Tag Archives: lumber

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.



Box Elder Boxes

Welcome back, everybody! I hope the holidays went well. There is a lot of great stuff on the way for this blog as we count down to the release of The Prop Building Guidebook, one of the first guides to building props to be published in a decade, and one of the most complete ever.

Today, I wanted to show off some boxes I made as Christmas gifts. These were done awhile ago, but I did not post them because the recipients read this blog. It was interesting working with “nice” wood and building an item the “real” way, because it makes you realize how many shortcuts you can take in prop making, and how much you can get away with when an object is only viewed at a distance from the audience.

Not that the props I and others make aren’t well-made; frequently, they are sturdier and more polished than many items you can find in the store. But there is a difference when the item you are making will be held up close, and any joints that are a bit proud can actually be felt, or an errant glue drip on the inside will be studied closely.

Four boxes made from box elder.
Four boxes made from box elder.

I used an exceptional piece of box elder for these boxes. You can see in the open box above, the inside is completely unfinished. The polyurethane coating adds a bit of contrast and depth to the surface, but otherwise, that is the natural color of the wood. The red streaks comes from a fungal growth. Box elder is rarely harvested commercially, because it grows in flood plains. Many people do not realize it can look like that on the inside, so they just burn it as firewood or turn it to mulch when they need to get rid of a box elder tree that has fallen down or died.

I found my pieces at a local sawmill that specializes in salvage lumber. The sawyer had rescued a bunch of box elder trees when the park services cleared a riverfront. My wife and I saw this wood at a wood show awhile back and were asking questions about it. The next day, we returned to the show and the sawyer had set aside some particularly bold pieces of the box elder for us.

A box made from box elder.
A box made from box elder.

I used a piece of walnut for the bottom and as an accent around the lid opening. The boxes were cut entirely on my table saw. As I mentioned above, I finished them with a few coats of polyurethane; specifically, I used spar varnish because it imparts a lot of UV protection. The red coloring will actually fade away when left in direct sunlight, which would be a shame.

Theatrical Ads from a Hundred Years Ago

I’ve been finding a lot of great advertisements for theatrical property companies and other related businesses from The Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide and Moving Picture Directory. These ads appeared between 1898 and 1913. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the theatrical business scene in New York City from a century ago. I also love the style of the ads themselves, with their odd mix of formality and flair.

Morse Company Theatrical Properties, 1903

Turner Prop Storage

Douthitt Set Dressing

Gebhardt, props

Perry, Ryer and Co Imports

Prof. Dare Inventor

I like the previous man’s name: Professor Dare. In addition to prop-related businesses, I’ve also found some interesting ones for scenery studios and scenic artists.

Continue reading Theatrical Ads from a Hundred Years Ago

Is MDF really that bad for you?

I’ve run across shops and artisans who tend to avoid Medium Density Fiberboard, or MDF. MDF is an engineered lumber product made of sawdust bonded together with a urea-formaldehyde adhesive. When you work with MDF, the dust you release also contains this formaldehyde, which you may end up breathing. So is that really that bad? The short answer is “yes, with a but”, while the long answer is “no, with an if”. Like any other substance or material used in a props shop, the safety of using it is dependent on knowing the risks and possible hazards and taking the appropriate precautions. After all, people can safely work with plutonium if their shop is set up correctly and they wear the appropriate gear.

Let me start off by saying yes, you should avoid breathing MDF dust. Formaldehyde is suspected of being a carcinogen, and MDF has some of the highest concentration of urea-formaldehyde adhesives out of all the engineered wood products that use it. Other products which use UF adhesive include hardwood plywood and particle board. Some products, such as softwood plywood and oriented strand board, use phenol-formaldehyde resin which emits much lower concentrations of formaldehyde. Nonetheless, when working with these products, you should have appropriate dust collection at the source of dust creation, proper ventilation and air filtration, and wear an appropriate personal respirator (a NIOSH-approved dust mask for particulates) when sawing or sanding.

So if it’s unwise to work with MDF without proper safety precautions, why am I asking the question in the title of this post? Here’s what I’ve seen; some shops avoid or even downright ban the use of MDF because of what they’ve heard about UF adhesives. This is absurd for several reasons. First, all materials are “bad” to some extent. A better way to phrase that is to say that all materials require you to understand what the potential hazards are and how to minimize them. If you are barbecuing in a grill, you know there is a potential for things to catch fire, so you have a fire extinguisher close by. If you understand why MDF is potentially harmful, then you can figure out how to minimize those harms; if your shop is unable to minimize those harms, than its use should be avoided.

My second point is this: if a shop avoids MDF because the dust gets in the air and employees breath it, it implies a larger safety issue. While formaldehyde is a suspected carcinogen, sawdust itself is a known carcinogen. Let me repeat that: sawdust is a known carcinogen (see here). If you allow sawdust to fill the air of your shop, you are basically filling your shop with carcinogens. So a shop or person that avoids MDF because the dust gets in the air is still allowing the dust from other products to fill the air, which is just as harmful to breath as MDF dust.

If you work with lumber of any kind, the proper precautions include dust collection at the source, ventilation in the whole shop, and the use of a personal respirator. These are the exact same precautions you need for using MDF. Also, the proper safety protocol in a shop is to keep track of all substances which you may be exposed to and take the recommended precautions to minimize exposure.

Thus, avoiding MDF in a wood-shop implies that not only does one not know proper safety protocols, but that one is exposing workers to other potentially hazardous dust. So my question, “Is MDF really that bad for you?”, has the same answer as every other substance. If you know the potential harms and how to minimize them, then it is no more “bad” than any other hazardous and toxic material you work with to build props. In other words, the proper question isn’t whether MDF is “bad” (it is, but so is everything else you use), it’s whether your safety procedures are bad.

Carpentry quick links

My computer is still broke, so I’m having trouble keeping up with this blog. Until then, enjoy some websites on carpentry from elsewhere around the web!

  • The American Woods by Romeyn B. Hough, contains photographs of some 350 North American lumber types. You can browse by common or scientific name as well.
  • Lumberjocks has a number of great resources. In addition to projects and a blog, they also review woodworking tools and feature a heavily-visited forum.
  • I’ve been following the weekly tips at Woodsmith for awhile. They feature some good tricks for your shop and tools.
  • New Woodworker, like Lumberjocks, also has articles, reviews, tips and tricks. Their tips and tricks are organized by topic, making it easy to browse.
  • How to draw a hexagon with just a compass. Also, draw a pentagon with just a compass and a ruler.