Wednesday, March 31

What’s The Hold-Up?

For the past couple of month’s I’ve been working on a custom built Grandfather clock cabinet. It has been slow going because it is not the traditional style of cabinet and there are lots of quirks to work out as I go along. But, there are other reasons for the delays, especially lately. About 7 years ago Marie and I assisted my mother and step-father in moving from Nebraska and building a home on our property here in Tennessee. This was done because Mom and Pat were getting on in years and I wanted to be sure that as they got to where they needed help, someone would be close at hand to give that help. Six years ago Patrick became very ill. Terminally ill in fact. He preferred to die in the comfortable, familiar surroundings of his home than in a hospital or nursing facility, so when the time came, Mom assumed the role of full time, live-in nurse. A few months ago he got so bad off that Mom could no longer handle his care unassisted, and I began to step in to help out as needed. A few weeks ago he began to decline rapidly and my visits to their house went from one a day to three or four as I helped with the more physical aspects and in sitting with Pat so Mom could get away for a provisions run, or some fresh air, or just to take a hot bath and relax for a few moments... or just to give her someone to talk to. Patrick passed away a little over a week ago, and much of the time since then has been spent seeing to Pat’s final arrangements, both funeral and financial, and looking after Mom. Family began arriving within days and I was able to step back and let them visit, help, and be a part of the process. But there was still a need to be involved when I could, and though I was able to spend more time working the wood, I was still very distracted by the whole thing. That's only natural. Pat’s memorial service was the day before yesterday, the familial troupe departed for their own home towns yesterday and Mom went with some of them to visit her friends and family in Nebraska who could not get here. She will be gone a week or two… maybe more. In that time my only responsibilities will be to care for her cat and water the house plants, (and do some yard work, and some basic repairs, and get the tracked-in mud out of the living room carpet…) so I should be able to pretty much get back on track and begin putting in full days of woodworking once again. I want to thank Harold for his patience and understanding during these delays. Hopefully the finished product will be worth the wait. During this time, Marie and I have again been discussing the prospect of shelving the Custom Furniture aspect of our business in favor of building a “line” of our own products, building them in a semi-production mode that will allow us to streamline the process by building in batches and thus keep the pricing lower. With the economy as bad as it is, the demand for full custom furniture has fallen off sharply. Where we used to have a waiting list that averaged 4 to 6 months long, we are now working on a job-to-job basis. This is not the direction I had envisioned us going, but it appears to be what we will need to do. If we don’t adapt, we will perish.

Friday, March 26

Mounting the Head

I start this day by putting the head case, held together by screws and clamps alone, atop the pendulum cabinet and drilling the screw holes that will hold the two together. I need to rig a platform to stand on to do this as the thing is getting very tall! That done I take it down again, pull the head cabinet apart, sand the insides.then chop the pockets for the side door hinges. This is often done with a router and a special jig, but building the jig will take more time than chopping the pockets with a chisel, so I just do it by hand. The hinge pockets for the front door are cut on the front edge of the case sides, and I can cut these on the table saw by nibbling out the recess with multiple passes over a good blade. Using a dado head would made this faster (fewer passes) but again, I can have this done in the time it would take to remove the blade and install the dado head. I go ahead and mount the hinges to the cabinet, then mount the head cabinet back on the pendulum cabinet and see how it looks. Next week we’ll make doors.

Thursday, March 25

Head Case

Today I’ll make the parts for the “Head Case”. No that’s not a clock makers term, I made it up because it’s the case that holds the head of the clock, where all the gears and wheels, as well as the face and hands of the clock are. There is probably a proper name for it, but I don’t know what else it would be. I start by milling out the parts for the back panel: 2 rails, 3 stiles and 2 filler panels, resawn and book matched from a 4/4 board I cut the tenons, mill the grooves and trim the panels to fit, then dry fit the parts and carefully check them over to be sure everything draws up like it should. Once I’m satisfied this goes into the assembly room where the parts are glued, clamped and squared. Then that sits for a while to let the glue set up. Next up, I mill the parts for the head case sides. I need to glue up a panel that will be wide enough to make this part, but don’t want to then come back and cut out the door opening, so instead I Lay-out the parts to be cut from one board so I can cut them to side then flip the short part down from the end of the long part and join them so the grain will be well matched. Once the glue has set up I sand the glue joints and they disappear nicely. Spiffy huh? Finally I cut the brace for the top front and the 5 parts for the floor. Because we have to leave a hole for the pendulum and weights to hang down through, the case floor is made up of several parts, including a filler piece under each side door opening with it’s grain running vertically to match up with the case sides. All the floor parts are glued together, the rest of the case is held together with clamps and screws so it can be dismantled and sanded before being glued up permanently. But that will be a task for tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 24

Decision Time

I need feedback from Harold as to whether this would be too much glass in front or would be OK. If this would be too "open" I'll need to make a large filler panel, rabbet it into the door frame and cut out the middle part where I'll install the beveled edge glass. Before I glue this frame together, I need to cut a glass rabbet and spline the miters, or cut a larger rabbet for the filler panel. So, work on this part will stop until I get his decision on this. But I can work on the head cabinet.

Harold, click on the image to get a much better view.

Decision reached: in keeping with the spirit of the clock that insired this project, we will build a filler panel to close in the excess open space and focus ones' attention on the pendulum.

Frilly Bits

I’ll start the front of the lower cabinet by making the panel for the fully enclosed part. This involves resawing, jointing and gluing up a book-matched filler panel, planning and sanding that, then cutting the 2° slope on each side. I cut the trim strip stiles (vertical parts)to length, paying attention to the 2° side slope and 4° backward slope where they come into play. Next I need the top rail: ends cut for a precise fit and at a 2° bevel to mate up perfectly to the side stiles. Finally I groove the inside faces of all four frame pieces to accept the panel, do a test fit and adjust where necessary. When everything fits just as it should I take it all apart again, carefully apply glue to the joint areas – NOT to the panel, it needs to float – and clamp them together. I clean up and glue squeeze-out with a small, clean paint brush and water, wiping it dry afterward with a rag. While that dries I begin cutting the complicated parts that will form the door frame. I start with the two longest pieces and cut the parts sequentially from each stick to keep the grain flowing around the door as much as possible. This involves cutting each piece a little long so I can sneak up on a perfect fit – every angle is different and not one of them is a standard angle because of the sloping sides. At least one side does mirror the other, so when I get each angle honed in, I cut the parts for both sides. When I get to the small pieces that fit around the octagonal belly, some of them are too small to safely hold on the miter saw without risking being seriously cut should the blade grab the piece and suck my hand into the whirling cutter when it tosses the chunk of wood. So I invent a quick holding jig made from scraps and clamps. In the photo I’m pointing to the piece being trimmed, the finger WILL be moved clear before I make the cut I assure you! By the end of the day all 12 pieces that make the door frame are cut and perfectly fitted. A nice job if I do say so.

Making the Molding

In this project I’ll use some shop-made molding both as decoration on the lower part of the cabinet and as framing for the door, which will be mostly glass. So I start by jointing and planing rough stock as we always do, then ripping the boards down to finished width – almost. Because ripping a long board releases internal stresses that can cause the pieces to bow, I leave some extra width in the part I’ll use. After ripping I’ll joint it again on the concave side of the bow to straighten it out, then rip it again to straighten the convex edge as we’ll have a nice straight strip again. Then I mount a triple-reed bit in the router table to start shaping the molding. I add a feather board to help hold the piece of wood against the fence so I can focus more on holding it flat to the table as I feed the long pieces of wood past the cutter. I make one pass, flip the piece over and make another pass on the opposite side of the front, making three reeds on each side and a lump down the middle. Changing to an end-cutter bit and running the strips face down on the router table allows me to clean out the lump and leave a nice flat bottomed channel where the rope trim strip will go later. All that remains to do now is to set up the dado head and cut a shallow rabbet along one edge of the back that will allow the door frame parts to nestle into the side pieces a little and help keep the door from sliding around.


As I’ve been building this clock case I have been envisioning it with the built-up molding that we typically use around the base of our work, but in reviewing the design sketch I am reminded that Harold had wanted this clock to have bracket feet, not a base molding. OOPS! So I have a little re-designing on the fly to do. I start by breaking out my French curves and some pattern paper and drawing the shape of the feet for the front panel. Cut out the pattern carefully with sharp scissors and tape it to the front panel, then draw around the pattern onto the walnut. This piece has not been fastened to the case yet, so I remove it and use the bandsaw to cut out the shape and a drill press mounted drum sander to remove the saw marks. Then I can pop that piece back in place… that was the easy one. I make another pattern sized to fit the side panels, tape it in place and transfer the shape to the side. But, parts of the leveler foot bracing are in the way, so I have to cut them out before I cut the foot shape. That takes some ingenuity and a lot of patience. Then I use my saber saw to cut the bracket shape into the side panel. I work very carefully to minimize lumps and overcuts. Then I chuck the drum sander into my portable drill and smooth these cuts. When I’m done we have a nice set of bracket feet on the front and sides, but it took all day to get there. Whew!
I’ll watch that design sketch more closely from here on out!

Building the Foundation

Sorry to have been away so long; we’ve been dealing with some family health issues. In this episode we will build the adjustable base of the cabinet. I start by making the cross braces to fit snugly into the base of the cabinet and bore holes just large enough to accept the barbed Tee nuts. I drive the nuts into the holes, making sure the barbs are placed so they don’t split the wood at the ends of the braces. The leveler feet thread into the Tee nuts. These have felt pads on the bottom and will give about an inch of adjustment – which should be more than enough. Sometimes I use feet that have a screw slot in the top so they can be adjusted with a screwdriver from inside the cabinet, but because the lower part of this clock case does not open and it’s fairly tight in there, that is not a consideration here. These will he adjusted from under the cabinet by tipping it up a little. The braces are fastened in with glue and finish head nails. I set them in enough that the feet can be recessed completely into the cabinet so it rests right on the floor, then the levelers can be sued to compensate for any wobble without actually lifting the cabinet off the floor.

Friday, March 12

Tapering the Sides

Today we put the tapering sled to work for a little bit, then I can take it apart and relegate the parts back to the scrap bin. I start by taking measurements off the mock-up I built out of crateboard, I need the distance from back to front at the very bottom and at the very top of the base cabinet. I stick tabs of masking tape on the sides where I expect the lay-out marks to go, then lay them out on the tape – much easier to see than on the walnut. Then I lay the side panel on the tapering sled, line the lay-out marks up with the edge of the sled and use spring clamps to hold it in place temporarily. Then I carefully place the stop blocks against the back edge of the side panel and screw them to the sled. This is a low-tech solution, the woodworking magazines would be installing aluminum channel track and toggle clamps on sliding blocks that run on the track. But like I said, this is a single use piece of equipment so there’s no point in going to all that trouble and expense. Two of the blocks have a second block screwed to them as hold-downs. I also use masking tape to secure the side panel to the stop blocks to keep it from walking out away from the blocks and causing the side to be cut too narrow. That would be very bad. Now I raise the blade as high as it will go. It won’t be quite high enough because I increased the width of the octagonal belly from the original design after test fitting the clock parts into the mock-up and feeling that it might be too narrow to allow the huge pendulum to swing properly. Ready? Here we go! The sled tracks well and I have no side to side play at all. That’s a good thing. When the pass is complete you can see where the blade did not cut all the way through. We will have to deal with that another way. And that would be with the band saw. I use a straight edge to play “connect the kerfs” inside the side, then cut to the outside edge of the table saw kerf. That leaves a slight ridge of wood that will have to be removed, but I’d rather do that than risk something going awry and leaving me with a divot or depression in the front edge of the case. I work the ridge down with a hand plane, using a long straight edge to check for high spots and shaving them just a little more until I get a good, flat edge again. I then spend a couple of hours in quality time with my sanding blocks as I smooth out the filler over the nail heads, remove any glue squeeze-out and prepare the sides for the next step… Which is to glue them to the back panel. This goes well despite a shortage of hands. Having an abundance of clamps helps. This will sit overnight before I try to do anything more, but I will spend the rest of the afternoon making the next parts I’ll be needing. See you Monday!

Thursday, March 11


After lunch I went looking through the scrap lumber bins to find the materials I’ll need to make a giant tapering sled. I started by cutting a 2x4 to length and attaching it to one edge of the piece of plywood with screws. This is a stiffener that will keep the plywood flat (it had a bit of a bow to it) and prevent the ends from sagging when they run out past the table saw’s edge. Next I joint a long cut-off strip, surface plane it to approximate thickness then use the drum sander to fine tune the width so it is a snug fit (but not too snug) in the accessory slot of the table saw. This guide bar will be recessed into the bottom of the sled and ride in the slot in the saw to keep the sled tracking straight and true through the whole cut. So the next step is to set up a ¾” dado head and cut test slots in scrap wood until I get the slot width to be a snug fit on the just-made guide bar. When the width is right, I cut the dado in the bottom of the plywood. Once again I’m wrestling with a long contraption that I have to support the far end, press the thing down firmly against the top of the table saw and keep it pressed against the fence all at the same time. But I managed it. So now I glue the guide bar into the slot in the bottom of the sled. I don’t use screws here because I’ve found that even when I drill pilot holes, the screws tend to spread the bar out just a hair and cause it to bind. I suppose I could just sand the bar a bit thinner, but then we’re into guessing at where it will end up. Besides, this is a one-use piece of equipment and I don’t want to spend too many hours in building it. Finally I add stiffeners across each end to keep it from curling up (cutting the dado in it causes it to get pretty bendy at that point) and make some positioning blocks. That completes the sled, but I won’t put it to use until tomorrow so the side piece I glued up today will have a chance for the glue to set up hard before I go moving it around. So that’s going to do it for today.
See you tomorrow!

The Frustrating Part

This step took two days to accomplish, but yielded very few billable hours because so much time was spent waiting for glue to dry between phases. The first thing to do was to sand all the side parts to 120 grit to remove milling marks and scuffs. Working on the right side first, I built the side up in sub-assemblies, clamping parts together starting with the center part or “belly” of the clock. Holding the pieces in position while I installed the clamps was tough – I could have used a few more hands, getting the parts to draw up properly was tougher. Since all the surfaces are sloped, there isn’t any convenient place to get clamps to grab onto, so I had to clamp in cleats for other clamps to grab, and try to arrange them so one set of clamps didn’t end up being in the way of others. My plan to clamp the upper and lower pieces with long clamps running from top to bottom was foiled when I found that my longest clamps were too short to reach. So I had to reach down deeper into the creativity bucket and fish out another morsel to overcome that. By day’s end the right side was all clamped up and I let it stay that way overnight, and I was more than ready to quit for the day. Next morning I removed the clamps and while the joints had glued up well, I decided to add some insurance by cross-nailing each joint. I don’t know that nails do much to actually prevent failure of a poorly done glue joint, and I don’t normally use nails except to tack things together during gluing but this seemed like a small amount of effort to invest that may turn out to be helpful. Then it occurred to me that if I use the nails for the reason that I have them here at all; to hold the parts together while the glue sets, things might go a little more easily. Of course, keeping the parts in alignment while I drive nails can be very aggravating too, but I thought I’d give it a try. It couldn’t be any worse than yesterday. So I started with the bottom side piece and worked my way up, clamping each piece to the back assembly as I went but using masking tape to hold the pieces in position while I drilled pilot holes and drove in the nails and set them below the surface. I found that if I worked the nails in pairs and drove each only a little to start they worked to lock the parts in place so I could finish driving the nails and would draw the joints up tight at the end. Mostly. There was one piece that had cupped a little and would not draw down with nails, so I clamped a piece of scrap wood inside the case, extending into the belly so I could use a deep throated clamp to reach down and draw the middle of the panel tight against it’s mate. Other than this, no clamps were needed at the joints. I will let this assembly set as is overnight so the glue can develop a good amount of strength before I attempt to move it around. This process accomplished in a few hours what it took me all day to do yesterday, and with much less temptation to cuss and throw things. I took some time before stopping for lunch to fill the nail holes in both side assemblies with walnut putty. This afternoon I will build a special made taper jig to cut the 4° slope that runs from toe to tip-tip of this base cabinet.

Tuesday, March 9

The Scary Part

In this step I will take those beautiful, wide, perfectly jointed boards I made up a while back and cut them into little pieces. (cringe). But not only will I cut them into pieces, but the pieces will have to fit together to form the octagonal-banjo shape of this clock. That means very precise angles need to be cut on these wide panels. And, I want to keep the grain flowing around each joint, so the pieces must be cut sequentially off of each board and with as little waste as possible. I start by trimming the glued-up boards to width so the long edges are parallel. I will need to flip the boards over to cut every other miter, so they need to square-up from either edge. I take a very light cut pass over the jointer to make sure the back edge is straight. To make registering the side pieces against the back plate and holding them in place during glue-up easier I will cut a shallow rabbet along the back, inside edge of the sides. So I set up the dado head for a ¾ inch wide, 1/8 inch deep cut. I really don’t like maneuvering such long boards through a cut like this all by myself, but I don’t have much choice. I install the long fence, and some fingerboards to help guide the plank, but keeping it flat on the table top so the cut is of consistent depth will be important – and difficult. When I’m done, I have a very nice, even rabbet along the edge of both boards. One end of one board lifted on me just a little as it passed over the cutter, but I caught it afterward and cleaned it up with a wide chisel. A good part of this day will be spent changing over the table saw. I remove the dado head, install a high performance blade and set it to the first of several angle settings. If the “belly” of the clock were perfectly octagonal I could use a setting of 60 degrees for all the joints, but because the sides slope in at 2 degrees, I will also have one joint on each side at 58 degrees and another at 62 degrees. These angles must be cut on the ends of both pieces coming together at that point, and I must be sure I keep track to which edge is which. Any mistakes will result in tossing the side piece out, making a new one and starting over. I install the wide cross-cut sled and set up to make my first cut. Say a little prayer and here we go… When I get to the little pieces that angle out, I remove the sled, set up the rip fence and feather board. Because I’m cutting these parts in between larger parts this change over is done several times as I go from the lower side, to a small wing, to the side piece to a small wing, to the upper side. I am, however cutting the pieces for both sides as I go. That helps. As I cut the pieces, I use clamps and tape to affix them to the back plate, building up from the bottom. At day’s end both sides are completed, nothing has been glued yet, just being held together temporarily as I fit them together. Here is what I meant about getting the grain to flow around each joint. It takes a lot more work than just cutting random pieces, or even cutting oversized blanks out of a single board and trimming them down. By wasting as little as possible in cutting the joints we get a very nice “flow” down the side of the case. Next time we’ll begin gluing the pieces together. That too will be a challenge because the odd angles are hard to clamp and I can’t use nails or screws here because I will need to be ripping these side panels lengthwise to get the 4 degree front-to-back slope before I glue the sides to the back. That too will be tricky. We’re just having all kinds of fun on this project!