, my knees are locked and I am leaning forward over a boiling vat of death. But, no matter how tired I was, I knew that if I lost my balance and fell forward, I was going to catch myself on the side of the fryer and not in the bottom of the hot oil. The thought of my hand frying like a donut goes a long way to making me focus and so does the idea of sticking my hand in the table saw. Gloves aren’t an issue if you keep your hands out of the saw.
Now that I have tempted fate and thrown it out to the universe, let’s say my hand does go into the proverbial “fryer”. If I am wearing a glove, is my result guaranteed to be worse because of it? I have heard stories from friends of friends and distant acquaintances on the internet about how things were bad because of a glove. But, what about the times that an accident was averted because of gloves? It is certainly possible. Nobody is going to tell a story of how they didn’t put their hand in the saw because they had a firm grip and everything went smoothly. There is no gore there, no tale of doom to pass down from generation to generation.
With this in mind, I tried to be more scientific and find studies about gloves in the workplace. The one that I found to be the most relevant only asked questions of people who were injured on the job and whether they were wearing gloves or not. They really needed to ask glove wearers about specific times when the gloves either made their outcomes better or worse. But again, worse outcomes are going to get more airtime because you can’t identify when things went better or nothing went wrong.
For now, I am still wearing my gloves. They make me feel confident when I am close to the tools, and I think that goes a long way towards safety. In the meantime, I hope to find more scientific data and plan to do some tests by sticking gloves in the tools to see how things go. I just need to find some volunteers.
Let me know your thoughts and if you have any first-hand accounts.
For a few years now, I have been working with Rick Kramer on his Joia tubes. It is a percussion instrument that I compare to something you would see played by the Blue Man Group. I make the (one and only) wood stick that stretches between the legs and Rick does the rest. Well, Rick has outdone himself. Always pushing the creative envelope, he now has a set that lights up when you hit the tubes. And, I thought they were fun to play before. I have a feeling that Rick is going to need more sticks.
Check out the short video. I think it is Rick (he is also in a percussion group called Joia) playing the Joia tubes.
I’ve never seen it done before or demonstrated on any woodworking shows, and this would be the last thing that I would come up with on my own. But, thanks to Don Snyder, a fellow St. Louis Woodworkers Guild member, I can now add using a pattern to cut pieces on the table saw to my playbook. It sounds simple, and it is, once you understand what is happening.
Don’s program was provocatively titled, “How to cut polygonal shapes.” I initially thought that there was going to be a lot of talk about angles – and there was. The information was “informative”, but seemed like something I could figure out on my own if I needed to. I could figure out the angles necessary for a 32-sided shape; but I was looking for a trick, something that I hadn’t seen before, and Don delivered.
The reason for using a pattern on the table saw is to produce exact copies of shapes with multiple sides quickly, accurately and repeatedly. This is necessary for making more than one simple project or a lot of pieces for a complex project. Don got in deep, even showing how to use this method to make three-dimensional shapes like polyhedrons.
The first step it to make a pattern, a perfect pattern, of the shape that you would like to repeat. For this method, especially on the table saw, all the sides of the shape need to be straight lines. The table saw is not good at curves. The pattern is cut from 1/4″ thick material, which is easily worked and provides enough structure to run along a guide. MDF is fine for short runs. Plywood is more durable and a better pick for longevity. Solid wood is not a good pick because it is not dimensionally stable. Remember, accuracy is very important.
The next step is to secure the pattern to the wood that will be your final piece (or, of course, a test piece). This can be done with nails, double-stick tape, spray adhesive, etc. as long as the pattern can later be removed and not damage your final piece. You want the pattern to stick firmly to the piece you are cutting. If not, the lumber could twist on the sawblade and cause a violent kickback (this is something you want to avoid).
All that is left to do is to make your auxiliary fence for the pattern to follow. This fence will attach to your regular fence and extend over the blade so that the outside edge of the fence is above and in line with the outside edge of the table saw blade. Set the blade to just clear the thickness of your final material and set the auxiliary fence about 1/16″ above the blade. The auxiliary fence should extend well beyond the front of the blade so that the pattern can engage the fence before the final material is cut (this is also for safety, as well as accuracy). The same is true on the back of the fence to allow for a safe finish on the cut.
To cut a piece like a pentagon, first make a perfect pattern then attach it to a board. Put the pattern against the auxiliary fence well before the blade and push it through. Rotate the pattern to the next side and make a similar cut. Do this for all five sides and you have a pentagon exactly the same as the pattern. Watch closely for cut off pieces accumulating under the fence and remove as necessary. Don said he turns off the saw and removes the cutoffs after every cut to avoid them binding in the enclosed space and kicking back.
This setup ends up working like a router with a bushing that follows the pattern, with a couple of major differences. The router can follow curves, as well as straight cuts, while the table saw method will only work on straight cuts. However, the table saw can be set to cut at an angle, which is essential for joining three-dimensional shapes like a polyhedron. The table saw method also allows the pattern to be followed with only one step, while the router method usually requires a rough cut beyond the pattern (done with a saw) before the finish cut with the router. Both methods have their advantages, but the table saw wins on the straight cuts, which was Don’s focus. As a matter of fact, Don started his presentation showing several pictures of woodworking with organic shapes and all of them were crossed out with big X’s. Don doesn’t like curves.
I am finally willing to admit it – I use a Kreg jig. I use it regularly and I like it. I don’t use it everywhere, but I am finding more uses every day, and it scares me a little. I am a woodworker, a custom woodworker. I use time-honored joinery like mortises, tenons and dovetails. It doesn’t feel right to add the Kreg jig to the list. I can’t and won’t do it. It isn’t real woodworking. Or is it?
I haven’t decided, officially. Used in the right places it is totally acceptable in my mind. For face frames, nothing is faster, the joints are tight and, with a little glue added, strong and stable. And, since the face frame is joined to a cabinet box it gets extra help in the support department to keep everything in place. So, it’s fine on face frames. What about the cabinet boxes that the face frames attach to?
I say O.K. The boxes get support from the walls and I use regular screws all the time, so pocket screws must be acceptable (as a footnote, I like to screw cabinets together when possible, so that I can take them apart for “design changes”). Face frames, check. Cabinet boxes, check. What about furniture? Maybe something very much like a cabinet or cabinet box, just not attached to the wall? Now, it starts to get really murky. Officially, out loud, I say no way. Furniture must be assembled with furniture joints, not pocket screws. Then I ask myself why and I don’t have a great answer except that it doesn’t feel right. Assuming that the pocket screw joint is just as strong as a “real” woodworking joint it shouldn’t really matter, but it does. I feel if I take the quick and easy way out, I am less of a woodworker. I can’t get past it.
Here’s the thing that is odd to me. I think that the Kreg jig works great and all of their products (at least the one I have used) are top-notch. I, especially, like their screws. It may not seem that important, but their screws are the best. I use them whenever I can, even when I am not using pocket holes. They never strip out or break, and they are self-tapping. Their drill bits are well made and stay sharp for a long time. When I was working on opening my new shop, Kreg products were the first ones to come to mind to have for sale. It’s clear that I like them, but I still think, in the back of my mind, that they aren’t for real woodworkers.
To this day, I will make sure that the Kreg jig and screws are always with me, but I won’t always use them. Weird?
What do you think? Please leave a comment.