Favorite Plastic Shop Gadgets

For the new woodworker setting up their shop, a trip to Rockler, Woodcraft, or their big box stores presents an onslaught of gizmos, gadgets, devices that "guarantee a perfect (insert woodworking task here) every time". I went through that phase, spent my money, and made it out (mostly) unscathed. Along the way I found a few that were worth it. 

I like to be surrounded by wood, metal, leather, fabric, and other natural materials in my shop. Non-plastic tools just look and feel better in my creative space. I have some plastic in my shop that I can't really do anything about; the handle on the fence of my table, the dust collection tubes, and my dead blow mallet is covered in plastic. The handle of my combo screwdriver is plastic (although I couldn't stand that, so I recently bought a combo screwdriver turning kit from Rockler and made a wooden handled one). While my plastic tool aversion might seem a little neurotic and silly, it's what I like. I've been known to retire a perfectly nice new plastic handled hack saw for a wood handled one from the 1920's I found in flea market. It took me an hour to de-rust off the vintage one, clean and oil the handle. And after all that, it works about the same as the new one. But I like it better.

After all that, I have a few plastic woodworking tools / gadgets that I will not part with. Despite their plastic-ness, these things are great at what they do and I wouldn't replace them if there were non-plastic equivalents.

(Disclaimer: I have received no endorsements for these reviews, and I have no contact with these companies. I paid full retail for them. I am posting links so you can check them out, but they're not affiliate links or anything.) 

So without further ado...

GluBot(s)

The FastCap GluBot, and it's little cousin, the BabeBot, are the best glue dispensers I've ever used. I've tried the manufacturer's bottles. I've tried the mustard-bottle-as-glue-bottle. I've tried the "store the glue bottle tip-side down in a holder" trick. Then I found these, and I was done looking. These containers are designed so that no matter how much, or little, glue is inside the reservoir, fresh glue is just a squeeze away. I use the big one for PVA glue, and the little one for liquid hide glue. The smaller BabeBot is easier to heat up in my high-tech pot-on-a-hotplate hot water bath (in order to get the Old Brown Glue up to working temperature of 100-140°F.) These things don't clog, and glue is always ready to go when I need it. During a glue up, there's already enough things to worry about without battling a clogged or doing the "I forgot to refill it so now I'll stand there holding it upside down and shake it a lot" dance.

Preppin' Weapon

Next we have the Preppin' Weapon from Time Saver Tools. Continuing in the tradition of cute names, It's a plastic sanding block. How good can it be? I'd used my own shop blocks, when they were just... blocks of wood with paper wrapped around them. I used those horrible 3M rubber blocks with the tack/nail grippers. I'd made my own fancier one with a cork bottom and wing-nut-clamp system. Then I saw these, and I gave one a try - I was hooked. These use a simple cam lever on both ends to secure a 1/4 sheet of paper (... wide, so they use 8 1/2" by 2 3/4" size pieces) over a soft rubber face. They hold the pieces very close to the ends, so it allows almost all of the paper to be used. I like that the 1/4 sheet shape makes for a nice long reference surface, and finger hold shape is very comfy. I ended up getting all 4 colors, and keep them set up with different grits. I also made a simple little jig with an old hacksaw blade to quickly tear the sheets to the right sizes. Now changing paper and doing lots of sanding is really nice and easy.

sandpaper fleet

paper sizing/cutting jig

The Grr-ripper

Finally, we have the Grr-ripper from Microjig which is well designed push block. It's purpose is to keep your hands safe while allowing you to exert a lot of control over a workpiece when using a tables or router table. I bought one of these when I first started out, and at $60, it seemed like a lot for a hunk of plastic. But after using it for a few months, I went and got a second one. The safety and control these brought me, especially as a new woodworker, were exceptional. It's now been years, and I love how I can adjust the feet to straddle the table saw's blade, while holding down both the work and the off cut. The added L shaped support foot lets the Grr-ripier remain balanced when working with a narrow piece, which is especially nice on a router table. These are so well designed, that's it's hard to find a situation where they don't work well. If I ever break or lose one, I'll get it again. But after years of use, and a few battle scars, these have held up and are well work the price tag.

dual Grr-rippers!

adjustable L foot, and center support


Despite their plastic nature, these items are welcome on my shop, and help me get work done efficiently. I know I could make alternatives. I've seen a few people do some great sanding block builds, and I've even seen a DIY wooden Grr-riper build or two. Show me a copper GluBot, and I'd be tempted. But the work required doesn't outweigh the relatively low cost and high value that these gizmos deliver. So they're here to stay.

At Last, a Morris Chair, Part 1

When I started woodworking, as in really serious furniture making, my #1 bucket list piece to build was a classic Stickley Morris chair. Something about this chair called to me, and I felt that getting to the point of being able to build it would be a significant point on my woodworking path. But since then, I've built larger and more complex pieces, with that chair in always in the back of my mind. This past spring, I finally got the chance to check that one off the list. 

My friend and fellow woodworker Brett got his first big commission to build a Morris chair, and as we were sharing a shop at the time, I couldn't resist the chance to build one too. Scores of woodworkers have made this chair before me. Not just scores, zillions, It's a classic, icon design, and many are drawn by the same charms that I succumbed to. And it's not that it is a masterfully difficult piece to build, but it has it's challenges. There are also many, many, many variations on how to build one, both in design choices, and construction methods. But in my mind, this is a standard bearer of what I like about being a woodworker, and what appeals to me about the Craftsman style aesthetic. It's both simple, and elegant. It is plain, but with subtle proportions that speak to a strong, solid form. I set out to build a up reproduction Gustav Stickley #369 Morris Chair. I took a lot of direction from Bob Lang's article in Popular Woodworking #189 from April 2011, as well as from his blog post on it. When it was all said and done, or mainly done, It came out fantastic. Did I mention it is comfortable too?

I'll run through the build sort of quickly here, for you woodworkers out there that like that sort of thing.

As it's a reproduction, the style calls for using quarter sawn white oak. Again. I'm getting pretty used to QSWO. Good thing I love it. i've seen plenty of "modern" revision of the Morris chair in other woods (cherry and walnut look the best), but nothing works nearly as well as good old white oak. 

enough legs for two chairs

The build started with the legs. And a hallmark of the style is to make quarter sawn grain appear on all four sides of the legs, but adding veneers to two of the faces. Then it was on to milling the rails/stretchers, and side slats. The sides are where one of the first complications in this build arises. At first glance, the side assemblies look like simple square "ladders". Where the top arm is an obvious slat front to back, the bottom rail also is at an angle, and is about 3/4" lower in the back than in the front. The means the shoulders of the bottom rails where they meet the legs are angled. and all the shoulders on the bottom of the slats are angled. Each slat is a slightly different length. And then there's the angled shoulder for the through tenon where the back leg meets the slanted arm. There is a lot to consider.

After the sides are assembled, the two sides are joined by two beefy stretchers. These stretchers, like the bottom side rails, feature pegged through tenons, a feature I enjoy making a lot. The pegs are draw bored to pull the shoulder's tight, then trimmed off and chiseled flush.

The next challenge are the slanted arms. They are slightly "hockey stick" like in profile, with a bend near the top of the arm. This was one of coolest details of this build to make. The technique is to take a straight arm, and then cut an end off at the desired angle, then glue the cutoff onto the bottom side of the arm, resulting in a "bend"...

Once you've made that very tricky cut, re-glued the cutoff, and smoothed it out, it looks absolutely seamless, with the glue line disappearing. The grain direction matches perfectly, and the result is very cool.

The arms need through mortises cut to fit the tenons on the side assemblies, one is straight, and the other is angled. These have to be snug, and very clean on the top where they are not only visible, but a focus detail. People who sit in the chair look at and feel these through tenons, looking at how they stick up from the arm. This detail says a lot about how the chair is made, and is a great example of how the Craftsman style's exposed joinery really works to communicate the design and feel of the piece. A lot of trial and error is required to sneak up on the fit. In the gallery below, you'll see an image of a mortise where there's a chip taken out of the arm. That was where I had a slip of the chisel. I fixed it by glueing in a sliver of matching material and blending it in. Once fit, the arms are glues to the side assemblies, and the build is two thirds done.

The last part to be built is the back assembly. This consists of a series of curved slats mortised into two stiles. The curved back slats are made by making bent laminations, dried on a bending form. First, thin 1/8" strips are made, then they are glued together again, while clamping them to a form that makes the desired shape. Brett and I tried a few different methods to get there, but we found a good methods and applied it to the rest of the build. This required lots of clamps, lots of glue, and we could only do one or two a day. So we started making these parts at the beginning of the build, and kept at it as we worked on other parts.

With the slats made, the last tricky bit was to cut square tenons on each of the slats. This took some careful layout, but in the end, all it took was laying it out, and cutting to the line. Then the slats were glued and draw bore pegged in place.

The back is attached to the chair with a few loose dowels and pegs, which allow the back to tilt, and the slant of the back to be adjusted. This was a fun detail to make, and allowed me to have a little time at the lathe. There's also a wooden washer or spacer for each of the pivot pegs. I opted for octagonal pegs, but these could be round or even square. Then a couple of cleats to support the seat frame were added, and I build a simple pine frame for the cushion.

Next up is finishing and upholstery.

Boiling Stones

I've been enjoying my new books. Lost Art Press recently released the two book set "The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years", a release that I've been eagerly awaiting ever since it was announced month (years?) ago. It's an absolutely fantastic curated collection of woodworker and author Hayward's articles from his years as editor of the English The Woodworker magazine from 1939 to 1967. If ever "Lost Art Press" lived up to its its name (by, you know, pressing lost art), its here. Hayward's career spanned the transition from hand work to the modern power tool age, a period when so much fundamental woodworking knowledge went from being common to almost forgotten. At 888 pages, it is a massive collection. But Lost Art Press has organized it by type and topic (and done an amazing job at re-setting the type and reproducing the illustrations) to where it is an engaging and very accessible read. As I go through it, every page seems to reveal a new gem, and authoritatively answers the kinds of questions that pop up on today's woodworking forums with regularity, ones that are often answered only hesitatingly and incompletely, by the well meaning, but ill-informed.

In a recent session going through the book, I came across a little article about cleaning oil stones. I hadn't thought to consider they even needed cleaning - I'd thought I would just keep them oiled up in use, and wipe the slurry off when done. But as my current set of Arkansas stones have been feeling "gummy" lately, and not cutting quite like they did when new, this piece caught my attention. Hayward says to either "... boil it in a strong solution of water and washing soda..." for a couple of hours, or, if you're in a hurry, cook it with a bare gas jet or blowlamp until the oil and grease (and embedded particles) are cooked out. The latter has the caveat that any uneven heating might cause the stones to crack. That seemed cool, but I wasn't ready to risk it.

So, I decided to boil mine, with a little dish soap and water. So far so good. Thanks Mr Hayward.

Follow up: Night and day. The stones are cutting fantastically. After I boiled them for about 2 hours (seeing a big oil slick form on the top of the water), I dried them, then applied some WD-40, went over them briskly with a wire brush, and put them back to work.