“Normal” paint

What’s “normal” anyway?  You will find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.  Normal for the US (which is itself highly fragmentary) is not necessarily normal for the majority of the world.  And temporally, it’s definitely not normal.  For the vast bulk of human history, people didn’t change much, and their wood finishes definitely didn’t change much.  Polyurethane didn’t exist until 1937, and acrylic latex paint (the focus for today) until 1934.  But for most folks, if you talk about paint, the acrylic latex paint sold at every hardware store is what they think of.

One of the nice things about this paint is that it’s widely available locally in a staggering array of bright (sometimes searing) colours.  It has a long shelf life, even once opened.  It’s also inexpensive.  None of these are particularly strong points for milk paint.  So some may want to use acrylic paint for their projects.

For this box, I used a nice bright red from the big hardware store down the street from me.  When I’m painting wood, I use an eggshell sheen (semi-gloss is for walls).  Most paints will need two coats, though on occasion I’ve needed three.  Once the paint has dried overnight, I then cover it with two coats of shellac.  I don’t usually sand the paint layer to uniformity, but you certainly can if you prefer a less textured look (be warned: it’s messy). You want to use the clearest shellac you have, so as not to distort or muddy the colour.  The shellac will keep the paint from getting sticky in humid conditions, and help protect your intended hue from damage (whether from clumsiness or UV).  Finally, I buff the shellac with some 0000 steel wool, and put on a coat of soft wax and burnish to nice sheen.  It’s a little more work to do it my way, but I think it’s worth it for the better wear resistance.  It feels a lot better in the hands, too.


A house divided against itself…

…cannot stand.

But a box divided keeps your junk from bashing about.

Up until now, we’ve been working on making the actual box of our canning jar box.  But if we left it as-is, those glass mason jars are going to knock against themselves whenever you move the box.  Like the Fremen curse, your jars will chip and shatter.  And that’s bad, m’kay?

So we need to make some dividers for our jars.  Wood is kind of funny in this regard, though.  Somehow, removing the eighth of an inch between 3/8″ and 1/4″ makes it act all kinds of funny.  It gets all squirrelly under the plane, if you can even get it to not flex over your planning stop.  And that last eighth significantly reduces the strength of the wood, making it all too easy to split your workpiece down the middle.  But 1/4″ is fine for our dividers, if only we could find a way to fix it in place to work it.  When I first started woodworking, I was so very frustrated with trying to plane this thin stuff that I would cut it oversize and nail it to the bench, sinking the nails under the surface so I wouldn’t hit them with my plane.

There’s an easier way that doesn’t have you playing whack-a-mole instead of getting things done.

This is the easiest way I have found to work on this thin stock, and it’s dirt cheap as well (always a consideration for me).  Take a piece of scrap 2x wood (mine is a castoff chunk of 2×12).  It should be around 18″ long and 6″ wide or so.  Lay out a nice, square set of lines about 1/2″ in from the far edges.  Bore some pilot holes, then sink four screws (use a regular flat-headed screw, bonus points if they’re slotted) on your lines, a couple on the end and a couple on the sides.  Keep the ones in the corner fairly close together, then put the others about three-quarters of the way to the near edges.  STOP SHORT of flush by 3/16″.  And now you’ve made a hybrid between a planning tray and a sticking board.  The thin stock will get held securely by the screw heads, and you can drop the whole apparatus in your vise to be secured while you plane everything to size.  It’s really easy (almost takes longer to write it than do it), but it makes a world of difference.


Now, once you have everything to thickness, we want these strips to be about 2″ wide.  Then make sure that they will fit in the box.  Measurements are not particularly useful here.  It should fit in easily, but not rattle.  It works out to something like 3/32″ of clearance.  You should have two long strips and three short strips.  Once they all fit the box, and are all consistently wide, we can cut joinery on them.

The joint we’re going to use is really a skinny halving joint.  But when you’re using thin, wide sections with the cuts going across the grain, it’s usually called an egg crate joint.  In Bernard Jones’ mammoth compilation of knowledge, there’s actually a plan for an egg box that uses this joint to separate eggs.

To start, I flush up all of the like-sized strips, and put them in the vise.  Then, using a set of dividers, I step off the divisions to mark equal-sized sections between my intersections.  You should have three prick marks on your long sections, and two on your short ones.  BE SURE you’re marking the right number of divisions.  Once you have that marked, take some dividers set to 1/8″, and mark on either side of your original mark.  That should give you 1/4″ between your outside marks, centered on the equalised divisions.


Now, using your knife, scribe these marks across the edges.  Set a gauge to 1 1/16″, and score the from the edge with your marks.  Then connect your edge knife lines to your gauge lines.  All this scribing is important because we really do want a clean cut.  Once your knife lines are in, then saw down to from the edge to your gauge line.


A little chisel work from here, and you should have a pretty clean slot in your workpiece.  Repeat as necessary until you’ve got them all done.  Test fit that they go together fairly easily.  This thin stuff won’t hold up to trying to bash it together, so do have a loose fit.


Finally, put the assembly into your box, and BEFORE PROCEEDING further, check that your jars actually fit easily in their little pigeonholes.  It doesn’t take much to interfere with the fit, and if you wait until everything is painted before finding out you needed to plane it just a smidge thinner, you will be extremely perturbed.  Go ahead, ask me how I know this.

Never mind, don’t ask me.  I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, if your jars won’t quite fit, a few strokes with a plane should loosen it right up in a few seconds.  Tomorrow we’ll paint, and that will be that!

What is your name?

What is your quest?

What is the average airspeed velocity of a fully laden swallow?

The obvious question I referred to yesterday is not one of these three.  But, if you’ve been following this build, the question that should be occurring to you is “what about the holes?”.  In the ends, the grooves for the bottom panel come right out of the pins, and with the box assembled, there’s a 1/4″ square hole on each corner.  Surely the suggestion isn’t to just ignore it?!

No, we’re not going to ignore it (and don’t call me Shirley).  There’s a few different ways we could have joined the carcase together without the groove showing.  We could have put this together like a proper drawer, and used half-blind dovetails.  This would have worked just fine, but would have necessitated using two different thicknesses of stock.  Or we could have made a mitre joint, but those are pretty weak (unless you key them in some way).  Or we could have used a stopped groove that didn’t continue all the way out of the pin.  Or we could have been esoteric and used a mitred through dovetail joint.

Whew!  Lots of options.

While all of those would work (and I’ve tried them to be sure!), they all share one characteristic: they take longer to make.  Working “straight through”, as Hayward puts it (in the literature again) is the fastest, most efficient way to work.  Fussing with stopped grooves is slow, as it cutting mitred or half-blind dovetails.

Even though there are holes in our pins, the box is not any weaker, so that consideration is accounted for.  As for the aesthetics, I’ll now show you how to account for that as well.  I take a stub of offcut and quickly trim it into a plug.  It takes maybe two minutes to get a nice fit.  It’s tapered, so it tightens up as you knock it in (gently!).  A bit of glue and a couple taps with a mallet and there’s no more hole.


Now, cleaning up these new appurtenances doesn’t take any more work, since I’d have had to plane the dovetails flush anyway.  Once the glue dries, I just trim off the stub and plane flush.  I’ve placed the grain going the opposite direction so you can see it clearly in this corner, but you couldn’t feel it.


Now, this is all going to disappear since we’re going to paint the box.  If we were making this box out of a more expensive hardwood under a clear finish, it might make sense to go to the extra trouble of a stopped groove or mitred dovetails.  But since it’s just (painted) pine, I’m not worried too much about it.

I can hear the howls of protest now, about how I’m creating something that’s just good enough for the unwashed masses and how by saying that if I was using expensive, bourgeois wood that I’d work to a different standard.  How hypocritical!

Well, sort of, but not really.

See, that whole idea of different standards is right out.  The standards I have for fit are just the same.  The execution might be a little different, but the standard remains.  The box remains just as strong as it would be with a stopped groove.  The only difference from a practical point of view is that one takes longer to create.  Now that might not be a factor for a hobbyist, but if I have to take longer to make a piece, then I have to charge more for it.  I’m not running a charity.  But under an opaque finish, it really makes no sense to have to charge bourgeois prices if I don’t have to.  Capitalist I may be, but I try not to be a rampant capitalist.

Solid, man…

Once the groove is planed into the sides, we have to make the bottom fit.  Our bottom panel is 1/2″ thick, and our groove is only 1/4″ thick.  So over a run of an inch or so, we need to bevel down from 1/2″ to 1/4″.  I usually cut this with my #4 smooth plane, but there are various other ways to do it.  Specialty planes for just such a task (known as panel-raising planes) are available…just.  But they’re expensive and single use, so I just make do.  Bevel across the grain first, so that if the ends spelch a bit, it will come out when you plane along the grain.


Once the bevel is cut down to the marks, the MOST IMPORTANT PART is next: the test-fit.  Working to measurements or pencil lines is all well and good, but measurements lie (just like statistics!).  Nothing can substitute for making sure everything will go together without trouble.  If the panel seems like it’s too big, remember to plane off equal amounts from both sides, so that the bevel will remain centered.  And speaking of the bevel, it may be the problem instead of the outside dimensions; if the bevel is too abrupt or too thick, it will bind up instead of seating in the groove, presenting with symptoms similar to the panel being too large for the interior of the box.  Do check to see which is the problem before being excessively zealous in your correction.  If you are making a box in spring or fall, leave a little wiggle room.  In winter, leave a lot of wiggle room.  In summer, make it pretty well tight.  This will leave space for seasonal expansion or contraction depending on when you’re working.  And this only applies for the sides.  Since wood doesn’t get longer with the seasons (only wider), snug it up well against the ends.  I usually sand the inside surfaces before I assemble the box; it’s easier to get at that way.


Finally, once everything dry fits to satisfaction, it’s time to glue.  Do remember to put the bottom in before you put on the last side, or you’ll be quite cross.  And don’t put glue in the grooves, only the dovetails.  Gluing the bottom in the grooves would negate the effort we just put into allowing for seasonal expansion.  Remember that you may be the problem if you attempt to square up and it just won’t adjust correctly, no matter how much you fiddle with the diagonal clamp.  It’s possible, especially with the heavy-threaded screw clamps most of us use, to exert so much force on the sides that it bends the wood under the force of the clamp.  It only takes a little pressure to hold everything until the glue sets.  So be judicious in your efforts.  Let your box dry overnight, and we’ll pick up with the obvious problem tomorrow.




Once the main body of our box is all dovetailed together, I usually go head and cut out the handles next, starting with an auger, then rasping and sanding it to a hand-friendly rounded edge.


Then, we get to a new process.  Since we want the bottom to be able to expand and contract with humidity changes, we need to put it in a groove.  This is basically the same process required for a drawer, though in this case we have to put it in as we glue up, rather than later.  I use a 1/4″ groove, set 7/32″ deep, and up 7/32″ from the bottom.  I don’t usually use 32nds, but that’s what comes out of “between three-sixteenths and a quarter”.  My plow plane (which we modified recently) is an old Stanley 45.  As our stock is pretty thin, the fence will project under the workpiece, so we have to hang it over the edge of the workbench a little, just enough that the fence doesn’t hang up.  Work straight through both the sides and the ends.  If you remember, we had to leave our bottom pin on the ends 1/2″ wide.  Here, you can see that’s to make sure that the groove comes out the end of the pin without interfering with the dovetails.


Grooving is pretty straightforward.  Each side should take less than a minute.  Just be sure to keep your plane straight.  If you have to groove against the grain (it happens sometimes), then there’s a couple of ways to accomplish that.  First, take a very light cut.  Second, score your groove first with a mortice gauge.  If you can get the walls scored in, then the light cuts with the plow should work.  It might leave a rougher surface behind, but it should work.  If it still doesn’t work, you can always use a router plane with a 1/4″ blade and/or a chisel.  There are many roads to the same objective.


Boxed in

This canning jar box is going to be solid wood throughout.  It doesn’t have to be.  You can pretty easily put a plywood bottom in rather than a solid panel, and dividers is one of the very few things I’ve found hardboard any good for.  Again, this is a case of being moderately correct.

Mason jars come in several sizes, and most of them will require a differently sized box.  It’s a fairly simple exercise to figure that out for yourself.  Measure the diameter of the largest bit of the jar, then multiply by the number of jars (3 jars wide, 4 jars long).  Add in 1/4″ per section of divider (or 1/2″ in width and 3/4″ in length).  Add about 3/16″ for fudge factor. This is your inside dimension.  Add the thickness of your stock on both sides, and that’s your external dimension.  AND THEN, before you do anything else, write everything down so you don’t have to do any more measuring!  Invariably you’ll need more than one box, and you don’t want to have to do this more than once.  For most of my boxes, I use 3/8″ thick stock sides and 7/16″ thick bottoms.  Quart boxes need to have thicker stock (1/2″ thick sides and 9/16″ thick bottoms) since the jars are heavier.  Dividers remain at 1/4″ thick, no matter the jar size (and are Douglas Fir in this case).  For this box, which is for wide mouth half-pints, my sides are 15 1/2″ long and the ends are 11 3/4″.  Both are 3 1/2″ wide, and made from yellow pine.


Once I have everything planed down to size, then I start with dovetails.  IT IS IMPORTANT that you make the half-pins on the ends 1/2″ wide.  It would need to be 5/8″ on a quart box.


And before you shut off the shop lights for the night, be sure that you’ve got the bottom panel glued and clamped up so it will be ready to fit to the rest of the box next time.




Baby pictures

I’ll start this next project series with a description of a problem that I’m sure we’re not the only ones to have.  We have a collection of mason jars that we use to can up tomatoes and such in the summertime.  Makes good chili in the middle of winter!  But the cardboard boxes that the jars are boxed in come apart over time.  That, combined with the fact that various folks have given us jars from time to time, means that we had an ungainly stack of glass jars perched rather precariously on a set of shelves in a back room.

It only took one cat to expose the inherent frailty of this system…

This situation was far from ideal.  And so, some years ago, I undertook my first woodworking project to rectify this situation.


There you have it, internets: the first thing that came from the woodshop.  It wasn’t much back then: nailed butt joints, straight-from-the-home-center boards, some cardboard dividers, a nailed on plywood bottom.  Back then, I hadn’t learned how to handsaw a square cut, so I used a miter box to crosscut all those pieces so that they would be square.  It’s pretty primitive…but it holds jars!

So as I worked on both my skills and my design here, I’ve been through several iterations of this idea.  I’ve managed to refine it down to a sturdy design that is not only stronger, but half the bulk of this ur-box.  It’s a lot better looking, too.  And that’s our project for these next few days.  We’ll explore a new tool and technique with a floating panel bottom, and will use a dovetailed design since I’m hand-cutting all the joints.  If you were to look at a machine-tool version, it would probably feature finger joints instead.  The box won’t care.  The golden age of shipping boxes (after barrels, before cardboard) was dominated by finger joints (one of the aliases is a “box joint”), since they are quick to cut with a tablesaw.  Whatever.  Like in Shangri-La, most things are moderately correct.

But I’ll still pick dovetails.

Anyway, we’ll pick this up tomorrow, and I think that the above box can now go back into the dark place where I don’t look.