– Ben Martens


Wood American Flag

Over the last year or so, I’ve made a handful of wooden flags and after a bit more learning curve than I expected, I think I finally have it mostly figured out. Some stumbling blocks along the way were:

  • I did all the math for how wide each strip of wood should be and programmed my CNC accordingly but I forgot to account for the actual size of the union before cutting. It’s never EXACTLY what I had planned so I need to scale that before cutting.
  • I finally found a couple stain colors that work well. I settled on Varathane classic water based wood stain tinted to Navy Blue and Scarlet by Home Depot. I just bought a quart of each one and I could probably make at least a hundred flags before running out.
  • Staining first and then scorching with a torch has worked well for me. While I felt weird about adding burn marks to a flag, I like the way it looks and it does a nice job of hiding imperfections.
  • Gluing up 13 strips of wood makes it easy to bend. Use at least 3 vertical strips on the back to hold the shape. Four is probably better.
  • To get a nice clean line between the union and the stripes, I pound in a razor blade. It severs the fibers so the stain won’t bleed across and I can stain right up to both sides of the blade without waiting for anything to dry.
  • I generally try to avoid the knots. They really stand out when burning the wood. It’s fine to have one or two but I’m a little bit strategic about where I put them. I do all the math about how many 1×4, 1×6, 1×8, etc boards I would need so I can adjust my plan based on what boards are available. There is a different amount of waste with each size of board though.

I made one of Elijah’s school auction and priced it at $100 since that seems pretty consistent with Etsy prices. They have a “buy it now” feature in the auction where you can overpay by 50% and that happened almost immediately.

It’s a fun project and while I like letting the CNC cut the stars for me, there are plenty of templates for painting them on or you could hand cut them with a router or even a chisel.

Strawberry Planter

We’ve gone through a variety of attempts at having a garden over the years. It’s tricky with the lack of sun on our lot, the local wildlife, and our inability to make things grow. In 2019 I made a strawberry planter for the back yard. In 2020, the birds were eating all of the berries so I tried to make a cage around it but it was too bulky.

I had a lot of time to think about how to design a better cage and I think this year finally hit on a winner. While the frame is held to the planter with screws, I could remove about 4 screws and the whole thing would fold flat. I didn’t really want it up all winter because I don’t think it would hold up to snowfall.

The front face is held in place with some hooks I bent out of wire and bird netting covers the whole thing. We’ve seen zero birds in there and we got a lot of strawberries! We’ll never recoup our investment in the planter even ignoring all the time I put into the cage around it, but it’s still enjoyable to grow something and eat it. The picture below shows the front face pulled off and leaned against the cage.

God is Here

Rewind to March 2020. We had just entered lockdown. As a church leader, I was scrambling to figure out how to do services online. We didn’t know what was happening (like we have any idea now!) I remember sitting down as a family and watching a video from Time of Grace called “God’s Got This!”

During that, Pastor Mike talked about reminding ourselves that God is here. He’s right here with us guiding us and protecting us, whether there’s a pandemic or not. After that video, we sat down as a family and made “God is here” signs. We taped those signs to the wall in our kitchen and they stayed up until very recently.

As we took those signs down, I decided to make a more permanent version. I used the cedar circle leftover from the fire pit project. I drew some words, cut them out of 1/4 MDF on my CNC, painted them, and glued them on.

Fire Pit

I’ve been bad about completing projects, posting them to Instagram (@martenswoodshop) and then never posting most info here. So this project was completed back in May, but I thought it deserved a post.

We have always talked about whether we want to get a fire pit for the back yard, and when I was offered a nice Firegear burner, I decided to go for it. I built the simplest stand for it that I could imagine. I used tongue and groove cedar boards because that’s what was available and I glued them on to 1/4″ plywood. I cut the center hole out on the CNC partly for practice and partly because I thought I might use the wood for something else later.

The main trick was finding room for all the hoses underneath and mounting the key/valve piece. I put threaded feet into the bottom of each leg so that the wood wouldn’t directly contact the ground and so that I could make quick adjustments if it was wobbly. The final step was finishing it and I used fence stain in my spray gun for more practice with that sprayer.

Building a fire pit out of wood is probably not the smartest idea, but I’ve checked the wood temperature after running it for 15-20 minutes and it’s only around 140 degrees. Do I recommend it? Nope. But it will probably work for us.

We’ve only used it a couple times. Tyla and Elijah have attempted to roast marshmallows with some success. Hopefully we’ll get a little more use out of it when the weather cools off, but even if we don’t, I made it to fit under the bench in the back yard so it’s out of the way.

But First, Pray

Elijah’s school has a charity auction every year. Last year I made coasters with the school logo on them. This year I thought I’d make a sign since those are so popular. I ended up with a sign that says “but first, pray”.

I didn’t want to just make a painted sign. I wanted the words to stand proud of the surface. A laser cutter would be the right tool for the job, but I don’t have one and our maker space is closed while the pandemic rages. I bought a handful of cheap 1/16″ CNC bits assuming that I would break a few of them in the process.

My first attempt was cutting everything out of MDF. That worked ok for the large “pray” word but the smaller individual letters didn’t hold up. The MDF wasn’t strong enough to hold together at that scale. I then made them out of 1/4″ poplar and they worked fine. I sanded and painted everything, but then I realized that I didn’t have a great way to keep those tiny letters stuck on the wood. I was nervous that one little bump might knock some of them off. After trying a few things, I decided to use my Cricut to make a stencil for the individual letters and then I glued on the bigger word.

I finished it off with a keyhole slot on the back so that it could be mounted easily on a wall. The keyhole bit I have is a 1/4″ shank so normally I put a different collet on the router in my router table, carefully measure and align everything and then pray that it all works. This time I realized that I could just stick the keyhole bit into my CNC and manually drive the machine to get the cut exactly right. It was so much easier!

The end result looks pretty simple but it took a ridiculous amount of time, especially when spread into the tiny amounts of free time that I’ve been able to devote to it. Hopefully it raises a few bucks for the school.

Office Supply Organizers

We have a cabinet upstairs that we call the office supply cabinet. It was a mess but it had batteries, printer paper, printer ink, tape, and a whole bunch of other things in it. When I finished the dresser project, I tackled three quick organization builds in order. They were built out of scrap wood and aren’t much to look at but I get a smile on my face every time I need to grab something from that area!

Chest of Drawers

I wrote previously about the culmination of a year-long project (previous post). Now I’ve also completed the video showing some of what it took to get there. I edited that year down to about 17 minutes. Apologies for not wearing a mic during the speaking parts but hopefully it’s good enough to convey the basic idea.

This was a labor of love and I hope that it serves Elijah for many years to come. And Elijah, by no means are you required to keep this around forever, but if you decide to replace it, please let me know so I can come retrieve it!

Chest of Drawers

Most of my projects wouldn’t qualify as “fine woodworking”. I use screws to put things together and there isn’t much fancy joinery. Last fall, I set out to create an heirloom quality dresser that Elijah could theoretically keep for life.

Marc Spagnuolo is probably the godfather of YouTube woodworking videos. He’s been doing it for a long time and he offers paid videos which walk through complex projects in an incredible level of detail. For example, this project had five and a half hours of video along with a Sketchup model and cut list.

After a wallet-deflating trip to the hardwood dealer to get the supplies, I carefully set off on my adventure, and what an adventure it was. I knew it would be a challenge but it seemed like I had to learn a new skill at every step. I would hem and haw and think about it and the whole project stretched out for month and months.

But I’m happy to report that about a year later, I’ve finally finished! When I look at it, I see a hundred flaws, but I’m still proud of it. The major issue right now is that the finish I used still smells too much to put clothes inside so I’m going to let it sit for about a month to hopefully get the smell completely gone before we start using it. If it still smells then I’ll probably apply a coat of shellac to the drawers at least to seal them a bit more.

Because people have already asked how much this project cost and some have half/mostly joked about me making another one for them, let me share the rough estimates:

  • Wood: $600
  • Finish: $100
  • Drawer Pulls: $50

So we’re at $750 before any labor and it was an enormous amount of labor for a dad/husband hobbyist woodworker. I’m not building another one. This was my marathon and I’m done.

Along the way I also tried shooting some video and I’ll be editing that together. It’s not going to be any kind of viral hit, but I thought it would be fun to put it on an SD card and tape it to the back of the dresser for him to find at some point down the road.

But for now, I’m very excited to move on to new projects!

Grandpa’s Clock

Both of dad’s parents have passed away and one of the things I remember from their house was a clock made from a painted saw blade. As I remember the story, Grandpa got it the saw blade from a local painter and made the wooden part around it. After they both passed away, I was very happy to be offered that clock!

Getting it back to Washington was a story in itself. I decided to bring it home in my carry on instead of shipping it. As we took our bags through the TSA checkpoint, I got pulled aside. “Sir, do you have a saw blade in your bag?!” Me: “What? No! … Oh dear… Yes. Yes I do.” The TSA agent had to check with their boss who had to check with their boss. Finally it was decided that I could bring it onto the plane since it was artwork and the blade was firmly attached to the wood. Phew!

I proudly hung that clock on the wall in my shop for about a year even though the time was never correct. The hands would move but no matter how many times I set it, they would be randomly wrong all the time. I eventually ordered a replacement clock movement and new hands and got it repaired. Now I have the clock in my shop and it even works! I think about Grandpa and his woodworking a lot while I’m out in the shop doing similar things and now I’ll have one more (working) reminder of him.

School Auction Coasters

Back in October when I started Elijah’s dresser build, I thought for sure I’d be done in plenty of time to build something fancy for Elijah’s school auction in the spring. Nope. That dresser is the longest project I’ve ever done and I’m not anywhere close to finishing it. So I scaled down my dreams, but I think I still landed with a fun idea.

I started by gluing up a bunch of scrap pieces of random types of wood and planing them flat. Then it was off to the CNC to cut out circles. That ended up taking hours longer than I thought it would due to a comedy of errors. In retrospect I should have just cut them by hand, but I eventually ended up with 5 circles. The planned sixth one was ruined twice and it was unsalvageable.

From there I headed to work to use the laser cutter and after carefully aligning the laser with the reference marks that I made on the CNC, I engraved the Zion logo into the coasters. The walnut ones are my favorite and I think it’s especially neat how the “Since 1901” is perfectly lined up with the small strip of purpleheart.

I’ve never been to an auction like this so I don’t know if they typically have lots of small items or bigger ones, so hopefully this fits in ok with the other things that are available. I’m very interested to see a stranger attach a price tag to something that I’ve made.