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Woodworking Project: Toy Cubby

Woodworking Project: Toy Cubby

If you’ve followed along with my Instagram posts or Rambling Session blog posts then you’ve likely seen pictures of or read about the toy cubby I am building for my daughter’s room. This post is a somewhat in-depth summary of this project. I won’t be going into specifics such as time for each process, exact measurements, or techniques, but I will describe the process and offer tips and lessons learned throughout the build. That last part is really what inspired me to start blogging my projects. My hope with these posts is that I can help some readers out there with their next build by sharing my mistakes and triumphs. A couple added benefits are that these lessons will be better cemented in my mind if I document them, and the posts allow me to showcase some of my ideas and work.

Where it Started

So my daughter was born on May 21st. She is our first child, and unsurprisingly, has been spoiled by us and our families. This came to a head during her first Christmas. Nearly immediately following Christmas day my wife decided we needed something to organize her toys in her room. This idea coincided with my newfound interest in traditional woodworking and joinery. At this point I was dying to make some type of furniture by hand that utilized some traditional joinery. As I have never been the type that would make something just for practice that did not serve a direct purpose for us, this offered the perfect opportunity. 

As we discussed what she wanted, it seemed even more approachable as she was looking for something quite simple - essentially a rectangular, open-backed case with dividers and a shelf that created 4-6 sections for toys to be stored. She also is a big fan of Black Walnut. The choices then were to either get some cheaper wood (maybe Poplar?) and stain it or get some Black Walnut (my preference). That is when I remembered that my wife’s grandfather had some Black Walnut in his garage. I checked in and asked if he had some he would sell me. His response was “There is a good bit and no you can’t buy, but you can have.”

Wood Preparation

After coming up with some rough dimensions for fitting the cubby underneath a window in the nursery, we headed off to visit her grandparents and fetch some wood. I figured the wood was rough, as I was informed it had been purchased from a sale and had some mold and who knows how long it had been laying in a pile prior to purchase. I went up in the loft and started handing down pieces that seemed large and clean enough to use. Even after coming down from the loft and seeing the boards in the light, I still didn’t realize how rough they really were…

A few days after getting them home, I got some free time during my daughter’s nap and figured it was time to assess the wood, and start working on cleaning it up. Upon my initial assessment I discovered that all the boards were quite rough. They were very rough sawn, quite bowed, cupped, and twisted. “Oh well - it’s free Black Walnut. Let’s get to work,” I thought. So I sharpened up my No. 4, No. 5, and old wooden bodied planes and started wasting material. This was my first time trying to plane rough stock foursquare, so I really wasn’t sure the best approach. To make matters a little tougher, I did not (and still haven’t gotten around to making it) have a scrub plane. 

It took a couple short sessions with this wood before I decided that I could waste the most material up front with the wooden bodied plane. It has a slightly wider (2 ¼”)  and thicker iron, and was easier to set for a deep cut than shallow cut. I had been practicing one of the narrower, and slightly shorter boards to this point, however, I was having some issues with it because it had some funky grain. Once I identified the grain issue, but was fairly comfortable with the process, I decided to pick a different board and get at it. 

After a couple days (for about an hour and a half each day) in a row of working on this larger board, I encountered another issue. Migraines. About an hour to an hour and a half after planing on this board, I got a migraine. Both days. Now, I am prone to migraine flare ups, especially with changing weather (which we were experiencing that weekend), but it was coincidental enough I looked into it. It turns out Black Walnut had juglone in it that is released when abraded or cut. Some people seem to react to this when it touches their skin. I had no such reaction, but due to the toxicity of the substance, I figured it was reason enough to wear a respirator when doing a lot of cutting or planing. I have since then not had issues. 

It should also be noted that I decided the next time I got to work on the boards that I was going to decide which pieces would be used for what, rough cut them outside to length, take a small block plane to the apparent mold on the surfaces to remove it, and then spray the wood with white vinegar. I then allowed the boards to air dry in the sun. This mold could easily have contributed to my issues, and it needed to be addressed anyhow. 

Now I had about a dozen boards of varying lengths and widths. The plan became to clean up the boards, use the widest ones to make the outer case and the dividers on the inside, then use the narrower ones for shelves since they would require some laminating to get the necessary widths. I went ahead with roughing out the shortest boards first to save me some time and make it seem like I made progress. I then tackled the longer boards. My intent with this “rough planing” process was to remove bows, cups, twists, and most rough sawn marks. This would allow me to determine what boards would be best suited for which parts of the cubby, and to see what usable widths I had in the boards. 

Lesson 1: A scrub plane is a must for this process. These boards were very rough and a lot of material needed to be removed just to get them kind of flat and square. My wooden bodied plane acted as my scrub, though I will be making another plane of mine a dedicated scrub in the future. 

Lesson 2: The process I found that worked best for me was to start on the side that had the “high” part of the bow and cup. I would plane across the grain the length of the board targeting the cup first. I then would plane diagonally in the center of the board to start removing the bow. Once the board appeared near flat to the eye, I would switch to my No. 5 plane and work diagonally across the whole board. This would get it close to flat. I’d check every few passes with winding sticks to make sure I am also removing any twist. If I need to target specific areas, I would use the No. 4 plane. I wasn’t going for perfection at this point. Once I was “close enough” to flat, I would flip the board and attack the highs in the same manner with the wooden bodied plane. I would then finish in the same manner as above.

Once I got all the boards roughed out, I looked over the boards and there really weren’t any without imperfections. These included some knots, cracks, and rotted sapwood. I was able to determine what widths and lengths of boards would be a proper compromise between having a large enough cubby, but that removed most of the bad parts of the wood. I landed on about 9 ½” with the top and bottom being about 38” long and the sides being about 32” tall. At this point I decided to proceed with focus just on the 4 boards that make the case (2 sides, a top, and a bottom). I decided this would make sense as I can better fit the dividers and shelves once I have the case made. I marked and hand sawed the 4 boards to length and then took the thinnest board and planed one long edge flat, then squared up the faces to that long edge. The result was a board about ⅝” thick -  a far cry from the 4/4 to 5/4 board I started with. This became my base thickness that the rest of the cubby would have to be sized off of. 

Now that I had my thickness I was able to square a long edge on the remaining boards, then touch up one face to that square edge. I then took a marking gauge and marked my desired thickness on all edges of the boards, grabbed my wooden bodied plane, and went back to hogging off material. I again went across grain, the length of the board. This quickly removed material and as I approached appropriate thickness I would use my No. 5, No. 4, and winding sticks as mentioned in lesson 2 above. A couple of these boards required only ⅛” of material removal, the other required an additional  1/16” or so. 

Lesson 3: So I intentionally went into this with the plan to primarily utilize hand tools, with the exception of some rip cuts on the table saw. I knew I would be doing a lot of planing, however, I really didn't anticipate the boards to be as bad as they were and require as much material removal as they did. I went through some different phases during the process. At first I really didn’t mind the work because I was saving over $200 compared to buying the lumber already planed and squared. However, as I progressed I almost renounced ever using rough lumber again - no matter the cost - especially because I hardly had any interest in a mechanical planer. Where I landed is that I really should have a benchtop planer on hand. I may not use it a ton, and I prefer handwork over machines, but for a few hundred dollars, I can make using cheap rough lumber much easier by combining a mechanical plane and hand planes.This last step of thickening several boards would have gone much faster and smoother. Especially considering I had to run a flapper disk on a grinder across the knotty board because the grain and knots were too hard on me and my plane. I just basically gouged a bit out of those areas and then flushed them up as best I could when I planed the rest. 

Once I had my 4 boards all close in thickness, and square on 3 sides, I set up the table to make some quick 9 ½” rips. After this I took the top and bottom and aligned them along both long edges and as close as I could on the ends. I then clamped them together and squared up the ends with a block plane and square. I repeated this same process with the 2 side boards. This yielded match sides and a matching top and bottom. From here I could get into some joinery.

Lesson 4: I should have been a little forward thinking and have made a shooting 
board and practiced planing end grain. In my little experience planing end grain I always have trouble and this was no different. I had a couple chip outs and had some trouble getting this square and flat, but I did get there. Another option I didn’t pursue out of sheer laziness was just setting a stop on my radial arm saw and quickly cutting a fraction of an inch off the ends of each board. I didn’t do this because I would have to move a fair amount of stuff to free up the tool and set it up. 

Joining the Case

For the case I elected to use dovetails. For the dividers and shelving I plan to use blind dados. This will be my first attempt at any traditional joinery so I am trying to be prepared to put my perfectionism aside and to struggle a bit. It didn’t take long to struggle… 

I started attempting to layout the first dovetail joint using a side board and the bottom board.I decided to cut the pin side of the joint on the side board. I made my depth line using the bottom board as a guide, decided what the minimum pin thickness I wanted, then how many tails I wanted, did some math, got some numbers, and started laying them out. I had them all sketched up on the board and started making knife marks when I stepped back and thought “Hmm.. something seems off.” Then it dawned on me - I laid it out like I was going to butt join them *facepalm* Fortunately, it wasn’t a complete waste of 20 minutes. I was able to transpose the marks to the end grain of the side board and lay out the cuts quickly. A quick review and I was ready to start cutting. Since I am using a chisel to remove the waste, I cut along the lines and then cut the tails in sections so I could break them out a little easier.

The image of the pins above is right after removing the tails, before making pairing cuts with the chisel to clean up the joint. I was pretty happy with this part of the joint, especially for being my first attempt at dovetails - ever. However, what transpired next… is not great… I almost was not going to include an image of this “completed” joint because I am embarrassed at how it turned out. However, it happened, it is part of the project, and my journey. It also leads into:

Lesson 5: Anytime I do something for the first time, I proceed with far too much caution. I learned with cutting dovetails you need to work with confidence, but not arrogance. Trust your marks for accuracy and your ability to saw and chisel as close to these marks as possible. If you proceed too cautiously, the task becomes much more difficult.

When I began working on the tails for this joint, I was feeling the pressure. I laid out the tails, made some knifewalls, and felt “okay” about it. When it came time to saw, I lost trust in myself and decided to stay a little farther off the lines. I repeated this when I began chiseling out waste. The result was that I needed to come back and try to clean up the tails to get to my lines. Unfortunately, there was not enough material to saw again, and it was more difficult to clean up with the chisel. The result was inconsistent tails, whacky lines, excess material removal, and chipout. This also caused me to tamper with my pins, which resulted in some inconsistencies there. The following image contains poor craftsmanship and may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.

I was pretty unhappy with this, understandably, when I fitted it. I was deciding between cutting off the tails, cleaning up the pins, and retrying the tails or leaving the joint the way it is. This would serve as a reminder of what not to do, what to do differently, and where I started (assuming I improve). After my wife inspected it, she said to leave it. She assured me it would be fine and that I shouldn’t mess with it - she knows I am a perfectionist and tries to keep me in line. 

So after that conversation, I left it and started into attempt #2 - the other bottom/side joint. I used the lay out from the first joint, using the pinned side to make marks on the bottom. Once I had the general sizing and spacing, I used the sliding bevel and square to lay tails out instead of tracing the tails from the pins - I needed a fresh slate and straighter lines. This time I went right at my knife walls with the saw and chisels and these tails went much faster and smoother. I was able to trace these tails onto the pin side and go at them. Again, this went much better, and they were pretty close upon my first fit up. I only needed to do some minor pairing to get a full seat. This joint, and the subsequent ones, are far from perfect, but they join the boards and are not too terrible to look at.

Dividers and Shelving

Once I had the case together I was able to start working on the dividers and shelving. The layout of this cubby has changed 3 times now. Before I even got the lumber I planned on a 6 compartment cubby - all six the same dimensions. I cut the boards for this prior to cleaning them up. That was a mistake. As I started cleaning them up, I began to realize that some of the boards were not suitable for use either because of unworkable grain, fatal twists or bows, or rot. This included the board being used for the shelf - the only remaining board, after the case was made, that could span the width of the cubby. 

This caused me to change my plan to a 4 compartment cubby. However, upon further inspection, I didn’t have long enough pieces to make 2 shelves that would meet the middle divider. Alas, the resultant design is a 5 compartment cubby that has an interior setup like a puzzle. Yet another valuable lesson learned:

Lesson 6: Moving forward, if I am going to design something before acquiring wood, I will most certainly be purchasing the wood for the project from the mill. This way I can ascertain that I have good wood and enough wood. If I am going to use very rough lumber, I will clean it all up first before coming up with a design. Very rough lumber can have unpredictable quality and you do not know exactly how much you will end up with. My mistake was thinking I had enough to go ahead and precut my lengths prior to cleaning it up. Had I cleaned the full length boards up first, I would have had parameters to work and design within instead of having to redesign on the fly.

Anyhow, moving forward I took some measurements of the case so I could cut pieces from my uprights and shelves. I cut these pieces to length, planed one face smooth and square, squared an edge with the smoothing plane, then took to the table saw to rip all the boards to the same width - a bit under 2 inches shallower than the case. From here I found I would need to take ⅛” - 3/16” off the thickness of all the boards to get them to match the case. Honestly, after all the hand planing I did for the case boards, I decided I did not have the time to do this with these 6 remaining boards. I phoned a friend with a planer and they helped me out by running them through the planer. This saved me plenty of time and trouble.

The interior of the cubby will have 3 pieces making the horizontal shelf, 2 lower uprights to create 3 cubby spots, and 1 centered top upright to make 2 larger cubby spots. All the components will join to the cubby case via housed dados. The top upright will also join the center shelf piece by way of a housed dado. The lower uprights were notched front and back to create a tenon that fit into blind mortises that were chopped where the shelf pieces meet (half a mortise on each shelf at both joints). This configuration made for a lot more work, which is unfortunate, however, it offers more practice. 

I started with chopping the 4 half mortises in the shelf boards at their intersections. The reason I elected to do mortises at these joints instead of housed dados like the rest of the joints in the interior is because a mortise allowed for 2 long grain to long grain gluing locations, as opposed to only 1. Of course one of the boards had some cracks that resulted in the end of the half mortise breaking off (seen below). I felt this was going to be beneficial since there is primarily end grain to end grain, or end grain to long grain gluing locations. These mortises were pretty easy to chop since I could work in from the top and then in from the side to create each half mortise. I then notched the ends of uprights and began fitting. 

To fit, I clamped the 3 shelf boards tightly to one another and down to the bench. When fitting, I started by taking fine passes with the No. 4 plane to the tenon of the upright to get the tenon started into the mortise. Once the tenon was able to snugly start into the mortise, I could see what areas of the mortise needed some paring with the chisel. Once both uprights fit nicely in the mortises, I determined the height of the shelf inside the case, notched the ends of the shelf pieces that joined to the case via the housed dados (I made a silly mistake in my rush to notch these shelves and so one of the shelves is double notched), and then marked the appropriate dados on the case sides.

For cutting the housed dados I did all the layout work in pencil, then went back and knifed the layout lines. I then alternated between chiseling into the knife line and recutting along the knifeline. I found that recutting along the knifeline was about equivalent in total time to chopping down with the chisel, but was quieter - which is important since I often find my time to work while the baby is napping right above my work area. The chisel chops deeper, so you can remove more material when you chisel into the wall, however, I can recut the line with the knife much quicker. So the total time seems to be a wash. Once I worked the walls of the dado down to about ½ to ¾ of the total depth, I then would chisel out the waste in the center down to about flush with the walls. 

Lesson 7: In the process of chopping in these housed dados, and some of this occurred when dovetailing, patience is critical. I found that I had a tendency to get a little carried away with the amount of material I was trying to waste when I would chisel into the knife wall. The result in some instances was chip out. The solution is just being more patient and not trying to take off too much material at a time.

I don’t have a router plane at the moment, but my intent is to build a router plane from some hardwood I have that utilizes a chisel as the cutter. In the meantime, I used the Paul Sellers “Poor Man’s Router Plane” method of drilling a hole through a piece of scrap at an appropriate angle and then knocking a chisel, bevel down, through the hole. Honestly, this works pretty wonderfully in a pinch. This router plane is how I finished up the dados. I fitted the shelf pieces in the same manner as the tenons above. Once I was happy with the fit, I went ahead and marked the top of the center shelf for the top upright and created a housed dado joint for that piece. It was time to then glue up the 3 piece shelf with the two bottom uprights. 

Once the glue was set on the shelf assembly, I unclamped, cleaned up the glue, and hit the shelf with the smoothing plane to clean it up a bit farther. Next I placed the shelf assembly against the assembled case and barely started the shelf ends in the dados. This allowed me to mark the location of the 2 dados that go in the case bottom for the lower shelf uprights. I then notched the uprights, laid out the dados, routed them, and fit the uprights just as I did above. Once the shelf assembly could be fit inside the case, I was marked to mark and create the final dado for the top upright. Now the whole cubby could be dry fit and prepped for glue.

Once the glue dried I cleaned up any dried squeeze out with a chisel. I then took the smoothing plane and touched up the dovetails and top surface. Before finishing, I took the card scraper to all the surfaces. For a finish, I elected to just use some food grade mineral oil that I had. I chose this as a compromise with my wife. I wanted to do an oil based finish, but my wife was leaning towards no finish since it would be in our daughter’s room and she preferred no chemicals or oils. I didn’t like the look of it dry, so I just rubbed it with mineral oil and let it air dry for a day. 

Final Thoughts

Finishing up this project was a relief. I enjoyed most of the work that went into this, and I certainly learned a lot, however, it was time consuming and aggravating to work with the wood that I started with. A lot of time and effort went into trying to clean up the super rough stock, and even after that was done, the wood still fought me due to areas of rot and awkward grain. The end result is fine for what it is, and I am happy with it overall, however, there is plenty of room for improvement. I can’t blame it all on the wood either, as I did make some silly mistakes and have never made traditional joints like the dovetails and housed dados used in this. That being said, the final lesson I learned may be the most important.

Lesson 8: Perfectionism doesn’t have a place in your shop. I am a perfectionist in everything I do, as are many individuals that are willing to put the time and effort into their craft. Nothing is perfect and you will drive yourself mad by nitpicking your work. I had to dial back my perfectionism in an effort to get this done in a decent time, and honestly, it was freeing. Yeah there are things that could’ve been done a bit better, but some of the appeal to handmade items is consistent inconsistency. The truth is, what we as makers see and consider as imperfections, the end user will never notice as being “off”. Of course there are instances that things need to be as close to perfect as possible, but don’t be hard on yourself. Enjoy and embrace the challenges and understand that what you see as a flaw in your work may just be the mark of craftsmanship.

If you made it through this whole read, I appreciate you sticking it out and would love to hear your thoughts, criticisms, questions, or recommendations in the comments below! I also may make some drawings and plans available for this cubby (or what I would do if I did it again) for a few dollars, so if that’s something that interests you, let me know! Thank you!

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