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Susan Fiske, ProprietorI am fortunate to own 5o acres of forested land and live in an area where I can fell trees and hire local sawyers to cut them into rough lumber. That is how I get much of what I use in my shop. However, that strategy limits me to local species and generally narrow and four quarter stock. When I need other species, exotic species or larger stock I first call Sue to see if she has what I need, and she usually does. When crafting fine furniture, as important as woodworkers skills are to its final results, is the quality of the wood he/she uses. For this reason it is important to have a source you can trust and whose products are of the highest quality. That is why I turn to Forest Products Associates. That and the personality known as Sue.

Bolivian rosewood, waiting to be graded and shelved.Forest Products Associates has been a family owned business for over 60 years, located on the outskirts of Greenfield, Massachusetts. Founded by Lee Fisk, today it is run by Susan Fiske. Sue lost her mom a few years back and her dad remarried. He now lives in Texas and is not active in the business. Sue’s clientele ranks in the four thousand range and growing. Her customers range from hobbyists like me to professional cabinet makers, contractors and architects.

Shelving for Graded Lumber accessible on the first and second floor.When I first started buying lumber from Sue she had four or five sheds, though one was the primary shed. I believe one or two may have been used for drying lumber. The sheds with dried lumber were open to the weather, protected only by a slanted roof, sides and back. The office was a small, cramped trailer with two wooden steps. Climbing the steps and opening the door at the same time took a little skill. The office fit about two people; Sue and a customer.

The fork lift always stands ready to access a pallet of lumber not yet graded.In the winter it was a colds days task just to sort through lumber for a project; a task I never looked forward to. On these January days even the office seemed large and cozy. I have no idea how Sue made it through those entire days of winter, day after day, and remained cheerful and helpful whenever a customer arrived. Sue always has a smile on her face and is willing to spend as much time as you wish. Her knowledge of wood is endless and I have often picked her brain about its characteristics.

Lumber Not Yet Graded and ShelvedSeveral years back Sue built the current shed. This one is huge, closed in, concrete floor and well organized storage shelves. Shortly after it was completed a storm reduced a third of it to rubble. So Sue did what she usually does; she smiled and rebuilt it – but even better. It now has a spacious and comfortable front office. She is very proud of the sign that hangs over its door with the name of her business, and the little sign that announces Office. I suspect the door is seldom closed.

Ash Billets - Want to make your own baseball bat?Sue is one of those rare business people who really want the customer to be happy with her product and she maintains a quality control level also rare in business today. On many occasions she has helped me sort for the lumber I needed.

Sometimes she would steer me away from certain board(s) based on my description of the piece I was building. She would say “there is nothing wrong with that board, but if you are going to use it on the front of that hutch we can find you better grain patterns” or something of the kind.

Curved live edge slabs. Those directly in front are apple. Those behind are cherry.Sue's OfficeI live about one hour from Forest Products Associates, so I always call Sue first to see if she has what I need. She carries a cell phone at all times and is always available. Sometimes the lumber I want is still on a palette and not yet graded. She has always offered to have it open for me by the next day, and if necessary grade it for me as I select it.

8/4 black walnut slab with beautiful feather figure. These days, because her dad has moved and is no longer active in the business, Sue’s responsibilities have grown and she has hired staff to help. She needs to spend more time in the office or on maintenance projects. So when you call you may get a staff person, but rest assured they will be every bit as helpful as Sue. And you can always find Sue somewhere there, and she is always willing to talk and brighten your day.

Four quarter purple heart. First number is Bd Ft and lasst is length.Sue’s products have grown over the years both in size and variety. She now has a much larger variety of exotics and large pieces for custom tables. She also has larger inventory of wider and thicker stock. Her business has grown in spite of the economic downturn.

For more information on Forest Products Associates, check out their web site: If you live near or within reasonable driving distance of Greenfield, MA you will find Forest Products Associates a reliable, quality supplier of rough cut hardwood. Check them out. Give Sue a call or stop in.

All Pieces Of Stock Are Marked For Orientation & Exposed Face My current project is a Tall Shaker Wall Clock. It is a gift for my daughter upon her graduation from law school. She graduated a year ago and this gift is a little late. But hey, I’m not getting paid to do this ya know! Anyway, I just stared by preparing stock for the sides, top and bottom. I cut all pieces to final overall dimensions including thickness. When building a carcass using hand cut dovetail joinery it is especially important that all mirrored pieces (right and left side for example) are precisely the same size and perfectly square. Next I carefully choose the surfaces I want exposed and then mark the material to be sure they go together correctly. Carpenter’s Crayon is perfect for this purpose.

My Tools Of Choice For Hand Cutting DovetailsA hand cut dovetail joint requires quality hand tools. Like all woodworkers who work with hand tools I have my favorites and will stack them up against anyone else’s favorites. It’s kind of a religious thing. My choices appear in the picture at left. The dovetail saw, chisel and dovetail marker are all Lie-Nielsen. The dovetail saw is the progressive pitch model; it has fine teeth in the front for easy starting and more aggressive teeth in the back for rapid cutting. The dovetail marker has a 7:1 pitch (or approximately 8 degrees) which I use for hardwoods, and also serves as a square to mark vertical line for half pins. The chisels are just the right length and well balanced. Their weight is on the light side so that your fingers do not tire after hours of dovetailing and unlike Japanese chisels whose triangular top edge cuts into your fingers, the flat top edge of the Lie-Nielsen does not.

The Dividers Are Set For The Width Of A Tail Plus A PinI like a light, hard rock maple wooden mallet. This one was recommended by and purchased from Nora Hall’s website. Nora Hall, if you don’t know, is an expert on carving. A small engineer’s square is ideal for marking the top edge with tail and half-pin spacing. I cut tails first and cutting perpendicular to the board face is critical for good fitting dovetails. The dividers are Groz with sharp points and are used to layout the pin and tail spacing by setting them to the width of one tail plus one pin and stepping the divider across the ends. Setting the dividers and marking other critical dimensions is accomplished with an accurate scale. I use the Incra Tiny T Rule which marks to 1/64″. The Lee Valley Veritas marking gauge makes quick and accurate work of scribing the pin and tail depth across the grain. And finally a well sharpened pencil with lead on the soft side for marking completes the tool set.

A Stool Comes In Handy To Provide Sufficient Elevation To Saw The Tails

The sides of this clock are 51″ long. Cutting tails on this length piece can be quite a challenge. In the past I would have used my adjustable height bench raised to its maximum height to secure the board to eliminate chatter while sawing. With my new Lie-Nielsen bench I find the face vice holds the piece securely and its size and mass all but eliminate chatter making tail sawing easy. I still needed to stand on something for elevation. One of the stools I wrote about crafting as Christmas gifts for our grandchildren came in handy for this purpose. I reposition it frequently so that my stance and arm are appropriately aligned to make the cuts. I use this stool again when removing the waste between the tails with the fret saw as shown at left.

There are two aspects of cutting tails that is critical to good joinery. The first I mentioned earlier is cutting perpendicular to the face of the board. Failing to do so will leave unsightly gaps, poor glue joints and weak mechanical joints. The second aspect is to stop the cut at the scribe line. Going past this point will show and leave a sloppy appearance, not one a craftsman wants to project.

There are a few aspects of tail cuts that are not critical. The angle of the cut is nominally 8 degrees from vertical, but this is not critical. Neither is the width of the gap (pin width). Machine cut dovetails would all be perfectly angled and spaced, but then they would look machine cut. The human is not a machine. Hand cut dovetails are beautiful precisely because they don’t look machine cut; they are all slightly different, adding to the beauty of the piece.

Trace The Pins From The Tail Board And Make Sure To Mark The Waste Area

The pins are a little more difficult. First, the pins are traced from the tails by laying the tail board on the pin board, aligning them perfectly perpendicular and at the correct depth and tracing the pins from the tails with a sharp pencil or knife. I prefer a pencil because I want to saw on the waste side of the pencil marks, that is, leaving the pencil mark which is actually part of the pin. This I can see clearly with pencil marks. However, a knife mark tends to draw the saw blade into its kerf leaving me less control. I complete the layout using the dovetail marker being sure to mark the waste area with Xs as shown at right.

Cut The Pins By Sawing On The Waste Side Leaving The Pencil Marks

There are critical aspects of pin cuts that must be adhered to. Cut on the waste side of the pencil mark, but aligned as closely to it, and along it as possible. Cut straight down using the vertical lines as a guide. Stop at the scribe line on both sides of the board. Paying close attention to these will assure snug fitting joinery – assuming you also cut the tails correctly. The trick to hand cut dovetails is being able to cut vertically and to follow a line. Once those two skills are mastered you can hand cut dovetails that go together the first time, every time.

It helps to cut vertically if your piece is mounted in the vice plumb. The shoulder vise on my Lie-Nielsen lets me quickly accomplish this by holding the piece flush against the vice as I tighten it.

The Majority Of The Waste Is Removed With A Fret Saw

After making all the vertical cuts I am ready to remove the waste. This is done in two steps. First, clear the majority of the waste from the pins by cutting it away with a fret (or coping) saw. I twist the blade in my fret saw to about forty five degrees with pliers. This allows the saws frame to clear the board as I cut. Turning it ninety degrees to the frame would make starting the cut near impossible. When sawing I try to stay as close as I dear to the scribe line leaving just enough to support the chisel cleanup that will follow. How much you leave depends on your experience and courage. If you are just starting out stay at least an eighth of an inch from the scribe line. Be sure you cut evenly front to back. You don’t want to cut close to the scribe line in front and below the scribe line in back. Judge this carefully. After a while it becomes natural and requires no special attention.

Cleanup Of The Waste Is Performed With A Sharp Chisel

The second step in clearing the waste is to clean up the material left by the fret saw. I perform this step with a very sharp chisel. Depending on how close I cut to the scribe line will determine how many cuts along the scribe line I will need to take. If you are doing this and you leave a quarter of an inch for example, you will want to make at least three passes as you approach the scribe line. The last pass should be no more than one eighth inch. Less is better. I hold the chisel slightly passed vertical such that the waste is cut angled into the board. The end grain serves no purpose in the joinery; only the faces of the pins and tails are used to form both the mechanical and glue joint. I check with a small engineer’s square that the material is removed such that the scribe line on each face is unimpeded by material that might project passed them.

The Pins And Tails That Join The Four Sides Of The Clock Carcass

The final joinery set is shown at right. Note that you can still see the pencil marks on the pins. As mentioned above they are part of the pin material since the tail was used as the mask to form the pins. Also note that the tails are cut perpendicular to the face of the tail board and the pins are cut straight down – that is vertical to the board. These pins will go together for the first time during glue-up with no dry fit required.

I have a confession to make. You can see that some of the end grain in the pin boards was chipped out. If my chisel were as sharp as it should have been this would not have happened. My chisel was sharp when I started out on the tail boards and I should have stopped to sharpen it for the pin boards. However it was close to dinner time and I was almost done so I plugged along. The small white sin here is that the end grain does not play a part in the joinery and will not be seen. So I can be forgiven, though it is not my usual practice. There, I feel so much better now that I got that off my chest.

If you are just starting out with hand cut dovetails, or haven’t yet started but would like to, I would highly recommend purchasing Rob Cosman’s series of video tutorials. I have been cutting hand dovetails for ten years now and consider myself experienced. But I still purchase nearly every tutorial I can to see how the masters do it so that I can learn and improve. Frank Klausz is probably the dovetail king with Rob Cosman a very close second, but Rob’s videos I find to be the best tutorials on the market. Don’t shy away from hand cut dovetails. Innate skill is not required. Anyone willing to practice sawing vertically and to a line can master them.

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Cherry Chest Of Drawers RenderingIMSI/Design, LLC, makers of TurboCAD, offers plug-ins for other 3D drawing applications. Their IDX Division offers a plug-in for Google SketchUp called IDX Renditioner which provides photorealistic rendering and material and lighting controls. This plug-in works totally within SketchUp; it adds nine icons to the tool bar: three levels of rendering, four buttons for environment & lighting, save and help button. There are two editions; IDX Renditioner Express which is free, and IDX Renditioner which costs $199.95. The free version is limited in render size and speed, 640 x 480 pixels and at the current time is only available for PC platforms, though a MAC version is expected in the future. IDX Renditioner will render images up to 4096 x 4096 pixels, 24-bits per pixel (16 megapixels), and supports multithreading for higher performance necessary for large images. IDX Renditioner is available on both the PC and MAC.

Close-up renedering - back.I have installed IDX Renditioner on my machine. Installation was quick and easy. I have not had time to give it a test drive. However, William Manning, Senior Director, IDX Division of IMSI/Design contacted me to ask permission to use one of my Free Plans as an example of what IDX Renditioner can do for woodworkers like myself. Above left is William’s rendered version of my Cherry Chest Of Drawers design (click on image to enlarge). Two additional renderings are shown right and left.To see actual photographs of the same design, go to Cherry Chest Of Draws on my Gallery page. William didn’t model the hardware, but I think you will agree this Close-up renedering - top.rendering is indeed photorealistic. What is nice about this is not only that you can see what the final product will look like, but with very little effort you can texture the model with different wood species and grain figures and decide which you, or your customer, likes best. William estimates that he can render 6 – 7 different species in a few hours. This is a very powerful tool for a custom furniture designer like me, and it is a great addition to an already powerful tool such as SketchUp. On my next design, which will be a custom wall hanging clock, I will use IDX Renditioner to render several wood species and give you a first hand accounting of IDX Renditioner.

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I am not a famous poker player, in fact I don’t play poker at all. But if I were a famous poker player, I might say something quotable like – "In poker there is no no such thing as a bad hand, only bad players". However, I am a woodworker, so my famous quote will have to be – "In woodworking there is no such thing as bad wood, only bad woodworkers". Now I don’t mean to offend anyone, so in this politically correct world I should probably revise my yet to be famous quote to "In woodworking there is no such thing as bad wood, only budding woodworkers". Ahhhh! With that settled I can now write this article.

Hardwood is rather expensive, generally costing from $4.00 a bf to $10.00 a bf, and averaging around $6.00 a bf. I don’t like paying that premium, I much prefer to spend money on tools. So I have a strategy that works for me – and maybe for you too.

If you live in the country there are bound to be local sawmills, often one person hobby sawmills. Find out where they are and cultivate a relationship with the owners. I guarantee you, if you spend some time at it, you can get the best hardwoods for about $2 a bf on average.

Black Walnut stickered to air dry.Be ready to help someone cut wood. They will pay you in wood. Keep an ear open for the little old lady who wants that black walnut tree cut down in her front yard (see my website for just such an opportunity – Wood Sources). She probably doesn’t know or care about its value; she just wants it gone before it falls on her house. The picture at left is of black walnut "firewood" I rescued.

Be ready to trade a custom piece for a several hundred board feet of lumber, or help someone out with a built-in in exchange for lumber. Country folk know how to barter. Much of what they have they obtain through bartering. Join in the bartering and get your favorite hardwood cheap.

If you live in the suburbs or cities, be prepared to drive an hour or two. If you buy 50 – 100 bf you are saving $200 – $400 and that will certainly pay for the gas even at $5.00 a gallon.

Plan ahead. When you buy rough lumber you may have to dry it, or at least let it acclimate to your shop conditions. Don’t expect to purchase it on a Friday evening to begin building on a Saturday.

Rough cherry with split ends.Now, this strategy works only if you work at it, AND you are willing to work with the lumber you are can get your hands on – or should I say "Play The Hand You’re Dealt" which is the title of this article.

When you deal with hobbyist sawyers or private people you can’t expect to get quality-level-one lumber. Often these people don’t know how to treat the ends of green lumber to keep them from splitting. Seldom do they know what thickness to cut green lumber to end up with 4/4 dried material. Many don’t know the difference between plainsawn and quartersawn. You have to look beyond these problems and see the wood for it’s potential.

Cherry door sans finish.My brother and sister-in-law asked me to build them some maple cabinets for their laundry room a few years back. I didn’t have maple in my stock at the time so it would have cost about $6.00 a bf to purchase. I told them I could do it with cherry for about $2.00 a bf. They jumped at the opportunity. I started with the wood shown above right. Notice the split ends. This would be low quality cherry if purchased from a retailer. After careful selection and preparation I was able to get sufficient cherry to produce the face frames and doors for the cabinets. See a completed door at left, shown before finishing is applied.

Low quality tiger maple and cherry.I am always on the lookout for "firewood" to rescue. The second floor of my 30′ x 30′ shop is cluttered with piles of assorted wood. Some of it looks almost unusable. Take a look at the picture at right. You will see a pile of tiger maple in the back corner. It is twisted, warped, bowed and generally unattractive. Worse yet look at the pile of cherry in front of it with pitch pockets and bark on the edges. What could possibly be the use for that?

Cherry with pitch pockets.I built a Shaker inspired "Cherry Chest of Drawers" for my woman friend some time back. You can find the finished piece in my Gallery. I needed wood for the ship lapped back. Since the back would never be seen, the wood merely needed to be structurally sound. The pieces could be random width but all the same length. The cherry in the pile shown above right fit the bill perfectly as shown left. Notice the pitch pockets. They actually add something to the back.

TTiger maple table top.he tiger maple "firewood" shown above right I acquired through my brother-in-law who worked for a sawyer who supplied wood for pallet construction. I got this 200 bf pile of tiger maple for $1.50 per bf (the pile was larger when first stickered). I have been waiting a year for it to dry so I could see what it would look like in a finished piece. Well, my most recently completed project is a 30" T x 30" W x 72" L table for my office. I built it out of four species of wood. Cherry was used for the table legs and aprons. The drawer bottom was birch, its sides and back tiger maple, its front blistered maple and the drawer opening has a beading of black walnut. The top, shown right, is tiger maple, the very same tiger maple shown in the picture above.

Bottom of table top.This rough cut tiger maple was fortunately cut to 1 1/8" when wet and dried to about 1 1/16". Because it was twisted, warped and bowed, I had to plane it very carefully and with a watchful eye to be sure I got 3/4" finished thickness out of it. In fact, one board didn’t quite make it, but I used it anyway, placing it bad side down. The glued-up table bottom is shown left with this "flaw". It actually adds something to the piece. Two hundred years from now an antique dealer will point it out to a customer as evidence of a hand made piece. You can see the finished piece titled "Office Table" on my Gallery page.

The moral of this story is, don’t pay high prices for wood; buy tools instead. You can get all the "quality" hardwood you will need if you just keep your eye open for firewood, cultivate local sources and are willing to barter. The selection and preparation will take a little longer and you will have to train your eye to "see" the opportunities in lower quality rough lumber, but it is well worth the effort. And it is an added thrill, at the end of a project, to look back at pictures of the starting material. So keep a photo log of your stock and work. It adds to the "Joy of Woodworking".

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