Everything you make is practice for the next thing you make. And every time you practice a technique, or carry out an operation on a project, is practice for the next time you use that particular technique. I was reminded this as I started to flatten the top of the staked desk yesterday. Although the top is the largest piece I’ve flattened by hand, the techniques are exactly the same as I practiced on the Joiner & Cabinet Maker projects last summer, and the Policeman’s Boot Bench earlier this year. All that is different is the amount of time, and the patience, required when flattening a 52″ x 24″ top rather than a 15″ x 9″ panel for a School Box (or a 40′ x 13″ shelf for the Boot Bench). Ultimately it just boils down to traversing cuts, then a 45 degree skew across the piece, and finishing by working along the grain. Just those simple three steps, repeated on a larger scale.The important thing is to remember the core techniques, and not to get overawed by the scale of the piece.
When I started work on the desk the thought of flattening such a large piece as the top didn’t bother me at all – I’ve flattened enough timber by hand over the past couple of years to make this second nature. What I did feel a little nervous about was jointing up the top – at 54″ long in the rough, these were the longest edge joints I’ve planed. As it turns out, the joints weren’t as difficult as I had anticipated, and cleaning up the show face of the desk top revealed two tight and gap-free joints, a success I attribute to all of the long edges I planed up for the Policeman’s Boot Bench (there were a lot of long panels that needed square and true edges on that build).
Checking the desk top with a straight edge revealed that while most of the top wouldn’t need much cleaning up, the board at the back of the top had cupped after glue up, resulting in the show face falling off by over 2mm (0.7874″ – don’t ask me what this is as a fraction). My first reaction was to rip that board off the top, re-flatten, and then joint back on. This would avoid removing too much material from the top overall, but would stall progress on the desk for a while. After considering my options, and checking the thickness of the top in multiple areas, I decided that I would be able to flatten the top without needing to rip the problem board off – I left the boards at just under an inch thick, so even taking into account the fall-off at the back edge, I still have enough material to make a viable desk top. The top is also currently overwidth, so if I remove the excess entirely from the cupped board that will remove the lowest edge and mitigate the worst of the cupping. Traversing the boards with a jack plane flattened most of the top quickly, and I then marked where the low area started with a pencil and straight edge. Cross hatching the low areas gives a quick visual indication of my progress.
Once the majority of the top was flat, with only a couple of inches of width in the low spot remaining on the back edge, I flipped the top over to flatten the underside. The jack plane made short work of flattening this face, and I’m going to leave the traversing marks on that surface – there’s no need to smooth the underside and the scalloped texture will remind me of the handwork that went into this desk when I am writing at it in years to come. I then moved back to the top surface, planing at a 45 degree angle to the grain with the jointer. This approach removes material easily but reduces the risk of tearout compared to traversing at 90 degrees to the grain, which means less clean up once the top is flattened.
All of this is pretty straight forward, and in fact the hardest thing was my bench fought me most of the way. While the Sjoberg bench was a very good initial bench when I bought it, and perfectly fine for lutherie work, it is simply too lightweight for processing stock by hand. I moved it against a wall in January of this year in an attempt to stop it skittering around the ‘shop, which has worked to some extent. But for this operation I had to move it back from the wall so that I could traverse the 24″ wide top (which is the same width as the workbench). To hold the bench in place, I ended hooking my left foot over the lower rail in order to pull the bench towards me as I plane forwards. These workshop aerobics have me dreaming once again of a stout and stable Roubo bench, so now might be the time to call a couple of sawyers and see if anyone can cut me a 24″ wide, 5″ thick oak slab. Roubo is coming.
I didn’t quite have the time to finish flattening the top this weekend (with all the snow I had to assist the Apprentice with snowman building) but that break has given me the opportunity to take stock of progress and decide the best next steps. So, next up I will bring the top to final width and length, including squaring up the ends, all of which will help to reduce the amount of flattening necessary.