Most of the lumber used by George Nakashima was sawn from the log under his supervision, stacked in the order in which it was cut, then stickered and left to air dry before kiln drying. At his disposal then were thousands of boards which were sawn “through and through,” retaining each board’s waney or “free” edge and unique shape. And because the logs were not sawn for grade, which is when the log is turned time and again during the sawing to avoid defects like knots and splits, these “defects” were retained and often became an important feature in the use of the board.
Needless to say, most woodworkers don’t have easy access to wood that has been processed this way. But I had the opportunity when a black cherry in my backyard fell prey to a hard, late frost and succumbed. Within a few weeks I engaged the operator of a Wood-Mizer portable band saw mill and had the log sawn where it fell. The going rate for this work is about 45 cents a board foot. About 18 months later, having stacked it carefully for air drying, I was ready to start working it. Now if you don’t have access to lumber like this, you could always make a rectangular top.
From my boards I selected a shorter one that came from the top of the log where the tree began to branch. This area is referred to as a “crotch” and usually yields nicely figured material. But this part of tree also has a lot of stress in the lumber and often wants to split during drying. True to form, a wide check occurred on the end. Never mind, I decided, I’ll work with it. The grain is just too pretty to toss in the scrap box.
The 17″-wide board was also cupped starting at the heart’s center. To flatten the board, even if I had a jointer or planer that wide, would have sacrificed too much thickness. However, sawing lengthwise along the heart, splitting the board in two, rendered two relatively flat pieces. It was at this point that I decided to the use an open spline detail of contrasting walnut to join the pieces back together. The decision made the technical necessity of splitting the boards an interesting design element.
After the top was separated I smoothed and flattened the pieces using a Performax 22″-wide belt sander. When done, I routed a 1/2″ x 5/8″-deep groove in the edges to be joined, and then I cut a walnut spline that was 17/16″ wide. That left a 3/16″ gap when the top was glued back together. Before gluing I used a block plane to make a slight chamfer on the top edges of the open joint.
Working the Free Edges
Needless to say, the bark had to be removed from the edges of the board down to the sap wood. With dry wood, the bark pops off quite easily. You can use just about any tool from a chisel to a screwdriver to knock or pry the bark off. Just be sure you don’t gouge the surface you want to eventually display.To further prepare the rear edge of the top, sand it by hand with #120 grit paper. On what I considered the front edge, I used a gouge to make small facets in the surface to give the edge a more interesting visual and tactile surface. Afterwards I sanded the edge lightly.
I moved on to the area of the big check on the end of the board. The inside surfaces of the crack were rough and needed smoothing. While I didn’t want to make the edges look like a polished surface, neither did I want the torn fibers and rough surfaces. My solution was to use #100-grit C-weight sandpaper to get into the crack any way possible. At this point, except for final sanding of the top and ends, the hardest part of the job was completed.
The base is absolutely simple to construct, even easier than a conventional table with legs and aprons. A slab end, a dovetail shaped beam and a tapered, angled leg is all there is to it.
To make the slab end I started with two panels that were about an inch thick each. My plan was to glue them together as a sandwich with a 5/16″-thick build up in the center that, when set back from the edge, created a reveal that mimicked the spline detail on the table top.
While the glue was drying I started making the hefty beam that ties the panel and leg together. I didn’t have any stock thick enough to make the 3″ x 3″ blank size, so I glued up three pieces of 1″ stock. After it dried I cleaned up and squared two opposing edges on the jointer then planed the remaining two. Next, I sawed the blank to the dovetail shape, sloping the sides to an 8-degree angle. At this point I sliced off a small piece of one end that served as a template for marking the cut to be made in the bottom edge of the panel.