Recently, I salvaged a huge sycamore log that I plan to cut into natural-edge slab table tops. In the video below I show how I got the log from a warehouse construction site. After this, it will sit for a year or so to give the sapwood some time to spalt (begin to decay), which will add a lot of visual interest to this giant. Now it is time to cut some logs from last year (or the year before).
Finishing wood has several benefits, with the main one being protection. Finished wood is protected from contaminants and other fluids (especially water) that could ruin the piece. Finishing wood also makes the piece look more beautiful than a raw piece of wood. It adds depth and brings out details that would be completely hidden otherwise. Finishing wood also makes a piece just seem, for lack of a better word, finished, like someone cares, like it is more valuable. A good finish is nice and smooth and begs to be touched. Reaching out and touching a finished piece of wood seems to be an instinctual way to determine the overall quality, like smelling your food before taking a big bite. I can tell you from lots of personal experiences that the first thing customers do when they see a newly finished piece of furniture is to reach out and touch the wood. They are using their eyes to look at it at the same time, but they are doing half of their looking with their hands. With that in mind, I would suggest that you do at least half of your looking with your hands when finishing a piece of wood.
Your hands can tell you so much about a surface that your eyes can’t. First of all, you can feel lots of places that you cannot see, whether it simply be hidden from view from a lack of light or from a lack of access or maybe just that it is in a bad position at the time. A great example of all of these is on chair work. A chair is meant to be seen from all angles and there are usually lots of intersecting surfaces headed in all directions, with many hidden from view.
Your hands can also feel things in plain sight that your eyes might never see. This is especially true for clear finish coats. If you don’t have big, obvious, light-reflecting mistakes in a well-lit shop, they may not show up enough to see – that is until after you deliver it to your customer and they put it right in front of their big bay window, the one that is similar to the bay window you don’t have in your shop.
I use my bare hands continually through the finishing process. Combined with a low, raking light to help highlight imperfections, they create a dragnet that catches anything trying to make its way into the finished pice. And, the best part is that my hands never miss, they feel everything (except color).
Get your hands involved early in the finishing process, even during rough sanding and surface preparation. During this phase your hands will let you know if there are any dents or chips that aren’t obvious enough to see, and they will give you an overall feel for the surface, how smooth it is and if there are any unflat areas that need to be straightened out. It will give you a good idea where you need to spend more time sanding and point out areas of raised grain that you could never see with your eyes alone.
After you have finished sanding, use your hands, while you are blowing off the surfaces with compressed air, to wipe the surfaces clean. Your hands will loosen particles that would otherwise stick and the air can blow them away. In lieu of tack clothes (which I don’t own anyway), I always use this method, just wiping my hand on my pants as I go. While you are cleaning the surface, without noticing it, you will also be looking at the surface with your hands. You will feel anything that wasn’t adequately sanded the first time, and have a chance to take care of it before you are in too deep.
Your hands are also fantastic for work in-between finish coats too. At this point, the surface and color should be in great shape and any issues should be small and almost undetectable, except with your hands. After scraping or sanding the first sealer coat, use your hands to help clean the surface for the following coat, just like you did before applying the first coat of sealer. While you are wiping off the dust (and wiping it on your pants), you will feel any dust nibs or rough patches or even runs while you are working. Your hands will tell you everything you need to know about the quality of your surface and how you are progressing.
I usually apply one or two more coats of finish, each of which requires less work, but every one involving my hands to make sure the surface is ready for the next step. In fact, I use my hands so much that I am pretty sure I could do my work in-between finish coats without even using my eyes (insert your own joke here, I teed it up for you).
The next time you are working on a finish, get your hands more involved. Try to use your hands as much as your eyes to recognize what is going on with the surface, even in places that are hidden from view. You will be amazed at how much you can “see” with your hands.
For Christmas, I decided my daughter needed a bunch of dominos (not to play the game dominos, but to stand up and knock over). I always liked playing with dominos, but was always disappointed when I ran out, so I then decided it should be a big bunch of dominos. After doing a little on-line research, I quickly concluded that a purchase of a big bunch of dominos, even the cheap ones, was going to add up, and since I have a never-ending supply of domino stock in my shop, I set out to make them.
First things first, I needed to figure out the dimensions, and this ended up being the most difficult part of the entire job. I tried searching online, assuming there would be a standard size and I would just copy that, but I didn’t find anything standard. The sizes seemed to be all over the place. Then I thought, “OK, maybe there isn’t a standard size, but there must be some sort of standard ratio or proportions to a domino.” But, as far as I can tell there isn’t, or at least there isn’t anything clearly published that is quick and easy to find. There was nothing with the heading “Standard Domino Sizes,” like I was hoping to find.
Here’s the good news, after scouring the internet for information and making a few hundred myself, I have finally figured out the perfect proportions for what I am calling a standard domino. Now, it seems quite simple and very obvious, but it took me awhile to put it all together (we had to knock over a lot dominos for it to click). The dimension that took some time to nail down was the thickness.
At first, I just guessed at it and made the dominos a thickness that looked in proportion to the length and width. After using the dominos though, it seemed like they were a bit too thick. They look fine and don’t feel unlike a domino, but they don’t fall over very well. They still fall, but they are just a bit too stable and don’t fall with much force. They aren’t bad enough to throw away, but they could be better.
After playing with the dominos more and making structures with them, similar to building blocks, it all came into focus, and I found the magic ratio. When we stacked the dominos in different orientations, things weren’t lining up and the thickness was to blame. We would stack some dominos on their side, some standing, and some laying down, and the ones laying down didn’t quite line up with the ones on their side. It was close, but not that close. Three dominos laying down were just a bit taller than just one on its side, which made them impossible to use as stable building structure. If they were just a bit thinner, everything would line up when they were stacked and they would topple just right.
So, here is the magic ratio, expressed in a three different ways:
Thickness = X, Width = 3X, Length = 6X
Width = X, Length = 2X, Thickness = X/3
or in actual (standard?) size
Length = 2″, Width = 1″, Thickness = .33″
Of course, if you are going to make your own dominos, they don’t have to be 1″ wide. They could be any dimension you want, but be sure to follow the above ratios for them to really work well.
One of the first things I needed to figure out when I started cutting rough lumber on a sawmill was what thickness to make it. I could generally determine if I wanted it to be thick or thin, but just how thick or thin? 4/4 lumber is 1″ thick, so it should be rough cut at 1″ thick, right? Not exactly. For hardwoods, the commercial target for 4/4 lumber is actually 1-1/8″, which allows enough margin to produce dried and planed lumber at a thickness of 13/16″ or 3/4″ (3/4″ is acceptable, but the extra 1/16″ of thickness in 13/16″ material allows room for additional planing or sanding after panels or doors are glued up).
The crazy thing is that back then I couldn’t find solid information on lumber thicknesses anywhere and when I referred to the NHLA (National Hardwood Lumber Association) guide, the thicknesses didn’t match up with what I was finding from hardwood producers. The NHLA guide doesn’t include the bonus 1/8″ of thickness – 4/4 lumber, for example, is specified at a minimum of 1″.
In my experience, 4/4 hardwood lumber cut at 1″ is too thin to consistently produce flattened and planed lumber at 13/16″ thick and will even have trouble producing 3/4″ thick unless the boards are very flat. The only way 1″ thick rough-cut hardwood lumber can plane out completely to 13/16″ or 3/4″ thick is to skip the flattening and just plane the lumber. This will produce thicker finished lumber, but it won’t be flat and straight since the planer will simply follow the curves of any crooked boards. From a woodworkers perspective this is a horrible practice and makes woodworking much more difficult. For this reason, I cut my 4/4 hardwood lumber like all other quality producers at 1-1/8″ thick and don’t accept anything from other sawmills or wholesalers at 1″ thick.
Starting with the lumber measurement and adding 1/8″ for the final thickness is how all of the hardwood measurements go, with a target for 4/4 lumber at 1-1/8″, 5/4 lumber at 1-3/8″, 6/4 at 1-5/8″ and 8/4 at 2-1/8″. These are the commercially accepted numbers, and except for 8/4 lumber the ones that I shoot for. The problem with 8/4 lumber is that since there is more wood it shrinks more than thinner lumber and 2-1/8″ thick just isn’t enough thickness to flatten and plane lumber to consistently finish at 1-3/4″, which is the target for 8/4 lumber. When I flatten and plane batches of 8/4 lumber milled at 2-1/8″ thick it isn’t uncommon for half of the lumber to finish at 1-5/8″ thick instead of 1-3/4″.
Because I think 2-1/8″ is a little thin, I commonly cut 8/4 lumber at 2-3/8″ thick. 2-3/8″ thick is twice that of 4/4 lumber, plus the 1/8″ saw kerf that would have been between the two imaginary cuts. The extra thickness not only impresses the ladies, but it assures a final dried and planed thickness of at least 1-3/4″ and officially uses no extra wood when compared to cutting 4/4 lumber (to keep things simple, a friend of mine simply calls it “double four quarter” lumber). As I mentioned though, 8/4 is commercially sawn at 2-1/8″ thick, so if you cut it at that measurement it isn’t wrong, 2-3/8″ is just better for the end user (none of my customers have ever been upset that the wood is a little thicker).
The previous examples were for hardwoods, but softwoods, like white pine, can be cut thinner since they shrink less and dry straighter overall, plus softwoods are commonly used for construction purposes instead of furniture, which don’t need the extra thickness for secondary planing or sanding, so 3/4″ final thickness is common for 4/4 softwood lumber. For 4/4 white pine for example, I cut 1″ thick, which will finish at 3/4″. And, for cedar, which shrinks very little and is very straight and stable, I will go even thinner, down to 7/8″. In general though, softwoods are cut on the standard quarter scale with 4/4 lumber measuring 1″.
The scale below shows the target hardwood lumber thicknesses for commercially produced, rough-cut lumber and their planed thickness counterparts. These are the sizes you should expect to find when shopping for hardwoods.
Hardwood Lumber Measurements
Quarter-scale measurement Rough cut thickness Planed thickness
4/4 1-1/8″ 13/16″
5/4 1-3/8″ 1-1/16″
6/4 1-5/8″ 1-1/4″
8/4 2-1/8″ (or 2-3/8″*) 1-3/4″
*2-3/8″ is a better thickness to consistently finish at 1-3/4″ thick, but 2-1/8″ is the norm.
I have been cutting a lot of slabs lately and building a lot of tops. This is the first one that I have finished out of a big double-crotch Siberian elm that I milled in the spring. The top is 36″ at the narrowest and 58″ at the widest. The slab was milled 3″ thick and was flattened and finished with a hand-planed surface at 2″ thick.
For those of you that haven’t heard yet, Siberian elm is one of my favorites. The wood needs nothing added to it to make it beautiful – just a clear top coat (actually four coats of Klearvar) is all it takes. The wood for this top is a delicious medium brown with tons of visual interest, especially where the main trunk splits into three branches.
The wood slab and the steel base (built by Commercial Fabrication) are going to serve as a 42″ bar-height community table in my customers newly remodeled basement.
I have been on a sycamore kick lately, and this sycamore slice keeps my streak going. There are three stacks of these rough sawn slices for sale in my shop, and though I have sold a few, this is the first one to officially get finished and installed.
The slice is 3″ thick and is a cross cut of a 48″ diameter hollow sycamore log that had the added benefit of having a long open wound that didn’t quite seal up. In the tree’s attempt to close the wound the new wood took on a curl shape on both ends that make the slice look more like an artistic expression than just a hollow log.
Since the tree was standing dead all of the sapwood is consistently spalted and marbled in appearance. There is some solid heartwood in the piece which isn’t spalted, but has a beautiful rust color.
I was planning on ditching this tree since it was hollow and didn’t seem to have any millable lumber in it, but when I saw the curl shape on the inside of the log I did a u-turn on my way to the dump. Solid logs with complete centers that are sliced like this tend to crack and fall apart because of the drying stresses in the log, but in this case all of the drying stresses were relieved since the center was gone. When the outside wood wanted to shrink it wasn’t restricted by wood on the inside and could freely reduce in diameter without any problems.
I installed the slice on the wall with two lag screws, just like a mantel. I drilled matching holes on the back of the wood and just slid it on the wall (with the help of my customer). This system works great since it allows the piece to get flush to the wall and enables it to be removed without tools should the need arise.
Overall, I am ecstatic to have one of these completed and out the door. Next up is to finish at least one extra to keep in the shop to show off. You wouldn’t believe how much faster they sell with a finished sample around to seal the deal.
This week I picked up a sycamore log at Grant’s Farm for a local woodworker. He has been commissioned to build a round table from the tree that has stood on the property since the time of Ulysses S. Grant.
Because the log was too heavy to load in one piece and was going to be cut into round slices anyway, I cut it in half to make it easier to handle. The log is a minimum of 60″ in diameter on the skinny end, and should make a few nice table tops.
I jokingly complained to my wife that I drove all the way to Grant’s Farm only to pick up two 3′ long logs – that, by the way, filled up the truck.