Rehabbing a Millers Falls No. 9 Smoother-And comparing it to my trusted Stanley No. 4

You’d think that Kay’s cooking would be enough to land her the title of “Life-long Friend.” And you’d be right. Her Thanksgiving spreads are legendary in our social circle. But then she shows up one day with a nice Millers Falls No. 9 smoother from an estate sale. In my book, that earned her a hefty deposit into her Karma account…plus my beaming and grateful smile.

But this is the real world and I’m a woodworker addicted to vintage hand tools. So what was Kay’s reward when her back was turned to chat with my lady? My tip-toed retreat to the shop to inspect my loot. She took it well. I’ll make it up to her. That’s what friends do.

“Estate-fresh” from the previous owner’s garage
Here’s my prize as-found.

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A straight-edge confirmed that the sole was pretty flat with no wind or obvious issues. For the second time in five minutes, I smiled broadly. “Not bad at all.”

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I’m a marketer by trade (copywriter.) So I appreciate Millers Falls’ approach to differentiating their products in what was a crowded marketplace at the time. Take the lever cap. The recessed lettering proclaiming “Millers Falls” on it was a great start. So was emblazoning their brand name in bright red letters—though my example lacks that eye-catching detail. Which makes it a Type 3 made around 1941—1949 according to Old Tool Heaven’s type study.    

Inspecting my 65-year-old plane
Overall, I was impressed. Let’s see…some surface rust on the sides and sole.

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Add to that some minor pitting in insignificant areas.

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After a minute or so, I got the inkling that this plane hasn’t seen much use. Why? For one, the blade is at full length and had but one minor nick in the edge. The back was untouched, showing prominent machine marks from the day it left the factory. The bevel wasn’t polished either. That alone doesn’t prove the plane was hardly used, the blade could have been a replacement. But it’s what I saw next that clinched it in my mind.

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When I first inspected the cap-iron and iron assembly something struck me as queer.

 Then it hit me. The chip breaker was affixed backwards to the iron, with the bevel up rather than down. ***shudder**** I can only image how crappy the plane performed with that setup. I’ll bet the owner cursed it too. I can just hear him saying, “I must have bought a lemon. This thing doesn’t work worth a damn!” And so it sat around his shop unused for the next 65 years, preserving its excellent condition before making its way to me. Thank you kind sir!

Rehabbing
The jiggered iron assembly aside, the overall condition of the plane is excellent. The japanning sits at about 98% and the plating on the cap iron and chip breaker is 99%. The stained hardwood knob and tote are in great shape too, so I let these be. The brass adjuster knob got a basic polishing while the knob/tote retaining nuts kept their patina. With the cosmetic bases covered, it was time to focus on making this a good user.

 By definition, a smoother needs to have a very flat sole. So to identify potential low spots, I marked it up.

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After a few strokes on a granite plate, I discovered a slight hollow spot in front of the mouth as well as a deeper one on the left heal portion of the sole.

Five more minutes of lapping—checking—lapping on 150 grit paper was all the flattening it needed. The edges show a few remaining low spots, but nothing to get worked up over. In fact, they will help prevent catching an edge in use.

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After progressing through 220, 320 and 400 grits I had this.

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Next, I sanded the sides. I did not sand them square to the sole because that would have taken far too much material off. Plus, I won’t be using this plane for shooting so there was no need to do it. I simply sanded the rust off free-hand using the same grits as the sole.

Here are the after shots.

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The iron had a nick in the middle of the cutting edge which took a minute at the grinding wheel to remove. After that I reestablished a 25 degree bevel using my Veritas honing guide and polished it to a mirror finish using the scary sharp method. The back was also lapped to a mirror finish followed by a few strokes on a naked leather strop. That was sufficient to shave hair off my arm.

How does it measure up to a Stanley smoother?
I’ll be honest. I was so eager to compare this baby to my trusted Stanley Type 11 that before I did any of the sole lapping described above, I sharpened the iron. Then I plopped it in to give it a test run.

Hmmm. It was not good. And a few minutes of playing with it didn’t help any. I didn’t want to give up on it just yet so I finished my tuning activities and dropped the iron back in.

What a difference lapping the sole made. And closing up the mouth (duh!) to 1/32 of an inch. How did I miss that before? The mouth was set to 1/8” wide—yet another indicator that the previous owner didn’t know how to properly adjust his plane.

Now that the plane is properly tuned and set up it takes some very nice shavings.

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And it leaves a near-mirror finish, though it’s difficult to see that in this picture.

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It feels as comfortable to use as my Stanley No. 4, Type 11. And even though their date of manufacture is separated by about 25 years, there are a lot of similarities.

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There are several differences too. For example, the Stanley side walls are thicker than those of the Millers Falls (MF.)

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The MF’s lateral adjustment lever is much looser than the Stanley, though this doesn’t seem to affect performance. The MF’s depth adjustment feels like it has less back lash than the Stanley and it is easier to dial in the desired shaving thickness.

Based on my experience, I’d have to give the MF’s No. 9 the nod over my Stanley #4. Despite hours of fettling, I’ve never been able to get my Stanley to perform to my satisfaction. Compare that to an hour of tuning with the MF smoother which resulted in nice, fluffy shavings floating over the chip breaker.

It’s a good thing too. Because that leaves me more time to tune up my friendship skills. So the next time Kay comes over, I can practice being the attentive friend she deserves. I think I’ll start by asking, “What would you like to drink?” Yes. Marketing friendship with liquor is always a good start.

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Drill press table drawer organizer

If your shop is anything like mine, it slowly accumulates tools and accessories. Take my drill press for example. After completing a drill press table to be woodworking friendly, it needed two stops and two hold-downs to secure stock.

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At first, I kept all four items on the table but found that I was removing two or three of them to complete a drilling operation. An endless cycle of remove 1, 2, 3 accessories, conduct the boring then replace all the pieces. What a waste of time.

In addition to the table accoutrements, there’s the multitude of drill press accessories that need a home.
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Drum sanders, matching inserts and replacement inserts; not to mention overly long bits.

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So after removing/adding table accessories for the thousandth time I decided to build an under-table drawer. In theory, it would provide a convenient home for many of my accessories and replace the remove-most-everything-then-replace-it cycle with, add-only-what-you need convenience. And it would reduce some clutter by getting accessories out of site.

Fueled by those hopes, I picked a wide pine board from my stash and built a U-shaped carcass to accept the drawer.

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The overall dimensions are 6 ½” wide by 13” long by 4 ½” high. I used simple butt joints secured by glue and wood screws.
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This I affixed under the table by driving screws from above. I inset the carcass so that the drawer front plus the pull were a hair recessed from the front lip of the table.

For the drawer, I used butt joints as well.

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And I fashioned a drawer pull out of walnut. In fact, I used a piece of left over “pull” stock from the computer monitor pedestal project I recently completed.

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After that, I lined the ¼” plywood bottom with rubbery shelf liner, and loaded up some accessories.

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The pine I used came from my boyhood home, and I think it was originally harvested in the 1970s. So after a coat of tung oil, the grain took on a pleasing appearance.

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So far, it’s performing as I had hoped. It keeps the accessories I use most close at hand and has reduced clutter in my shop.

So if your drill press area looks like an accessory bomb went off, propelling accoutrement fragments all over the place, you may wish to add a drawer to help clean things up a bit.

Happy boring brothers and sisters!

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Shop-made Cutting Gauge-Hamilton Style

If you’re like me, you picked up a vintage marking gauge at some point in your woodworking life only to tear the wood fibers with the pin head. Maybe, like me, you did some research on refining the pin…then filed it to the shape of a half-moon profile. That worked ok but the tool still didn’t leave a clean cut.

Frustrating though that was, I back-burnered the problem. Then one day, I came across an article by Ian Kirby detailing the concept of a cutting gauge. That’s simply a marking gauge that uses a blade to mark the wood instead of a pin.

I was intrigued enough by the concept to sacrifice a saber saw blade to create a rounded tip blade for a cutting gauge prototype. Properly shaped, filed and sharpened, my tests showed that the blade works exceptionally well with cross-grain lines. It makes a fine, clear and crisp line by cutting the wood fibers versus tearing them.

The project percolated for a few weeks when one day, over a cup of steaming coffee, this project on Lumberjocks made me perk up.

“That’s the ticket,” I thought. “It has an elegant look to it.” Hell. Let’s be honest. The brass bling attracted me to it like a large-mouth bass to a squirming worm. My research revealed that the design is by http://www.hamiltontools.com. So I scribbled out a design and resolved to build it.

In retrospect, it was an act of faith to choose some walnut I had lying around. That’s because I had no idea which techniques to use for all the fine work that needed to be done.

My pencil doodles settled on a fence that is 3” wide by ¾” thick. That just “felt” right. The beam is 5” long because any shorter or longer didn’t look right. I shaped the tip of a saber saw blade so that it was round, then put a bevel on it, flattened the back and polished the bevel.

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I used 1/8” thick brass for the fence wear strip as well as the blade-retaining plate. I drilled pilot holes in the beam end to retain the blade, then “broke them in” by using a steel screw to create the threads in the wood. Those I hardened with CA, followed by brass screws to maintain the bling motif.
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Rockler had the knurled knob (1/4” x 20 x 1”) and matching knob-thread insert to provide the means to secure the beam to the fence.

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The brass-appointed cutting gauge turned out like this.

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While I’m not enamored with the “wing” design on the fence—it feels awkward to hold—the design works very well in practice. I used it to mark dovetail baselines in a wedding box I built for a friend.

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It’s a joy to use and it performs as advertised on cross-grain markings. And while I’ll keep my modified marking gauges for with-grain lines, my new walnut & brass addition will be my go-to cross-grain tool.

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Wine, women and woodworking…a well-travelled life

When I was a wee lad of four, my civil-engineering dad’s work took us to live in Puerto Rico. By the time we left, at age six, I took with me my (now long gone) vintage GI Joe and a fluency in Puerto Rican street Spanish. I’ve come to realize that I also brought home a love of travel. The never-ending wonder of new places, new people, new customs, new foods, new vistas and climates gives me a rush to this very day.

And so it was on a recent wine tasting trip to Walla Walla, Washington, a region that has earned international viniculture renown.

One of the best parts of wine tasting trips is that it allows me to get the most out of my vacations. Away from the rigors and demands of work, I can freely pursue many of my passions unfettered. Things like tasting new dishes by creative chefs…

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Wood-fired oven-roasted asparagus in olive-oil topped with a poached egg, salt and pepper.

…communing with nature on sea-side runs in the environs of Seattle…

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…snapping artsy pictures…

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…and, of course, woodworking.

Just when I think that there’s absolutely nothing left in this universe for a woodworker to do with a retired wine barrel, they go and prove me wrong. Take this stool for example.

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Just look at how the artisan wove the curved staves into the design. The gentle slopes add visual interest while providing the tensile strength to safely support a reveler. The seat is cool too, the product of edge-gluing five stave fragments. In so doing, it leverages the curvature of the staves to provide an ergonomic fit to the sitter’s bottom.

I’ve always admired woodworkers that combine both form and function into their work. That’s because function—the building of a solid object out of wood complete with tight-fitting joinery—requires a large measure of left-brain planning and execution. By contrast, the rendering of a pleasing form draws upon right-brain creativity and vision. When a craftsperson melds together both form and function they create a woodworking gestalt that is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts.

Another example of this concept is a hand-carved doorway at a business mogul’s former estate-now-turned winery.

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The detail work is splendid because the carved relief is about two inches deep. And that adds three-dimensional mass for the eye to weigh.

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Note the intricacy of the horse’s mane along with the muscular tone that brings to life the shape of the underlying sinews, muscles and tendons. The cottage relief brings to mind a ski lodge and I can all but smell the smoke drifting from the chimney.

One appointment-only tasting at Garrison Creek Cellars offered a breathtaking show of function-based woodwork. This picture from the Cellars’ Website gives an expansive view.

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The concrete floor is strewn with barrels aging vini-delicious elixir. From this base the ceiling rises about 60 feet to an arched apex. The Douglas-fir beams and slats are native to Washington State and had to be special ordered from a local miller.

The details are impressive.
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To the right, you can see the curved ceiling support beams. These are laminations of multiple layers (10?!) of boards.

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Surely, the laminated beams, along with their arched shape, provide significantly more strength and support than single beams at a parallel angle to the floor. Interestingly, the builders couldn’t keep themselves from adding some creative design elements like the finials at the bottom of some vertical support beams.

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The sheer mass and size of the room as well as the exposed roof beams inspire an architectural awe.

That’s similar to emotional experiences I’ve had standing amidst European churches and cathedrals. For a moment, upon tasting the wine-maker’s articulation of a Syrah, I was moved to fall to my knees in homage, eyes to the heavens and arms outstretched as a symbol of my gracious acceptance of such a gift. But the moment passed and I sipped the wine to mingle with a prosciutto-loaded cracker instead.

Back home, I get to enjoy still another one of my passions, writing about it all. Wine, women and woodworking. Such are the rewards of a travel-rich life.

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Your opinion matters-Tell me what you think.

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My new, old coffin smoother

Recently, I spent time with my girlfriend’s brother Bob, tasting the latest in sour bear offerings at the Crooked Stave.  After our taste buds gave out we made our way to the parking lot. But before we said our goodbyes, Bob handed me a coffin smoother. Apparently, the pastor at his church was downsizing his home and had to part with a number of woodworking tools. Bob knows I prefer using hand tools so he asked me if I wanted to give it a loving home. The Lord giveth.

Here’s what I brought home.

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Good heavens. This tool has seen a lot of mileage in the shop. If you look at the pic with an inset above, you can see a crack in the plane body. It’s suspiciously close to the wedge, which looks like this up close.

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Obviously a philistine pounded it with a stone axe. That’s probably what led to the crack…and the subsequent repair with a pin nail.

The wedge has other irregularities, such as missing side “prongs” and a bit of owner-made carving out of the material at the tip.

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That’s all wrong. It should look something a bit like this:

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 Perhaps when the wedge prongs broke off, the owner carved some of the tip off for a better fit. But to be honest, I’ve never seen a modification like this before.

A look at the sole shows a protracted, sad story of its own.

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As the area in front of the mouth wore out, a previous owner installed an inset piece of mahogany to close up the mouth. Either he didn’t do a very good job, or the plane’s sole has worn considerably since the inset was installed because the mouth shows a performance-damning ¼” opening. That’s about four times what the opening should be for very fine work.

What’s really interesting is that the owner used pin nails to affix the inset to the body. And that’s a sin because the size of this plane—8” long with a 2 3/16” blade—suggests to me that it was used as a smoothing plane. And the last thing one of God’s children wants is for his pin-nails to mar the wood whose very surface he’s trying to make mirror smooth. Still, it must not have affected the tool’s performance much because the tops of the nails show signs of heavy wear.

This plane’s wear and damage remind me of Moses’ escape from Egypt across an unforgiving desert. In fact, the body is so worn that the front of the sole is a fraction of a cubit—that’s 9/16 of an inch—shorter than the rear.

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That suggests to me that the user should have spent more time in the confessional, rather than working out his feelings of guilt by applying unneeded downward pressure on the front of the plane during use.

Surprisingly, the sole was perfectly flat as measured from side to side.

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Still, it’s a wonder that its owner(s) kept using it for all those years rather than crafting a new body to house the iron. But obviously, he/they had an attachment to it. Plus, there’s the whole “Waste not, want not,” angle to consider too.

Who made it?
My initial once-over in search of a maker’s mark didn’t turn up anything. However, the plane iron did have a rather conspicuous maker’s mark.

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 Now that looks a lot like the logo featured in this biography of W. Butcher.

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From the article, I concluded that the plane iron was manufactured in the years of our Lord c. 1822-1826, making it at least 187 years old. It was during that time that W. Butcher used only his name on his tools from what I can tell. Later, he added partners—and their names—to his business and future products.

Since I wasn’t able to find a plane maker’s mark on the toe of the tool initially, I thought that I had a craftsman-made plane. Meaning that a woodworker built the tool himself rather than buying it. And that’s a perfectly logical conclusion to come to considering that God helps those who help themselves. But then, when I was preparing pictures of the toe for this post, I made out the faint etchings of a maker’s name.

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 E. F. KRAFT & Co. of ST. LOUIS. That’s a new name to me and my search through the archives of a local monastery failed to turn up any history for them.

About the same time I made out the maker’s marks, I also spied an owner’s mark. “W WOAKS”

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Owner’s marks are very common on wooden planes and no wonder. The tool fetched good money back in the day and their owners didn’t want them “wondering off.” This is clear evidence that not everyone obeyed the 10 commandments in the 19th century like we all do today.

WOAKS is the only owner’s mark I could find, which suggests to me that this plane stayed among their progeny through many entries of marriages and births in the family bible. By the time it found its way into the pastor’s hands, it was no longer necessary to stamp initials to thwart thieves. Besides, who would risk God’s wrath by stealing from a pastor?

 To make this plane usable again would require a small miracle, not to mention a significant amount of work. Frankly, I don’t have the heart to disturb the rich patina of the beech body. So even though its working days are past, I’ll enjoy its worn history and beauty by displaying it around the house.

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I’m loving it Bob. The next beer is on me.

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Computer Monitor Pedestal for Dad

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My Dad is a civil engineer. That means he loves to build things, and, if necessary, he’s quite resourceful at crafting viable solutions. That’s my way of saying that around the house, he jury-rigs things to suit his needs.

So when I plopped down at his desk during a recent Mesa, AZ visit it came as no surprise to me to find his computer monitor sitting on two, side-by-side lengths of 2 x 4s. That’s it. No joining, no equal board length, just a raggedy-looking monitor pedestal to keep the heights of his two monitors at roughly the same level.

The makeshift pedestal was functional enough. But it was an eyesore. Wood + eyesore = perfect opportunity to build a project to expand my skills.

Visions of figured burl veneers swirled in my head. “Yes,” I thought. “This is the project that I’ll finally get my veneer-cutting feet wet.” That thought died after pricing veneer. While I could stomach the price, I couldn’t stand the idea that the pieces that were affordable were small. Meaning that the grain would not have been contiguous across the top and sides. Hell. I don’t need to spend a lot of money to make a project look bad. I can do that with pine.

To flesh out a design, I took a whole gaggle of measurements: the desk cubby opening; the diameter of the monitor base; the length & width of Dad’s glasses and more. My spectical-wearing father uses lots of pencils and needs places to put both. So I included features to accommodate those needs.

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I also chose to make two small drawers to house various Dad nick nacks. My workbench storage drawer build used false fronts for the drawers. However, I didn’t make them high enough to hide the carcass frame. It was my first drawer handy work, so I let it pass. But that error begged to be corrected on this project. If only to establish the concept in my mind for future builds.

The build
I had some old (tight grain, near-knot-free) pine boards 11 inches wide to work with. From one long board I cut the top and bottom parts plus the sides.

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Since the pedestal was going to be a gift, it was only fitting that I use the Veritas skew rabbet plane Dad gave me for Christmas to rebate the top/bottom edges to accept the two sides.

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While the dry assembly felt pretty solid, I decided to fortify the carcass against the weight of the monitor with a ¼” plywood center divider. A couple of passes at the router table established the dados to accept the center support.

Top details
With the internal carcass joinery complete, it was time to finish the lid. A pass of the lid across a cove bit at the router table established the pencil well. A quick test showed that the ¼” bit made too small a groove because it took a lot of time to dig out the pencil. So to enlarge it, I set the fence back about ¼” and made a second pass.

Originally, I was going to excavate a ¼” deep eyeglass caddy, then line it with felt. However, after considering my Dad’s work habits, I left the top alone…he’ll put his glasses wherever the mood strikes him.

A dry-fit showed that everything was square and ready to accept some yellow glue on the joints with clamps to hold them in situ until the adhesive set.

The drawers
The drawer dimensions were ½” thick 1” deep by 10” long by 6” wide. With the pieces cut to rough length, I zeroed in on the final dimensions with a shooting board. This approach has served me quite well on past box projects and is a fundamental reason my glue-ups turn out square.

I would have preferred to join the drawers using half-blind dovetails. However, the ½” thick stock seemed too thin to cut my teeth on this new skill. Rabbet joints would have to do.

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To add a little eye candy, I selected cherry for the false fronts.

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Looks ok, but not an ideal match with the pine I’m thinking. To give the finished drawers a more refined air, I lined the 1/8” plywood bottoms with green felt.

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A fruitless search for drawer pulls at the local big-box store prompted me to build my own.

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To make the concave finger holds on both sides I used a number 4 round woodie that I picked up at an antique store several months ago.

The reveal
After finishing with tung oil, this is what adorned my desk.

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May Dad’s new pedestal be as pleasing to his eye as it is functional. And may his favored trinkets quickly find their new home in the green velvet fields within.

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