Monday, October 18, 2010

Warming the Bench

The moon is waxing. Daylight is waning as the evening temperatures fall. We have yet to turn the heat on in our house, but April's mentioned (and I've noticed) how chilly it's getting in here. Every year I believe we should hold out until some arbitrary date before setting the thermostat. I told April this evening that date is Nov 1. I don't think we'll make it that long without firing up the boiler, however.

I'm entering the period of introspection. I'm prone to turning inward but the fall has always been a time when I focus on contemplation. This year, more than any other in recent memory, I have compiled a rich mound of experiential manure to mentally compost this winter. Fortunately decay releases heat, so perhaps I can utilize this as a back-up source of warmth on the cold bike rides ahead.

For all intents and purposes wood shop season is over. It's getting cold enough that soon I will have to move wood glue and waterstones into the basement. I've considered many times installing insulation in my garage. I waffle though, reasoning the lack of full electrical service and other attributes make this less than ideal for a potential future owner. Read that as I won't get my money back (and it might be a less than ideal solution anyway). This year I intended to repair some siding and paint the garage too. That will have to wait along with the rest of the list that seemed so doable 7 or 8 months ago.

I was moderately productive this year for as often as I was traveling. I had intended to launch into a full-scale piece of furniture like a bed or table. While I did not accomplish either I tightened up some shop fixtures and organization. I also made a very nice frame as our friends' wedding present (see earlier post). I had sketched some plans for an entry bench, too, with the idea to build this from reclaimed wood stowed away in the garage rafters. Since I had the plank of wood and the project was not complex I decided this would be my last real project for the year.

Stored in our garage is all the original interior trim before our house was reconfigured, as well as some leftover timber from various projects. The board in question was a 2x12 plank nearly 10ft long with two rusty steel L brackets affixed to either end. I figured it was an old scaffold board since it had two colors of paint splotches and burn marks from soldering. Plus the whole surface was gray weathered and checked in spots. I have no idea how old it is, but it did measure 1 1/2 by 11 1/4", so it's not old enough to be true dimensional lumber as some other timbers in our house are.

One thing is for certain, it was too large and fair a piece of wood to cut and burn. The board was nearly flat and true over its entire 10ft length -- a rare trait in 2x lumber. I have a keen interest in conserving lumber. Wood takes a long time to grow and is typically wasteful to harvest. I regard it to be a precious commodity. With all this in mind I set out to adapt a design that would look decent (i.e. not look like it was built with Home Depot lumber) and allow me to have some fun with joinery.

This doesn't look like much but it is the four pieces of the bench cut to rough size. Four pieces and four joints -- simple, eh? I belt sanded the pieces and left all the screw holes and other damage. Planing it down was possible. I might have eliminated most of these flaws and made the wood more dimensionally appealing, but I wanted the piece to look intentionally built from a piece of construction lumber that most jobsites would have burned or thrown away.

Early stages -- I made a template and routed the rough mortises on the top and legs. I found a compromise with the tenon/mortise width that allowed me to cut them all the same size, thereby utilizing one template.

The whole piece has mass -- physical and aesthetic. That's frequently a problem with 2x lumber. To lighten the appearance I planned a diamond cutout to let light through. The waste of each mortise and diamond is relieved with the drill press and router; all the corners were cut and squared with chisels and mallet. The notch at the bottom of the legs also lightens the form and echoes the angular motif. Here the legs and top are stacked to allow a brief glimpse of the final shape beginning to take form.

Both the top and leg mortises are cut to partial depth in the middle to accept a stub tenon. With tenons cut the hand tools are used to fit everything. This is the slow (and fun) part in my opinion. It's quiet with no earplugs or safety glasses required.

This is the top of one leg detailing the stub tenon in the middle while both sides are through tenons. The joint is extremely strong since it provides a lot of glue surface and will later be wedged. (Note the burn mark from soldering at the left. This board saw some action in its day.)

Garage door open wide and working in the sun and fresh air. Here I'm cleaning up the mortises in the top. The tenons are cut fat and shaved with a plane to close the gaps. It pays to work slowly with a square close at hand to make sure everything is being fitted as precisely as possible. The tapers on the legs have been cut. Again, that visually lightens the piece since structurally it wouldn't matter.

The legs are mating nicely and I'm moving onto the stretcher. I carried over the diamond cutouts in that as well.

Here is a detail of the stretcher tenon. These are through tenons mortised to accept a square tapered key. The key is a wedge that can be tapped farther in to tighten the legs over time and resist racking forces that could pop the legs loose. As tight as the leg tenons were in the top I realized I might have skipped this step but the outcome would be a nice visual element in the overall piece. I've also added some chamfers to blend the raw edge grain with the weathered faces.

Here is the matching mortise that accepts the previous through tenon from the stretcher. The middle portion creates a pocket for the stub tenon. The chamfer detail was added to each of the diamonds, but I chose not to chamfer the legs or top of the piece. These details can be overdone making a piece of furniture look like you got too happy with the router.

After this step I dry fit all the pieces. They went together tight. It was beautiful, my best joinery to date. In disassembling them I had a mishap. The board had a surface split its entire length that went about 1/4 of the way through the board. Since the tenons spanned this I didn't worry -- they'd reinforce it all. However, tapping the dry fit assembly apart I completely split one of the legs in two. I had little choice but glue it back together and hope for the best. The next morning I inspected the results and they looked good. Reluctant to rely on a glue joint alone, I was contemplating how to drill a deep enough hole to sink some dowel reinforcements. Eventually it occurred to me I needn't worry. The tenon placement would hold everything together. Beauty.

The glue-up was like most glue-ups meaning everything does not go exactly as planned. I had a tough time getting the top seated and created another small crack in one end while "coaxing" it into place with a few anti-Zen mallet blows. Clamps picked up the slack though and things were looking good. Angles were 90 degrees, joints sealed and I got all the parts in the proper order.

The only pieces not cut from the same board were these cherry wedges driven into the tenons on the top. This was a technique I learned from my previous picture frame project. It spreads the tenon and locks everything in place. I'm a fan of bombproof joinery and am regularly accused of overbuilding things. I think there are worse shortcomings for an aspiring woodworker.

One of the revelatory details I've picked up about joinery is how one cuts projecting components long. Enter the hand tools. After everything is dry, a flush cut saw, chisel and finely set block plane make it all smooth. Notice the knot between the tenons. In laying out this project I had to be very deliberate with where critical through-cuts would land to avoid disaster like a blowout from attempting to chisel out a mortise in a knot.

I cleaned up the glue squeeze out and cut the stretcher tenon keys from the tapered leg off-cuts. The whole thing got a little more sanding and a couple of coats of boiled linseed oil. There's no stain at all. The weathered pine turned out very golden and reddish in spots -- with burn marks, holes and green and white paint stains. I'm happy that the piece has the elements I set out to preserve with more natural patina than I'd imagined. Finished dimensions are 36" long, 18" tall and about 11 1/4" deep. It's the perfect size for our front entry where guests can use it to remove and put on shoes. Mostly Sylvia uses it to stack her stuff when she gets home from school.

There's nothing special about the design but I wanted a piece that was Arts and Crafts inspired. I think I achieved that with strong angles, a dark appearance and bold joinery. After I finished the project though, I felt a bit let down. I'd invested all this time into a chunk of old pine. Shouldn't I have poured that energy into a finer wood and achieved a more refined piece in the end? I don't necessarily think so. This bench is in use now and it works quite well for what it was meant to be.

Last Saturday morning we happened to be watching PBS. Many people (whether or not they ever make a speck of sawdust) have heard of Norm Abram and the New Yankee Workshop. Well, he retired and there is a new show in town called Rough Cut with a younger, hunkier star. We saw our first episode last weekend. As Tommy assembled a walnut trestle table from rough lumber, April told me she could better appreciate each of the steps I put into my projects seeing them laid out in a 30 minute TV program. It makes sense -- there's no way she's going to spend 9 hours in a weekend day watching all the details unfold. While I'll never build a piece of furniture in 30 minutes (neither Norm nor Tommy could either) it's helpful to note that every time I assemble a piece my precision increases and the time required diminishes. That's pretty sweet.


Me [LFoaB] said...

Great post, John. One of the drags with renting is not ever having enough space to create a workshop to begin to undertake woodworking.

If we resided in MPLS still, I think I'd enlist your skills to build us a table... your work looks very nice!


Patch O'Houli said...

Hey Scott, Great to hear from you! I appreciate the compliment. You know if fate ever brings you back this way you're welcome to come make sawdust. All the best ...

cvo said...

wow john, didn't know you were quite the wood worker, nice,

well hff is upon us, and I plan on making an apperance this year, see ya next week dood.

Patch O'Houli said...

CVO, HFF is dead. Long live HFF. But I'll see you in a few days for that other thing that may or may not be exactly like HFF. Looking forward to it!

. said...

I had no idea you worked the wood. Nice.