Tag Archives: wood

Stephen Dobay using the table saw.

10 Things to Know about your Table Saw

Stephen Dobay using the table saw.
Stephen Dobay using the table saw.

1. There are two main types of table saws: contractor and cabinet.  Contractor saws are lighter and cheaper, and often built to be portable. They are also usually less exacting and have less power. Cabinet saws have an enclosed “cabinet” base, making them quieter and easier to use dust collection on. Compared to contractor saws, they typically have a larger table size and are more precise, but can be far more expensive, and are definitely not portable. They also typically require a 220v outlet. Most permanent props shops use cabinet saws, as contractor saws are not sturdy enough on their own to handle full-size sheet goods. Some manufacturers are now making hybrid saws, which capture features from both. You can also find hobby saws in specialty shops, which are small and fit on a table top. They can be useful for small projects and model work (though a full-size machine can also do this work with the proper setup). Hobby table saws range from cheap and inaccurate toys, to highly precise machines packed into small bodies.

2. Watch for kickback. While a SawStop can prevent your fingers being cut off (a very expensive accident), the most common injuries on a table saw come from kickback, which is when the spinning blade catches the material and flings it back at you. Never stand directly behind the piece you are cutting, but rather, just to the side. And never, ever let go of the wood while it is in contact with the blade; even if kickback is in progress, you have more control if you keep hold of the board than if you panic and let go. A splitter, or “riving knife”, is the single most effective method for preventing kickback. Never force the wood through; the blade may be too dull, or it may be binding, either of which can cause kickback. Pay attention to the sound of the blade; if it is whining or sounds like it is slowing down, you’re getting close to a kickback.

3. Double-check your measurements. Always measure from the fence to the blade, especially when using a particular saw for the first time. The ruler which is attached to the fence rail may not be accurate or precise. Only when you are certain the ruler on the machine is accurate and precise should you use it for setting your fence.

4. Keep the wood in place. Your wood (or other material) needs to be held snugly against the rail and down against table. Use featherboards or other attachments to hold your wood if your fingers will get too close during a cut. Featherboards are especially useful on miter cuts. Push sticks and push shoes are also vital accessories for holding your material snug and keeping your fingers away from the blade.

5. Never wear gloves when cutting. If a bit of the glove, or even just a single loose thread, gets caught by the spinning blade, it can be pulled into the blade, which will catch more of the fabric and pull more of the glove into the blade. This creates a vicious chain reaction where your entire hand can be pulled into a spinning blade within a fraction of a second. Without gloves, the blade cuts through the skin or bones before being able to grab on and pull more in. On this same note, avoid rings, ties, necklaces, loose hair, apron strings in the front, &c. If you are wearing long sleeves, roll them up tightly before using the table saw.

6. With the correct jigs, you can do almost anything on the table saw. You can cross-cut, cut slots and channels, cut patterns, cut tapers, cut circles, taper long boards, make cove molding, and much more, and you can do it all safely. For tricky cuts or complex operations, it will actually take longer to set up the tool than to carry out the actual operation.

7. Maintain the top of your table. Rust will slowly damage the top, making it hard to push material through. It will also discolor your wood. Clean the top with metal cleaners, or even steel wool for stubborn rust spots. When clean, you should wax and polish it to prevent further rusting. Paste wax works well, particularly carnauba-based wax; anything made for cars will work as well. A freshly-waxed surface will also make your materials slide through the saw much more effortlessly.

8. Watch where your wood goes. Never start a cut until you know that the wood can go all the way through without falling off the edge or hitting an obstacle, and that you can reach it and keep hands on it at all times. Use stands, outfeed tables, or a friend when necessary. You may wish to “walk-through” a cut first, to check all this before you cut. Do not forget that the balance of the wood will change after it is cut into two pieces; where a full-size piece may rest comfortably on your table, the off-cut may tip off the side.

9. Use the right blade. Some blades are made for ripping, some for cross cutting, while more specialty blades exist for cutting veneers, laminates and plastics. For most props shops, you will be ripping and cross-cutting plywoods and soft woods throughout the day, and constantly changing the blade will be inefficient, so invest in a good combination blade that will work for the majority of your most common operations.

10. Set the correct blade height. Your blade should be high enough so the gullets of the teeth (the spaces between the teeth) are at or just below the top of the wood’s surface. This allows the blade to clear sawdust and introduce fresh air into the cut, while minimizing the amount of exposed blade to your fingers.

Attaching the side bar

Bench from “Oscar”

Our final opera at this past season of the Santa Fe Opera was “Oscar”, a world premiere based on Oscar Wilde. I made a bench for it. It was a simple bench, and the legs were purchased rather than made by us, but it was all solid alder wood, and the end result was quite attractive.

Gluing up the seat
Gluing up the seat

I picked up a truckload of alder from the local lumber store, and planed and jointed some boards for the seat. The seat was a full inch thick, so it was quite hefty. After gluing them together, I rounded off the corners and routed a round-over along the whole circumference.

Hole-drilling jig
Hole-drilling jig

The trickiest part were the bars on either side which stood on top of the seat. I turned them out of the same alder I had bought. I then constructed a jig for drilling the holes. The jig allowed me to drill the hole exactly perpendicular to the bar, as well as to place the hole directly in the center (width-wise) of the bar. I also marked the bars so I could drill both holes along the same line.

Attaching the side bar
Attaching the side bar

Next, I had to line up the holes on the bars with the holes on the seat. The dowels connecting the bars to the bench were also turned by me out of alder. They ran through the top into the legs, so you could pick the bench up by the bars very securely.

For an extra touch, I fabricated the half-round molding along the bottom of the apron from the same alder I used on the rest of the bench. Since the legs we bought were also alder, this meant the entire bench was solid alder, and it would have a consistent appearance when stained.

Bench from "Oscar"
Bench from “Oscar”

The final bench was stained by our paint department; I had actually constructed two (the one above and a much longer one), but the second one was cut. Again, it was fairly simple, and the legs were not turned by me, but working in solid wood is always fun and interesting.

 

 

Quaich

Turned Quaich

One of the props I built for our production of La Donna del Lago was a quaich. A quaich is a two-handled drinking vessel from Scotland; you can find out more on the Wikipedia page, which incidentally, has the research photograph I worked from.

Full-scale drawing
Full-scale drawing

I began by adapting the research photograph to a full-scale drawing of the profile I would make. This was fit to the measurements that they wanted to use, shown to the designer, then refined some more based on his feedback. When my drawing was approved, I cut a turning blank from a piece of poplar we had laying around.

Turning the outside
Turning the outside

This was the first time I have ever turned a bowl on a lathe. Our lathe is not actually set up to turn on the outboard side, so I had to turn the whole bowl on the inboard side. I began by turning the profile of the outside, leaving a large foot on the bottom that I could hold on to when it came time to turn the inside.

Hollowing out the inside
Hollowing out the inside

I flipped the bowl around and started hollowing out the inside. One of the other carpenters told me a trick where you first use a drill bit to remove as much of the material on the inside as you can. I grabbed the largest Forstner bit we had, stuck it in the drill bit chuck on the tailstock, and drilled out the center of my bowl.

Finished turning
Finished turning

Hollowing out the rest of the center was straightforward once I got used to how the tools acted. The tricky part about turning a bowl, compared to turning spindles, is the way the grain faces. The curve brings you from face grain to end grain, so your tool cuts differently as you move along the curve.

Unpainted quaich
Unpainted quaich

After the bowl itself was complete, I added the handles. I chiseled and Dremeled a square notch in each side of the bowl that the handles could fit into, and epoxied them in place. I also took a grinder and carved the outside so it looked like it was hand-carved with gouges.

Quaich
Quaich

The painting and faux metal strip along the top was handled by the rest of the props team. It was sealed with a food-safe sealer since the artists drank actual liquid from it every performance. It was a simple prop, but it turned out nicely and allowed me to learn some new skills in the process.

Mounting the wooden forms

Vacuum Formed Balustrades

One of the first projects I worked on when arriving in Santa Fe was actually for a scenic element. One of the shows has a number of decorative balustrades way upstage, and they wanted to vacuum form them. I was tasked with turning the wooden master.

Clamping the boards
Clamping the boards

The first step was gluing up a number of poplar boards. This was going to be a fairly thick piece. I made two, so I could split them down the middle and give them four halves to vacuum form on a single sheet of plastic.

Turning the blank
Turning the blank

The lathe in our props shop has a duplicater set up. This allows you to cut out the profile of what you want to turn in a thin sheet of plexiglas, and the blade can follow that shape. You still need to finish it up by hand to make sharp corners and smooth it out, but it helps keep your shapes and sizes consistent across multiple pieces.

Completed balustrades
Completed balustrades

Above are the two balustrades, ready to go!

Cutting in half
Cutting in half

Next I had to split them directly in half. Luckily, we have a massive bandsaw, and I could build an oversized dowel-splitting jig to cut the whole baluster in half in one pass.

Mounting the wooden forms
Mounting the wooden forms

The next step included a new technique for me. I had to drill holes throughout the wooden mold for the vacuum to pull air through, paying particular attention to the undercuts. They also asked me to mount the molds on a sheet of plywood with a gap underneath, and drill holes all along the periphery. Since the vacuum form platen only has holes at regularly-spaced intervals, it would not suck the plastic tight against the bottom of the mold; this technique was like creating a custom platen to sit on top of the regular platen.

Vacuum formed copies
Vacuum formed copies

That was actually the end of my part. The scenery department took my molds and began running them through the vacuum former. I don’t have any pictures of that, but I do have a video of the machine in action. Above is a photo of the resulting pieces as they get mounted to the scenic piece.

Painted Piano

Piano for Wild Party

Every musical needs a piano, right? Of course, if you have a piano on stage and people are dancing, you’re going to want the people to dance on the piano as well. Such is the prop master’s life. I had to build a dance-able piano for Elon University’s production of The Wild Party, which closed a few weeks ago.

Appropriated Piano Parts
Appropriated Piano Parts

As it turns out, my father has taken apart a piano or two and kept the pieces in his barn. When I was visiting over Christmas, I picked up some of these parts, including the keyboard lid and a partial keyboard. While I probably could have faked the keys, the lid was a real find; it’s two pieces of solid oak cupped along the entire length. This shape would be hard to fake on my own, and it would be nowhere near as sturdy as the piece I found, which could support a person’s weight in the center without bending.

Shape and Structure
Shape and Structure

It needed to be strong and sturdy, but lightweight enough that it could be quickly turned and moved throughout the musical by the actors. The photograph above shows the beginning stages. I had to make the shape also serve as the structure, because there was not a lot of room to hide cross bracing or reinforcements.

Unpainted Piano
Unpainted Piano

The two-by-four in the center of the piano hides a pipe that leads down into the platform itself. This gave a pivot point to the piano so when the actors spun it around on the wagon, it would rotate on a fixed point.

Painted Piano
Painted Piano

The piano received a coat of black paint followed by a few coats of Sculptural Arts’ Plastic Varnish Gloss (one of my wife’s favorite products). You can see in the photo above that I added more facing to the front legs to make them appear like more traditional piano legs. On a real piano, these would be cut from solid wood, but on my prop piano, they are pieces of quarter-inch plywood and wiggle wood over top a leg made from two two-by-fours.

Wild, Wild Party
Wild, Wild Party

There are six people dancing on the piano in the photograph above. It featured throughout the musical, with people dancing on top, jumping up and off of it, and generally subjecting it to all sorts of abuse. I’m happy to say it sat there like a rock, never sagging or shaking no matter how hard they tapped or how much shimmy was in their shake.