Saturday, August 21, 2010

Woodworking 101: Building a six board chest. Part 1 of 4

What is it?
For many years before things like closets and clothes hangers, much of our stuff was stored in chests. The easiest forms of these were built by most men for their family's use, while more impressive ones were made by professionals. The technique is such that it can easily be scaled up or down based on need.

Why do it?
There was a time when every boy (and more than a few girls) learned some basic woodworking from his father and built on those skills throughout his life, allowing him to make many basic household items. In our "disposable" society, such skills have become the exception, not the norm. Yet, many of us have treasured heirlooms or value antiques for their craftsmanship. Why not take a little time to do it yourself? Throughout the process, you'll pick up some basic skills like using a saw and drill, measuring, basic joinery, and finishing. Any of those can come in handy in home repair. Plus, you'll be able to say, "That? I made that."

How did I learn it?
I've been playing around with woodworking since I was a kid, including things like shop class and Pinewood Derby with dad. But honestly, my father was never super handy, nor motivated to work on projects at the end of the day. My brother turned out to be the truly skilled woodsmith in the family, making heirloom toys and now running his own handyman service. Over the years I became more skilled in things like blacksmithing and tailoring. Eventually I started needing to build props, sets, and staging for renaissance faire acts, which pushed me to learn more and more wood working, but mostly on a large scale.

Last year I helped start a reenactment group and we needed some furniture. I built a basic table with mortise and tenon construction and found I not only enjoyed it, but my prior skills helped ease the process. This summer I decided to try my hand at a chest and found it quite simple, not to mention gratifying!

How do you learn it?
There are a number of patterns on the web, but I'm going to try and make this as basic as I can, giving you each step, links, and pictures. It will likely take a few posts to get it all out there, but I hope it is worth the effort. I'll throw in some optional stuff as I go if you're feeling particularly motivated. So let's jump into it! Before we start, we need some tools and some wood.

This style of chest has been made, literally, for hundreds and hundreds of years. I know of similar versions used in Norse times, and they remain popular well past the days of American colonialism. Thus, you won't need a ton of power tools if you don't want to use them. However, they certainly will make your life easier! I'll detail most of this using the following, offering hand tool options where possible:

Table Saw (or a good handsaw and miter box)
Power drill (either corded or battery powered, or an auger/hand crank drill if you want to be old school)
Sandpaper (optionally, powered sanding equipment)
Wood glue (Elmer's Carpenters is fine, or any of Titebond's wood glues. I recommend not using Gorilla until you've played with it a bit as it expands and can get messy)
Tape measure
Square (either a small carpenters square, speed square, or my personal favorite, a combination square)

Additionally, you might need the following depending on the options you choose:
Router (with bits sized to your chosen wood)
Screwdriver (or #2 bit for your drill)
Rubber or rawhide mallet

This is a huge topic, but I'll try and keep it very basic for our purposes. First choice is softwood or hardwood? We could go into a big discussion on the differences, but go here for that. For our purposes, we just need to know that hardwoods tend to be stronger than softwoods. On a project like a chest, it all comes down to the weight it has to hold. If this will be fairly small, or if you will only ever have light items in it, then a softwood (any coniferous tree, like pine) can work fine and be considerably cheaper. If you've never done any woodworking before, get pine. It's available at any of the DIY outlets (Lowes, Home Depot, etc) in a variety of sizes, it's cheap, and if you screw up you won't be terribly upset.

For something we want to last the ages, hardwood is your best bet. It certainly costs more, but it will hold up to abuse and handle far more weight with smaller dimensions. Oak is a perennial favorite and has been used in furniture for a very long time. Poplar works well and is much cheaper. Here in the US, maple is very affordable. And, of course, cedar is a popular choice for anything holding cloth due to it's moth-repellent abilities. If you go with hardwood, look around you for a lumber yard instead of using the DIY outlets. I recently purchased wood for a few chests after making my prototype from wood I got at Lowes. The cost went from $100 from the first chest to $63 for the second! Well worth the extra time.

If you do go to a lumber yard, expect a few oddities. The DIY places have been "dumbed down" for us common folk, so they only sell "dimensional" lumber. This means things like 2"x4"s and the like. The odd thing is, a 2"x4" is actually 1.5"x3.5" in size. This is because 2"x4" refers to the width before planing to a standard size. Lumber yards, on the other hand, often sell hardwood by "quarter" sizes. Thus, 4/4 refers to 1" lumber. Here again, this is before planing, and so 4/4 is actually 3/4" thick. Be aware that planing of hardwoods is seldom as smooth as on dimensional lumber and may require extra work to finish it out. Generally, however, at least one side is very good and you can hide any unevenness inside, or work it into the character of the piece. I consider the price savings and variety to be worth the quirks.

The dimensions of this particular chest will be for roughly a 2 feet wide, 12" deep chest that is just over 16" tall. This will provide us with legs that are about 4" tall and allow for a bit of decorative cutting. Using these dimensions, we'll need 12 feet of 12" lumber. If this is dimensional lumber, it will really be 11.5", which is fine for what we need. You can get this in 6 foot lengths if you prefer. Here are the lengths we'll be cutting down to so you can figure it all out.

Front and Back: 2 @ 24"
Sides: 2 @ 16"
Lid: 1 @ 26"
Floor: 1 @ 22.5" or 23" *

*Note: if you would rather make the floor of the chest thinner, you can opt to use plywood. I would recommend picking up hickory plywood for this, 1/4" thick, easily found at the DIY places. You generally need to a get a bigger sheet (at least 2 feet by 2 feet), but then you'll have extra for your next chest. You know you really want 2, anyway.

Next time, we'll measure and cut!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


What is it? 
CardioPulmonary Resuscitation, that's CPR to most of us. You can learn all about it across the web. The American Heart Association is a great resource and sets the standards. They also create many of the training courses you might attend. The reason this is the first skills post in this blog is that it is, in my opinion, the #1 thing everyone in the world should know how to do!

Why do it? 
First, let's be clear; CPR is unlikely to restore someone's heart beat to normal. It is really designed to keep the blood moving to the rest of the body, especially the vital organs, like the heart, lungs, and brain. As an EMT in a 911 contract area I performed CPR...I don't even recall, certainly over 20 times. I only once recovered a normal heartbeat through compressions. However, the technique allowed the successful application of other techniques, such as defibrillation, that has a much better chance of restoring a standard heartbeat. The earlier you receive CPR in a cardiac event, the better chance you have of survival. That means you could very easily be the difference between someone living and dying. In a way, it makes you a bit of a superhero!

How did I learn it? 
In Scouts, we had to learn CPR as part of the First Aid Merit Badge. I kept it up every few years after that point until my involvement in our company Trauma Team while employed at a textile mill. That experience led me to become an EMT, which is where I actually put that learning into practice.

How do you learn it?  
Take a class! Often times you can find cheap classes near you either sponsored by community groups, fire departments, or even your employer. If you haven't taken one in a while, consider doing so. Things have changed considerably over the past decade, including a change of compressions to breaths and, in many classes, instruction in the use of the AED, or Automatic External Defibrillator. As more and more AEDs pop up in public places, their very simple yet effective use makes it even more likely someone will survive a cardiac event.

What else can you tell me that may not be common knowledge?
When in class for the Trauma Team, our instructor stated, "If you ever have to do this in the real world, you may feel and hear a cracking." This cracking is the breaking of ribs. Yes, it happens. A lot. In fact, if you do compressions on an adult, it is pretty much a guarantee. In the times I performed CPR, I recall exactly three in which ribs did not break. The first as a 2 month old baby. Next was an 11 year old boy. The only adult I performed CPR on where I didn't break ribs was when the person in question had already broken most of them in an auto accident (this also was the one time I recovered a standard rhythm with compressions.) Certainly you need to worry about using too much force in compressions, especially when your blood is pumping with excitement, but it is always good to be prepared for the cracking of ribs to happen.

If you can handle it, volunteer for your local fire department or ambulance to gain experience. If not, make sure you renew often, as during an emergency you will fall to the level of your training, not rise to the level of your knowledge. In other words, if you aren't used to doing it, if it isn't ingrained, you might freeze.

Always call 911 first, or have someone do it. CPR is exhausting, you don't want to do it by yourself for long. Getting emergency personnel on scene ASAP is always your top priority.

Next time we'll focus on something less gruesome, I promise. In the meantime, go take a class!

Welcome to my collection!

For years, really as long as I can remember, I have been gathering, honing, and utilizing a variety of skills. It has led me to interesting jobs, taken me on adventures, and generally kept me active beyond what most people consider the norm. Many seek out the shiny new car, I look for something I don't know how to do and seek to at least gain a proficiency. Not always do I succeed, but I always learn.

I believe the Boy Scouts of America are at least partly to blame for this behavior. The nature of the Merit Badge system, whereby Scouts are encouraged to meet a set of requirements demonstrating a passing knowledge and proficiency in various skills, lends itself to a "Jack of all trades" disposition. In order to obtain the highest rank in Scouting, that of Eagle Scout, a boy must obtain a certain number of required skills and a similar number of those that interest him personally. Skills range from camping and first aid to citizenship and personal finance. Like many Scouts, I had far more of these badges than required when I earned my Eagle. And I suppose I just couldn't stop.

What skills are we talking about? What will I talk about here? Well, here's a list of a few of them that I already have. Personal history suggests the list will continue to grow!

Emergency Medicine
Writing (technical and creative)
Fire starting
Sword fighting
Various Computing skills (basic networking, HTML, Word, Excel, podcasting, etc)
Cooking (including baking, open fire, dehydration, grilling...the list goes on)
Straight razor shaving
Personal finance
Food storage
Sewing (from buttons to full blown costuming for theatre productions)
Training (both hard and soft skills)

OK, that was more than a few, but you get the idea. My goal here is to touch on different skills; why they are important, how you can pick them up, and how to fit them into your life. Some will be fairly out there, others will be immediately within reach, but hopefully most will be of interest. I also hope and expect to pick up a few more from those who stop by to read.

The goal is to do at least a post each week. Feel free to keep me honest! Let's get to work, shall we? Where to begin...