Stickley Poppy Table-Living on the Edge(s)
In every project, there is at least one process that takes much longer than expected. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first piece of furniture you’ve made or the five hundredth, somewhere between rough lumber and finished furniture is the point I call “hitting the wall.” When I estimated commercial millwork projects and people asked how I figured labor hours, I told them it was simple. First, you figure out how many days something will take. Then you change days to weeks and multiply by three.
Work on the reproduction of the Gustav Stickley poppy table was moving right along when Christopher Schwarz and I had a Friday-afternoon conversation about how little tables were great projects. They don’t use much material, there aren’t any doors to fit or drawers to fuss with and they don’t take long at all. Then he left town for a week. On Monday morning, I hit the wall.
I readily admit that I, like most woodworkers I know, am really awful about predicting how long it will take to make something. On Friday, I was on schedule: The parts were all made, the joints were cut, my first dry assembly went smoothly. Over the weekend, the carving on the tops, where I usually get bogged down, took less time than I expected, and on Monday morning, it took less than an hour to handplane and scrape all the flat surfaces to a shimmering smoothness. And then I began to work on the edges.
What I neglected to consider was that even though the table is small, the actual length around the perimeter is a long and twisting road. Getting any one area smooth was easy enough. Band saw and router marks were removed with a rasp. Rough rasp marks were removed with a smaller modeler’s rasp, and a cabinet scraper and #240-grit Abranet took care of the rest. The problem was compounded by the shape of the top, shelf and legs. Each turn meant a different direction to the grain. The little buds on the legs, and the cut-outs at the top of each leg went from edge grain to end grain and back again several times in just a few inches.
I planned on a Danish oil and wax finish, and wanted the edges as smooth as the top so that the color and texture would be consistent. Each different type of grain and each transition between grain types meant a slightly different approach, or a different angle of attack. The tools that worked well in some places would not fit in others so I had to improvise with a different tool or work backward or upside down. When I put the first coat of oil on the table, I was happy with how it looked, but at the same time relieved that it was over.
The back door of our shop opens to the loading dock for our building. I like to work next to the open door for the fresh air and good light. The loading dock is also the quasi-official smoking area for the building, and the smokers like to peek into the shop to see what’s going on and to shoot the breeze. More than one asked me in the afternoon if I was still working on the same leg I had been working on in the morning. As the table got closer to completion, they became more complimentary, saying it was looking good and that I was really talented to be able to make something like that.
The ego boost felt good, but as the smokers went back to bookkeeping and planning production schedules and making calls, I trudged on around the edges. I had plenty of time to think, and I realized that talent or skill doesn’t have much to do with it. What’s important is keeping at it and staying consistent. Making an edge smooth is a basic woodworking task. When I was learning the trade, I was put to work making things smooth. When I had my own shop and hired someone, the new helper’s main task was the same chore. It doesn’t take much time or innate ability to learn to hold a tool or abrasive to the surface and push or pull until it is nice and smooth. It takes something else.
The nice sounding word for what you need is perseverance. The honest word is stubbornness. I wanted the edges and the curves of this thing to have the same buttery appearance and feel as the flat surfaces of the top and legs. Sometimes it takes a lot of tedious work to get what you want. If I deserve any kind of compliment for this little table, it’s only because I stubbornly kept going long after I became bored and tired. My wife tells me I’m the most stubborn person she’s ever met. I’m inclined to agree with her, after I explain to her that in my family, we identify that character trait with the word nobility.