Monday, February 20, 2017

Remodeling The Van: Door Frames

I'll pre-apologize for the long post. Due to the subject it couldn't be helped. Fortunately there's lots of pictures to ease the way.

Got my design. Got my raw materials. Now all that's left is some shop time!!

Most woodworking projects, especially cabinet doors, require straight lumber, so when you buy S2S random-width lumber you have to true up the other sides, edges 3 and 4, of the boards to get them straight and perpendicular to the face. (Technically S4S, like what you buy at the big-box store, already has this done, but that's still no guarantee that the board will be straight and the edges square.)

In addition to squaring the edges up, wood, being a natural material, tends to do it's own thing and sometimes boards need some serious straightening too, like the one above.

Rather than turn a lot of wood into chips trying to straighten out a severely curved board like this, it often pays to cut the board into shorter lengths so there isn't quite so much curve to take out of each segment.

I cut this board into two segments about where the tape measure is sitting and had much less curve to deal with on each one.

By the way, every step of this project can be done by hand or with basic hand-held power tools, and in my younger days I've done just that, it just takes longer. Fortunately, now I have a few larger tools in the shop that speed things up, such as this jointer.

The dead-flat surfaces on each side of the blades, which are under the red blade-guard, are in plane with each other

The blades are exactly even with the left-hand surface 

and for this project I have the surface to the right set about 1/32nd of an inch below the blade level.

By passing the edge of the board, which is held exactly perpendicular to the blades by a fence, (behind the board three photos ago.) across the right-hand surface, through the spinning blades and onto the left surface a 32nd is shaved off the high spots. After a few passes there are no more high spots and the edge is squared up and straight.

With one edge prepped, now it's time to turn that wide board into the rails and stiles I need for my cabinet doors. For this project the widest point of both the rails and stiles will be 2.25". With 18 doors to build I've got a lot of lumber to turn in rails and stiles so I made a template exactly the width I needed.

I don't care how careful you are, there's always going to be some error when measuring with a tape or rule and marking with a pencil. With a template, I only have to measure once and if there is any error it will be transferred evenly to every rip-cut I make.

For this particular board I was able to get three pieces out of it with only a little waste left over.

By the time the 1" thick boards have been sided and delivered to me they are just a shade thicker than 3/4", but for this project that was still too thick.

In the confines of The Van, cabinet doors 3/4 of a inch thick would look heavy and clunky. Which kind of clashes with the sleek and craftsman look I was going for. So what I need now is to get my boards down to a half inch thick.

Cue the bandsaw!

First I pick the good side of each board, lay that side down on my table-saw which is a dead-flat cast-iron surface, lay my pencil on the top of a 1/2 inch brass setup bar and run it down the length of the board leaving a mark 1/2 inch from the good surface.

Then I take the board to the bandsaw where I set up my resawing fence, (When you slice a board to make it thinner it's called resawing the board.) a rounded hardwood surface exactly perpendicular to the saw's table and set directly opposite the cutting edge of the blade.

The face of the resawing fence is rounded so I can 'steer' the board through the blade, (Bandsaw blades tend to alter their angle of cut slightly depending on the tension and sharpness of the blade, density of the wood and how hard you're feeding the wood into the blade. 'Steering' the wood compensates for these variations.) and slice the board to near the proper thickness by following just to the waste side of my pencil-mark. (The thin piece is saved for other projects of course.)

This is about 65 linear feet of 2.25" material for rails and stiles, not quite half of the total I need for this project, so there was lots of resawing to be done!!!

And after the resawing I ran each board through the planer for a couple passes which fine-tunes the thickness to exactly 1/2 inch and removes the band-saw blade marks at the same time.

Then it's back to the table saw where I get rid of the rip fence (Because of my template I can put it right back where it belongs in a matter of seconds.) to make room for the miter fence, which is set at exactly 90 degrees. Here's where I start cutting the milled boards to length.

Since I'm cutting boards to length it seems like a good time to talk about measurements. When I was doing up the drawings I went out to The Van, a lot!, measuring each cabinet door one at a time, writing the measurements down, then remeasuring that particular door again, checking against what I wrote down to verify I got it right, then I transferred those measurements to the drawings.

When I get to the stage of the project where I'm actually cutting things I take these double-checked measurements back off the drawings, write them down, go back out to The Van and confirm one more time that I have them right by measuring the door again.

Then I measure and mark the board for each cut. But before making the cut I go back to my notebook, verify the length I need, and finally go back to the board and recheck one last time to make sure my mark is in the right spot.

After all that I finally make the cut.

Seems like a lot of checking and double-checking, but this routine is one I've developed out of self-defense after a lot of experience, and not all of it happy experience. It helps me minimize making cuts in the wrong places. Often when I pull such a bone-headed stunt I don't discover the error until near the end of the project when I'm trying to make all the pieces fit together properly and it takes a lot less time to double and triple check everything before cutting than it does to go back to the beginning and start all over again! (Which is bad for moral too!!)

OK, I've made my cuts and finally have the three stiles, the shorter pieces that will be vertical when the door is mounted in place, and the two rails.

I only cut the parts for one door at a time, again, to minimize mistakes and confusion.

Now I take and lay the parts out, checking faces and grain to make sure I have the best sides showing. I switch things around, and sometimes around and around, until I'm satisfied with the look.

For the next several steps I'm careful to only work with one piece at a time, keeping the rest laid out where they go.

Here I've turned the left-hand stile over and marked the ends of the stile, and matching ends of the rails, for the waste part of the half-lap joints I will be using to fasten them together.

Arts and Crafts pieces are known for their joinery, mortise and tenon, dove-tail, finger, etc. but with my doors being only a half inch thick there's really not enough meat in the joint for anything too fancy, so I've chosen to fall back on the tried and true half-lap.

Don't get me wrong, I actually like the craftsmanship required for building the fancy joinery, which, in the days before decent glues, were necessary to get any sort of strength and longevity out of a joint, but now days it's easy to get a long-grain to long-grain glue-bond that will last longer and is stronger than the wood around it.

Besides, I've got 96 joints to make for this project and if I get too fancy with them I'll still be working on it by the time we make our next questionable pick for President! (Oh crap! If he reads this he'll be ordering me to shut my blog down because now apparently speech is only free if he likes what you say!!)

Full half-lap joints

only require four simple cuts, two on each piece being joined. (Though I will need to take the time to clean up that inside corner on this one with a chisel in order to get a good tight fit.)

As I was saying before I interrupted myself, four simple cuts per joint.

And I even have a jig for the tablesaw that makes the two most difficult cuts easy.

That takes care of the 72 full half-laps.

The other twenty four joints, for the 12 doors that have a central stile or rail, are blind half-laps that don't go all the way through, but they are only slightly more complicated to make so no big deal.

But before I can get a proper measurement to make these blind half-lap joints I have to cut the cloud-lifts. Since I also have a lot of these to cut I made a simple template for marking them out and the jig saw makes quick work of removing the waste pieces.

I try to stay reasonably accurate here but don't obsess over it because it is, after all, a hand-made piece. Which is why I have to get this step done before cutting and fitting the blind half-lap joints since no two are exactly alike and trying to cut them according to the drawings, which are computer-rendering accurate, is a sure way to a mess.

With all the joints cut it's finally time for assembly. One good thing about using half-lap joints is that the waste left over from cutting the joint automatically makes great clamping blocks,

So the good news is, the small thin squares, when placed between the clamp and the frame, prevent the clamps from marring what will ultimately be finished surfaces. The bad news is that they more than triple the number of separate pieces I'm trying to control during final assembly, all with only two hands, which can be quite the Chinese fire-drill!

I've done one hell of a lot of gluing over the years and have developed my own method for applying it that works pretty well for me.

I lay a bead of glue on one surface of the joint then use my finger to spread it evenly, and thinly, (More is not better!) over the entire surface. It's a bit messy but nothing I've tried is as simple, accurate, quick and just plain handy, as a finger. I then take the excess glue that's on my finger and wet down the mating surface of the joint. I'm not spreading a layer of glue at this point, just pre-wetting the grain so glue will penetrate well when the joint is clamped.

By the way, spreading the glue like this is not just an affectation. Years ago testing by one of the woodworking magazines showed that just squishing a bead of glue between mating surfaces, one of the more popular gluing methods, makes for a joint noticeably weaker than when the glue is spread out first.

The trick here is to get just enough glue laid down for a tiny bit of squeeze-out all the way around when the joint is clamped. The squeeze-out ensures I've got good glue coverage but any more than the tiniest bit is just that much more that has to be cleaned up.

Just how much glue is enough but not too much depends on several variables, including the weather. (No, seriously! Like when adding water to cement, varying humidity levels will change the amount needed.) Experience is the only way to get this just right, in the mean-time I have damp (not wet because too much water migrating into the joint will weaken the glue-bond!) rags handy because believe me, you do not want to leave gobs and smears of excess glue to cure on exposed surfaces because even after vigorous sanding it will still show through a clear finish, especially if you're using a dark stain first.

When clamping my goal is to draw the surfaces firmly and evenly together in all directions, but not gorilla the damn thing which could squeeze out so much glue the joint is weak, not to mention distort the wood, creating a built in twist.

Finally it's starting to look like a cabinet door!! Though that photo above might remind some less of a cabinet door and more of a survivor of a major skiing accident laying in intensive care all bound up in a complicated and scary-looking contraption that's trying to hold them together while the drugs take hold.

After this has cured in the clamps for at least a couple hours I take a belt sander with 80 grit paper to even up any irregularity in the faces of the joints, then an orbital sander with 60 grit followed by 100 grit to remove the scratches left by the belt sander. I start with the courser 60 grit in the orbital sander because by nature belt-sanding leaves deep, linear scratches that are very noticeable and would take forever to sand out with 100 grit alone.

There's still some hand sanding to do before I'm done, but first, because the half inch thickness of the stiles and rails doesn't leave enough meat for the dado, or groove, needed for floating panels, I'm setting my panels in simple rabbets made in the backside of the doors.

Making these is pretty simple using the proper bit with either a handheld router or, as I did, on a router table.

I just have to make sure I keep things right side up when I'm doing this so the rabbet ends up on the proper side of the door!!.

By the way, so far we've been following the making of door #6, which is the upper cabinet over the driver's compartment. Since each door is custom, but several are very similar, it's important to keep track which is why the door is numbered with tape.

 But there's still a few more steps to go before I can worry about fitting a panel into the rabbet I just made.

Oak is very strong, but also hard and brittle, so the corners are sharp and prone to teeny tiny little splinters that you can feel embedded in your hands but can't see to remove, so now that the frames are getting close to completion I put my smallest round-over router bit into my trim router

and knocked off the corners, as can be seen in the bottom left of this photo. Just enough to take the edge off of them. I could have done this by sanding, and I still have some sanding to do, but this step speeds the process up a little.

Ok, I know this has been a long post and if you're still with me - well first - don't you have anything better to do?? and second, it's nearly over now.

A lot of woodworkers really dislike sanding, especially hand sanding which is how I do all my final sanding in-order to eliminate any sign of mechanical sanding. Me, I don't mind so much, which is good because there's a lot of hand sanding at this point, even though I'm only going down to 150 grit since I'm going for hand-made not that factory perfect - plastic smooth feel.

The final step of standing is to remove all the dust with a tack-rag. When I started out these were rags just barely dampened with heavily thinned varnish. Messy, expensive and prone to spontaneous combustion. Now I can go to the big-box and buy a bag of 18 microfiber towels for a few bucks that do the job even better and can be tossed in the washer with my dirty socks and reused.

My least favorite part of most projects is applying the finish, probably because I'm crap at it, but when it comes to a clear finish the lesser of all the finishing-evils for me is a hand-wiped, or ragged finish.

I really like Min-Wax Polycrylic for this. It doesn't have harsh solvents and dries crystal clear, unlike the admittedly tougher oil-based Polyurethane which takes a slight amber tint when it cures, and really stinks in the process.

Polycrylic also dries really fast! Other than the first coat, which I'll get to in a second, with the ultra-thin coats I rag on I can re-coat almost immediately.

Almost any finish, even oils, will 'raise the grain'. When this happens your carefully sanded surface suddenly feels like, well - sandpaper, all over again! And being water based, Polycrylic is really good at raising the grain, so I let the first coat cure at least 3 hours so it's good and hard when I take 400 grit sandpaper and lightly knock the grain back down again. Too much sanding at this point just exposes more raw fibers which will swell, or raise during the next coat.

Now that the wood is, sealed subsequent coats won't raise the grain much, if at all.

Oak is an open-pored wood so when I rag on a finish, especially the first coat, I make sure the rag is somewhere between damp and almost-wet to ensure plenty of finish, then I wipe it on using a circular motion with firm pressure, like I was waxing a car. This ensures I drive finish down into the pores. (I find spraying, rolling or even brushing tends to leave the finish laying on the surface, not getting down into the pores well at all.) Then, using a clean rag I try to wipe the finish right back off again with long, even strokes along the grain.

I'm going for a natural look and all I want of the finish on this project is enough protection to seal the wood and make it easy to wipe the doors down later with a damp rag to keep them clean. I certainly don't want a plastic looking and feeling buildup on my hand-made doors!

As I already mentioned, once the first coat has hardened off well I give it a light sanding with 400 grit paper to knock the grain back down then rag on two additional coats. Each one applied just like the first, as if I was waxing a car, then wiping it back off with long firm strokes of a clean rag to leave just a hint of buildup behind. This might sound counter-intuitive, trying to remove as much of the finish you just put on as you can, but believe me, there will be plenty of buildup left behind to seal and protect the wood yet not so much it doesn't look and feel natural.

I'm not sure why 3 is the magic number, but it just is. The first coat is going to get sanded to knock the grain back down so that's clearly not enough. The only way you might get away with only two coats is if the second coat is laid on heavy and very, very evenly. Heavily just doesn't feel right to me and I've never been able to achieve the necessary degree of evenness to get away with it anyway. But the third coat is like magic, giving the piece a nice even look without overdoing it. 

No matter what kind of finished look I'm going for, mat, satin, semi or gloss, I always use gloss for all but the final coat. The only difference between all these finishes is the amount of microscopic silica-type platelets that are in the mix, The platelets scatter reflected light and the more platelets in the mix the less 'glossy' the finish.

Thing is, I don't want layers of these platelets fogging up my natural finish so in this case it was two coats of gloss topped with a final coat of satin.

One last point. I made sure to cover every surface, even the ultimately hidden rabbets, with finish. Unlike the power-sucking suburban house which is climate-controlled to within a few degrees 24/7/365, the interior of The Van gets very cold, and very hot, and very dry and very humid, so I want to make sure the wood is well sealed on all surfaces to stabilize it. 

Don't get me wrong, I don't care how much finish you slap on, wood will always move and change in response to the environmental conditions, most notably the level of humidity, but a well sealed piece of wood responds to these changes slowly and evenly.

OK, that's the frame for door #6. Now I just have to rinse and repeat 17 more times for the rest of the doors! . . .

Next time, Ebony plugs, hundreds of them!

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