Time to Stop and Smell the Sapele

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Tucked between my trips to both coasts and editing Peter Galbert’s in-fricking-credible book on chairmaking I’ve been building this folding campaign bookcase in sapele for an article in Popular Woodworking Magazine.

The bookcase looks so simple: two boxes that are hinged together. Truth is, this has been one of the most challenging pieces I’ve built in a long time. Most of the joinery is just dovetails, easy-peasy. But the backs of the cases attach to the carcase with a wack-a-doodle joint that has no name. I call the joint “banjo.” If you think that is a reference to the film “Deliverance,” you might be correct.

But what’s been even more mind-bending have been the mechanical aspects of the piece. For everything to work, the adjustable shelves and drawers have to clear the glass doors when pulled out. The hinge barrels of the glass doors have to be placed precisely to allow them to open fully without binding against the case and yet allow the two halves of the bookcase to close tightly.

And all the hardware (there’s a buttload) has to co-mingle, sometimes in unexpected ways. I destroyed the edge of a chisel while mortising the strikes for the door locks. I kept trying to lever out a little piece of waste that wouldn’t budge. Turns out the “waste” was a screw.

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Like many campaign pieces, this one has more than 30 pieces of hardware that have to be mortised flush. After writing a book on campaign furniture, that’s easy. What was hard was what happened when I opened a new bag of brass screws that were decidedly soft. Within a few minutes I had four screws that were buried in the work with broken heads.

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Good thing I have this screw extractor. I bought this in the 1990s from Woodworker’s Supply and it is the only one I’ve ever used that works (for me).

Today I’m dovetailing the two drawers and cleaning up the exterior for its finish (shellac and wax). I am sure I’d make my April 15 deadline if I didn’t have to go to Canada on Thursday.

Yup. I’ll be at the new Lee Valley store west of Toronto this weekend to conduct a couple of seminars and hang out with our northern neighbors. The address of the new store is: 167 Chrislea Road, Vaughan, ON L4L 8N6. Here is my schedule:

Friday, April 11, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Everything You Need to Know About Workbench Design

Friday, April 11, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Book Signing & Meet & Greet

Saturday, April 12, 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
An Introduction to Campaign Furniture

Megan Fitzpatrick, the editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, will also be there conducting a seminar on her recent adventures in kitchen cabinetmaking. Reading her accounts of it on her blog make me want to move into an apartment where I never have to work on my kitchen.

So all this is the long way of saying: Sorry I haven’t answered your e-mail during the last few months. I do answer all e-mails. But I still have about 40 in the queue.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Chris Schwarz

Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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20 Responses to Time to Stop and Smell the Sapele

  1. Adam Godet says:

    thanks for sharing your misadventures in hardware (installing it and chiseling it)…it makes me (all of us?) feel better about our own misadventures.

  2. steveschafer says:

    Reminds me of the time I hit the tip of a hardened screw with my chainsaw while slicing up a log (the screw won).

  3. fitz says:

    Said editor might trade you a wee extension for a look at Niagara Falls on the way ;-)

  4. I hate it when a brass screw revolts in such a manner! I read somewhere to ‘pre-drill’ with a steel wood screw prior to putting the brass screw in the hole. I haven’t had an opportunity to try that yet. It sure looks good on paper though.

    • lostartpress says:

      That works if you have a steel screw that had the exact same thread pitch, length and shape as your brass screws. Otherwise, one ends up cross-threading the hole and weakening the fastener’s grip.

      With quality brass screws, a proper pilot and a little paraffin is all I ever need. This bag of screws is exceptionally soft. It happens.

  5. runamokwoodworks says:

    I’ve got to second Adam’s comment. Every time any of us is fighting and cussing with something like a-piece-of-waste-that’s-actually-a-screw it’s nice to know the folks whose books we read do that too.

  6. runamokwoodworks says:

    Oh, also, how does Sapele work?

    • lostartpress says:

      It’s a lot like mahogany. It works very easily. The grain is interlocked, so a sharp iron and close-set breaker are a good idea for getting a tear-out-free surface.

  7. rondennis303 says:

    Chris, how did you determine the thickness of the spacer that you used to install the butt hinges?

    • lostartpress says:

      The important thing is that the spacing be equal all along the seam. So the shims and clamps held the gap consistent so I could measure it at top and bottom. I could adjust it by tapping the shims up or down….

      Hope this makes sense!

  8. Mike Russo says:

    Won’t the barrels of the hinges on the doors hit each other before the case is fully closed? Wouldn’t the hinges on the doors have to be in different locations on each side?

    • lostartpress says:

      Mike,

      You get the Bucky Beaver Badge for paying attention.

      On originals, the makers got everything to line up so that when the case was closed, there was a 1/16″ gap all around. Indeed, the hinges on the doors collide when the case is closed. You have to install those hinges with the minimum barrel projection possible. And you have to make sure the hinges on the carcase will close with a 1/16″ gap.

      It was great fun to it figure out and make everything align.

  9. gburbank says:

    personal favorite screw extractor: a heavy duty soldering iron. Heat screw until wood begins to smoke, grab nubbin of said screw with needlenose vicegrips, and unscrew. A drop of CA glue hardens the charring and the replacement screw will bite just fine.

  10. Kevin Baker says:

    I like the look of this case. Might have to make this one vs the traveling bookcase in Campaign book.
    P.S. In your traveling bookcase cut list you omitted the drawer sides,back and bottoms.

  11. gedaliya says:

    That screw extractor only works when the drill is operating in reverse, correct? It took some time for me to figure that out.

  12. texasbelliott says:

    Have you tried applying a bit of bee’s wax to the screws? In addition to pre drilling (to the correct diameter and depth) I’ve found this works well to prevent broken heads. I’ve not seen an instance yet of a screw backing out from the waxing, but perhaps I’ve just been lucky.

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