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A New Miniature for a New Project

I was surprised to find, upon starting research for this blog entry, that it has been less than a year since I began my most recent stage of making miniature furniture.

I had a nice run of making 1/12 scale furniture about 25 years ago when I built a dollhouse and some furniture for my daughter, however, 20 years lapsed. It wasn’t until October 2019 that I designed a small shelf/cabinet piece for our bedroom and decided to make a scale mock up of it first. Interestingly, I never made the full-size piece. Creating that set me on a path to make increasingly challenging pieces.

I have spent countless hours researching interesting furniture to recreate in miniature. Google and Pinterest are great sources and I have built up an image library of dozens of furniture examples I would like to create or use for design inspiration. All the miniatures I currently offer for sale I designed based on pictures I found on various websites.

One day about a month ago when I was finishing a piece and trying to decide what to do next, my eyes fell upon a nice antique table that has been standing by our front door for the last 18 years:

 

Betsy bought this 1920s walnut and mahogany table in 1981 at a little antique store on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. It was in terrible condition with crackled, darkened varnish which took a lot of TLC to strip and restore. When she moved back to Holland in 1982, it was kept in storage in her parents’ basement. Since then it has resided in seven different apartments and houses – a pretty little companion on a journey that has spanned nearly 40 years and counting!

I started looking around the house and realized that I have many inspirations for miniatures – thus was born an idea for a project. I am going to try to recreate many of the pieces of furniture we have around the house. A few of them we acquired together since we bought this house, but most are Betsy’s, who has long loved classic, well crafted antiques. So this table became the first in a series I plan on doing.  Here is the first miniature based on the 1920s table.

The body is made of Walnut and the top inlay is Brazilian Rosewood and Blistered Masur Birch.

As with every piece I have made thus far, I designed this in Fusion 360, set up the cutting parameters using VCarve Desktop and cut the parts on my homemade CNC machine. The big difference with this piece is it required eight turned legs. I only recently added a fourth axis to my CNC for carvings and turned pieces, and used it for only a couple of small parts. With this piece, it took turning at least twenty legs before I managed to get the eight perfect ones I needed.

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My Workshop

In this post I’ll show off my workshop. It’s been in development for many years and I’m quite proud of it.

When I first moved to our current house we actually used our garage for cars for a while. An average car can fit in there with some room to spare. At the time I had only a few “miniature” benchtop power tools and set them up a workbench on the side. Then after acquiring a couple larger freestanding power tools the cars were banished for good.

Here’s what I had back in 2007, the first time I took pictures of the shop:

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I had a lathe, planer, table saw, band saw, a couple of drill presses, bench sander, miter saw, and jointer. Except for the lathe, everything was Craftsman. Many of those have since been replaced with better tools. Back in February of 2018 I had an incident that resulted in some changes. A couple of days after I had cleared the driveway of a heavy snow, I went into the garage and found this:

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I went in through the side door to find half of the garage trashed. At first I didn’t know what to think, but I eventually realized that some animal had been in there and made the mess. Hundreds of parts and pieces of wood were strewn all over the place. At the time I thought the animal had somehow broken in, but the only holes I found were apparent attempts for it to get out. Although I couldn’t locate it, I thought it might still be in there, so I sprinkled talcum powder around the door area and left it open for a couple hours. When I checked again later I found tracks and knew for sure it had been a raccoon. Unfortunately the raccoon had not escaped. It’s mate, which had probably been hanging around for a couple of days had gotten in! This time I found them up in the rafters and after opening the garage door chased them out. Later I realized the raccoon must have gotten in the garage during the time the door was left open when I was snow blowing two days earlier.

This incident prompted me to do a lot of cleaning and reorganizing. I threw out an ugly storage cabinet that had come with the house and I bought some new shelving units to better organize the wood and parts.

As I have written about elsewhere I started out making custom cribbage boards with exotic woods and then got into CNC routing, which prioritized the development of the shop going forward. The garage is quite crowded with tools now, and I have to wind my way around like in a maze. But you learn to duck your head and avoid bumping knees and elbows. It’s a good thing I’m only 5’4″.

Here is the current configuration of the shop:

From the Outside

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Here's the portal to my woodworking den.

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My Miniature Process Part 5: Putting it all together

In the last entry in this series, I’m reviewing my history working with miniatures and discuss how I finished my last work, which at this point has accrued over 500 likes on the IGMA: Miniature Community’s Facebook page.

In one sense, I’m very new to the “Miniature” community, but my journey creating goes back at least 50 years. When I was a kid my passions were all about making things. I avidly created models, mostly cars and airplanes at first, using classic Revell kits. I also tried my hand at balsa and tissue paper airplanes and my favorite “toys” were Erector Sets and electronic project kits from Radio Shack.

I was also obsessed with learning how things were put together. I took apart and reassembled almost everything I could get my hands on, which invoked the ire of my parents occasionally. I learned I could make money by getting broken radios, phonographs and anything else that had mechanical parts, taking them apart and figuring out what was broken and how to fix it, then selling the refurbished items.

During my childhood years I dabbled in many crafts. I got into rock tumbling, jewelry making, macrame, electronics, woodworking, photo-illustration, airbrushing, screen printing and other crafts. My father was always accusing me of never finishing what I started, but I was just moving on to the next thing I wanted to try. My mother took advantage of it though, asking me to put together most of the National Handcraft Society Fad of the Month Club kits she received in the mail.

By the time I was a teenager my most prominent skill was being able to draw photo-realistic illustrations. When I graduated high school, I studied graphic arts at a college in Chicago for just a year (no, unfortunately not the Art Institute). At the time I thought I would pursue a career in fine arts, but one thing led to another and I eventually became a computer technician and programmer. Although I continued to draw, I didn’t get back into crafts and woodworking for almost 20 years until my daughter wanted me to make her a dollhouse. I bought and built a commercial kit from Michael’s and eventually tried making 1/12 scale furniture. All my skills from the past returned and I found I was really good at it. Alas, that lasted less than a couple of years and major life changes resulted in being away from miniature making for almost 25 years.

My love for woodworking and making things never left me and around 15 years ago, I finally began putting together my dream workshop, eventually taking up our entire garage. For a number of years I concentrated on making cribbage boards until sometime last year when I rediscovered the joy of making miniature furniture.

At the beginning of this week, I completed the piece I had shown glimpses of in former entries to this series, a miniature dental cabinet:

This project began around March 4  when I began designing it in Fusion 360. Here are a few images from that process:

When I was ready to begin building this piece, I selected two 2″ x 2″ x 18″ Jobillo turning squares and sliced them into various thicknesses. In previous posts I outlined the steps involved – from the design phase to cutting parts. This project resulted in a little over 200 individual parts. Here are most of the used part sheets:

Getting from the design process to cut parts is only the start. Next comes the hard work of assembling it.

Every part has to be cut out and sanded on all six sides (at least with the rectangular/square parts). That can be quite tedious, and it wasn’t until after the first couple of miniatures I made this way that I realized I could sand the top and bottoms BEFORE removing them from the sheets. The sides of the parts are sanded on my True Sander

I didn’t realize until I was working on this one that what I basically did was make my own model kit from scratch. The parts sheets are just like what you get in a commercial Revell model kit, with all the parts on sprues that need to be cut off.

Attaching the parts is done with either super glue or translucent wood glue, depending on what type of joint and hold is needed. All the drawers had parts that needed dovetails cut into them using a custom modified micro chisel. Other details that could not be implemented in the CNC process had to be done by hand.

My initial plans for the arms on the swing out trays was to 3D print them. The first prototypes printed well and looked good, but they proved to be too brittle and would not have held up long. So I spent a couple of days doing research and testing, and found out how easy it is to solder brass parts together. The hard part is devising methods to hold them together while soldering. Toothpicks inserted into drilled holes and masking tape worked wonders for this.

I long dreaded making the curved rotating cover for the trays. At first I thought I would find some sort of small glass bottle or vial that I could cut. However I wasn’t able to find anything that either was the right size or thickness. While rooting around in my supplies I found some 1/16″ acrylic sheets. I remembered acrylic can be formed with heat, so I turned a form and wrapped the acrylic around it with a heat gun. The turntable rotates within two tiny 1 mm ball bearings. The mirror on the top is from an old camera I disassembled a few years ago. You can get all sorts of great parts from old cameras.

Unfortunately I didn’t take many pictures during this build, but here’s one as I neared the end:

I finally finished it on May 11th. As with every piece I’ve made before, there are a couple things I would have done differently if I started over, but I’m mostly happy with how this turned out.

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My Miniature Process Part 4: CNC

I previously mentioned my CNC router. The parts it created are the subject of the first entry in this series. This one details the journey I undertook that led to finding my current use for it.

About 10 years ago, I spent three years making and selling nearly a 150 cribbage boards. I drafted the pattern for each board by hand, routed the inlets with a handheld Dremel router, cut the inlay by hand with a knife and ruler and drilled thousands of holes on my drill press. The drill press was the most stressful because one hole out of alignment by 1/32″ would be obvious. I drilled a hole in the end of each board and used a hole plug to hold the pegs, but envied boards that had slots with a slide in panel.

I burned out and stopped making cribbage boards for a few years.

About the same time, CNC routers came to my attention. They were just starting to become available for hobbyists with a limited budget. I heard about the CompuCarve machine (later to become the CarveWright) which was introduced by Sears as a Craftsman product. With visions of this machine doing all the drudgery of drilling holes and cutting inlets, I ordered one at around $1,200. Then I began to read reviews. The technology was too young and new adopters were apparently having a rough time with the maintenance of these machines. So I cancelled the order.

Two years later after doing a massive amount of research, I purchased RockCliff CNC machine plans. This was a modest machine that could be built for under $1,000 in parts. The body was made of MDF with hardware that could be purchased through industrial supply sites such as MSC Industrial Supply and McMaster Carr. The motors and electronics from ProBotix, were in a kit that required assembly and soldering. I’ve had many years of electronics experience as a hobbyist going back to childhood, so that wasn’t a problem.

After a few months work, here is the result:

It worked well enough. It was a bit fussy, but produced a few nice things. But it just wasn’t good enough to provide the precision I needed. So with the knowledge gained from building it, I used it to build another one. Since I didn’t work on it constantly, between building the first one and then the second – it took about three years. Finally it was completed:

I now had a machine that would do what I wanted, but it took me another couple of years of development and testing before I was ready to use it for my cribbage board comeback. I also found it immensely useful in making custom shop jigs and other projects.

A couple of years ago I also got into 3D printing, which resulted in my learning to use CAD software. My wife suggested we make a small bedroom cabinet and I had the idea to design it in CAD and make a miniature mock up. Building that brought back all the wonderful memories and enjoyment of building miniatures 25 years ago. Back then I made them with just a miniature table saw and a TrueSander. It wasn’t long before I figured out the design and production process to make miniatures with all the tools and software at my fingertips.

I had some good results, but I again found the machine was short of the demands I was placing on it. So I spent another round of rebuilding it with more precise components, upgrading software, some hardware and adding a fourth axis to do carvings and sculptures.

Here is the machine today:

And finally, here is the process I use to cut parts:

 

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My Miniature Process Part 3: Software

Twenty five years ago, even after a few years making miniatures, my two basic tools were a Microlux Table Saw (which I still use) and a Northwest Short Line True Sander (again, which I still use). The only woods I had were purchased from MicroMark. Working with a two-page illustration in a magazine describing how a roll top desk was constructed, I managed to create this:

I can’t remember exactly how long it took me, but it must have been a couple of months. I started with one part and cut each piece guessing at the size. I made a lot of mistakes and had to make some pieces multiple times before getting it right. Construction by trial and error.

A couple of years ago, before my return to miniature making, I got into 3D printing. My design needs led me to Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. I learned to use Fusion 360, which is free for students and hobbyists. When I finally began to design and make miniature furniture it suited my needs perfectly. It allows me to design both simple and complex pieces without any trial and error. Here’s a screenshot showing the piece I’m currently working on:

This took me about five weeks to finish designing. Once that was done, all 175+ parts were exported into a line drawing file, sorted by size. Here are all the parts that will be .08″ thick:

After outputting this to a PDF file I imported it into Vcarve Desktop. This program is for designing and cutting parts on a CNC router. Each part is primarily assigned cuts for routing pockets and profiles. You have to define the size and type of the cutting bits as well as the depths of cuts, among other parameters. The wood I was using was 2″ x 9″ so I had to separate all these parts into five different jobs. Here’s one of them:

Before exporting the code to the CAM software that runs the CNC machine you can preview how the cutting job will look:

Once I was satisfied with the results. it generates a text file (sometime tens of thousands of lines long) for the Mach3 software I use to drive my homemade CNC. I will highlight that in a future post.

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My Miniature Process Part 2: Wood and Tools

In this entry, I’m highlighting a few tools I use to create the parts I mentioned in my previous post. When I first made a number of miniatures 25 years ago, I was limited to only what wood was available from Micro Mark and other suppliers, such as walnut, mahogany, cherry and basswood. And they usually only came in a few thicknesses.

Now, I can use any wood in my stockpile of exotic woods. To begin, make sure the piece is perfectly flat:

Then I move to my bandsaw:

Then to my MicroLux drum thickness sander:

This is a great tool, but it takes a lot of maintenance and careful handling to produce wood good enough for miniature projects. For the current one I needed wood in .0325, .04, .0625, .08, .09375 and .125 inch thickness. For anyone who may consider using this drum sander for their own projects, the best advice I have is the longer the wood you have to feed through. the better. Having one smooth side is very important to getting good results. After each time I slice wood on the bandsaw I make sure to put it back through the planer before the next cut. Generally I have to feed the wood through the drum sander 5 to 10 times to get just the right thickness.

I do most of my cutting on my homemade CNC machine, which I’ll get to in another post, but when I don’t want to bother with two sided jobs I turn to this:

That’s a Dremel drill press which I’ve modified with a 3D printed mount for a Proxxon rotary tool and an XY table to use as a milling machine. I wouldn’t try using it to mill metals (I have a real milling machine for that) but it works fine for wood and doesn’t weigh 20 pounds.

I have power tools for just about any kind of work, but perhaps the most useful tool I have for miniatures is this humble “True Sander” I purchased from Micro Mark almost 30 years ago:

It’s the absolutely best way to precisely size parts and ensure they are perfectly square.

And here I have arrived at finishing the first two parts for my next piece, a couple of raised panels and the shelf they will attach to:

 

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My Miniature Process Part 1

I’m likely among many others who find they have a lot of extra time for hobbies right now. Before this pandemic, I was spending 75% of my home time designing and making things.

Now as I mostly work from home, I can use some of the extra time into blogging about my hobby work.

This project, which I will not give a name for just yet, began about two months ago. I started designing it with CAD software (I use Fusion 360). That took about five weeks working on it whenever I could fit in a few minutes of design work. After another full week of work preparing the plans with a CAM program (VCarve Desktop), I prepared about 10 slices in various thicknesses from 2″x2″x18″ pieces of Jobillo. I was ready to start cutting parts.

After 10 hours in the shop, I created about 110 of the 175 or so parts I need to build this:

 

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My Woodworking Journey

I’m here at the end of one journey and the start of another. The first was unplanned, meandering, frustrating at times, but led me to the one I’m beginning now. The difference is this journey involves planning and dedication.

My first experience with woodworking began in junior high school. Oak Crest Junior High in Beach Park, Illinois had an optional woodworking/shop class. I remember learning how to use a lathe and other power tools. We also worked with plastics and resins. These days, I can’t imagine schools would allow kids younger than 14 to work with such dangerous tools and materials. I made several terrific wood and plexiglas lamps which I gifted to my parents and grandmother. It’s a shame they were lost long ago.

At the time, I didn’t exactly fall in love with woodworking, nor decide to dedicate my life to it. But it did become one of the many facets of my overall desire to MAKE. I spent most of my free time constructing and fixing things. Erector sets, Radio Shack electronic kits, model cars, and balsa wood planes were my passions. I would haunt garage sales to find old broken radios and phonographs that I took home to fix, then resold to make some money.

The next era in my first journey occurred because I became interested in theater. First in high school plays and musicals, then through a couple of community theater groups, I discovered how much I liked building larger things. I quickly became proficient at set design and building. There were a number of theater productions where I  designed and was in charge of building the set interior and exteriors (The Importance of Being Ernest, The Fantasticks, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Music Man stand out in my memory of proud achievements).

By the late ’80s, I’d given up my pursuit of theater, mostly due to settling down to have a family. In the first house I owned, I used a few power tools, but only to work on the house and build a tree house for the kids. Then I discovered a new passion for crafting dollhouse miniatures using a miniature table saw and hand tools. My daughter wanted a dollhouse, so I bought a kit at Hobby Lobby, and as is my nature, customized the heck out of it. Then I started making miniature furniture and found I was GOOD at it. I haven’t crafted miniatures in well over 20 years, but I hope to get back to that one day.

Finally, when my second wife Betsy and I purchased a house together, I began to convert the garage into a true workshop like I never had before. I started out with a small table saw, miter saw, drill press, routers, sanders, and dabbled with a small lathe.

The next stage in my woodworking career came when I actually started making money – and it’s all thanks to the game of cribbage.

As a kid, my mom and dad taught me to play cribbage at the kitchen table. This began a lifelong love for the game, which I taught Betsy. We became obsessed with this old-fashioned playing card and pegging game and started building an impressive collection of vintage cribbage boards. Although we found a lot of variety in the boards,  I began to note a lack of originality in the woods used and definitely the quality. So one day I decided to start making my own.

Using exotic woods I bought largely from eBay and other online sellers, I crafted quite a number of great boards. Almost all of them involved using my drafting skills to lay out the design in pencil on the wood. I then routed out the inlets with a Dremel rotary tool and a routing jig. After hand cutting the inlay material with X-Acto knives and painstakingly gluing them in, the most tedious task was drilling all the holes. I used a standard drill press with hand made fences and jigs to drill hundreds of holes after drawing the patterns onto the wood. I got really good at this, but it was nerve wracking work as drilling a hole off by only a 32nd of an inch can be obvious. And more than once a careless mistake led to scrapping a board I’d already spent many hours working on.

One of my early cribbage boards

Despite little setbacks, I was on my way to a profitable business selling cribbage boards. Starting on eBay and eventually setting up my own website, I sold dozens of unique and custom cribbage boards, some for several hundred dollars. I eventually burned out due to the extraordinary amount of time and some of the frustrations along the way. It didn’t help that I was getting more and more requests for custom boards that I didn’t have the means or desire to produce. One day I just stopped making them.

I didn’t do much woodworking for a couple of years until I discovered Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining. Sears started selling one of these computer controlled routers, which was among the first on the market for home use. I actually went as far as ordering one for around $1,200. Then I started seeing reviews by early adopters, changed my mind, and cancelled it. A year or two later I came across plans for a do-it-yourself CNC machine using wood and off-the-shelf electronic parts. With many years of expertise working with electronics, I jumped at the opportunity to get into CNC routing.

My first CNC Router

That part of my journey took around three years. First I spent a few months building my first machine. The electronics part was fairly easy, but putting together a tool that had the precision necessary to do what I wanted was elusive for awhile. I stalled out once or twice, rebuilt most of it several times until I finally got good enough at using it – to build a completely new version of my own design! What I am using now may not look like a typical commercial CNC machine, but it does terrific work. After it was finally finished I spent weeks learning how to use it to cut the inlets and drill holes for cribbage boards. I produced a number of great boards with much better quality than those I crafted years ago. As of this writing, my new and improved boards are for sale on this website.

My CNC Router Mark III

I didn’t want to plunge right back into selling cribbage boards because there were other ideas I wanted to pursue and didn’t want to get bogged down in production. I continued to upgrade my workshop and improve my skills. Then I discovered 3D printing, which led to the last year and a half of my odyssey.

My first 3D Printer

I’ve been purchasing tools and parts from Micromark.com (The Small Tools Specialist!) for nearly 30 years. One day nearly two years ago, I was looking through an email from them advertising sales and clearance items. I noticed they were discontinuing an “Anifibot Prusa i3” 3D printer kit for under $300. The Prusa line of 3D printers is an open source platform that has revolutionized this technology for hobbyists and small workshops. I considered dabbling in 3D printing for years, so I bought one.

Needless to say, this part of the journey was initially daunting. With a steep learning curve and initial lack of proper directions (and a major part that was defective), it took me a couple weeks to put this together and get it working. Then it took me a couple more months just to get it optimized and modified to the point it was useful for something. One of the first major parts I printed was the new router mount for my CNC machine that you see in the above picture. Of course, I also spent a lot of time learning to use Computer Aided Design (CAD), 3D modeling, and “Slicing” software.

Initially skeptical about this venture, Betsy embraced it wholeheartedly when she saw some of the samples I was printing and the creative aspects became apparent. This  resulted in creating our line of Animal Ice Cream Bites© and Gem Skulls. Although I eventually got this little printer working quite well, it had a couple of major drawbacks: it couldn’t print pieces much larger than what could be contained in an 8 x 8 x 8 inch cube. It also couldn’t use advanced printing materials, such as nylon and carbon fiber.

My Ultimate 3D Printer

I began to consider moving to a bigger and better machine, but most of the machines that did what I wanted cost $4,000 or more. After some weeks of research, I used my newfound skills using the CAD program Fusion 360 to design my own machine. The next step took three months of intense work that involved learning several new skills including some metalworking. The result is the machine you see above. I used the first 3D printer to make parts for the new one, then used the new one to reprint better versions of its own parts. Those are Mahogany doors on the front.

So now I am beginning my new journey in woodworking and becoming a maker. My next piece, which I’ll complete soon, involves all my skills: CAD design, woodworking, CNC routing, 3D printing, metalworking and electronics. Watch this space … it’s coming soon!