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Random Width Flooring: Efficient Use of a Valuable Resource

In the normal course of my business, I am sometimes asked to make flooring out of my customers’ logs. Because I mill the logs into random width boards, I would often get stuck with trying to determine the best width to make the flooring, knowing that no single width would have that great of a yield. No matter the width I chose, there would always be plenty of boards with lots of waste. If I chose 3″ wide flooring, I can guarantee you that an astonishing number of the rough cut boards would just happen to measure 8-3/4″ wide, which would yield two 3″ wide boards and one wide scrap piece, absolutely killing me.

This random width hickory floor was rough cut in 3", 4' and 5" widths. I made it from trees harvested on site at Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Missouri.

This random width hickory floor was rough cut in 3″, 4′ and 5″ widths. I made it from trees harvested on site at Tyson Research Center in Eureka, Missouri.

In the past, I have tried to decide the width ahead of milling the logs and pick out which cut was going to be flooring and which was going to be another product, like siding.  It seemed simple enough, if the board I was cutting was long and clear with no knot holes, I would cut siding, and if it was knotty and was going to produce only short pieces that were good, I would cut them for flooring. All I really had to do was sort the lumber into two piles while I was working. But, it wasn’t that easy.

Some logs would have a side that was good for producing siding, but the next side was only good for flooring. When I flipped the log over to a new side, my width was determined by how much I cut off of the last side, and it was always random. So, no matter what I did, even if I was cutting for a specific product, I would get stuck with lots of random width boards.

As I mentioned, wasting lumber kills me, and every time I ripped random-width boards down to some set width, leaving wide scraps on the floor, I thought about how to stop wasting so much wood – then it clicked. Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me a floor he made for his own house out of random width boards. As far as I know, he only did it because he thought it would look different and make his house have a special touch that would only come from someone who made their own flooring. His floor was white oak with tons of character, in three different widths. It was beautiful, and it seemed to me that I could use these random widths in some form to stop wasting wood.

I don’t remember a specific moment when I had the epiphany (though I am sure I must have had one), but I figured out that using just three widths, 3″, 4″, and 5″ would cover every width of board I could produce and always leave me with less than 1″ of waste per board.

Think about it. 3″, 4″, and 5″ wide, rough lumber is covered right off of the bat since they are already useable widths. After that is a 6″ wide board, which will just be ripped into two 3″ wide strips. A 7″ board gets ripped to a 3″ and a 4″ strip, while an 8″ board turns into two 4″ strips or a 5″ and a 3″, whichever is preferred. Any width of rough lumber over 6″ wide can be broken down in some way with just the three target widths of 3″, 4″ and 5″. By the way, these are the rough cut widths. The finished tongue and groove flooring will end up with a face about 1/2″ less in width.

This classroom at Tyson Research Center, features random width maple flooring, I also rough milled it in 3", 4" and 5" widths.

This classroom at Tyson Research Center, features random width maple flooring, I also rough milled it in 3″, 4″ and 5″ widths.

Random width flooring looks different, but not too different. At first glance, the viewer only notices the beautiful wood, and then after closer inspection notices the three widths, which lets them know subconsciously that the flooring is special. It stands out because it isn’t all one width like typical hardwood flooring, and most people have never seen or even thought of using random-width flooring. But, I say, “Don’t be scared of it.” It is different and not typical, but in a good way, especially when it comes to waste.

My First (and Maybe Last) Turning Job

Believe it or not, until recently I had never done any turnings. I have been messing with wood for a solid twenty years and never once have I even turned on a lathe. I’ve seen Norm do it a bazillion times on “The New Yankee Workshop” and listened to plenty of other woodworkers tell me about their turning escapades, but I never felt inclined to do it myself. I guess it’s because I am not attracted to work that has turnings in it, so they rarely end up in pieces that I am building and if they do, I pay someone else to do them.

It wasn’t by my choosing, but I did agree to build a bench with multiple turnings after my customer changed her mind on what she wanted. She showed me a picture from Sawkille.com of their “Tall Rabbit” bench and asked if I could make one like it for her with a variation on the length. Since I already had her deposit on the previous project, I didn’t want to say no and send back the money, so I said yes. I looked at it this way, if I consider myself a real woodworker and I am interested in spreading real-world useable woodworking knowledge, then it can’t hurt for me to have more knowledge myself. After all, was it possible that I would consider myself a real woodworker and die one day never having done a single turning? Sounded pretty hypocritical to me.

First off, let me say that the work from the kids at Sawkille is very nice, and though I don’t know them from Adam, I do appreciate the attention to design details that show in their work. I spent a lot of time messing with small details and proportions, and there is no doubt in my mind that they have spent exponentially more time on those same details and slight variations than I did.

This "Tall Rabbit" bench from Sawkille.com is what started my career as a woodturner.

This “Tall Rabbit” bench from Sawkille.com is what started my career as a woodturner.

The picture above is in black, but my customer saw some other variations and decided to go with bleached maple, and though it didn’t seem necessary on maple, bleaching gave the wood a very different look. The maple went from a light yellow-white to bone white with a couple of applications of two-part wood bleach. That part was as simple as could be – the actual turning was not.

Actually, I take that back. The short turnings weren’t too bad. After I turned the first couple and started to get a feel for it, the next 17 went pretty fast and came out nice. I got my time down to about 15 minutes each, which didn’t set any speed records, but it was a pace I could live with. If I did them all at that rate, I could turn all of the pieces in about 6 or 7 hours, which sounded like a fine day of work.

As you might have imagined, I wouldn’t have much to talk about if it all went down like that.

My troubles started when I stepped up to the legs and long stretchers. All of those are in the 24″ range, and about three times as long as the easy-peasy pieces. Out near the ends, where everything is solid, the work went according to plan, but in the middle, I would simply say that it did NOT. No matter how I attacked the middle, whether it be with a light touch or a hard push or maybe a quick jab or a different angle or a different speed or perhaps standing on a different foot or even just squinting a bit more, nothing improved. The piece of maple just jumped and kicked like a bucking bull, and I couldn’t stop it.

Even though I knew my problems were the result of the longer pieces, I imagined that a better turner (or at least someone who had turned at least once before in their life) could overcome the bounciness with better technique. I kept trying different lathe tools and worked slowly to get the pieces as good as possible, and while the overall shape was acceptable, the surface was not. It was nubby, like off-road truck tires, and there were plenty of spots were the wood was just ripped instead of cut. To finish up, I finally dumped the lathe tools and grabbed the sandpaper. I decided to take full advantage of the easy sanding on the lathe and let the paper do the work. Of course, it took awhile, but it was the only way I could come up with to overcome the bouncing spindle syndrome.

After I had a few of the long turnings done, I talked/complained to random shop patrons about my lathe fun and one of them mentioned using a rasp. Apparently, he had more turning knowledge than me (I think everyone does), and he had used the rasp a lot. It made good sense – a rasp is really just super-aggressive sandpaper. Plus, by holding the rasp more parallel to the piece than perpendicular, the rigid flat shape worked great to form the gradual curves with no humps. It wouldn’t have worked so well on intricate turnings, but it worked great in this case.

This is my version of the "Tall Rabbit" bench in bleached maple.

This is my version of the “Tall Rabbit” bench in bleached maple.

After finishing this project, I have a new respect for wood turners and turning. After all, my turnings were simple and still provided quite the challenge. When I think about some of the turnings I have seen, especially in other works, like large hollow vessels, and I consider all of the issues that the turner might face in a project like that, it really makes me appreciate the craft of it. And, though I may never do another turned project in my life, I am glad I gave this one a go.

 

“Standard” Wood Domino Dimensions

Wood dominos (walnut, cherry, hickory, maple)

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″

Standard Domino Dimensions

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.

Google SketchUp Is Free To Woodworkers!

When I started doing drawings for woodworking I used Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator is a great program. It is used by designers throughout the world to do every kind of drawing, and it has more than enough capabilities to do nice drawings for woodworking. I already knew how to use it from my previous life as an art director, so I made it work for woodworking. The artboard would allow me to draw up to 200″ at full-scale. After that I had to scale down my drawings, but that wasn’t very often. The beauty of Illustrator was it’s ability to draw anything I dreamed up and to control the printing, which came in handy on full-size templates. I used the templates most often on curved pieces, and Illustrator is great at drawing curves with precise control.

For all of its positives, Illustrator has its drawbacks. First of all, it is difficult to learn, so I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except those that do graphics for a living. Second, it is made to produce top-quality graphics, which means there are a lot of options but no templates, especially for anything related to woodworking. So, if you want to dimension a drawing, you have to individually draw arrows, layout the text between the arrows, rotate everything, and hope that it doesn’t need to be resized (because it doesn’t happen automatically). The third and biggest drawback is that it only does drawings in 2D. You can fake the 3D, but it is still just a 2D drawing. This became a more important issue as I noticed I was missing details because I couldn’t see the piece from different angles. The details were sometimes related to joinery, but were more often related to scale. A leg, for example, that looked well proportioned when viewed straight on was often actually too thick when viewed at an angle. With Illustrator and its 2D drawings, I just couldn’t see these things.

Obviously, it was time for a 3D drawing program, but I wasn’t interested in learning a new program. I wasn’t sure how much I would really use it, and after 9 years of driving a computer every day, I wasn’t in a hurry to drive more than I had to. For the most part, I wanted to be in the shop and only use the computer when I needed it.

So, my quest began. I looked at CAD programs, VectorWorks, Rhino-something, and others. I loaded them on my computer and tried them for free for 30 days. I used them for a couple of hours at the most, and could tell right away that they weren’t for me. It seemed like those programs were for folks that already knew what they were building but just wanted to get it in a very nice and presentable form. They didn’t seem conducive for designing. They weren’t going to work for a guy like me who often lacks direction until it shows up. I usually need to just work through things and figure them out, and none of those programs fostered that style. I would say they were very IBMish and I am very Macintoshish. Anyway, after a while, I just gave up on it, decided it wasn’t for me and just stopped looking. That, of course, is when the best things happen.

A friend of mine, Ron, who I would say is very IBMish, recommended that I check out Google SketchUp. He said it was free and it was for 3D drawings. I don’t know where he found out about it, but I do know I wasn’t in a hurry to check it out. After all, it was free. Nothing that is worthwhile is ever free. This program needed to cost at least $500 if Ron expected me to look at it (I scoffed). Knowing it was an obvious waste of time but wanting to give Ron a few valid reasons why I wasn’t going to use it, I visited Google and downloaded SketchUp.

It wasn’t love at first sight. The drawing maneuvers are like no other program I have used (again mostly Adobe products). It takes a different mindset to use SketchUp. But it didn’t take me long to figure out the basics – and get hooked. It was cool. In no time I was drawing simple shapes, zooming in and out, rotating, spinning, whatever, and doing it as fast as I could move. That is what I couldn’t believe. The program draws fast. You can slow it down with textures and photos if you want. But if you just want line drawings with some simple shadows for presentation, it is remarkably fast. After you build a piece, you can actually go in it and look at it from all angles – and see things you have never seen before.

SketchUp renderings like this are showing up everywhere.

I started to get excited, but I still didn’t want to spend the time learning a program that nobody used (remember, it was free). So, I started asking every architect I ran into what program they used for the renderings,  and suddenly the common answer was SketchUp. Apparently, Ron let everyone know about the program on the same day.

Now, I use SketchUp on every project and incorporate the drawings into the job for approval. It works out great because I can figure out the details at home and not make any dust or noise. It helps me design the job, make sure everything will fit together and work mechanically, and I use it to dimension parts, which it does semi-automatically and with good control.

This stove by Wolf is available with just a couple clicks.

Another great feature of SketchUp is the component warehouse. This is a spot where drawings hang out just waiting to be used. Here is how it works: Say you are drawing a kitchen, and you would like to show a refrigerator in the corner. In the past, somebody (meaning you) would have to draw it. Not anymore my friend. Just pop in the warehouse, find a refrigerator that you like and paste it into your drawing. The drawings in the warehouse are either uploaded by everyday users of SketchUp or, as is more commonly the case, by manufacturers that want you to spec their product. It is not uncommon for me to find every appliance perfectly drawn and ready to be inserted (for free) into my drawing.

The last and best feature of SketchUp is that it is Free! It is not awesome because it is Free, it is awesome and it is Free! I know at this point it sounds like I am working for Google, but I am not – it just simply works that good. Take the time to download it and give it a whirl. On your first go around do something simple and walk away. The next day, do a little more. Don’t try to learn it all at once and frustrate yourself. Take your time. It will be well worth it.

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