Kathryn's Coffee/Display Table

This is the last in my “catching up” series! This project is posted in 2011 and the work was done in March - July 2011.

So, This is where we ended up:

Now, here’s how we got there:

As is generally the case, we determined where the piece was to live. In this case, the client shared some photo’s of the room. (Infinitely valuable!) I already knew that they wanted the table to display a brass portal taken from a sunken ship near Kwajelen Island in the Pacific (as near Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, China and Japan as anywhere in the world). The portal was a family heirloom and I felt honored to be giving it a prominent place to be displayed.

Next, we discussed a few drawings (sketches, really!):
These were just intended to get a feel for what ball park we wanted to be in.

Some of these drew from existing pieces in the room, others were just flights of fancy.

Ironically, I had just come back from a furniture seminar at Colonial Williamsburg where one of the presenters (Incredibly talented Andrew Hunter) presented some fantastic Chinese and Japanese joinery.
[ Click here for a long-winded aside ]

We decided to work with the sketch in the top center (photo above). That design evolved through the following path:

First I did some research on Chinese Domestic Furniture:

Then I found what documentation I could about the joint in question (of which I could find surprisingly little - if anyone knows good sources, please let me know). Most of what I found were Chinese and Japanese examples of Carpentry joinery. Very Impressive work but often not applicable to the task at hand. But I did find some:

Screen shot 2011-07-22 at 10.15.00 AM
And my own phone camera pictures only served to prove how much I need to learn about creating a photograph that you can actually work from:

Then, the basic form morphed through the following:
I’ve mentioned before how the lines between design and fabrication can sometimes get blurred. You can see how fabrication issues influence design... This is usually a good thing, if done well.

And from there we went to work.
At this point the client was comfortable with the direction the design was going and turned me loose to make any changes as necessary as the fabrication developed.

I knew from the first sketch (top left above) that this version of the table was going to use some version of a three way miter. Most likely very similar to, if not exactly like, the joint Andrew Hunter shared at Williamsburg.

I also knew that I was going to use some air-dried, locally harvested walnut for this table. [ more about the walnut if you're interested ] So I was going to have to make sure that there were no mistakes. I didn’t have any extra stock to fall back on so each piece had to be just right.

What do you do in a situation like this? Study and make practice runs. It also just so happens that I found a local Japanese Carpentry Group (PJCC or on FB ) that proved very helpful, informative and friendly. So, after a few weeks of research on the joinery, I finally had my mind wrapped around what I wanted to do. Here is the final design of the joint:


[ Click here for a movie of joint going together... ]

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the practice joints but here are the final pieces coming together:

First, the top frame. Originally, I thought the top frame and the side rail would be one and the same piece. (a 2x2, roughly). And I had some 12/4 stock of the walnut. But by the time it was milled and dressed and I started to get a good look at where each part would come from, I decided to keep the best of the 12/4 stock for the legs. Cutoffs would be used for test joints. If I could cut this kind of joinery on ornery grained cutoffs, I ought to be able to get choice strait grained parts to behave. I was also able to re-saw two sections to make opposing sides of the the top (for sure the best way to get color and grain consistency throughout a piece).

This was the only time I needed any clamps throughout this whole project. A bit of hide glue near the tips of the tenons, slide it together and apply a little clamping pressure to bring it all home and then set it aside while I have lunch. Then bring it out of the clamps and sticker it for a few weeks while the rest of the piece is being built.

Later it will be planed flat, true and smooth but that can wait. And because it was air dried, there’s just about zero internal tension to resolve, so there was no cupping, twisting or movement to speak of. It later dressed to shape beautifully. And a profile was created on the edges - oh yea, and a rabbet to accept the glass top - but we get ahead of ourselves...

The top frame provided and overall size for the piece (and if I recall, its dimensions define a golden section) but now it was time to work on the legs and side rails.

The legs and side rails comprised the essential structure for the piece. There are other interlocking parts that help reinforce this strength but we’ll get to that later. The legs will use a sliding dovetail and an embraced tenon for each side rail that attaches to it. The sliding dovetail is an excellent, mechanically strong joint. Oriented as it is in this piece, this joint resists changes in altitude (tilting up or down) completely. With the tight fit it has, it won’t go up or down. It doesn’t want to move much dry fit, put a touch of hide glue in there and good luck to you trying to move it!

Then the embraced tenon resists any lateral movement (any racking out of square from side to side). They are called embraced tenons because the mortise is open topped. It sure makes it easier to get that tenon into that mortise while sliding the dovetail together when there’s no top on it!

First, Layout:

Then cut close with the saw.
The closer and more accurately you do this, the less work you will do in the next step.

which is to plane everything true and square

...and Don’t forget the mortises... Tight quarters but some persistence and some new chisels can go a long way.
The mortises are hard to see. You can see one best in the leg at the bottom of the photograph below (just below the mitered face and above where there will soon be a dovetail):

And now the aforementioned dovetails have been cut:

This may seem like a strange exercise but...

I was struggling with exactly how much material was going to be removed when all the mitering and profiling was done. While I know it could have been done by drawing it out. I knew that even if I did draw it all out, I’d still make a test piece. So why not go straight to the test piece?
Now I knew all the dimensions and I got a better feel for how all the parts were going to look and come together. Now I could confidently go on to the real planks and decide exactly where I wanted what grain to fall and start laying out the parts - both sides of both ends of: the front, back and both side rails.

This photo shows where I was controlling how the grain pattern of the side rails would match up with the grain pattern of the top frame. I’ll try to remember to point this out in the final photo how this worked and why it was important.

And after a couple of days, those planks look like this:

This is about the only shot I have that shows the side rails and how they work (above).

It’s always a great day when everything comes together just like planned:

Square and true and pretty darn near flush. Good day.

I must have been trying to get this table done, because I can’t find _any_ in progress pictures of the shelf.
But here is the design of the joinery:
These are the shelf rails, not the side rails. These shelf rails fit into mortises in the side of the legs about 4 or 5 inches down from the top. The one on the right supports the long edge of the shelf - the one on left supports the short edge.
You can see that the one on the right goes into its’ mortise first. The notch in it’s tenon allows the tenon on the left to slide into its’ mortise. This interlocking happens inside the mortises inside the leg. Once together, you really can’t get it to wiggle.

The shelf itself is made from a single wide plank which allows it to expand and contract freely as it floats in the frame. The shelf is about 3/8 inch thick with two battens attached to the underside by way of a tapered dovetails. The battens are also tenoned into the front and back shelf rails. This arrangement makes for a very stable and lightweight panel.
I can’t believe I don’t have any photos of it in progress!
I guess if you look real closely you can see the mortises for the battens on the front and back shelf rails (top two parts). You can also see the notched tenons.

So, you can see we’re moving into the finishing phase of this project:

Whenever possible, I like to finish parts before they are assembled. The reason for this is that my preferred finish is a padded on shellac. With the pieces laid out individually in front of you, it is much easier to achieve smooth consistent finish which is the result of a smooth unencumbered stroke.

Mostly all off of the plane iron. Precious little scraping (with a freshly sharpened card scraper, thank you) and no sandpaper produces a luster and shimmer that just can’t be beat.
This is the single plank shelf I described earlier (above).

Now you can see the shelf already finished and assembled. No glue has been used yet at this stage in the final assembly. The mechanical strength of the side rail to leg joinery by itself is pretty strong. The shelf joinery is pretty stable on its own. Put them together and the only way for anything to move is to slide the side rails back up and off.

Well, just a touch of glue on that last 1/2” of the dovetail socket (below) and this thing is not going anywhere. Also, should this table ever need to be disassembled for any reason (conservation) minimal effort will be necessary to do so.

The very astute among you will notice one minor change made to the design of joint. All my research led me to draw up tenons that were like you normally see: a good deal wider than they were thick. You’ll notice these tenons that will affix the top are pretty nearly square.
Because the top is mitered, the mortise for wide and thin tenon would have come very close to the mitered edge of the underside of the top frame. This square tenon allowed the tenon to be of a good stout size while keeping the mortise as far as possible from the mitered end of the frame.

You can also see that a rabbet has been cut into the top frame to accept the glass top (above).

A touch of glue on the tenons in photo above and a few gentle but meaningful wraps with mallet the assembly is complete!


And after a little waxing, you get:


Now remember I was going to mention something here? Note how the “knots” (actually just a wave in the grain) in the side rail and the top line up (just right of center on the front). A line in the grain pattern of the shelf then carries the eye to the back side where the same grain pattern matching happens again (hard to see in this photograph). This didn’t happen by mistake or luck, though I might be just as happy if it did. But remember, the two top pieces of the frame (front and back) were re-sawn from a single board. And the two side rail pieces (front and back) where also re-sawn from another single board. Then right before I laid out and cut the side rails, I lined up these two “grain features” and moved them as close to the center as possible. Then when I cut the piece for the shelf, I took that feature into account when I centered the knots of the shelf - knowing that the knots would be covered by the portal and that the grain effects going around the knots would compliment the portal when it was put in place.


Long Winded Aside:
The seminar at Colonial Williamsburg was a three day affair on the "Oriental Influence on Colonial Furnishings". And I got to thinking about it (deadpan look) ... and I decided, "If someone can talk for three days about the Oriental Influence on Colonial Furnishings, then I have to go... Because I can't think of any off the top of my head.

Well, I'm glad I went. Because, as it turns out, there actually is plenty.

But by far in my mind was watching the precision with with Andrew Hunter would work and the joinery he would use and the philosophy with which he approached the wood and the work.

Needless to say I came back re-invigorated, challenged and ready to study, practice and master these joints.

As you'll see, they are pretty intricate, completely demanding and fun as can be to bring together.
[ Back from whence you came... ]

More About the Walnut:
A good friend of mine had been contacted by a lady who lived not far out of town. Her farm house was surrounded by 14 beautiful walnut trees. Three of which you and I would not be able to reach our arms together around the trunks. Huge Trees. One small one was 16 - 18 inches in diameter, most in the 2 - 3 foot diameter range.

My friend tried to tell the lady that it would be a shame to cut them down. They provided such beautiful shade for the house and they were healthy trees.... She said “I know they’re healthy, They kick out all of these walnuts every year and one day I’m going to twist an ankle on one of them. They are messy and I just want to get rid of them. Do you want them, or not?”

Well, finally realizing that they were going to come down wether he was involved or not, my friend gathered me and 4 or 5 other friends and we all split the expense of falling the trees, limbing and relocating them and then having them milled into planks.

The gentleman that did the milling was an artist. He had one of those portable saw mills. The ones that have a horizontal bandsaw on tracks. Hydraulics lifted and turned the massive logs as needed. The equipment was fantastic but I have seen many people use the same equipment to simply run logs through and through. It’s not a terrible way to go but this guy took the time to look at each log, talk with us and say what he saw in it - and asked what we saw. A consensus was quickly achieved and he’d make another pass. Turn the log this way or that to get the most beautiful plank possible and then make another pass.

I certainly hope I get another chance to experience this kind of lumber harvesting again.

Afterword, we each transported the planks to where they could sit in the open, out of the sun yet with a breeze flowing through to slowly draw off the water. We carefully stickered them and sealed the ends with an emulsified paraffin. And waited for two years.

When it came time to work the wood, well it was simply amazing. There was no case hardening. The colors were so vibrant. The way it worked and felt under hand tools was amazing.

It’s true what they say about air dried wood that has never seen a kiln. If you ever get a chance do yourself the favor. The only reason I can think of not to do so is that you will be forever spoiled.

[ Back you go... ]