Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Collaborating on an Arts and Crafts Coffee Table - Building the Base

One of the enjoyable things about building in the arts and crafts style is that you are offered a wide variety of joinery options.  As I was working with a friend who was newish to furniture building and who was interested in construction techniques, I thought we'd go through the paces with both full on machine, machine-assisted, and hand-cut joints.

The Back and Side Aprons
When I bought the Domino I was afraid that I would lean on it a bit too much when I designed a piece, but this is the only place where I broke it out,  Very straightforward using the largest size bit.

The Bottom Stretchers
Wedged through tenons give the table a solid look and feel.  I used my newly improved mortise router jig to do the bulk of the removal and squared it with a chisel.  We rough-cut the tenons on the table saw and my friend Andy used a router plane to dial in the fit.  We will wedge the tenons after the initial steps of the finish are applied.

The slight gap at the top and bottom will be closed when we drive home the wedges

The Front Apron/Stretcher
Old school dovetail joint is hand cut assures that the table stays square.  It is narrower than the back apron to provide easy access to the shelf.  We also decided to eliminate the drawers in order to maximize this space.

Double sided tape hold the tail in place to mark the mortise

The Lattice Shelf
Flat-sawn white oak is cut into 1 1/2 strips and then turned ninety degrees to expose the ray pattern.  Once one is marked we gang them up on the tablesaw (equipped with a dado blade) and cut the lot.  These will trimmed to size and chamfered during our next work day.

Everything is left oversized until we look at the final proportions

All that remains are a few final steps and to begin the multi-step finishing process.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Collaborating on an Arts and Crafts Coffee Table - Gluing Up the Top with Breadbord Ends

Arranging and finishing a quarter-sawn white oak top offers a set of unique challenges.  Unless you have a large inventory of stock to draw from, you will likely be flipping and switching the boards around in a way to take advantage of the signature ray fleck pattern.  Once it works for you visually, chances are that the grain will be running in both directions along the top.   This table was no exception.

What this means, of course, is that you won't be pulling out a plane to level the individual boards or create a final finish -- it will be scraped and sanded into submission.  This is not too onerous if you take special care during the glue up.

The objective is to have the boards so straight and square that they practically guarantee a positive result.  Dimensioning the stock over several days helps tame the natural wood movement and a full scale dry-run predicts the outcome.  I happen to prefer pipe clamps, but Rob Porcaro over at Heartwood makes a compelling case for Jet bar clamps. 

I spring the joints on this 2'x4' glue up and use only enough pressure to get a uniform bit of squeeze out from the two middle clamps.  If I am wrestling and wrenching it, something has gone wrong in the preparation and this should have shown itself during the rehearsal.  The outer clamps need very little pressure.  If all goes well the greatest variation across the top will be less than 1mm.
After drying overnight, it took less than an hour to scrape and sand the top flat to 180 grit.  Still over sized, it was time to create and install the breadboard ends.

This top is +/- 1" thick so the tongue and groove will be cut at 3/8".  This is driven as much by my tooling (I have a 3/8" spiral router bit and a 3/8" pig sticker mortise chisel) as by convention.  I cut the blind groove first, dropping it down on the router bit in a series of passes (I hate this move) until I get the desired 5/8" depth.  After marking, I mortise the breadboard "tails" by hand.

I used my usual approach to using a router to cut the breadboard tenons and cut them to within 1/16" by machine.  A series of handsaws cut the profiles and rabbet and shoulder planes fine tune the thickness of the tail.

The extended length or "horns" on the end help while you are test fitting, and my goal is to have it just snug enough to slide into place with a few well-placed blows with the side of my fist.

The last step is to plane the final thickness of the ends.  This is a judgement call, but I like to have them just proud of the top, ensuring that all end grain is covered, but not so high as they might get caught and chipped during normal use.  I slide the end out about 1/2" and protect the top with masking tape.  From this point it is just a matter of test fitting until you are happy.

I secure it in my normal way (coincidentally, Jeff Branch just did a SketchUp version of breadboard ends which is a nice demonstration of this process) and take a look at how the proportions are working out.

Next up, we work on the legs and base construction.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Collaborating on an Arts and Crafts Coffee Table - Concept and Design

Drawing from a number of sources, I built this model to get us started.
I have a friend who has some woodworking experience and is interested in building his first serious piece of furniture.  Given that what we do is a pretty solitary business, I jumped at the chance to help him design and build a mission-style coffee table for his home. Working side-by-side, over the course of several days, the plan is to complete the piece and build a few skills along the way.

I've put a decent amount of thought into this, and it seems that I need to keep three questions in mind - questions that may be slightly different than I work alone:

How do I make the experience interesting?
Every project has its share of mind-numbing repetitive tasks.  I'm cool with that, but is he ready for the fatigue that sets in during the twelfth half-lap joint or during the long process of trimming a tenon with a router plane?  In conversation I tend to fill the empty space with blather, if I do that over the course of ten hours I'll be exhausted.  Plus, how do I avoid pushing a bunch of useless busy work off on him?

I suspect that the answer to all of these questions is to think through every step, anticipate most hang-ups, and create a task-by-task work plan that encompasses the entire project from start to finish.  This is not my usual approach - even when we went to get the stock I was just working off the model with a vague sense of what we need (about twelve board feet of 5/4 quartersawn white oak, enough 8/4 flatsawn white oak to make the legs, and something like one twelve ft long, eight inch wide board of 5/4 flatsawn oak.)  Teaching, even in this very informal way, takes much more organization than doing.

I hope this list of tasks will make good use of our time.
How do I ensure that the piece lives up to our shared expectations?
When we discussed the table, I Googled  "arts and crafts coffee table image" and asked him to pick his favorites.  A search like this runs the gamut from classic pieces to awkward knock-offs.  He picked a couple photos and I drilled a little deeper with open questions like "What do you like about these tables?" and more focused requests such as "So you really want drawers and a shelf below?"  The image that he really liked was a bit awkward and I told him I'd give it some thought.

This is where it gets tricky.

My part of the "shared expectation" is that I want to build furniture that has good lines as well as sound, attractive construction.  I figured that I should spend a few hours building a model that met his technical requests and improved upon the design he selected.  I was pleased that once he took a look at the altered design (replacing the heavy board on the bottom with lattice-work and adding breadboard ends with walnut handles and accents) he liked it better than his first choice.  Sometimes I have to be reminded that customers are generally pretty open-minded and they trust you to bring your own ideas into play

How do I keep us both safe?
Banging on about safety is boring and condescending - but it has to be thought about.  If you work in a shop your level of caution automatically adjusts to the potential danger (turned up to 11 around the table saw, slightly less at the jointer, even less at the drill press.)  But if this unfamiliar ground, you have no idea about the many ways you can injure yourself in the shop.  I think we will start with an adult conversation about what he feels comfortable doing, a rundown on the dangers associated with each tool, and how I will supervise until we are both comfortable.  Most important, we will have an absolute rule that he will stop if it doesn't feel right. 

I think he will work with hand tools for the most part.  They come with their own set of risks but they are usually more rewarding.  And since there will be some machines involved, this gives me an opportunity to take a hard look at my jigs and templates to make sure that they are both safe and sturdy.

This will be a fun project and a chance to share time with a good friend who is enthusiastic about woodworking.  I'll post an update in a couple of weeks, and later this week I'll begin a contemporary ash bench with sculpted edges.