After the quick interlude as I prepare for IPP, here's the third part of the Hex Stair saga. Despite only having 11 puzzles made in the last month, it feels like I've been working on this project a fair bit longer. Still seeing all the puzzles finished and ready to go to IPP with me I'm really pleased with the results.
I'm not sure how anyone else views the finishing process, but for me it starts long before you ever get out a brush or some lacquer. Much of the look of a finished puzzle, or any wooden object really comes from the choices you make when you're putting it together. There are subtle details which really help to 'finish' a project. For the Hex Stair (and the Domino Tower) puzzles, adding the very slight 45 degree bevel to the edges of the pieces really adds to the overall look. Without it, the puzzle looks incomplete. So for me that's the first part in the finishing process. After each of the blocks are cut to size, I add a tiny bevel to each piece. It's a time consuming process, but without it the pieces just lack that little edge that they'd otherwise have.
Getting ready, each of the puzzles are assembled, as I will be sanding only the outside of the pieces. The reason for this is that I send a lot of time ensuring that the pieces are all the exact same size, to ensure a tight fit on the assembled puzzle. If I were to sand the pieces, then I'd lose that fit, and the puzzle would become too loose, or not fit at all! You'll remember that I aim for one thousandth of an inch tolerance between pieces. Sanding will remove much more than that!
Given the finish I get from the blade of the saw, you could ask why sand the puzzle at all? The main reason is the feel of the puzzle in your hands when it's sanded. Although the puzzle if perfectly dimensioned, the feel of the wood can still be a little rough. By working up through the various grit of sandpaper, we'll take the wood to being silky smooth to the touch, and make it something that you'll want to hold. Given that I'm starting off with something which is close to a finished surface, I'll start sanding at 220 grit, then move up to 320, 400, and eventually 600 grit. The last two grits are more polishing the wood than removing imperfections, so very light passes are all that's required at that stage.
With each of the sides, and both top and bottom sanded, the puzzle is left coated in a fine sawdust. You'll notice that I'm working with the sandpaper attached to my granite block. I work the puzzle across the paper rather than take the paper in my hand and bring it to the puzzle. The former ensure that the surface is dead flat, and I don't over sand any particular area, where there latter, the different pressure from my fingers would lead to imperfections. Before moving to the next grit, the dust has to be taken off, otherwise it will be ground into the surface of the wood, and you will end up working harder to get the surface you're looking for. To do this I use two processes. First up, I have an air compressor with a fine nozzle on it. Using that at about 60 PSI, I blow most of the dust off the surface, taking care to ensure I get any dust out of the pores of the wood. On wood like the Paduak I'm using which has fairly deep pores, the air easily clears them out.
Once I've blown the dust and cobwebs away, I use a Tacky cloth to take care of anything that's left on the surface. The Tacky cloth is has an almost waxy feel to it, and does a great job of taking anything loose off the surface. With that done, I can continue up through the grit until I finally reach 600. All in all it takes about forty minutes per puzzle, but since I was working with all the puzzles, around 3 hours in total.
It may be a little hard to tell the difference from the photograph, but this is the puzzle sanded up to 600 grit. The real difference is in the feel of the wood. Now much smoother, the finish is almost like glass.
Next up in the process is to apply the finish. I use a three stage process currently. First up is to apply a couple of thin coats of lacquer. I mix the lacquer 50/50 with thinner, and apply two coats to the puzzle pieces. Working with the lacquer thinned like this, I have found I don't end up with runs or drips. Given the size of the pieces I'm working with I use a small brush to apply the finish which could leave brush stokes with a thicker mixture. Each coat is applied and allowed to dry overnight before adding the next coat in the morning.
It takes around 20 minutes per puzzle to apply a coat of finish, and then it's left to dry. I'll show side by side photos below, so you can see the difference after each stage. It will probably not be too obvious, however the before and after shot shows worlds of difference!
After the two coats of lacquer are applied, I take a good look at each of the pieces. Sometimes the wood absorbs the lacquer more in certain areas, and the finish can appear uneven. If that's the case, I'll go back and apply a third, or even fourth coat of lacquer until the wood has absorbed the lacquer evenly. After each coat, the lacquer is left to soak in for around thirty minutes, and then I'll come back and rub off any excess with a clean cloth. If the lacquer pools on the surface, it will dry hard and uneven, which can affect the fit of the puzzle, and certainly doesn't make it look any better!
Once I'm happy, I'll apply a liberal coat of the Watco finishing wax. This helps the pieces to slide past each other, and adds another layer of protection for the puzzle. After all these will be played with, so I want the wood to be protected. I leave the wax on the puzzle for around 15-20 minutes, then with another clean cloth, rub the excess off. Part of this process I also buff the pieces as I work the wax into the surface, but mostly I'm removing the excess.
The final part to the finishing process is to apply a coat of Renaissance Wax. This incredible substance (which is not cheap!) brings up an amazing shine on the wood. Applying it leaves the wood with a slightly tacky feel, and a finish which is less than mirror. I apply the wax as evenly as possible, and then let it sit for 20 minutes. After that I take a clean cloth and start buffing the surface. It takes about 20 minutes per puzzle, but the wax really polishes up the surface and starts to make the wood shine.
After the initial buffing, I take the puzzle apart, as the wax gets pushed into every little gap. This needs to be cleaned out before the puzzle is re-assembled and given another buffing. All told the process takes nearly 45 minutes per puzzle, but as you will see below, the results are worth every minute of it!
As you can see the difference from start to finish is dramatic. The surface ends up being quite reflective, and really brings out the grain in the wood. It may take ~4 hours per puzzle but the results speak for themselves.
The images below show each stage of the process compared with the unfinished puzzle. It may not be too easy to see the difference, as the changes are subtle.
I hope you've enjoyed the writeup of my finishing process. I freely admit that I'm no expert, and I'm learning as I go, however several of my readers have asked so hopefully this is useful to you. This is by no means the definitive guide to finishing, and certainly isn't appropriate for all applications, however it does work for me when finishing puzzles, and I'm happy with the results. From the feedback I've had from those who've bought my puzzles, they seem to agree that I'm doing something right!
Following on from by first post on the Hex Stair (Part One), I'm moving from the initial copy which I made for myself and realised it was far too big, onto a smaller version, which I'll be making a small run of puzzles to sell. Making things smaller adds new challenges so read on to see what I had to do to overcome them.
As you can see above, I have seriously scaled down the size of the pieces, which makes for a much more manageable puzzle size. I am slightly torn in all honesty; I love the big solid chunky copy I made initially, but also appreciate that it's far too big for most people, and the more compact size is far easier to work with ... or is it?
Having decided on the dimensions for this smaller version, I cut and milled my stock, cutting what I hoped would be enough sticks to make a reasonable run of puzzles. The pile of sticks looks like a lot, but I have no doubt that I'll get through them pretty quickly. If you're interested, the woods are (from left to right) Paduak, Wenge, Curly Maple, Purpleheart (on top), Birdseye Maple, Red Palm, Paduak.
With everything setup, I started batching through the cutting of the pieces, and despite needing 42 pieces per puzzle, once everything is setup, this goes fairly quickly. I keep my digital calipers beside me and keep checking the cuts as I go to make sure I've not had any errors introduced, as the biggest reason I have found for a puzzle not fitting correctly is tiny differences in the tolerances of cuts. Anything more than about five thousands of an inch between pieces and the fit will not be good enough. Ok, five thousands is pretty small I hear you cry, but I try to get my pieces to less than two thousandths to make sure I don't have problems. Sadly I've learned from experience that even small margins like this make the world of difference and cause a lot of frustration when gluing pieces together in the type of puzzles I'm making.
Having batched out a good few pieces; enough to make a few puzzles; I take a break from cutting the pieces and move to the router to add the bevel to the edges of the pieces. I find that taking a break like this keeps me focused and alert, rather than becoming complacent as the motions get repetitive, and it's all too easy to lose focus ... and as I have already experienced, a tiny lapse can be very costly!
With all the pieces cut and beveled, it's time to start gluing the puzzles together. You'll remember the crude jig that I made for the initial puzzle, which worked pretty well. I found out though that with the smaller pieces, there's not a lot of gluing surface, and I made the pieces almost as tall as the are wide. (They're not perfectly square!) Because of this, it's easy for the pieces to get misaligned, so I felt I needed a better jig...
As you can see this jig is a little more advanced than the original, however the main drawback is that it will only work for this puzzle, and only for pieces cut to the exact sizes that I have used. While that may seem like something of a waste, for the most part, the jig is made from offcuts from the sticks I used so really it's putting small cuts which would otherwise be used in my fireplace to good use. The jig is a very snug fit for each piece, and as you can see each piece is well supported meaning that each completed piece I make in the jig will be identical and it's also very quick to use, since there's no way to misalign a piece. With this jig, it takes around 15 minutes to make each individual puzzle piece, meaning that I can make a complete puzzle in around 2 hours (allowing for the curing time of the glue). This as nearly 2.5 times faster than previously. While it may seem like it still takes a long time, I'd rather take my time than rush and end up with a useless pile of firewood. After all, a high quality puzzle doesn't get made in a minute.
With the jig doing all the hard work for me, it doesn't take too long to make a copy of the puzzle, to the point where the outside faces get sanded and then finish applied. In Part Three, I'll cover some of the finishing process.
One thing I noticed when assembling this version of the puzzle is that it's actually easier to put together than my original version. One of the reasons is that I've found a particular rotational move which allows the alignment of the pieces to happen much more easily. I didn't find this on my original version, I think partly because it is much more squat than the new dimensions. The extra height makes it easier to do this move (although I have gone back and found that it is also possible on the original copy).
Some time back, Jen asked me to make a few pieces of furniture for her. Now I've been pretty busy with work, and making the puzzles, so I've not really been able to do much for her, but since it was something of an unwritten agreement when I started buying all the tools it was about time to start paying up. If you're only interested in puzzles, then skip this one, but if you want to see a little more on the woodworking I'm doing then keep reading.
The first project that I've tackled is the narrow table above which Jen wanted for putting keys and other stuff on just inside the door to the house. It needs to be thin as it has to hide behind the door when it's opened so really a custom piece was the only way to go. I left choice of woods up to Jen as it was her table, I was merely making it. We settled on Cherry for the legs (one of which when we finished it we found out is actually highly figured quilted Cherry!), Grenadillo for the frame and Wenge for the table top.
I'm going to use this post to work thought the build process and design decisions I made when building the table, as I have learned a lot from the project, and even though it's not puzzle related, it will certainly help me in puzzle making going forward. Hopefully you find the journey interesting.
When I started the project, there were a number of things I wanted to try to accomplish. Initially I wanted to push myself in terms of the woodworking, and not necessarily play it safe. Now by that I mean not just sticking to things I've done before, really trying to use this to step out of my current comfort zone. I decided that I wanted to create a table with a floating top, and as such the joints into the legs were going to be stopped dovetail joints since they would be visible in the finished table, and become a feature. I appreciate that I was asking a lot of myself, having never attempted any joinery before and jumping straight to a dovetail may seem crazy, however I was fairly confident that I could do it so why aim low?
With all the dimensions written down, I started off by cutting the pieces for the frame of the table. I even remembered to take into account the size of the dovetail, so I didn't end up cutting the sides too short. Starting off with some scrap pieces of wood, I setup the dovetail bit and made both sides of a joint to see what problems I was going to encounter and how close I could get the fit (which turns out to be so close I needed a mallet to separate the two pieces). The biggest issue was putting the dovetail into the ends of the long boards. Supporting them wasn't easy, but given that I have a friend visiting, he was able to help out.
All of the male dovetails on the frame were cut at the same time, so the bit was setup once and there were no issues in getting the dovetails the same size. After that I moved on to setting up for the female size of the dovetail on each of the legs. Two female dovetails need to be cut into each of the legs, and they need to be the same distance from the outside edge on each leg to make the table look right when finished. Given that the setup for each dovetail in the leg is different I cut one dovetail in each leg before coming back and resetting the spacing for the second.
This was the first joint completed. As you can see, I'd marked the top of the leg with the centre of the dovetail, and the width of the dovetail to help with setting up the cut. The width of the joint is wider than the width of the bit I'm using, so that allowed me to creep up on the perfect fit. The joint is tight, and requires some persuasion to come out but there's enough room to account for the swelling of the wood when I add the glue to the joint.
As you can see from the photo above, there is quite a difference in width between the first pass in the joint, and the final dovetail. You'll also note that only the first cut was marked up. After that, the fence was set to allow the rest to be cut knowing that they were an exact duplicate of the first. When it came to ensuring that the adjoining dovetail was spaced exactly, I started the first cut closer to the centre of the final joint, and then crept back to the correct starting point by measuring the gap between the front of the leg and the top of the joint with my digital calipers, until they were exactly the same width (the gap on the bottom in the photo above).
With all the dovetails cut, I trimmed up the top of the legs, so that I knew everything was square, and that the depth of the dovetail was where I wanted it. As you'll have noticed, the male dovetail is slightly inset in the female groove, and this was by design. I wanted to have the dovetail really stand out, rather than being flush with the top I wanted to have it inset slightly. I'm sure other people would disprove of this choice, but I like the effect.
With all of the joinery cut for the main frame of the table, I put it all together on a dry fit. This allows me to test the fit without gluing things together, and see that everything is square and sitting the way I want it. At this point, I still have to add the supports for the table top to make it float, but I was happy that everything went together the way I had planned, it was square, and it was looking good!
Next up was to cut the groove for the supports and also size them to fit correctly. I decided to make life simpler here, and go for a straight stopped dado, rather than a stopped dovetail. After all, the wood is the same so it won't be a contrast like on the legs, and the entire point is to make the top appear to be floating above the legs, so drawing attention to the supports wasn't the effect I was going for. The intent is to add a curve to the supports, so they start flush with the frame and curve under the table top. At this point though, I was happy just having the stopped dado cut and the height of the float set.
It seemed like most of the hard work was done now but there was still one last piece which would in my mind make or break the project, and that was getting the table top in place correctly.
The Table top is 1/4" longer than the frame at each end, and 1/8" wider than the frame, front to back, so there is a slight overhang. When marking up the locations for the dado's that the floats will drop into, I had to take this into account, to ensure that the table top is exactly centred over the frame. Without this, I'd end up with scrap rather than a table top! (And I've put a lot of hours into this to end up with scrap).
I marked up the width of the floats, then marked the centre of the top before marking the area to be removed. Having checked and double checked the markup, it was time to go ahead and remove the material so that I'd have a table top. Part of this project has been trying new things and learning more woodworking techniques, and this was no different.
I decided to do this is a more traditional method, and use a chisel to remove the material. While it may not be the fastest way, it certainly was the safest, and by keeping my chisel sharp cutting through the wood really wasn't difficult. Not only that, but it gave me a chance to work with some hand tools, and really get a feeling for some 'serious' woodworking. (And if it all went wrong, it was under the table where no-one would see it!) By going back to the frame frequently, I could check the fit, and ended up with a very tight fit. Tight enough in fact that I could put the top onto one of the floats, with the entire top hanging over the outside of the frame, with no glue, and it wouldn't fall off.
With the slots cut, I checked that the top was level. Unfortunately, my garage floor isn't level, so I had to shim one side of the table legs to get it level first.
So there you have it, one table, built from a few boards to the finished product. The photos don't show it, but with the wood polished to 600grit, there is a mirror shine to the faces, even without any finish on them, to the point that you can see your reflection in it. I'll come back a little later and show you the table once it's been lacquered, but until then I'll leave you with a detail shot of the corner with the dovetails. I think it matches the original design drawing. I also added the bevel into the top and bottom of the legs to really finish the table. Clearly it's the details that make the project.
I'd also like to say a huge thanks to my friend Callum who's over from Scotland visiting me at the moment and helped throughout the whole project. I know that without his help much of the work would have been far more difficult.
After completing the run of Unhappy Childhood puzzles I'd been making, I decided that I wanted to make something different and rather than making another cube based puzzle, I'd turn my attention to making the first puzzle box of my own design. In order for me to do that I need to look at a new tool or two as my shop doesn't currently have a Jointer or Planer.
Given that I'm looking at puzzle boxes, I need to be able to get the boards I'll be working on flat and coplanar. Luckily for me one of my work colleagues is also a woodworker, so I asked him if he had a planer and jointer that I could use. Now I was hoping that I could go round for an afternoon and use the tools, however he said that although he didn't have a jointer, he did have a planer that he'd been given and had never used. I was welcome to have it on an extended loan, but he couldn't vouch for how good it was as he'd never used it. So I said thanks and he duly brought it in for me. So this weekend I spent some time seeing what I had.
The planer is a 2 knife craftsman planer and is fortunately fairly compact and not too heavy which fits nicely into my shop space. The base is cast iron, and is self feeding. It has a 2 HP motor and the drive chain is fairly solid and looked to be in good condition. So I plugged it in, and standing back turned it on. It ran and seemed pretty stable. So far so good. So I took one of the unfinished boards I have sitting and ran it through. It took a few attempts to get the height of the blades right so that it cut and fed cleanly, but it did make some nice shavings, and was making the board flat. Once I had the bevel taken out of the board on both sides, I had a look at the board and there were a few issues.
As you can see, the board wasn't really flat. There were a number of ridges in the surface, and some rusty marks. The ridges were from nicks in the blades and the rust is pretty self explanetary. So I pulled out the instructions, and started figuring out how to take it apart.
Taking the knife guard off and having a look, there were some pretty obvious nicks in the blades, and the roller that holds the knives was badly rusted. I removed the knives and set about cleaning up the rollers. I had some 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper and a can of WD 40 so set to work. WD40 contrary to popular belief isn't a lubricant, its a de-greaser, and does a pretty good job of removing rust. It took a couple of hours but working slowly and wiping away the brown gunk as I went with a roll of rags I ended up with some good results.
Once the rollers were clean, and I'd removed all the gunk, I reinstalled the blades. I was fortunate that my colleague had two brand new sets of blades for the tool, so I was able to put in a new clean set, which should greatly improve the cut. sadly I don't have the height adjustment tool which is used to ensure that the blades are both at the same height relative to each other and either side of the blade, so I set them based on touch, lining the back of the edge to the roller. I will have to see if I can buy a replacement tool somewhere but for now I believe the blades are close enough.
Next I turned my attention to the bottom table and the rollers there. Much like the roller that holds the knives, there was some rust on the rollers here, so I continued to work with the sand paper and WD40 to clean those up too. It was a lot of work and all told took a good part of the afternoon, and so far I had no idea if it had been worthwhile. At least if nothing else I now have a very clean tool!
Putting the knife guard back on I once again turned the tool on this time with even more caution than I had before since this tile the security of the blades was all down to me. Not that I'm saying I hadn't tightened the bolts well enough, but I'm always cautions with high speed rotating metal. Fortunately, everything seemed ok, and there were no thunks or sounds of grinding metal.
So fairly happy that the planer was still in one piece, I took the board I'd been using earlier and ran it back through. This time as you can see I ended up with a much cleaner surface with no ridges and the surface looks great. You can really see the beauty of the quilted maple, and I'm very happy with the afternoon of work.
So with the tool working perfectly, and everything nice and clean I can start looking at that puzzle box design. I don't have a jointer yet, but the planer is one less tool I need to look at buying.
As some of you know, I celebrated my birthday last week, and the day came with some shiny new puzzles and tools thanks to my family.
It seems that my fiancée had been hard at work, talking to a few of my friends and figuring out what and how to get me a few puzzles and tools. Not only was I lucky enough to receive three puzzles from Mr Puzzle, but there were also some tools to help in making more puzzles myself, and three board feet of Zebra Wood to make into puzzles as well.
I have been talking about getting a small random orbit sander for quite a while now. Believe it or not, up to this point, all the sanding that Ive done, regardless of the size of the project has all been done by hand. So to get a nice palm sander plus several different grits of paper was really nice. I have a couple of biggish projects that I'm working on just now, including the charity build of two children's rocking horses, so that will come in really handy there, as well as finishing the outer surfaces on some of the puzzles I've been making.
Also among the tools was a nice hand plane. It's another tool that I didn't own and will make a nice addition to my tools. I have a very small plane for fine work, but this will help for some of the bigger projects that I have planned. Finally there's an interesting corner clamp. I have no doubt this will come in very handy for making boxes for some of the puzzles.
From the puzzle side, I had mentioned to my fiancée that I really wanted to have a proper go at Mr. Puzzle's IPP exchange puzzle from IPP 31 this year, the Houdini's Torture Cell. Well it seems that when she went looking for it, she decided it wasn't very expensive, and had a look around some of the other puzzles on the site to pick up a few puzzles for me. In the end she decided on the Cable Car from the San Francisco IPP, and One Four All & All Four One from IPP30 designed by Arcady Dyskin & Pantazis Houlis.
I'll be writing full reviews of all the puzzles once I've had a chance to play with them all so keep an eye out for them soon.
Since I've started creating puzzles in wood, I've been learning quickly and starting to produce some puzzles that I'm very proud of. Over the weekend I started putting together a run of puzzles for a craft fair that is coming up, with the hope of selling a few puzzles there.
I had a batch of sticks cut and spent Saturday morning gluing up pieces. It's amazing just how quickly you use up the sticks you have cut so after about an hour I went to cut some more sticks. I started rough cutting some sticks from the redwood planks I have and was getting on great.
If you're a nervous reader, I'd stop reading now...
I was getting to the end of the batch, and it seems I was a little careless. When moving a piece of waste wood from the table, I got my thumb a little too close to the blade. The result, lots of blood and a good chunk taken out of my thumb.
I spent the next few hours in the emergency room where the surgeon operated on my thumb. So I now have 2 pins in my thumb and it's going to be a bit shorter than it was. I'm lucky, the saw took a clean cut through my finger, clean through the bone, but didn't sever the top of my finger and didn't hit the joint. So I have full feeling, and full motion.
It's a harsh lesson, that it only takes a second for things to go wrong. I'm going to be just fine (although in a lot of pain just now) and I'll have a nasty scar to remind me to watch where I put my fingers.
I'll be back to making puzzles in no time, but for now things have to heal and I need to take stock.
Warning: table saws are dangerous. Handle with care!