furniture making

Desk Finishing – I

With the construction finally completed it was time to dive into the part of the project that had no down side, the part where it was all fun all of the time — finishing.  In my back-and-forth with the client I decided to shoot for a non-filled-grain look, a general tonal consistency, and with craqueleure underneath the the final surface.  In short my overall strategy for the process was to have the desk looking like it was “old but well-cared-for,” looking new was not part of the plan, nor was “antiquing” nor “distressing.”

Since the desk was small and convoluted I intended to finished almost all of the pieces prior to final glue-up.  So the full glory of it was not revealed until nearly the last step when all the pieces were put together.  Finishing each piece separately required a careful masking of all the surfaces that were glued together in that assembly.

The first step was to lay down a few seal coats of garnet shellac brushed on in three or four applications of a one pound cut.  This allowed me to get a good sense of how I needed to shift the visual coloration and tone of the pieces to bring them into harmony.  I would make no attempt to make each and every piece identical to the other, that was nonsensical given the variety of grain directions, etc. involved, but simply to bring everything closer en suite.

For the most part the starting point for this shifting was accomplished via the addition of dyes to the garnet shellac being brushed on.  I am loathe to employ chemical stains to bare wood as part of the finishing exercise; they are simply too difficult to control for an equal outcome when the starting points are different, and when they do not behave their reversal (removing the surface of all the wood) induces foul language in the shop.

By building the finish with dyed coatings the depth of the wood’s beauty soon emerged forcefully.

I built the finish steadily, five coats becoming ten, then fifteen.  I smoothed all of the flat surfaces by scraping with razor blades and the curved surfaces with pumice pads and before long I was ready for the home stretch.

But the real magic of final blending of the coloration, along with imparting craqueleure, was achieved in the next step.

Stay tuned.

Writing Desk – Final Pieces of the Puzzle

With the light shining at the end of the tunnel, in hopes that it was not an oncoming train there were but a few more elements to fashion and fit and the desk construction would be complete.  Sort of.  In fact the final assembly did not take place until after the individual pieces were finished, but more about that later.  This final construction phase would perhaps be better named the final fitting phase.  This included the two top sections, one the writing surface and the other the horizontal back piece all cut from the same mahogany slab, and a little extra enhancement.  The back (horizontal) piece of the top was thinner than the writing surface by 1/4″ in keeping with the original.

The “construction” of the top pieces was ordinary to the point of mundane.  They only had to be cut to the right size for the places, planed and scraped with a rounded edge planed onto them, then fitted together in a butt joint.

Before the top was glued onto the sides with glue blocks it was the proper time to make the drawer stop.  I used a preposterously simple technique I have seen in many small-ish pieces of early 19th Century styled furniture like this replica.  A simple flat head wood screw served the purpose perfectly, with the additional benefit that as the dimensions of the case or drawer changed over time to to moisture cycles and any resultant compression set, the depth stop could be easily adjusted infinitely.

On final little whimsy was to add a hidden “whisky shelf” immediately above the drawer.  Since the top was slanted and fixed there was a fairly spacious void above the drawer, and it was not uncommon for a small shelf to be included inside to that a flask of libations could be kept there.  I made a “U” shaped shelf that could be accessed when the drawer was pulled part-way out, then tacked the shelf on to the fixed drawer guide rails with a spot of hot animal hide glue.

And now it was on to the finishing.

Writing Desk – Roundels and Straight Moldings

Though a minor piece of real estate on the desk, the roundels were certainly visually prominent.  Thanks to my four-jaw chuck on the lathe making them was a breeze.

My first step was to make a cylinder from some of the mahogany then turn the roundel profile on the end of the cylinder.  Once the profile was satisfactory I scored the lip of the roundel with a turning chisel then sawed off the circular wafer right on the lathe.

I repeated the process until I had excess roundels, then glued them in place.

In addition to the roundels there were bits of applied moldings to the field and bottom perimeter of the writing box and along the edges of the shelf.  After spending numerous hours making the curved moldings on the legs these seemed like a holiday.

I simply cut the moldings on the edges of a board then ripped them off for application to the surface of the box.

The half-round string moldings in the field of the writing box allowed me to use a set of pinch clamps I’d made years before.  These were featured in a Popular Woodworking article some time ago.

The only construction left to accomplish was to complete the top of the desk, then it would be on to the best part — finishing!

Writing Desk – Spindles

Making and installing the spindles that would tie together the shelf and the writing box was the last major complex fabrication step for the desk.  It was also perhaps the most stress inducing aspect of the whole project; it was not difficult per se, just a very fussy layout exercise with zero margin for error.

The turnings themselves were straightforward.  I made a measuring template and a sample to send to the client, and got to work after getting approval.  Turning premium vintage mahogany is a delight.  Some of the details of the spindles even provided the opportunity to make and modify some tools.  Since each spindle had several half-round elements of just under 1/8″ it was worth my time to take a no-account old turning chisel from the drawer and regrind the tip to the right profile to make it effortless to work.  I tried it out on a sample to make sure then proceeded apace.

I needed to make sure that the spindles were precisely sized, as their installation required sliding them up through the holes in the shelf and into the corresponding holes in the underside of the writing box.  I spent more time laying out, then checking and double checking before drilling the holes.  I was relieved that they all went in exactly as planned.

The fussiest part of the whole undertaking was fitting the two spindles on either side of the shelf.  These had to be drilled and fitted into the underside of not the writing box but rather the “ears” of the legs.  Careful layout and a steady hand served me well.

Writing Desk — Shelf

The final few steps of the construction phase of the desk project were to make and fit the mid-level shelf, make install the single and double beading moldings on the box, turn and install the spindles that suspended the shelf from the underside of the writing box, and turn the roundels that adorned the “ears” of the legs.  Each of these operations will be dealt with separately beginning with the shelf (I’m not sure I’m getting the blogging order correct, but you’ll get the whole picture by the time I finish).

The mid-level solid slab shelf was partly cantilevered off the “leg” units, fitted into notches on the double bead moldings on the edge of the leg and sitting on simple glue-block brackets on the insides of the legs.  Placing and affixing the shelf was pretty fussy work, nothing especially complex but the key was working slowly and carefully.  I started by tacking a scrap into the location of the support blocks on the legs and rested the shelf slab on them to get the notching on the moldings correct, easily.  (The actual finished mahogany support blocks will be visible in the offering about the spindles upcoming)

With the shelf slab sitting on the temporary supports I marked the locations of the notches on the moldings with a fine saw, then excavated with the saw and chisels.

The fit was darned near perfect, especially once I beveled the contact edge on the shelf where it connected with the notch.

At this point the only further work on the shelf per se was to add double beading on the edges, using a bronze scratch stock tool from LNT, followed by my home made scratch stock to removed the shoulders of the profile.

Gragg Chair Video Day 1

Recently we had our first day of production for the “Making A Gragg Chair” video.  We had been waiting for several weeks to get a beautiful day to film outside while I harvested the wood for making the chairs that will be documented in the video.  Full disclosure — I will actually be making three chairs more or less simultaneously so that we can use subsequent production days most efficiently, getting several consecutive steps recorded on the same day by having three chairs at different points of the construction.

So this beautiful day was spent splitting wood up the mountain with wedges and sledges, then on to a mallet and froe in the riving brake next to the barn.  The setup for the latter was new to me so it was a bit awkward getting into the swing of things, but due to the magic of video editing it might actually look like I know what I am doing.

We also shot the introduction to a Special Feature we will be including on the video, and probably on the web as well, as we record the entire process of me conserving my own damaged chair.

One of the things I am trying to keep track of is the amount of time it will take me to build one chair from start to finish.  I would love to teach a workshop on building Gragg chairs but I need to get the time down to seven days max, six days preferably.  I suppose once these chairs get down I will build one from scratch as fast as I can to see if it is a reasonable project for a workshop.

The Writing Desk Drawer, A Tale of Woe

During the time I was working on the fancy veneerwork for the legs, the drawer had been sitting minding its own business at the other end of the bench.  Unfortunately and unbeknownst to me in those intervening weeks the finished drawer, complete with matching veneer and bead edge, decided to act like an elected official and go crooked on me.  When I picked up the drawer to put it back into the writing box I saw that it had racked and twisted almost 1/2″ from corner to corner and would only go into the runners part way.  I could have dealt with 1/16″ with a little bit of shaving and a little bit of shimming.  But this require pretty drastic intervention.

The problem was both vexing and perplexing.  I had specifically selected a piece of very old tulip poplar for the structure of the drawer, yet here it was, gone all potato-chip-ie on me.  At the very least I would have to trim the dovetails and hope I could get it all back together, flat.  The edge beading that trimmed the edges of the drawer face was completely sacrificial and I knocked that off with a mallet and chisel in short order.  An hour in a water-filled trough released the rear dovetails and the back slat of the drawer, but the front was a trickier issue.

My first and foremost consideration was NOT damaging the veneer on the front of the drawer as that was carefully matched to the surround on the desk.  If I screwed that up I would have to saw a whole new piece of veneer from the prized figured plank, and I had zero interest in that.  Since the veneer had been applied to the curved front of the drawer with hot hide glue all it took was immersing it in hot water and letting the glue line relax to remove the veneer and get to work solving the problem.  No problem, right?  We’ve all heard this was the Achilles Heel of hide glue, that it was not robust and prone to failure in high-moisture environments.  I placed the drawer face down in a plant trough and poured in the hot water.  I checked back in a few minutes and nothing had happened.  Well, the finish had bloomed but that was irrelevant.  The veneer was holding firm.

I did it again.

No change.

And again.

No change.

I left it in the water trough overnight and checked it again in the morning.

Still firm.

In aggravation I dried off the drawer front and removed all the shellac finish.  Using my tacking iron and spatulas I rubbed the heated iron (over a wet rag) on the face of the veneer and gently worked the spatulas underneath the veneer to separate the glue line.  It worked, but took over an hour of nerve-wracking time.

I set the veneer aside, undamaged but a little warped as you might expect.  But certainly salvageable.  I put the drawer front back into the water trough overnight and was able to disassemble the dovetails to see where I could trim the joinery to get it to fit snug and flat.

But for whatever reason this piece of clear, vintage wood had twisted and there was nothing I could do to un-do that.  I won’t describe the whole process of trying to re-use and re-fit the original components — I think I have exasperation induced amnesia on this chapter of the tale of woe — but in the end decided to build a whole new drawer front.  The drawer sides and back were just fine, but that bowed drawer front was, as my beloved Mom might say, a stinker.  (My mother is among the most gentle, even tempered people I have ever met, and I never heard an uncouth word cross her lips.  She once, however,  described a troublesome co-worker as, “A real stinker,” and I knew he must be The Spawn of Satan.)

So I fabricated new new drawer front from a different piece of lumber, also vintage tulip poplar, cut new half-blind pins, and reassembled the whole.  New edge beading, relaid the veneer, and newly finished.

It was perfect, and held true until the desk was finished and delivered.  Whew.

Practicing Log Splitting and Building A Riving Brake

With the commencement of production for the video “Making A Gragg Chair” steaming down the rails I thought it would be good to get back in practice splitting logs I had culled from last year’s harvest up on the mountain.  As soon as the mud dried out I drove up there and started wailing away at one in particular.  As I already recounted the initial results were not heartening.  The last time I split some giant logs was a couple years ago and that went perfectly.  Had I forgotten how to split a log?

A second log went much better but I had left my camera in the barn so you’ll have to take my word for it.

I also had long desired to build a riving brake, a tool I had never before possessed.  Now was the time to spend part of an afternoon doing so.

When my brother and I rebuilt the lean-to on the lower log barn lat year I was left with a half-dozen ancient chestnut poles.  They seemed to be perfect candidates for the project.

Using precision woodworking processes I trimmed the ends of the logs to allow for whisper-fit angled joinery.

That joinery was accomplished with a low-speed high-torque drill and a length of 1/2″ threaded rod and nuts.  With some judicious use of leveraging I got the tripod up on its feet.

I added the cross bracing and it was ready to put to work.

I’ll see if it is as easy to use as Follansbee makes it look.

Sometimes Log Is Like A Box Of Chocolates

As a practice session for the impending commencement of the second video, “Making A Gragg Chair”, I trekked up the mountain to the pile of “good” logs I had culled from the firewood-harvesting sessions.  One in particular caught my fancy, a large red oak about 24″ in diameter, looking straight and true for its seven-foot length.  I decided to work it with “wedge and sledge” to both get my stamina up to speed but perhaps even yield enough material to make a pile of useful things.

Within ten minutes I knew all I had was a pretty spectacular pile of firewood, albeit unprocessed.  After I opened a nice split on the end grain and started working down the sides of the log the core of the log separated, essentially ruining it as a workpiece.

To make matters worse, the intertlaced grain inside the log caused it to start eating wedges.  It took me more time to extract the wedges than anything else.

Oh well, as the Gump of the Forest says, “Sometimes log is like a box of chocolates.”  And this one had something unpleasant inside.  At least I’ll get another thousand pounds of firewood from the experience.

A life of woodworking is a humbling one.