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.
After marking the centers of the template and panel bottom edge I cut the sloping slides of the dovetail using the ripping teeth of my Japanese pull saw. Next I removed most of the waste with a coping saw then chiseled the edge flat. I found the fit of the beam just a bit tight so I pared the sides of the panel dovetail opening until achieving a fit that went together with just a slight amount of force. I then removed the beam and made the 11-degree bevel cuts on the ends. To complete the work on the panel I put a slight bevel on the panel edges. A hand plane was the tool of choice for this chore.
The leg that supports the other end of the table is simple enough to make. I started with a blank that was 2″ square. I wanted the leg to taper from top to bottom so I penciled lines to follow on the band saw. After cutting, I cleaned up the edges with the jointer.
The leg cants at a 101-degree angle so I chopped the bottom edge at 11 degrees. To determine the length, I simply set the leg on the beam with the bottom edge seated evenly and the side touching the top edge of the panel. I made the mark there and made the final 11-degree cut on the top of the leg.
The leg is joined to the beam using two 1/2″ dowels. First drill dowel holes into the bottom of the leg; then, after inserting dowel centers, mark the dowel locations in the beam. It is then a simple task to drill the holes.
To assemble the base I used polyurethane glue because of its superior bonding characteristics in gluing non-long-grain to long- grain joints. I first glued the beam to the panel making sure the beam and panel were square. After this dried, I finished up gluing the leg to the beam using a band clamp with a little assistance from a pipe clamp to maintain the desired angle.
Fastening the top to the base was a snap. On the top edge of the panel end I used three figure eight fasteners, setting them flush. For the leg, I used a common “T” shaped bracket that I screwed down to the top of the leg, then up into the top.
To finish, I sanded everything to #150 grit and broke all the sharp edges. Next I mixed small but equal amounts of Olympic brand Early American and Red Oak oil stain and combined seven teaspoons of this blend with a pint of boiled linseed oil. The diluted color won’t blotch the cherry but will give the wood a nice color to start. Time will enrich the color more, encouraged by the linseed oil, which speeds the photochemical reaction that occurs naturally in cherry. After wiping away all excess oil I let the prefinish dry for two days. I completed the finish with a clear top coat of lacquer, although any clear coat will work fine.
I was quite pleased with the outcome of the table. Realizing this style may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think most woodworkers would have to agree on one thing. Using the free edge of boards sawn straight off the log and showcasing “defects” in the lumber clearly celebrates the material we all enjoy using so much. It instantly reminds us of just where all the wonderful wood we use comes from. PW
Sidebar: The Extraordinary Life of Nakashima
Among woodworkers, none has expressed through design and use an unabashed reverence for wood as a material like George Nakashima. He strongly believed the objects he designed and built were giving a once-living tree a second life, and it was his objective to allow the natural beauty of the wood he was working to showcase itself.
His design skills in furniture were absolutely unique, forging cross-cultural and cross-generational lines. You see in his furniture the western influence of modernism, Arts & Crafts and Shaker styles wonderfully blended with the simple yet powerful Japanese design, expression of materials and the exacting execution of woodworking skills.
He was born in Spokane, Wash., in 1905, and was awarded a master’s degree in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Later he traveled by steamer to Paris and Japan where he lived for a number of years. While there he became immersed in his Japanese heritage and worked in the Tokyo office of an architectural firm owned by a Czech- American. He was sent to India by the firm to supervise the construction of a building at an ashram. He returned to Japan briefly before returning home in 1940. Two years later, he and his family were interned with most Japanese-Americans living on the West coast as the United States went to war with Japan. At the Idaho internment camp he learned traditional Japanese woodworking methods from an older resident.
He was released from the camp and moved to eastern Pennsylvania where he established a home, shop and design studio. Over the years his furniture was collected by numerous wealthy clients. His work was exhibited by most major art museums. In 1952 he was awarded the Gold Medal of Craftsmanship by the American Institute of Architects, and in 1979 he was named a fellow by the American Crafts Council. In 1989, the American Crafts Museum in New York selected his work as the first exhibit in a series called “American’s Living National Treasures.” He died the following year. His workshop and studio continue to operate today under the direction of his Harvard-educated daughter, Mira Nakashima-Yarnall. The expression of his work, design and philosophical approach to both is wonderfully captured in his book, “The Soul of a Tree” published by Kodansha International Ltd. In it he wrote, “Each plank. . . can have only one ideal use. The woodworker must find this ideal use and create an object of utility to man, and, if nature smiles, an object of lasting beauty.”
Download the article as it appeared in the magazine (with illustrations):
Steve Shanesy is a former publisher of Popular Woodworking.