The horrors of wood shrinkage

Blocks of wood as side tables seem to be all the rage at the moment. But if you are paying good money for a solid “side-table”, the last thing you want is for the wood to split. Loss of water means that wood shrinks. Shrinkage generally takes a circular direction around the tree, the fibres of the outer rings contract together and clefts (or radial cracks) open up, as is shown quite clearly in the picture below. This is because the circumference of the wood (tangential shrinkage) shrinks more than the radius (radial shrinkage).


Block wood side-table, from a spa in Iceland. This might likely be a native species, and seems to be older growth.

The reality is, in blocks of wood, it is hard to stop this cracking occurring, unless you choose a wood species with a low tangential shrinkage factor, or one which has been properly seasoned, or if you’re lucky comes from old-growth (and reclaimed) lumber. Sure, to some cracks may add a level of character, but at the price they charge for these blocks ($250-400), how much character do you really want? Below are some worse-case scenarios of logs left outside for a 12-16 month period. Radial cracks from tangential shrinkage are always easy to see. Radial shrinkage manifests itself in a manner whereby the radius of the log is reduced, and the space between the wood and the bark increases, allowing the latter to fall off.


Radial cracks in elm and maple logs


A smaller block plane by “The Boston”

I saw this block plane on – just too late to grab it! A much smaller version of the other two aluminum block planes made by “The Boston” company in my collection. This one is 6¾” in length, with two unique features. The first is a finger “tab” in the toe of the plane, replacing what would normally be a small circular finger depression. The second is that whilst the blade is held in position by a fitted lever cap and cross-brace, pressure  is provided from under the blade by means of a machine-bolt. As the bolt is screwed in, it forces the blade-assembly up against the cross-brace, holding it rigid.


Buying an old house? Make sure you know something about its life

This is a little off-topic, but still involves working by hand – the task of looking after your abode. In a rampant market where every week houses seem to go up in price, the winner is often the one with the best price, and the fewest strings attached, such as a home inspection. People are often drawn to a house because it has a renovated kitchen with stainless steel appliances, or a “finished” basement. Everything seems very cozy, but the superficial decorations on a house don’t matter as much as its structural integrity – things that are often hidden. Would somebody pay more to know the sewer drains are new? Likely not – the buyer of today is more swayed by the houses staging, than by whether or not the pipes are PVC. If buyers do get a home inspection, they often rely on the inspector doing a good job – that doesn’t always happen. You could end up with a house with “hidden extras”. An example? Buying a house in the middle of winter – when you won’t know whether there are leaks in the basement because the ground is frozen.

Here are some questions to ask before you even offer on a house:

1. How old is the house? The age of the house will help identify that sort of ailing structural problems could be present. For example asbestos siding was used on houses from the 1930’s through to the 1970’s.

2. What sort of plumbing is in the house? Copper or PEX pipes are good. Galvanized not so much. Is the main water line coming in from the street copper?

3. What about the sewer lines? In many older houses, the sewer lines are clay, and join up to a cast iron stack below the ground. These clay pipes don’t last forever, and the joint with the cast iron stack can often rot away. Drain lines which have been replaced will be PVC, and join the stack about 3-4 feet from the ground. A cast iron stack itself may not be as big an issue, and it is way quieter than PVC (hence one of the reasons it is used in high-rise buildings). Are there PVC clean-outs in the front of the house? No implies that clay pipes run out to the city line (there was only one sewer trap, and was often located outside the house).

4. Does the basement experience flooding or sewer backups? Does it have a back-flow valve to stop the sewer backing up? This is more important if you plan to buy a house in a low lying area, or a valley.

5. Does the property have good drainage? This really means does the ground slope away from the house? Have the basement walls been waterproofed?

6. What about the electrical? Does the house have any knob-and-tube, or aluminum wiring?

7. How old is the furnace? If it vents through the chimney then it is a mid-efficiency furnace. As of January 1, 2010 you can’t buy a mid-efficiency furnace in Canada, only high efficiency. So a mid-efficiency if installed is a minimum of 5 years old. How old is the air conditioner? Generally 10-12 years is the maximum life span, and older ones may have older less-than-green refrigerants.

8. What about the roof? Is there a peaked roof or a flat roof, or both. When was it last replaced? Asphalt? 3-tab or architectural? Roofs never last as long as they are suppose to. A 20-year roof may last half that time depending on whether there are tree limbs over the roof, exposure to sun, critter damage.

9. Are there skylights? Are there stains inside – a sign of leakage?

10. Roof ventilation? Look inside the attic if possible. Too many people avoid exploring what’s up in the roof cavity, but it greatly affects the health of the house. Is the attic properly insulated? If not, air leakage in winter may cause condensation and ice built-up.

11. What about insulation? Poor insulation will lead to high heating bills.

12. How old are the appliances? Water heater?

Many of these items don’t relate to the aesthetic value of a house, but without sufficiently vetted infrastructure you will find yourself spending a lot more money when you own the house.

Workshop at Fort Niagara

In 2013 we visited Fort Niagara on the way home from the Finger Lakes. Just across the Niagara River from Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s an extremely well looked after fort. Inside the main building, known now as the “French Castle”, is a workshop, likely used for making replica furniture, and restoration – like the Moravian stools in the photo below. The workshop seems to contain both English and French style workbenches.


English-style workbench



French-style workbench



The workbench – a 10 year oddessy of indecision

I have spent many years either collecting tools (to use one day), or working on my house. The latter involves the use of some wood-working tools, but not as many as I would obviously like. Now my house-renovations have moved to the final stages – trim, a coffered ceiling, and more built-in shelving, and eventually some custom furniture. Ideally making small-house furniture custom furniture is how I’d like to spend my early retirement. Stuff like a bookcase built into the base of stairs… but more on small house stuff later (yeah, I could fill up another blog I imagine). One of the projects on the back-burner for *far* too long has been a workbench for the workshop. My workshop is small, and in the basement. The only piece of machinery that is in it is the drill press. Planer, jointer, table-saw all relegated to backyard use (although the jointer will be set-up in the shed now that my under-porch storage is built).

Not having enough space to do uber-large projects, I opted to buy a maple bench-top from Lee Valley *years* ago. It’s a 24″×60″×2¾”, 110lb maple slab. So the plan is to build a Roubo-style workbench. So why has it taken me so long? Work on the house, life – and in-decision. About the time I started thinking about the bench, Christopher Schwarz published his first book on benches: Workbenches: From Design And Theory To Construction And Use. Then his next book The Workbench Design Book came out. Once I had a design figured, there was one other factor – hardware. Around that time the wooden screws from Lake Erie Toolworks appeared, as did new products from Benchcrafted. I had settled on a leg-vise with a more traditional woodworking vise on the right end of the bench – here I already have a vintage Record No.52. It was the leg vise that was confounding me. Should I buy a glide vise with a cast-iron handwheel, or a more traditional wooden screw, or something with a linear bearing (like the VX20 from Hovarter Custom Vise)? Should I build a parallel guide, buy a criss-cross, or one of the other mechanisms like the chain vise? Too many decisions to make. Partially I have been holding off because Lee Valley started carrying the Benchcrafted products, but it takes a number of months to update the product line, and shipping these heavy products from the US to Canada does not appeal to me.


Benchcrafted crisscross

I have rough cut the legs and stretchers out of ash, but have waited to begin the mortising work until the decision is made. In January I finally decided. First I picked the benchcrafted criss-cross retro to work as the parallel mechanism. Then on the day after I enquired about the availability of the Benchcrafted “Classic” leg vise, it “magically” appeared on the Lee Valley website. So now the bench will have a Benchcrafted classic vise/criss-cross combination for the leg vise, which will be made out of a huge piece of spalted Maple I picked up from Exotic Woods in Burlington (as will the sliding deadman). Now that I have a drill-press the mortises will be easier to cut, and I can run the legs and stretchers through the jointer and planer. I chose the crisscross and classic leg vise combination partially because they are designed to go together. The vise has a 1″ diameter double-lead acme thread, which runs extremely smoothly. The vise also has a nice black Parkerized finish. In an ideal world it would be great to build a 6-8 foot long bench, with a 4″ thick top. The reality is though that a 5’×2′ bench is plenty large en0ugh for a tiny workshop in a semi-detached.


Benchcrafted classic leg vise