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Milling (boards) and drilling (pockets)

Have I mentioned how much I love our place on Whidbey Island? The ocean and animals are always present, and the house is built perfectly to take advantage of all that natural beauty. But the kitchen? Eh. I mean, it works fine, it’s just, well, ugly. The folks we bought from never found a clearance sale they didn’t love, from the dirt-brown counters to the yellowy oak cabinets to the weird pink sink. All “fine” materials on their own, but as a whole pretty nuts.

So just as most of America seems to be, we’re getting around to a renovation. Lara is a huge fan of quartz countertops from Cambria, and while I like them too what really sold me is that the company financed a whole freaking movie because, I guess, it was cool? I swear I’m not making this up; watch the trailer!

Legend of Cambria tells the story of the legendary lands that inspired our beautiful countertop designs. Each Cambria® surface is masterfully crafted by American craftsmen and women with an uncompromising commitment to quality, performance, and durability. Discover them for yourself and make your dream kitchen or bath a reality.

We also got a new sink, added a cool tile backsplash and next month those oak cabinets are getting filled and painted along with most of that side of the house. My primary job is swapping out every – single – outlet and switch so they’re all white. Someday I’ll get the circuit breakers properly labelled, but if I’m totally honest, probably not.

Anyways, with all of this fancy new stuff, our go-to approach for storing cutting boards (i.e., “jamming them in the corner”) isn’t going to “cut” it — too hard on the new paint. And sure you can buy something perfectly nice and ready-made for like $10, but I figured it’d be fun to try some new wood adventures. So that’s the leadup to my latest project — a cutting-board rack made from (of course) a random log off the beach.

The loose concept was a U-shaped piece with a high right side that would stand up against the newly-painted wall, about a 5” space for boards to slide in, and a short lip on the left side to stop them from slipping out. The tallest cutting board we have is about 12” high, and the full counter depth is 25” — about 22” long fits well. I wanted to have the tops be opposite live edges from the same log, so it kind of looked like I just folded up a single plank. Some people do really really neat waterfall pieces matching grain and everything — nothing so elaborate from me, just a little touch.

First step was to source the material. Other than being big, the log I picked wasn’t particularly notable — enough time out in the water to acquire some character and staining, but not so long that it had too much damage. Most importantly, there was an end poking out of the pick-up-sticks pile that I could cut safely.

Milling is complicated

There are a number of different ways to mill logs into boards — and it’s one of those topics where the web can confuse as much as educate. Dunn Lumber created a great video describing the different cuts and grains. In short, if you look at the end of a board you’ll generally see one of three patterns in the grain:

  1. “Plain Sawn” boards have shallow angles (typically < 30 degrees) that curve and look like smiles or frowns.
  2. “Quarter Sawn” boards have straighter-looking grain at 30-60 degree angles.
  3. “Rift Sawn” boards have near-vertical grain (60-90 degree).

These different patterns impact the “stability” of the wood (whether it tends to warp while drying) and the look of the faces of the board (this depends a lot on species, but plain sawn boards tend to have broad wavy “cathedral” markings on the faces while quarter and rift sawn boards tend to have regular, straighter bands). The complicated part is that terms used to describe the method of cutting overlap and conflict with those used to describe the end-product. There are some great pictures of cutting methods on this site; but in short:

  1. “Plain sawing” creates all plain sawn boards, with lower stability but the least waste. Most building material is created this way. Sometimes people confuse this term for “flat sawing” which is effectively live sawing but with trimmed edges.
  2. “Rift sawing” (sometimes called “radial”) extracts only rift sawn boards, maximizing stability but wasting the most material. It’s used for things like high-end flooring.
  3. “Quarter sawing” is a compromise that results in a mixture of quarter sawn and rift sawn boards. Most higher-quality boards are cut this way.
  4. “Live sawing” results in boards of all three types and leaves the natural edges on the boards. Live sawing is a more recent trend and super-popular in the artsy world.

Anyways — for my project, I wanted something that would look nice, but also had to consider stability because I was going to dry the wood quickly in the oven — significant warping would be a big hassle. I wasn’t worried about wasting material (this is just a log that washed up on my beach after all), so I cut two boards as shown in the diagram to the right; one full-width that was mostly quarter sawn (while still giving me my matching live edges) and one shorter one (for the bottom) that was rift sawn.

I made the cuts all by hand with the chainsaw, which was a fun challenge. I jammed the blade a few times on the lengthwise (rip) cuts, because the damp wood shredded more in that direction, throwing long fibers into the drive wheel that eventually gummed things up (you can see some of that at the base of the blade in the picture). Apparently you can buy dedicated ripping chains (e.g., this one) and I definitely should get one, but I muscled through it with only a little bit of foul language.

Drying and refining

This particular log has seen some float time — so getting it dry was key. It turns out that three hours in the oven at 200 degrees does a great job (hat tip to https://splitwoodclub.com/how-to-dry-wood-in-an-oven-a-practical-diy-guide, although the quick synopsis is “put it in the oven for a while”). Evaporating old seawater does have a bit of a distinctive smell, but hey beauty is pain. I’m going to be using this technique a lot for smaller pieces going forward.

The wide board just barely fit through my benchtop planer, but eventually I got it down to a nice looking ¾” thickness. I planed the second piece to ½” and then sanded them both up to 120 grit. I was actually pretty impressed with the quality of the wood — just one soft spot I had to stabilize with a little bit of CA glue, and some really nice grain and color. I totally can understand why people like to work with unblemished high-quality wood, but I’ll take the quirky and unique stuff from my backyard every time. A few passes through the table saw and all was ready for assembly.

Joinery, also complicated

OK, time to put this thing together. The rack has two joints, both against the base plate — one for the tall piece that stands up against the wall, and one for the short side that stops boards from sliding off. Just as with milling, wood joinery is way more complicated than it seems on the surface. There are dozens of different ways to connect two pieces of wood, and countless online debates about their relative merits. I am never going to be a finish carpenter, but picking the wrong joint can be pretty catastrophic, so I’ve tried to at least learn the basics.

Most important is to understand what stressors are going to act on the joint. That is — what forces will be trying to make it fail and where are they coming from. The first joint any kid in their garage learns is the “butt joint” (heh)— just putting two pieces of wood next to each other and fastening them with glue. Super-easy, but by far the weakest of all approaches because the holding force is exclusively along one plane — in this example picture, downward force (in green) is no problem (the glue is barely doing any of the work anyways) but any significant force from the side (in red) will quickly break the joint. The taller the vertical piece (and thus the longer the lever), the easier it will snap.

Because of this, most butt joints are reinforced with some secondary fastener that increases holding force and, ideally, does so across multiple planes. In home construction, butt-joined studs are often “toed-in” with nails hammered in at an angle. Doesn’t look great, but studs are hidden anyways. In some cases screws parallel to the joint can work, although they have to be pretty long to do much good. For finish carpentry (furniture, etc.) where the joint will be visible, hidden biscuits or dowels can be used.

The joinery arms race really starts accelerating from there. Laps, dadoes, rabbets, mortice and tenons, dovetails and boxes — many of which are not just stronger than butt joints but actually add to the aesthetics of a piece. Joinery really is an impressive craft and a solid lifetime’s work and I am in awe of the folks that even begin to master it.

Our little stubby joint is easy-peasy. Because it is so short, there won’t be much torque against it, and we have the luxury of a hidden surface on the bottom of the piece, so a simple glued butt joint reinforced with screws from the bottom does the job perfectly well. Countersinking the screws ensures that nothing will scratch the surface the rack sits on. I didn’t even bother to plug the holes, although maybe I should have.

Pocket-hole screws

The tall piece was another matter entirely — it will be subject to a bunch of lateral force, all dependent on a single narrow ¾” joint. Yikes! After considering a bunch of options, I chose to take my first swing at a reinforced technique called a “pocket-hole screw.” These have been around forever, but became really popular with the DIY set in the 1990s when Kreg introduced a jig system that made them braindead easy to create. There are a bunch of options; I chose the middle-of-the-road “K4” version.

A bit like that toed-in nail in a stud, the pocket-hole technique joins two pieces with a fastener inserted at a shallow angle (typically 15 degrees). The fastener is a special self-tapping screw that provides a ton of holding force, embedded into a “pocket” that can be easily hidden beneath a wooden plug. The hole is drilled using a special bit that leaves a flat lip for the screw head to sit on and drives the pilot hole just to the edge of, but not through, the first piece — avoiding splinters that could create gaps between the pieces. Despite all of this detailed engineering, the jig is really easy to use:

  1. Start with the Kreg online Screw Selector to verify jig settings; for simple joints this isn’t really necessary but nice to have a double-check. Remember to use true dimensions for the calculator, not “as-sold” nominal ones.
  2. Set the drill guide depth in the jig and lock in the set screw.
  3. Position and tighten the stop collar on the drill bit using the measuring guide on the jig body.
  4. Clamp the piece to be drilled into the jig.
  5. Drill until the stop collar hits the top of the jig. If you’re not using a vacuum attachment, move the drill in and out so that dust doesn’t jam up the hole.
  6. Position and clamp the joint, then use the long square-drive bit to drive the screw until it is fully seated. Keep the clutch low so you don’t over-tighten and break through the bottom of the second piece.
  7. Put a bit of glue onto a plug and insert it into the pocket. When the glue dries, use a flush-cut saw to trim the plug and sand it even with the surface of the piece.
  8. Tah dah!

There are a lot of “proprietary” pieces in the Kreg jig, and typically I shy away from that kind of thing — but this is one really well-designed. Worth it and highly recommended. The joint in the rack is rock solid and should stand up to a lot of everyday hard use. Love it!

Finishing it up

Since cutting boards are going to slide in and out of this piece every day, it needs something more than my typical oil finish. Lara wanted to keep the natural color of the wood, so I picked a fast-drying semi-gloss spray polyurethane. Four coats seem to be a good thickness, but I may have to insert a bit of acrylic or something on the bottom anyways, we’ll see how it holds up.

I don’t use this kind of surface-coating finish very often — it turned out to be really important to do a final sanding and buff to get a nice feel and shine to the wood. The amount of dust that settles on a drying finish is kind of crazy; maybe I need a clean room!

A few little sticky rubber feet to keep it solid on the counter, and that’s a wrap — a fun project and I learned a lot. Which is good, because when you spend like ten hours building something you can buy online for less than a Jackson, you’d better at least be having fun. W00t!

PS. Completely unrelated bonus image of the beach swings I just finished setting up this afternoon. Who doesn’t love a good swing?

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