Get wedged, or die trying

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Kerfing the leg tenons ready to be back wedged

With the leg mortises drilled, the next milestone on the staked desk build was to glue the two leg assemblies. The tenons are back wedged to ensure a strong mechanical joint, and so glue-up involved a couple of simple stages, the first of which was to prepare the wedges. Previously I’ve sawn wedges out of scrap, but this time round I decided to follow the example of chair makers I know, and rive the wedges. The advantage of riving stock for wedges is that splitting out the wedge blank severs the blank along the grain, and ensures that the wedge will be strong with grain flowing from tip to blunt end. I had plenty of maple scrap left over from the table top, so using a 2″ chisel and mallet I split off four sections, each 2″ wide and 1/4″ thick. Then using the same chisel I pared the wedge down from each side until it was at a 4 degree included angle. Working the wedge on a bench hook, paring into the hook, provides a safe way to remove the waste while keeping your fingers behind the business end of the chisel. Once I had pared the wedge to the desired angle, it was then a case of continuing to pare from each side until the wedge had a sharp point and consistent taper.

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Paring a wedge using a 2″ chisel and bench hook

The wedge needs something to drive into, and the next step was to kerf the tenons for the full depth of the mortise. For the staked saw benches I used my dovetail saw, but as these tenons are much larger (2″ thick compared to 5/8″), and the wedges much larger, I reached for the Roubo Beast Master saw instead. This established a precise kerf for the wedges to expand the tenons against the mortise walls. After deciding which leg would go in each mortise, and which facets I wanted facing forwards, I painted the tenons with hide glue and fitted them to the mortises. The wedges were then driven in with a 1lb lump hammer, and the assemblies left to cure.

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The wedge is at the right angle, and just needs to be pared down to a sharp point

Once the glue had cured, the tenons and wedges needed to be trimmed flush to the top of the batten. Again, the Roubo Beast Master was my saw of choice for this operation – although it is a rip saw and this was a cross-cut task, the deep saw plate and hang of the tote meant that I was able to cut the tenons flush without fouling on the side of the battens. A few swipes with a block plane cleaned up the surface of the tenon.

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One leg assembly glued up and wedged

The final task before the leg assemblies were ready to be fitted to the table top was to sign one of them with my maker’s mark stamp. This project offers plenty of end grain suitable to be marked with my OtW stamp, and I decided that the front end of one of the battens would be the perfect location. Several gentle taps on the stamp with my trusty lump hammer and the batten was signed and ready to be fitted.

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Trimming the excess tenon and wedge

Some projects barely change from the first cut of a rough board to the final application of finish, while I find that some evolve as I work on them. As the end of this project comes into view, I’ve decided not to install the drawer that Chris included in the original design, at least not initially. While the drawer looks attractive, I want to live with the desk for a while before I start screwing drawer runners to the underside of the table top. Also, I have in mind that rather than a single drawer, I might build a small freestanding chest of drawers to sit on the floor under the table top, which would offer more storage space and possibly give somewhere to sit a scanner/ printer on top of. The stock I cut for the drawer and runners will not be wasted, as these can be used for the drawer unit when I come to build that. This, I think, goes to the real versatility of the designs in the Anarchist’s Design Book – they provide a set of building blocks and solid techniques which can then be easily adapted to suit a particular user’s needs.

 

Drilling down – mortising the staked work table

Although my workshop is very much hand work focused, there are a couple of machines I use, and enjoy using. The drill press is one of them. I started out, nearly a decade ago, with a bench top drill press that was fine for grunt work but exhibited too much run-out for precision drilling. So towards the tail end of last year I finally upgraded to a new Jet floor standing model, which has sufficient capacity and accuracy to last me decades. The impetus for making the upgrade was the need to drill 2″ mortises through the battens of the staked work table to accept the leg tenons.

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The banjo jig is my platonic ideal of a workshop appliance – dirt simple and effective

Because the mortises are drilled at an angle simply securing the battens to the drill press table will not work. And so I built the “banjo” jig Chris writes about in the Anarchist’s Design Book. Nothing fancy – just two large squares of 3/4″ ply with a pair of cheap hinges at one end to provide a pivot point. But simple is how I like my jigs, and “banjo” will provide solid service for many tables, chairs and angled holes for years to come.

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Cutting guide wedges with the Bad Axe Bayonet

To establish the correct angle for the jig, and to ensure repeatability of setting, I cut two 16 degree wedges out of some scrap pine. In doing so, I was reminded just how blindingly accurate the Bad Axe Bayonet saw is – both wedges were bang on on the right angle straight off the saw, no fettling needed. I’ve said it before, but there is some serious alchemy in this saw. Inserting the wedges between the leaves of the jig held the top leaf at exactly the right angle for the leg mortise. If I come to drill mortises using different resultant angles, then it will be easy enough to cut wedges to match.

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The wedges help to set the correct angle for the banjo jig

To locate the batten on the jig, I chucked a fine brad point drill in the drill, and positioned the batten by eye so that the sight line lined up with the centre of the drill press. After loosely clamping the batten in place, I then tested the location by lowering the drill bit to the work piece. What I wanted to see was the tip of the drill bit following the sight line until it hit the centre point of the mortise. Gently tapping the batten with a mallet made very controlled adjustments until everything was lined up.

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Game time!

With the wedges cut, the jig clamped to the drill press table, and the batten clamped to the jig, it was game time. Drilling the mortises is straight forward, providing you take care to get the batten in exactly the right position, and are sensible about how fast you try to drill out the 2″ mortises. My own observations are as follows:

  • 3/4″ plywood loves to vibrate. Bracing the workpiece with a suitable piece of scrap between the leaves of the jig and directly under where the mortise will be drilled, is essential. This will increase the stability of the jig and stop the top leaf from wobbling about when the drill bit engages. The wedges set the angle, a larger brace keeps things stable.
  • Go slow. Even with a powerful drill press, drilling a 2″ mortise in hard maple is a tough job. Set the drill speed to as slow as you can, and take very small nibbles with the bit, backing off regularly.
  • Clamp everything. If the batten, or the jig slips, you’re going to have a lot of clean up work to the batten, and centring the batten in exactly the right position may not be that easy
  • Keep your quill and chuck spotlessly clean. Because the mortise is drilled at an angle to the work piece, for the first part of the chuck’s travel the bit will only be engaging on ine sid. Drilling a large (2″) angled mortise with a forstner bit if there is even the tiniest spot of dirt or grease on the quill will result in the chuck, and bit, wobbling when you start to make the cut, and taking to the air shortly thereafter. Ask me how I know this. Cleaning the quill and interior of the chuck will keep everything working as it should, and avoid airborne machinery. In fairness, I had wiped down the quill and chuck when I first assembled the drill press, and it has worked flawlessly on other tasks. After quickly wiping down the quill and interior of the chuck, the drill press cut the mortises without any complaint. But a good lesson is always worth learning.

All of the preparation and fussing over the set up paid off, and drilling the mortises was very straight forward. My favourite method to bore holes is still with my 1923 North Bros. brace, but on a hole of this diameter the drill press jis definitely more practical. I still need to sharpen the 2″ t-augur that arrived in November, and once I have done to I will have some experiments to see how easy it is to drill the same mortise by hand.

With the mortises drilled, it was then a matter of gluing up the leg assemblies. But for that, you will have to wait for the next post.

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One leg assembly glued up and wedged

On monster dovetails, and embracing the fear

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Setting the depth of cut with blue tape and a small combination square

The staked work table build is pretty straight forward, and on the whole very enjoyable. I mean, if you can’t enjoy octagonalisation that means you’re already dead inside, right? But the one stage of the build which has given me the fear is cutting the sockets for the dovetailed battens. Although the task itself is not that complicated, it really is a one shot deal, with very little opportunity to remedy any errors. The sockets need to match the profile of the battens, and a tight fit is necessary to restrain any seasonal movement of the top. Because the sockets run the full width of the top, any gaps at the front of the table will be extremely noticeable. It is probably no surprise that the opportunity to ruin the top was something that loomed large in my mind when I stepped up to the bench to start cutting.

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My off-hand keeps the saw cutting against the side of the batten

When cutting the sockets you use the battens to guide the saw, and providing you make the cuts with care, this method should ensure that the socket matches the profile of the battens. I had originally made the battens over length by a couple of inches, and I decided to leave them at this length when cutting the first wall of each socket as this would provide a greater surface area for the saw to register against. As the front end of each batten was square, I was able to clamb the battens in place flush with the front edge of the table top, making sure that they were parallel to the ends of the top. I decided to cut the innermost edge of the sockets first, although there is no real difference in which side you cut first – the main thing is to be consistent as this helps to avoid mistakes.

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When the blue tape hits the surface of the table, stop cutting

As I’ve written about before, I have a (ahem) healthy nest of saws. I spent some time considering which saw would be most appropriate for these cuts, and decided to go with the Roubo Beast Master by Bad Axe Tool Works. Although my Beast Master is filled rip (and this is a crosscut operation), it had a number of significan attributes which I wanted for cutting the sockets (and not just because Mark promises it cures baldness). The robust saw plate meant that the saw would be able to withstand being pushed across 24″ of hard maple without suffering undue strain, and would hug the batten so as to cut the right slope angle. Finally, the 5″ depth of plate under the saw back means that the handle would not foul on the batten, as would happen with a shallower saw.

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The Beast Master leaves a crisp kerf

 

So, with my saw selected and the battens clamped in place, it was time to be brave and start slicing up the table top I’d spent previous weeks preparing. When making the cut, my off-hand pressed the saw plate into the batten just above the toothline, while I pushed the saw forward with the open palm of my on-hand in order to avoid tilting the saw or twisting it away from the batten, only wrapping my fingers around the handle to pull the saw back for the next stroke. Once the kerf was established, the saw cut down to depth smoothly and rapidly, and there was minimal chipping out on the exist side of the cut despite using a rip saw (all of the cuts were made from the front edge of the table towards the rear edge so that any chipping out would be on the back edge). I marked the depth of cut on the saw plate with blue painter’s tape, and once the tape hit the surface of the table I stopped cutting. The Beast Master left a crisp and clean kerf across the table.

 

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Trimming the battens to length

Because the battens are angled, determining the location of the second side of the socket takes a bit of lateral thinking, and Chris covers this very clearly in the book. I cut the battens to length using a 16″ hybrid filed Bad Axe tenon saw, and used the offcuts to mark off the second side of each socket, allowing for the set of the Beast Master. The process for the second cut was the very much the same as the first, following which I put the battens aside while I cleaned out the waste. I hogged out the majority of the waste with a 3/4″ chisel and mallet, working from both ends into the middle of the table to avoid spelching. Once I was close to the bottom of the saw kerfs, I switched to a large router plane to clean up the bottom of the socket.

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A chisel and mallet makes short work of cleasring out the socket

With the sockets cleaned up, it was time for the moment of truth, and I fitted the battens using a 1lb lump hammer to drive them in. The fit was good and tight without being too much of a squeeze, and with no real gaps at the front edges, which is exactly what I was looking for. As a final step, I took two fine shavings from the middle of each side of both battens, just to ease the fit a little bit (but without reducing the efficacy of the batten).

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Test fitting the batten.

It’s the End of the Year as We Know it (And I Feel Fine)

And another year draws to a close – as I write this there are a mere 75 minutes left of 2017. I’m really not sure where the year has gone, every year passes faster than the last, and even more so since the Apprentice arrived. Where did the year go? At my workbench (mainly working on the Policeman’s Boot Bench), and in Iowa, and at Cressing Temple. Those, I think, are the enduring mental images of 2017 – the virtual community turned into real connections with living breathing people. Good friends met, stories exchanged, and projects completed.

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End of Handworks dinner, Amana. Good people, good conversation, good memories.

Of course, the most important element of any end-of year reflection has nothing to do with woodwork. The traditonal end of year mix cd, and list of the top albums, has been a part of my December reflections since I was a teenager. These are the albums that have soundtracked hours logged at the workbench, and songs which have accompanied me as I build. This year has continued the dominance Bloodshot Records hold over my listening habits (seriously, everything they release is golden, and very much deserving of your listening time). So, in time honoured tradition, here is my top five favourite albums of 2017 (in order):

  1. Sidelong – Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
  2. Boy in a Well – The Yawpers
  3. In Spades – Afghan Whigs
  4. Prisoner – Ryan Adams
  5. Folksinger Vol.2 – Willie Watson

The Year That Was

2017 proved to be another rewarding year with plenty of opportunities to challenge myself and to progress as a woodworker. Although my output this year has only been 1 and a half projects (the Policeman’s Boot Bench, and the staked worktable) there has been plenty to learn. One of my goals this year has been to try and slow down my work pace in order to focus on execution rather than speed of a build. As I’m sure is familiar to anyone who has limited opportunities to be at their bench, over the past couple of years I have had to fight the temptation to rush work so as to complete a particular operation in one workshop session. This year I decided to try and live by the maxim slow down, its faster and ignore the ticking clock. It has paid off, and focusing on the execution of each technique has been very beneficial.

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Photo by Gareth Partington Photography

2017 was also the year when I delivered my first paying furniture commission. At times, working on the Policeman’s Boot Bench felt like wading through bottomless self doubt (can I make this to the standard the client expects? Will he be satisfied with the end product? What happens if he hates it?). All emotions which keep us honest and striving towards our best work. And you know something? While the boot bench is not perfect, the client’s response when seeing the completed piece made those moments of agony all worthwhile. That first commission was a big step, and I am looking forward to making more pieces to order.

The blog readership continued to increase steadily, and I am constantly grateful to everyone who takes the time to read these posts, and to those who leave comments. For a first on the blog, I was honoured to welcome Nancy Hiller as a guest writer for a thought provoking piece on utility dovetailsFurniture & Cabinetmaking also published nine of my articles, including my first detailed project article.

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This ridiculous photo sums up the defining vibe of 2017 – community.

But the truly special thing about 2017 was the opportunity to connect with the wider woodworking community in person, first at Handworks and then at the final European Woodworking Show. It was wonderful to see so many old friends again, and to meet new friends for the first time. Community has been a really important part of woodwork for me over the past three years, and both events really demonstrated how vibrant and inclusive our community is. I am very much looking forward to travelling and spending more time with other woodworkers in 2018 and beyond.

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The Year That Will Be

So what does 2018 have in store? I should know by now not to predict too much what will cross my workbench in the year ahead because unexpected opportunities and projects always arise. But I just can’t seem to help myself.

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The main focus at my bench is going to be completing the suite of office furniture I started this autumn. The staked worktable is getting close o being completed, and I have the matching chair and bookcase (all out of the Anarchist’s Design Book) to build so that my study/music room is fully furnished and I can decant the last two boxes of research materials onto shelves. I also have a project for Popular Woodworking which I am working on, and finally a different twist on the boot bench design for Dr Moss. There will also be more articles in Furniture & Cabinetmaking. So plenty to keep me occupied.

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Welsh Stick Chair in yew, by John Brown

In terms of developments away from the workbench, I am lining up some classes on interesting woodworking topics which I hope to be able to announce in 2018 for a 2019 registration – stay tuned for more details. There is also much to do on the Life and Work of John Brown. Chris Williams and I will be locking ourselves away in February to work on the chairmaking section of the book, an element of work that I am truly looking forward to.

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The maker’s mark after a coat of shellac and dab of black wax

And so, with only 14 minutes left of 2017, thank you dear reader, for following along this year. Wishing everyone a bright start to 2018, I hope you’ll continue to take the journey with me.

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Ending 2017 on a cliff hanger – how did cutting the monster dovetails in the staked work table top go? You’ll have to tune in next year to find out…

This just tops it all… part 3

The top of the staked worktable is now flattened and down to final dimension. Which means that all I need to do now is give the underside a final dressing and then cut the joinery.

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Vesper square and Sterling rule teaming up for accuracy and extended reach

At the end of my last session of working on the top I felt like there was still a great deal of work to get the top flattened. So to make the task at hand feel achievable (and really, it was very achievable) when I went into the workshop yesterday morning I decided to dimension the top before I finished off the flattening. Bringing the top down to final width and length did not remove much excess material, but it certainly put the rest of the flattening into perspective. To start off, I jointed one edge with the No8, to establish a reference edge for the rest of the dimensioning. As the majority of the top was flat at this point I had enough of a reference face to ensure that the edge was square and true. Jointing this edge did not take very long, and I then used it to lay out the right hand end of the top.

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Shooting the ends square with the Lie-Nielsen No.51

Working on a top of this size requires a slightly different approach to some common workshop tasks. A Vesper 10″ square acts as a master square in my workshop, and while a 10″ length is as big as I need in day to day work, it did not extend far enough onto the table top. I didn’t want to sacrifice the accuracy of the Vesper, so instead I ganged it with a 24″ rule by Sterling Tool Works. The Vesper gave me a near absolute square layout line (deviation of no more than +/-0.058mm over 150mm!) which the Sterling rule then followed to extend my layout line along the full width of the table top. Striking the layout line with a sharp marking knife left a crisp, square, end to hit.

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Two clamps secured to the back edge of the bench stopped the table top slipping from between the bench dogs

My go-to combination for shooting boards square is the Lie-Nielsen No.51 on an Evenfall Studio wide shooting board, but even the wide shooting board did not have capacity for the 24″ wide table top as currently set up. I quickly removed the fence and the chute sides from the shooting board, allowing the table top end to be placed on it while allowing sufficient support for the plane. I lined up the knife line of the end with the side of the chute, and then planed the end deadnuts square. With one end square I was able to measure off the length of the table top and strike a layout line for the opposite end, using the same technique. There was more waste than I really wanted to plane off, so I quickly cross-cut the excess off with my Skelton cross-cut saw before sneaking up on the line with the No.51.

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The Clifton No.5 made short work of flattening the rest of the table top

With both ends and one edge finalised, the top was looking manageable even though not much material had been removed (the wonders of psychology!), and setting the freshly sharpened jack plane to a rank cut, the final flattening did not take much time at all. After flattening the top with traversing cuts, I moved to a diagonal cut with the No.8, until the top was close to flat, before finishing up by working along the grain with the No.8. After the frustrations of taking a heavy traversing cut last weekend, I moved the bench away from the wall and filled the gap with several large storage boxes in which I keep my grandfather’s old tools. This improved matters significantly, although the bench dogs I was using to secure the top in place did not have enough holding power (I don’t like to overtighten them as it causes the workpiece to bend), and the top occasionally slid out of their grip. Two clamps fixed to the back edge of the bench stopped any lateral movement, and planing the top progressed noticeably quicker than my previous session. I am definitely working at the limits of the Sjoberg bench, and following my frustrations over the past 12 months, as well as Ethan’s welcome encouragement, the Roubo build has moved substantially up my project list. I spoke to a sawyer this week who assures me he can obtain a 5″x24″x96″ oak slab for the bench top (dimensions which most timber yards struggle to supply). I’m waiting for a price, following which, Roubo will well and truly be coming. With the Sjoberg fighting me every step of the way when flattening the table top, I can definitely see the attraction of a toothed planing stop and doe’s foot for hand work.

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Maple on maple. The Hamilton Woodworks panel gauge works smoothly even at full extension.

Dressing the table top revealed some unexpected curl on two of the boards, which will be very attractive once I’ve applied a gentle finish. There are a couple of isolated spots of tearout, but I am inclined to leave cleaning those up until the table is assembled, as these can be removed with either a smoothing plane or a cabinet scraper along with any other surface wear that can accumulate during assembly. The overall thickness has come out at 13/16″ (22mm) which given the strength of maple, should be plenty thick enough for normal use. Finally, I marked off the final width of the top with a panel gauge, and jointed that edge with the No.8 plane.

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Lovely figure, and tight joints, on the table top

This just tops it all… part 2

Everything you make is practice for the next thing you make. And every time you practice a technique, or carry out an operation on a project, is practice for the next time you use that particular technique. I was reminded this as I started to flatten the top of the staked desk yesterday. Although the top is the largest piece I’ve flattened by hand, the techniques are exactly the same as I practiced on the Joiner & Cabinet Maker projects last summer, and the Policeman’s Boot Bench earlier this year. All that is different is the amount of time, and the patience, required when flattening a 52″ x 24″ top rather than a 15″ x 9″ panel for a School Box (or a 40′ x 13″ shelf for the Boot Bench). Ultimately it just boils down to traversing cuts, then a 45 degree skew across the piece, and finishing by working along the grain. Just those simple three steps, repeated on a larger scale.The important thing is to remember the core techniques, and not to get overawed by the scale of the piece.

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Cleaning up the top shows good tight joints

When I started work on the desk the thought of flattening such a large piece as the top didn’t bother me at all – I’ve flattened enough timber by hand over the past couple of years to make this second nature. What I did feel a little nervous about was jointing up the top – at 54″ long in the rough, these were the longest edge joints I’ve planed. As it turns out, the joints weren’t as difficult as I had anticipated, and cleaning up the show face of the desk top revealed two tight and gap-free joints, a success I attribute to all of the long edges I planed up for the Policeman’s Boot Bench (there were a lot of long panels that needed square and true edges on that build).

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The underside before flattening. This is a big old surface to work, but the techniques are essentially the same.

Checking the desk top with a straight edge revealed that while most of the top wouldn’t need much cleaning up, the board at the back of the top had cupped after glue up, resulting in the show face falling off by over 2mm (0.7874″ – don’t ask me what this is as a fraction). My first reaction was to rip that board off the top, re-flatten, and then joint back on. This would avoid removing too much material from the top overall, but would stall progress on the desk for a while. After considering my options, and checking the thickness of the top in multiple areas, I decided that I would be able to flatten the top without needing to rip the problem board off – I left the boards at just under an inch thick, so even taking into account the fall-off at the back edge, I still have enough material to make a viable desk top. The top is also currently overwidth, so if I remove the excess entirely from the cupped board that will remove the lowest edge and mitigate the worst of the cupping. Traversing the boards with a jack plane flattened most of the top quickly, and I then marked where the low area started with a pencil and straight edge. Cross hatching the low areas gives a quick visual indication of my progress.

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The familiar feathery texture of traversing shavings

Once the majority of the top was flat, with only a couple of inches of width in the low spot remaining on the back edge, I flipped the top over to flatten the underside. The jack plane made short work of flattening this face, and I’m going to leave the traversing marks on that surface – there’s no need to smooth the underside and the scalloped texture will remind me of the handwork that went into this desk when I am writing at it in years to come. I then moved back to the top surface, planing at a 45 degree angle to the grain with the jointer. This approach removes material easily but reduces the risk of tearout compared to traversing at 90 degrees to the grain, which means less clean up once the top is flattened.

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Flattening the underside with the No.5 jack plane

 

All of this is pretty straight forward, and in fact the hardest thing was my bench fought me most of the way. While the Sjoberg bench was a very good initial bench when I bought it, and perfectly fine for lutherie work, it is simply too lightweight for processing stock by hand. I moved it against a wall in January of this year in an attempt to stop it skittering  around the ‘shop, which has worked to some extent. But for this operation I had to move it back from the wall so that I could traverse the 24″ wide top (which is the same width as the workbench). To hold the bench in place,  I ended hooking my left foot over the lower rail in order to pull the bench towards me as I plane forwards. These workshop aerobics have me dreaming once again of a stout and stable Roubo bench, so now might be the time to call a couple of sawyers and see if anyone can cut me a 24″ wide, 5″ thick oak slab. Roubo is coming.

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The jointer plane keeps everything flat and coplanar. The crpsshatching identifies the low spots.

I didn’t quite have the time to finish flattening the top this weekend (with all the snow I had to assist the Apprentice with snowman building) but that break has given me the opportunity to take stock of progress and decide the best next steps. So, next up I will bring the top to final width and length, including squaring up the ends, all of which will help to reduce the amount of flattening necessary.