Monday, October 25, 2010

Shaker Side Table: Variations on a Theme

It seems that the Shaker aesthetic has never left us.  Grabbing just a handful of my hoarded stash of Woodwork Magazines results in a dizzying array of articles on Shaker design, techniques,construction, and finish.  And like any truly elegant form, it has survived endless adaptations and "improvements" with most of its dignity intact (Shaker entertainment units excepted.)

Sadly though, Sister R. Mildred Barker's fears have come true.  "I would like to be remembered as one who had pledged myself to the service of God and had fulfilled that pledge as perfectly as I can -- not as a piece of furniture."  It seems that the beauty of their creations has outlived the integrity of their lifestyle

But just as it is impossible to separate the music of The Clash from the punk ethos of the '70's, or the fierce cave drawings from early hunter-gatherers, the stark furniture of this radical, short-lived movement opens our minds to the Shaker emphasis on simplicity and fitness-for-purpose.  Good words to use when designing furniture.

We're lucky to have several outstanding interpreters of Shaker design who are very willing to share their expertise on the subject.  At the top of the list is Christian Becksvoort, whose book The Shaker Legacy: Perspectives on an Enduring Furniture Style pays homage to the history, theology and output of this surprisingly varied sect of believers.  I will be building three tables -- the Sewing Stand (pictured above), the Round Stand (below left), and the Two-Drawer Sewing Stand (below right).  While Becksvoort's book does not include plans or drawings, the excellent In the Shaker Style: Building Furniture Inspired by the Shaker Tradition does include some measurements, but due to my contrary nature, I am using these as a reference, not as a template.

Speaking of Templates:
Because of the Spartan design, every element becomes very important -- none more so than the curves and proportions of the legs.  Both the Round Stand (RS) and the Two Drawer Sewing Stand (TDSS) feature sinuous flattened cyma-curved legs, dovetailed into the post.  A simple method to create the dovetails while the post is on the lathe is woodworking's worst-kept secret, and I will cover it later.

For now, the challenge is to draw the profile of the legs and cut them out by hand or machine (When you see photos of clean-cut, smiling' Shakers standing next to their industrial-age machines, you won't feel that you are violating their spirit by firing up the router.)  I have never been happy with the "Draw Spunky" approach of looking at a small drawing on a grid, drawing a larger grid to scale, and then attempting to draw the design to scale on the grid.  I never seem to fair the curves properly.  "Hey, wait a minute, fairing a curve reminds me of that boat-building class that I took."  "How did we fair curves?"  "With a spline." "Right."

So my hybrid approach is to draw out the leg via the grid, cut it to shape (which may or may not be perfect), cut some 1/16" thick splines and hot glue the splines to the template.  If you have a light hand you can follow the cyma-curve but not reproduce the little bumps and flat spots that come with trying to sand the template to shape.  The result looks something like this:

Right off the bat you notice how the spline avoids the little imperfections and fairs the curve.  Just make sure that you secure one end of the spline and ease it into place, holding it lightly, and then securing the other end.  Hold for a few seconds and you are done.  I also have a 1/2" block at the end with a lip that fits into the dovetail portion of the leg and references the piece. Also note (on the center template) that I ran the splines off the end.  That allows you to rout off the end cleanly.  And make sure that you use proper template routing techniques.  Entering your cut on endgrain will make the piece explode.  I don't usually have problems if I climb cut, but be sensible and hold on.

The legs for the Single Drawer Sewing Stand (SDSS) are of the cabriole/snake leg variety and I will work on that, as well as the three pedestal designs in the next post.

1 comment: