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.
I often get asked, “What can I put on wood that will protect it outside?” My follow-up question is, “Do you want a finish that builds up to a film or just something that soaks in, like an oil?” If the answer is a film finish, I recommend Cetol Door & Window, from the Sikkens Proluxe line of wood finishes. It holds up better than any other outdoor finish that I have used, and every painter that I know and trust uses it too. I have found Cetol to last almost twice as long as the next class of film finishes.
In my teenage years, I tried regular ol’ Minwax polyurethane on the wood bed of my restored ’63 Chevy pickup truck, and I couldn’t believe how fast it started to peel. One St. Louis summer of constant heat and sun made it look like it had a bad sunburn with lots of dead skin.
After that, I moved on to other products like spar urethanes (Minwax also makes one of those, called Helmsman’s). Yes, it lasted longer, but not LONG. It started to look bad after a little more than a year. It didn’t totally fail all at once, but enough areas were falling apart that it didn’t really matter – it just looked bad.
In defense of these two products, the bed of a pickup truck is a tough environment. It gets direct sun, extra heat with no breeze, and the surface is horizontal, so water has a much better chance of nosing its way under the finish. It really gets no more demanding than this for a wood finish.
With yearly maintenance, the spar urethane could be kept looking reasonably good, but eventually the maintenance gave way to submission and the weather won. The boards still looked alright (nothing rotted through), but there were always spots where the finish failed and the beautiful clear-coated lumber had cracked finish and gray spots of raw wood.
It wasn’t until much later that I was introduced to the Sikkens brand name from a friend in the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild. He had great things to say about their products, and then I started noticing them being used by different painters on different jobs around town – and consistently. Nobody was using anything else, at least not anyone that I trusted, so I started using them.
Originally, Cetol only came in various forms with added stain. Some of the colors were pretty light, but none were clear. I believe the color is added to help with UV protection, but it does nothing to help color matching or achieving a clear finish. Now, with the name change to Proluxe, a colorless version is available, and it is the one that I use.
The can says that Cetol should be applied with a brush and not rolled or sprayed. I haven’t rolled it, but I have brushed and sprayed it, and both worked fine. Spraying is more difficult, and probably not recommended by the company, because the Cetol has a long working time and tends to sag if applied too liberally. That same working time is great for brushing and allows large areas to be worked and reworked to blend brush strokes. If you do try to spray it, start with a light application and allow it to settle for a second so you can get a feel for how it is going to sit down. Keeping a wet edge isn’t critical because it doesn’t even start to get tacky for a long time and the following passes will easily blend together. If you do spray the Cetol be vigilant about finding areas that start to sag or run and simply blend them in with a brush.
Cetol, like many other finishes, takes three coats to build a good protective barrier. A fourth coat will add a bit of extra protection, but isn’t required. I would opt to skip the fourth coat on the initial application and put that energy to a maintenance coat later down the road.
Regular maintenance is critical to keep the finish from failing. Keep an eye out for areas that start to crack and get another coat on as soon as they appear. If you wait too long it will be necessary to completely strip the finish and start over.
Cetol should last for several years without maintenance on vertical surfaces and even more if they are protected from the sun. Horizontal surfaces in the sun will probably last a maximum of two years before they require attention. Both of these time-span numbers are not great, but they are at least twice as long as the spar urethanes. If you jump around the internet and read about other choices or recommendations from other woodworkers, you won’t find anything that lasts longer.
Unfortunately, three years is really the maximum for an outdoor clear finish with sun exposure. Of course, if you know of a finish that lasts longer please let all of us know about it. But, do watch out because the world will beat a path to your (long-lasting, clear-coated wood) door.
The call usually goes like this. A potential new customer calls and says, “I am looking for a mantel. The stone guys are coming tomorrow, and I need something today so they can put it in. Can you cut me a mantel?”
The answer, of course, is yes. However, I spend a little time calming them down and explaining that they are going to mount the mantel after the stone work is done, how it will come out beautifully and how not having a mantel right now won’t slow anything down.
Most people expect that the wood is going to be embedded in the stone, which is the reason for all of the last-minute, frantic calls, but I argue that the wood should not be surrounded by stone, mostly because of wood movement and not because of the fact that they don’t have any wood to surround with stone.
All wood, dry or wet, moves with seasonal changes and the stone does not. This means cracks will develop around the mantel over time. They will be small, perhaps unnoticeable, around dry wood, but if the wood is newly sawn and installed wet, the cracks will be unsightly after the wood has dried and shrunk. The other possibility is that green wood could bow, twist, or warp in some fashion and blow things apart. If a 8″ x 11″ x 8′ long piece of white oak decides to move aggressively, there may be little that can stop it and the results could be catastrophic. It is definitely possible that any stone or brick veneer could be popped from the wall when the wood starts moving.
So, I say, don’t fight it. Don’t try to put the stone around the wood. Let the stone guys do their thing, step back, take a deep breath and then find a cool piece of wood to install in front of the stone.
The method I recommend works for installing any solid wood mantel above any fireplace, from drywall to stone and anywhere in between, and the process is quite simple.
Besides your tools and the actual piece of wood for the mantel (purchased, of course, from WunderWoods) you will only need 5-minute epoxy and two steel stakes. I get the steel stakes at Home Depot in the concrete supply aisle. They are 5/8″ thick steel stakes used for concrete forms and they are very sturdy. Do not use rebar because it is too flexible.
You might be thinking that just two steel rods aren’t enough and be inclined to use more, but don’t, unless it is absolutely necessary. Two 5/8″ thick stakes can easily hold 200 pounds (which I usually verify with a modified one-handed pinky pull up in which my knees stay on the ground), and I have found that even with more than two stakes, the heavy lifting is usually done with just two, while the others are just along for the ride. And, since the extra stakes just make for more drilling and more chances for things to not line up, I say don’t use them. If you feel that you need to beef things up, just get bigger steel rods.
The basic premise of this method is that you are installing two shelf brackets in the form of steel rods that will support the mantel which will have two holes drilled in the back to accept the rods, all of which will be hidden.
Start by determining the mantel location and then finding suitable places to install the rods. The rods need to be mounted solidly, either through the wood framing or through the stone, or both if possible, and close to each end of the mantel. Usually the exact locations are determined by the stone or framing layout.
Drill the holes in the fireplace surround with a 5/8″ masonry bit and a hammer drill in stone or brick, or a 11/16″ bit and a regular drill in wood. The 5/8″ bit in stone will usually leave a hole with enough room for level adjustment because the hammer drill makes a roomier entrance. Since wood drills easily and with a cleaner hole, the 11/16″ bit is required to allow for level adjustments.
Next, you will need to drill 1″ diameter holes as deep as possible in the back of the mantel that line up with the rods (be careful not to drill all of the way through). I usually just measure for the locations, but if you are worried about messing things up, you can make a drilling template to use on the wall and the back of the mantel. This still doesn’t eliminate screw-ups (nothing does) because it is easy to flip the template when you should have flopped it. Be sure to mark your template with top, bottom, left and right sides, and don’t forget to mark the side that faces the mantel and the one that faces the wall.
Next insert a steel stake into each hole and secure it with 5-minute epoxy. Be sure to fill in the front and back for full support. While the epoxy is setting check the rods for level and adjust as necessary. I often add some small wedges to help hold things level while the epoxy is setting up. After the epoxy is set up, trim the rods to the final length which is determined by the depth of the holes in the back of the mantel.
In a perfect world you would slide on the mantel and be done at this point, but it is rarely the case – often you will need to make some small adjustments to compensate for drilling by hand. If the mantel doesn’t sit level it can be adjusted by adding wraps of tape to the metal stakes, either near the front or back, depending on which needs to be raised.
Once you have the mantel sitting level you are done. Don’t worry about gluing it on – it isn’t necessary and will only make the mantel more difficult to remove if you need to work on it in the future.
Recently a customer called to talk to me about a woodworking project and asked if I have ever built a bell frame. I told him, “No, but I am pretty sure that no one else you are going to find around here has either.” That may not have instilled much confidence, but I got the job anyway (it may have also helped that he was a friend of a friend).
My customer gave the bell to his wife for their anniversary. It was made in 1908 and weighs about 450 lbs. The bell and the new headstock and wheel all came from Whitechapel bell foundry in England, makers of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
The frame is made of walnut, which is very durable outside, and is mounted on a slab of granite from New Hampshire. I was able to get all of the major parts from one log that was perfectly suited for the job. It was straight-grained on one end, which I used for the feet and top rails, and it was curved on the other end, which I used for the four legs. I loved using the sawmill to cut the thick lumber and chainsaw to do the rough work.
One of the most enjoyable parts of this job was being able to start with a log, and in a short time end up with a finished piece.
I have been through a lot of factory carts in the past couple of years, all of which have been repurposed into coffee tables. Things changed a bit when we built our first factory cart bench. It came about when a customer that wanted to have a bench made sent me some pinterest photos and one happened to have industrial cart wheels on it. That was a gimme for me because I happen to have in my possession about 50 carts that are already bench height.
We started by trimming the whole thing down from 28″ to 19″ in depth and cleaning all of the hardware. That was followed up by building the back and armrests out of wood we saved from other disassembled carts. After a little distressing around the new cuts and a light sanding overall, we stained all of the hard maple with a medium-dark brown stain before spraying a lacquer finish on the entire cart, including the hardware (I prefer the look of the hardware with a clear coat as opposed to black paint).
When the bench was almost finished, I told Chris (my wife) that I think we might need a factory cart bench in our house. She asked how much I charged for it and she then advised me that it would look much better in someone else’s home. I guess that is how it goes at the cobbler’s house too.
It started out as a simple wine closet, a small room to be built-in the corner of an unfinished basement. My customer has simple tastes and he really just wanted an improvement on his simplified (non) design that had left his wine collection in a closet under the stairs. In it he had a wine room cooler on the floor that was running with the exhaust pointed out the semi-shut door. I don’t think it really helped the quality of the air, but it could still qualify as a wine cellar, at least in very loose terms. No matter what you call it, it needed some sort of upgrade to take its rightful place in this custom Ladue home.
As I mentioned, he has simple tastes, but apparently his wife does not. On my second meeting with him, he pulled out a photo book with a lavish French theater that his wife had found and said that since we were going to build something downstairs and he had the extra room, he would like to add a theater to the mix. It was a giant jump from where we started, but I did not argue.
The theater room quickly took shape with our new directive, and the wine cellar followed, becoming equally involved and in a French country style, which called for the racks to have more of a furniture feel. The nine pieces, the arched entry door, and the two beams in the wine cellar where made from a batch of hickory logs that I recovered from a tree service a year earlier. It turns out that about twelve months is the perfect amount of time for hickory to get very wormy and nicely spalted.
Much of the racking in the wine cellar is traditional, with ladder racks holding the bulk of the collection, but each piece of furniture displays the wine in different ways, from individual bottles to entire cases. One of my favorite little details that I commonly use now in other wine cellars is adjustable shelving. I know it doesn’t sound earth shattering, but in a wine cellar the shelves can be used flat for case storage or offset with a tilt for displaying individual bottles. The shelves have a strip across the front which is flush on top and forms a lip on the bottom, which when flipped over keeps the bottles from sliding off and crashing to the floor. The tilted shelves are especially helpful for holding and displaying odd-shaped and larger bottles that don’t fit in the other racks.
Between the theater and the wine cellar is a spot for a poker table and a back bar made from rift sawn white oak cabinets and walnut countertops with art glass windows above. All of the woodwork around the windows is made from poplar that was stained dark brown and glazed with black for an antique appearance. The walnut countertop was built up to 1.5″ thick by laminating two layers of 3/4″ thick stock together. I have done this many times and it works great (click here to see how it’s done).
The theater itself involved a lot of trim details. The ceiling is broken into three sections with painted beams and large crown molding, while the walls feature a hand-crafted plaster finish and picture-frame moldings – all of which add to the French feel of the room.
From humble beginnings to this showcase of a job, things really changed. I would have never guessed that this is how it would turn out when we started.