By: Kerry Pierce
An idea sketched on paper continues to evolve as it’s sketched with tools in the shop.
I envy those designers who can create new furniture idioms, building upon what is current in order to produce something never before seen. These men and women are doing what the great furniture designers of the past did to enrich the history of our craft. Not everyone can do that however. I know I’m more comfortable dipping into the past for design ideas, re-imagining classic period forms, mixing and matching details to produce pieces which are, I hope, fresh if not entirely original. For example, the two tables seen here are loosely based on a small photo I saw in a 30-year-old copy of The Magazine Antiques. They aren’t reproductions of that piece. There wasn’t enough detail in the photo to attempt such a thing, even if that was what I wanted to do. Instead I took what I liked about that 17th-century original, then worked in some details borrowed from other furniture periods, as well as my own history as a furniture maker.
Specifically, I narrowed the tables to increase their apparent verticality; I added a taper to the long mid-section of each leg, and I added a bandsawn border of scallops to the tops.
Good stock preparation is always critical, particularly in the construction of pieces assembled from components relatively thin in cross section where stresses in the material can sometimes manifest themselves in any number of disheartening ways. In the case of these tables, I began by ripping out oversized leg and stretcher blanks from a 3″ thick plank of cherry which also yielded the quartersawn apron components. The parts from which the tops were assembled were cut from some 5/4 figured cherry, also cut thick.
On the first day, I worked the stock, flattening and straightening it on the jointer and doing a bit of thicknessing on the planer, then stickering it. Every few days, I would repeat the process of flattening and straightening, removing thickness and width a bit at a time, restickering the material at the end of each session to allow the stresses in the wood to express themselves. Doing this work in stages allows those stresses in the wood to be reconciled a little bit at a time so that when you do the final sizing of your stock, you have a reasonable expectation that the components will be stress free and remain flat and straight in the finished pieces.
Working the Lathe
Because I’m self-taught, I would never describe myself as a good turner, so if you’ve been trained in good lathe technique, please disregard the methods I’m going to describe here.
For this project, my turning kit was quite small. I use a 11⁄2” roughing gouge to round forms, a 1⁄2” skew to create beads, a 1⁄4” spindle gouge to make coves and vases, and a small paring chisel used bevel-side down to create filets. The only tricky aspect of turning the leg and stretcher components is the creation of clean shoulders where the square and turned sections come together. I do this with my 1⁄2” skew, first standing it on its edge with the point down, then spearing into the blank to establish the location of the bottom of that shoulder. Next, with my skew in that same point-down position, I tilt it at a 25 or 30 degree angle away from the cut I just made. Then starting a half inch north or south of the initial cut, I push the skew into the work and roll the point into the speared line from the north and then from the south, repeating this process until I’ve achieved shoulders of the correct size. This technique takes a bit of time to master, so you might practice on an extra turning blank.
For reasons I’m not knowledgeable enough to understand, the wider, more tapered edges of so many modern skews don’t do this work very well, at least not in my hands. They tend to skitter along the blank, leaving behind an unsightly cut that spirals around the turning blank. In fact years ago, when I was teaching a chairmaking class, I took a man’s wide skew to demonstrate this technique on a post he was turning and promptly ruined the post. Embarrassing.
If you find your skew has produced a less-than-optimally clean shoulder, don’t despair. A little work with some good, cloth-backed abrasive should correct any imperfections.
Tenons and Their Mortises
I like chopping mortises by hand. I don’t like sawing out tenons, so my tenons are created on the tablesaw using a stack of dado cutters and a sacrificial fence. This creates tenons with a rough surface, but I remove that roughness during fitting with a shoulder plane. Please remember that not all your tenons are going to have shoulders of the same depth, so if you use this method, you’ll need to use several different height settings on your dado blades.
If you’re using my method, once you’ve created your tenons, use that information to lay out slightly undersized mortises. Mark these with a knife to give you something in which to register your chisel tip. Then begin to remove the waste with a mortise chisel, keeping the sidewalls of each mortise clean with a paring chisel.
Then, when it’s time to do a dry- assemble, use a couple of shoulder planes to bring the dimensions of the tablesawn tenons down to a snug – but not tight – fit in the mortises.
One of the most important decisions you’ll make in the creation of any relatively complicated piece of furniture is the sequence of necessary glue-ups. If you’re using hide glue, I suppose it would be possible to glue it the entire undercarriage in one session, but since I prefer modern yellow glues, I divide my work into several different sub-assemblies. In the case of these tables, I chose to glue up the sides – apron, stretcher, and two legs – in one session, then the next day bring two side sub-assemblies together in a second session, attaching the top on the third day.
Making the Top
While the legs and apron sections were all cut from the same 3″ thick plank, the tops on my tables are glued up from some figured cherry I had set aside for this purpose. I brought this material down to a bit less than 3⁄4” in stages as I described earlier, then glued up the panel. I know that I use a ridiculous number of clamps when I glue up a panel, but my impression is that doing so results in fewer post-glue-up problems.
My butt joints are formed in two stages. First I establish a 90° angle on my jointer. Then I clean up jointer ripples with a jointing plane equipped with a fence. This produces clean and accurately made surfaces ready for glue.
I’m a little profligate with glue. It’s inexpensive and wondrously strong, so – unlike many craftsmen – I glue both surfaces of the glue joint before bringing them together with clamps.
Drawing with Tools
If you’re a furniture designer/maker, you must draw. At first that work is done with conventional drawing tools: a pencil, a pen, a bit of charcoal. But as the execution of your work continues, your drawing tools become saws, chisels, gouges, rasps, files, sandpaper – anything with which you can refine your lines. In the case of these little tables, their most important features – the scalloped borders surround each – were drawn first on paper patterns, then with a bandsaw, and finally with a rasp and sandpaper.
After surfacing the table tops with planes, scrapers and sandpaper, I ripped the panels to width and cut them to length. Then, after cleaning up the sawn edges with planes (a straight jack on the sides and bevel-up, low angle jack on the end grain), I cut the bevels on the tablesaw.
I then marked the scallops by tracing around paper patterns on those beveled edges. Next I moved to my bandsaw – set up with a 1⁄4” blade – and carefully cut out each scallop, after which I fixed one of the tops in a vise and began working the scallops with a rasp. This is the most important step in their fabrication, not only because you’re removing bandsaw marks but also – and primarily – you’re correcting the inevitable but slight errors that accompany any freehand sawing.
You are, in effect, using your eye to measure the accurate delineation of each half circle as well as making tiny adjustments of the size of the scallops so that each looks exactly like every other one, despite the fact that actual measurement will reveal tiny variations between one scallop and the next. This is a balancing act, requiring some flexibility. For example if there is a tiny glitch in the outside diameter of one scallop, in order to conceal that glitch, it may be necessary to adjust the outside diameter of adjacent scallops so that the overall effect is one of uniformity.
The secret to a good finish is that there is no secret; there is only hard work, and that hard work begins with more hand sanding than many woodworkers would believe. When you’re dealing with straight-grained material, like the wood in the aprons, legs, and stretchers of these tables, it’s possible to clean up plane tracks with a relatively fine-grained abrasive, perhaps 220 grit. With heavily figured material, like the tops on these tables, it’s often necessary to precede this grit with some scraper work and a coarser abrasive grit, perhaps 120. I use my abrasives – whenever possible – with a sanding block in order to keep the surfaces nice and flat.
My abrasive sequence is as follows: first 150 or 220, then 320, finishing up with 400, using each in the direction of the grain. To get a truly fine finish, you must work with each of these grits far longer than you might imagine. As you sand, constantly check your work in a strong side light (natural is best). Wherever you see a line or spot in which sanding dust is collecting, you must do additional work to level and clean. It’s only when the entire surface is flat and free from inclusions of sanding dust that you can move on to the next grit. I’ve never actually timed myself, but my guess is that I spend more time with a sanding block in my hand than I spend with all the other stages of a piece’s construction.
Then brush on two or three relatively heavy coats of the finish you’ve selected, as heavy as possible without the danger of drips. The goal with these preliminary coats is not create a finished surface but to build a foundation on which the finished surface can be constructed. I sand after each of these brushed-on coats using 400 grit paper. Then, on this base, I begin applying thinner coats of finish using a ball of white t-shirt material onto which I dribble a bit of finish. After each of these coats, I wet-sand with #600 grit dipped in mineral spirits, continuing this process until I get a film I like.
Good furniture has good lines, and those good lines are achieved not only with paper and pencil during the design phase, but also with lathe tools and bandsaws and rasps – with every tool that is applied to the work. In fact, all of furniture making can be thought of as a drawing process, beginning when the first tentative lines are put to paper, continuing until the last bit of sandpaper is set aside in the shop. It is a process consisting of the continuous refinement of line, creating shapes and profiles that flow one into another in ways that satisfy both the eye and the soul. PWM
Scallop Edge Table Cutlist
|2 Short aprons||3⁄4||21⁄2||89⁄16|
|2 Long aprons||3⁄4||21⁄2||143⁄4|
|2 Short stretchers||13⁄16||13⁄16||89⁄16|
|2 Long stretchers||13⁄16||13⁄16||143⁄4|
This article appeared in the August 2018 issue of Popular Woodworking.
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