Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Woodworking for The Inept, Part One

The next task at hand is the fashioning of a new piece to replace the wood missing from the apron under the right cap piece:

I have dreaded this task, because I've had no clear idea of how to get it done. Most of my experience has been in rehabilitating and refinishing old wood; my only real experience with new wood has involved straight cuts. I've never before had to fashion a complex shape out of raw board wood so that it fit properly within an existing structure, so with this task I was on completely new ground. 

I put it off as long as possible in the hope that inspiration would strike, but here it was staring me in the face, and I still didn't know how to get it done. I did make a cardboard pattern from the right apron of the west casing a few months back, but purely on speculation, not as part of any sort of plan. That is, I hoped, rather than thought, it would help.

As it turned out, it did help. As I've mentioned, these aprons were made by hand, and each one is different from the others. They do nevertheless follow the same general pattern, so I was able to find a section of the pattern that did line up more or less perfectly; as it turned out, it was the opposite end of the pattern flipped over that did the trick.

So, okay! Great! I knew that all I had to do was reproduce that loop in a new piece of wood and I'd be well on my way to getting this done. So I rummaged through my extensive collection of scrap wood and came up with a nice piece of hardwood plywood, the kind with no gaps in any of the plies. That would work well.

Nice as it was, there were a few problems with this piece relative to the task at hand: first, it was interior plywood, not really weatherproof; second, it was about an eighth of an inch too thick. 

But this isn't This Old House, and I'm not Norm Abrams. We're more ad hoc, more steampunk, more cheap and in a hurry. In other words: when the going gets rough, we wing it. I've found that there are few problems that can't be solved with epoxy, sandpaper, or a combination of both. 

So I plunged in. The first step was clear enough, making the hole in the middle. For that I could use a drill. I couldn't find the 1 1/4" bit I needed, but I did have the 1 1/8", and plenty of sandpaper. So I drilled the hole, then lined up the relevant part of the cardboard pattern around it and drew the outer curve.

And with that, I was out of ideas. It was evident that the only thing I knew I had right was that hole, and even that was certain to need some adjustment. If I cut the piece now, I'd be cutting it blind; and even if it did manage to come out usably, with my weak eyes I'd have a tough time lining it up and making the cut marks in the right place so it would fit in properly. If there were only some way I could transfer the precise contours of the existing broken piece to my new piece. If only I knew what I was doing.

I imagine the solution has already occurred to you, so to make a long story short, after a long period of just standing at the top of the ladder staring at the void, it finally dawned on me that if I transferred the profile to stout paper instead of cardboard, then I could transfer the  dimensions of the void to the new piece. Come, Watson! The chase is afoot!

I copied the part of the pattern I was working with onto heavy kraft paper, cut it out, held it in place over the existing piece on the casing, and carefully creased the paper to indicate where to make the cuts.

Then, using a pattern tracing wheel borrowed from Wifey's sewing tools (in woodworking it's called a pounce wheel), I transferred the creases in the pattern to the new piece. The teeth of the pattern wheel made small indentations in the wood right through the paper, indicating where to make the cuts.

With the outline of the piece now clearly marked on the wood, it was a simple matter to cut it out. I used a coping saw for the long curved cut, and for the short straight cuts I used a back saw, a fine-toothed handsaw with a stiffening reinforcement along its top edge (typically used with a miter box). It wasn't the best saw for the job—that would have been a much smaller back saw called a gents' saw—but I don't have one of those, so I gave it the old ad hoc whammy. It was a bit awkward, but it did the job.

I was thrilled to see that unlike my last turn at the coping saw, this time I did a decent job that did not call for corrective puttying. So now at last I had something to work with. Did it fit? By then it was dark out, so I had to wait to find out.

* * *

"Thirteen pounds, nine and a half ounces of wild feline awesomeness."


  1. Great pattern work. You don't need me anymore.

    Aunt Bee

  2. Keep that wild lynx inside the house! Squirrel


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