How Many Tools Does a Man Need?


I’ve made efforts to simplify over the past few years. It happens in fits and starts, usually two steps forward and one step back. When I began accumulating woodworking tools, more than a decade ago, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I would ever want to get rid of a tool.

“He who dies with the most tools wins!” “You can never have too many clamps!” Woodworking forums are rife with kind of nonsense – especially those devoted to hand tools. Maybe that’s because hand tools can multiply more slowly and seemingly innocuously than power tools. You don’t need to immediately find a place in your toolchest for that handsaw or chisel you picked up for five bucks. Just drop it in the bucket with all the others, you’ll fix it up…eventually.

But what if you don’t? What if you walk into your shop one day and realize that all of the free time you’ve spent haunting flea markets and antique stores in search of a deal have robbed you of time you could have spent actually building things? How many hours could you have practiced your craft, becoming more intimately familiar and connected to the tools that you already own? What if those forsaken tools yield, not a well-loved and well-stocked shop,  but a shrine of guilt that plagues your conscience ever time you set foot in what should be your place of respite?

I have found myself facing this situation on more than one occasion. I typically deal with it by going on a tool restoration binge. Saws, chisels, and planes get de-rusted, handles get cleaned, repaired or replaced, and blades get sharpened. Slowly, the hours that I spent collecting the tools become insignificant in comparison to the hours that I spend restoring them.

Then comes a decision: Keep, or sell? I am not a collector. I don’t need five 1″ chisels (which is the number I am currently sporting). The problem is, of my five 1″ chisels, I have only ever used one of them on a regular basis. The others were never in proper shape, until this week. My regular user happens to be the ugliest of the bunch – the plastic-handled Irwin in the middle. I’ve had it for 10 years. I know that it’s a perfectly good chisel. But how can I sell the other four (more attractive) chisels without ever giving them a fair shot? What if one of them takes a freakishly keen edge and holds onto it for twice as long? How can I deprive myself of the opportunity to find out which of these chisels is the best?

1-in Chisels
From top to bottom: Henry Taylor bevel-edge chisel with boxwood handle; Charles Buck firmer chisel with octagonal beech handle; Irwin bevel-edge chisel with blue plastic handle; unmarked firmer chisel with elm handle; and Ohio Tool paring chisel with elm handle.

These are the games that my mind plays with me when I have too many tools. Owning too many things (whether it be clothes, shoes, dishes, tools, or toothbrushes) is antithetical to my world view. Yet most of the time, I just live life on cruise control, gleefully indulging my caveman collector instinct. Especially when something is a bargain. And then one day I look up and realize that I’m spending more time accumulating and maintaining my things than enjoying my life. And upon that realization, I begin enjoying life much less, until the balance is restored. I am not a minimalist, by any means, but with each passing year I try to be more fully cognizant of my relationship with my stuff. It has become clear to me that I am almost always happier with less of it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go build something out of wood – something that requires a lot of chisel work – so I can figure out which of these beautiful damned things I can be rid of.

I Split Off More Than I Could Hew

A couple of weekends ago, I had a minor incident while hollowing out a large shrink pot. (What’s a shrink pot, you ask? Luckily Dave Fisher covered that topic a couple of weeks ago – click here). I thought I was being clever by using a chunk of maple too knotty for spoons or kuksas for my shrink pot. Turned out to be a costly error. I got one of my favorite gouges stuck in a knot, and it shattered as I was trying to persuade it loose.


The gouge was a vintage Swan that I picked up for $5 at an antique store in Louisiana. Hard to replace (at least for that price).  I determined that there was enough steel left to grind it down and put it back into service.

The tricky part here is trying to cut down to good steel without getting the blade too hot and ruining the temper. I took a hint from a blacksmith friend and stuck the gouge through a potato to just below the lowest point of the break.


The potato acts as a heat sink, so you can grind as needed without getting the steel too hot. I used a cutoff wheel on my Dremel to cut off the bulk of the waste, and the potato worked as advertised – the steel never even got hot to the touch.


Of course, I still had to reshape the bevel at this point. I do this with a deft tough on the grinder. I prefer an 80-grit white Norton stone for this task. It runs considerably cooler than the cheap hardware-store gray stones. I also prefer to do the final shaping on the side of the stone rather than the face. This allows me to get either a flat or slightly convex bevel. I find that a concave bevel is counterproductive on a carving gouge. It tends to cause the tool to dive into the wood uncontrollably. A slightly convex bevel helps the tool slice into and out of the wood.


A steady hand and a gentle rolling of the gouge against the side of the wheel produces a neat bevel that requires very little finishing work with stones and a strop.

The freshly ground bevel
The bevel after honing and stropping

The inside of the gouge required some attention as well. This old tool had a fine layer of surface rust and some minor pitting to go with it. To remove the pitting, I first turned a small hardwood dowel, slightly smaller than the inside diameter of the gouge, and cut a small kerf along the length. Chuck the dowel into a cordless drill. Slip a narrow strip of 220-grit sandpaper into the kerf and wrap it around the dowel. A bit of masking tape helps hold it in place. Now you can use your custom “stone” to hone the inside of the bevel and clean up the pitting.


I find it easiest to hold the gouge in a vise, using two hands to guide the drill. It can get away from you if you’re not careful, but a nicely polished interior is your reward. You can quickly buff the edge to a perfect shine by charging the dowel itself with honing compound and power stropping.


I now have a functional gouge once more – but I will admit it doesn’t have quite the same balance after losing more than an inch of its length. Time will tell how much use this gouge will see in the future.

Remembering My Role

“A craftsman, from the bottom of his or her heart, is to serve society. Every profession has social obligations and responsibilities. The craftsman’s social responsibility is to fulfill society’s demands as best they know how. Unlike craft, society does not ask the artist for what it needs. The artist’s social responsibility and obligation is to find a valid concept and execute it, then share it with society…whether society likes it or not.”  -Toshio Odate

A couple weeks ago, I posted about the “Quick and Dirty” table that I built for my son. As a child’s play table, I didn’t fuss too much over the finish. I did get Elam’s input on the color. He said he wanted blue, so I gave it two coats of blue milk paint and slapped on a coat of shellac and called it good. The quality of the finish matches the aesthetic of the rest of the table. In other words, it’s functional and not necessarily bad-looking…but don’t look too close.

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Now, time for an admission. The need for this ‘quick and dirty’ table came about due to some piss-poor planning on my part. You see, originally, it was the tavern table that was supposed to serve as Elam’s play table. When my wife first asked me to build a table for him, the wheels in my head started spinning, and before long, I recalled the attractive little Charleston tavern table that had been featured in Popular Woodworking and in “Furniture in the Southern Style“. I had always wanted to build that table, and here was my wife asking me to build at table! Perfect!

Now, most children’s tables can tolerate a fairly broad range of heights, sizes, and designs. After all, kids grow, so you can either build a table that’s too big for them now or one that will be too small for them in a couple of years. What they really need is a chair to match the table, so the kids can work and sit at a comfortable height.

However, our Elam is a special kid. He was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. Thus, with the height of his chair pre-determined, I had to built his table at a height that would match. I measured and determined that 23.5″ would be the ideal height for his table. The original table was 27″ high. Hmmm…dropping the height by 3.5″ seems like it would ruin the aesthetic. I decided to compromise and build the table 25″ high instead. Surely that extra inch and a half would be okay, right? And he would eventually grow into it anyway, right? That was mistake No. 1.

Next, it was obvious that the lower stretchers that are found around the lower perimeter of nearly all tavern tables would be in the way of his wheelchair. No worries, though – I could just nix the front and back stretchers and use a single stretcher in the middle instead. And there’s mistake No. 2.

My wife packed up the kids and headed to off to visit her parents for a weekend. I was tasked with building the table for Elam. And I worked a 30-hour weekend building that table. With hardly any sleep, I kept single-mindedly to the task at hand, and was just pegging the top in place when my wife rolled into the driveway on Sunday afternoon. I was so excited to roll Elam up to his new play table so he could try it out.

My excitement quickly soured as I realized that 1) the addition of 1.5” of height above my “ideal” estimate placed the tabletop in a position where he could barely see anything on the tabletop, and 2) I neglected to ever measure the distance between the front wheels of his wheelchair, and as a result the distance between the table’s front legs was 1/4″ too narrow for the wheelchair to squeeze in between. My own disappointment was only exceeded by that of my wife. It was not a good way to start off a week for anyone involved.

I certainly didn’t slave away for 30 hours over two days to build a non-functional piece. I thought I was doing heartfelt work that would genuinely be appreciated by my son and my wife. But I got caught up in my own aesthetic preferences and lost sight of the original purpose. It was a painful lesson. And one that I quickly made right, two days later, in a two-hour flurry of workshop activity.

The new table may not measure up to the tavern table in style, but it well exceeds in the category that counts: function. Now, I know there is a big arts vs. crafts debate that has been raging for centuries and addressed ad nauseum by folks far more experienced and eloquent than I. I don’t intend to weigh in on this debate, because for me, there is no confusion. I am not an artist; I am a craftsman. If Toshio Odate is to be believed, my primary concern in this specific role is “to fulfill society’s demands” as best as I know how. And since I the lion’s share of my work remains in my own home, the “society” to whom Toshio refers would be my very own family.

I would do well to remember my role. I know of one little guy who certainly appreciates it when it when I do.

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Getting Shellacked at the Tavern Table

The finish on the tavern table is well underway. I put on two coats of “Goldenrod” milk paint from The Real Milk Paint Co. on consecutive evenings, burnishing with Scotch-Brite between each coat. Let’s be clear: I hate burnishing milk paint. It’s not so bad on a flat surface, like this tabletop, but it is dusty, messy, smelly, finger-numbing work on the turnings with all their curves and crevices. But, if you wish to use milk paint, it is a necessary evil (a necessary evil that almost makes me want to try oil paints).


The color goes on rather bold:

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But after two coats, I apply a layer of orange shellac which calms things down considerably.


I once asked Chris Schwarz if he used pre-mixed shellac or mixed his own. His response: “Buying pre-mixed shellac is like buying frozen lasagna”. Perhaps, but the frozen lasagna has one thing going for it that homemade does not: it may be mediocre, but at least it’s consistently and predictably mediocre. Homemade lasagna can be world-class, but I have had some crappy homemade lasagna as well.

This is relevant, because I have had mixed success mixing my own shellac. Last time I bought a pound of flakes, they didn’t dissolve in the alcohol any more than if I’d thrown a handful of Wheaties into the jar. And the dregs that did dissolve refused to dry, but instead preferred to live out their brief existence as a gummy film on top of my painstakingly wrought furniture. The shellac was from a reputable dealer, but I was too inexperienced at the time to know that it was a bad batch, so I just ate the cost and moved on.

All this to say: I buy Zinsser from Home Depot, and I don’t feel a bit of guilt. It’s always 10 minutes away, and at least I know what I’m getting when I buy it. I have no complaints about how it’s held up on my furniture, and my earliest shellac-finished piece will turn 10 years old this year.

So, after hours of painting and burnishing and shellacking, here’s where things stand. Next up will be a couple coats of blue-green “Peacock”, unless I decide that this straw color is more to my liking. I’ll have a better idea when the shellac is fully dry and rubbed down.





If any of you are on Instagram, you can follow me under the name a_riving_home.

I only joined a couple weeks ago, but I find it easier to post up-to-date progress reports of ongoing projects there, since they need not be accompanied by a wall of text as I’m wont to do here.

I do find it annoying that they insist on a mobile-only format for posting pictures, but it’s a convenient place to follow the work of fellow craftspeople.

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The Tavern Table is Built. Now I Need a Tavern.

The tavern table was a fun build, and quick, too. Relatively speaking. I compare everything now to the Windsor chair build that stretched on for three months. It’s amazing how simple everything becomes when all of the angles are at 90°. And how convoluted things become curves and angles that aren’t right come into play. I started the table on a Friday evening, and it was fully assembled by that Sunday afternoon.

I have a few pictures, but must apologize for the quality. The lighting in my house is atrocious, and outdoors isn’t any better. Our yard is a scrubby wasteland of sand and weeds a few blocks from the beach.

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I was surprised how much visual interest this simple molding on the bottom of the aprons adds to the table. I’ve never used a detail like this before, but I’ve noticed that some sort of molding is present on the aprons of nearly every joint stool and tavern table that I’ve seen. Definitely worth the small effort to get this effect.

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The legs were a blast to turn. The shape is very, close to the original, but I didn’t hold myself too closely to the details. I felt that they could use improvement, so I improved them. I’m very happy with the way these turned out. Plus, it was extra practice for my next Windsor chair! I’m still having trouble with the skew chisel on those beads – I find that to be the hardest part of baluster turnings.

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Another tweak to the original design: I reduced the number of lower stretchers from four to three, and moved the long stretcher to the center. I did this so that the table can be used as a children’s dining table when we have a lot of company. My son is in a wheelchair and needs to be able to roll up close to the table; outer stretchers would prevent that.

I also used chamfers and lambs’ tongues instead of the simple roundover on the original. No reason, other than I like the way they look.

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I do love drawer-building. Especially small ones like this. It becomes harder to make a smooth-running drawer as the size increases. This drawer fits nicely with maybe 1/32″ gap on the sides and 1/16″ on the top. It slides sweetly.

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And of course dovetails are ever fun to cut.

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I even found time to add a bit of bling to the drawer bottom. I have wanted to try some Peter Follansbee-style carving for years, and I finally made it happen. I didn’t want my first carving to be front-and-center on a piece of furniture, so a drawer bottom seemed appropriate. The carving is a bit of an anachronism – 17th-century English carving in an 18th century Charleston table – but it doesn’t bother me. Avert thine eyes if thou art a pedant.

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The table still needs a finish. It will be painted, like the original. Unlike the original, I will not be using oil paint with toxic heavy metal-laden pigments. Milk paint will suffice. I’m thinking blue over yellow, with shellac topcoat.


Rigorous Mortise? Nah, it’s easy…

I mentioned earlier this week that the pegged mortise and tenon is my favorite woodworking joint to make. One of the things that makes it my favorite is a feeling of competency and efficiency, and those are feelings that only come with practice. It makes a big difference when you begin a process with the expectation, rather than the hope, that everything will come together right.

I’ve been cutting mortises by hand since 2007, but it wasn’t until I built a commissioned Arts-and-Crafts office desk in 2013 that I truly felt comfortable with the process. That piece had over 100 individual mortise and tenon joints, more than half of them were through-mortises. Lots of practice, and plenty of time to refine my technique.

There are certainly no shortage of methods to try.

Christian Becksvoort pre-drills the mortises with a doweling jig and cleans it up with a sash mortise chisel. I’ve not found that pre-drilling the holes saves any time – unless you have really wonky grain, in which case the chisel will tend to want to follow the grain if you don’t pre-drill. Best to use straight-grained stock instead.

Chris Schwarz no longer uses this method, but he once wrote about a method of drilling a hole in one end of the mortise and then chiseling back from that hole until you reach the opposite end (the “Maynard technique”).

Peter Follansbee uses a traditional mortise chisel and starts by cutting a vee in the middle of the mortise, then working his way back to the ends. I really want to like this method, and I’ve tried it several times, but I find that my accuracy is compromised by switching the bevel back and forth like he does. I like to get my chisel in the right position and keep it there.

Which is why my preferred method is something along the lines of what Paul Sellers does. Actually, “along the lines” is dead wrong; I chop my mortises exactly like Paul Sellers does. Oddly enough, I had never even seen him chop a mortise under I was gathering links about different methods for this very post. Our only difference of opinions: he prefers a standard bevel-edge, chisel, while I prefer the traditional mortise chisel.

So, on that note, a change of plans. I had taken a bunch of pictures that were intended to demonstrate the method I use, but instead I’ll just post Paul’s video instead. If a picture’s worth 1000 words, a video must be worth 10,000.


Okay, I can’t resist a bit of commentary on Paul Seller’s methods. In all of his videos where he’s mortising something, he’s holding the piece in his face vise. That sure seems like a good way to add unnecessary stress to your vise and the screws that are holding it in place. I mortise with my workpiece clamped to the benchtop, directly over a leg, using a holdfast or a big handscrew. Like so:

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Also, I mark out only three sides of the mortise: the top, the bottom, and the edge that is closest to the face. The chisel itself defines the fourth side, so I don’t find it helpful to mark out the far edge. The only thing to watch out for with this method? Don’t chop your mortise on the wrong side of the line! Sometimes, when the mortise is close to the face (like in this example), it’s obvious which side to chop on. Other times, when the mortise is more centrally located, it’s not quite as clear. I have chopped on the wrong side of the line before, so I tend to draw a little squiggle on the side where I need to chop. (I don’t usually darken the scribe lines with a pencil, though- that was just for the picture.)

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My tavern table had 10 regular mortises and four double mortises. The last four that I chopped measured 2″ long and 1-3/4″ deep. Out of curiosity, I timed myself and found that I chopped them in 4-5 minutes each. It’s quick and painless once you’re familiar with the process, and there’s nothing quite like sliding a joint together for the first time and having it look like this:

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In Defense of “Quick and Dirty”

If you follow this blog, then chances are good that you follow Chris Schwarz’s remarkably prolific blog as well. If not, then perhaps this post deserves a bit of background. For the last couple of years, Chris has been deep down in the rabbit hole of “staked” furniture. I’ve followed it with curious interest, but along with his foray into campaign furniture, it’s not exactly my style, so I haven’t really been tempted to play along. “Staked” is a term used in early estate inventories used to describe furniture that consists of a wide slab top, with simple legs mortised through the top. The joints can rely on a cylindrical or cone-shaped tenon, but either way, it’s basically the same joint that affixes the legs to the seat on a Windsor chair.

The joint was prolific in Europe for hundreds of years, being used in everything from stools and benches to tables and chairs. As joinery became more complex and tastes in furniture more discerning, its use fell out of favor for all but cruder furniture and a few other specialized contexts.

Windsor chairs avoid the crude look engendered by staked joinery by virtue of elegant turned legs and a comfortably shaped seat. A flat-topped table has more trouble shaking of the humble look of the joinery. Yet the technique does have one distinct advantage: it’s fast.

My wife wanted me to build a play table for my two-year-old son. She wanted it soon. “I don’t care if you nail it together, I just want it done.” She had been asking for weeks, so her impatience was justified. However, I tend to put things off until I can find the time to build a true object of beauty. She quickly objected that children’s play table needn’t be a thing of beauty. Counterproductive, really. A play table is something that should be used and abused without fear of rebuke. Paint, crayons, markers, Play-Doh, glitter-glue. These humble playthings are instruments of doom to a fine piece of furniture.

A staked table was just the answer. So, two nights ago, I walked into my shop at 8:30 PM after the rest of my household was asleep. At 10:45 PM I walked out with a finished table in my arms – hand tools only, except the lathe. The tavern table that has been featured in my last two posts required 40 hours of shop time to build (you’ll get to see the finished object soon, I promise). The play table is about the same size, and I knocked this sucker out in 2 hours, 15 minutes. Now I know why this style hung around for a few hundred (thousand?) years. Economy of labor is a beautiful thing.

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Here it is, in all of it’s humble glory. 23.5″ tall, 17″ wide, and maybe 30″ long? I didn’t measure, I just cut.
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The battens are nailed to the underside with cut nails, and the legs are bored straight through both batten and top. Three legs are beech, and the fourth is poplar (as is the rest of the table) The tenons are conical, so I used my tapered reamer to shape the mortises.
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Tables like this have cross-grain issues with the battens cross-grain to the top. Usually they develop cracks after a number of years. I preempted the issue by using a cracked board. The tenons are glued and wedged in place.
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I made no attempt to remove the gouge marks from the lathe. I could have used the skew to get a smoother surface, but what would be the point?


Despite not measuring a damn thing on this table (except the height), the angle of the legs turned out pretty close. I really don’t think I could have done better if I was measuring instead of eyeballing.


And the best part about a quick and dirty table? I was happy to let my 4-year-old daughter help me with the paint job. And she was excited to help.

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How long will this table last? 10 years? 25? 100? I have no idea, but I have no doubt that it will serve its purpose for as long as we need it.

I’ve Got You Pegged.

The pegged mortise-and-tenon: my favorite joint in woodworking. And not just any pegged mortise-and-tenon. When reasonable, I prefer to drawbore my joints as well. If you aren’t familiar with drawboring, then best to head straight to the expert himself: Peter Follansbee. This post is just as excellent today as it was when he wrote it seven years ago. And drawboring is just as effective today as it was 400 years ago.

What I’d like to talk about today, though, is a very specific part of the joint: the pegs (or pins). For a while, drawboring gave me fits every time I tried it. It seemed like 1 in 4 joints was a failure – either the peg would fail to snake its way through the offset and end up breaking, or the face of the mortised piece would crack as the peg was getting seated.

I couldn’t figure out was I was doing wrong. Too much offset in my holes? Were the pins too big? As it turned out, the problem was indeed my pins, but not so much the size as the shape.

Here’s a picture of the very first piece where I used pegged mortise-and-tenons. It’s a Shaker-style cherry table that I made in 2007, I think. Not drawbored – the joint was glued up, clamped together, then I bored through the joints and drove the pegs. For this piece, I simply grabbed some offcuts of cherry and turned them to dowels 1/4″ in diameter. Worked fine for this piece – there was no offset to snake through, so the pins went home without any fuss. But unbeknownst to me, this technique was the beginning of all of my drawboring woes.

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Pegs 019Fast-forward to 2011. I was building a queen-size Arts-and-Crafts bed for my wife. The rails were 5′ long – a foot longer than my clamps. It was the perfect opportunity to try a bit of drawboring, since the pegs will pull the joints tight, rather than relying on clamps. I resorted to the method that I had used many times before for pegged joints. I grabbed some offcuts of white oak, split them to get straight-grained pieces, and turned them to size on my lathe. I even gave the ends a really good taper to help the pegs find their way through the offset.

What a nightmare. I think I busted two of the pegs completely as I was trying to drive them home. There was nothing I could do but watch helplessly that the oak shattered underneath my hammer. Luckily, the joints were pretty tight already, and made to tolerances that allowed the glue to hold the joints together without relying upon the pegs, but it was still painful to watch after hours of careful preparation.

You can still see just a bit of damage to the peg in the photo above that did’t quite disappear when I pared it flush. Luckily, this is all the evidence that remains of that failure.

I tried a few more methods after that. I shaved some straight, octagonal pegs, rather than round ones. No dice. I tried reducing the offset of my drawbores to a mere 1/16″. That works, but the joints don’t always pull as tightly as you would like. Finally, I stumbled upon Peter Follansbee’s work and the scales fell from my eyes. As it turns out, the root of my problems was the taper of my pegs.

I had been working with what were essentially straight pegs, with just a small taper at the tip – basically sharpened like a pencil. The problem with this shape is that the peg doesn’t get a chance to snake its way all the way through the tenon before the peg hole fills up and meets strong resistance. It occasionally ends up being too much resistance to overcome, and the pegs shatter before they can be driven down tight.

The solution? Instead of a short, blunt taper at the tip, now I use a taper that continues the entire length of the pegs. Like these:

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For a 5/16″ peg hole, these pegs start off at maybe 3/16″ at the tip and taper gently to a bit over 5/16″ at the butt. They’re more or less octagonal in cross-section, gradually changing to a square at the butt, but I’ve found that the cross-section matters less than getting the taper right. They can’t be too big a the tip or you’re asking for a failure.

I should mention, too, that riven wood is absolutely critical. Don’t try to do this with a store-bought dowel. Keep some dry offcuts of oak, hickory, ash, or sugar maple. Split out what you need. I like a peg about 5″ long – enough to handle easily while I’m shaving them. I use a sharp chisel to get a square taper, and then cut the corners off with a knife. You can do the whole thing with a chisel if you want.

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Get it started with the pinhole over a doghole, or hanging off the edge of your bench. These pegs need to go all the way through.

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Stop driving when you meet strong resistance. You can feel and hear the difference when these pegs are fully seated.

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Then cut the pegs close to the surface with a backsaw – careful not to mar the surface – and pare them flush with a wide chisel.

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There were 20 drawbored mortise-and-tenons in this table frame – and not a single failure. My success rate has improved tremendously since I started making proper pegs.




Flattening a Cupped Board

I love wide boards. My most cherished timbers are some 18″-wide cherry boards from a huge, standing dead cherry tree that I found back when I lived in South Mississippi. They have some beetle holes from the decade or more that the tree stood forlornly in the forest after it died. But they’re wide. Also, some 17″-wide white pine boards from a tree that died in front of my house when I lived in North Georgia. It was a yard tree, full of knots and pitch, but those boards…so wide. And of course, a stack of 18″ to 24″-wide poplar planks from a discarded butt from a logging job in Mississippi. The loggers left the butt because it splintered as it fell, but there was still plenty of good wood for me to salvage. And it was worth it, because, well, wide. Reeaaally wide…You know?

It traumatizes me greatly to have to glue up boards to make a wider panel. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, like when I made my 48″-wide sassafras table. Alas, there were no 48″-wide sassafras boards to be had. At least not in my wood stash. But usually I just end up designing my work to suit the stock that I have on hand.

Such was the case when I began work on a small tavern table over the weekend. I began with the intention of reproducing a small table from the MESDA collection. I’ve had my eye on that piece for years, ever since Chris Schwarz built a version for Popular woodworking a few years back. The original is from Charleston, South Carolina around the 1720’s. Not bad-looking for a 300-year-old.

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Actually, to say that I’m building a reproduction would probably ruffle the feathers of an ardent antiquarian. The original was made of cypress. I don’t have any cypress. The original utilizes some unconventional drawer construction. I don’t mind the unconventional, but I don’t hesitate to build things a bit differently if it suits my fancy. The original turnings exhibit quite a bit of variance from one leg to another. This was presumably not the intention of the maker, so I definitely will not be trying to replicate that variance. Mine will be different, too, but in their own unique way. And the original has a 21″-wide top. I have some poplar that wide, but it’s 8/4 stock that is destined for Windsor chair seats. My widest 4/4 poplar is 19″. Therefore, my table will be 19″ wide.

See how easy that was? No need to glue a 2″ strip to the edge of a gorgeously wide plank. I suspect the original table would have been 19″ wide also, if the maker’s widest cypress board had been 19″ wide.

There is only one problem with my 19″ wide poplar boards. They are cupped. Pretty badly. If I tried to plane this sucker flat, I’d be left with a 1/4″-thick top. That ain’t good.

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So what’s the solution? Well obviously, I just need to cut the sucker apart. Flatten out three narrow boards individually. That’s obviously the right decision, because then I can feed the boards through my 12″ planer! Then I can glue them back together, and no one will be the wiser!

Screw that. All of it. The day you see me cutting apart my wide boards so that I can straighten out a minor cup/fit them through my planer/orient the growth rings differently/or any other stupid reason is the day that you will know the I’ve gone to the Dark Side, Anakin Skywalker-style.

A wide, mildly cupped board can easily be flattened with a little TLC. Here’s how I do it:

1) Wet down the concave side with a healthy amount of water. Make sure to really let it soak in. Sometimes I even leave a wet cloth on top of the board for good measure. I prop it up on some stickers to get good airflow to the convex side.

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2) Come back a few hours later. Hopefully, the board has straightened out a bit. In this case, the board was perfectly flat after leaving it overnight. If not, add more water and wait longer.

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3) Now the board is flat (or maybe even cupped a little to the opposite side). You want it to stay flat. So, clamp it tight to a couple of cauls. Leave it in the clamps for a couple of days. Better yet, until you’re ready to use it. More than likely, the board will stay flat when it is completely dry.

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Now you’re ready to sharpen your hand planes and get to work.

This technique does have its limitations. The narrower or thicker your board is (basically, the closer it is in cross-section to a square rather than a long rectangle), the less likely you are to have success with this method. I’ve had great luck with stock 12″ and wider, and a little over an inch thick. I wouldn’t expect this to work with 8/4 stock (but maybe with more time and water? I dunno, I don’t do tabletops with 8/4 stock. I use it mostly for legs so the boards can be as cupped as they want to be).

Good luck, and go give those wide boards the respect they deserve.