This is a continuation of an earlier posts, located here if you want to start at the beginning.
I left off last night on what we were calling Step 4, so I guess we’ll pick up at step 5. We’ve already test-fit our boards together, found any problem areas we know we’ll have to deal with, and now we’re ready to start assembly.
I begin by simply lying the pieces of the box out on the work bench and gluing all the contact points with a long bead of glue everywhere wood will touch other wood.
Step 5: Glue It
Notice below that I’m not using a lot of glue to hold these boards together. Glue holds thp wood together so we naturally assume more glue equals more hold, right? Wrong! There is something about the chemical composition of glue that when combined with murphy’s law becomes grease instead. Truly! A little glue is good. Too much will make your wood become squirrely and you’ll know what I mean the first time you use too much and not even a clamp can hold that board still where it’s supposed to be.
I use just about this much, shown below, then I smear it into a flat bead with my fingertip. Truthfully, if I’d thought to hold the bottle the other way, the bead would have come out flat anyway…. so pay attention and you’ll save yourself some dirty hands later, at least during this part.
Since I’m using Elmer’s wood glue, I know I only need to give this glue a couple of minutes to start to set. It’s cold in my garage today, about 34 degrees, so a full set will take about an hour, but I can work with it before then because I’m going to screw the sides together anyway instead of just relying on glue to hold my seams. Elmers wood glue usually sets nicely in half an hour in average temperatures.
Most brands of carpenter’s glues are fully paintable, sandable, and stainable and they truly are harder than the wood they’re being adhered to, so if you want your box to last you a good many years, glue it and screw it. Don’t rely on just screws and definitely dont’ rely on just glue alone.
The photo below shows 4 clamps. The two old bar clamps that are larger are positioned on the bottom, resting on the work bench. These are the important ones to worry about first. You need to get your base together and aligned right first. Once that’s done, tighten the bar clamps (not too tightly) and then work on your top clamps to get the top of your box aligned. Once you’ve done this your glue is already going to work and your clamps are holding everythign in place, so if you’re careful, you can actually start working with the wood now rather than waiting for the glue to set fully.
Step 6: Screw It
Now we’re going to get ready to screw the sides together while they’re clamped securely in place. I use two different tools here, as you’ll see in the pictures following.
Since I think screw holes are an unsightly eye-sore, I’m going to hide the screws. To do that, they need to be below the surface of the wood when its finished. This is accomplished using a counter-sink bit, shown below in my speed chuck. This particular bit is a #8, to match the #8 wood screw diameter I’m going to use. We are working with soft pine which makes things a little easy, but we are also drilling lengthwise into the board, which can easily cause a split and that would ruin the whole job.
Tip 1: Use a countersink bit sized to your screw. Too small and the screw will still split the wood because you didn’t take out enough wood with your bit. Too big and your screw won’t bite properly. I bought a 4 piece set of counter sink bits at Lowe’s for 12.00. It included a #6, #8, #10, and a #12. They come with a key that fits that small adjustment screw on the side of the bit. This allows you to adjust the depth of the ferring bit (the silver part) to how deep you want your screw to go. Mine is eyeballed somewhere around 1 inch past the tip of the counter-sink. The purpose of this bit is for some (or all ) of that small black tip to dig into the wood as well. This leaves a hole in the wood large enough for your screw to sink past the surface. That brings me to tip 2.
Tip 2: Use a variable speed power drill for your counter-sink job. My drill maxes out at 2500 RPMs, which is decently fast. You don’t need super speed but the faster the bit is turning, the smoother the hole it will leave when you’re done. A drill driver or screw gun is just too slow to do this job right.
This label on your drill will tell you the speed of your drill. Anything from 1800-3500 RPM’s is a good drill for having around the shop. This one is a 39.00 Porter Cable we use for quick jobs like this.
Tip 3: Do NOT use a high speed drill for putting your screws in! In our case we are working with soft white pine. Even the cheapest power drill on the planet could easily drive a wood screw right through 2, 3 or even 4 pieces of this pine in less than 2 seconds. I have a hand drill, which is more of a screw gun really; slow speed and lots of torque for working on harder woods.
Shown below is my 1978 makita screw gun. I’m using 1 and 1/4” black wood screws. Nothing fancy. You want them long enough to do the job, but not so long as to increase the likelihood of splitting the second board. The wood we’re using is only 3/4 inches thick, so this is plenty of screw for the job.
Here is the bottom drilled and screwed. Nothing fancy. You might want to measure your holes the first few times to be sure you get a spacing that’s close to even. You can see here that one of my screws is a little bit off, but it’s ok. It’ll add character when we’re finished. The only important thing is to be sure you’re hitting the middle of the second board. Your second board is 3/4 inches thick, so you want your holes to be half that (3/8 inches) from the edge. A few practice holes will make you a pro at spitballing the right depth, but if you’re not sure, practice on some scrap wood first.
Notice too that the screws in the photo below are drilled in quite far below the surface.
Now that I’ve got the bottom of the box done, we’re on to the top. You might can see from the photo below that I’m going to experience some problems with this top.
This next photo shows in detail that the top of our toolbox has a LOT of bow in it. The right side of the lid is at least a quarter inch off the table…. now what are we gonna do?
This is one of those times I’m really glad I have corner clamps. These clamps are about 9.95 each from a hardware store and I’d recommend having at least 4 on hand, though I only have two, so I’ll have to go slower. You can see here that I started with the left side first. I’m ignoring the problem on the right until we get one side straightened out. Once you get your face board placed against the board you want to screw it to, you can hold the board in place with these corner clamps while you work on getting the holes countersunk and drilled.
See the left right (now on the left) side now? This is that edge that was sticking up before. No big deal here. Since we’re working with a soft pine, I’m just going to clamp BOTH pieces flat to the work surface and then screw them together. Easy fix.
Now that we have the left and right side squared up, it looks like the middle is still bowing up on our top. No problem. Put a bar clamp or a large c clamp on the offending board and close it down until its level. Then while the clamp holds it in place, screw it tight and it will stay the way you want it.
This shows my bar clamp holding the bow down while I prepare to screw it together. Notice the plastic protectors on the clamp? Remember, this is really soft wood, so the other clamps would probably leave damaging marks I’d have to try to sand out later and I want the top to be as smooth as possible when we’re done.
Now we have a completed top. The bottom was assembled the exact same way.
- Start with 1 side. Clamp Down and screw.
- Clamp second side, screw.
- Rotate 90 degrees and do the sides.
The photo below shows I put two screws in the facing boards and three across the top. You really probably don’t need that many, but I’m a fan of longevity and sturdiness. Don’t get hasty though. Too many screws in a piece of wood can actually cause the wood to be weaker.
There’s no easy way to hold my camera while my hands are covered in wood putty, but basically you see what we did. I used a white pine wood putty and scooped it out with a finger and generously applied it over each hole, letting the excess dry in place. I’ll sand it off later. Once you have the putty in place, the wood needs to sit in a warm place for at least 30 minutes before sanding to let the putty harden and dry. Wet putty will just smear and will ruin your sandpaper too. Go get more coffee and play with the dog while this dries.
Instead of that, I chose to start working on the bottom, the same way we did the top. Nothing changes here except the bottom of your box is deeper than the top. Repeat all the same steps you just did and then let it the putty on it dry as well.
Is your garage or workshop too cold for stuff to dry quickly? Don’t worry about central heat in the workshop. Cheat. I used a two dollar hanging bulb bracket and a 75 watt bulb to keep my work area warm. You don’t that’s hot enough? I challenge you to put a lit 75 watt bulb in your pocket and walk around for a few minutes! Even though my shop is only a few degrees above freezing today, the area in front of that bulb is a balmy 90 degrees for the first foot or so. Plenty of heat to dry paint or putty and it won’t kill your electric bill any more than the lamp in your living room does. (To be honest ,I also use a 115,000 BTU jet heater that burns Kerosene, Diesel, or jet fuel, but unless you want to shell out 300 dollars to turn your frozen garage into an unbearably hot sauna, just stick with the light bulb.)
Step 7: Sanding
Everything you’ve done up to now has allowed for mistakes and do-overs. This part does, but not if you’re using a belt sander. This job COULD be done completely by hand but it would take me 2 to 3 hours to do by hand what I can do in less than 30 seconds with that belt sander. We’ve got 80 grip (ROUGH) paper on the belt sander, 150 grit (medium) shown in orange, and 220 grit (fine) shown in yellow. Each serves a different purpose at a different time. I’m going to start by using the belt sander to sand the edges and tops smooth, or roughly smooth, using only a few seconds on each side of the box.
Warning: If you’re going to use a belt sander, and don’t usually do so, practice on something else first. To call this 15 pound sander a “sander” at all is just not fair to all other sanders. Belt sanders are beasts that can eat wood like an atomic knife going through melted butter. Two seconds too long and you can ruin a piece of wood, especially with 80 grit paper. That’s the equivalent of running over this box with moving concrete. It will VERY quickly work down the surfaces you put it on. If you are going to use one, use wide, quick, sweeping arcs and don’t ever let the sander sit in one place, even for half a second or it will burn a mark in your wood you can’t get out. Think of it as a grinder and treat it as one and you’ll have better luck with it.
Now that we’ve used the 80 grit, I’m going back over every surface with the 150 grit paper, careful to sand WITH the grain, not against it. Sanding against the grain will show up later when you apply stain, so always work with the wood. I usually do at least 100 strokes on each side with my paper, using a firm grip with my thumb holding the paper against my hand so my fingers can use their strength to bear down on the wood.If you’re not using effort here, then you might as well be using notebook paper instead of sandpaper. Apply a steady force, but don’t exhaust yourself. Remember, you’ve probably got over 1000 strokes to do, then you have to change to the 220 grit paper and do it all again!
Our top and bottom are ready to go! See how the wood putty has covered the holes from the screws? When you’re done it will look like dowell construction and will add nice character to the box.
Step 8: Staining
Here are the tools we’re going to need for this phase. A screw driver ( to open the stain silly!), a brush or foam brush, and a piece of clean cloth. Make sure you’ve dusted your work table and the dust has settled. I usually wipe down my wood with a light rag or use the air compressor to get rid of any stray dust. We don’t want dust in the stain.
A note about stain: It’s called “Stain” for a reason. That’s exactly what it does. It is going to stain absolutely ANYTHING it touches. That’s why I’m choosing to use a disposable foam brush and a 4 inch rough piece of scrap cloth from an old shirt I cut up for just these kinds of purposes. Personally I only use Minwax. Are there other brands just as good? Possibly, but my grandfather would only use Minwax, and so did my Dad. No other stain or polyurethane ever went on anything they built, so I’m choosing to assume they knew better than I do and I’m sticking with what I know works.
In case you’re curious the color we’re using is called English Chestnut 233.
How to Apply Stain:
Unfortunately it’s hard to stain and take pictures at the same time due to the nature of stain itself. When you’re applying stain you have to be ready to move fast. The board below shows you what the stain looks like if you let it sit on the wood for varying times before wiping it off with the cloth. The left side is immediately. The middle was allowed to sit on the wood for 10 seconds. The right side was allowed to sit for 20 seconds. You want your wood to be uniform in color and I would always suggest starting with lighter and then darkening if you want to as you go. It’s not possible to change you mind later and make it lighter. Stain isn’t like paint which sits on top of the wood. The moment you apply stain to wood it starts to soak in deep and even a belt sander won’t get it off.
Note 2: It should be noted that wood density has a lot to do with the penetrating effect of the stain. Soft pine is porous and will suck up stain very fast, darkening quickly. Something like ash or hickory is much harder, therefore more dense, therefore you have much more leeway with degrees of color because it can resist the effect of the stain much longer.
You can see below that I quickly brushed the stain on with the foam brush, then I immediately grab the rag and wipe it off. As your rag takes on more stain you’ll notice that you can stain whole areas with just the leftover stain in your rag and never even need to dip it in the can again.
I used the foam brush to get into the corners and then wiped the rag over the rest of it. The entire inside of the lid was stained using the excess from the corners. Stain goes MUCH farther than paint!
Once your staining is done, you’re back to hurry up and wait. Even in a warm climate your stain needs to sit for at least 4 hours before you do anything else to it.
Most people would stop here and just attach the hinges and hardware and call it a day. Personally, I say we continue and make this a beautiful piece of equipment. Stain colors the wood, but does nothing for strengthening. I’ve mentioned numerously that white pine is soft. If we put the hinges and latches on now and go on about our merry way this box will look decrepit within 6 months. Every bump and scratch will show in the wood and you wont’ have something you’re proud of.
Step 9: Poly!
Oh Poly! Such a beautiful thing it is! Minwax Gloss Polyurethane is the best stuff in the world. It’s a sealer so it protects the wood against water damage and other things that would mar the surface within a few months. Do you have a hardwood kitchen table? Notice how it never seems to get rings from cold drinks yet your coffee table will almost every time? Ever wonder why? Poly! Kitchen tables and other hard use furniture is usually coated 3 to 4 times with polyurethane or Shellaq (a thicker poly). It’s what gives bowling alley’s their shine and allows rich people to have fancy real wood on the deck of their yachts without it getting ruined. It will soak into the wood and harden it, seal it against moisture, and depending on the type you get, can also give it a glossy shine.
The lid below is just stained, no poly. Using a clean foam brush, lightly brush the polyurethane over ALL the surfaces and let it dry, just like you did the stain. You’ll notice poly is thicker than stain, but still not as thick as paint. That’s because it needs to be fine enough to get into the particles of the wood. Paint rests on top of wood, which is why is chips. Poly sinks in and acts like armor. You’re not getting it off again without some massive restoration efforts and it certainly won’t ever chip off.
Once I applied the polyurethane, I let it sit another 8 hours in front of two lights and the fireplace. Normally i would suggest letting it dry at least 24 hours before working with it.
Once your poly is dry, take some 400-440 grit sand paper and sand the whole thing again. Again, you say? Yes. Seriously. Trust me on this. If you run your hands across the poly’d wood surface I bet it feels good and smooth doesn’t it? BUT… it still feels like wood. With only a little more effort on your part, it can feel like a mix of silk and glass.
Using your 440 grit paper, lightly sand everything top to bottom. You’re NOT trying to sand the wood, so be careful. You’re only trying to sand off the top edge of the roughness in the polyurethane. If you do it right, it should feel like pure glass when you close your eyes. Before I consider it done, i close my eyes and run my fingers over the entire surface VERY slowly. If you feel grain, sand it. If you feel a joint, sand it. You should feel absolutely nothing but soft glass with wood underneath. A REAL professional would sand it and re-poly a third time, but that’s up to you. I’ve been doing it long enough that two coats is usually all I need to get the glassy finish.
When you’re done, you should have this below. If it doesn’t reflect light when it’s dry, then you’re not done! THAT my friend, looks nice!
That’s it for tonight. I’ve been working on this thing all day and it’s not almost 1 AM. I’m going to bed and we’ll do the hardware and hinges tomorrow!
Till next time!