Cantilevers, cantilevers, and wait for it…cantilevers

It’s been some time since my last post so let’s get back to it. Ever since we bought our first house, complete with full-on IKEA furnishings, I’ve been working slowly to replace each IKEA piece with something I’ve built with my own hands. Next up on that list was a coffee table for our living room. A person can get lost in different design types, but ultimately I settled on something that uses slab wood to a certain extent and that also employs cantilevers. And I wanted a table that fit the space both in size and aesthetics. As a starting off point I decided to utilize some of the design elements of  Nakashima’s Minguren table series.

From there I tried to minimize the design as much as possible including reducing the number of pieces down to 3 (the top, the vertical base, and the horizontal cross-member). Kind of a modified trestle table. Structurally this presents some challenges-balance wise, it’s actually quite sturdy, although you wouldn’t guess that from looking at it. My biggest concern was not having some type of batten directly underneath the table, leaving the tenons to shoulder the bulk of any downward pressure. In other words, it needed to be stout but not overwhelming. In the end, use and time will tell if it’s successful.

Here’s a scale mock-up. On the full-size table, I ended up flipping the vertical trestle to provide more support to the tenons.

For the lumber I used Red Elm. I found these two slabs from a sawyer about 50 miles from my house-he only mills wood on his own land of about 100 acres of sustainably farmed timber and had this amazing set of Red Elm boards that are each approximately 22″ wide, 5′ long and 2″ thick. I spent a considerable amount of time deciding what to do to them (should I bookmatch them, use them separately, etc). Eventually I decided to build one coffee table and use the other slab for some chairs I’d like to build down the road.

And here’s the vertical Walnut support, bark intact.

I spent a lot of time getting these tenons just so as I knew the fit to the table top had to be accurate in order to provide the maximum strength and support to the table based on the minimal design. Lots of sharp chisels and lots of delicate paring going on.

For the mortises, I drilled out a decent amount of the waste and then set to chiseling out the rest. Elm is a hard wood, at least when chiseling across the grain…the tape is my depth marker so that I didn’t blow out the other side when pushing out the waste.

Work, work, work.

Here’s a shot of the underside of the joinery showing the horizontal cross-member and the vertical support. There’s a slight gap in the upper left but nonetheless it’s a fun challenge to see how accurate you can get with hand tools, knowing full well that no one else will ever likely see this side of the table.

Some end grain fun on the table top. Sharp blades!

On the underside of the table top I added a pretty significant chamfer to give the table some visual lift and soften the edge somewhat. For that, the jack plane works wonders.

And wedging the through-tenons. I used Ash for the wedges and cut them quite thin. The kerfs on the tenons are thin as well.

And one of the finished through-tenons, trimmed, planed, and waxed. The end grain of the walnut almost turns black which creates a nice contrast to the elm.

And finished up in the shop with 2 coats of beeswax.

Where the magic happens. My own basement dreamworks studio…

And a few parting shots.

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For my latest project I had a couple rough pieces of walnut hidden away on a shelf in the garage from two different trees. Both were quite dry and looking for a new home so I thought I’d work on some chair building skills but with the forgiving nature of a small end table. This piece was destined for the legs and so some hand planing was in order.
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After a few hours of flattening and smoothing-a nice piece of Walnut emerged.

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And the process of ripping, squaring, and then rounding on the saw horse. A nice progression of steps and always fun to see a square turn into a circle. You can see the rather curious piece of walnut underneath the soon-to-be legs. One of the weirder slabs I’ve worked with.

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Not sure where the soap opera dream lens came from but here’s a shot of test fitting the legs to the top. I eyeballed the compound mortises which meant that they didn’t end up exactly symmetrical but it was a good lesson in working by hand and eye.

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And because of the numerous seams/checks in the table top, I elected to add several butterfly keys. I’m using a rather basic method to shape them but fun all the same and in this case, using Ash, which has a strong tensile strength and contrasts nicely with the walnut. You can see the relief cuts I made with a hand saw to facilitate chopping out the waste, before paring with a chisel to the line.

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Test placement of the keys.

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Once I set the keys, it was time for wedging and glueing up the legs. For the leg wedges I used some white oak that handles the hammering into place quite well.

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Happy face? Sad face? Pretty neutral it seems…

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Detail shot after the first coat of oil & wax.

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Finished piece. One interesting note-the legs are quite darker than the top. I think part of this is that I slabbed out the walnut for the legs myself and they air dried for about a year and then spent a month or so in my makeshift attic kiln, so a rather gradual drying process. The table top on the other hand was purchased from a sawyer who kiln dries only-no air drying (about 5 years ago, as it happens) and to me some of the richness of the walnut faded out compared to the legs. Totally anecdotal on my end but my sense is that air drying first for a year or two depending on thickness, helps to preserve the overall color profile of the wood.

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Finishing Up Milky Way 3-Legged Stool

I finished the 3-Legged Milking Stool this weekend, i.e. the Milky Way. This was my second stool that I’ve built and my first solo stool/chair build from initial drawings to last coat of oil. It unsurprisingly looks similar to the stool I built at the workshop with Fabian at ffhandcrafts in August. Using Walnut for the seat and Ash for the legs adds to the likeness. I did however use Cherry for the stretchers on this most recent one. More important for the design in this case was making sure I remembered all the steps from that first build.

On a side note, when I first started woodworking, I faithfully studied and executed an already published project with it’s set of plans. For the stool build with Fabian, it was entirely teacher to student instructions (no written word/sketches/cut list/etc). And for this second round, it was almost entirely from memory, save for a few very helpful suggestions out of Peter Galbert’s, “The Chairmaker’s Notebook”. As I spend more time in the workshop, that evolution towards being able to complete a project from start to finish with only the ideas in one’s head, is supremely satisfying.

Moving forward I plan on continuing the exploration of stools, chairs, benches, i.e. things we sit on and ideally develop an aesthetic that is uniquely mine. And that comes with time and practice and a comfort level with the building techniques themselves. For example on this build of the second stool I’ll share a list of things I screwed up on and that I will happily live with as long as the stool supports me, as it is doing now, along with the table that I built a few years ago. And there is something to be said for being able to sit down to a home-cooked meal at a table and chair built with one’s own hands.

List of screw-ups on build #2:

  • drilled three holes for the tenon of the back leg-1st one was too close to the edge, 2nd one was the opposite rake, and the 3rd one was just right.
  • the seat bowl was scooped out too deeply. it’s still comfortable but not a smooth enough transition to the where the sitter’s legs drop off…
  • …which leads to the next design flaw where the sitter’s leg drop off was not properly faired for comfort.
  • the seat itself leans too far back and I should have adjusted this more carefully when shortening/leveling the legs.
  • the stretchers and tenons were not properly positioned to accept the wedges in a symmetrical fashion.
  • the legs were not shaped correctly so they look a little wonky and the stretchers are not as straight as they could be.

All these mistakes are ever present in my mind and will not be making an appearance in the stool. Which I will start on in November-time for some shop improvements first. And after this 3rd stool, I hope to venture into the next step of putting a back on and building my first chair.

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3 Legged Milking Stool

Here’s a few images from my most recent project: a 3-legged milking stool made of Ash and Walnut, very similar to the one I made when I took a stool making class from Fabian Fischer at FFHandcrafts in Wisconsin this past August. I wanted to try to design my own seat from scratch and come up with my own undercarriage construction. I also came across a book by the late John Brown, Welsh Stick Chairs, and while I’m not yet up to the challenge of a piece of that caliber, I wanted to meet somewhere in the middle.

The old style of Welsh furniture making is really one of complexity and understated elegance. There a simplicity to it as well, although the initial rustic appearance belies a deeper understanding of the craft. So in mixing those things together I came up with an idea and am now putting it to the test.

Here’s the initial stock, including the Walnut seat blank I glued up from 8/4 Walnut. I’m using Ash for the legs and maybe White Oak for the stretchers, maybe Walnut. I haven’t decided yet.

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I made 4 of the legs and stretchers knowing that I’d probably screw up somewhere and need an extra.

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Here’s my design. It’s kind of cross between a Windsor Chair seat and some Welsh vernacular.

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Here’s my attempt at hand-drilling the compound angles needed for the legs-I’m using a set-up described by Peter Galbert in his most excellent book, A Chairmaker’s Notebook, from Lost Art Press.

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And here I’m using a travisher to hollow out the bowl of the seat. Usually an adze would be used for this part, but I don’t have one so I set the travisher to take a thick cut and rolled up my sleeves for a workout.

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And the roughed-out bowl. It’s kinda tricky getting used to grain direction but it’s really enjoyable uncovering the grain pattern, especially when it comes from two pieces glued together. I like to think this one looks a little like a spiral galaxy. Maybe I’ll name this milking stool the Milky Way…

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And here’s is the bowl smoothed out with a travisher set to a very fine cut. I gotta say, this is probably the most enjoyable part, carving out the seat. It gives me the chance to try my hand at sculpture which is extraordinarily gratifying. Just you, a blade, and a relatively hard material. Symmetry is challenging here.

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And here’s the transition to where the sitter’s legs will rest over the seat.

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You’ll notice there’s some Oak in there by that leg mortise. Two plugs of White Oak, in fact. The first hole I drilled was too close to the edge of the seat. And the second one I drilled in the wrong direction so that the rake was directed towards the front of the chair rather than the back. That’s the reward for not paying attention.

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And here’s a shot from this morning after a few hours of using the drawknife and spokeshave on the Ash blanks. Those little ribbons of wood will make for some nice kindling this winter.

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And here’s the legs dry fit to the seat. It’s kind of a Fred Flintstone type of chair at this point. I now need to design the stretcher set-up to tie it all together. When all is said and done, this will go at the dining room table along with the new Shaker Meetinghouse Bench and the stool I built with Fabian in August.

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Ash & Walnut Stool

I made it home last night from Wisconsin after a solid two-day stool making workshop with Fabian of Fabian Fischer Handcrafts, with just a little sanding left to do and a final coat of finish to complete the piece. All told we spent about 18 hours in 2 days starting with the seat blank, 4 square legs, and 3 square stretchers. I didn’t grab lot of photos of all the steps but there’s a few to give you the idea of how it went.

We started with marking out the shape of the seat on the blank-I chose Black Walnut for mine-using a paper template that also included the center line and the 4 points where the legs would go. Once all the marking was completed on the blank, we headed over to the bandsaw and cut out the rough shape. From there we learned about the different angles of the legs, i.e. splay and rake and how we needed to bore those out using the drill press. Christopher Schwarz has a short and sweet blog entry that does a nice job of explaining those two terms. Essentially if you are looking at a chair or stool from the front, the side to side angle of the legs is the splay and if you look at it from the side the front to back angle is the rake.

What this translates to is drilling compound angles in the right directions for the left and right, front and back legs. It’s a little confusing and I’m guessing it takes some practice to get right. Fortunately I had a great teacher to walk me through the process. The next step prior to shaping was to set the depth of the seat using a cordless drill. We then used a large compass to mark out the arcs on the front and back of the seat where we would be creating different profiles and not scooping out.

Once all the holes were drilled the remainder of the 1st day was spent entirely on shaping the seat by hand. We started with the travisher set to a fairly thick, rough cut to scoop out the seat to the depth of two cordless drill marks. It took a lot of concentration and eyeing the seat to make sure things were symmetrical and even. Once the rough scooping was done we moved to a travisher set to a finer cut and smoothed it out as best we could. I should mention here that Fabian built a stool along with us so that he demonstrate on his own piece to explain what each step was in the process. This was extraordinarily helpful in visualizing each step.

Here’s the seat scooped out:

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Next up was to use the travisher to carve out the two spaces where one’s legs would rest, which are located at the top of the seat in the above photo. After I was happy with the sweep of the leg rests, I used a compass plane to smooth them off and then moved on to the spoke-shave to create a clean profile.

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With those steps done, I moved on to use a couple different scraper cards to really smooth out the tool marks. I had never used scraper cards before so that was a learning experience. There’s a bit of curve to figuring them out and then sharpening them is an entirely different endeavor.

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I then flipped the seat over and using a fore plane shaved off the bottom exterior edge to kind of lift the over-all profile. The next to last step on the seat was to then shave off the back angles on the top to create a nice, crisp profile towards the back. I’m guessing there are actual terms to describe these parts but I’m not quite there yet. And lastly I took a spoke shave to the outside edge and cleaned that up. I think one of the best parts of this process was not only the chance to sculpt curved lines, but to learn to be OK with not having everything perfect, and instead aiming for a more cohesive whole that overall is pleasing to look at and use and touch.

Day 2

With the seat done it was on to the legs and stretchers. I started with leg and stretcher blanks and after marking them, Fabian used a tenon cutter to create the tenons. That done, we then marked out the location for the front stretcher and taking into account the angles of the legs in the seat, marked where to drill. With the holes drilled it was over to the shave horse to rough shape the stretcher tenons with the draw knife and then use a hand-turn tenon cutter, making sure to make the tenon long enough so that it would stick through the mortise in the leg so that it could be later wedged. After shaping the tenon it was back to the shave horse with the draw knife and spokeshave to shape the stretcher. The last step here was to ream out the inner side of the mortise to properly accept the angled tenon. Once the first stretcher was done and dry fit it was on to the two side stretchers. I opted to angle mine down to the front of the stool just based on the way I usually sit on a stool and that I’ll be using it as my banjo/guitar playing stool. The side stretchers were a little trickier, again because of the angles. When I was done with those, it was on to shaping the legs themselves.

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After everything was shaped and dry fit, Fabian cut the slots in all the tenons using the band saw and cut the Black Walnut wedges to contrast with the Ash legs.

It was then time for glue-up, which is always my least favorite part of the process but having two sets of hands to get everything together and quickly and get it wiped down helped a lot. We then clamped everything together just get all the parts squeezed tightly together and let it sit.

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Once it was dry, I sawed off the tenons and spoked shaved the ones on the legs to smooth them out. For the top Fabian suggested using a gouge to create a rough-ish looking design on the top tenons. It was something that another student came up with and when I saw an example, I really liked it.

So with that done it was already 5:30PM on Sunday and time to head home. It was a whirlwind of a weekend but awesome all the same. It’s really satisfying to start with basically nothing and in two days have a completely finished (or nearly) product. I say nearly, because when I got back I did a light sanding of everything and applied a thin coat of my favorite beeswax and boiled linseed finish to the stool.

Here’s a few final photos of the completed project:

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Shavehorse Nearly Done

I’ve just about wrapped up the shavehorse project-still need to build the seat and tack on the elastic cord to the ratchet pivot key. Looking forward to giving it a go this weekend.

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