Fits and Starts

Tight joints

As a hobbyist woodworker, I love having the complete freedom to pursue my interests. Spoon-carving? Cheap, easy and portable. Bowl turning? Wet, ribbony shavings of bliss. Kitchen table? Nice to have a big project every now and then. Side tables? I can knock one out in a weekend! Windsor chairs? The decathlon of woodworking skills, bring it on.

The problem with having this much freedom – and so many disparate interests – is that I end up with more than enough rope to hang myself. I take on too much at once, and with no looming deadlines to focus my attention, I flit from one project to the next while nothing much gets accomplished at all.

Such was the situation that I found myself in about a month ago. I had a side table close to completion (Inspiration Doesn’t Strike…), a continuous-arm high chair with all of the parts made (some assembly required) and a billet of thick curly maple that’s been kicking around my shop since this spring as my friend patiently waits for me to turn it into a gunstock (hunting season, the ostensible deadline, seems perpetually distant). Not to mention a half dozen other projects too piddly to mention.

When I find myself stumbling over half-finished projects every time I enter my shop, I know it’s time to buckle down and get something out the door.

I decided that the high chair would be the first project to cross off of my list. There really wasn’t that much left to do, and I’ve done it all before.

Evening 1: Turn the oven-dried tenons to fit, bore holes for the stretchers, and assemble the the undercarriage.

Evening 2: Bore holes into the spindle deck and the arm rail, shave the spindles to size, and dry fit.

Evening 3: Assembly time! Shave a buttload of oak wedges, warm the hide glue, and cross my fingers.

 

And just like that, a project is out of my shop ready for a finish.

This chair will be black-over-red, like all the others. To be honest, I’m getting tired of this paint scheme (this will be my fourth Windsor chair of the same complexion), but since all of these chairs sit around our dining room table, my wife has reasonably requested that they match.

I will eschew the milk paint on this chair, which has given me grief and mixed results in the past. I plan on mixing up some red oil paint for the base coat and some black tinted shellac for the topcoat. Aside from its ease of use, the biggest benefit to starting with red oil paint is that it will require several days to cure…which means that I will have an excuse to put this chair aside while I turn my attention to other projects…

 

A Revelation

5 Ellery

One of the reasons I was most looking forward to Greenwood Fest was for the opportunity to look over Dave Fisher’s shoulder as he did some letter-carving. Dave is a maestro at this work (for example, herehere and here). He has even done a blog post specifically about lettering. But a blog just didn’t quite give me the confidence to try it – I wanted to see it in action.

To be honest, I have tried letter-carving in the past, but I was never particularly happy with the results. In fact, I actually carved my initials into the very first spoon I ever carved, six years ago in 2010. I had no sloyd or spoon knives at that point. I carved the whole thing with a gouge and a drawknife, and then I carved the letters with a chisel. The spoon is quite good – I still use it every week:

6 JAT
Despite being made from a soft, open-pored wood (catalpa), this thing still does an admirable job of scooping mashed potatoes onto a plate.

And the letters are neat enough, but also pretty bland and lifeless. Not something I really want to showcase on all of my spoons:

7 JAT

I didn’t try to carve letters again for three more years. When my first son was born in 2013, he spent nine days in the NICU. There wasn’t much that I could do for him, but could carve a spoon for him. I decided to try carving letters again. By this point, I had proper spoon-carving knifes, so I attempted to do the letters with the tip of my sloyd knife. The sentiment was laudable, but the execution was not. It’s the thought that counts?

8 Elam
Sweet sentiment, sloppy execution. Sorry, Elam.

Anyway, after that I was pretty much ruined on letter-carving until I had some proper instruction. After quizzing Dave about his tools, techniques, and unspoken wisdom, I was ready to give it another go. The biggest takeaway? A knife with a short blade and a rather tight radius near the tip seems to be mission-critical. He uses the tip of a pen knife. I had this little guy which seems to be close to the proper geometry:

1 Pencil
The radius of the tip could be a little tighter, but it’s a lot better than a sloyd knife.

After sketching a simple design that I liked, I did my best to follow the lines, being careful not to cut too deeply (but also not being too timid either. No need to go over the same cut five times to get to the proper depth). Long, flowing lines like this were actually pretty easy to execute. It’s the stopping and starting that makes it tough!

2 Chips

3 Elam
Elam’s new spoon: a significant improvement.

I was pretty pleased with how Elam’s new spoon turned out, but the cursive lettering was tricky. I highly recommend starting with all-caps font. Straight lines are a lot more fun than tight curves. It might be impolite when sending emails to your co-workers, but it’s perfectly acceptable to shout on a spoon.

5 Ellery
My daughter’s spoon turned out even better.

I was on a roll, so I decided to keep going. I carved a quick spoon while I was at Greenwood Fest and ate with it all week. Peter Follansbee made it “famous” on his first blog post after the event (sixth picture from the top). In honor of its provenance, I decided to give the spoon an appropriate name:

4 Green

So now I have a new skill that I’m not altogether embarrassed about. Score one for the home team, and Tip o’ the Hat to you, Dave Fisher.

Plimoth

Fenced paddock

A place that has been on my bucket list for a number of years is Plimoth Plantation – the living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts where Peter Follansbee worked for 20 years, and cut his teeth as a 17th-century New England joiner. Sadly, most of the museum’s long-time reenactors departed in what seems to be a less-than-amicable split a few years ago, and Peter was among them.

Nonetheless, I decided to swing by on my way to Greenwood Fest a couple of weeks ago, and I wasn’t disappointed. Peter’s fingerprints are all over the place.

A few of his pieces (including the court cupboard and the chest with drawers pictured below) are housed inside climate-controlled buildings. These painted pieces are admittedly a bit garish to modern eyes, but they give you a chance to see the pieces as the would have looked when they were brand new, 350 years ago:

 

Most of Peter’s work can be found in the village: a collection of mostly one-room timber frame cottages. The buildings are as quaint as you can imagine: sheathed in weathered, riven oak clapboards, topped with roofs of thatched cattails, each one with a neat kitchen garden in the back yard. If someone had a bed-and-breakfast that was set up like this, I’d be the first to sign up!

 

The home’s interiors are dimly lit but surprisingly welcoming. There are no “fireplaces” to speak of – just a rocked wall in a corner where the cooking and heating fires are built. Some of the homes have real chimneys, but others just have a small vent atop the gables that keep the smoke moving out of the house. It was more effective that you might imagine! All of the homes were appointed with a bed and basic kitchen implements, not to mention a slew of joined oak furniture.

 

There were chairs of all kinds from basic joint stools…

…to proper joined and turned chairs:

 

Not to mention carved boxes of all kinds:

 

For me, the best part about the visit to Plimoth was the opportunity to appreciate the visual impact of Peter’s work in situ. When you see 17th-century carving as it is meant to be seen – i.e., in dim dwellings primarily illuminated by raking light from small windows or lamps – it makes perfect sense. The shallow relief carving stands out proudly in these conditions. The chests and cupboards looked alive in the humble cottages, as compared to similar pieces in the immaculately lighted and air-conditioned environs of the museum.

I was also reminded that homes from this period, with their hewn timbers and organic wattle-and-daub walls, were not deprived of texture as we are with our sterile sheetrock boxes. It doesn’t take much to stand out against a blank slate. These pieces that seem garish or “busy” against a plain background fit cozily into the more lively interiors of their day.

So, while I don’t necessarily intend to switch my focus to Jacobean carving after my visit to Plimoth, I can certainly say that it was an inspiring and informative visit. The chance to touch this furniture, to open doors and drawers, and to photograph (without getting yelled at) is a rare opportunity at any museum. I wished very much that I had been able to visit five years ago, when Peter and Paula the rest of the Plymouth Craft gang still inhabited the grounds. But it’s safe to say that their spirit is still present, and it will be for a long time.

Coming Back Down to Earth

DarrickCornucopia

If you follow the online greenwoodworking communities at all, then you’re probably well aware of the smashing success of Greenwood Fest in Plymouth, MA over the past weekend. Instagram, the Green Woodwork Facebook group, and Peter Follansbee’s blog have been aflurry with photos and positive comments since Sunday night. I was fortunate to be in attendance, and I can say without reservation that it was one of the most inspiring events that I’ve ever attended.

Really, I don’t even know where to begin. I still haven’t quite processed everything that I learned, nor fully appreciated the people I was able to meet. I met folks who have been a huge inspiration on my journey over the last few years, as well as folks who have slipped under my radar, but will now be certain to inspire me over the coming years.

I got to talk to Dave Fisher about bowl carving and lettering (more on that in a post to come):

DaveFisher
Dave Fisher at the stump.
FisherAleBowl
One of Dave’s incredible ale bowls. My wife promptly requested a bird-bowl when she saw his pictures.

I got to witness Peter Follansbee’s skilled and efficient carving first-hand:

PeterFollansbee
Peter showing off his carved oak panel.
FollansbeePlane
Peter takes advantage of any blank space that he’s given. I love his little scrub plane.

I talked with Tim Manney about steam-bending and chair-making. I’ve been absorbed with Windsors for the last year, but Tim actually got me excited about ladderbacks again. And if I ever build another shavehorse, it will be one of Tim’s design:

TimManney
Tim at the shavehorse.

One of the folks that I was most happy to meet stepped in at the last moment when another presenter had to cancel. If it seemed that Darrick Sanderson was under-the-radar when the weekend began, he was certainly well-known by the end of the week. Of course I was already quite familiar with him – I’ve been following his work for about six months and I was delighted when he got added to the schedule.

You may remember him from a post a while back: The Best Spoon I’ve Ever Seen. Well, I must revise my previous post. Darrick brought a whole chest full of The Best Spoons I’ve Ever Seen. Seriously. Every single one of them was amazing. His productivity, his creativity, and his control over form is demoralizing stunning. Like Dave Fisher, Darrick is one of those guys who is at the forefront of his craft, yet still finding a way to drive it forward. It’s a bit humbling, knowing that I was happily carving away in my little silo for 6 years, making perfectly nice spoons, but not doing anything particularly impressive. Meanwhile, Derrick burst through to the front of the pack in a couple short years, and the rest of us have been struggling to keep up ever since. He’s a special talent, and I expect that his impact and renown will continue to grow over the coming years.

If I seem like I’m gushing, just feast your eyes on this cornucopia of spoons. (And oh yeah, did I mention he also does wonderful carved and pole-turned bowls as well? I told you, he’s impressive.)

DarrickCornucopia
Darrick Sanderson’s spoons and bowls.
DarrickSanderson
Darrick at the pole lathe. I gave it a spin – lots of fun, but a bit intimidating when your first try is in front of a crowd!
DarrickSpoon
Seriously, this stuff is ridiculously good. Completely knife-finished spalted beech serving spoon. I should have bought this one. Still kicking myself.

So anyway, that was my weekend in a nutshell. Like the title said, I’m still coming back to earth. Not quite there yet, but I’ve already been putting some things that I learned into practice. I have a feeling this was one of those events that will stick out in my memory for a long, long time.

 

A Simple Tool

Center Gauge Mark

Make a Windsor chair, and you’ll find yourself mounting a lot of 2″ stock on the lathe. Mount a lot of stock on the lathe, and you’ll probably find yourself wishing for a fast and accurate method of marking the centers.

I’ve used several different methods for marking centers, and never found one that I considered satisfactory. If you have squared-up stock, you can mark an “X” across the diagonals to approximate the center. It’s quick, but more often than not you’ll find that your stock is somewhat less-than-square, in which case, it’s inaccurate. If you’re using riven stock, it’s not an option at all.

Another method that I have used is taking a small compass and guesstimating the center, moving the central leg about until I find the proper center point. This is more accurate, and it works even for riven stock, but it’s also slow – and you end up with multiple center points (though I always try to mark the “correct” point more deeply) which can be confusing. A better solution is in order.

I came up with this simple tool:

Center Gauge

To use, just center the tool on your stock with your fingertips, and give it a good whack with a hammer. You’re left with a perfect dimple, right in the center, that makes alignment of your blank on the lathe a snap.

Center Gauge in Use

Center Gauge Mark

I assume the tool is pretty intuitive, should you wish to make your own. Just pop a blank on the lathe and turn it to a cylinder of the appropriate diameter (2″, in my case). Make sure the bottom is perfectly flat or slightly concave, so it will be easy to center on your spindle blanks. Then drive a nail into the center (the tailstock conveniently makes a dead-center dimple) and clip it off about 1/8″ proud.

Center Gauge Nail

I made mine pretty with some fancy turned decorations and a coat of oil, but a simple cylinder would suffice. I figure a pretty tool will be less likely to get confused with a scrap and tossed into the kindling bucket when it’s inevitably dropped in the shavings.

This is the quickest and most accurate center-marking method I’ve ever used. It works just as well with riven stock as it does with sawn, and it will tolerate maybe 3/8″ of variation in the thickness without much loss in accuracy. They’re so quick and easy to make, it’s not a problem to make another center marker, for say, 1-1/2″ stock or any other thickness that you commonly use.

Sole Discretion

The topic of plane soles – as in smooth vs. corrugated soles – is one that often evokes impassioned opinions. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to crop on woodworking fora as often as other touchy subjects – like, say, sharpening or SawStops. Many users have no preference one way or another, but those who have formed a opinion typically view corrugated soles with a level of contempt normally reserved for laser-guided handsaws.

Paul Sellers has made his opinion known:

…corrugated soles grab shavings, especially super-thin ones that cling to the grooves of corrugated soles. Even flat soled planes do this. The problem inherent to corrugated soles is the grab and mush up in the grooves and on subsequent forward thrusts, damage the surface you are supposed to be smoothing. No craftsman I ever knew favoured these planes…It also damages corners and edges of wood when you start to plane angles such as chamfers or form bullnoses to things such as box lids, window sills and stair treads.

Yikes. Sounds like something I’d like to avoid. So what’s the point of the corrugations in the first place? Paul addresses that as well:

The corrugated sole was produced in Bailey pattern planes for a period with the intention of reducing the surface area of the sole to further reduce the friction of the plane on the surface being planed. Indeed it does do that…

Paul is actually kinder to corrugated planes than some other authors, who opine that corrugated soles do nothing to reduce friction, making them worse than useless. Well, I have been using the three planes pictured below for the past several years, so in the name of good fun, I would like to offer my contradictory assessment:

Soles
From top to bottom: Craftsman No. 5, corrugated; Stanley No. 6, smooth; and Stanley No. 7, corrugated.

Aside from the Stanley No. 4’s that you see peeking into the upper right corner of the photo, these three planes chew up the bulk of the shavings that are produced in my woodshop, and they have done so for quite some time. The No.7 is my most recent acquisition (from 5 years ago), while the No. 5 is my oldest companion (the first decent hand plane I ever owned, from 10 years ago).

So without further ado, here are a few unfiltered observations about the performance of these tools, with regards to the sole:

  • The corrugations do indeed drastically reduce the friction; I can easily use the No. 5 and the No. 7 without wax, whereas the No. 6 is nearly impossible to push once the wax wears off.
  • I don’t necessarily view the additional friction of the smooth sole as a bad thing. It’s just a gentle reminder to wax your stupid planes.
  • I rarely/never have an issue with shavings clinging to the corrugated soles. This is very likely related to the fact that I rarely/never make “super thin” shavings with my corrugated planes. The No. 5 is set up as a fore plane; it has a strongly cambered blade for hogging off meaty shavings, often cross-grained. The No. 7 is used almost exclusively as a jointer, for truing up edges; the blade is sharpened straight across, and it takes substantial shavings that curl up into neat, tight spirals. There’s simply nothing to get caught in the corrugations. None of my smoothing planes have corrugated soles, but I can certainly see how this might be an issue with their tissue-thin shavings.
  • Finally, I’ve never had much of problem with the corrugations damaging chamfers or bullnoses. For one thing, I would never use my jointer for this task (no use pushing more weight than necessary). And secondly, if I do use my fore plane (AKA No. 5), it’s only to hog off the bulk of the waste; I would inevitably follow with the smoothing plane set to a finer cut to tune up the edges.

In summation: Corrugated planes are fine for most situations. I think they’re particularly well-suited to jack planes/fore planes that take the coarsest shavings and can benefit from a little friction reduction. I would personally prefer a smooth sole for smoothing planes, but if I found a great deal on a corrugated No. 4, I certainly wouldn’t pass it up. For try plane/jointer planes, I don’t think it makes a nickel’s worth of difference either way. Just be aware that with the more massive smooth-soled planes, you’ll definitely need to keep the sole well-waxed, which is frankly a habit that you should get into anyway.

 

Muscle Memory

Optimized-High Chair 030 (1)

It’s been a long time since I’ve made any serious attempts to play the piano. When I lived by myself in a small brick house on a mountainside in North Georgia, I practiced somewhat regularly. My great aunt gave me an old perpetually out-of-tune upright that sat in the living room of my painfully outdated ranch house, and when I tired of painting bedrooms and laying tile and tearing out fake wood paneling, I’d pick out a song and sit down at the piano during the evenings, trying to teach myself to play it.

I have no formal musical training, aside from a couple years of abusing the trumpet in elementary school. I definitely wouldn’t say that I can read music. It would be more accurate to say that I can interpret music, in much the same way that I can interpret French, with the assistance of Google Translate. I just see five parallel lines and an oval with a tail and think “Every…Good…Boy…Does…A-ha! That must be a D. Now I can find middle C and count down one key, and there’s the D on my keyboard!”

I never developed that instantaneous recognition of the notes and the seamless connection between my mind and my fingers that is required of a musician. Learning to play a song was a long, slow process that relied on careful practice and memorization – essentially cutting out any vestiges of consciousness and eventually getting to the point where I could rely entirely on muscle memory to play a song. I don’t recommend this method – it’s a shitty way to learn music – but I will admit that it is a very powerful way to learn one specific song. Eight years later, I can still bang out a nearly flawless rendition of the intro to “Don’t Stop Believin'” whenever I sit in front of the piano.

I noticed an interesting phenomenon when I would teach myself in this manner. I’d practice for a couple of hours, making quick improvement but still fumbling through the difficult parts. Eventually, I would reach a plateau during that session, and any further attempts to push on would only result in regression. Reaching that point was my cue to stop.

The next day, I would sit down to play, and often my fingers would nimbly execute the parts that had given me trouble the day before. There was always a finite limit to the amount of progress I could make in a single session, but it seemed that a period of rest allowed my mind to subconsciously tweak its instructions to my hands and fingers to the extent that I often made more progress between practice sessions than within them. It was a strange, but reliable, phenomenon.

In general, I don’t know that this insight relates very well to woodworking. Unlike playing the piano (or any instrument), most woodworking processes are not inherently driven by tempo. If I’m planing a board, I can plane quickly or slowly – it only matters that the plane has enough inertia to plow through the cut. I can stop at any moment to check the board for straightness or twist, or to sharpen the iron, or to modify the cutting depth. Same with a handsaw. If I note that the saw is veering off course, I simply slow down, adjust my grip, or maybe change saws. As a hobbyist, time is not of the essence; results are.

For sure, frequent practice to build muscle memory plays an important role in your speed and efficiency as a woodworker, but the nature of our craft means that even the greenest amateur can achieve stunning results if they proceed slowly, with patience and attention.

In much the same way, I could easily play Chopin, if there were no requirement that I hit the keys with the proper cadence. I’d simply take a few seconds to ensure each note I strike is the correct one, and suddenly I’m a concert pianist, right? Of course, that’s not how music works (fortunately for the audience), but it’s not a completely inaccurate analogy for woodworking. The finished masterpiece is not time-dependent; all that you see is the culmination of hard-won proficiency and patient exertion. Greater proficiency requires less exertion, and vice versa, to achieve the same effect. How much of each factored into the piece can be difficult to quantify ex post facto.

I’m certain there are many exceptions to this dichotomy, but one that has become clearer to me in the last six months – around the time I began building Windsor chairs – is woodturning. Unlike many hand-tool processes, the rhythm of lathe work is strictly enforced by the spinning wood. This remains true regardless of whether the radial velocity is imparted by a tether attached to a foot pedal, or (as with my lathe) some distant coal-hungry generator attached to a diminishing series of metallic wires.

Attempt to violate the rhythm, and your work will suffer. When rolling a bead with a skew chisel (the hardest single process in turning a chair leg), the handle starts low and gets raised; the tool is rotated along its longitudinal axis; and the entire tool is slid along the tool rest. All at the same time, with precisely correct coordination of the movements. If ever there were a time-dependent process in woodworking, this is it.

I’m not sure that it’s possible to understand the complexity of this procedure if you’ve never attempted it, but Curtis Buchanan’s video above does an excellent job of breaking down the individual steps. The consequences of failure, depending on how you go about failing, can be as simple as cutting an ugly bead instead of a beautiful one, or as sudden and dramatic as a snake-bite when the edge suddenly catches the wood and slams it into the toolrest. (And that’s happened to me more often than I care to remember.)

fanback turning
Curtis Buchanan baluster leg detail

With woodturning, practice is more than just a useful thing that will help you accomplish your work more quickly in the future – it is prerequisite to the ability to even accomplish the work in the first place. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible for a beginner to walk up to the lathe and manhandle a length of maple into a familiar shape, but I am saying that you can’t simply scrape and sand your way to perfection. The difference between the work of a master is conspicuously different from the work of the less practiced hand. The fairness of the curves, the cripsness of the fillets, the proportions of the major and minor dimensions, and the way that the shapes relate to one another – to the critical eye, there is no way to feign mastery of these virtues. And I am far from a master.

So, on Monday, I walked into my workshop and fired up the lathe. I turned one leg in just over an hour. The second leg was going well enough, until I cut the cove 1/8″ too thin. (I broke that one in half – not in anger or frustration, but just so I wasn’t tempted to actually used it.) And the third leg took even longer than the first, maybe an hour and a half. With midnight approaching, I turned in for the night, a bit dismayed that I had regressed in the intervening month since I completed the last chair.

Then on Tuesday, I reeled off two more legs, each better than the first two, in 35 minutes apiece. It felt good to see real progress after a hitting a plateau the night before. It felt familiar.

Perhaps, with enough practice, my hands will simply remember what to do without the refresher. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to walk up to my lathe and crank out a baluster leg in 15 minutes. Perhaps, when that day comes, I’ll find a piano and play a little Journey to celebrate. You know, if I still can.

Stop Being So Clingy.

Layout

This is may be a mundane blog topic, but I hope some find it useful as well. On the rare occasions when I’ve used full-size patterns to cut out my furniture parts, I’ve typically relied on good ol’ spray adhesive to stick the patterns to the wood. It works, but it also sucks, for many reasons:

  1. You only get one chance to orient the pattern properly. Don’t you dare try to slide it around or remove a wrinkle after it’s stuck.
  2. It’s expensive.
  3. Removing the pattern is a messy process that usually involves soaking the paper with mineral spirits and waiting a few minutes to peel it off. Then you have the pleasure of wiping off the adhesive gunk.
  4. Do we really need another disposable aerosol canister in our lives? No, we do not.

Fortunately, there is a better way, and it’s already in your kitchen cabinet:

Flour

That’s right, all-purpose flour. Dump a handful into a bowl, mix it with water until you have a soupy consistency (it should be thinner than white glue), and brush a generous quantity onto the pattern with a paint brush.

Layout

Apply the pattern to the wood, remove any wrinkles, and re-position it if need be. It’s very forgiving, and you have a few minutes to work with it. I found that applying a coat of water to the pattern after it’s in place helps it adhere completely. Now just wait a half hour until the pattern is completely dry, and it’s ready to cut. To remove the pattern, brush it with water and it comes off easily after a minute or two, and the flour paste wipes off with a wet cloth.

Cheap, simple, effective, non-toxic, and you already have the materials in your home. Seriously, what’s not to love?

One final tip: I bought a huge roll of kraft paper from the hardware store a few years ago. I use it for everything: the kids color on it, it makes a snazzy heavy-duty gift wrapping, you can roll out a layer as a drop cloth for painting, and it of course it is excellent for making full-size furniture drawings and patterns. And I still have another five years to go before it’s all used up.

Inspiration Doesn’t Strike…

Joinery

You have to work for it.

At least, that’s my experience. Maybe that means I’m not very creative. Actually, I’m quite certain that I’m not very creative. I am analytical to a fault, and indeed, many of my blog series (The Name of the Grain and Woody Wednesday, for example) as well as my job title (Forest Resource Analyst) reflect that. Perhaps that’s why I naturally gravitate towards historical furniture forms. There is something comforting about building furniture in a tradition that incorporates the evidence of a thousand years of failures and successes. Why re-invent the wheel when it’s already been refined by countless generations of craftsmen more competent in their trade than I can ever dream of being?

More often than not, when I find myself departing from tradition, it’s to accommodate a special piece of wood that simply doesn’t fit into the classical canon of furniture forms. Such is the case with my current project. My dad asked me to build an end table. He already had the wood picked out for the top – a slab of white oak 15″ wide, 40″ long and 1-5/8″ thick. It’s a lovely piece of wood, cut from a crotch with plenty of flame figure – but it also has plenty of defect.

The wood was cut in a manner that is opposite from the way that a crotch would normally be sawed. Woods like walnut, cherry, and birch normally display the best figure when the crotch is sawed, as my old friend Tom would say, “like a pair of britches lying flat on the floor” – with each fork representing a leg. Oak, on the other hand, usually presents the best figure when the wood is sawed perpendicular to the customary orientation.

Log drawing
Typical method for sawing oak crotch. Note that this is the opposite from the usual method.

The problem with this method is that it includes the pith in every flitch. Anyone who has ever sawed their own hardwood lumber is well aware of the problems with the pith. The juvenile wood immediately adjacent to the pith often has a life of its own, bending and twisting as it dries. And the nature of wood shrinkage means that the odds are good that you’ll have cracks in any board that includes the pith. My dad’s slab was no exception.

Oak Crotch
The slab of wood at issue.

Fortunately, the slab was large enough to salvage a sizable chuck of wood while completely discarding the pith. The result was an elliptical tabletop, 13″ wide and 24″ long.

Ellipse
Keep the best, chuck the rest.

The problem, at this point, was that I had very little historical precedent to work with for designing the base. Oval end tables – especially tables that utilize a piece this thick – are scarce. Now, this isn’t the first time I have found myself in “modern furniture” territory. I detailed my design process for my tripod kitchen table in the early annals of this blog. Basically, it involved typing some descriptive keywords into a Google image search, plucking out a few designs that I really liked, and modifying them to suit my preferences. In this case, however, Google was of no help, and I found myself starting from an empty slate.

So, I did the only thing a non-creative person can do in this situation: I sharpened my pencil and got to work. I started sketching stream-of-consciousness until I stumbled upon an idea worth pursuing. I’ll warn you, the process (or maybe just my sketching ability) isn’t pretty:

Most of the sketches belong exactly where they are: on the cutting room floor. But I thought that the sketch at the bottom right of the first page had potential, so I explored it further on a second page, playing around with the dimensions of the members as well as the horizontal and vertical proportions of the whole structure. I really liked the way the curves flowed through the joinery and the arch at the bottom reflected the ellipse of the top. I decided this design was the winner.

Full-Size Sketch
I’m too lazy for prototyping, but a full-size drawing is time well spent.

It was time to make full-size drawings – a step that I rarely take, but I felt that it was necessary to get a realistic idea of the proportions. My first iteration, with 3″-wide members, was a bit to heavy, so I revised the drawing to 2″ members. That looked right to my eye, and I was satisfied enough with this drawing to begin the painstaking process of animating the idea in ligneous flesh.

Layout

But as always, the ultimate question is not “Does it look good on paper?”