For any of you wondering why I don’t offer free plans, it’s because making plans (and their accompanying instructions) is such tedious work that I dread it. However, this case is an exception. I simply couldn’t help myself so here it is, a gift for the woodworker who has a significant other who loves the fiber arts.
My wife loves anything to do with fabric and fibers. She knits, sews, spins, weaves, does needlepoint and cross-stitch and who knows what. Weaving is one of her newer hobbies and I think she finally found something expensive enough to compete with woodworking - dollar for dollar. Commercial warping boards are available from many sources but they all look like a couple two by fours bolted together and usually cost more than my truck. In typical woodworker fashion, I looked at the one in the catalog and said, "yeah, I think I can make that."
Warping Board Design
So, what is a warping board? It is a very basic frame (that can be joined together by any number of methods) with a bunch of pegs poking out of it. Weavers use it as a quick and easy way to measure out a great many pieces of string or yarn, all of the same length. These are then installed into the loom as the warp, hence the name warping board. It all sounds very simple, and looks that way too, unless you approach the design scientifically – my usual mistake.
Generally warping boards are sold as 12 yard, 14 yard, or some other size involving yards. As you loop one string through the board, it has a maximum length of whatever the board is rated at, let’s say 14 yards. I spent a few hours trying to figure things out so that, given a certain circumference of dowel, I would be within a half inch or so of 14 yards exactly. Let me release you from the worthless, mental ruminations I suffered and say that the strings only have to be around 14 yards long. The exact length isn’t important – what is important is that, as you loop more and more thread around the pegs of the warping board, all the strings are the same length.
Using photos found on the internet and catalog descriptions, I discovered that most of these things are one yard wide. The number of pegs on each side then determines the length rating. Thus, I settled on a frame, whose width allowed for one yard between the pegs on either side (measured from the center) and the height of which allowed for seven pegs on either side, spaced out around five inches apart.
Once the peg layout was determined, I had to decide on how to join the frame. I wanted something that looked nicer than anything that could be bought and showcased some hand tool skills, yet still matched the general look of the wife’s loom and other paraphernalia. I decided on using through dovetail halvings (that is the technical term) cut in rails and stiles wider than those on purchased warping boards. (Here is the actual plan drawing. Use landscape format if you are printing it out.)
The warping board was made from a slab of ash I had sitting in my stash for some time. It was too thin to be thicknessed to a standard ¾ inch but suited this project as thickness wasn’t one of the critical dimensions. It was clear, straight grained, quartersawn lumber and perfect for the task. Unfortunately, unless I glued some stock up for the pegs, I would have to get more lumber. A stop at one of my local hardwood suppliers yielded some ash dowel stock, so I had the bright idea of drilling holes in the frame and simply gluing precut dowels in place. Of course, things are never that easy.
Dowel stock, like any other wood, changes shape after it’s milled. Aside from the problem that my dowel stock wasn’t perfectly round, it was an odd size. I was unable to find a drill bit that would make an appropriately sized hole to fit the dowel and I dreaded the thought of fitting each hole with a file - one by one. After a short bout of sailor talk, I devised a fix. In the end, I decided to mortise the frame using a ¾ inch Forstner bit, and to turn a tenon on the end of each peg to fit each mortise. Having a shoulder above the tenon would hide any imperfections and the result should look and fit better anyway.
If I were to make another warping board, I would turn the pegs all from scratch. While it’s easy to find the center of a square turning billet, finding the center of a lopsided dowel is much more difficult. However, I devised a simple jig to make the process as precise as possible.
Turning the Pegs
After experimenting with a number of ways to mark the center of a squashed circle, I settled on a ridiculously simple method. I marked out the center of a perfectly square piece of pine with a handsaw, then drilled and filed out a hole in the center - one that would fit the dowel snugly. I cut the dowel stock into pieces twice as long as necessary (with an extra half inch of breathing room) so I could turn two pegs from each piece. To mark the ends, each dowel was clamped in my face vise and the pine center gauge was slid over the dowel, it’s face flush with the end. Holding a steel rule along the kerf line on the center gauge, I used an awl to scratch a line through the center of the dowel. Then I rotated the center gauge around 180° and repeated the process. The resulting two lines intersected at the center of the dowel. To make it easier for the lathe to hold the dowel I punched each center mark with the awl and a mallet. Making a template was the next step.
Turning a number of repetitive objects, and making them as close to identical as possible, is made easier with a template. In this case I constructed a half template. Using a scrap of Masonite, slightly longer than each finished peg, I marked out the length of the ¾ inch tenon and the end of the peg. I made sure that the measurements started right from the end of the Masonite so I could hold it flush to the end of the dowel while marking. I finished the template by sawing a small kerf at both of the locations.
After placing the first dowel in the lathe, I started it up and adjusted the speed to medium low. Working from the tail stock end and holding the tenon end of the template flush with the end of the turning dowel, I set my pencil in the saw kerf and pressed it against the spinning wood. The result was a highly visible line marking the location all the way around the blank. I marked out the tenon and the end of the peg, then flipped the template over to mark a tenon and end point using the opposite end of the dowel. As I said earlier, I turned two pegs from each length of dowel - cutting them apart later. Once the dowel was marked I began turning the peg.
I started at the tail stock end as the dowel is held in place by only a cone center at that end. Because I was turning the tenon right to the end of the dowel, this would keep me from damaging my turning tools with the spinning spur center in the head stock. I set the lathe to a bit higher than medium speed and used a diamond shaped parting tool to cut the shoulder of the tenon and reduce the thickness of the end to ¾ inch. A wide parting tool would have been a better tool (and faster), but I didn’t have one. When I neared the desired diameter, as estimated by eye, I rested a ¾ inch open end wrench on the spinning tenon which slipped over it just as it was reduced to the exact size. The wrench ensures that I have a precision fit for the corresponding mortise in the frame. Before moving on, I took the time to chamfer the end of the tenon with the parting tool. This allows it to slide easier into the mortise and gives excess glue a place to go once I’ve driven the peg home.
Before moving on, it's important to take a few seconds to remov the dowel from the lathe and test fit the tenon in a ¾ inch mortise drilled in scrap wood. It's easier to change the fit now than to come back later while you're trying to glue the buggers in place. Using the wrench to size the tenons practically ensures that they won't be turned too small, but your fit may be tight.
Now that I had a completed peg at one end, I stopped the lathe, flipped the dowel over, and repeated the process for the other end. When the second peg was finished, I took the same parting tool and marked out the end of each peg, as well as reducing the diameter of the dowel's center between them. I removed about half the wood. Then I used the same tool and rounded over the ends of the pegs. I rounded just the corner where I cut in - no more - and that would leave a flat end where the saw marks could be removed, without interfering with the radius, after cutting the two pegs apart at the tablesaw. I spun the lathe up to high speed and sanded the pegs using 120, 150, and 220 grit stearate papers until very smooth. I took care not to touch the tenon, however, as any sanding there would alter the diameter. Then on to the next set until I completed them all.
I used my crosscut sled on the table saw to carefully saw the pegs apart. I tried to get the blade as close to the end of the pegs as possible to reduce the amount of filing necessary to flatten the ends. Each peg was placed in my face vise and filed and sanded until the saw marks (and any extra wood) were removed leaving a finished end. The pegs were then set aside while I prepared the frame.
Making the Frame
The frame was made from roughsawn ash that was cut to rough size and milled four-square, installing the appropriate square marks along the way. (See the plan for the dimensions.) I then laid the frame pieces out on my outfeed table (the bench was too small) in the orientation I thought would give the nicest result. I tried to keep the face side up and the face edge toward the center but I had to flip one board over - it had a blemish. I had to run that board over the jointer once more to ensure that the new face edge was square to the new face side (the square marks were removed and placed on the new surfaces as well). It was very important at that stage to mark the frame pieces with the triangle marking system. All of the joinery would thereafter be marked from the face edge and side, and the triangle would be necessary so that I would be able to restore the frame to its original orientation as the corners are not interchangeable.
Because I was using through dovetail halvings, I needed to leave a horn on the each end of the stiles - without it, the joints would pop apart.
In traditional frame making, you always leave horns on the stiles. They aid in glue up, give you a fudge factor, but most importantly the extra wood keeps you from blowing out the end of the stile when chopping the mortises for the rail tenons by hand.
In this project the horns were to be two inches long and they were the first items I needed to lay out. This was done by setting my combination square to two inches so the marks on each stile would be exactly the same distance from the end, then marking around with a light pencil line and a square.
Next, I laid out the frame with the top edge of the top rail aligned along the horn marks at the top of the stiles, and the bottom edge of the bottom rail aligned with the horn marks at the bottom of the stiles. The ends of the rails were flush with the outside edges of the stiles. It is important to reconstruct your triangle marks so everything is correctly oriented. Then I used the stiles themselves to mark out their corresponding widths on the backsides of the ends of the rails, and I used the rails to mark out their corresponding widths on the front sides of the stiles. By using the lumber instead of a marking gauge I have eliminated any compound error created by having the marking gauge set incorrectly (which can be added to the error that may exist if all the parts are not exactly the same width). Having the rail width marked on the stiles allows me to lay out the correct width of the dovetail halving while, having the stile width marked on the rail gives me the length of the dovetails as well as the shoulders of the half lap.
The next bit of layout involved using a marking gauge to lay out the thickness of the dovetail halving, and at the same time, the depth of the socket in the stiles that accepts the dovetail halving. To set it at the exact width, you eyeball the setting, then scribe two lines in an out of the way place – one with the fence on the face side, and one with the fence on the backside. By splitting the difference between the two scribe marks, you get pretty close to the center. However, when you actually mark the boards you must remember to run the fence along the top, or face side, of the boards. This will ensure the face side, the good side, is perfectly flush when you are done. I marked the thickness of the dovetail halving all the way around the ends of the rails, but I only marked the outside and inside edges of the stiles between the two marks indicating the width of the rail. Goodness, this is starting to sound confusing.
Before laying out the dovetails, I sawed down the backs of the rail ends to separate the waste from behind where the dovetail would be. I used a large bowsaw but I could have used a tenon saw, a regular old hand saw or even a bandsaw. With a deep enough depth of cut, it’s also possible to use a tablesaw with a tenoning jig. Other than the horns, I laid everything out with a scribe, so as long as one side of the saw blade follows the deepest part of the scribe mark, and the other is on the waste side behind the dovetail, a very accurate fit is the result. I made the shoulder cut with a large tenon saw and a bench hook. I wouldn’t make that cut with anything else simply because I wanted the best possible fit at the shoulder.
After the back half of the rail ends was cut away, I used my 1:6 dovetail template and a sliding bevel to lay out the dovetails. You can see from the photo that the typical 1:6 layout resulted in a 7/8 inch inset at the shoulder of the dovetail. Once marked, the dovetails were sawed with a tenon saw. I tried to be careful as possible at the corners as the saw cut almost starts off the edge of the wood. Firm clamping pressure is required in the face vise to keep the wood stable. I cut down both sides of the dovetail then turned the wood sideways to cut the shoulder. I flipped the board and cut the other shoulder to complete the tail.
Once I had all four corners completed, I placed all the boards back on my outfeed table in their proper orientation, according to my triangle marks. The correct alignment is crucial as the halving sockets in the stiles are laid out using the dovetails that will be seated in them. It was important to ensure that the shoulder on the rail was firmly seated against the stile or the resulting fit would be loose. After scratching the edges each dovetail on the corresponding stile, I used a square to transfer the lines down the edges of the stiles until they met the marking gauge line at halfway. Then it was time to cut the waste from the sockets.
I used my large tenon saw to saw down the edges of the dovetails until the kerf met the marking gauge line. I did that for both edges on every socket. Using a spiral upcut bit in my router, set to the appropriate depth, I carefully cleaned out most of the waste between the saw kerfs. It was necessary for me to route away the waste from each edge of the stile first to eliminate tearout, the remainder requiring far less precision. The presence of the horn on the stile ends helped support the router base to make this operation accurate and fast.
After cutting the dovetails and their sockets, it was time for a dry fit. Using the bowsaw on the back of the dovetails left a rather uneven edge that didn’t seat perfectly into the mating sockets. I used a bastard file and a large shoulder plane to trim and fit the joint. The edges of the dovetails required a bit of refinement as well. I spent an hour or so just tinkering until I was happy with the way everything went together. The woodworking was nearly complete.
When the frame was finished, it was time to layout the locations for the pegs. Once each location was marked and punched, I chucked a ¾ inch Forstner bit into the drill press, disassembled the frame and began drilling. I don’t use any jigs or other tomfoolery. As long as you are careful, punch the location to give the drill bit a place to start, and take your time, you can dispense with jigs for this type of operation. Once the drilling was complete it was time for some assembly.
The day I glued the frame up it was somewhat cool in the shop. That was unfortunate as I wanted to use hide glue but I opted to use yellow carpenter’s glue instead. I didn’t sand anything before assembly, I just went straight to it. The one mistake I made, in retrospect, was that I didn’t clamp the frame from side to side to ensure that the shoulders were properly seated. I have one shoulder that has a bit of a gap but it isn’t too bad, I suppose. This Winter I found that seasonal contraction made all the joints open a bit - you have to expect that with wood. However, some yellow glue and clamps and the frame was complete. The nice thing about dovetail halving joints is that they are self squaring. The frame was perfectly square and flat without requiring any cross clamping or other assistance.
The cleanup was accomplished after the glue was set. I used my 604 Bedrock set for a light cut, and with a freshly honed blade, I leveled the joints and removed and imperfections. To finish up I chamfered all of the edges to make it easier on the hands while handling it. After planing, I used a cabinet scraper to clear away a couple spots where peculiar grain caused tearout. The scraper leaves a nice surface that accepts finishes particularly well.
The next step was to heat up the glue pot. I moved the assembly in on the dining room table, mostly because the wife wanted to talk at me while I finished up. The pre-sanded pegs were installed with some hot hide glue and a few taps with a mallet. I took care to orient the growth rings perpendicular to those on the frame; wood expands more across the grain than with it and I wanted to avoid any possibility of splitting the frame as the pegs expand with seasonal changes in humidity. As a precaution I checked each peg to ensure it was perpendicular to the face while gluing. I used a six inch engineer’s square and checked in two dimensions.
Once the glue was set, I used some 150 and 220 grit sandpaper and a cabinet scraper to remove any squeezed out hide glue or other blemishes that occurred during glue up. There wasn’t much to do but it’s always nice to check everything over.
I started finishing this project with a couple coats of polyurethane brushed on the back of the piece. I quickly realized that using a brush, with all those pegs, was going to be a royal pain in the tool belt. So I came up with another method.
I have been hearing about the virtues of wipe-on polyurethane so I decided to give it a try. I apologize to those who think I should have included it here, but it was such a startling revelation that I decided to adopt it as my official "finish for hard to finish projects" and I decided to included it in its own article. Click here to read all about it. I ended up using three or four coats, I can’t remember, and I topped it off with some paste wax. If you haven’t tried it, you really must. It’s a keeper.
This wasn’t a highly difficult project but it had its moments. There were a few times when I had to stop and think, "what the heck am I going to do next?" Still, the fiber artist in your life will truly appreciate this warping board as it is a fine piece of furniture and much more elegant and pleasing to look at than the commercial versions. If you are looking to score a few points, this project is a winner. I think it has made me somewhat unpopular with a couple husbands out there, but my wife is happy, and so am I. And, I think my tool budget increased the day this project went up on the wall.
© 2011 Howard Ruttan - inthewoodshop.org