Plugging Away

In preparation for my daughter's first birthday party, my wife insisted I finish some projects around the house.  Apparently, it is considered (by some) a faux pas to have only half of a stair railing completed, missing baseboard, and a half finished entertainment center as the backdrop to a social gathering.  So, I put on my serious face and my overalls and got to work.

One of my projects was to finish a railing around the landing leading to our second floor.  Some time ago, I finished a piece of red oak and anchored it to the sub-floor so that I could securely fasten the spindles and posts through the oak and into the floor framing.  I countersunk the screws using a Forstner bit and planned for the screw heads to be covered by some tapered oak plugs.  I installed the railing and finished the spindles and railing, but never put the oak plugs into the base.  It had been so long since I started this project, that I had forgotten where I strategically placed the plugs so I wouldn't forget where I...put...the...plugs (I must secretly enjoy doing this to myself, as I make this mistake often).  This meant having to cut new plugs.  If you have never had to do this, it is much easier than it sounds and is worth the minor effort.

Cutting plugs is very simple, and I find it far superior to buying them in the store.  I can quickly make them from some cut offs of the wood I am working with, and usually, I can get them to match perfectly.  Plugs can either be the same species if you are trying to hide the hole, or they can be a contrasting species (light and dark) if you are using them as an architectural detail or highlight.

I use a set of Hitachi plug cutting bits in the drill press.  These bits work very well, they leave a clean cut, rarely burn, and the taper provides a perfect fit every time.  Once I have a bunch of plugs drilled, being careful not to drill all the way through the board, I take the board to the tablesaw (a bandsaw works even better).  This allows me to get a uniform length of plug throughout the batch and prevents me from having to pry them out of the drill bit.

As you can see, unless I need a lot of plugs or the material is expensive, I don't even have to be super careful about laying out the plugs.  Once I have a bunch cut, I can start installing them.  If you are working with a new piece of lumber, it is usually a good idea to let it come to ambient moisture content (let it sit around for a week or two) to avoid excessive shrinking of the plugs in their associated holes.

To install the plugs just apply some glue (I put glue on the peg and in the hole), align the grain and tap it home with a rubber, wooden, or plastic mallet.  A metal hammer will often smash them into a pulpy mess.  Before cutting them flush with a flexible saw or (very sharp) chisel or (very sharp) handplane, let the glue dry.  The wood swells when it is wet with glue and shrinks when it dries.  If the plugs are cut flush before they are allowed to dry, they will shrink into the hole and will no longer be flush.  They will, however,  be a good place for dirt to collect... if that's what you are after.  I have now managed to successfully take longer to explain this process than the process actually takes to complete, hows that for a waste of your valuable time?

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