Archives For woodworking projects

Computer Riser Stand

November 29, 2013 — 8 Comments
iMac Riser Stand: Installed

The almost-finished project

I recently replaced my 27“ iMac with… another 27” iMac. What I love most about these computers is the ability to use them as an external monitor with a MacBook Pro. This gives me the power and “consistency” of a desktop machine for personal use, but also a very capable mobile setup for work that can be used comfortably for design when I’m working at home.

Apple apparently decided that in order to mount the new iMac on a monitor arm via a VESA adapter (as I have been doing for the last decade or so), I’d have to buy a completely different computer–a special version of the iMac that has a built-in VESA mount. For all sorts of reasons, I did not want to buy a computer that could only be used on a monitor arm, but the stock iMac posed a problem:

Height Problem

The “normal” height of the iMac does not clear the top of the MacBook Pro’s screen. First world problem, I know.

Impetus to make something!

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This year, I wanted to make good on a long-standing promise to set the family up with a garden. I’ve looked at raised bed gardening because I don’t know too much about the quality of soil in our rather urban suburb. But like many people with bad backs, when I see people gardening (raised bed or not), my first thought is, “Aren’t farmer’s markets great?”

We visited some good friends in Sonoma a few years back and they had built some raised garden beds unlike any we had seen before. These were roughly 3.5–4 feet high and seemed like a brilliant way to improve the ergonomics of gardening. But I have some big ideas for the backyard over the next few years and I don’t want to commit to large, immovable containers of soil. I looked into commercially available elevated garden beds but I find them ugly, find them expensive, and like all woodworkers, I immediately resent the very notion of purchasing something I know I can make.

gb planters

Spoiler alert! The result, already sprouting some tomatoes.

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Japanese Box Build

April 14, 2013 — 5 Comments

A few weeks ago Wilbur Pan wrote a post about a Japanese toolbox he built. This project caught my eye for a number of reasons—its simplicity more than anything. One board, some nails, and a few tools. The perfect project for Ray.

I figured a box like this would serve Ray well. He needed a way to transport his “contraption parts” and toys from one place to another, and he’s wanted a place to sister-proof toys he considers special. So he was excited when I proposed this project to him.

I showed him the box on Wilbur’s site as well as a Japanese toolbox that Chris found when he was in Australia. That box features some very simple finger joints that I find aesthetically pleasing. Ray, however, chose the simpler box, saying, “I don’t like those fancy sticky-out things”. So simple it was.

We were all set to go out to the home center to pick up some pine but I thought I’d first check the garage attic, where some miscellaneous boards leftover from my house’s construction remain. Bingo. A pine board more than long enough, totally dry, and only slightly twisted. Ray helped me bring it into the shop.

box board

I had him size the box using his arms, then count and mark out the pieces on the board. I then crosscut the pieces with a handsaw while Ray held them and stacked them.

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As I didn’t want the box to be too heavy for Ray, I dimensioned the lumber to a little over 1/2”, then asked him to pick up the stack of wood, telling him that the box with toys in it would be at least that heavy. He decided to make the box shorter, and I made the box a little less tall than wide. I then showed him how all the pieces would go together.

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Unlike the wooden jet project, Ray found putting the box together very challenging. With the jets, fitting the pieces together was not unlike putting together a puzzle—it was easy to tell which parts went where. When you pressed most of them into place they would stay together. Not so with loose boards. I quickly planed a very shallow rabbet (maybe 2 passes) on the bottom piece—he then had a very slight edge which helped him know where the box sides should go.

But clamps, even the quick-set ones, weren’t easy for Ray to manipulate, and in truth, I think it was in this initial assembly stage that Ray kind of gave up on the project. He made it through some glue and a few nails but started getting too restless and fidgety to keep him in the shop safely. I need to do a better job of realizing that it’s the instant gratification of snapping together LEGOs that I’m competing against. The trick isn’t keeping his attention span; he has an enormous attention span and boundless curiosity for things he enjoys; the trick is keeping the steps challenging enough to engage him but not so challenging that they become frustrating. In retrospect, I think setting the box up for him to drill and nail would have been a better approach.

After Ray went to bed that evening, I finished the box. I used box nails on the bottom, setting them deep so they wouldn’t scratch whatever Ray set the box on. And in addition to hide glue (unnecessary, but made assembly a little easier) I used wrought head cut nails for the sides and top handles. And for the pieces which go across the top of the lid, I used some cut brad nails, but only because I didn’t have any other cut nails that would work with the thinner stock.

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After milling the lumber (an unnecessary step if you buy appropriately dimensioned lumber to begin with), and not accounting for time spent helping Ray, the whole project probably went together in about 45 min or less. It really is a great project; if only everything I did in the shop could come together so quickly!

Japanese Box

I placed the finished box on the kitchen counter and Ray was thrilled to find it in the morning. He loves it—enough that he asked me to help him make a few more. A few things I’ll try differently as we make these boxes:

  • I’m going to pursue the finger-jointed version next time. I’ve already made a prototype, and by gang-cutting the joints, the whole thing comes together very fast. I think the finger joints will actually help Ray manage the assembly more easily by making more apparent what pieces go where and make the whole box easier to handle. The only clamp that will really be necessary is the vise in the joinery bench, which is easy for him to use.
  • Since we’ll be making a few boxes, the first one be an assembly-only project, with all parts prefabricated and holes pre-drilled. It’ll have the finger joints cut and small rabbets to help register pieces against each other. He’ll just glue and nail. He loves the hammer and cut nails.
  • For the second box he’ll drill at least some of the holes; he loves the eggbeater drill and the brace and already knows about pre-drilling from the jet project.
  • If we make a third one, maybe I’ll let him use a saw for one of the final cuts—maybe a flush-cutting saw to trim off one of the top pieces.

My wife and I are thrilled that the box is a place that Ray actually likes to keep toys that would otherwise lay all over the kitchen and family room, and of course, Ray is thrilled that his sister can’t get at them.

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But Anya’s strong enough now that she’ll just end up taking the whole box with her if Ray isn’t sitting on it. This is all part of the plan. Someday Anya will want to make a box for herself. And maybe by then Ray can teach her how.

Cool, Your Jets!

April 8, 2013 — 6 Comments

I’d love to get my son, Ray, interested in woodworking. Some of this stems from my desire to provide an alternative to the allure of superheroes on luminescent screens. But as I’ve mentioned previously, a lot of it is the hope that I can teach him that with just a little determination and practice, he can shape his world rather than just purchase one off the shelf (as many people do). I’d like to think that I’m not shoving the hobby in his face, but rather enticing him, picking out shop projects that I think Ray would appreciate, both as an end-product he enjoys using as well as a manufacturing process he connects with.

My last attempt at this was a pair of F–15 fighter jets, which we finished in February of 2012:

Ray's F-15

These jets are as friggin’ awesome as I am modest. They look great, have detachable wheels that click when inserted into the body thanks to some rare-earth magnets. And there are two of them so Ray and a friend can fly them around, engaging in aerial dogfights or embarking on stealth sorties, such as carpet-bombing the “LEGO Terrorist-Harboring Peasant Village” playset we got him when he was 2.

I figured if Ray found the process of making these jets similar enough to assembling something with LEGOs (which he loves and is very good at), it’d be something within grasp and rewarding enough for him to want more. So I involved him extensively first in the project selection process, then as an observer in some of the rough shaping stage (tablesaw, bandsaw, handplanes), and eventually let him use the spokeshave for a bit. But in reality, I fabricated all the parts in a few short-but-sporadic late-night sessions in the shop. Then, in a session lasting the better part of a weekend, he used a brace and handrill, gimlets, some hide glue, a hammer and nails, and some sandpaper and shellac to assemble and finish his toys.

Ray Assembles his F-15

He loved coming out of the woodshop with something he could say he built with me. I had a blast in the shop with him and still enjoy watching him and his friends play with these (though these particular toys are transitioning out of fancy I’m afraid). We’ve had to fix the wings a few times (thank you, hide glue), but I think the project as a whole was a success as far as he was concerned.

Unfortunately, work (and its evil comrade, work travel) picked up shortly after this, so whatever momentum I had coming out of making the jets with Ray vanished like a contrail…like a Ghost rider requesting a flyby.

A few takeaways from that project:

  • It took more time than I had. I think the parts came together quickly in terms of shoptime, but I think it was well over a month for me to get enough shoptime to finish them. That’s a long runway (sorry) from project selection to results, perhaps especially for Ray. I’d like to find simpler, quicker-to-finish projects. Projects that I could realize very easily should his schedule and my schedule just happen to coincide one weekend.
  • My general approach—center his participation around assembly—was right on. He loved figuring out which part went where and other than general tool and safety guidance, I was able to step back and make assembly his to own. Or p0wn, if you will.
  • That said, utimately my main issue with the project was that in the end, I’m not confident that the jets are any different a toy for him than something he puts together with LEGOs. I’m not sure why I feel this way; some of it perhaps is because the jets are really quite nice. Perhaps too nice. Though they have some flaws, they don’t register to me (or to a lot of people) as homemade toys. Hell, many of the toys I made for myself as a kid were made out of paper towel rolls, leftover snap-together model parts, and Elmer’s glue. They were definitely…distinct. And I loved those toys for that. The jets—they’re nice enough for them to compete with plastic toys that have motors and sounds. And on that score maybe they fall short.

I’m posting this for two reasons. One, just this past weekend I attempted another project with Ray: a Japanese box which crossed my radar thanks to Wilbur Pan:

Japanese Box

More on that project in an upcoming post (preview of the results in the photo above).

Two, I’m definitely soliciting suggestions for projects and approaches to woodworking with kids. What age is appropriate for them to handle tools with edges? Machinery? I’m sure this differs somewhat from child to child but it’s a topic on which I would love to gather anecdotes, both good and bad.

Update: I’ve gotten several requests to hand over the secret plans for the plans to these jets. You’ll find them in the book, The Great All-American Wooden Toy Book. It’s a good, inexpensive book with projects at all levels of ambition.