End Grain Coasters


End Grain Coasters:
Paul Purnell makes coasters using pen blanks.

Paul Purnell makes coasters using pen blanks

Large end-grain projects are reasonably straightforward if you possess a planer/thicknesser and a huge industrial drum sander, but not everyone does (including me). These coasters are an introduction to working with end-grain without access to this equipment. Once you are able to manage these, an end-grain chopping board is feasible. It is crucial that edges are flat and at 90° to each other. Without this, there will inevitably be gaps in the finished piece. This project is a challenge, but a worthwhile one. Anyway, a few gaps will show the coasters were handmade.
If you have an accurate bandsaw or tablesaw, you could cut the blanks from your own wood stock. However, this will limit you to the types of wood you have. I experimented by ordering 30 pen blanks via the internet. Their size and 90° accuracy varied, and strangely the more exotic the wood, the worse they were. I managed to find 16 blanks that were acceptable for this project. The advantage of buying these pen blanks was the wide selection of wood species: English oak (Quercus robur), sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum), American black walnut (Juglans nigra), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), douglas pine (Pinus douglasiana), Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), tulipwood (Dalbergia decipularis), Canadian maple (Acer saccharum), sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), iroko (Milicia excelsa) and sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). 

Things you will need
• Tablesaw or bandsaw
• Rotary multi tool (optional)
• Abrasive, 120 through to 320 grit
• Sanding block
• Cling film
• Wood glue
• As many clamps as you can find
• Finishing oil
• Wax
• 16 assorted pen blanks, no smaller than 170 x 17 x 17mm

1. Sort out the best 16 blanks. Obviously it will depend on what you have purchased as to what dimensions the blanks are. At 17mm square, the pieces for these coasters are the smallest they should be. Other sizes available are 18mm and 25mm square, which will obviously make a larger coaster. The length determines how many coasters you can make. I managed to cut 12 coasters using a bandsaw

2. You may have some blanks that need light sanding to tidy them up. It is important to keep everything square and not to round over any edges. I found this decorator’s sanding block ideal for the job. I clamped it into the workbench and lightly sanded the edges on 120-grit abrasive. Alternatively, tape a piece of abrasive to a flat surface

3. Sort the pieces into four sets of four that will give a pattern to your liking, but more importantly a pattern where the blanks fit together snugly. The blanks will vary by up to 1mm, but with some shuffling you will find the perfect fit. Mark the number of each set, the order of each blank within the set and its orientation. It will take some time to find the perfect fit, and if you do not mark them, you can guarantee you, or someone else, will knock them flying

4. Do a dry-run first to ensure that everything is to hand before gluing. Use cling film to keep the glue from sticking to the clamps and the wood pieces used during clamping

5. Glue the first set of four blanks. Lay the blanks on a flat surface. The first blank remains in position. Turn the remaining three anticlockwise by 90°. Spread glue on the top surfaces ensuring every part of the blank is covered. For adhesives to work well, they need to wet the entire surface and be at the right thickness for the attracting forces to work. Turn the first of the glued blanks back to its original position and join it to the blank you left on the work surface. Do the same with the other two

6. Place the set of four on to the bar clamps that are covered with cling film. If you do not have bar clamps, make a clamping board and use wedges of wood to hold the blanks in place. Align the blanks at one end. Cover the top of the set of blanks with cling film and apply enough force on the bar clamps to hold it in place. A continuous bead of glue will squeeze from the joints showing you have glued correctly

7. Place a piece of wood on top of and beneath the blanks, and clamp. Also, place a piece of wood at each end beneath the blanks, and clamp. As you place each clamp on the work, tighten just enough to hold everything together. After all clamps are in place, methodically tighten each clamp a touch at a time to achieve the correct tension. Don’t try to over tighten as there is a chance too much glue will squeeze out. Ensure throughout this process that the blanks do not slip out of alignment. Allow to dry overnight

8. Remove the first set; take off the cling film. Use a chisel or scraper to remove the glue lines. Sand away any remnants of glue on the sanding block

9. Apply a layer of glue on the upper surface of the first set. Place back on the bar clamps. Glue the second layer as in step 4. Place the second set on top of the first. Cover with cling film and clamp the two layers together

10. Repeat this process with the third and fourth layers. Depending on the size of the bar clamps, they might not grip the fourth layer. If this happens, place the fourth set on the clamps upside down. After gluing the top surface of the block, turn it over and place on top of the fourth set

11. You should end up with a 4×4 block. Scrape any glue from the outside edges and sand with a cushioned-drum sander or sanding block

12. With a bandsaw, slice a thin section from the aligned end of the block to square it. Then slice pieces approximately 10mm in depth from the block

12. With a bandsaw, slice a thin section from the aligned end of the block to square it. Then slice pieces approximately 10mm in depth from the block

14. Hand sand to finish with 120, 240 and 320-grit

15. Apply three coats of finishing oil and a final layer of wax

16. If any of the slices are beyond using as coasters, don’t throw them, shape them into small key fobs

17. Your final coasters should look something like this


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