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.


A New Project

One of the benefits of living on the western most edge of the Eastern Deciduous Forest is an abundance of hardwood trees both in town and in the country. At any given time, it seems someone nearby has a Walnut or Oak that needs to come down or has fallen over in a storm and often times these beautiful trees get cut up for firewood or worse, sent to the chipper. And that in part is what motivated my good friend and I to invest in an Alaskan chain saw mill recently. We also are fortunate to have access to a number of fallen trees on some river bottom land on his acreage.

We had to preorder it as each bar and ripping chain are manufactured on demand due to their size. It took about 5 weeks to arrive. We went with the 36″ bar which gives us an effective cutting width of 34″. The bar itself is closer to 40″ and is double ended but with the mill cage, the workable length is significantly reduced. Nonetheless, the size of the bar is almost comical and gives one pause about what you’ve really gotten yourself into.

Once we got the mill assembled and the bar and chain attached and tensioned, we went for a walk on the land to locate a suitable first candidate for the trial run. We came across a large Red Elm that had fallen some time ago and most of the cork and cork cambium were gone with a little rot in the secondary cambium. To get the trunk to a manageable length we needed to cut about two feet off one end and this would tell us if the rot went much further.




Once we got through, it was clear that the trunk was still in really good shape so we set up our slabbing bracket to get the first cut. But before we could do that we needed to roll the log out to an area we could work in and also to get the optimum slab width on the trunk. This is where the lever and fulcrum are your friend. It felt a little bit like building the pyramids, but after about half an hour of levering and fulcruming we were ready to go. We used two 2×4’s that were as straight and level as we could find and attached them to two metal cross brackets that we then leveled from front to back and side to side and nailed in to the trunk.


IMG_3764Since there were only two of us and running the mill is a two person job, I don’t have any photos of the mill in action but here’s few pics of the process. This image shows the trunk after we pulled the first cut off. After that, as long as you make a nice flat cut, the tree itself is the guide for the mill and all you have to do is determine the thickness of the slabs (we went with 8/4 for the duration).

IMG_3765And here’s a few more in between slabs.


IMG_3768By the time we had 6 slabs cut we were losing daylight so had to call it a day. Here’s Johnny (and Lily) taking a break on what we have left. We should get about 3 more slabs before we hit the bottom. The trunk is just over 7′ long and 32″ wide at the widest part.


IMG_3770We had to close up shop for the night so we did a quick hack job of stickering and piling but we’ll get back to it and finish slabbing out the rest and coating the ends so it doesn’t dry out and check/crack unnecessarily. Then in 18 months we’ll have some slabs to work with…