Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Urns

My father passed late last year, and I made three nondescript urns as keepsakes for family and friends. It was the first time I made a box of any respectability since 2000.  I hadn't originally planned to make them when he passed, but making them helped me process things in a difficult time.

I was the responsible party for my father's estate as his wife does not speak English very well. As such, it fell to me to arrange the funeral, notify friends, and start to organize his affairs. I kept it together. The arrangements were made, the bills were covered, and all in a few days. I kept it together, that is, until I tried to return to work. I got ready. I even got in my car to go. But I could not. Instead, I went into the shop and executed a simple design for holding a portion of his ashes.

The material is Indian Rosewood (the same that I used for the magnetic bottle openers). The strong grain made mitered corners a natural choice. I even had enough contiguous grain to try to book-end most sides. I didn't have a keyed or splined miter jig (which could have strengthened the corners), but I figured the lid and bottom would provide a good brace against failure.

Dimensioning the lumber wasn't very difficult; it was the geometry of the corners that caused me real trouble. I left the sides thick to give each box some heft. I eyeballed the lid thickness and shaved down some beautiful figured grain to just the right height (maybe I overshot it a little and had to clean it up later). When I got to cutting the miters, I found that I didn't have any accurate way to match them up. The miter saw was definitely not accurate from cut to cut. I lost a lot of material on the table saw trying to get a canted blade to just the right angle. I finally settled on using my miter sled. I had to cut the sides down a bit to make sure I could make the entire cut in one pass. By the end of this therapeutic day, I had three roughly identical boxes ready for glue-up.

The second half took a few more months to pull off. Uncertainty about the accuracy of the cuts lead me to put the project on hold. Should I delay and try to true then with a shooting board? My girlfriend gave me the most wonderful advice once: when you find yourself rushing a project, put it down and come back later. The parts to three urns marinated on the bench and in my mind for a few months.

A test fit in March didn't seem too bad. The time off convinced me to persevere and get them together. I discovered too late that I mixed up the orientation of the edges. My careful bookends were a jumble on two of the three boxes. However, the imperfect corners and dimensional problems worked to hide the errors amongst each other. Sanding trued up protruding tear-out and splinters without obvious rounded-off corners. Finally, dark stain and some paste wax finished the work of hiding imperfect joints in dark recesses and shiny polished surfaces.

I finished the bottom with plywood. If I had to pick a spot where I'm uncertain about my choices, it's here. Glue is strong, but how will the baltic birch bottom hold up over time? I'm thinking of throwing in some brads there just in case. The bottom served as a canvas whereon I could memorialize my father. I was able to burn the message "Invictus Maneo", the Armstrong Clan (and our ancestral) family motto. Loosely translated, it means, "I remain unconquered."

This entire project was an object lesson in how I'm still learning some of the most basic techniques in woodworking. I need a way to clean up miters that start on the saw. A shooting board or similar has been recommended. Fine adjustments on my existing miter sled might also work. Though it didn't seem too bad once finished, the tearout for certain cuts makes me think I have a dull blade. I'll have to investigate, tune, and try again.

I think I've worked through a phobia of complex geometry. Something my father always talked about is how to hide your mistakes in woodworking. Bookends, miters, and a fitted lid left precious room for that, but I found a few tricks along the way such as meticulous test fitting, blue tape as clamps for difficult pieces, and patience above all. Regardless, I'm looking forward to the next boxes I build. I hope those have a markedly different emotional footprint.

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