December 7, 2011


Why are hand tool skills important

Why are hand tool skills important in a computerized and technological society?

We all might agree that there is a correct way to do certain things, even if approaches may differ. The learning of a given approach opens us to the intellectual and manual skills required to enter a larger body of knowledge, in this case woodworking.

Chisels only work if razor sharp, otherwise they are lumps of steel frustration good for blunt trauma to hands and wood. The same is true of hand planes. Many of you probably inherited a bench plane from your Dad or Granddad. You tried to use it, but the thing never did the job correctly and it was relegated to the garage to rust and be forgotten. I would bet no one gave you the instruction to sharpen and tune that plane, and you, out of convenience, decided to use a sander instead. Yes, things felt smooth, but if you looked closely at the surface with a jeweler’s loupe, you would see that all you really did was scratch your project into submission. If one wants to see the true beauty of wood surfaces, a finely tuned hand plane gives you a mirror finish, in less time than you could ever do the same with abrasives.

Learning how to easily sharpen a bench plane iron and tune the plane, allows one to work wood as it has been done, literally, for centuries. When we understand how to accomplish woodworking by hand tools, then we have basic concepts such as flat, sharp and smooth, that allows us to use more advanced tools, such as computers to control cutting or shaping. If you understand sharp and tuned, regardless if it is a hand tool or a CNC router, you will be able accomplish the task correctly.

Picasso learned to draw before he was able to paint. One learns to walk before running. You study the alphabet before you can write a novel. Learning to sharpen edge tools and tune a plane are a gateway to fine woodworking.

Rob Hetler 2011

May 4, 2011


Verical Grain Douglas Fir

Every wood has its' pros and cons.
Vertical Grain Douglas Fir, also know as VG fir, is an endemic northwest wood. It is emblematic of our forests and widely used in  homes for construction, trim work, mill-work  and cabinetry. It is very regular in appearance, with some subtle variations in color and grain patter. The only figure I have ever encountered in the VG cut is a significant wavey patter. There can be some very interesting patterns when the wood is plan or flat sawn. Then one is able to find beautiful flame or cathedral patterns.

Many commercial companies shy away from VG fir for the simple reason that it is difficult to work where precision joinery is required. The VG cut exposes  the hard winter wood particularly on edges. I can't tell you how many times I accidentally picked up a small sliver that ran significantly into the work or my finger. Immediate repair (or band aid) is the only solution. There are other flaws inherent in the wood such as stress fractures from the felling of the tree or sap lines that easily separate.

Douglas fir is a soft wood that has great strength in bending. This is why it is used in construction. But when use in furniture and cabinetry, one needs to be cautious. Hard woods such as eastern maple can withstand alot of abuse and do not dent or scatch easily. Fir does, though I often tell my clients that when do we beat up our cabinetry. Save for an unruly dog or child, most cabinetry made from douglas fir is well suited to home use.

                                                                 Rough out tenon cheeks.

                                                                   Refrigerator case.
                                                        Shop view with work in progress.                     
                                                          Door parts with stub tenons cut.

My current project, a small kitchen for a Whidbey Island beach cabin, has all the above issues. Joinery has been the greatest challenge. The craftsman needs to be meticulous in set-up and fit. Cutters have to be clean and sharp. Normally the dado for housing the panels is a one or two step process.With fir , there is an additional step. No matter how careful I am there is always tear out on the edges of the dadoes. I cut them a little deeper then return to the jointer for another pass. Another place that I have to be extremely meticulous is in cutting the stub tenons. Typically, I take a hardwood directly from the thicknesser to the shaper. With fir, I first cross cut the shoulder of the tenon on the table saw. Then I rough the tenon cheeks on the band saw. Only then am I able to run the stub tenons in the shaper. This is the only way to have clean precise joinery parts.

March 23, 2011


Whidbey Island Kitchen

 Every project has its' beginnings. This the space for a new kitchen I am developing in concert with Dave Pate, our local contractor, Anne McCulloch of Anne McCulloch Studio in Portland, Oregon and, of course the clients, Marjie and Doug Gutafson. The kitchen is in a modest beach front house/cabin with an extraordinary view on Whidbey Island, WA.

The kitchen will be a shaker style constructed from vertical grain fir. Below, you can see a stack of fir boards that will be used in the project. These are all rough cut shorts from a NW mill.

The case work will be made from pre-finished maple faced ply. This has been a standard of mine for many years. It gives the interiors a functional durability and light glowing interior. Here you can see some of the maple panels cut for case work. This is the first step in prepping parts for case construction.

 The heart of most projects that I work on are the layout or story boards. They contain  full scale drawings of the kitchen as related to me from the designers' plans. There are side to side plan views as well as a front to back plan views. I also draw a typical elevation noting any special circumstances.
     I learned this technique from a now closed cabinet/furniture shop owner in Coupeville, WA some twenty-five years ago. The beauty of it is that one is able to take full scale drawings to the job site or use them in the shop to check that all is correct. Once a case is built I am able to lay a story board on the work and see my mistakes or successes. The story board is where I can plan for complicated joinery or difficult layouts
     I would just like to give a special thanks to Brad Gallahar, a Whidbey Island furniture maker, for recommending me to the Gustafsons,  offering me an opportunity to be involved in another wonderful Whidbey project.

May your chisels be sharp and your planes tuned,
Rob Hetler
Whidbey Island, WA

September 16, 2010


Maple Bathroom Vanity

This is the beginnings of an elegant bathroom vanity being built for a local client. The doors are slab style, constructed with a three ply interior substrate and veneered with shop sawn eastern maple. The interior is pre-finished maple ply. There will be two slide out shelves and a pair of med-shelves hung on the right door.

The client plans a vessel style sink with a granite counter top.Dimensions are 30w x 20d x 32h.The sink rim will top out at about 38" when all is installed.

Wood working show a success

The gallery was jammed. The Atrium was too. They drank all the wine and ate all the food. The show opening was a success, if bottles of wine and trays of food consumed is any indication. Or folks were just hungry and thirsty. I believe it was the former. We all had fun, basking in our patrons compliments, enjoying the good conversation. And every day there after, for the ten days of the show,  it seemed that there was never an opprtuinity to sit and read my book. Folks were always coming through, looking, touching oohing and aahing.

Above and right are photos of the Kitchen Catch-all the I presented for the wood show. Folks loved the elm., especially as it is a material not often see. Remember Dutch elm disease? They also liked the walnut figured panel on the upper shelving back. Another point of comment is the black board on the back. I was surprised that there weren't more comments about the basketry.

Next up is the Open Studio Tour. It will be fun to see how many folks come over the two days of the event, September 25th and 26th.

August 27, 2010


Woodpalooza 2010

See you at the show!

August 2010 New Project Kitchen Catch-all

     Ah, new beginnings. So much promise,such a long road. This project was designed to replace a work table in my kitchen that has been a catch-all for all the stuff that comes in the door. You know how it goes: where to drop (and leave) the junk mail no one wants to read; the empty plastic bags that don't seem to make it to the recycle bin; or the key that you can't figure out to which lock it belongs, but can't seem to realize that you will never figure that out. All that junk, crap, stuff. Whatever. So to the right you can see a first assembly.
     Last year I bought some elm, locally grown here on delicious Whidbey Island. Robert Bennett called asking if I would help pay for the sawing in exchange for some of the material. Pete Jordan, Whidbey"s definitive landscape painter and sometimes sawyer, cut the log for us. I dried it at John Shinneman's kiln and lugged back the material, where it has sat for a year or so. I even had a client interested in a desk made from this stock, but the economy collapsed and the so there it sat. This years Guild show loomed and I thought to use the material for a case I had been thinikng about. There was also a remnant of a bundle of Claro walnut thick veneers from Goby Walnut that had been in my shop for a decade or more. The colors worked well together, so they found a home.
       Of course these projects are always a challenge. My drawing was a slip of scratch paper that had been in the shop for some years. Just a general outline really, with no dimensions. I started cutting, letting the material define the project. First the legs, then panels for the back and sides. At first I wanted doors with glass in the upper case but that became too cumbersome, so I left the upper open. I wanted a cork board on the end panels as well. The back panel ended being a really spectacular walnut veneer and the cork panels were replaced with an interesting shelf support system. Another problem cropped up with the working surfaces. There just wasn't enough calm material to make glued up tops, so I went to frame and panel system with the walnut as panels.
     This was a no cost project. I thought to buy some 16/4 eastern walnut to resaw for the tops, but at the more than $10 per board foot cost,  left that as not an option. I did have to buy some substrate material for the veneered panels. I have been using something called poplar light of late. This is a poplar ply wood, available in various metric thicknesses from Eden Saw. Russ Yerger, my fearless and helpful salesman brought it to me from Port Townsend. Eden Saw has been most helpful over the years and even in this bleak economic period they still are invested in the small craftsmen that inhabit our fair isle.
     The drawers also posed something of a problem. At first I wanted something quick and easy. I tried a rabbeted face held with pins, like you find in a tansu. This proved to be a boring solution. Usually when I get to this point I have invested so much time and effort that I just go for the best, and often more complicated solutions (hence,challenging/ interesting). In this case through dovetails was the correct solution. I have some walnut backer that is just wonderful.  These few boards have been with me for at least fifteen years. They are twenty or so inches wide. FYI, backer board is the remnant of veneer logs. You can see the marks left by the holding dogs on the edges. These are usually from the center of the log, often with pith running the center. They have the most wonderful color and grain. Unfortunately, due to the improvement in technology, backer stock is becoming near impossible to acquire.
     Typically, I cut a stopped dado on my table saw for the drawer bottoms. Previously, I spent many hours cleaning these with chisel and mallet. Now I use this little router jig to clean the stopped dadoes. Every little bit helps to move these project along. They take so much time. There will probaly be 120 hours in this case by the time I am done.
     The last bit is always the pulls, which I have been shop making for some time. I use tapped ebony posts that will take an machine screw. Tapping the post  is straight forward. For this project Jon Magill brought me some beautiful box wood, but the color was all wrong. I hunted through my pile of odd bits of exotic woods to find a compatible material. I found a short stick of Australian Iron Bark given to me years ago by Richard Epstein that seems to fit the bill. I typically use an 1/8" brass pin to join the post and bar together.
    The finish for this project will be shellac. An oil varnish finish is out of the question as the elm is so coarse and become blotchy. Shellac is so easy, evne if not durable in wet conditions, but easily repaired.


Guild Show: WWOODPALOOZA 2010

     You are all invited to the fall showcase of Whidbey Islands' finest woodworkers.

August 15, 2010


Frank's Organ

                                                                      Frank's Organ

In 2009 Les Asplund and I work on this Decap merry-go-round mechanical orchestra facade. The original was built in the 1920's. You can see more about Decap at We spent about 150 hours creating the two outside panels as well as the full top section. Unfortunately Frank passed away before it was finished but his organ still stands.He was always ready with a pun about his organ's. He has a dozen or so stored at his winery. Ask at the wine tasting bar to see them.

His wife Betty and friends painted it this summer (2010). There was a public showing at their winery, Greenbank Cellars, in Greenbank, Washington on Whidbey Island.

The project had its' challenges. The schematic was only a basic template from which we had to interpret the three dimensional design. There was a fair amount of template making as well as turning to complete our portion of the 13' 6" x 7' facade. Most of the work was done in poplar solids or poplar ply. It had to come apart for transport.

This is Frank

Top detail

                                                           Drawing for the above carving


June 6, 2010



      Veneering is a great way to maximize the use of available material and to get the continuity of pattern that is not available  using solid stock. Shop cut veneers also allows me to use local materials or other solid stock not available in veneer form. Commercial veneers, although usually sold at 1/42", offers such materials as burls, crotch, and other figured material not available as solid stock. There are some veneers sold at 1/16", although not many species are available.
     Often, I cut  veneers on my 26" Laguna band saw. A vari-tooth carbide tipped blade from Lenox assures a consistent cut, in hardwoods, even at the saws maximum throat capacity of 16".  An axillary fence helps to stabilize the material at the maximum height. Folks that come in to the shop are amazed at the thinness of the cuts. Even other woodworkers, used to standard blades are impressed with the end product.  There are ceramic blade guides helping the blade to track through the cut. Traditionally, a ball bearing  type is used, but one cannot tighten the guides enough to prevent any side to side movement. The ceramic guides do this most effectively. I primarily veneer for panels for doors and end panels. Typically I cut at 3/32". This allows plenty of stock for thicknessing and sanding.
     Once the veneers are cut or selected, the leaves need to be edge jointed. There are several steps to this. First I will straight line a bundle of leaves after having taped them together. This is a job for either the table saw or the band saw. Then I will move to the jointer to clean up the edge. Lastly I will use a No. 6 or 7  Lie-Nielsen hand plane either on its' side or upside down in a vise. For thick leaves the work is done individually, joint by joint. Edges need to match as perfectly as the material will allow, otherwise glued up panels will have exposed glue lines.
     After the joints are acceptable, I tape the backs together with blue masking tape. This tape does not adhere too strongly and having  some stretch it acts as a sot of clamp, pulling the two leaves together. I then flip the taped leaves over, tipping them into an inverted vee and apply a thin line of white glue to the edges. Laying them flat, I scrap the excess glue from the surface. Brown paper veneering tape is then applied. I use an iron to quickly dry the tape and the glue.

     With all the leaves of both sides of a  panel taped and glued, I then hinge them to the substrate. This, in my mind, is really important. Once in the press, the glue can act as a lubricant and squeeze the veneers askew. Also in the controlled hurry of gluing up a stack of panels, hinging facilitates keeping everything in order. One less portion of the process to worry about. Don't forget to remove the blue tape prior to gluing to the substrate.

      In the past I used a water based plastic resin glue from Dap, but the inclusion of water created some shrinkage and veneer curling problems. Recently, I began using Uni-bond 800, locally available from Eden Saw . This is a two part glue that works well for flat veneering and bent laminations It also comes with hardener in either white or brown. They are mixable allowing for glue that is closer in color than plastic resin, which tends to be brown to red. There is also a flexible set time depending on the amount of hardener and the ambient temperature. Measuring out the correct amounts of glue and hardener is simple using a small electronic gram scale. Mix it using a driver drill and paint mixer. I apply the glue with a foam roller.

      Two items are necessary when placing the panel in the press. First   there needs to be paper between each layer. I Use freezer pare from the local super market. This prevents the panels from being stuck together. Secondly, platens will be needed to distribute the pressure from each screw clamp. I use MDF or white melamine, both of which are flat.
      My education in veneering began with a kitchen project that was designed with all flat panels, both as doors and end and back panels. I hired another local woodworker, John Griffiths, to do the veneer work and at the same time teach me about the process. That was maybe fifteen years ago. I have since learned from other fellow wood workers from our local Woodworkers Guild.
            Here is the happy ending, with panels in the screw press.


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