This contemporary take on a classic shaker settee builds skills and design sense.
Many of my first woodworking projects encapsulate the popular builds that you see on the internet – chunky, rough and unbalanced (to put it gently). I am fond of those years spent building low-quality furniture. I was learning woodworking in the few hours a week I could squeak in after work. I didn’t know any other woodworkers in person, and I didn’t want to make the commitment to trade my Saturday mornings with my wife for my local woodworking club – feel free to judge my priorities. So I accumulated skills from YouTube and Instagram; sadly there is no accreditation available for this education track and I promise, it is filled with detours, speed traps and potholes. You are bombarded with information in an algorithm powered curriculum and led astray by projects of curiosity rather than tradition.
Thankfully, I turned a corner as my skill set and eye begin to realize that I could take my furniture making to the next level. I stopped opening paint cans with my chisels and discovered the difference between a rip and crosscut hand saw.
Before jumping into this build, I want to share a couple of lessons I’ve learned since joining the staff of Popular Woodworking.
One lesson that I have come to take seriously is design by aggregate. This is not cherry-picking design elements from genre to genre, but for this build, I found three benches and a couple of chairs, all traditional Shaker design, that I liked. I drafted a bench that blended them into a form that wasn’t too far from tradition, but fit my taste better than any single bench. The depth of the seat was determined by one bench, the height of the back by another and the rake and splay of the legs determined by a third. This can be a dangerous path, but when the parts are taken with a keen eye, it can prevent you from reinventing a look that has been done many times before. This also led to my material choices – cherry and maple.
Another valuable lesson learned was to design to my strengths. With this bench, I really wanted to incorporate the traditional kidney shape on the ends of my bench, but I simply don’t have a drawknife or the shaping experience that would ensure a masterful finish. I could have hacked my way through, but now was not the time. So, I let that design element hit the cutting room floor, I simply let it go.
The legs are attached to the seat with wedged, tapered mortise and tenons – a method I first found in The Anarchist’s Design Book. I used this method to build a stool last fall, so I was comfortable with using it on a larger build. I followed many of the principals laid out in the book. It may not be 100% authentic to Shaker furniture, but it’s rock solid and works well.
Finally, don’t be afraid to test. This is hardly news for many experienced builders, but when you spend cold hard cash for a unique board, there’s no other way to build. I had almost zero waste in this project – beyond a board of cherry that didn’t match the others once I started machining it. I have plenty of wood around me to knock on, so I feel okay in saying “nothing really went wrong in this build.” I definitely owe that to slowing down and thinking things through.
I got to work on the spindles and legs for my project before anything else. It was the most intimidating part of this project for me – turning multiple spindles to the same dimensions – and with this done, the rest of the build would be more enjoyable. If you’re looking to get good at turning, building a Shaker bench with 28 turned parts is a good place to start.
I turned some test pieces before settling on a final spindle size. I knew that I wanted a tapered spindle for the back of my settee, but did I want to taper from 3⁄4” to 1⁄2” or from 5⁄8” to 3⁄8“? I really wasn’t sure and I couldn’t tell in SketchUp which size I prefered. I quickly turned a spindle to a 3⁄4” round and as I started tapering down to 1⁄2“, it became apparent that this was far too bulky for the back of my bench. So, I continued on down to the smaller size and was very happy with the look.
Turning Back Spindles on the Lathe
I knew that I did not want to taper the legs of my bench on both ends, creating a fat middle. That look doesn’t fit my eye. So I found a chair in a shaker book that retained it’s cylinder shape through the top third of the leg before it began tapering down to the bottom of the leg – a solution I really liked. After creating the tenon for the tapered mortise at the top, I turned the whole leg round at 11⁄2” diameter. Then, 6″ down the leg after the tenon, I started to taper to 1″. It’s a gentle taper, but creates a dynamic look without the traditional bulge-in-the-middle shape.
At this point, I was excited that most of the lathe work was behind me and I moved to working on the seat so that I could work toward assembly. I knew that once the seat had it’s tapered mortises reamed, I’d be be able to decide on a shape for my leg stretchers.
The stretchers were going to be delicate for sure, but not quite as delicate as the spindles for the back rest. I landed on a tapered shape with the thickest part of the spindle in the middle. This was the traditional shape that I had come across in my research, and it looked great on my bench.
Seat and Base
If there is one show surface on this bench, it’s the seat. It’s large, flat and the primary focal point (unless you are mesmerized by spindles). I started with an 18″ wide slab of cherry before ripping it down to it’s final dimension of 16″ wide. This particular slab had a single knot that only went halfway through the 2″ thickness. I considered filling it with epoxy, but decided not to. This bench is destined to sit in a hallway with 140-year-old knotty pine floors as a backdrop. So, I positioned the knot in the middle of the board, adjusting the amount I cut off either side of board when ripping to final dimension.
After dimensioning the slab, I headed to the table saw to make the cove on the top of the seat. I created this shape through a series of cuts at an angle to the saw blade (see “Cove Cuts on the Table Saw”). I found that I needed just a single fence for this slab – the weight of the slab itself prevented it from breaking free from the fence while passing over the blade. I used an offcut to test this process before cutting into my slab.
Each time I moved the fence, I had to make three passes over the blade, raising the height each time to get the depth that I needed. For each pass, I raised the blade a little over a 1⁄16“, to reduce stress on the blade. I made four runs to create the shape of the cove, then feathered the cove shape with my sander.
Drilling the Seat
I became acquainted with the tapered reamer and tenon cutter from Lee Valley last summer and found it very simple to use on the shop stool I made. But let me tell you: Everything is different when you move from southern yellow pine to an irreplaceable slab of cherry.
For this design, there are six legs with no sideways splay (a common arrangement for a bench this size). I created a simple angled jig to drill the six leg holes that that will be reamed later on. The jig consists of a piece of plywood roughly 16″ x 16″ with two sets of legs – one set at 10° for the back legs and one set at 2° for the front legs. Again, I borrowed these angles from a bench that I found in a museum archive, not my invention.
Creating tapered mortises is a two-part process. First, I used an auger bit to drill the 5⁄8” hole to prepare for the reamer. Then, I chucked the reamer in the drill press to ream the hole. I started each hole on the drill press and finished with a cordless drill (because my drill press doesn’t have enough travel to do it). The freehand reaming with a cordless drill took a lot of muscle and some choice words, but in the end I had six perfect tapered mortises. And I was sweating in my 58 degree shop. My advice is to ream carefully (or get a bigger drill press).
For the spindles, I located those on the ends 3″ in from the outer edges of the bench, putting them in line with the legs. From there, I determined where the middle spindle would be and found centers for the remaining 16 spindles in between. On my bench, that made center 3.22″ from spindle to spindle. I used a 7° jig to drill the 3⁄8” holes for the spindles on the top of the seat. I drilled the holes 3⁄4” deep to match the spindle tenons.
I brought the leg tenons to 1″ diameter on the lathe and then used a Lee Valley tenon cutter to add the necessary taper. With accurate reamed mortises, the legs didn’t give me any trouble. I then cut a kerf in the top of each leg for an oak wedge to lock them in place. To add the stretcher between each set of legs, I used a 6″ scrap and held my pencil atop it and scribed a line using the seat as my reference.
I used a spade bit with blue tape to mark the depth of the mortise. This process is indeed uncomfortable. However, with the spade bit ramped up to full speed and a quick plunge into the leg, I experienced zero tear out and everything fit perfectly. A little fine tuning with sandpaper and my stretchers were ready for glue up.
After a dry fit, I did as much finish sanding as I could. I used Titebond 3 during assembly to give myself a few extra moments to get the assembly together. Thankfully, I had my dad in the shop during this phase – an extra set of hands was a huge help. Driving the wedges into the top of the legs makes this assembly bomb-proof.
With the legs and seat glued-up, I was ready to turn my attention to the crest rail. It’s a tapered board with 19 holes in it. There was a part of me that wanted to
procrastinate on this particular part of the build because I knew the back spindle glue up was on the other side of it.
The rail is 4″ tall and made of a board of cherry that has wonderful concentric rings emanating from the center of the board. I kid you not, there was an actual spotlight on the board when I walked into Woodcraft looking for material. With my stock still square, I drilled the 3⁄4” deep, 3⁄8” mortises in the crest rail. Then, tilting the table on the bandsaw, I tapered the backside of the crest rail from 3⁄4” to 1⁄2“.
To make things easier, I prefinished the spindles before fine tuning them for fit. I used my random orbit sander in a vice at my bench, providing convenience and dust collection while refining the 19 spindles.
After I assembled the bench and it was in situ, I finally discovered what I wanted from my seat. I had left the seat square from front to back and it looked far too chunky. I decided to reduce the parallax effect and taper the sides 1⁄2” from the halfway point of the seat to the back of the seat. This reduced the heaviness the square ends conveyed, and I couldn’t be happier with my 11th hour decision to lighten the back corner.
I sanded by hand to #220, doing as much sanding as I could before assembly. I raised the grain with water and proceeded through the grits.
From the outset, I was nervous about the soft maple. When I tested finish on it, I noticed that it had a tendency to get muddy and yellow. So I chose to use water-based Polycrylic on all of the pieces to keep the finish clear and keep yellowing to a minimum. Once the bench was assembled and finished, I went over the whole bench with finishing wax and steel wool to give it the perfect hand-rubbed finish feel.
In the Home
I’m not sure my 3-year-old son felt as ceremonious as I did when I carried the bench in from the garage and placed it in the entryway of my home. As I gave the wax another polish, he jumped on the bench and started using it as a ramp for his toy cars. But in the end, I couldn’t ask for anything more than to see my family use this piece of furniture that pushed me to be a better woodworker. PWM
Shaker-Inspired Settee Cutlist
|19 Tapered Back Spindles||1⁄2||1⁄2||161⁄2||Soft Maple*|
|6 Tapered Legs||11⁄2||11⁄2||16||Soft Maple**|
|3 Tapered Stretchers||1⁄2||1⁄2||121⁄2||Soft Maple***|
*The back spindles taper from 1⁄2 to 3⁄8″ – the tenon ends for the seat and the crest are 3⁄4″ and straight.
**The legs begin their taper 6″ below the seat.
***The stretchers taper at both ends to 3⁄8″ with flat tenons for the mortises in the leg.
For more on chairmaking, see “No-Fear Chairmaking” by Christopher Schwarz.
This article appeared in the August 2018 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine.
Get your download of “No-Fear Chairmaking” by visiting our store.