Recently we replaced the stock black plastic handle on our espresso machine with a hand carved wooden one. Carved with a whittling knife and then shaped further with power tools, this wooden handle is pretty straight forward and easy to make. A similar process to this could be used to replace many other daily use plastic knobs, levers and handles with the comfort and beauty of wood.
As many daily espresso drinkers will tell you, the process of making coffee in the morning is more than a merely a procedure For me it's a ritual, and on some days, an obsession. As such, many espresso makers seek to improve their experience of making espresso drinks by modifying their machines, even if only in ornamental ways like replacing the portafilter handle. Was there anything wrong with the old factory made plastic handle? Absolutely not - check it out in the last picture in the photos above. Why make it better? In the words of my friend randofo
, simply because we can.
Step 1: Materials
My friends have a small fruit orchard on their property and have accumulated a rather large pile of branches from pruning their trees every year. Orchard prunings are a great source of small diameter branches of a lot of nice species - that's where these short pieces of wood came from. The orchard contains pear, apple, persimmon and cherry trees. It's hard to say exactly what kind of wood this particular handle was made from since they were all just in a big pile and I'm not very skilled at fruit tree wood identification. Any hardwood will work - chose something you like.
The hardest part of the whole project was probably removing the old black plastic handle. Held on with a long bolt inside of the handle, it was extremely difficult to remove using a socket wrench since the hole in the handle where the bolt was located was so small that it did not allow the socket to fit inside. I have heard of thin-walled socket heads, which might have fit down the small hole, but I don't have any at my shop. No matter, I simply cut off most of the handle exposing the bolt much closer to the source, thus making it easy to get the socket head on to remove.
Once the old handle was off, we gathered up a hand saw, the wood and some whittling knives and set out to select a piece of wood that had a sufficient diameter to accept the mounting shaft on the portafilter. We came up with the candidates in the photo above.
To continue with the project we also ended up using:
angle grinder with sanding disk
random orbital palm sander
sand paper for hand sanding
chisel and drill press to cut the mortise in the handle
"Good Stuff" rub on varnish
Step 2: Remove Bark
Using one of the larger whitling knives, remove all of the bark on the piece of wood. Remember, always carve away from your body and use short controlled strokes to remove material.
Step 3: Expose and Shape Wood
Once we got all the bark off, it was time to start shaping the wood.
Our branches were pretty straight already, and therefore didn't require much shaping, but for a curved handle, or some other specialty application, I could easily see shaping the wood to fit the contours of a hand, or unique shape for whatever application one had in mind.
Step 4: Shape with Sanding Disc on Angle Grinder
I have found that for removing large amounts of wood and shaping an object quickly, it's hard to beat a sanding disc on an angle grinder. You can by all means carve the entire handle without power tools, but carving across the grain, as we had to do to create the rounded butt of the handle is very difficult. The sanding disc does this work in no time.
The 80 grit disc removes a lot of material, so press lightly, make short passes and remove material bit by bit until you've shaped the handle.
Our two main handle features were 1) a rounded end to the handle and 2) a flattened top surface to rest our thumbs upon. The flat top surface just gives the handle a little less of a massive look. We made both of these features using the angle grinder, and then smoothed out the sanding marks on the stationary belt sander.
If you don't have these power tools, the same process could be done with a dremmel in just about the same amount of time.
Step 5: Sand Smooth
Once you've shaped the handle it's time to do the fine sanding.
We loaded 120, 180 and then 220 grit sanding discs onto the random orbital sander and sanded everything smooth. The final sanding was done by hand with some 400 grit paper.
We only sanded the handle with such fine paper because it was going to be something which we touched on a daily basis - there's something about the texture of finely sanded wood - it's milky smooth and really quite nice.
Step 6: Cut Off Branch
Up until this point we had left the handle attached to the branch the whole time we were shaping it because it was simply easier to work on as a large piece...it's easier to clamp down on the part of the handle that you are going to throw away after all.
Grab a fine tooth saw, Japanese or other, and cut the handle to length. There's no right size to make, just size it to whatever looks good with your coffee machine and fits your hand.
Clean up the cut on the disc and belt sander.
Step 7: Measure and Mark Mortise
Take the freshly cut part of the handle and mark the appropriate mortise to accept your portafilter head. I have a Gaggia Classic espresso machine and it's portafilter has a strange square shaft that mates it to the handle. We marked it's height and width directly on the handle so we'd know where to create the mortise on the drill press in the next step.
Step 8: Drill Mortise
With a 1/2" forstner bit loaded into the drill press, and the depth gauge stopped at the depth of the portafilter shaft, create the mortise by drilling several holes into the handle within the area that was marked in the previous step.
We wanted to be sure that I was drilling as close to perpendicular as possible into the handle. Since the handle is a bit of an organic shaped object I checked my eye by using a level to square it up to the drill bit. It's pretty easy to see when you're in the ballpark of square using this method.
Step 9: Clean up Mortise with Chisel
The drill press creates round holes, and like most mortises, we needed a rectangular hole. Using a sharp chisel it takes only a few minutes to remove the remaining material to make way for the portafilter shaft and square out the corners.
There are many more ways to make the mortise, including using only a chisel from start to finish or a mortise attachment for the drill press. This was just the quickest and easiest way for us.
Keep removing material with the chisel until the mortise fits snug on the portafilter shaft.
Step 10: Epoxy in Place
Once the mortise is sized, squeeze in equal parts of your favorite epoxy. I mixed them right inside the bottom of the mortise.
Insert the portafilter shaft into the handle and watch for squeeze-out. Wipe off any excess epoxy with a paper towel. If any epoxy gets on the wood, it's no biggie - the epoxy can be sanded off once it dries.
Let the epoxy set for the recommended amount of time and then some - I noticed that the large thermal mass of the portafilter significantly increased drying times by keeping temperatures low, and therefore slowing down the chemical reaction which dries the epoxy.
Step 11: Finish
We finished the handle with Emmet's "Good Stuff" rub-on, wipe off gel varnish. Gel varnishes are great finishes because they are easy to work with, bring out a nice satin luster in the wood, and dry in no time, without all the trouble of brush on polyurethane.
Coat the handle in gel varnish and work it into the wood. Wait 20 minutes. Wipe off any excess that remains and let dry for several hours. Repeat the process once or twice more for additional protection since this will be used with a kitchen appliance and will be hand-washed in the sink.
That's it - the portafilter is finished - now go pull some shots!