Design to Avoid the Perfect Storm - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Design to Avoid the Perfect Storm

 In Shop Blog

Every job has challenges, but some jobs involve a set of conditions that combine to create a challenge far greater than the sum of the parts. I recently completed a commission that qualifies; about 2/3 of the way through, I christened the job, a simple dining table, “The Perfect Storm.” (I feel a little guilty for giving the table this name. I mean, it’s not the table’s fault that it was so hard to make. The fault was mine.)

The good news is, if you’re designing a piece (or at least in a position to say a respectful “no” to select elements of a design you’ve been asked to build), you can be on the lookout for this kind of storm and ideally prevent it from sinking your commission.

The players

1. Size

My client had seen a table he loved on a furniture retailer’s website, but the table wasn’t available in the size he wanted: 5′ square. There’s a reason why dining tables aren’t readily available in this size. If you build one, you will understand.

25 square feet doesn’t sound bad; it’s considerably less than the 32 square feet in a standard sheet of plywood. But anyone who has worked with 5′-square sheets of Baltic birch will recognize the challenge of working with these proportions. Anything 5′ square is simply hard to handle. But that’s what custom furniture makers do: handle the jobs that others can’t be bothered with.

design to avoid the perfect storm

Size matters.

2. Weight

My client decided the table would look better with a top that finished at 1-3/4″ thick instead of the approximately 1-1/4″ I’d originally proposed. No sweat, I thought; I wanted to give him the look he preferred. According to this calculator, the extra thickness added roughly 38 lbs to what would have been 98 lbs. Not bad at all — unless you’re talking about 136 lbs at 5′ square.

design to avoid the perfect storm

Before taking the table top to be finished, I wanted to make sure it really fit. I know, this may sound ridiculous. But if you’ve ever assumed something, only to be bitten in the a$$, you’ll understand why it pays to check such details. Obviously, this photo was taken before I sanded and stained the base.

3. No overhang

Judging by the lack of overhang relative to the base, the table I was emulating was probably made with an m.d.f. top. Living in a region that experiences dramatic shifts in relative humidity from summer to winter, I know better than to build, in mid-summer, a table with a solid top and no overhang. By the middle of January, such a top would have shrunken inward from the apron, leaving an unsightly ledge. In view of this, I suggested a 1/2″ overhang on the sides and about 3/16″ on each end — minimal, to honor the aesthetic with which I was working, but sufficient to prevent problems from shrinkage.

If you have ever built a solid wood top with such minimal overhangs, you’ll be aware that any deviation from flat is going to show. In the case of this table, I’d made the top by joining eight boards. I alternated the grain to the extent that I could. (Yes, I’m aware that some people say this isn’t necessary to keep a top flat.) I also cut slots for lots of wooden buttons to attach the top to the base. But still… I would prefer to incorporate an overhang into any solid design that involves this kind of width. It’s what I call a sanity-enhancing measure, insofar as it minimizes the visibility of minor cupping and warping.

4. A fine-grained wood + semi-opaque dye and stain

I generally avoid semi-opaque finishes. First, it seems a shame to take gorgeous walnut boards, some of them with dramatic curl, and make the figure all but invisible. Second, I’ve learned the limitations of my shop: I have no good way of creating a flawless finish durable enough for a table top on finely grained wood with a semi-opaque coloring. Semi-opaque finishes can be devilish to pull off; every missed sanding scratch or drop of overlooked glue will stand out, and once you’ve all but obscured the wood’s natural grain and figure, there’s nothing to distract your eye from the kind of wear and tear most furniture is likely to get in ordinary use.

But this client is a super nice guy who knew what he wanted. I wanted the table to fulfill his vision.

I don’t spray in my shop, and this is not the kind of job you’d want to spray outside; the smallest gnat or bit of fluff from a late-season dandelion would ruin a coat, and with the semi-opaque color, you’d be taking your life in your hands if you tried to sand out a defect. (Google sand through.) This job was getting subbed out to a pro.

5. The perfect storm

This is where the factors above (at least, numbers 1, 2, and 4) achieved a fateful synergy. My full-size truck is not large enough to accommodate a 5′-square table top or base. I’d already planned to leave the top off the base for ease of transportation. But to avoid damage to the fine-grained walnut, not to mention the dark finish, I needed a vehicle large enough to lay the top down flat, padded with blankets, and then strap the top on it upside-down. My husband’s open trailer fit the bill. The only challenge was the weather; we had to get the table to the finishing shop on a clear day, early in the morning so my husband could get to his job site on time.

We got the base and top safely inside the finishing shop. I returned the following day to help the finisher turn the top over, because it was far too heavy, unwieldy, and vulnerable to damage for one person to handle — and I didn’t want anyone else to do the job. I’ve learned the hard way not to trust well-meaning people who offer to move high-stakes pieces of my work. I want to be the one to move them.

We had everything planned for delivery to the client’s home the morning I was scheduled to leave for a working trip to the east coast. I called the finisher the evening before, just to confirm we were still on. We weren’t.

6. Did I mention the perfect storm?

When you have a table this wide, it’s hard to reach the interior of the continent, so to speak, especially when spraying. On one attempt, David inadvertently allowed the hose to skim the table’s edge. On another try, some minute pieces of matting agent in the finish that had gone right through the filter made their appearance in the film. Had this table been unstained, it would have been so easy to deal with either of these (and subsequent) eventualities. But that semi-opaque color is a harsh taskmaster.

7. Obsessives ‘r’ us

Mindful of the lack of overhang, I decided to add some steel angle to the underside of the top. I chose 2-1/2″ angle for maximum resistance to deflection, given the 3″ deep apron, drilling oversize holes for lag screws I inserted through fender washers, to allow the top to expand and contract. The steel added an extra 28 or so pounds, which made delivering the table (on the open trailer, as a thunderstorm threatened to erupt) even more of a delight. But we made it in time, with just the merest spattering of raindrops on the well protected surface, and carried the top in with my client’s gracious help.

In a comment on my Instagram post, the client wrote “The table exceeds my expectations even more in quality and craft than it did in weight.” There’s no substitute for a sense of humor.

8. Lessons learned

I try to learn from every challenge. The point of this post is to share what I learned from this commission:

  • Pay attention to proportions.
  • Know that the combination of weight, unwieldiness, and unforgiving finish have the potential to raise your stress level (and affect your income).
  • Unless you have an ideal spray set-up (a temperature and humidity controlled, dust-free space), consider avoiding semi-opaque finishes for pieces involving large expanses. A few days after I left for my recent trip, a business acquaintance contacted me about a vanity cabinet that would have a semi-opaque finish. I told her that I am no longer taking on jobs that have to have this type of finish. Learning to say “no” graciously is an invaluable skill.

– Nancy Hiller 

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Showing 4 comments
  • ellenleonard100@gmail.com

    My friend Nelson always said woodworking is just addressing (if not solving) one problem after another. Your transparency about and fascination with challenges, “imperfections” and how to address the same is invaluable to this intermediate woodworker. Thanks for all your posts.

    • Nancy Hiller

      Thanks so much for your comment. “It’s all problems” was my first employer’s motto, one I’ve shared with many friends!

  • wldrylie

    The table looks marvelous set up in the dining room? I like the green chairs, the print ones not so much. You done good!

    • Nancy Hiller

      It was remarkable how the table, which had seemed so large in my shop, was the perfect scale for its destination. Although this wasn’t exactly a surprise — my client knew he wanted those dimensions and had carefully planned the room around the table and chairs — it was still amazing to see. I am endlessly fascinated by the ways in which dividing up a space, or filling it with furniture, can make the space seem larger. The chairs are my client’s choice, as was the aesthetic of the table in this case.

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