Introduction: Make a Napkin Holder With Hand Tools

About: I like to make things out of wood.

This attractive napkin holder makes a great gift for family, friends or yourself. You can make it to match the kitchen table, or you can make it to match the cabinets if you're going to keep it on the counter. This one is made from pine.

It's a great skill building project, and you can probably make it from scraps in your shop. I used 3/4" pine from the big box store. All my dimensions are based on 3/4" stock.

Because there are so many ways to accomplish specific operations in woodworking, instead of telling you what you'll need I'm going to tell you what I used:

  • Hand Saw
  • Hand Plane / Block Plane
  • Coping Saw
  • Chisels (1/2" and 1 1/2")
  • Knife
  • Dividers / Compass
  • Combination Square
  • Sandpaper
  • Glue
  • Clamps
  • Boiled Linseed Oil

And then lumber:

  • Base - 8 1/2" length x 6 3/4" width x 3/4" thick
  • Uprights - 2 @ 4 1/4" length x 2 1/4" width x 3/4" thick
  • Dowel - 9" x 1"

If you can't find a 1" dowel off the shelf, you can make one. If you want or need to make your own, check out my previous instructable: Make a Dowel With a Handplane.

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Step 1: Sizing the Parts

A standard napkin measures roughly 6" x 6". It's not exactly square, but it's close enough that it doesn't really matter. If you arrange the base so that the fold in the napkin faces out, then the uprights are going to be perpendicular to the long grain of the base. I allowed 1/4" all the way around the base for a roundover. I included and extra 1/4" (1/8" on either side) between the uprights so there would be a little wiggle room for the napkins.

My uprights are 2 1/4" wide by 4 1/4" tall, but you can change the height if you like.

The dowel is 9" long by approximately 1".

Step 2: Layout and Cut the Tenons

I used mortise and tenon joinery for connecting the uprights to the base.

I made the tenons 1/2" wide because I used a 1/2" chisel to cut out the mortises.

Instead of forming separate tenons, I just laid out (and cut) the tenon across the whole bottom of the upright (before I cut away the slot for the dowel). I thought this would be easier, and keep them in perfect alignment. An extra shoulder on the inside faces of the legs is not really necessary and tricky to accomplish in any case. I used a marking gauge* set at 1/8" to scribe all the way around the end of the piece to define the tenon.

Then I re-set the marking gauge to 3/16" and scribed the shoulder line around the faces and edges.

I cut the tenons with a combination of knife and chisel. I scored the shoulder line as deep as I could and then chiseled thin slices away until I almost reached the shoulder line. It helps to keep deepening the shoulder line with the knife as you go. If you do it this way, don't try to chip off all of the waste at once, or you'll risk splitting. You could certainly cut the shoulderline with a saw, but this pine is so soft and the cut is so shallow that a knife will do the trick. I left the tenon a little thicker than needed, to be pared down later to fit the mortise precisely.

Be sure you don't reduce the width of the tenon to less than the width of the chisel, or the joint will surely be loose.

*If you don't have a marking gauge, a combination square and pencil is another option. If you like my marking gauge and want to make one of your own, check out my instructable: How to Make a Simple Marking Gauge.

Step 3: Layout and Cut the Slot in the Uprights

I wanted a consistent 3/4" thickness all the around the U shaped uprights, so I found the center of the upright and measured down 1 1/8" (3/4" + 3/8") to find the center point of the arc at the top of the slot. Using my dividers set at 3/8" (which is the radius of a 3/4" diameter circle), I scribed an arc for the top of the slot. Then I used my marking gauge set at 3/4" to scribe the straight lines to finish defining the legs. If my explanation is confusing, the pictures should help.

Using my saw, I cut straight down the lines I scribed for the legs to the point where the radius starts. After making both these cuts, I switched to a coping saw to finish removing the waste.

I also used the coping saw to cut the gentle curve on the top of the upright.

Step 4: Layout and Cut the Mortises in the Base

I measured 3/8" off the edges where the uprights will go, and scribed a line to locate the mortises (allowing 1/4" for the roundover plus the 1/8" inset for the tenon). Then I found the center of the base along this line and marked 3/8" away from the centerpoint in either direction. This gave me two points along this line 3/4" apart (because 3/8" is half of 3/4"). This is the measurement between the legs of the uprights.

Then I placed the uprights with their tenons on this line and straddling the two points, and marked the length of the tenons with a pencil. Since I'm using a 1/2" chisel to chop out the mortises, I then scribed another line 1/2" away from the first line to define the width of the mortise.

Staying well inside the pencil lines that defined the length of the mortises, I chopped down to a depth of 3/16".

Note: Staying within the pencil marks ensures that the length of the mortises will be less than the length of the tenons. As I mentioned in Step 2, "I left the tenon a little thicker than needed, to be pared down later to fit the mortise precisely". As a rule in joinery, the tenon is made to fit the mortise - not the other way around. You can always pare the tenon down, but you can't make a mortise smaller.

Step 5: Layout and Cut the Notches in the Dowel

The dowel has two notches cut into it so that it fits in the slots cut into the uprights. The distance between these notches is the same as the distance between the uprights, which should be 6 1/4"" (if you're following my dimensions) because the napkin is ~6" and I've allowed 1/8" on either side for wiggle room. The width of these notches is a little wider than the stock, and I'll show you how to achieve this in the next step.

First I found the center of the dowel (4 1/2") and measured 3 1/8" (half of 6 1/4") away from that point. This represents the inside shoulder of the notch. Then I measured another 3/4" farther for the other shoulder. Making sure the ends of the dowel were square, I scribed both lines with my marking gauge. Using a chisel, I went all around the waste side of the scribed lines digging a "trench" to help keep my saw tracking straight.

I recommend cutting one notch first, and holding it against the uprights in the base to layout the second. A small error in measuring can be a big problem with assembly.

I switched to my saw to define the shoulders - cutting only to the depth of the teeth on the saw, all the way around the dowel. I made some extra relief cuts in between the shoulder cuts to help with chiseling away the waste. Then I began chiseling down to the depth of the kerfs and repeating this cutting and chiseling process until the notch had a diameter of approximately 3/4". This part is a little tricky - take it slow and careful, making sure you have a secure way to hold your work.

Since the diameter of the notch is supposed to match the slot cut into the uprights, you can use the upright to check your progress. When the notches will fit in the slot, you can stop. Final sanding at the end will reduce the diameter even more, to ensure that the dowel can spin freely in the uprights.

Step 6: Shaping, Sanding and Assembly

I wanted something like a 1/4" roundover all the way around the base and uprights. I simply used my finger as a gauge to layout these lines, as this step is more about how it looks vs. precision. The roundovers on the top of the upright aren't exactly 1/4", I just shaped them until they looked good.

With the lines for a guide, I started by making a chamfer. By continuously changing the angle of my cut, I soften the corners of the chamfer and create the roundover. This part doesn't really have to be perfect - sandpaper will smooth it all out at the end.

Once I had everything shaped the way I wanted it, I sanded everything down by hand with 120 grit and then 220 grit sandpaper.

I used sandpaper wrapped around a 3/4" piece of dowel to get at the radius in between the legs of the uprights, and I used sandpaper wrapped around a scrap block to sand the notches in the dowel. Wrapping the sandpaper around the block makes the notch in the dowel a little bigger than 3/4", which helps give it a little side to side movement when it's trapped between the uprights.

Remember: the dowel wants to be real loose in the slots - it needs to spin freely and slide up and down with ease. Sanding everything down well should take care of this, but before you reach for the glue bottle - do a dry assembly and check to make sure.

When you're sure it's working like it should, put the dowel in the slots and glue the uprights in. I got a little carried away at glue-up time and neglected to get a good shot of the uprights clamped to the base. I included a picture of my setup after the fact so you could see what I did. You don't need a lot of pressure with the clamp, which has to go in the one place where the upright is weakest. Just snug up the clamp until the joint is tight and no more. This should be plenty enough pressure to get a good bond.

Step 7: Finishing

For the finish, I used boiled linseed oil. It's a good idea to pre-finish the dowel and also the insides of the uprights before you glue them in.

Another good option is spray lacquer, but any finish will do.

I hope this inspires you to try this for yourself. It's very rewarding to create something like this with your hands and a few tools. And it's very satisfying to know you won't see any effect on your electric bill!

Hand Tools Only Contest 2016

Runner Up in the
Hand Tools Only Contest 2016