I made a head

In addition to being a woodworker, I'm a musician, and have been all my life. I play in bands (a couple of them with my wife, a drummer), and am a guitar player, bass player, singer. I have been the proud owner of a pretty nice and epic guitar amplifier setup, the classic Mesa Boogie Mark IV. The Mark IV is one of Mesa's "classic" amps, that is out of production. Mine is in a configuration of an amplifier head that sits atop a separate speaker cabinet (actually, two separate speaker cabinets), as opposed to a "combo" where the amplifier electronics and the speaker are all in one enclosure.

As a longtime fan of Mesa's classic amps, I'd long ago acquired a couple of their glossy sales catalogs, and in there they showed some fancy "custom" options for their amps. Instead of the standard plywood-wrapped-in-vinyl construction (like mine), you could order yours with all sorts of coverings, or hardwood, and grill patterns, etc. One configuration that looked awesome was a bubinga (or some other tropical hardwood) hardwood version with a cane grill. At the time, the standard config was great, and it served me well for the many years of using the amp.

But I'm now a woodworker, and I had the urge, and capability, to convert my beloved amp into a fancy amp.

I started this little "side" project during the Christmas lull, thinking I'd get it done in a few days. While the majority of it went pretty rapidly, ordering the hardware, waiting for that to arrive, then fiddling with installing it took longer. And the cane grille took weeks to arrive. But finally, here it is...


I started out with this gorgeous slab of walnut I picked up from my favorite urban lumber source, Horigan Urban Forest Products. It was an impulse purchase; I didn't really "need" it at the time, but I got it, and thought about uses for it later. It was an 8/4 slab, allowing me to do some nice grain wrap around after resawing it. 

My 14" bandsaw with the 6" riser block (giving me 12" resaw capacity), and a 1/2" Woodslicer blade made a great, smooth, straight cut. Never underestimate the lowly, basic 14" bandsaw: tuned up with a sharp blade, it can do great things.

The construction was basically a four sided box, with a plywood support piece in the middle, cut outs for some hardware in the bottom, and then fittings for the mounting posts, a handle, and feet. Finally, the is the front cosmetic grille. I knew that I wanted full through dovetails for the joinery. As I got underway, I realized that this piece will be a great portable piece of my woodworking that I can show to (bore) my band/music buddies at gigs. Bonus!

The only issue I ran into during the joinery was that the bottom piece was starting to run into the lighter sapwood on the front & back edge. It would have looked odd from the from to the leading edge of the bottom piece milky white. So, I ripped that piece in half, glued it together with a sapwood running a few inches from the back, resulting in the front edge that matched the color of the other other pieces. Problem solved!

I enjoyed hand cutting the dovetails, and I was relieved when they fit very well. I smoothed the joints, cut the front top edge angle, and was ready for the internal cut out and support. With the original head as a guide, I just mimicked the pieces and cut out as needed.

After test fitting the hardware and electronics, I emptied it out, and applied my finish. I sanded up to 220, and started with a coat of oil (ok, technically an oil & varnish mix, Danish oil, natural). When that had dried, I brushed multiple coats of thinned blonde shellac, sanding lightly in between coats, until I build up a nice finish. I finished that off with some dark paste wax, applied will 0000 steel wool.

I then applied the hardware, starting with the leather corners. These are for both protection and decoration, and they were attached with 3/4" wide head brass tacks. I was worried they would look too "lumpy" but I quickly got the hang of shaping the pieces, and stretching them tightly as I tacked them in.

The four mounting screw holes in the top were interesting to get together as well. Per the original design, the electronics of the head are suspended from the top by four long threaded machine screws that fit into the chassis. On the original head, there were two long "plates" with two holes each to act as "washers" and distribute the weight of the guts across the top. I thought that looked a little too crude for this implementation, so i instead found some brass finger pull/cup things, and some black rubber plumbing washers. I recessed the pulls into the top, set the washer inside, and lowered the machine screw through it, providing a bit of the "shock mount" for the chassis. This is good for the health of the power tubes: it reduces the vibration from the speaker cabinet and prolongers their life. So it looks good and works better. Nice.

Only 1/2 of the handle hardware arrived, so I put on what I could, and a few weeks later, the rest arrived with the cane grille material. Finally, its done, and I think it looks better that what I could have ordered from Mesa back in the day, if i had the money.

This was my first trial into the world of amp/cabinet modification, and as it went well, I'll be building the matching speaker cabinet in a few months. THAT's going to look great at a gig.

Here is a gallery of the build...

Still a garage sometimes

Its been a little quiet here recently. Despite having made some good progress on a few small projects (posts on those to come), and the large wardrobe project, this past December, the arctic blast has forced my shop to revert to garage mode. While the insulated shop can be quite comfortable in cold weather (If I want to pay for the heating costs), it was time to let the car back in. Hopefully I can get back to "shop" configuration in a few weeks.


Working on a large project, like my current wardrobe project, takes a lot of time. And large projects go faster when I can get large blocks of time to work on them (so, that's weekends). When I have only an hour or so here & there, I find it hard to "get into" a large project, knowing that I'll soon have to stop.

Instead, I often use that time for little detours like cleaning the shop, organizing stuff, sharpening, tool maintenance, or even little side projects. And even though I'm not making progress on anything big, I'm still having fun in my shop. Here's a few detours that I went on recently.

Saw Support

I cleverly (not) built myself only ONE saw bench a while ago. I works great, but when working on a long board, I have nothing to support the other end with - there's nothing around that is the right height. But I don't actually need a whole second saw bench, so instead, I but one of these saw support/work support/work stand things. It has two "levels"; one the height of my saw bench, and the other the height of my work bench. I used some scrap red & white oak for material, and mortise & through tenons to join it, with wedges for the bottom through tenons. I finished it with boiled linseed oil. It's already proven handy.

Moving Fillister Plane

I tossed a bid into an eBay auction a few weeks ago, and happened to win it. It's a cool old wooden moving fillister plane. It's nothing fancy, but it's in good shape, except for the missing nicker iron. I took a little time to knock off the rust, clean it up, and sharpen the iron. It works great. A future detour will be to find some tool steel for the iron, cut & shape it, and then harden & temper it (something I haven't tried yet, but am inspired to do so by blacksmith Peter Ross).

Band Saw Maintenance

When my band saw blade started drifting, on even the simplest cut, I knew something was screwy. Especially since I'd recently put on a new Woodslicer blade about three weeks ago. A little investigation later, and damn it if the bottom thrust bearing hadn't seized up. Amazing how that makes such a difference -- you'd think the blade could still just slide along it. Oh well, a phone call to Grizzly.com service, and in a few minutes I had the part on order. But that means no band sawing for a while. 

Wardrobe, Part 2

Woodtopia at Horigan Urban Forest Products

I've made some progress on the wardrobe build. I started a few weeks ago with a couple of trips to Horigan Urban Forest Products for some white oak. It's always a good experience there, as they consistently have great material, in quantity, and are very helpful.

With my lumber in hand, I sized my pieces and marked out where my parts would go. I followed it up with a milling session, squaring up the parts and cutting them to slightly larger than final size, and then letting them acclimate to my shop. I'm still learning on estimating material, and discovered I was going to have to go back for more, (there's a lot more going on in this wardrobe than I thought as far as material goes). But I had enough on hand to start working on the main case.

As there was some learning to be done on this build, I wanted to use one of the parts to help figure out my process for the others, so I started with one of the sides. The plans I am using as my starting point don't specify much of the joinery: it can be done however you like. Therefore, I had to figure out the sizes and placement of the mortise & tenons. Looking at the drawing of the side shown here (left), I decided on using a single mortise & tenon on the top two rails, and double mortise & tenons on the bottom wide rail. On the bottom one, I also oriented both joints nearer to the top side, so they would be clear of the arc that would be cut for the feet.

I also had to figure out a size for the mortise & tenons that would be appropriate. There is a certain amount of eyeballing that works just fine for this, but as a general reference, I followed some tips I picked up from Bob Lang at his "Mortises, Choose Your Weapon" presentation at the recent Woodworking In America 2013. Those tips go something like this:

  1. Make the tenon as long as possible without risking damage to the mortised piece.
  2. The tenon should be no more than 1/3 thickness of the mortised piece.
  3. Width of the mortise should be 1/2 width of the tenoned piece.

All good rules of thumb. As my material for the rails & stiles was a little thicker than 3/4", I went with a mortise width of about 1/4". Actually, I chose my mortise chisel that was about 1/4"-ish as my size. I then made them approx 2" wide, and 2 1/2" deep. I don't have a mortising machine, so my choices to cut the mortises were either a) clear out most of the waste with a forstner drill bit, and clean it up with a chisel, or b) just use the mortising chisel. I started out doing method a), but found that it really doesn't save me any time. After drilling out the waste, the resulting mortise sides are so rough that the clean up takes a lot of time. Also, with the length my forester bit (about 2 & 1/4" beyond the chuck), the mortise was still shallower than I would have liked it to be, requiring a switch to the traditional mortise chisel method anyway. Just like with the sides, the drilling left a ragged bottom that was harder to work than if I'd used the chisel only. So, I switched to method b) and got better results in less time. Conclusion: with the right tool (a sharp mortise chisel) and the right technique, drilling out the waste is more trouble than it is worth.

I cut the tenons with a dado blade on the table saw, (but could have just as easily used a tenon saw) leaving them slightly oversized to fit later. After I cut the grooves for the panel with a Stanley no. 45 plane, I fit the joints. Next up was re-sawing some pieces for the solid wood panels. A nice new Woodslicer II blade in my 14" bandsaw worked wonderfully, and after my glue up, I had some nice book matched 1/4" panels. Red, over at LumberJocks.com, made a nice post on the process that illustrates that process, and matches what I did pretty closely.

All that was left was a dry fit, and it came out well. Here's some pictures of the assembly. Only five more frame & panels (the other side, the back, and two doors), a top & bottom, the center divider, and all the drawers to go.

Wardrobe, Part 1

The next big project on my bench is a Stickley wardrobe. I am pretty closely following the plan provided by Robert Lang from his site (and from his excellent Shop Drawing for Craftsman Interiors book). One of our bedrooms has no closet, and draping clothes over a folding chair and a plastic storage tub is getting old quickly.

As I am trying to do with each project, I am adding something new to this one. Instead of using veneered plywood for the 1/4" panels, I am using solid wood panels. This makes the build different in a lot of ways.

With the plywood panel method, building each frame-and-panel part (sides, back, doors) involves...

  • stub mortise and tenon joinery for the frame
  • a panel that is exactly the size of opening plus grooves
  • glueing the panel into the frame
  • finishing the panel and frame at the same time

This is all possible because the plywood panels are stable, and don't grow or shrink with humidity the way solid wood does. The panel then is glued to the frames, adding strength to the part. And, as it isn't going to move, can be finished at the end, when the rest of the piece is.

With solid wood panels, things change significantly...

  • the panels are slightly smaller than the openings plus groove, allowing them to move (expand & contract)
  • because they aren't glued to the frame, the don't provide any strength to the frame; joinery is now full mortise and tenon
  • Also, because the panels are loose, and may slightly expand & contract, the panels must be fully finished to their edges before the frame is assembled and glued

In the end, either method provides a perfectly acceptable piece of furniture. So why choose the solid wood method over plywood? Am I trying to earn "authentic" points? Nope. Instead I choose to try this out because I've never done it before, and I want to see how it goes. Yes, it will be more work, but I'll also learn something I wouldn't have otherwise.