Tree Rings

Your Dendrochronology fix for the day. This is a cross-section from a 6×6 old growth reclaimed Douglas Fir beam. I count 126 rings and it came from a 100 year old warehouse so by my estimates this guy was a sapling sometime back in the 1700’s in Idaho. Pretty cool. Glad to be giving it a third life as part of the memorial bench I’m building.

Memorial Bench Prototype Part I

A few weeks ago I was asked to come up with a design for a Memorial Bench that will be placed outside at an elementary school near the playground. The bench will be somewhat sheltered by the overhanging eave of the building but will still be outdoors and exposed to the elements.

My experience with building outdoor projects up till now has consisted of a backyard fence and a pergola, made from Western Red Cedar and reclaimed Eastern White Pine, respectively. Both of these projects were then stained with a protective finish and have held up rather well over the last 5 years. None-the-less, my primary concerns with this project were outdoor exposure, durability (will be used by kids/families/etc), not too many sharp edges (safety), a back piece (to house a bronze plaque), and as much creativity as possible given the above requirements.

I settled on a fairly simple design, one that incorporates some curves and that also relies on durable, outdoor woods. In this case, African Mahogany and White Oak.

I had some old Douglas Fir beams on hand to use for the base components. It’s a nice wood to work with hand tools-and it’s fun to employ some timber framing strategies in the shop. Given the expense and challenge of finding usable white oak beams, I may end up using DF for the final bench.

A little glue up and clamping. I’m still debating as to whether I should through-peg the tenons for added support. I’m leaning towards yes, just to make things that much sturdier given the final use for the bench.

And just channeling my inner timber framer…

Creating the curved slats is challenging. The trick of course is to create a good template and go from there. I have a lot of white oak 1″ boards of random width given to me by a friend-I will keep the prototype and we’ll probably use it in our back yard, something to set under the big Pin Oak (and be sat upon).

The first inkling of the final set-up.

And getting a little closer…

The first look at the “final” piece (that being the prototype). This layout gives me the chance to really visualize the final piece and to make any adjustments to the overall design. I may make the back rest thicker to fit with the whole look of the piece and I am also considering adding a few more curves, especially to the stretchers on the base and also to the backrest itself.

I hope to have the prototype finished by the end of this week. I’m still working on sourcing the beams and stretchers for the base and in the meantime I’m working on the finish that will be used on the final piece. It’s pretty involved (like will take 8 days to apply kind of involved). I’m taking a page out of the wooden boat builders playbook and trying to create a finish that will stand up to the elements for several years before needing refinished. That will be a post all to itself.

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.

What’s Behind Door #1?

After a lot of very cold, shop-prohibitive weather, the holidays, and some general laziness, I finished one of the Kasumi-Gumi hip board shoji panels. My original intent was to build two, and then a basic display frame that would allow the panels to slide as they were meant to. But I had some technical issues and had to cannabalize some of the pieces from the second door to finish the first one. Cutting all those half-lap joints by hand, particularly of the 4mm wide kumiko proved to be more challenging that I foresaw. So, good practice but I’ll have to cut some more kumiko for the second panel before I can finish the original goal.

Here’s the primary vertical and horizontal kumiko fit together and set lightly on top of the frame to get a sense of where everything goes and whether my initial measurements and cuts were accurate.


A detail of the various Kasumi (mist) kumiko after assembly but prior to attaching the shoji paper. Each of the free-end kumiko are chamfered on the top and sides. Don’t look too close or you might see some warts in the joinery:-)


After a long evening of sawing, chopping, sawing and chopping some more.


Door #1 glued and assembled.


Shoji paper attached to the back.


Time for some surgery here: I made a very simple walnut pull, using a gouge to rough out the indentation-was going for a rustic, hand-hewn look. Not perfect but kind of interesting.


And the pull mortise cleaned out.


Fitting the pull to the mortise.


And tapped down. Just need to plane the excess flush with the stile.


And the finished piece. I’m pretty happy with it. Definitely some gaps, especially where the kasumi kumiko meet the tsukeko. This is really just a result of patience or lack there of. The more time I spend really focusing on cutting the joinery, the better it is.