Inspiration Doesn’t Strike…

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.

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.


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

Remembering My Role

“A craftsman, from the bottom of his or her heart, is to serve society. Every profession has social obligations and responsibilities. The craftsman’s social responsibility is to fulfill society’s demands as best they know how. Unlike craft, society does not ask the artist for what it needs. The artist’s social responsibility and obligation is to find a valid concept and execute it, then share it with society…whether society likes it or not.”  -Toshio Odate

A couple weeks ago, I posted about the “Quick and Dirty” table that I built for my son. As a child’s play table, I didn’t fuss too much over the finish. I did get Elam’s input on the color. He said he wanted blue, so I gave it two coats of blue milk paint and slapped on a coat of shellac and called it good. The quality of the finish matches the aesthetic of the rest of the table. In other words, it’s functional and not necessarily bad-looking…but don’t look too close.

shrink pot 016

Now, time for an admission. The need for this ‘quick and dirty’ table came about due to some piss-poor planning on my part. You see, originally, it was the tavern table that was supposed to serve as Elam’s play table. When my wife first asked me to build a table for him, the wheels in my head started spinning, and before long, I recalled the attractive little Charleston tavern table that had been featured in Popular Woodworking and in “Furniture in the Southern Style“. I had always wanted to build that table, and here was my wife asking me to build at table! Perfect!

Now, most children’s tables can tolerate a fairly broad range of heights, sizes, and designs. After all, kids grow, so you can either build a table that’s too big for them now or one that will be too small for them in a couple of years. What they really need is a chair to match the table, so the kids can work and sit at a comfortable height.

However, our Elam is a special kid. He was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair. Thus, with the height of his chair pre-determined, I had to built his table at a height that would match. I measured and determined that 23.5″ would be the ideal height for his table. The original table was 27″ high. Hmmm…dropping the height by 3.5″ seems like it would ruin the aesthetic. I decided to compromise and build the table 25″ high instead. Surely that extra inch and a half would be okay, right? And he would eventually grow into it anyway, right? That was mistake No. 1.

Next, it was obvious that the lower stretchers that are found around the lower perimeter of nearly all tavern tables would be in the way of his wheelchair. No worries, though – I could just nix the front and back stretchers and use a single stretcher in the middle instead. And there’s mistake No. 2.

My wife packed up the kids and headed to off to visit her parents for a weekend. I was tasked with building the table for Elam. And I worked a 30-hour weekend building that table. With hardly any sleep, I kept single-mindedly to the task at hand, and was just pegging the top in place when my wife rolled into the driveway on Sunday afternoon. I was so excited to roll Elam up to his new play table so he could try it out.

My excitement quickly soured as I realized that 1) the addition of 1.5” of height above my “ideal” estimate placed the tabletop in a position where he could barely see anything on the tabletop, and 2) I neglected to ever measure the distance between the front wheels of his wheelchair, and as a result the distance between the table’s front legs was 1/4″ too narrow for the wheelchair to squeeze in between. My own disappointment was only exceeded by that of my wife. It was not a good way to start off a week for anyone involved.

I certainly didn’t slave away for 30 hours over two days to build a non-functional piece. I thought I was doing heartfelt work that would genuinely be appreciated by my son and my wife. But I got caught up in my own aesthetic preferences and lost sight of the original purpose. It was a painful lesson. And one that I quickly made right, two days later, in a two-hour flurry of workshop activity.

The new table may not measure up to the tavern table in style, but it well exceeds in the category that counts: function. Now, I know there is a big arts vs. crafts debate that has been raging for centuries and addressed ad nauseum by folks far more experienced and eloquent than I. I don’t intend to weigh in on this debate, because for me, there is no confusion. I am not an artist; I am a craftsman. If Toshio Odate is to be believed, my primary concern in this specific role is “to fulfill society’s demands” as best as I know how. And since I the lion’s share of my work remains in my own home, the “society” to whom Toshio refers would be my very own family.

I would do well to remember my role. I know of one little guy who certainly appreciates it when it when I do.

shrink pot 019

In Defense of “Quick and Dirty”

If you follow this blog, then chances are good that you follow Chris Schwarz’s remarkably prolific blog as well. If not, then perhaps this post deserves a bit of background. For the last couple of years, Chris has been deep down in the rabbit hole of “staked” furniture. I’ve followed it with curious interest, but along with his foray into campaign furniture, it’s not exactly my style, so I haven’t really been tempted to play along. “Staked” is a term used in early estate inventories used to describe furniture that consists of a wide slab top, with simple legs mortised through the top. The joints can rely on a cylindrical or cone-shaped tenon, but either way, it’s basically the same joint that affixes the legs to the seat on a Windsor chair.

The joint was prolific in Europe for hundreds of years, being used in everything from stools and benches to tables and chairs. As joinery became more complex and tastes in furniture more discerning, its use fell out of favor for all but cruder furniture and a few other specialized contexts.

Windsor chairs avoid the crude look engendered by staked joinery by virtue of elegant turned legs and a comfortably shaped seat. A flat-topped table has more trouble shaking of the humble look of the joinery. Yet the technique does have one distinct advantage: it’s fast.

My wife wanted me to build a play table for my two-year-old son. She wanted it soon. “I don’t care if you nail it together, I just want it done.” She had been asking for weeks, so her impatience was justified. However, I tend to put things off until I can find the time to build a true object of beauty. She quickly objected that children’s play table needn’t be a thing of beauty. Counterproductive, really. A play table is something that should be used and abused without fear of rebuke. Paint, crayons, markers, Play-Doh, glitter-glue. These humble playthings are instruments of doom to a fine piece of furniture.

A staked table was just the answer. So, two nights ago, I walked into my shop at 8:30 PM after the rest of my household was asleep. At 10:45 PM I walked out with a finished table in my arms – hand tools only, except the lathe. The tavern table that has been featured in my last two posts required 40 hours of shop time to build (you’ll get to see the finished object soon, I promise). The play table is about the same size, and I knocked this sucker out in 2 hours, 15 minutes. Now I know why this style hung around for a few hundred (thousand?) years. Economy of labor is a beautiful thing.

staked 046
Here it is, in all of it’s humble glory. 23.5″ tall, 17″ wide, and maybe 30″ long? I didn’t measure, I just cut.
staked 058
The battens are nailed to the underside with cut nails, and the legs are bored straight through both batten and top. Three legs are beech, and the fourth is poplar (as is the rest of the table) The tenons are conical, so I used my tapered reamer to shape the mortises.
staked 050
Tables like this have cross-grain issues with the battens cross-grain to the top. Usually they develop cracks after a number of years. I preempted the issue by using a cracked board. The tenons are glued and wedged in place.
staked 057
I made no attempt to remove the gouge marks from the lathe. I could have used the skew to get a smoother surface, but what would be the point?


Despite not measuring a damn thing on this table (except the height), the angle of the legs turned out pretty close. I really don’t think I could have done better if I was measuring instead of eyeballing.


And the best part about a quick and dirty table? I was happy to let my 4-year-old daughter help me with the paint job. And she was excited to help.

staked 065

How long will this table last? 10 years? 25? 100? I have no idea, but I have no doubt that it will serve its purpose for as long as we need it.

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Poetic Waxing…

…to bring you a quick update on a project from the honey-do list.

My wife knows that I’m chomping at the bit to get started on Windsor chair, but she had a few requests before I get started. Numero Uno was to build a replacement for our kitchen table.

We like our kitchen table. It’s a big, beefy trestle table made from thick white pine. My grandmother bought it new in the 1960’s. It was well-built, but when I inherited it, the dark finish was gummy and depressing. I was too busy renovating a house to worry with fixing it. When my wife and I were married, one of her first requests (demands?) was to re-finish the table. We sanded it down to bare wood, painted the base with barn red milk paint, and oiled the top with linseed oil. We’ve shared many meals around this table over the last 5 years.

But, we now live in a small ranch house with a small kitchen, and the trestle table is 3′ wide and 6′ long. It’s just too big. A round table was requested, which should fit the space much better.

A table is a simple object. It can be built as quickly as you like, or you can dress it up with as much fancy joinery, carvings, or veneer as your imagination allows and it can take a year. For this project, my aim was workmanlike efficiency, but with a tolerable aesthetic appeal.

I began with a search of Google images, using a number of keywords. “Round Dining Table”. “Round Shaker Pedestal Table”. “Round Modern Dining Table”. “Round Tripod Dining Table”. “Round Modern Tripod Table”. Something like that, you get the idea. Each iteration was inspired by something that caught my eye in the previous search. I quickly latched on to one theme: a modern approach to a tripod base with the legs intersecting along X, Y, & Z axes.

Modern Round Table
This was the first table that really caught my eye. The interlocking “puzzle-joint” makes a minimalist, but visually interesting, joint. It’s just three intersecting planks, but the mind immediately wonders how it was made.
Modern Tripod Table
I liked this one as well. The maker chose a more interesting wood (looks like zebrawood to me) with a strong, straight grain pattern that echos the simplicity of the design. The glass top is appropriate for the alluring base, but I would like the table more if the legs actually intersected, instead of just criss-crossing alongside one another.
Interlocking Tripod
Finally, I found another glass-topped table, but this time with a base that includes some interesting joinery.
Tripod Joint
The execution is a bit loose, but I like how each beam seems to be embracing another. The wood appears to be beech.

I love geometric puzzles, and the final photo had me imagining how the joint fit together. A few minutes in Sketchup confirmed my suspicion that the basic joint was just a simple half-lap. I quickly settled on this design for the base of my table. Even though I don’t find it as visually striking as the first joint, I like the elegant simplicity  of its engineering. Unlike the first joint, this one can be assembled from whole timbers, rather than cutting and gluing up at least one leg (but if anyone thinks they can demonstrate a way to create the first table’s base using whole timbers, well, good luck…)

One thing that became apparent from my work in Sketchup was that the height of the table directly impacts the diameter of the top. If you want your tabletop at 29″ high (a usual height for a dining table), then you’re going to have trouble making it  much less than 48″ in diameter (and even this requires truncating the legs, such that they have squared-off ends, rather than ends that follow the plane of the floor and tabletop. Hopefully the Sketchup drawings make it clear what I mean by this).

So, I’ve settled on 48″ for the diameter of the table, but if I find that this is still too big for the space, then I can probably shave another inch off the radius without too much trouble. A bit of work in Sketchup yielded this model:

Sketchup Tripod

With a simple, 44″ half-lapped 3×3 as the basic component:


I can’t say that this is the prettiest or the most exciting thing I’ve ever built, but it meets the criteria that I had in mind when I originally set out to build this table: It’s visually interesting, expedient to build, and I already have the necessary materials on hand.

My Dysfunctional Relationship with the Windsor Chair, Part II

Part I

It was September 2005. I had just earned my Bachelor’s Degree in forestry from the University of Georgia a few months earlier, and I was jumping right in to my graduate classes. I don’t remember much from that semester, honestly, but one class that stuck with me was my Advanced Wood Properties and Identification class. It was one of the best classes I ever took, and it was taught by my major professor.

On the first day, the professor gave a fascinating lecture on the history of pernambuco wood, or pau do brasil (Caesalpinia echinata). The tree is native to Brazil, and once flourished along the coast in great abundance. Portuguese navigators realized soon after visiting the that the tree’s heartwood could be extracted to retrieve a highly prized red dye, and the race was on. Trees were harvested and logs exported to Europe by the millions. Excessive exploitation resulted in a precipitous decline of the valuable trees by the 18th century, but not before luthiers realized that the dense wood was ideal for making bows for stringed instruments.

A serendipitous combination of density and stiffness, plus the proper cocktail of natural extractives (the chemicals in wood that give heartwood their color, odor, and rot-resistance) make the wood unrivaled in its suitability for violins bows. Though the tree is now listed internationally as an endangered species, pernambuco bows still command a hefty premium to bows of lesser quality woods. The wood can only be harvested from trees that die naturally, which amplifies its scarcity and preciousness.

The lecture struck a chord in my mind – specifically, the idea of selecting a species of wood that is most perfectly suited to the task for which it’s used suddenly seemed quite shrewd and elegant. In the woodworking that I did at that time (mostly bowl-turning, and the occasional dovetailed box), there was really not much need to consider the properties of wood, aside from its appearance. I selected bowl blanks for their attractive coloration and grain patterns. It didn’t matter if the wood was light and soft (like boxelder) or hard and dense (like cocobolo). As long as it was pretty, I would turn it into a bowl. No big deal.

The lecture created, in my mind, fertile ground for a more thorough appreciation of the dignified simplicity of the Windsor chair. I believe I learned from Curtis Buchanan the rationale behind the diparate collection of woods found in the traditional American Windsor:

  • Sugar maple for the legs and turnings: Strong and dense, sugar maple can be turned to delicate proportions, yet still maintain the rigidity needed to support a sitter daily for a couple of centuries. Unlike similarly strong woods, it has small pores, which means that turnings can hold crisp details without chipping. Plus, it splits well, so getting straight-grained, riven wood, with simple tools, is easy.

    The delicate details of a hard maple leg. Credit: Elia Bizzarri
  • White pine or poplar from the seats: Sure, we could use elm like the masochistic Brits, but American chairmakers chose a soft, easily carved wood to make their shapely, comfortable seats. The wood has just enough give to lock the harder woods of the legs and spindles into place.

    A shapely shield seat in white pine. Credit: Curtis Buchanan
  • Oak, hickory, or ash for the rails and spindles: These ring-porous hardwoods split easily – perfect for creating long, impeccably straight-grained sections for the upper pieces of the chair. Splitting, rather than sawing, preserves the stregth of the wood, and makes for successful steam-bending, which allows the wood to be shaped to better match the countours of the sitter’s body. Additionally, all of these woods are strong enough to be whittled thinly, allowing the parts to flex for comfort, yet still retaining sufficient strength.
    Graceful spindles and crest rail in oak. Credit: CartersWhittling

    Equipped with this new understanding, I began to see Windsor chairs in a different light: no, the wood wasn’t selected for the boldness of its color, nor the flashiness of its grain. Each wood was carefully selected to create a strong, light, and architecturally refined structure, that also happens to be comfortable as hell to sit in!

My Dysfunctional Relationship with the Windsor Chair, Part I

I still remember the first time I saw a Windsor chair chronicled in a respectable woodworking publication. It was probably in 2005. I had just made my first major tool purchase – a lathe that still sits in my shop today – with my savings from a summer internship as a forester in North Carolina. I still didn’t have a shop, so the lathe sat in the carport in front of our house, alongside a deep freezer. There was only one electrical outlet in the vicinity, so plugging in my lathe plus my working light meant that the deep freezer had to be unplugged while I worked. On more than one occasion, I failed to plug the freezer back in after a lathe session (much to the consternation of my father). I’m pretty sure the cost of the rotten meat and vegetables approaches what I spent on the lathe itself, but let’s get back to the topic at hand.

I had a voracious appetite for woodworking magazines. My dad, though not much into woodworking himself, somehow ended up with a subscription to Popular Woodworking, and I greedily devoured every picture and word of every issue that made it to our house. I started buying issues of Fine Woodworking from Home Depot to sustain my appetite in between issues of Popular Woodworking.

My favorite section from that magazine was the Reader’s Gallery. It usually covered four pages and was filled with creative and virtuosic work that covered the breadth of the craft. There was rarely a piece that failed to take my breath away; even rarer was the piece that I felt would ever be within the scope of my abilities.

A decade later, I can’t recall many specific pieces from those pages, though I’m sure their influence still resides in my subconcious. But there is one piece that I still remember fairly vividly. It was a comb-back Windsor arm chair. Painted black, sitting proudly and traditionally, it seemed quite the contrast to the original and quirky forms that surrounded it. I remember reading the list of woods that comprised the stately seat: sugar maple for the legs, white pine for the seat, oak for the rails, and hickory for the spindles.

curtis buchanan comb back
The chair look about like this (Curtis Buchanan comb back)

I know what you’re thinking: It was love at first sight. I was taken aback, and it’s been my dream to make this chair ever since.

Well, no. Nothing could be farther from the truth. At the time, I thought that the blasé chair had no place within the pages of that magazine. Why would anyone combine such a motley assortment of woods, I wondered. Any then paint the fool thing?! Why not build it out of a wood that was worthy of such efforts? Cherry, walnut, curly maple? At that time, my attention was captivated by wood above form. I had no clue why anyone would use oak, pine, hickory, and plain maple to build a chair that could be deemed a masterpiece. And paint? Why, there was a special place in hell reserved for people who painted wood. Even bland and uninteresting wood deserved a clear finish! Didn’t it?

I think my feelings were, at that time, heavily influenced by the chairs that we sat upon at family dinner, from the very first spark of a memory in my toddler mind. They were Windsor chairs in fact, but not spirit. They were factory-made from solid maple. The seats were unshapely and uncomfortable. The spindles were too thick and didn’t give. Don’t even get me started on the shape of the comb. The finish was a sickly stain and varnish that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be brown or tan. The glue was failing on many of the joints, and the chairs creaked and wobbled and rebuffed my dad’s efforts to fix them with those stupid epoxy injection systems.

Bad Windsor Chair
They looked kinda like this. Please, cover your childrens’ eyes if you have any innocent young ones looking over your shoulder.

Thankfully, those chairs are long gone, but the memories stayed with me as I gazed perplexedly at the pages of the magazine.

Part II