The Annual Christmas Conundrum
Back into time… when Christmas 2019 was still WELL in my future…perhaps October or so of 2019. I looked into my handy references of “who do I give to for Christmas this year” charts, and well — I got nothing. Nada. Zilch. You know, like always — like EVERY year!
But then…I remembered: I gave to Holly last year! I even recall what I gave her. I also recalled who gave to me: Todd, and I recalled what he gave me too. Memory is such a fickle thing. It never ceases to amaze me when it actually (somewhat accurately) works like it’s supposed to.
So, armed with this newfound (or, ok– newly recalled) information, I knew who I had to give to for a Christmas gift for in 2019: it was Mika! And I knew that I didn’t want to just BUY her something. I wanted to give her something unique. Something of myself. Something made. And this meant made of wood — because that is the only medium that I have much experience and skill in working (besides blueberry stories). And so, without much further ado — To the Internet! — for some inspiration.
Get Some Inspiration
I watched all kinds of things on the YouTube: epoxy-river tables (they looked pretty cool), boxes, chairs, bowls… and then: cutting boards. That’s the ticket, I thought: simple, elegant, useful, sometimes even quite good looking. I resolved to make Mika a cutting board for Christmas! No problem, I thought: it’s just a board. Even I couldn’t help but deliver such a simple project on time!
Well…I was quite wrong about that (the on time thing, I mean). I quickly honed in on a design from YouTube. Here is the clip I watched, it even includes how to put the whole smear together:
What could be simpler, I thought: I’ll whip this out by early November; and I’ll have it in the mail before Suzanne whisks us all off to foreign lands for the holidays. I mean everything’s here: measurements, methods of work…. even though this YouTube-guy is Russian. He did ALL the work — the types of wood, the angles, the steps, everything. This guy was brilliant!
So…I watched this video about 6 times. I got this. But I didn’t. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how much wood I really needed in order to make a given size of board. And that really WAS my very first step: how big to make the board. I am TERRIBLE at working backwards through a design. Yes, I could see what he did there! Yes, I could see HOW he did it even. But no way could I work myself backwards into a set dimension for a finished board.
It all about being Golden
But then, I had an epiphany: it didn’t matter EXACTLY how big the finished board was. What mattered was that it looked right. Which is to say:
- It needed to be big enough to do common things like cutting a steak, or a roast chicken, or a loaf of bread. So it needed to be about 10″ wide. Ish.
- The ratio of the width x the length needed to be GOLDEN. I mean it needed to be a GOLDEN RECTANGLE! And it needed this, because it had to look ‘just right’. And everyone knows: a Golden Rectangle just looks right. And yes.. this is a real thing: go Google up Golden Ratio.
Ok, so now I had a target board size: 10 inches x 16.18inches. And then I fussed with how thick the finished board should be. The YouTube guy’s board looked REALLY thick: 2″ or so at least! Seemed heavy, cumbersome even. I finally settled on 1.5″. Just because a 2×4 felt pretty good in my hands. Quite un-cumbersome, as a matter of fact.
How much wood is that again?
Now we’re getting somewhere, my geeky mind congratulated itself: we got measurements. I should be able to figure this out. Except — I never really did! Not that I didn’t try. I even put together fancy CAD program representations of the angled cuts I needed to make, because the Russian guy’s measurements were all in millimeters, and mine needed to be in inches:
And then I mentally flipped and cut the result into pieces, and then glued all the pieces together in my mind (it’s not that hard: just watch the YouTube again), and cut them into 1.5″ pieces, and glued them together again for the final time. Bah!
I kept coming up with different lengths of wood. I finally convinced myself that 3 boards that were about 8″ wide x about 48″ long would be enough. And it was. Not EXACTLY right, and not HORRIBLY (like orders of magnitude) wrong either. I ended up with less than 25% waste. About average for most of my projects.
So all these mental gymnastics took time: October slipped into November before I finally felt confident enough with measurements to start the project. My board (remember: it’s just a board) would be composed of three types of wood: Maple for the light-colored wood, Walnut for the dark colored wood, and Cherry for the medium colored wood — and also because I knew from previous projects how good Walnut and Cherry looked together.
The Right Stuff
So off to the local hardwood dealer I went to procure enough Cherry and Maple. I already had enough Walnut on-hand to make this thing. Todd can tell you how I have enough of this: he was there when we got a whole TRUCK-LOAD.
Make me a Sammich Please!
OK, so the next step was to make some ‘sandwiches’, where the middle (meat) of the sandwich was — for one sandwich — Cherry; and for the other ’twas Walnut. The ‘bread’ portion would be Maple — the white-colored wood in the pictures above.
The middle portion was to be full-thickness, and the Maple portions needed to be half-thickness. So, my middle portions were 3/4″ thick (strangely, this is referred to as 1x lumber), and all the 1x lumber you can buy at the local lumber mart (or any mart, really) is this thickness. Which means that the Maple pieces on the outside of my sammiches needed to be (anyone, anyone? McFly!) — yes, 3/8 of an inch thick.
So more mental delays, while I figured out how to make all my 3/4″ Maple into 3/8″ Maple without simply planing it down on my thickness-planer — and WASTING a full half of the value of the Maple in the process. Not to mention making a huge mess in my garage. Now as it turns out, my garage was going to be a mess anyway — so that really shouldn’t have been much of a consideration. But the Yankee in me absolutely rebelled at the thought of wasting so much wood!
Cutting the Bread
OK, so I needed to cut my Maple board into “slices” that were thinner than the 3/4″ (1x lumber) that I had purchased at the Hardwood Retailer. Specifically, I needed to get a bunch of Maple that was cut into 3/8″ thickness for the ‘bread’ of my wood sandwiches. One 3/8″ slice of Maple on the top, then the Cherry or Walnut in the middle, then another slice of Maple on the bottom. The problem was: how do I turn all this 3/4″ thick Maple into 3/8″ Maple.
How do I Slice Thee?
Option 1 — as I’ve already mentioned, is that I could simply run all this 3/4″ thick Maple through my handy DeWalt Surface Planer. I have a nice one — a DeWalt model 735. It would power through a job like this with nary a burp. Unfortunately, it just turns what gets trimmed off the board into sawdust — and it does it darned well. Turrible wastage, just turrible.
Option 2 — would be to ‘Resaw’ the Maple on the bandsaw. This is a great solution, because the kerf (the part of the saw-cut that is rendered into sawdust as the blade passes through the wood) is only about 1/16″. Here’s an example of someone resawing a board on a bandsaw:
Now this would have been a dandy solution to making my Maple slices, except for one small detail: my name is not Todd!
Let me explain why this is important. You see below the original size of the board from the Hardwood Retailer:
This board is a 1 x 8 Maple board. Yes, you read that right, despite the incontrovertible photographic evidence that this board is only 7.25″ wide. It’s just a woodworking thing, OK. You see: back in the beginning of time, there was a guy by the last name of George who just arbitrarily inflated every board size that he ever talked about. And that’s how a 1 x 8 is really only 7.25″ wide. Honest: That’s how it really happened. I wouldn’t fib about an important thing like this.
OK, so the 1 x 8 is only 7.25″ wide — just accept it. The trouble is that I don’t have a bandsaw that can cut through a 7.25″ board. The maximum depth of cut for my bandsaw is only 6″, as shown below
So, as you can clearly see — my bandsaw does not have enough resaw capacity to resaw a 7.25″ board. Now other, higher quality, more expensive bandsaws CAN cut through this entire board. This is what I meant when I said that my name is not Todd — because he DOES have a really cool bandsaw that could do this.
OK, I will get over my bandsaw envy. But we are left with one inescapable conclusion: Option 2 is a no go for slicing my Maple.
Option 3 — is really kind of cheating (or if you prefer: thinking outside of the box.) Think of it as a Kobayashi Maru sort of solution. I wasn’t going to slice through the whole 7 1/4″ of Maple at all. I was going to slice through 3.565″ of Maple. Which is to say — I was going to cut my Maple board in half. And then resaw it. And the reason I don’t get EXACTLY one-half of the original board size is because my table-saw’s kerf-width is exactly 1/8″. And for every cut, there is a tax levied: 1/8″ of wood is rendered into sawdust. And there ya go: [7.25″ – .125″ (one eighth)] divided by 2 is 3.565 (or 3 & 9/16″). Woodworkers quickly become adept at fractional math — and they only keep a calculator handy as a backup.
Rip it up
So all of this:
Got sawed up into this:
In fact, I planned to do the entire operation on my table saw. I really wanted to use the table-saw because it is the most precise power tool in my shop. Also the most dangerous — because it is the most powerful beast in the garage.
But here’s the thing: my table-saw has a 10″ radial blade. And even when fully extended, the maximum depth of cut for a 10″ blade is only a touch over 3″ — right around 3.25″ when it’s cranked all the way up. So even the table saw couldn’t cut through my (now half-sized) boards in one pass. But it could if I played one final trick: just cut the board, and flip it, and cut again!
So that’s what I did. One final note: this is a VERY aggressive cut on the table saw. So I did it in two passes. I cut about 1/4 of the way up on pass one, flipped the board, and cut again. And I did this for all the Maple pieces that I had previously cut in half.
Then I turned the height adjustment wheel on my beast up to its highest setting, and I finished cutting clear through the maple; using the same cut and flip technique that I had used for the original cuts.
This is how a sample piece looked when I was finished:
So now I had a whole stack of 3/8″ thick Maple:
BTW, I also have a whole stack of even thinner 1/4″ Maple that I can use in another project. And as an aside: if I had setup my band-saw for this final cut, I could have had a stack of 5/16″ maple for another project — again, ya gotta remember the whole kerf-thing. Whatever. Losing 1/16″ of board thickness, I could live with. And like I said — my table-saw is VERY precise.
Are we there yet?
So now — how time flies! November has magically transformed itself into December. My wife and kids are all excited by the upcoming European vacation that we have planned (partly for Jonathan’s graduation, partly because Hanna has been so academically outstanding in her first year of college, partly because Jonathan will soon be away from us on an extended Navy cruise, and partly because it’s something we always wanted to do together).
I am by now, resigned to the fact that I will NOT have this board finished before we depart. And that means that Mika will NOT be getting her board for Christmas. I make the dreaded call of remorse. And because Mika is a beautiful spirit — she makes me feel good about it. Or at least a whole lot less bad.
But before we leave, I have time to glue up my Maple and Walnut, and my Maple and Cherry sammiches. I recall that I texted (or possibly teased) Mika with this picture right before we left.
As you can clearly see from the picture above: a woodworker can NEVER have enough clamps. And any woodworker would tell you this. Glue-ups are messy. And you’re always under a bit of a time-crunch, because the glue starts to set-up in only about 5 minutes.
As you can see, it took two of the thinner Maple pieces to cover this bigger piece of Cherry (but it was the same for the Walnut). I just squeezed it all together with glue and clamps. If I’d had a rubber band, I’d have used that too.
Slicing up the Sammich
OK, this next part is best described using my CAD program (I REALLY like Fusion 360, BTW), because well… a) my camera on my phone sorta broke, and all the pictures I took of this process are a bit fuzzy; and b) it’s just easier to understand this way.
Y’all may recall (I had to fit in a little bit of Texas there) the CAD drawing that I put together before I even bought the wood. There were actually multiple reasons for this besides trying to calculate how much wood I’d need. Let’s revisit that drawing — trimmed down to it’s essentials:
You can clearly see the outlines of our sandwich here: the Cherry (or the Walnut) is in the middle, and the Maple is the thinner stuff on top and bottom. Recall that the middle piece of wood is 3/4″ thick, and the two Maple pieces are 3/8″ thick. So overall, this is a nice thick 1.5″ sandwich.
Also recall that my two Maple pieces had to be cut and then glued back together. So the width of the sandwich was 3.5625 (three and nine-sixteenths — because of the kerf) x 2; or 7.125 (seven and an eighth) inches wide. The boards are all still 48″ long.
So we have two big sandwiches, each with dimensions of 48″ L x 7.125″ W x 1.5″ D. And they have to be “ripped” (which is the term used for cutting WITH the long-grain of the wood) into shapes like that depicted in the CAD drawing above. Which is to say that I’ll wind up with a bunch of 48″ sticks with these weird angles and sharp edges.
Now to actually make these cuts on the Whirling Blades Of Death (which is really how I refer to my beast — because I want to constantly remind myself how overpowering and filled with dreadful potential this saw is). I needed to set my blade to EXACTLY 30 degrees. And so I went and got the coolest little new tool:
This little gizmo is called an inclinometer. And it is both amazingly precise at measuring angles, and amazingly inexpensive. It has a magnet built into the bottom of it that allows it to easily attach to my saw blade. And then I just crank the adjustment wheel on my WBOD until it reads EXACTLY 30 degrees:
Now am I really the only one who thinks this is cool? I mean, in the bad old days — I’d have been using triangle squares and such, and then I was usually still off by a degree or two.
The discerning woodworker’s amongst you will find plenty of other uses for this tool in your shop: setting up band-saws, setting up jointers, making fences dead-on square, making jigs…. it’s a real game-changer.
Just let ‘er Rip!
OK, I told you that my camera had problems, so these pics are a bit blurry. But yes, I did spend a harrowing afternoon making sticks with weird angles and sharp edges. Here’s all the sandwiches sliced into sticks:
Why harrowing you ask? Well, it’s like this. These cuts cuts are real deep for the saw, and at that 30-degree angle. And while I thought I’d never ever in a million gazillion years over-power my saw (there are three full-sized horses under that table!) — I almost did. Actually, I really did. I mean I actually stalled the saw to the point where it stopped, shut itself off, and wouldn’t come back on again.
A Near Death Experience
Oh no! I thought — I’ve killed my beast! Three horses and all.
But that wasn’t what happened at all. What I really did was almost choked it. And the motor almost certainly overheated for a few minutes. You see, I pulled the little red cover off the blade — you can see it in the pictures above with the inclinometer. And underneath that is a HUGE barn-like cavern (I told you — it has to be big enough for three horses). And that cavern was absolutely full of sawdust. I mean boxes and boxes of it.
Into the belly of the beast
I pulled 5 full boxes like the one pictured above out of that little opening. It took me about 45 minutes to get to the point where I could actually see the belts that come off the motor and over to the arbor of the saw. The arbor is what holds and drives the blade of the saw.
So what caused my saw to stall was almost certainly the motor being forced to drive through all this sawdust before it even got to the wood I was cutting. And as I mentioned, the cut I was making was quite aggressive. And on hind-sight — I was probably pushing the stock through the blade a bit too aggressively as well. The motor overheated, and the saw shut itself down until motor temperatures were reasonable again.
And that’s almost certainly what happened. Because 45 minutes (and 5 boxes of sawdust) later, the motor started right up; and I finished the work with no problem.
Cut off the wings
So anyhoo, now I had about 12 4-ft sticks on my hands. Ironic that all this work, and all I had to show for it was a bunch of sticks. Each stick had the following cross-section (that is, if we looked at the end of one of the sticks):
You can clearly still see the outlines of the sandwich I made earlier. Except now it’s all skewed to the side by 30-degrees. And the next step is to make it all square again. Meaning I had to cut off the “wings” of each stick: the portions on the OUTSIDE of the dotted lines in the drawing above.
Once I’d done that, I still had 12 4-ft sticks; but now they had a different looking cross-section:
Glue it up again, Sam
As you can see from the picture of the trimmed sticks above, these sticks needed to be assembled into a particular pattern in order for the 3D effect to come to life in the finished board. But this was not overly complicated. I just flipped every other board, and alternated Cherry and Walnut sticks in order to get the right pattern. Once that was accomplished — more glue and more clamps:
Clean it up
When the glue had dried (I always give my glue-ups a full 24 hours), I removed the clamps, and ran the finished assembly through my surface planer a few times to get rid of all the dried glue and the saw burn marks:
The final Cut
Now I’ve written all this as if it was a continuum of work. But it wasn’t anything close to that. I work 5 days a week, but the days of the week were different for each week. So sometimes I’d work on this on a Saturday, and sometimes a Tuesday, or a Friday, etc. And sometimes it was just an hour or two after work; if I wasn’t too worn out, and it wasn’t too late in the evening when I got off work. Yeah, yeah — I know that we’re all in that boat. But I wanted to use it as an excuse anyway, because time has this way of getting away from me. At this point in the project, it’s late January. I’m a full month PAST Christmas, and poor Mika STILL doesn’t have her gift. And I’m not done yet. But I can see the end from here.
I had now had a BIG, flat, multi-colored panel that was 4-ft long. All I had to do now was cut it into 1.5 inch pieces, and do one more glue-up; and then assembly would be finished.
Compared to all the work that had gone into this project to-date, this step was a bit anti-climactic. I just put the panel onto my cross-cut sled, set a stop on my fence to exactly 1.5 inches, and cut the panel into a bunch of pieces.
What I was left with was a bunch of 1.5 inch pieces that looked like this one:
When we arrange these pieces in a particular pattern (which again, was just flipping and alternating colors) a magic pattern appears! Again, full credit to the Russian You-Tube guy that figured all this out — this part really was genius.
And a Final Glue-up
OK, so now all I had to do was glue all these pieces together a final time. By now, it’s no big deal; I’ve got more than enough clamps:
Sorry for the fuzzy pictures, my camera was really sick when I took these pictures. It’s feeling a bit better now, thank you.
24 hours later, when the clamps came off; I scraped off most of the glue with a chisel. Then I ran it (VERY LIGHTLY) through the surface planer. Then I ran it through the saw to remove those little stair-steps where the pattern didn’t align perfectly. And I had a board:
Sand, Sand, Sand, and then Sand Again!
OK, now the excitement of sanding all this down to a silky smooth finish. Hours of sanding actually. Too boring for pictures. Almost too boring for words. I started with 60-grit (which is a VERY coarse sandpaper), and worked myself to 400-grit (which is VERY smooth — it feels about like regular bond paper). 60, then 80, then 120, then 220, then 320, then 400 grit. Maybe 45 minutes or so on each grit of sandpaper, with a quick wipe of paper towel between each grit so that the heavier (coarser) grit didn’t foul the finer grit. A run over to my belt-sander to round the corners and edges; and construction really was done.
Let’s do this
OK, I was done making sawdust perhaps, but the project wasn’t complete until I could protect the board with a food-safe finish. There aren’t too many of these. I opted for simplicity: pure Mineral Oil. I got mine at The Home Depot — I know a guy.
This bottle is 12 ounces, and I used about half of it — so about 6 ounces. 4 coats, and I was pretty liberal with it. The end-grain nature of the board soaks up lots of oil. Wicks it, almost. I waited about an hour between coats, so these applications only took about a day.
And now, your work is done
Well — almost. As a final touch, I opted to put some little rubber bumpers on one side of the board. This accomplishes two things:
- The board can now be easily picked up and moved or stored, without having to squeeze one’s fingers under one edge.
- The board would never be sitting in water or chicken grease or whatever inhabits the normal countertop.
The Russian dude had cut little handholds into his board (you can see it on the video), but the board I made is not quite as thick, nor is it as bulky.
I am pleased with how this project came out. As I told Mika when she finally unwrapped it in early February of 2020: there is beauty in this thing, but that came from the wood; so she can thank God for that. I simply revealed it.
I also made her promise me that she would use it — not just put it on the table or a drawer as a decorative centerpiece, and in using it that she remembers me; and how much I love her. Because I do. And she has kept that promise.
It’s just a board.
-Matthew George, 2-27-2020