Ask the Experts: Issue 2

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This article is from Issue 2 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Making Stainable Nail Hole Filler

Q: I used a nail gun to assemble a cabinet, filled the holes with matching putty, and now the wood has darkened and the nail holes have become visible. They almost look distracting, as they are on the front of the piece. I had heard of making matching putty with glue and sawdust, but when I tried it, the filled places would not accept stain or oil finish. Do you have any suggestions for avoiding this problem on my next project?

Doug Stowe responds:

I had also tried using sawdust and glue in making filler, and had poor results until I found just the right consistency of sawdust and the best ratio of sawdust to glue.

I use the extremely fine dust that builds up in my random orbit sander’s collection canister to mix up filler that ages in color along with the surrounding wood. I empty the canister between projects to keep a supply of sawdust ready for use with my usual woods. My favorite glue is Duco cement, which dries very quickly and allows the work to be sanded within 15 minutes of filling. With Duco cement you will need to work quickly and in small batches. 

Mix glue and fine sawdust into a thick putty. Duco cement dries very quickly, so work in small batches.
The results are nearly invisible and the filler will age in color with the surrounding wood.

Arrow points to an 18-gauge brad hole filled with cherry sawdust and Elmer’s wood glue.

Whether using Duco cement or standard wood glue, it’s important to mix as much sawdust into the glue as possible to make a stiff putty. An excess amount of glue can cause the filler to resist the penetration of stains.

After drying, sand the surface level and pay close attention to the surrounding area, as glue spread out around the filled area can block the penetration of stains and finishes, which will leave small areas of discoloration around your filled nail holes.

Doug Stowe, a 30-year maker of furniture and wooden boxes, teaches woodworking at the Clear Spring School, Arrowmont, Marc Adams School and the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. His most recent book is “Taunton’s Complete Illustrated Guide to Box Making.” 

Drying Oils in Pigmented Stains

Q: I used a cherry pigmented wiping stain on a recent project, allowing it to dry overnight. The next day, when I used a fresh can of brushing varnish as a topcoat, the varnish took off the dry stain. How can I prevent this from happening?

Mac Simmons responds:

Normally, these pigmented stains use what’s called a “drying oil” as a binder to seal in these types of stain. Without a binder of this type, the solvents in the varnish will activate the stain, causing the varnish to take off the stain’s color.

Boiled linseed oil is a common drying oil that dries by oxidation; in other words, it’s an air-cured oil. You can buy boiled linseed oil – commonly referred to as “BLO” – at most paint stores, home improvement centers, and arts and crafts shops.

I would suggest that you add a little BLO right into the stain. Wipe the stain on the wood and allow it to soak in for several minutes, then wipe the stain off the wood to make the color uniform. Allow a few hours for the stain to dry; then you can begin to apply the varnish. This binder will work in your stain even if you decide to use other types of brushing coatings. 

The next time you buy stain, look at the label to see if it lists any names of oils. It may list the word “alkyds.” If it does, it may be a synthetic drying oil, which will work fine as the binder. 

Another option you may want to try would be to get an aerosol can of clear spray shellac, available at most paint stores or home improvement centers. If you spray on a coat or two right over the dried stain, then allow the shellac to dry completely, it will act to seal in the stain. The shellac base will also be completely compatible with the varnish you’re using, or almost any other final topcoat you select.

You will find either one of these methods will solve your finishing problem.

Mac Simmons is a 45-year veteran of the furniture finishing, refinishing and restoration trades, and writes for several woodworking magazines. His book “No Fear Finishing” is scheduled for publication by F&W Publishing. 

Starrett No. 107 Speed Indicator

Q: After my grandfather passed away, I found this tool in the old toolbox he kept in his woodshop. I can remember him having it when I was a little kid – I used to play with it until he’d take it away – but I never knew what it was for. The markings say “L.S. Starrett Co. Athol, Mass, U.S.A.” on one side. The rubber tip is deteriorating a bit, but it’s still intact.  

A.J. Hamler responds:

How well I remember digging around in my grandfather’s tools and hanging out in his basement. He had all sorts of strange and wonderful items that held my attention for hours (until he, like your grandfather, took them away before I could either hurt myself or break the tool – or both). 

What you have is an L.S. Starrett No. 107 speed indicator. Although yours may be of later manufacture, the tool has been around almost unchanged for a long, long time; it has patent dates of 1897 and 1905. 

Its two dials register revolutions in tens and hundreds, up to 5,000 before both dials come back to zero. The indicator has an outer dial divided into 100 graduations, each representing a single revolution of the spindle tip, and has a tiny raised knob located at 100. The inner dial has 50 grooves, each representing 100 spindle revolutions. A tension spring (Starrett calls this a “spring finger”) extends across both dials and locks into the grooves of the inner dial.

Here’s how it works: With both dials set to zero, hold the tip of the spindle against the rotating object you want to measure, such as a motor shaft or a drill chuck. Start your stopwatch at the same time the outer ring starts spinning. At 100 revolutions, that little knob passes under the spring finger and lifts it, allowing the inner dial to move one groove, indicating 100. You’ll be able to hear (and feel) a little “click” each time the finger snaps into the next groove. When your stopwatch hits one minute, pull the No. 107 away and simply do the math with the two indicator dials to get your speed.

Even though the dials zero-out after 5,000 revolutions, the No. 107 could theoretically be used to measure just about any speed by merely adding up the number of partial or complete revolutions of the inner dial. However, Starrett cautions that speeds approaching 5,000 rpm are probably too much for this little guy – you’d find it getting awfully hot in a hurry – so for extremely high speeds the indicator should be held against a spinning source only as long as necessary to get a good reading.

That rubber tip on the end of your indicator slips off, exposing a steel tip for measuring. Originals came with two auxiliary tips – a pointed rubber one like yours, along with a flat rubber tip. An optional rubber wheel exists that, when slipped on over the steel tip, can be used to measure speeds of spinning discs.

These were generally considered to be machinist’s tools, with only limited applications in woodworking to determine accurate speed readings for lathes, drill presses and the like. Still, your grandfather probably did a lot of maintenance on his own woodworking equipment back in his day, so it was pretty handy to have a gauge of this type in his toolbox. 

L.S. Starrett still lists the venerable No. 107 in their catalog. The current version is almost identical to yours.

A.J. Hamler is editor-in-chief of Woodcraft Magazine.

Installing a Fireplace Mantel

Q: I just restored and refinished a beautiful solid-walnut mantel that I got at salvage, and I’d like to mount it around an existing fireplace opening in my home. It fits perfectly around the opening, but what’s the best way to actually attach it?

Tim Carter responds:

Because of their size, fireplace mantels are excellent candidates for a French cleat, a two-part system of wood or metal that interlocks tightly, holding an object close to a wall. The cleat should be as long as your object is wide. If you are using wood to make your cleat, split it in half lengthwise with a table saw set at a 45-degree angle. The cut produces two pieces that mate perfectly.

Attach one piece to the back of the mantel so that the chisel cut points to the ground and its tip is not in contact with the mantel. Attach the remaining half to the wall so that its chisel cut points up and its tip does not contact the wall. When you lift the mantel up and slide it down the wall so the 45-degree faces of the two pieces meet, the cleat will securely interlock. The hardest part of the job is attaching the two pieces so the mantel neither ends up too high off the floor nor fails to interlock because the wall portion of the cleat is mounted too low. 

Tim Carter is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and broadcaster. His Web site is


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