Back to Basics

There’s something very satisfying about crafting something out of wood. Something that has a functional purpose (I am nothing if not practical), looks right, and feels good to the touch. The flip side to that is the frustration that comes when a project simply doesn’t work out as you had hoped. Maybe the joints don’t quite line up, or the door sticks when you close it. The finish is splotchy or it reveals where the glue squeezed out. With care, effort, and time, often these can be addressed. I have frequently heard the expression about a woodworker being skilled at hiding their mistakes. To a degree, I agree, but I also think that practice and repetition, along with a good approach, can avoid many of those mistakes and yield better results.

Recently I was working on a wooden box and I was not happy with the joints. Naturally I blamed the tools, particularly my table saw. It is wonky, that is a known issue – but as such, something that I should be able to work around. I kept working on the box, and the issues kept multiplying. Finally, I was able to overcome the urge to get it done, and stepped back to review what I was doing. Too much of it was measuring, and cutting without the benefit of jigs. What I thought would save time, was only costing more of it. I needed a better approach.

Essentially, I decided to go back to the basics. Making square, repeatable cuts. The cornerstone of most woodworking. Now to clarify, square in this case refers to making a perfect 90 degree cut to the board. If the wood is milled properly (a story for another day) and you cut it square, when you assemble, you should have nice clean joints. That’s the theory anyway. Normally, I make cross cuts on my miter saw. It’s pretty good, but not perfect. Great for 2×4 type projects of a DIY nature, not so great for crisp, clean joints on a small box. In my head, a voice kept telling me, you need to make a sled. Not the toboggan kind, a sled for the table saw. Specifically a cross cut sled.

A cross cut sled is simply a flat board, with two runners on the bottom that fit in slots on the table saw top. That keeps it consistent as it travels back and forth. If those slots are properly aligned with the blade, you are in good shape. Now the sled needs a vertical board front and back, known as fences. The space between is the cutting area. The fence that is closest to you, when you use the sled, is the critical one. You need to be sure it is exactly 90 degrees from the saw blade. There are lots of videos, and methods of how to do this. Mostly I followed Jonathan Katz-Moses’ approach, and integrated his stop block as well, but to square it up, I did veer off a bit to save myself the measuring and math of the 5 cut method. In the end, my cross cut sled is visually as accurate as any square in my shop, so that will do for now. It has a T track to mount a stop block – for setting a reference point that allows me to cut multiple parts to the exact same length. I also added T track in the base of the sled, and added a hold down. This allows me to secure the piece in place, and keep my fingers further from the blade. This combination worked very well.

Miter Sled 1.0

To complicate things, I wanted to make a box with mitered corners – that means the joint at the corner is two boards that are each cut to 45 degrees. Once again, the miter saw can make this cut (hence the name) but it is only sorta accurate. At least that is the case with mine. The solution, once again, was a sled. It is possible to use the cross cut sled to also make a miter cut, but I preferred (at least for now) to make a different one. In the interest of keeping things simple, I made this one similarly, but not quite the same. I started with a flat board, and one runner, rather than two. It had a fence near to me, but none on the far side. Since there was only one runner, there would be nothing to the right of the blade, and no need to hold it in place with another fence. Using my digital angle finder, I tilted the blade to as close to 45 degrees as I could, and made a cut, creating the angle ont eh side of the sled, and marking where the blade passes through the fence. Now the sled was ready to try out.

This was just to try out, so I did not mount the T track for a stop block, or any hold downs. I simply used a clamp and a block of wood for reference, and my hands to hold the wood. Using the sled made it easy to visually line up where the cuts would be and to make the slightest of adjustments for how much to take off. The cut itself worked OK, but I didn’t like what happened with the little off cut pieces. Since I was working on the sled, the board I was cutting was 3/4 inch above the surface of the table, so the bit that got cut off would fall down to the table, and I thought it would stay out of the way of the blade. Unfortunately, what happened was suboptimal, as my wife would say. The small piece would indeed drop down to the table and no longer contacting the blade, but the overall vibrations of the saw itself would essentially cause the piece to move back towards the blade until it made contact and shot off to the side. If it was a bigger piece that was cut off, it seemed to work as I had thought it would, and it just sat where it fell. The smaller pieces though, just vibrated back to the blade and kazaam, off they went. I tried turning off the saw, but you can measure the time it takes for the blade to stop using a sundial, or an hourglass, so that just delayed the inevitable. I tried reaching for the piece WITH A PENCIL (why would you even think I used my fingers to do that) to knock it free, but given the angle of the blade, and the height it needed to be at, this proved difficult and less safe that standing to the other side and waiting. Clearly I will need to revisit this. I have some ideas, none I have settled on yet.

On the plus side, I did build myself a little box for practice, and to try something new. I started with 4 scraps of 3/4 inch plywood. No, not the fancy baltic birch plywood. I am not a youtube star. Just decent pine plywood, The scraps were small, and not even from the same board, but they would do. My plan was to make the biggest box I could from the small pieces, so using the normal fence, I ripped them all to the same dimension, that would become the box height. Then using the cross cut sled, I cut them to two equal pieces for the short sides, and two equal pieces for the long sides. No rulers, no measuring, just matching – the beauty of a stop block. Since the pieces were so short, and it was plywood, I also used my cross cut sled to make two grooves in each piece that will hold the top and bottom of the box – some scrap 1/4 inch plywood. I lined up the square edge to the fence (and the stop block) and visually lined up the cut to the gap in the sled and ran two passes for each groove to make it wide enough for the 1/4 plywood. This was confirmed with test fits on some other scrap pieces. Again, no measuring.

Getting ready for glue

Now it was time for the 45 degree cuts using the other sled. I visually lined them up and nicked off just enough to make the 45, but otherwise leaving as much length as I could. To do the other end, I largely repeated the process – but with a stop block to be sure the length ended up consistent. Then I did it all over again for the other two sides. Next up was the inset pieces of plywood for the top and bottom. I set these in the grooves, and marked where they extended past the miters, and then allowing for a little extra space in the dado, I cut those pieces to size.

All taped up and ready for glue

Next was the glue up. I decided to try the miter fold approach, so I carefully laid out the four pieces in the correct order, against a straight edge, and applied blue tape to each joint. Next, I flipped it over and applied glue in each joint, and a small dab in the center of each side groove for the top/bottom. Then I folded it all up together, and taped the last side. The joints looked good to me, but I added some clamps anyway. I couldn’t help myself. Then I left it for the night.

I couldn’t resist putting clamps on, but I probably didn’t need them

The next day, I removed the tape and everything looked good. I put the whole box on the cross cut sled, with a stop block in place, and then cut the lid from the bottom. A little sanding to be sure I had a nice clean surface and then I could make the “liner”. I didn’t want to install hinges on something so small, so I planned to insert a 1/4 plywood liner to the inside of the bottom, that would stick up past the bottom. Then the lid would have something to register against, and to keep it secure. To accomplish that, it needed to be a nice, tight fit.

The blue tape was to remind myself which side was the “front”

Following all of the above steps to cut the 4 pieces, I was now ready to start fitting them in place. I did one side at a time, slowly making an ever so slight cut on the saw, and then slipping it in to place. Snug enough that I had to push it in, but not so tight that it would get stuck, or force the glue joints back open over time. When I pushed the last side in, they were actually so tight against each other, that there was no reason to remove them to glue them in place. A little final sanding and this practice box was all set.

The completed box

The proportions are goofy – they were simply based on the scraps near my saw. I didn’t even bother to cut anything from a larger board. The plies don’t line up all the way around because I used scraps from different boards. I sanded through the veneer in some spots. The grain on one side is oriented the opposite way as the other three. Again, these were scraps and they were all defects that I expected. All of that aside, I am pretty pleased with how it came out. The frustration I was having on my original project led me to a much better process – and one that I can repeat. I still need work on my 45 degree miter sled, but I believe I am close. My saw is still wonky – but now I can make consistently clean, square cross cuts. That alone was a success, but my silly little plywood box was a win in my book.

Maybe I can use it to store some paper clips?

Thanks for reading along. I hope that you enjoyed it. If you haven’t already seen it, be sure to check out the description of my French Cleat Wall in the projects section as well as all the other stuff there.

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