DIY Metal Cutting Options

In addition to my gold leaf paint test, I put my IKEA VITTSJO nesting table hack scraps to use for some metal cutting tool experimentation.  Up until this project, my experience was limited to a manual hacksaw.

True story: when I was shopping for said hacksaw a few years ago I asked a young Home Depot employee if a particular blade would work well for metal.  He replied, “Yes… well, you have to move it back and forth.”  Sage advice, dear child.  Whenever an under-30 guy asks if I need help, I’d like to demand “Find the oldest man you have working the floor and bring him to me!”  There’s an old dude in the hardware department at the Elston Ave store who knows. his. shit.  It’s hit-or-miss with the young’uns.

Anyway: I bought a grinding blade for my miter saw without a second thought but it sent out such a shocking shower of sparks that I ended up trying a couple of other options.  As I did with the gold leaf products test, I just want to put my own process out there in case it’s helpful for anyone else.  But, as Manhattan Nest said recently, “I am not the authority, or even an authority on things like this.”  Read your own user manual, do your own searching, yada, yada.

First up: the hacksaw. 

Hack Saw

Pro: Nice, clean cuts. Cheap ($10ish). Easy to use and safe.

Con: SLOW. Difficult to get perfectly straight cuts, even when using a miter box.

Next: a Skil jigsaw.  I have a set of blades that includes a few metal cutting options.

Jig Saw Blades

Jig Saw Cut

Pro: Fast and relatively safe.  No sparks.  Pretty cheap ($30 for an entry-level saw; $5 or so for a metal cutting blade).

Con: In my experience, a jigsaw was less user-friendly for this job.  To ensure a straight cut, you need to clamp down both the item itself (so that it doesn’t bounce around) and a guide rail (to ensure that your saw stays on a straight path – see an example here).   I don’t have a lot of clamps or a fancy worktable, and it’s difficult to set a guide rail for such a small item.  The cut above isn’t as clean because the metal tube was vibrating.

Finally: a grinding wheel.

Dewalt Grinding Wheel

I used a DeWalt general purpose metal cutting blade ($6) on my Ryobi compound miter saw ($120).  It’s called a grinding wheel because it doesn’t have teeth – it’s more of a file.  It eats away quite a bit of the steel, as seen below in the foreground cut, in contrast to the hacksaw cut in the back.

Grinding Wheel Cut

As I said, I was alarmed at first by the sparks this thing threw off.  I learned online that some people don’t recommend using them because the flying sparks and hot metal can damage your miter saw.  Other people said that it’s fine as long as you don’t do it very often and the saw is within the RPM range of your blade.  I decided to proceed because:

  • I was unsatisfied with the other options.
  • My miter saw cuts very precisely, which was necessary for successfully reassembling the VITTSJO nesting table.
  • The blade states it can be used up to 6,100 RPM and my saw has a max speed of 5,000 RPM.
  • Most importantly, my saw’s manual includes no warnings against using grinding wheels, cutting ferrous metal or anything of the sort.

So, I suited up with unseasonably long sleeves, gloves and protective eye wear.  Jarrod stood by with the camera in one hand and the fire extinguisher in the other – he used the former and not the latter.  You can see some faint sparks coming out the back of the saw in this picture…

Miter Saw Grinding Blade

But trust me when I say it was really more like this:

Metal Saw Sparks

(There are four references in that photo – does anyone recognize the original sources? The white stars are the hardest.)

Raised Garden Beds: Two Tons of Soil, One Bucket

This past weekend was perfect weather for tackling our raised garden beds and I’m pleased to report that they came together really well.  A few splinters, minimal cussing, no regrets.

Our bed size was predetermined because of these existing garden plots:




Pretty sad, right? We had mediocre success growing in them last year, likely due to crummy Chicago dirt. I wanted to start from scratch with known-to-be-good soil: hence the raised garden beds. I planned an 8′ x 20″ bed for the corner plot and a 12′ x 26″ bed for the middle plot.  I chose to build them using stacked 6″ boards instead of 12″ boards because they were cheaper and I could cut them with a miter saw.

As for wood choice: the Internet seemed to have reached a consensus on cedar as one of the best lumbers for raised beds. I purchased ours at Menards, after a friend (hi, Kei!) recommended I keep an eye out for their sales.

Menards Sale Ad

On the upside, Menards red cedar sale did save me a bit of money. On the downside, it meant I had to go to Menards. That place is the worst! I’ve just never had a positive customer service experience there. I don’t like that you have to purchase the wood before you see the product.  And, I don’t want to do my project shopping at a hardware store that also sells dog food, Totino’s pizza and men’s undershirts. Furthermore, I’ll confess that I may harbor resentment toward Menards because I was arrested at a Des Moines store in 1999 for protesting their use of wood harvested from endangered old growth forests. College, man.

One more note about the wood: upon learning that a cedar 4×4 would cost $29, I balked and went with an $11 pressure treated pine 4×4 instead. I know that previous versions of pressure treated pine raised alarm when used in garden beds, but MicroPro AC2 is seemingly safe for this purpose and is even certified green. Perhaps this certification process is similar to the one that allows Cheez-Its to claim they’re “made with real cheese,” but I decided to suppress my hippie past and take it at face value.  This is what a whole bunch of wood looks like tied semi-precariously to the top of a Subaru at night:

Starting early Saturday morning, I secured the saw to an old wood table with bolts and wing nuts and then made quick work of the 4×4:

Yeah, that’s right.

Wood 4x4 Posts

Because installing them pre-dirt would be far easier than at any other time, I went ahead and made a few PVC sleeves that could be used for future modifications, such as hoops + tarps if I want to extend the growing season. I don’t know if I’ll actually do that, but saying things like “extend the growing season” makes me sound like a legit gardener.

Supplies for PVC Sleeve

Two of the sleeves in the back garden bed will be used immediately for a heavy-duty metal trellis, which I will detail in a future post once my trellis netting arrives in the mail.

PVC Sleeves for Raised Garden Bed

First box placed and perfectly leveled.

Raised Garden Bed

As for the dirt: I went with bulk soil instead of bagged because of cost and convenience, and I went with Evanston-based Buy the Yard because of a recommendation from Jarrod’s coworker.  Their “garden mix” (a “custom blend of topsoil, leaf compost and aged horse manure recommended for planting annuals, perennials or vegetables”) is $33 a cubic yard (cheap!) plus $81 for delivery to our Chicago neighborhood (steep! but acceptable).  I found their cubic yard calculator helpful and accurate. We needed about 1.4 yards for our beds. They don’t do half yards, so I rounded up to 2 yards so that we could replace a lot of the bad dirt in the areas not covered by the beds, where I plan to plant flowers.  This is what two cubic yards of soil looks like:

Bulk Soil

Note: we don’t own a wheelbarrow, so all of the soil – all two tons of it – was moved with this bucket.  It was not ergonomic.

Filling Raised BedsMarti: “How do you feel about being on the internet in this outfit?”
Jarrod: “Happy!”  (Said in all sincerity.)


Good soil on the right, bad dirt on the left.


Bad dirt out, good soil in.  “What did you do with the bad dirt?” you might ask.  To which I would reply “Don’t worry about it.”

Raised Garden Bed

Raised Garden Bed

Here’s the cost breakdown:

Wood, etc.
$16 – 1×6 10 ft (qty: 2 at $8 each)
$28 – 1×6 8 ft (qty: 4 at $7 each)
$40 – 1×6 12 ft (qty: 4 at $10 each)
$11 – 4×4 12 ft (qty: 1)

$6 – 100 decking screws
$3 – Square recess bit tip
$8 – Weed barrier fabric

PVC Sleeves
$5 – 15 ft of 1″ PVC pipe
$5 – Galvanized straps for PVC pipe
$3 – Brass screws

Trellis (details to come in a future post)
$11 – 3/4″ Metal conduit
$7 – Pull elbow
$9 – Trellis netting

$153 – Garden soil (2 cubic yards at $33+tax, $81 delivery charge)

Total: $305

Not cheap by any means, but I hope they’ll see us through several years of bountiful harvests. And I’m not factoring in the cost of my new chop saw because that’s an investment, goddamnit.

Even just sitting there plant-less, looking like a weird graveyard, I think the boxes are a major improvement to the yard.  Victory!

Garden Overhead

Preach!: The ReBuilding Exchange

A few weeks ago Groupon offered a deal for the ReBuilding Exchange, which was new to me.  I don’t know how I had never come across it before now.  In addition to an awesome salvaged goods shop, they offer workshops and job training, all with the goal of keeping usable materials out of landfills.

Chicago folks: It’s located at 2160 N. Ashland.  The entrance is on Webster – drive through the gate to the back of the building, where there is a parking lot.  The shop’s inventory is great and reasonably priced.  I took a few pictures to give you an idea of what’s in store; you can also check out their Flickr photostream.

Furniture made from reclaimed wood:

Wine crates.



Hundreds of doors and windows.

Giant popcorn machine!

Vintage furniture.

Dozens of sinks.

Not pictured: lots of wood, leather, cabinets, chalkboards, radiators, fireplace mantels, hardware, light fixtures, mirrors and more.

The Groupon was for the Make-It/Take-It workshop series, which “gives beginning students a hands-on approach to building. The goal of the workshop series is to share simple building techniques that produce functional furniture.”  I signed up the Rustic Mirror workshop, taught by Blake Sloane.  I had previously taken a Woodworking 101 course through Woodsmyths Woodworking (not recommended: an instructive but hostile class experience), so I’m not quite a beginner, yet I found the class informative and fun.  I hadn’t used a chop saw for mitered corners before and I learned some new terms like “rabbit.”  It was very laid back – we were able to move at own pace.  We were their first Groupon group and the staff seemed excited to have us there, which was a nice change from using Groupons in restaurants and feeling loathed.

The wood used for the project was salvaged from a south side public school tear-down – it was a gym floor.

The ReBuilding Exchange sold no fewer than one million Groupons, so I assume the one-day workshops are booked full for a while, but I recommend taking one if you’re looking for an introductory experience.  They also offer multi-week courses and even some free classes.  I’ll be taking a Demystifying Wood Finishing Techniques course in February, after which I will tackle our dining table.