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Continuing My Pledge: Neanderthal Boxes II

15 years ago

Today I returned to the small boxes I had started last weekend when the power went out. I have dubbed these my Neanderthal boxes since they will be the first project I have built using entirely hand power. Even when I have built Windsor chairs I have used power drills and a power orbital sander so these will be the pioneers into the dark side of woodworking.

At the conclusion of my last post, I have just finished the glue up of the box and left it in the rubber band clamp. Today the task ahead of me was to cut and insert keys in the miters. I had a vague idea of how I was going to do this by hand, but the commentors on the last post confirmed my idea so I set out with a tenon saw (filed for a rip cut) and a 1/8″ chisel.

First I wanted to lay out the key slots. Using my combo square I struck a line 1/2″ back from the corner on both faces. Then I marked four 1/8″ wide keys symmetrically at 1/2″ and 1″ from the edge.

Here is the layout as described above

Now laying my thumb along the line I took several back strokes (I’m using a western saw here) to start the kerf. I then moved over to the other side of the slot and made two more back strokes. With the kerfs defined on either side of the slot, I began to saw to my depth marks 1/2″ in from the edges pay careful attention that I didn’t go over one line while trying to hit the other.

Now I had to chisel out the waste in between. I had to be careful not to tear out the wood at the ends of the kerfs so I put a stab cut with the chisel at the end of each kerf to control the tear out. This won’t completely eliminate it as I was to find out along the way but it did help a lot as well as giving me a good place to start paring away the waste.

Now I made the second cut to define the other side of the slot.

Taking very light paring strokes I removed the waste between the saw cuts. Finally I took a few more passes with the chisel to back cut the center of the slot so that the keys would fit with no gaps at the ends.

My keys for this box are made from Walnut. This is where I thank myself for never throwing any hardwood scrap out. I have several small pieces of Walnut already close to 1/8″. Upon measuring it I found it to be just over 3/16″ thick. This worked out well because the last few slots I cut I was a little off my line and those were wider than the rest making it necessary to use the full thickness. Those two slots were 5/32 wide so I cut off a strip of the Walnut about 1 inch wide and hit it with the block plane until I got a snug fit. Then I cut off two triangles using the tenon saw again and insert them into the slots. Next I took the other strip of Walnut and planed it down to 1/8″ thick for the remaining 12 slots. I used a liberal amount of glue on the keys and in the slots and slid everything in. Be quick here as the wood will swell with the glue and the fit can be pretty tight. The last few keys I had to use a mallet to get them seated properly. No need for clamps here with the fit so tight and they keys are more decorative than anything else; although, they will add some strength to the mitered corners.

Once the glue was dry I trimmed the keys flush using a Japanese flush cut saw. At first I was a little disappointed that not all the keys are quite even in length and I did have a few gaps right at the edges of the walnut, but upon closer examination I found this to be a badge of honor as it was obvious that these slots were cut by hand.

Next I secured the box to the countertop using my Kreg bench clamp and planed the corners to bring the Walnut flush to the Beech as well as removing any excess glue. There is a great article in a recent Woodworking magazine about trimming end grain that weighs and discusses the techniques for this operation between belt sanding and block planing. I start with a few strokes perpendicular to the keys to level them, then plane parallel to the grain on the box to bring the keys perfectly flush. Make sure you cut a small chamfer on the corner so you don’t tear out the grain on the edge.

Then I used a smoothing plane to put a bring the surface to it’s final state before finishing. I also broke the all the edges using my block plane so that there were no sharp corners or edges.

All that’s left is to apply the finish. I’m thinking a few coats of Boiled Linseed Oil topped with an Oil/Varnish blend will do the trick. I have some other dust creating tasks to get done in the shop for now so I will wait to apply the finish until I can dedicate the space to that task. I’ll be sure to post the pictures once it is done.

This project was a great learning experience, and I feel good knowing that I can do it all by hand power if necessary or it the mood strikes me. The other striking thing is just how few tools I really needed to get it done. Maybe I’ll bring along my saws, chisels, and block plane on my next business trip and build something in a hotel room. What would the housekeeping staff think when they come in the next morning to find wood shavings on the floor. That would have to be a first!

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