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.


  1. "Most important, we will have an absolute rule that he will stop if it doesn't feel right."

    I once had a friend's adult son in my shop working on a jewelry box. I could tell immediately tell he was uncomfortable with the big spinning blade on my miter saw. Your rule is a prudent one.

    Looking forward to seeing the project come together.

  2. Thanks Jeff. We are getting together later this week and I hope to have the top glued up and the legs morticed.

  3. Its awesome designs of Arts and Crafts Coffee Table