Author Archives: Uberscholar

Carving a wooden spoon: Using opportunities and supplies to practice and learn

It’s fun to work someplace with a lot of scrap wood. Months ago someone in the shop made something with a piece of oak and had a good sized scrap piece left over. He threw it away. I snagged it.

Wooden spoon combo

On top is the roughed out piece of wood with the bowl carved. On the bottom is the wood after being turned on the lathe. The proportions were a little off so I carved the bowl a little deeper. Because I didn’t start with the idea of turning the handle, the bowl and handle aren’t perfectly aligned.

This is a trait (or bad habit) that I picked up from my dad, LeRoy Mitchell. He was an art teacher in the Des Moines Public Schools system and found a lot of throw-away stuff Continue reading


Not everything we do is complicated: Learning an easy way to strip old finish

Some jobs that come in to the shop are intimidating for me. Ok, many of the jobs are intimidating. Today I took on one of them and was very pleasantly surprised at its ease.

rocking chair

This rocker came in with instructions to strip and restain arms to match the rest of the chair.

We work largely in older wooden furniture and this well-loved rocking chair is a good example. The owners wanted the chair reupholstered and even out the finish on the well-worn arms.

I knew we weren’t doing a chemical strip on it so I thought we needed to sand it. I’ve learned that a lot of the jobs we do are best done slow and steady — like hand sanding so that you don’t damage other parts of the chair with your power orbital sander. I also know that there’s still a lot I don’t know about this job and I was thinking this one would be tough.

062618 stripping 2 before arm

Part of the arm is the through tenon from the front leg support. It’s end grain, which absorbs stain differently.

Continue reading

A successful turning experience helps build confidence on the lathe

061118 leg1_edited-1

This is a non-broken leg, used as a pattern for the new piece. The broken leg was cut off at the joint at the top of the photo. This created a nice clean joint to attach the new piece.

I’m still fascinated with turning wood — and still very much a novice.

Two weeks ago, I was working with a skew chisel on the lathe and it caught in the wood, causing it to kick back and take a nice hunk of skin off my left index finger. It hurt and it scared me. But I grabbed the super glue and a bandage and went back to work.

Last week a new project came in — turning a new component of a chair leg. To add to the pressure, it was a chair from the Iowa Statehouse Chamber.

I was grateful to have a piece that wasn’t a 20-inch spindle. Instead, this was just a 3-inch piece. Working small was another new experience.

Given my past experiences, I tried to set myself up for success by doing a couple of practice pieces. The original leg has a gentle curve to it rather than an extreme taper, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to do it.

Here are my two practice pieces, which I did on Friday. The one on the left was the first. In the second try I was starting to get the hang of the shape.

Today, Monday, I thought I’d need another practice piece, but this time I was going to use walnut so I’d get a feel for the wood for the final piece. I also practiced using the tools that tripped me up last time and forced myself to work past those scary moments when the tool catches for a moment.

There’s nothing like a successful day at the lathe to make it a good day.

As luck would have it, I was able to get a good final piece out of that third practice piece.

AND — I did it without hurting myself or taking a big gouge out of the wood!

I’m smart enough to know that I might not be as successful the next time, which is why I’ve learned to celebrate success when it happens. With so much to be sad about in the world today, you have to celebrate success.

(By the way, I’ll be able to use those two practice pieces as finials for my next two walking stick projects!)

Six months on the job: A lesson a day keeps the boredom away

This post is in honor of my six months on the job. I’ve learned so much, including the fact that coming into this job, I actually knew more than I expected. It feels good to know what I know, to see what I can do, and to be learning more almost every day.

One of the best things about the job is that every day is different. Among the items in the shop now are three bar stools with broken backs (from a hotel), a caned barrel chair that needs new cane, two upholstered living room chairs with broken springs and a 16-drawer dresser with broken legs. Right now there are several repairs that I’ve never done before, so it’s a week of learning.

Something else I’m learning to do and that tells me that I’m getting better: Continue reading

You want me to make this out of what?

030618 molding casting05Today was a great day of learning. Having had made some molding a few months ago, using two or three different router bits and a nice piece of oak, I thought I’d take on making another piece of molding, this time a piece of trim for a drawer front. Unlike the last molding, this was much smaller — 3/4″ by 9″ — so I was a little nervous about recreating this profile with the router.

Just as I started to get to work on it, my colleague, Bryan, says he has something he wants me to try. He tells me what he wants me to try and I uttered a perplexed, “What?

I wasn’t going to make this molding out of wood, he wanted me to make it out of epoxy wood putty.

“Say WHAT??

Ok, now I’m perplexed, curious, excited and nervous. I was familiar with the epoxy because they had taught me how to use it to fill voids in furniture, but I’d only used it for fairly small pieces. I never even thought about using this stuff to create pieces. Here’s what he taught me.

(Roll over the image to see caption. Click on image to go to slideshow view.)

Today was a true day of learning. What fun.


My second turn at woodturning: A simple spindle

The boss picked out a chair for me to work on this week, a chair with a broken spindle. The spindle was pretty simple — not Shaker-style simple, but for my second time at the lathe, even simple isn’t that simple. Maybe I should say it was straightforward.

This spindle was about 2 ½” wide and 14” long. That length meant two meaningful things to me: I wouldn’t be able to turn from one end to the other without moving the tool rest, and there was a good chance I’d have to stabilize the spindle in the middle.

Having a long, symmetrical piece is almost like making two pieces, mirror images of each other. The stabilizer also cuts the piece in two, you can’t work through it, you have to work one end of the spindle then move it to work the other end.

020618 spindle 1

Roughing out the replacement spindle, including marking the center, the ends (tenons) and a few key places in between. Roughing is done at low RPMs and a spindle roughing gouge. This is the scary part for me because of occasional chatter with the tool.

020618 spindle 2

A little further along, starting to finalize the shape and smooth it out. This work is done at much higher RPMs and with round-nose scraper, which was really easy to use.

020618 spindle 3

The spindle in its rightful place on the chair. I was very happy with how it turned out. I also had to drill the hole for the tenon of the middle spindle. That was done with a forstner bit on the drill press. The green tape labels the pieces for the reassembly. It’s easy to get confused when you break down the chair.

020618 spindle 4

Can you tell which is mine? Finishing the job included staining the spindle to match the rest of the chair and adding the top coat. Color matching often means blending several colors. I used three toners on this piece. (The right one is mine.)

Adventures in upholstery: Hundreds of staples and staple fatigue

The first step of reupholstering a chair is to take off the old fabric. Easy concept but sometimes it’s crappy work to do.


Yes, this is what I pulled out of just one chair.

There are few easy ways to remove old staples and tacks, so it’s a slow, physical job with a staple remover, tack lifter and pliers. Each layer of material was held in place with about 75 staples and/or tacks, so one chair amounted to about 300 of them.

011918 dust mask musty layers

This was an older chair, stuffed with grasses. All that dry grass — any possibly mold — is not good for the lungs. Sometimes I have to whip out the headlamp for dark materials or hidden staples. And I always where safety glasses — I can’t tell you how many staples and tacks bounced off of them while doing this. Norm Abram would be proud.


When an older chair comes Continue reading

Today’s lesson: Replacing seat cushion buttons

About six or seven years ago I wanted to have my 30-year-old dining room chair reupholstered. I remember having a hard time finding someone to do it and balking at the price once I had found him. Well, seems those two things go hand in hand.

upholstered cushion buttons

The upholstered buttons for the chair cushion. Each chair had five buttons.

Each week I’m reminded just how few furniture repair places there are these days. The guy who did my chairs worked out of a little shop attached to his house and I remember him saying he was always busy. We are, too, and we could do even more business if we had a full-time upholsterer. Since we don’t, I’m learning how to do some of it. I’ve reupholstered about 20 seats so far. Last week I learned something new:  buttons.

A customer brought in four chairs to have the joints Continue reading

Turning on the lathe: Another woodworking dream becomes reality

Two weeks ago a chair came in that needed three new spindles for its stretcher assembly. I saw my opportunity. These spindles would be about as simple as wood turning gets (except that they were rather long) so I wanted the opportunity.

chair spindle

Here’s my first turned piece on the lathe — one of three spindles for the stretcher of a chair. The spindle is the center part, the ends are waste material and will be cut off.

I had to make four to get three usable ones — I took too much material off the second one so it was too skinny. Thanks to my boss, Dayan Mossberg, who values learning and didn’t have a problem with me needing to use another 2″ x 18″ piece of oak.

Turning was fun and scary and I was hooked. There were no other turning jobs in the shop so I took advantage of a close resource. A tree right behind us was cut down and I decided to use one of the logs to turn a bowl.


It’s not as finished as I’d like because I got a bit scared working with the lathe and sharp tools, but what I made is kind of cute. The bowl is the top part. The middle is a possible pedestal for it and the bottom is the unturned part of the log I used. The background is the stump of the tree this log came from. The detail shot is the inside of the bowl and its very cool grain. It’s 3 3/4″ in diameter.

I have to get back on the horse and not let my fears prevent me from doing more of this work. Next week I’ll try a bowl from the side of the log, not the end grain. At some point I’ll turn something on dry wood again, not green, wet wood like this.

Is every chair in Des Moines in need of repair?

This really is the apprenticeship of 1,000 chairs

20 chairs
Every week our shop is filled with chairs. Dining room chairs, office chairs, recliners, rockers, and even a couple of “thrones.” As soon as we clear out this space, it fills up again with more finished chairs. How many chairs can there be in Des Moines??

When I interviewed for the job the owner casually called the job the apprenticeship of a thousand chairs. Of course, I thought he was being facetious.

I should have kept count. I’m sure I’m approaching 100. Ok, maybe just 40.

In my first week I worked on my first six chairs. Two weeks ago I did the same Continue reading