Hand Crafted

Bookends
Bookends

Woodworking in the winter is a hit or miss hobby, but it always feels good to complete a winter project. December was unseasonably warm, so I was able to make a set of bookends to give to a friend for Christmas. My idea was to make something out of an interesting piece of wood. My first thought was to make a cutting board. I hope he doesn’t read this and think “Hmm, I would have liked a cutting board…” but I had to work with the wood that was available. I was attracted to this piece of cherry burl; not a good choice for a cutting board. However, I think you would agree, there are bookends hiding in there, they just needed to be cut free.

I think this will work
I think this will work

For the non-woodworkers, a burl is an outgrowth on a tree. The grain is a tangled mess and there are often more than a few knots. Burls are sometimes sliced into veneer but often find their way into projects that highlight their curious details. I’ve worked with burl veneers, but I had never worked with the raw stock.

Burls are harvested all over the world. To protect them during transit, they are covered in wax. I asked the guy at the store how to get the wax off. He gave me that “I know you know what I mean” look and told me to use a scraper. Once a guy is given that look, there are no more questions.

Again, for non-woodworkers: a scraper is one of the most basic woodworking tools. A flat piece of steel with a sharp burr on the edge. Mastering the use of a scraper is one of the skills woodworkers routinely pray for. If you want a sense of what it’s like to use a scraper, the next time there is frost on your windshield, clean it off with the edge of your driver’s license.

Scraping worked well on the flat surfaces, but the bark was covered in wax too. A lot of wax. So much wax. Searching on: “remove wax from bark” led me to three techniques:

1) Pick it out with small scrapers. Um, that would be like picking grits out of scrambled eggs. The result would be many broken pieces of bark.

2) Boil it. Lots of people mentioned this method, but there was little agreement as to whether or not the wood would absorb the water. If the bark absorbed water, the bookends would have become an Easter gift.

If I were single, or if I wanted to be single again, I would have tried the “boil it” method. The instructions said to get a very rapid boil going in a large pot. Then, using tongs, dunk the bark in the water. Use a towel to wick away the wax that rises to the surface. Keep dunking until no more wax emerges.

If my wife walked in on that scene in her kitchen, I’m pretty sure she would just kill me. I doubt that a jury of her peers would convict her.

3) Use a heat gun. A heat gun is like a hair drier, the way a flame thrower is like a butane lighter. The blast of hot air melts and eventually burns the wax away. The process takes a long time and creates a lot of smoke. I modified this method using compressed air to blow the liquid wax away, leaving only a thin layer that had to be burned off. I managed to set a few lose pieces of bark on fire, but anybody in my family will tell you that I considered that an added bonus. My wife was concerned. I don’t think she saw the flames, but she saw the smoke:

Something is burning!

Yeah, yeah, mumble wax, mumble mumble…

Cut, dewaxified and sanded, the only task that remained was to cut a shallow groove on half the bottom of each bookend for a small sheet of brass. That, and to cut the small sheets of brass. Most woodworking how-to sources will tell you that:

Brass is a soft metal. It’s easily cut with traditional woodworking tools.

I’ve read that many times. What those sources don’t tell you is that the “sawdust” created as you cut brass is actually tiny flying pieces of hot metal. I sandwiched the brass inside two slices of plywood and then ran the sandwich through my saw. I used a “small part hold-down” gizmo that my wife bought me after I ran my finger through the saw along with a small part. It’s OK, I can still count to 10.

The bookends were completed during the warm parts of a couple of weekend days. I’m happy with how they turned out, I had some fun and they were well received.

63 thoughts on “Hand Crafted

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    1. The recommendation I found most often was the “boil it” thing. Microwaves heat by heating up the moisture in things, so I think they might mess up the wood. Also, you have to get rid of the wax while it’s liquid. I suppose if you suspended a hunk of wood above a towel, it might work. We don’t have a microwave but I’m pretty sure, if I did that, my wife would kill me.

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  1. I would have had no idea that something that seems as straight-forward as bookends would in fact have so many steps to prepare and finish.
    I love wood burls and the wonderful patterns in the wood. What a lovely gift!!

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      1. Many years ago I was given a vase made from a cedar burl as a gift. It is a beautiful, delicate piece of artistry that I truly treasure.

        I would imagine your artistic process has multiple stages of joy … finding a wonderful piece of wood, getting its inner object to manifest itself, and then of course the end result.
        See? I have the heart of an artist, just no ability ;)

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    1. Thanks Marian. That’s a good question. The wax is thick and soft. The oil penetrates and brings out the grain while think wax tends to mask it. In addition, the wood under the wax hadn’t been sanded.

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  2. I am with Faith… I would have boiled them too. We ( tom and me watching) has even boiled gun parts in my kitchen and I have had engine parts in the oven…With creative men in the house you just have to make room for them some times!

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  3. Lovely project Dan. This reminds me yet again that I have to get my lazy butt back into the shop and make something with my hands.
    I loved the scraper analogy; mine is used almost exclusively on dried glue. I was on an end-grain cutting board kick a few years ago…oh the glue squeeze-out.
    Removing wax from the burl was probably as much ‘fun’ as finish sanding ;-)

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    1. Time in the shop is good for the soul Norm. I think it takes a woodworker to understand the scraper thing. Between getting the edge straight and the burr formed, and then flexing or not, it’s the most complicated simple tool ever.

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  4. I am super impressed with your bookends! I hadn’t seen one of your woodworking posts before. What a challenge with the wax. I don’t know if it would work the same, but when we get candle wax stuck on our menorah we put it in the freezer and then it just pops off. You never know – it could work! If it does, you can thank my mother-in-law for that tip (the Jewish one!)

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  5. Wow! Yes, I’d love a wooden cutting board, who wouldn’t? I had one until kids. Then I realized no one else understood cross-contamination and switched to plastic. Bookends, though, whoop! They’re so handsome! Great gift idea :)
    I had no idea it was so involved.
    Also, lol at a jury of her peers. My eyes were like this O_o when I imagined my husband boiling wooden chunks in my biggest stock pot.

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    1. Thanks. The cutting board was going to be for cheese and stuff. Nice idea but the bark would break off and… I guess if I dug out an old pot and used tongs from my shop I might have been ok. But in her stock pot, with her tongs and towels , um, no.

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  6. Gorgeous bookends, Dan. What a thoughtful gift (although one wonders if you actually gave them away seeing them supporting your fav DVDS).

    Last spring I photgraphed several trees laden with interesting burls (thinking they look like the growths ‘we’ aging people are getting on our skin), but I did not know what those growths were called. They make the trees feel very human to me. And, of course I can’t help but wonder why not ubiquitous bubble wrap instead of wax for shipping those chunks of nature … perhaps supply limitation on the shipping end?

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    1. Thanks Sammy. Burls are cherished by wood turners. I don’t know if harvesting them damages a tree. Bubble wrap would be better in my mind but I guess the wax keeps them from absorbing moisture. I don’t really know, this was my first attempt. I DID give them away but they were doing a good job on those DVDs :)

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  7. Beautiful bookends. I find myself coveting them. As a non-woodworker, I found it interesting to read your post about how to handle that problem with the wax. My brother-in-law is a woodworker so I will have to ask him what method he employs.

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  8. Well done, Dan. Very nice work indeed. And you know I heartily approve of your choice of test subjects! Ha, speaking of The Outer Limits, I notice that burls look a bit like rocks, so I can’t help asking: Do those bookends speak? :-o

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  9. My mom always insisted that homemade gifts beat anything I could order from the Sears Catalogue. It wasn’t until I became an adult and a teacher thrilled by presents my students made for me that I understood. I’ll bet your friend was pleased.

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    1. I think your mom was right. That’s the best part of making things like this. I enjoy making them, spending time in the shop and seeing something come to fruition. Then, I get to see someone enjoy what I’ve made.

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  10. I like the natural look of bookends made of wood or sliced stones or geodes. They each have their emotional rewards. For me, wood evokes a warm feeling, Dan.
    I had to laugh about, “If I were single. . .” portion of your post! :D
    No boiling non-food items in the kitchen! My son has a fire pit where some things are done with food and non-food I would not wish to write about. I am happy the kids gather nuts and branches before he mows, which he burns on weekends.
    Have a great week, Dan. Smiles, Robin

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    1. Thanks Robin. When I was reading the description from someone who had done the “boil it” method, it sounded like it made quite the mess. To be honest, I was more concerned about the bark absorbing the water. I would have ended up using the heat gun to dry it out.

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  11. Just stop—you’re making me want to buy ‘tools’. I can’t handle another hobby and I have so much money and storage space invested in stuff for my current hobbies that I can’t throw one of them over to take up woodworking.
    It’s good to discover one man left in America who respects his wife’s feelings about what happens in the kitchen, I mean “her kitchen”.

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    1. Thanks Kelly. You’re right about hobbies, I have had to cut back on the number of hobbies because there just isn’t enough time to support them all. I think if I had had enough time to work out the logistics of boiling the wax off, my wife might have supported it. Of course, that would have involved a pot and towel from Ocean State.

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