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Rugged Stair Treads Using Butterfly Keys

Decorative Stair Treads Made From Cracked Oak with Butterfly Keys

What do you do if you have the perfect piece of lumber for a project, but it’s strength is compromised by a crack?  Or what if that crack is just what you’re  looking for in a natural or “worn” project, but the lumber must be stable for your project to function? Butterfly keys are the perfect solution!

Unfortunately this post is not about how to cut a butterfly key. That’s coming up later.  This post exists exclusively to gloat about my first project that incorporates a butterfly key: the steps leading into my master bathroom. The steps are made out of three 4/4 oak slabs I found covered with dust and dirt in my basement when I first moved into my house.  A few trips through the planer rendered some gorgeous red oak, but two of the three slabs had a pretty serious crack.

My first inclination was to cut out the compromised section and glue it back up, but then the idea occurred to me that this was the perfect opportunity to try out a woodworking technique I’ve been itching to try: butterfly keys.  A butterfly key (or bow-tie key) is a piece that’s basically just a piece of wood shaped like a bow-tie. If you want to be all geometrical about it, it’s two trapezoids that mirror each other.  The butterfly key is then inlayed into the primary workpiece, right across the crack you wish to secure.  The shape of the key locks the two sides of the crack in place and provides a pretty significant increase in stability for not a whole lot of work.

Or course the video above won’t show you how to do any of that.  I’m just gloating because I’m so thrilled with how my butterfly keys turned out.  But I will be doing a tutorial video on how to cut butterfly keys in the near future.

Hybrid Woodworking

I’m a huge fan of The Wood Whisperer Mark Spagnuolo.  Mark’s videos and podcasts are top-notch, he gives great advice, and–most importantly–he has impeccable taste in silly t-shirts. Mark is one of a handful of woodworking enthusiasts that have driven the hobby into the 21st century. He’s made woodworking knowledge accessible to anyone who wants it and proven that you don’t need a Peter Follansbee beard to do it (though seriously, that beard can’t hurt).

I’ve leached The Wood Whisperer’s free content for years, so when Mark published Hybrid Woodworking buying a copy was a no-brainer.  I was finally able to sit down and read it last week from the comfort of a hammock in the Outer Banks, and now that I’m home I’d like to tell you all about it.

Hybrid Woodworking is a Philosophy

Hybrid Woodworking is first and foremost a philosophy: more specifically it’s Mark’s philosophy of how to approach the woodworking craft in a way that maximizes your time, your budget, and your enjoyment.  The Hybrid Woodworking philosophy suggests that you use the tool that performs a particular job best: power tools for jobs that require removing a ton of material or require repeatable result, and hand tools for finesse (or as Mark calls it “sneaking up on” the proper fit and finish). A hybrid woodworker would never waste a day making rough-cut lumber S4S with hand tools, nor would he  risk trying to ease the fit of a tenon on a table saw, when a shoulder plane can remove material within thousands of an inch.

But It’s Still a Book Too, Silly!

Hybrid Woodworking the book is not a comprehensive woodworking course.  It’s not going to teach you everything you need to know about the craft (for that I recommend an oldie but a goodie, Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking), but it will help you get started in a way that makes a ton of sense.

Selecting Hybrid Woodworking Tools

The first half of the book talks all about which tools you need to get started working wood in the Hybrid Woodworking system. At first I was annoyed that I actually paid for a book that told me how to buy all of the stuff that I already have, but then I experienced a Family-Guy style flashback and realized how many mistakes I made along the way while setting up shop. (Also, there was a lemur in a nun outfit for some reason? The price of letting Seth McFarlane direct your flashbacks.)

I realized that Hybrid Woodworking could have eliminated a lot of costly mistakes that I’ve made along the way had it been written before I started down the woodworking path, but at least it can help others avoid those mistakes in the future.

Mark recommends a pretty modest number of power tools but they will set you back: They include a table saw, a jointer, a thickness planer, a router, a band saw, and a random orbit sander. He makes quite a few hand tool recommendations as well.  What I really came to appreciate about this section of the book is that Mark takes the time to break down the topic of hand planes in a way that will make sense to individuals who haven’t had the opportunity to compare or actually use a variety of planes and experience the difference between them. Do you really need every single variant of hand plane?  Hybrid Woodworking recommends surprisingly few, and explains which ones you truly need and which planes are made redundant by the functionality of other planes or by other tools in your shop.

Measuring? What’s Measuring?

One category of tools that’s conspicuously missing from Hybrid Woodworking are measuring tools.  Mark mentions marking gauges but says nothing about the tapes and squares that you’ll need almost immediately. I’m not sure if this is by design or by accidental omission, because I know Mark follows the philosophy that measuring introduces error which is itself an excellent idea to take to your shop! But you can’t eliminate all measuring and you won’t get far in your woodworking journey without a decent tape measure, try-square, combination square, and bevel gauge. These tools were featured in plenty of pictures throughout the book yet somehow it remains void of any mention. Something to keep in mind for the next addition?

The How-To Section

The second half of the book goes into details about how to use a combination of power and hand tools to get great, fast results on common woodworking problems.

Mark covers cutting rabbets, grooves, and dados using the hybrid methology. He discusses mortise and tenon joints in great detail and provides some options on how it can be done using the tools you already have in your shop.  He even discusses a modern solution to the problem: do away with an integral joint completely and use the Festool Domino Joiner system to join your work. Hybrid Woodworking also covers several variations on lap joints and, of course, dovetailing.

Final Thoughts

I have one final criticism of Hybrid Woodworking: Mark’s shop sports the best of the best in both power and hand tools, which may set some unrealistic performance expectations. While I’m thrilled for him that gambling on following his passion has worked out to the level that he can afford them, most hobbyists can’t justify buying Festool and Lie Nielson when they first start out.  And while a Lie Nielson plane is going to produce those gossamer shavings that get Mark all hot and bothered, the planes that most of us are going to be starting with will not produce them out of the box. Every single one of my planes, whether purchased used and restored or bought new, required some finessing of their own to produce the kind of quality Mark gets straight from the factory with his Lie Nielson planes. I feel like there ought to be at least a little bit of a conversation about tool quality and tuning, particularly when it comes to hand planes. (Secrectly I’m just jealous of Mark’s awesome toys.)

But don’t get caught up on this small criticism.  Hybrid Woodworking is a great introduction to the craft, and in the end can save you money by helping you purchase the tools you really need, when you need them. I highly recommend both Hybrid Woodworking as well as The Wood Whisperer website and videos.