I was fortunate to recently come across a few pieces of wormy Chestnut boards while out picking up some other lumber. Prior to that, I had only heard of American Chestnut (as a wood to be used, and only lamentably, given the current situation), never actually seen a tree, other than a few stunted shrubs in the woods of VA several years ago, let alone any rough lumber, and never conceived of getting the chance to work with it. The story behind the few board feet I was able to purchase came from a tree that had fallen on its own several years (maybe decades) past, and when discovered lying in the woods 17 years ago, was sawn and dried. The tree itself stood in the forests of Northeast Illinois and was likely introduced as the natural range only barely made it into the state, near the very southern tip in Pulaski County.
The board shown here is about 8″ wide by 22″ long by 7/8″. I have maybe enough extra material that…down the road when and if we build a house, could feasibly be used for a place of honor in our home in something like a tokonoma. I feel like a having the opportunity to work with this old tree, and a rare one at that engenders a responsibility to treat it with respect. And given the tradition that the tokonoma should never be stepped on except to change any art that may be displayed within and on it, lends itself to using a special tree for the floor.
In keeping with that line of thinking and also with my desire to work with the wood now rather than just 20 years down the road, I thought it fitting to build a frame to house a very special piece of art in our current home. The walnut strip to the right of the chestnut will be used for the tsukeko, or internal frame. It provides a pleasant contrast to the white/yellow of the chestnut. I used hand tools for the majority of the work, but for the initial ripping of the two boards into their component pieces I used my thinnest kerf rip blade on the table saw (about 1/8″) so that I might not waste any more wood than necessary.
The chestnut is then ripped into approx. 1 7/8″ strips for the rails and stiles and the walnut is ripped into about 1/4″ strips. Throughout the process I marked the original orientation of the wood to help determine the final layout.
And here’s a shot of the strips placed back together after ripping and then jointing to ensure flatness on the edges and the face. I have to say, Chestnut may be my new favorite wood to plane. It looks somewhat like oak, smells a little like it, planes like Alaskan Yellow Cedar and is just as light. It’s a joy to handle.
The next step is to cut the rebate where the glass, matte and foam backing will sit. For this particular piece the rebate needed to be 5/16″ deep and 5/16″ wide. I marked this with a knife and then using a medium shoulder plane, some clamps, and a straight-edge started planing. I had to check my progress somewhat often to ensure that the rebate was even through-0ut the planing.
As a side note I haven’t had much opportunity to use the shoulder plane and it’s nice to get the chance to try out a different way of planing for a task other than simply flattening or smoothing, using it as more of a shaping tool as it were.
Once the rebates on the stiles and rails were fashioned, I added a chamfer to the interior border of the frame. I used my low angle block plane for this and just counted off the passes. To get the chamfer below, which is about 1/16″ wide, I made approximately 15 passes-but this of course will vary depending on how deep of a cut you take with each pass. I used a a jig from Des King’s 1st shoji book to facilitate this. Essentially it allows you to place the rail or stile at a 45 degree angle so that when you make your passes with the plane you can hold the plane parallel to the ground rather than try to approximate a 45 degree angle by hand. This is much easier.
Here’s an image of the whole jig.
I then did the same thing to the walnut tsukeko with the only difference being the width of the chamfer-this one is more like 1/32″ of an inch. Doing this was a simple design consideration-I just wanted to mirror the chamfer on the frame with the tsukeko. Unless you get close to the frame on the wall, you don’t even notice, but I like that. Have details that become apparent only to those who take the time to really evaluate the piece adds a nice element.
And now for the tsukeko. This is a challenging element and I recommend you check out Shoji and Kumiko Design. You will be far better off learning from an expert on how to do this, rather than a beginner like myself. Keep in mind with the following photos that the tsukeko pieces are about 1/2″ wide by 3/16″ thick and as long as the stile or rail they sit upon.
Cutting the 45 degree miters on the Chestnut was straightforward-to get a perfect 45 every time, make the initial cut by hand, then use your 45 degree jig to finish the angle to spec. The mortises for the tsukeko were 3/16″ x 3/16″ so I hadto cut them by hand. If you ever choose to do this, take your time. It’s challenging and rewarding to try to accurately cut these mortises. You can see that mine overshot the marking line just a hair. The mortise will be covered up, but a tight fit is still necessary for the integrity of the frame.
And the finished piece. I did not apply any finish, rather I just stuck to a fine finish plane pass or two and burnished the wood with the shavings. I spent about a week making this frame and it came out nearly as good as I could wish for. The only thing I’d change the next time around is to finish plane the tsukeko prior to cutting and fitting as even the slightest smoothing pass can make a difference in terms of how the tsukeko frame pieces meet at their miters. Always room for improvement, right?