In Shop Blog, Techniques

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I always enjoy tours of tool factories to see people (or robots) make things that are useful to my work. How a company can harness hundreds of minds and hands and mechanical pincers to produce things is fascinating, and every tour is surprising and different.

In that spirit, I’ve decided to draw back the curtain on one of our future projects for Woodworking Magazine so you can get a glimpse of how we put together a single project for publication. It is my sincere hope that this does not end up resembling Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”

Every article that gets published is the smallest germ of the sometimes-twisty and always-lengthy process that proceeds it. These weblog entries will be the raw, unedited and likely somewhat embarrassing tale of what we’re calling The Creole Table. Ã? 

It begins with the mailman. About two months ago, the April 2006 issue of Early American Life showed up in my mailbox at home. It’s one of the many sources I scour for project ideas , not that we really need ideas for stuff we want to build. But we constantly search for ideas because we’re looking for projects that illustrate several ideas and techniques and tools that we want to explore in a particular issue. As you might have noticed, each issue of the magazine has some converging undercurrents flowing through it. That’s actually planned. Honest.

On page 16 of Early American Life, I hit paydirt. There was a photo of a late 18th-century Louisiana Creole side table in walnut with French-style cabriole legs and a gorgeously curved apron. Despite the fact that the table was trying to put on aristocratic airs, it was undeniably a more rural American piece. It had energy. It was simple and honest. It had fetched $54,625 at a recent auction. And it taught two important skills we’ve been itching to explore: template routing and compound curve-cutting.

The template routing offered by the piece was elementary but would produce some very professional results. And the cabriole leg is a far, far simple form found more on French pieces than on American ones. American cabrioles, such as those on Queen Anne furniture, curve out from the apron and can have carved feet. These curved in. No carving.

I showed the piece to the other editors, and we agreed to build a prototype and see if it was worth building for real. So the next step was to get a good drawing and some even better walnut.

For the drawing, we’ll usually sketch up a prototype in VectorWorks, a CAD program that works on Macs (most publishing houses are all-Apple). But if you’ve ever made a cabriole leg you know that getting a fair leg is an enormous challenge. My 3D CAD modeling skills are limited (OK, almost non-existent), so I called on John Hutchinson, a Columbus, Ohio, architect and woodworker who does our technical illustrations for Popular Woodworking. I think we’re one of his hobbies. John is a wiz in Autodesk, the professional gold standard in CAD. Within a week he had whipped up full-size templates of all the curved parts based on a scaled scan of the original piece.

First the good news: the table would require little material and the leg shape was remarkably simple. Bad news: The leg stock would have to be 2-1/4″ thick. While we could make the legs by laminating some thin stock, that would be a high-wire act to get the glue line right on the corner of the leg.

It was time to hunt through Donnie’s garage.

Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 4 comments
  • Christopher Schwarz


    I should do an article on that. Truth is, it’s a very long and odd list, from digital image libraries on the internet to out-of-print furniture books.

    Quick example: For traditional furniture, I turn to Wallace Nutting’s "Furniture Treasury" and Nutting’s "Furniture of the Pilgrim Century" — both of which are commonly available on the used book circuit.

    We also rely on the auction catalogs from Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which regularly hold auctions of American furniture. Plus "The Magazine Antiques" and "Early American Life" are good magazine sources for interesting objects (and stories).

    There are also a number of craftsmen working in this style, obviously, so it’s interesting to see what forms they’re building and what’s popular with customers.

    A good example of one of these sites is "Heart of the Wood":

    And those are the sources I can think of on a Monday morning. There are probably a dozen more for traditional furniture. And there’s a similar list for Arts & Crafts, Shaker, Contemporary and so on.

    We’ll give it some thought. It could be a good weblog entry or story.


  • Rod

    I’d be interested in hearing more about the sources of your project ideas, and which books, magazines, and other media are fruitful for that. That might be a good article in itself. I know there have been articles in Popular Woodworking in the past few years about what to do once you had a photo or drawing, and how to scale a project, but not on where to look for that initial inspiration.

  • Andy

    Chris, you wrote that "each issue of the magazine has some converging undercurrents flowing through it." In my opinion, this is one of the best features of Woodworking Magazine! Can’t wait to read the article on the Creole table.

  • Gene O'Rourke

    I, too, love seeing how "stuff" is created. Especially the stuff that many of us take for granted. I’m already fascinated by this thread… keep it coming!

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