An old Woodworking tip for Tight Bonds

Today was my first real workday since the beginning of the year – today was the first day I did not feel like crap. So I have decided to assemble handrail (or a balustrade?) around the entrance to the attic, which was on my backlog for a few years by now.

I did not make the handrail, and I did not even pay the full price for it. I am not normally a difficult customer, I do not haggle, I pay on time and I am forgiving of a miss-hap here and then. But this is one of the instances when I really lost my patience. The carpenter did not object, he knew he screwed up. And when I was assembling the handrail today, I found out the screwed up even more than I knew. Initially, I was only angry about his inability to either keep a deadline or to inform me in advance that he needs a delay (which he got three times after he failed to show up). Today I found out that he did a poor job too.

For example, two screws holding the frame together had their heads twisted off and the whole thing was all wibbly-wobbly because there were huge gaps between the parts.

A really unseemly gap. Unstable too. © Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

In addition to these gaps, the frame was not even properly square – not even close! The handrail was fixed 5 mm higher on one column than on the other, which was enough to be noticeable with the naked eye. So I had to glue-up the pre-drilled holes and make new ones.

That is not something a professional carpenter should demand to be paid for. As a professional, he has a fancy workshop full of tools that I can only dream of. Surely he has some long clamps that would allow him to screw the thing together without such huge gaps. Nevermind that fancy modern clamps are not even necessary, as I am going to show you.

You need a rope, a piece of wood and… and that’s it.  You tie the rope loosely around two parts that are perpendicular to the desired force vector, as close to the joint as possible (in this case the column and the closest vertical bar in the frame). Then insert the piece of wood into the loop (in this case a hammer handle) and start twisting the rope until it tightens the joint together. For best result, the rope should be so long that you get a tight fix at just 1-2 full revolutions, less and you have poor control, more and the strands will be unevenly stressed.

When tightened to your desire, you can either hold or tie the piece of wood in position and screw the parts together.

Hammer inserted into the loop and turned around two times to tighten the rope. © Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

Thus you can get a nice fit between the parts, without unseemly gaps that make the joint not only ugly but also unstable.

A proper joint without a gap. © Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

To give credit where it is due, I did not invent this trick. It is a centuries-old technique used, among other things, by ottoman bow-builders for getting a very tight bond between layers in their composite bows while the glue sets.

After I have spent one hour fixing the poor work, I needed two more hours to assemble the whole thing again and fix it in place.

Mah “new” handrail finally in place. © Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.


  1. Jazzlet says

    The rail looks good!

    Before we bought this house the previous owner had to do some quick work to get the extension up to code for the building inspector to sign off on the certificate required for us to get the mortgage. They ought to have done this when the extension was built ten years earlier, but hadn’t bothered. One of the things that had to be done was to raise the rail around the balcony at the end of the extension by ten centimetres, which he achieved by cutting through the joints and screwing the railing sections back in with screws that only went a centimetre into the posts. It was the right height, and it passed the certificate, but the building inspector can’t have touched it as it wobbles at the slightest pressure. We realised this almost immediately, and it wasn’t a problem for us, but it could just as easily have been discovered by someone, even a child, going through the railing. It wouldn’t have been a long fall -- the house is around half a story higher than the garden at the back -- but even so totally irresponsible. As it is we ended up taking out two of the railing panels, one to give access to a ramp that Mr J built for Thorn when she snapped her cruciate ligament, the other initially so we could barrow grit through the house and tip it down into the garden -- we have to access the rear garden through the house -- but which now lets me pull things like sheets out on the washing line without having to get them over a rail. Totally not safe if you had small children, but fine for us.

  2. lorn says

    Cheers on an excellent application of a Spanish windless. After decades of seeing people use scores of very expensive clamps and widgets when a hank of line and a stick would do the job better had me thinking I was the last person to know this technique. It warms my heart to see one used so effectively. I salute you. Well done, sir.

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