Thursday, December 16, 2010

Shaker Side Tables: Designing and Creating Imperfection #1

The third in this series of three shaker tables is a bit of a departure. During my last long cycle ride of the season I stumbled upon, quite by accident, the relocated Amish school in Nickel Mines, PA.  I was taken by the beauty of the day, the autumn weather, and the sheer joy of the children outside playing baseball.  I was amazed at how such beauty could exist so close to such tragedy; our own imperfection lying so close to our innocence.

On the long ride home I wrote some words in my head and sort of put those feelings aside -- until I saw this bit of wood leaning up against the wall at one of my hardwood suppliers.  There, next to a stunning bit of figure, ran two long cracks that rendered the wood virtually worthless -- except if you were willing to accept the beauty and the imperfection side by side.

So instead of building a double drawer sewing stand, I'll be using this board to create Imperfection #1, a tilt-top round table -- inspired by Shaker design.  And because of the size of this board, most of the cutting, smoothing, and shaping will need to be done by hand tools -- with some exceptions. I'll be using the pedestal base that I built a couple of weeks ago and fashioning a simple "bird cage" tilting mechanism.  So here goes.

Using a hand saws I crosscut and ripped this to about 120% of its finished size.  While crosscutting, the kerf snapped closed and I had to wedge it to finish the cut.  Duly noted.

The next order of business was to address the severe cupping inherent in a board like this.  I started on what will be the underside of the table to get a sense of how difficult this will be to work.  The crotch figure is fine -- almost like working a hard burl, no tearout, especially with the low angle jack.  There is one area (near the knot that I have eliminated) that wants to tear out regardless.  I pulled out my Stanley #80 cabinet scraper and worked that area.  I'm looking to get this fairly level but not perfect as I don't know how this will move given some of the stress.

I needed to take down something in tha area of 3/16" on the sides of the top, and a similar amount from the middle of the bottom.  Starting with my much-loved Stanley 5 1/2 used as a scrubber, I went after the top.  The low angle was great on the middle figure on the bottom -- and curiously -- a spokeshave put a nice sheen on this underside (I mean, why? One is low angle; the other is high angle!)

When I had this to somewhere in the vicinity of 1/32" flat I called it quits.  There were more cuts to come (that might unleash the tension I'd already seen) and I was going to be banging it around a bit (so it was sure to pick up some scratches.)  In order to figure out the layout of the circular top, I used two spring clamps and a length of old bandsaw blade set to a diameter of 21 inches. I drilled a 3/8" hole in center and used my circle-cutting jig on the bandsaw to cut this to size. 

So, if you think handling a naked bandsaw blade as a template looks dangerous, then we're just getting started.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and my own conscience require me to toss up all kinds of red flags at this point.  If what what follows next doesn't seem like the scariest thing I've ever done on a table saw, it will do until a scary thing gets here.  So even with all the caveats about guards, eye protection, and staying very aware of the moving blade, I'm not recommending this method to anyone.

At 21 inches, this top was too big to put on my lathe to taper the edge (which is about 1 inch thick and too clunky for my taste.)  I suppose that if I had an outboard rig I could strap it on there, but most of the work would have you pushing the top away from the headstock, without a tailstock to back it up.  So this is a non-starter.  Recently, I read an article about using your table saw to taper the curved end of a table top.  You hoiked it up on edge, angled the blade, and ran it through in a series passes, sanding the rough spots after you were done.  I thought, "Why not turn this up to 11" and do an entire circle in this manner.

So I created a set-up, with the help of my tenoning jig, that allowed me to angle the work back about 15 degrees from the blade.

I then used the same 3/8" hole on the bottom that affixed it to my bandsaw circle-cutting jig, and built a support to hold the top against this board so that it would stay in place, yet turn freely.  I started by taking a pass, rotating it 10 or so degrees, then taking another pass.  Here it is, part way through.

As you can see, there is a bit of burning that took place -- a direct result of the slight wobble in this somewhat flimsy jig.  And in spite of the terror it invoked when I crawled atop the saw and gave it a final 360 degree turn, whilst centered against the blade, I will use this method again.  I'll just build a much larger, purpose-built, jig that will be more solid than this arrangement.

In contrast to this two-hours-of-jig-building-and-45-seconds-of-terror experience, I was happy to get to some hand work.  I started by scribing a reference line about 1/2" from the table top along the edge. . .

. . . And then worked it to an even reveal along the edge and on the back. "Ahhh, what a piece of work is a spokeshave, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving."

 Next, I will layout, cut and install the butterfly keys, build the tilt-top mechanism, and install it on its base.

Thanks for looking, and please let me know what you think!


  1. Oh dear, I really didn't need to know about the "turn it up to 11" scary stuff. I may need to hire someone to watch over you when I'm not around :)

  2. what a wonderful blog, I like this project

  3. How much are you paying to watch Chris? I'm available and I'll clean the house while I'm not watching him or running with him or going for hikes with him or going for rides with him.

    Let me know - no BFAO's either!

  4. oops that was supposed to read BAFO's, not BFAO's

  5. Julio- Gracias -- Thanks for the kind words. Feel free to add to the conversation! En ingles o espanol. Yo hablo un poco de espanol!

  6. Another great blog. I think you have considered and managed all the safety risks quite well. Expressing your concerns shows a healthy respect for the dangers. It would be a shame if we stopped being creative because we were too scared to take risks. You have uncovered a real gem in that piece of wood.

  7. Oh boy, I was wondering what to do with a piece of the 25" wide hemlock I got from a friend's barn. This will not be it. Seriously, though- gorgeous wood, great idea, and very "interesting" technique.

  8. Nice piece of wood and you are much more brave than I am. I recently bought a #80 cabinet scraper knock-off. I used it for the first time on one my current project, but just like all of my hand tools, I don't think I have it tuned up right. Can't wait to see the finished table.

  9. I am a perfectionist, I am imperfect. This is an important lesson for us all to learn and it doesnt detract one bit of value from our person. Love the table top, cant wait to see it finished!! Careful with that table saw ;)

  10. My whole groin contracted when I saw your set-up on the table saw. I don't possess a table saw; they scare me too much. However, I have to hand it to you for not only having a go, but also blogging about it in the likelihood of all manner of criticism and ridicule. So far, so good!

  11. Thanks for the comments!

    Pablo- I think you are right about trying to do your design work outside of the parameters of the technology you own. In the end the biggest risk was damaging the piece or damaging the saw. A better jig will make a big difference.

    Dave- I love wide bits of wood, and everytime I work them I learn sonething new about grain and my own impatience!

    Jeff- The #80 is great (I just picked up a #12 that needs a new blade) I'm no expert but the secret is in the setup and sharpening. Let me know if you want to have a conversation about my "system"

    Cyrus - Thanks! I agree with you (and with James Krenov) that the real action around interesting furniture making will take place in the shops of indivdual artisans (in my case, journeymen!) We are the only ones who can take a piece of wood like the above and say "What does this say?"

    Jack - Mine, too (literally!) I rationalized the approach since I gleaned the idea from a reputable magazine. That being said, a better rig that keeps the work rock solid, will make this method no more dangerous than a rip cut. Allowing people to buy table saws without a license reminds me of when I moved to the UK and they handed me a set of car keys -- no questions asked. Someone could get hurt!

  12. Thanks, Tom -- I hope you get some time in the shop -- but working and supporting your new album isn't a bad second choice!

  13. Christopher - I would like to send you a email. Mine is Can you send me your email please?

  14. your article very inspiration me, thanks for your tips .