Sunday, October 26, 2014

Building a Lutyens Garden Bench -- Assembly and Completion

This bench has sat around the shop, half-completed, for more than a year now.  I guess there is something to be said about deadlines driving results and how you can lose inspiration in the middle of a long job.  I also think the fact that it is a project built from purchased plans takes away some of the joy.  I mean, you just read the instructions and you are home free, right?

Not quite.

The art nouveau lines, as elegant as they are, often point to less-than-elegant construction techniques. All those curvy bits have to be joined together and there is no way around some less-than-stable short grain appendages.  That being said, the designer did the best he could with what ends up being a very nice piece.

I departed from Taunton's plans in a couple of ways:

First, once I had the skeleton of the structure built I ignored the plans and worked off story sticks and my own actual measurements.  This is sort of a given on all custom furniture, but it is easy to forget when you get in paint by number mode.  Plus, nearly every set of plans I've worked with have at least one error and this was no exception.  To their credit, I seem to remember Taunton sending out an email correcting the errors in the plan.

Second, I replaced some of the tedious double dowelled tenons on the intricate back with more integrated domino joints.  It feels more secure and it has little effect on the glue-up choreography.  As with all domino/plate joiner work the most important thing to keep in mind is not "Is this perfectly centered?, but "Am I referencing the same faces when I use the tool.  I referenced the bottom (using the bottom plate on the mft table to cut the rails; placing a stop to match the bottom of that rail on the stile.) and the front of the piece using one of the stops on the domino face.  With a little concentration it went quickly.

The glue-up is complicated and you may want a patient assistant to ease the pain.  I used slow-setting epoxy for most of the large joints and dominoes but Titebond III for the dowels.  It was just easier to squirt glue into the round holes than coax the gooey epoxy into such a small space.  What can you say about a fancy glue-up?  As long as your marriage survives, and you arrive at the end with an assembled piece of furniture, it is best forgotten.

I used stainless steel screws, countersunk and topped by oak dowels to secure the seat slats and it will get several coats of Epiphanes Marine Varnish before it goes out in the Spring.  I hope to knock back the gloss finish with some steel wool to get a less plastic looking finish.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sunday ToolFoolery- My Festool Domino Work Triangle

I've never been one to engage in the bloodsport that is the handtool-vs-powertool debate.  We each come to the craft from a different perspective, with varying objectives, and with specific limitations on our time and budget.  I have as much respect for the woodworking Samurai who shapes each mortise with a chisel,  as the one who creates the flowing lines of a rocking chair with a keen eye and a bandsaw.

So it was only a matter of time before I embraced the Festool Domino (btw, I get nothing from Festool; I pay their cosmically stated rate on every purchase.)

And while I have no intention of of adding to the long list of breathless reviews for the tool, I have found that it works quite well in my shop where hand and power tools work side by side.  I call it my Domino Work Triangle and I think that it is a good system for repetitive tasks such as attaching aprons on small tables, inserting slats in arts and crafts pieces, and constructing rails and stiles in frame and panel construction.  You may already take a similar approach for slip-tenon joinery.

1.  A Mitre Saw on the Bench
One of the happiest days of my woodworking life was when I exiled the chopsaw from the studio and sent it to the garage.  Rough stock is cut to length with an old Disston, surfaced, and then cut to final length on my renovated Stanley mitre box.  It rides in the tool tray, has an adjustable stop, and generates a tiny amount of dust.  When stock is marked with a knife you can get very accurate, square cuts.

2. A Mitre Plane in a Shoot Board
A truly perfect joint requires that each edge be square and true.  As the Domino creates the perfect internal bits of a mortise-and-tenon joint, you are left to focus on creating a perfect fit between the shoulder and its mating piece.  Never has a tool that feels like such an indulgence proved to be so necessary.  It is astounding.  Because it weighs in at something like eight pounds, it glides through 2"x3" white oak end grain with ease.  The shoot board attaches to the other end of my handtool bench and doesn't interfere with the mitre box.  A few swipes takes me to the knife line.

3. A Domino on a Festool Work Table
In for a penny, in for a pound.  With a couple of commissions looming and several ideas for spec pieces in my head, I just didn't feel like building anything else for the shop.  I laid out the money for the mft system and I have no regrets.  This third leg of the triangle sits to the right of my bench and is light, strong, and provides another dead flat worktop for the Domino.  I know Fine Woodworking just did an article about jigs for the Domino, but I just clamp the work to the top and let it rip.  Instead of referencing off the top plate, I often use the bottom of the tool riding on the worktop.  On small pieces this provides more stability.

It goes without saying that this combination of kit comes at a price.  It does save me a great deal of time and allows me to spend most of my mental energy on design and details -- and design and details are reasons why someone commissions a piece of custom furniture.  But even if you are just building for yourself, there is something elegant about working with tools that do their jobs well and make your time in the shop successful and rewarding.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sunday Toolfoolery- Installing Threaded Brass Inserts By Hand

Some time ago I posted a video demonstrating how to use a drill press to install brass inserts into wood.  While you don't actually fire up the machine, you do take advantage of the steady, perfectly aligned down pressure provided by the tool.  That system works well with pieces that can be easily brought to the machine, but larger slabs require you to install them by hand.  And without the precision and heft of the drill press it is easy to get less than satisfactory results.

I also noticed, as I was ordering new hardware, that there are lots of general questions about these particular inserts.  I don't claim to be a world-class expert on these things, but I have come up with a couple of tricks that take the stress out of installing brass inserts by hand.

1.  Question Authority
The only instructions that come with inserts is a recommended diameter for the pre-drilled hole.  I don't know if it is result of sloppy manufacturing, or if there is some industrial process by which these get installed in a factory setting, but in my experience this number is often wrong.  I drill a couple of test holes in similar material with gradually increasing diameters.  I start with the recommended number and then another 1/32" larger and then another 1/16" larger.  Test the fit in each (the first will be very tight) and drill the appropriate hole in the actual project. 

This insert was installed using the recommended 3/8" diameter hole.  Even with the jig, it distorts the wood and looks botched.
For me, the right size is the hole that provides clearance for the body of the insert and enough purchase for the threads.  Oh, and do your self a favor and skip the screwdriver . .

I increased the diameter by a full 1/16".  The threads have plenty of grip and the insert does not distort the wood.

2.  Spend a Few Bucks on the Right Tool
For five dollars you can buy a purpose-built T-handle that screws into the insert and lets you bypass the chipped tops.  Again, this is just my experience, but the flat head screw grooves are better for removal - less so for insertion.  Armed with the new toy, a registration block (with a hole the diameter of the T-handle, drilled at 90 degrees to the workpiece) guides the insert.  I have a couple of holes drilled to deal with any tight spaces and I affixed sandpaper to the bottom to keep it still in use.

This seems like a lot of words on a simple task (akin to instructions on a bar of soap) but hopefully it will help you avoid unsightly mishaps on one of the last steps of a project.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A Contemporary Live-Edge Dining Table - Installing the Top

Everything about this piece revolves around supporting (both literally and aesthetically) the live-edge top.  We spent nearly two hours comparing several options at the hardwood supplier, deciding whether we wanted one wide slab or a bookmatched pair of boards that would net the required width.  A good rule of thumb is that a dining table should be between 30"-36" wide and allow 24" along the long dimension per person.  As this table will fit a small dining room we are opting for a slightly narrower width.

The customer fell in love with a slab that runs the full gamut of the black walnut colour palette - from blonde to gray, to purple, to deep brown.  The inclusion of sapwood is a personal choice that I fully support since it adds to the dramatic nature of the top.  This particular board has a large, stable knot in the center that not only creates a focal point, but generates a fair bit of figured grain.

There are many great tutorials on the web about how to flatten a top, so I won't go into too much detail here.  My experience is that these single slabs have a predominate concave/convex side and there may be some rationale about which should face up.  Our decision, however, was based entirely on appearance.  This meant that the underside (where I start the planing process) was the convex side.  I start with a scraper to remove any gunk, and plane at a 90 degree angle and toward the middle from each side with a 5 1/2 plane until I am taking shavings (more like fine splinters) from about 95% of the slab.  It is then generally time to resharpen, set the the plane to a finer cut, and then plane with the grain.  With the use of a straight-edge and a pair of winding sticks you can trust your eye to get it very close.

While I leave a planed surface on the underside, I eventually sand the top since the juxtaposition of a very fine top surface with the rough-and-ready live edge creates some nice visual tension.  I plane the top with the usual process and fill the void within the knot with dyed epoxy.  After sanding through the grits to 320, the top is ready to take its finish of Danish oil and paste wax.

Affixing the top to the base is the greatest engineering challenge.  I suspect that the top outweighs the base by a factor of about five to one, so any minor slack in the joinery becomes magnified.  I register the top along its center line with 1/2" oak pegs set into the frame. . .

And install four brass inserts into the underside of the slab. . .

These are attached to the base in slots that allow for a significant amount of seasonal wood movement.

I also attach thin leather pads along the mating surfaces to minimize any squeaks under normal use.  Hidden adjustable feet also help to stabilize the table regardless of the floor.

I'm very happy with this table, and with its semi-modular construction and easily renewable top, it should serve the customer well through the years.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Contemporary Live-Edge Dining Table - Designing and Building the Base

Creating bespoke furniture often means designing a piece that fits both the tastes of a client and a specific space in their home.   In this case we were looking to build a live-edge table, with the capacity to seat six, that could fit in a cozy dining room.

I really enjoy it when you can go as a team to the hardwood supplier and your customer signs off on the stock right from the start.  With a spray bottle of mineral spirits in hand, you share in the excitement of finding the perfect board (particularly important with live-edge pieces), and they appreciate the complexities and costs of building a fine piece of furniture.  It reminds me of why I do this in the first place.  We selected a slab of walnut for the top, took it to the studio, and set it aside.

The most important design decision was how I would construct the base.  After some back and forth I agreed to build a couple of models to illustrate our options.  I like making models because each can be saved for future reference and everyone gets a much better idea of the scale of the piece.  I also find that major joinery challenges show themselves long before you pick up a tool.

We selected the cantilevered option on the left and this led me back to the lumberyard to find a small slab for the base.  I then set about inlaying three functional-yet-decorative butterfly inserts in the wide crosspiece.

Contemporary furniture often lends itself well to the unobtrusive style of joinery offered by the domino system.  This piece, however, seemed to be better served by traditional western and Japanese mortise and tenon joints.  I  also got it into my head that I could make this table much stronger if I could make each joint self locking -- using the weight of the top to secure each connection.

The key bit of joinery is the angled support in the front -- fully bridled at the bottom and slipped in place at the top with the table support acting as a stop.  It holds the weight of the top, plus the weight of the builder, with ease.

Next Up:  Flattening and Surfacing the Top

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A pair of Arts and Crafts Bookcases - Design and Concept

A faux slip-tenon joint looks to blend an Arts and Crafts aesthetic with a more formal design

I'll not make too many excuses about the lack of posts during 2012 -- I'll just say that it has been a big year for landscaping and duplicate projects here at the studio.  If you are interested in our equally slipshod gardening blog, feel free to check out Heydonbury End.  I can't promise any consistency, but it is my second great passion.

But back to the studio.

Today's objective is to create a pair of bespoke bookcases in the Arts and Crafts tradition.  Stickley produced several iconic pieces that are worthy of duplication (Number 719 or Number 700), but as these bookcases will bridge an area between an informal family space and a more traditional office, the design should be a bit less imposing and compatible with both styles.

The wider of the two bookcases in its initial form

 Arts and Crafts (for most of us) generally means quarter-sawn white oak and some degree of exposed joinery.  Part of its appeal is an almost architectural mass -- a little oak fortress dominating a room.  I'm lightening the look by using frame and panel construction and combining straight-grained rails and stiles with quarter-sawn panels.

Very shallow grooves are cut in the panels to accept straight-sawn battens

 If the figure on the panels looks suspiciously regular, it is because I'm using veneered plywood from Russell Plywood.  There are a couple of reasons for this choice.  As these bookcases will not have doors, the back panels will be very visible, and I'm not looking to do any sort of ship-lapping oak or painting poplar. Also, at 32" and 40" in width, the re-sawing and gluing up would drive the price out of the client's budget.  It seems a practical and attractive compromise.

Coming up:  A look at the light-yet-strong joinery that keeps it together, as well as the faux slip-tenon joint that I quite like.  Thanks!

In case you are interested, this is the Japanese-style garden that I designed and built throughout the year -- at the cost of much shop time!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Building A Lutyens Garden Bench -- The Base Comes Together

So far, the most difficult part of the project has been the sheer size and weight of the stock.  Here in Chester County, PA I have ready access to 8 inch wide, 12 foot long, 8/4 white oak.  But hauling it around the shop, cutting it to the proper dimensions, and surfacing it becomes a big issue.  In order to save my back I cut each piece to +/- 6 inches (to allow for snipe) of its final length.  I don't even think about using the table saw to cut to width because of the extreme internal movement of flat-sawn white oak.  In fact, it wants to twist so much during sawing that even the band saw is out of the question.  Out comes the rip saw and wedges, and once chilly shop seems a bit steamy.

I cut this about 1/4" oversize, let it sit for a couple of days and pass one edge and one face on the jointer, then use the thickness planer to reach my final width and thickness.

The Back Legs
The most complicated element of the base is the back leg segment.  In order to achieve the necessary heft, you must face glue two, 3 1/2" by 2" pieces of stock and band saw out the rough profile.  I entertained notions of using two pieces of stock and fashioning some fancy scarf joint, but this bout of insanity passed and I went with the most straight-forward approach.  The key is position your template so that you hide the glue line on the lower half of the leg.

 I trace the template and rough cut each leg on the band saw.  Outside faces are smoothed easily with a hand plane.

The inside faces are worked first with the hand plane, then a spoke shave, then a quick pass on the spindle sander at the interior angle.  Once the two pieces match I use the template to cut them to length with each end sporting the proper angle.

Rails and Stiles
Like it or not, the next part of the project enters into the realm of chair making -- and I always find this both fascinating and slightly complicated.  I like making chairs, and it is not really difficult if you can keep all of the angles straight in your head and remain mindful of the forces at work.  While I won't attempt to give a step-by-step tutorial, it is easy to keep some general notions in mind:

Looking at a side view, all rails join the front leg at a 90 degree angle.  They join the angled back leg at matching obtuse/acute angles depending on whether they meet above or below the back leg bend.

The dry fit looks good, the gaps are because I have it pulled slightly apart.

Looking at a front view, all rails join at a 90 degree angle (there is no "splay") and follow the lines of the leg to which it connects.  This means that they are 90 degrees to the ground in the front, and angled along the same lines on the back.

All joinery is done with loose tenons.  Mortices that are on the faces of boards are done using the router fence . . .

. . . Or in my ugly-but-useful morticing jig.

End grain mortices can be a bit more challenging.  Short pieces fit in the jig . . .

Long pieces require a bit of a high-wire act, which looks worse than it actually turned out to be . . .

I like to cut one mortice, place it against its mating piece, and then transfer the dimensions of the first mortice.  This ensures that the joint will be properly aligned and that the loose tenon will have a snug fit (oxymoron alert!)

I've also found it useful in these situations ("found it useful" as in made the mistake of not remembering to) cut one piece from the plans, complete a dry-fit, and cut the remaining pieces with a story stick from the semi-assembled piece.  This is important as I am prone to adjust the dimensions from the plans as I go along.  Looking at the side view dry-fit above, I see that the lower side rail will need to be re-cut, as it seems to be about 1/4" shy.  Working with loose tenons makes these kind of mistakes less catastrophic.

The dry-fit, with the curved seat supports in place, shows me that I am on the right track (with one exception.)  Normally, I would think about a sub-assembly at point, but the complicated nature of the seat back joinery makes this impossible.  And we'll tackle this next time.  Cheers!