10 Tips to Make the Most of Your Moisture Meter

Moisture-Meters-LeadThe moisture content of the wood you use to build projects is an important consideration. The moisture content of wood  that will be used to build furniture projects should be dried to approximately 6- to 8-percent moisture level in most parts of the United States. A moisture meter is the best tool for measuring moisture levels in wood. As is the case with any tool in your shop, a moisture meter will do you no good if you do not use it correctly.

Here are 10 tips from Wagner Moisture Meters to help you get the most accurate readings from your moisture meter.

1. Wipe Off Standing Water
Before taking wood moisture readings, wipe off any standing or visible water and allow the surface to dry for 60 seconds or more. Standing or visible water always results in inaccurate readings, regardless of the meter type. For example, pin moisture meters with non-insulated pins give highly exaggerated readings when the wood surface is wet. Also, be aware that if water soaks into the wood, it will give a higher MC reading.

2. Is Your Moisture Meter the Right One?
Use the proper meter for the job. If you are working with an exotic wood species, your meter will need a meter with an extended SG range, such as the Wagner MMC220. If you require extended data collection capabilities for quality control, the Wagner MMI1100 offers data analysis functions as well. The right meter for the job will save you time and potential trouble down the road.

3. Consider the Subfloor
If you are measuring moisture content levels in installed flooring, the meter will probably pick up moisture in the subfloor. If the subfloor is made of wood products, this probably won’t skew the readings, but concrete will give a higher reading.

4. Beware of Metal
Never check the moisture content of a piece of wood lying on a metal table. Instead, hold it in the air to take a reading. The reason: Moisture meters are sensitive to anything conductive. Thus, taking a reading on a metal table or near any metal objects such as nails, staples, or metal studs renders the moisture meter ineffective, resulting in a false reading.

5. Don’t Be a Klutz!
Be careful with your meter. Many moisture meters are calibrated at the factory, and will probably never need recalibrating. However, if you drop your meter, or it is accidentally submerged, it could be damaged. You should keep it on your belt loop in the provided carrying case for protection.

6. Keep Fresh Batteries on Hand
Moisture meters do not draw a lot of power, so the batteries will have a long life. It is still a good idea to keep spare batteries with your meter. A quick switch of batteries on the jobsite will make a big difference in time-on-task.

7. Don’t Forget Your Manual
Keep the manuals handy. In addition to the operation manual, the Wagner moisture meter comes with another very useful manual that tells you the specific gravities for each wood you deal with. Be sure to check your manual to get the most from your meter. Both manuals fit nicely next to your meter in the protective carrying case.

8. Keep Your Meter Dry
Be sure there is no condensation on the sensing plate of your moisture meter. Just as the surface you are measuring should be free of visible moisture, the sensing plate should be clear as well.

9. Consider Your Wood Materials
Moisture meters can be used to measure moisture content levels in plywood and OSB, but it may require using a special setting to get the best reading. If your meter has a material selection option, make sure you set your moisture meter to read the material you are testing.

10. Make good contact
Pinless meters require about three pounds of pressure is ideal for a good reading. Pin-style meters must be pressed firmly into the wood until the pins reach the designated reading depth. Be careful not to bend of break pins when pressing them into hard wood.

There you have it–10 ways to get the most from your  moisture meter. These pointers will help you use your meter trouble-free for years to come.


Space-Saving Chisel Rack

WJBlog_LHein_ChiselRackUprightGood chisels deserve good storage. If you regularly set a chisel down unprotected on the bench top, it could easily be nicked several times a day. Each time it gets nicked, it must be resharpened, which takes valuable time. Not only does resharpening take time, but good chisels are expensive, and every nick in the edge could cost you 50 cents. Aside from the hazard to the chisel, an exposed chisel edge also presents a serious hazard to hands and fingers. Obviously, making a chisel rack is time well-spent. Not only does it keep the chisel and your fingers safe, it dramatically reduces the time you spend hunting around for the chisel you need.

Many chisel racks use a rigid design that holds the chisels upright all the time. That design WJBlog_LHein_ChiselRackBoxprotects the blade well and makes it easy to grab a chisel when you need it, but it uses a lot of space. Another common storage method is to keep the chisels flat in a box. This is more compact and provides protection to the chisel handle, but when the box is open it leaves the blades less protected than the upright design. I wanted something that combined the best features of both designs, so I built a folding rack that stands up when I need it and folds into a box when I am done. It gives the chisels and my fingers maximum protection, is small enough to fit in my limited space, and enables me to quickly grab a chisel when I need it.

Make the Rack
The part that holds the chisels is the same as the upright part of a rigid rack. The most important feature of this piece is that the chisel should not touch the bottom of the slot. In most shops, grit will accumulate in the bottom of the slot and nick the chisel edge if it is allowed to touch it. WJBlog_LHein_ChiselUprightMost chisels get thinner towards the end, so this is easily accomplished by making the slot longer than the flat part of the chisel. Find a 3/4″ thick board, cut it to 1-1/4” longer than your chisel slots, and mark the places for the chisel slots on the face. Leave 1/4” between slots and 3/8” between slots and the edge of the board. Use the chisel to stop the cut where the edges and ends of the slots will be. This helps to keep the cut you make from bringing splinters with it from outside the desired area. Slowly cut down until the slots are as deep as the thinnest part of the chisel. If the flat part of the chisel is tapered, cut the slot to match. When you have all three slots right, cut a 1/4” thick piece of wood to the same size as the board and screw it on the face with the slots. We now have what looks like the upright part of a normal chisel rack, and we need to make a box for it.

Make the Box
Find a board the same width as the chisel holder. Measure the length of the chisel holder with chisels in it and add 3-3/4″. Cut the board to this length. Now cut two 2” wide boards to this same length and screw them to the sides of the first one. Cut two small pieces of wood as wide as the WJBlog_LHein_BoxSlatInProcesschisel rack and 2” long. These will be dovetailed into the ends of the board to keep it from splitting. You can dovetail them to the sides as well or just use screws. The next step is to add a way for the chisel rack to stand up and fold down. I considered using a hinge, but I did not have a suitable one on hand. Instead, I put a slot at one end that holds the chisel holder upright. It is locked in place with a pin. Cut a piece of WJBlog_LHein_ChiselRackPinwood as wide as the chisel holder is thick and 1-1/4” long. Stand the chisel holder up against the end of the box, push the block of wood against it and mark where it goes. Take out the block, pre-drill screw holes, and screw it in place. Mark a location for the pin on the end of the box where it will not hit any screws. Because the chisel holder is 1-1/4” longer than the slots, it is impossible to hit a slot. When you have found the right location, drill a hole for the pin. I used an ordinary 16 penny nail and a 9/64″hole. Although the nominal size of the nail was .131, there were burrs near the point that needed to be removed before it would fit. Unless you possess a set of hole-shrinking drill bits, you should make enlarging the hole your last resort.

WJBlog_LHein_CClampSome kind of knob for the pin is a nice touch. Take a 1” length of 3/8” diameter dowel and cross-drill a 1/8” hole through the middle. This assumes that your nail has a diameter of about  .131”. If it is different, use a drill bit that is about .006” smaller than your nail. Since you are cross-drilling a round dowel, It helps to start the hole with a machinist’s combined drill and countersink. Drill in with this until the countersunk area is larger than the drill you will be WJBlog_LHein_ArborPressusing. This ensures that it will not wander. When the hole is drilled, press the nail through. You can do this with a C clamp and a piece of pipe or with an arbor press.

At this point, you could declare the chisel rack complete, but I decided to add a lid. This is a simple matter of a suitably sized board, two hinges, and a latch. My main reason for the lid was that I have limited shelf space. WJBlog_LHein_ChiselRackBoxOpenWith the addition of a lid to keep the chisels in the box, I could add a hanger and hang the box on a hook. This completes the chisel rack. Now, not only do you have compact protection for your expensive chisels, but you can live by the motto that “The edge is never dull.”

A New Use for Scrap Cutoffs?

It’s common among woodworkers to feel some reluctance at throwing scraps away (I could make something out of that!), but if you share a shop with your spouse, it gets doubly difficult. Carole Rothman, who built the Holiday Gift Box featured in the December 2013 issue of Woodworker’s Journal, as well as the Cherry Jewelry Box from June 2013, recently shared on her blog, Scroll Saw Bowls, what her husband Joe made from some of her bowl cutoffs:




Anybody else with a great use for cutoffs?

The High Cost of Good Hand Tools

In my youth, one reason many builders of fine furniture, amateur and professional alike, turned to hand tools was economy. Hand tools were much cheaper

Two Bailey #04 1/2 smoothing planes

Two Bailey #04 1/2 smoothing planes

than machinery. Stanley probably made more hand tools than any other company, having plants in New Britain, Connecticut and England. The most notable hand tool they manufactured was Bailey Planes. The company bought Leonard Bailey out in 1869 and hired him to supervise production. Stanley made prodigious numbers of Bailey planes between 1869 and the early 1960s. The design set a high-water mark for hand planes and Bailey’s numbering system, sizes 01 through 08 (pronounced Oh and the number) became the de facto standard for the entire woodworking industry. Smoothing planes are 01 though 04; jack planes are number 05, with 07 and 08 being jointers. In 1923, an 05 jack plane sold for $6.05.

In 1898, Stanley introduced an even better plane, the Bedrock. This used the same numbering system, but a 6 preceded the number to denote the Bedrock Line. In the very early 20tth century, the cheeks of the 600 Bedrock Line were squared to further distinguish them from the Bailey Line. Stanley ceased production of the Bedrock in 1943, but craftsmen use and treasure them to this day. Today at least three manufacturers make slavish copies of Bedrock planes. In 1923, a 605 Bedrock jack plane sold for $6.75.

Classic Bailey #05 (foreground);  classic Bedrock #605 (back). Both made during the 1920s.

Classic Bailey #05 (foreground); classic Bedrock #605 (back). Both made during the 1920s.

When I was getting serious about woodworking in the 1970s, plane manufacture had sunk to an all-time low. You could not buy a usable plane anymore. But Baileys abounded at yard sales and flea markets for between $5 and $25. Bedrocks went for $5 to $75, depending on whether the seller realized that Bedrocks were premium merchandise. This happy state of affairs made a used high quality classic cheaper than a new piece of junk. There are those who will only buy new, and they chafed under what was available.

As woodworking grew as a hobby, the demand for decent hand planes became sufficient that companies started making decent ones again. Tom Lie-Nielsen was the first to realize this need and started making a good Bedrock reproduction. Today we are blessed with a host of companies making really good planes; however, they are not cheap!

If we factor in inflation for our 1923 prices from Stanley Catalogue Number 120, we find our $6.05 Bailey would cost $80.49 today and the $6.75 Bedrock would cost $89.80. This tells us that planes, and I think hand tools in general, have gotten significantly more expensive. A 05 Lie-Nielsen Jack today costs $325, which is 3.6 times the price of our 1923 Bedrock.

Some of this price difference can be attributed to manufacturing quantities. As you make more of any product, quantities of scale are reached that significantly reduce manufacturing cost. In the 1920s, Stanley was making planes in the hundreds of thousands, while any manufacturer today is making thousands at best. This would account for part of the price increase. Another factor is that planes, and many other hand tools, are cast iron. The cost for a foundry to meet EPA environmental standards, which are needed if the world is to go on, is significant. Some of the more attractive prices for hand planes may be due to manufacture in Asia, where manufacturing air quality standards are lower than in the U.S.

The good news, I think, is that cost of machinery has seen similar price increases, so hand tools are still a good alternative. What is more: they are safer, quiet and don’t need a power cord. Used planes do not abound anymore, but are still quite available. A decent Bailey can still be purchased for less than $100, making it a very good buy indeed.

Follow the Rules, But Know When To Break Them

WJBlog_E_Conover_DovetailBoxIn learning any craft, the apprentice is indoctrinated with a plethora of rules. In woodworking, many are a matter of avoiding personal injury — as in safe use of sharp tools and machinery. Others are crucial to achieving workmanship-like results and producing furniture that will hold up to abuse for generations. (Woe is the practitioner who is ignorant of the laws of wood movement!)

Just such a rule is: “There must always be a half-pin at either edge of a dovetail joint and not a half-tail.” Stated another way, there is never a half tail — and this is true whether you are hand or machine cutting. The reason for this ironclad tenet is that wood, left unto itself, has a proclivity to warp.

A box, drawer or carcass dovetailed together with half-pins at each edge is ironbound and WJBlog_EConover_DovetailIllustrationwill resist any inclination of the wood to warp. However, this is not the case with half-tails at the edge, as we can see in the illustration. Should the wood warp, there is nothing holding the edges of the tail boards, and gaps will form. While I have exaggerated the phenomenon in my drawing, it is nevertheless unsightly.

I recently had a group who wanted to build the box pictured, which is in John Kassay’s beautiful collection of measured drawings, The Book of Shaker Furniture. The 10” deep box measures 11” by 19” but has a 3” drawer in the bottom running the width and divided from the main compartment by a floating panel. The original is nailed to a board with a molded edge to form the bottom.

WJBlog_EConover_DovetailCloseupThis rustic workmanship niggled me, so I moved the drawer up ½” and trapped another floating panel to form a true bottom that would be immune to wood movement. The dovetail layout of this box is asymmetrical, making it a great training piece. However, wood warpage of the front and back tail boards could make the area around the drawer a poster child for Illustration I. The solution is a ½” rail below the drawer to resist wood movement.

The problem is that you cannot put two half pins on such a small rail. It needs a single center pin, leaving a half tail in the pin board. It is time to safely bend the rules as we see in the close-up photo. Although we threw the rulebook out the window, we have a box that will last for generations.

Epilogue: This box brings rave comments from all who view it and is a popular pick for a dovetail workshop. Once sanded and finished, however, it is not a particularly practical piece of furniture. It is too large for tabletops but not big enough for the floor. The drawer doesn’t hold much, and no one knows what the original was used for. Several months later, Susan and I are still looking for a use. Maybe my fungus collection …

Guitars for Vets Tunes Up for Rock the Rumble Event


Guitars for Vets and the Harley-Davidson Museum are hosting a special benefit concert Sunday November 9th at the museum from 6pm – 11pm to help raise money to provide free guitars and music lessons for ailing and injured military veterans.

The Rock the Rumble III concert will feature the acts Hessler, The Last Vegas and God’s Outlaw and will feature an on-site auction and more. Tickets are $20 for general admission or $18 for members of the museum, and donating a guitar to the program will get you a $10 voucher good towards the purchase of a ticket.


WHO: Guitars for Vets and Harley-Davidson Museum
WHAT: Rock the Rumble III benefit concert for Guitars for Vets featuring musical acts Hessler, The Last Vegas, and God’s Outlaw
WHEN: Saturday, November 9 from 6 p.m. – 11 p.m.
WHERE: Rumble at the Harley-Davidson Museum
400 W. Canal Street
Milwaukee, WI 53201

TICKET PRICE: $20 general admission, $18 for Harley-Davidson Museum Members

For more information visit the event website and Guitars4Vets.org.

You can see our previous coverage of this worthy cause here:

Guitar for Veterans School Video.
Chris Marshall’s Guitar Build Afterglow
Guitars4Vets Craftsman Experience

Lumber Liquidators Under Investigation

Several government agencies are involved in an investigation of Lumber Liquidators Holdings for possibly sourcing their wood from illegal logging operations. The company’s offices have been searched by investigators, and their stock has taken a hit despite improved profits in the last quarter.


JET, Powermatic Parent Company Purchased by Private Equity Firm

JET BandsawThis just in: big news on the business side of the power tool industry!

This morning in a press release, Tenex Capital Management announced that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire the machinery and tools business of Walter Meier AG of Switzerland. For those who may not be aware, Walter Meier Tools manufactures the machinery and equipment under the JET, Wilton and Powermatic brands.

Powermatic latheWalter Meier Tools is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, but the company also has operations in Switzerland, Germany, Russia, France, Taiwan and China. It sells through more than 3,000 distribution channels in 30 countries. Tenex, the purchasing company, is a private equity firm focused on middle market investments. The transaction is expected to be completed by October 31, 2013. No financial terms were disclosed.

Walter Meier logoIn the same press release, Michael Green, CEO of Tenex Capital Management, stated, “In Walter Meier Tools, we have acquired a strong company with great brands and a growing market share in each of its segments. The well-recognized brands of JET, Wilton and Powermatic define the resilience and durability of the products. We look forward to supporting the company and its management team in executing its continued growth initiatives.”

At this time, that’s about all the information we have here at the Journal, but stay tuned! We will provide updates as they become available.

Tips for Using a Portable Sawmill

Editor’s Note: Sandor Nagyszalanczy is the author of the article “Portable Sawmills: Lumber from Local Trees” in the July/August 2013 issue of Woodworker’s Journal. Find out more about that article, plus lots more great content, here.

Salvaging a dead or dying tree, or logs that a power company or homeowner have cut, and milling them into useful lumber is a very satisfying experience (see the video of a portable band saw mill in action on the More on the Web page for the July/August issue). If this idea is in your wheelhouse, there are two ways to proceed: One is to find and hire a good sawyer that has the right experience to do the job for you. Many portable sawmill manufacturers have their own forums and links pages where you can find a reputable sawyer in your area. Some sawyers have their own web pages or are listed in your local phone directory. The other method is to buy or borrow the equipment and do the job yourself. Whether you buy/borrow a sawmill or hire a sawyer, the proper preparation will save you time and money, as well as potentially help produce more useable lumber. Here are some tips I gleaned from veteran sawyer David Boyt, publisher of Sawmill and Woodlot Management magazine, to help you prepare for the job:

  • • Make sure that you can get the mill to the worksite. You might have to trim some trees or bushes to be able to drive your pickup truck or tow vehicle to the site. Plus, if the mill is on a trailer, you’ll need plenty of room to negotiate corners and turn the trailer around. Once there, you’ll need a large, level worksite on which to set up the mill. Ultimately the size of the site depends on the length of the logs you’ll be milling, but a flat spot that’s 30 feet square is a good place to start. You’ll also need a level spot fairly close to the worksite where you can stack the freshly milled boards.
  • • Setting a sawmill’s track rails directly on the ground makes it easier to load logs, but then you’ll have to bend over to pick up every slab, board or edging you cut. Some operators opt to raise the sawmill up (8-14 inches is typical) by setting it on top of either rail ties or beam cutoffs. This can also make it easier to level the sawmill — necessary for proper operation. Make sure and secure the mill’s adjustable feet with lag screws to prevent the bed from shifting during use.
  • • Figure out how you’ll get the logs to the mill from where they’ve been cut or stacked. Ideally, you should transport the logs on a wagon, trailer or, if you have access to it, a front-end loader. One handy device is the LogRite® Buck Arch, a wheeled sulky that can be towed by an ATV or 4-wheel drive vehicle (there’s also a small hand-pulled model). Dragging the logs can be a problem for two reasons: 1. Dirt and grit end up embedded in the log’s bark and will take their toll on the band saw blade (if you’ve hired a sawyer, they may charge you for extra blades). You can clean light dirt off logs with a long-handled barbeque grill brush. 2. Dragged logs tend to leave deep ruts in soft ground, which can make walking around the worksite hazardous.
  • • To save board-handling time, stack your logs so that the longest, best quality stock is cut first. As you work your way down to the smaller, poorer quality logs, you’ll reach a point where it’s too much work for too little lumber (an exception is cutting some of your lower quality logs into blocking and stickers; you’ll need lots of these to properly stack the freshly cut lumber and keep it off the ground). If you’ve hired a sawyer, it’s usually not economical to have them cut any logs shorter than 8 feet and/or less than about 8 inches in diameter (plus some lumber mills have trouble clamping down shorter/smaller logs). The lumber yield just doesn’t add up to the amount of time it takes to cut such logs.
  • Have a cut list—or at least a good idea of what lumber dimensions you want—before you begin, especially if you’ve hired a sawyer. For example, if you ask for 2-in thick lumber, that’s what you get. But if you ask the sawyer for lumber for a 2” thick tabletop, he’ll probably recommend cutting the boards 2-3/8” thick so that after they are dried, you’ll have enough thickness to plane the boards down to 2 inch final thickness. When cutting boards that’ll be used for furniture, a good sawyer will take the time to look for interesting grain patterns and be extra careful to cut clean, flat boards. But if your goal is to produce flooring for a trailer or siding for a shed, it’s more economical for the sawyer to speed through the job. If you plan on using the milled lumber along with commercially purchased lumber, let the sawyer know so that they’ll produce the same dimensions for the sawn boards (e.g. a store bought 2×4 is actually slightly less than 1-1/2” by 3-1/2”).


Felling a Tree the Old-Fashioned Way

I had a lot of fun working on a Portable Sawmills article for the forthcoming July/August issue of Woodworker’s Journal. To do the research (I didn’t really know anything about small sawmills), I visited a pair of local sawyers who demonstrated how their marvelous machines work: Just set a log on the mill’s bed, start the motor, and let the horizontally-mounted band saw transform that rough log into a stack of dimensional lumber. But after watching these sawing veterans run through the piles of logs they had at hand, it occurred to me that although I’d been building things out of wood for most of my life, I’d never actually used wood from a tree I’d felled myself. I have cut quite a few small trees on the property in the Santa Cruz mountains where I live with a chainsaw.

Although I can’t imagine milling a log into boards by hand, cutting down a tree with just an axe, a saw and muscle power is definitely on my bucket list. I already have the advantage of having received expert instruction on tree felling: Some years ago, I had a job as the official photographer for the Pacific Northwest Tool Collectors’ 2008 “Best in the West” conference, a gathering of the country’s top tool collectors that happens every two years. Members display their amazing tool collections and present lectures and demonstrations that often feature rare and beautiful antique tools. One of these demonstrations, done at a member’s backyard in Sheldon, Washington, was felling a large Douglas fir tree using traditional tools and methods. The two sawyers who performed the demo (I don’t recall their names) started by chopping out a large notch, known as the undercut, on the side of the tree facing the direction in which they wanted the tree to fall. They both wielded double-bit axes (sharp enough for a close shave) while they balanced on wood springboards stuck into slots chopped into the sides of the stump. As they alternated their strikes like a well-oiled two-cylinder engine (bang-bang…bang-bang), it was amazing how quickly they created a sizable notch in the tree trunk. Just shy of finishing the notch, one sawyer showed us how to use an axe as a “gun stick” or felling gauge: He placed the head of the axe flat against the back of the cut notch, then looked down the handle, which indicated the direction in which the tree would fall.

With the notch cut a little more than 1/3 of the way through the trunk, the sawyers swapped their axes for a two-man crosscut saw, which they used to make the back cut that actually brought the tree down. As they expertly pulled the tool back and forth in rhythm, the saw’s frighteningly sharp teeth cut through the wood like it was soft butter. One sawyer occasionally poured a little kerosene on the saw to keep it lubricated and prevent sap from building up. They quickly reached a point at which it required only a last, light saw stroke to sever enough fibers to bring the big Doug fir down. Impressively, the tree fell exactly where they said it would. The entire cutting process took only about 15 minutes and seemed to take less brute strength than I had imagined. The lesson I came away with is that the secret to safely felling a tree is careful planning, using razor-sharp tools, and performing each chop and slice with thoughtfulness and precision. Come to think of it, this same “secret” applies to just about every other woodworking operation I can think of, whether it’s done the old-fashioned way or by using some newfangled machine.