About overthewireless

One time historian turned construction lawyer, musician, martial artist, photographer, distance runner, builder of musical instruments. Hand tool user all the time, every time.

All Assembly Required

or: The Anarchist’s Office Suite, Phase 2

The staked desk was the first of three pieces for my office, and by the summer I will hopefully have completed the remaining two projects – a boarded book case and a staked chair, both from the Anarchist’s Design Book, and both in maple to match the desk.

Because my workshop is unheated, I tend to tee up projects a couple of months in advance of when I plan to start them – breaking stock down to rough dimension and then stickering it in the house to acclimatise until I’m ready to get building. Before I can work on the book case , I am writing (and building) a project article for Popular Woodworking, scheduled for the October issue later this year. But in the meantime, and before I started working on the piece for PopWood, I took some time to prepare the stock for the bookcase and chair.

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Breaking maple boards down with the Skelton Panel Saw

When marking rough timber to length I prefer a timber framer’s square, and a chunky carpenter’s pencil (my saw *ahem* addiction means that I have a healthy supply of the carpenter’s pencils Bad Axe include with each saw), while rip cuts are easily marked out with a chalk line. Although this is not tricky work, I tend to take it quite slowly so that I can look over the boards carefully and make cuts to avoid knots or other defects. Once the boards have been marked out, and triple checked that the lengths are correct (including an extra inch or so to allow for any end checking that may occur), onto the saw benches they go to be broken down. Sawing the stock is straight forward – my Disston D8 handles rip cuts while the Skelton Panel Saw cross cuts stock to length.

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Stock preparation tools – Skelton Panel Saw, timber framer’s square, and carpenter’s pencil

After breaking the boards down I left them in the workshop for a week or so before stickering them in the house. I find that this staged process of cutting to rough length and width, resting in the ‘shop, and then moving into a heated environment avoids shocking timber and so reduces drying related movement or checking. Once I’ve finished the project article for PopWood, it will be onto the book case, which will provide a home for the remainder of my books and research materials currently languishing in boxes on the floor. And finally, the chair. Slowly but surely, the office suite is coming together!

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In this pile of maple is a boarded bookcase, just waiting to be assembled.

Welsh Stick Chairs – A Beginner’s Guide

If you’ve been waiting for an update on the John Brown book, then you might want to pick up issue 268 of Furniture & Cabinetmaking (which went on sale yesterday). Issue 268 carries my “Beginners Guide to Welsh Stick Chairs“, featuring photos of historic examples, and chairs by John Brown, Chris Williams, and Chris Schwarz. As always, the rest of the magazine contains a bumper crop of projects, reviews, and tricks of the trade.

Staked Work Table – in situ, in pictures

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A vintage compass (from 1904) sits on the corner of my desk. The lif of the compass is engraved with “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.

As soon as a project is finished and installed, most of my attention tends to switch to the next build on my work bench. The staked desk is a little different, in that I’ve been sitting at it most evenings this week catching up on various items of work. And it has been wonderful to spend some quality time working at the desk – I’m sure this is a piece of furniture that will age well as I spent many hours, and years, working at it.

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A confluence of components – the top, batten, and leg all coming together.

One of my favourite post-completion stages is always taking detail shots of the completed piece. Gareth is booked for a photo session in April, so there will be new additions to the Portfolio section of OtW in the near future. But in the meantime here are some detail shots I took of the desk in situ.

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The finish on the top worked very well. Plenty of protection, and the figure is emphasised without becoming distracting.

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Maker’s mark on the left hand batten.

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Facets!

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More facets. This time one of the back legs.

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Left hand batten.

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This is my favourite detail – the leg tenon entering the batten. Just a little hint of the, compound angles, and lovely facets. I could look at this element of the desk all day.

Pretty Up

As every project nears completion I start to think about what finish will be the most appropriate given the timber selection, the location of the project, and the intended use. Some woodworkers have a favourite finish that they reach for as a matter of course, but I’ve never found that one magic finish. Sure, there are finishes which I really like for certain timbers or applications (water based lacquer for acoustic guitars, shellac and black wax for oak, milk paint for pine), but there is no one finish which I instinctively reach for. The benefit of being somewhat restless when it comes to finishing solutions is that I’m always open to trying new products or combinations.

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The completed work table in situ. Maple, sea foam green, and teal. All the hallmarks of a vintage Stratocaster!

For the staked work table I planed up an offcut of the top as a sample and divided it into quarters. I like to have a couple of options to choose from, and with my sample board prepared I tried varying combinations of blonde shellac and hard wax, blonde shellac and Osmo Polyx, and a choice of either Osmo Polyx or Osmo Raw directly onto the maple (with no shellac). What I was looking for was a finish that subtly displayed the figure of the maple, but which did not add a high sheen – I will spend a lot of time working at this desk and don’t want to be distracted by light reflecting off a high gloss finish or by the figure becoming too loud.

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Applying shellac with a rubber

After living with the sample board for several weeks I decided that a base coat of blonde shellac with a top coat of Osmo Polyx matt would achieve my desired criteria. The shellac lifts the subtle curl of the maple top but never becomes too brash, while the Osmo adds a low-sheen protective layer which will ensure the longevity of the desk.

Before I applied the finish I spent some time checking the assembled desk and making pretty; cleaning up glue squeeze-out from the batten sockets, flushing up the front of the battens with a smoothing plane, and removing any last traces of tearout with a cabinet scraper. Finally, I broke the sharp corners of the desk top with 220 grit sandpaper. This last step is both for my comfort (maple can take a wicked sharp edge when planed) and to reduce the risk of the aris breaking in use.

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The top after two coats of shellac. Now for the Osmo.

Most of my finishing solutions tend to be quite simple – I want the finish to look good but I also want it to be easy to apply, and this was no exception. Previously I’ve applied shellac using a good quality polishing mop, but after some sage words of advice from Derek Jones (Derek really knows finishing) I decided to try applying shellac using a rubber. A quick order to John Penny Restoration later and I had plenty of lint free rags and skinned wadding to make the polishing rubber. Derek’s book provided a very useful walk through on how to fold the rubber and use it to apply the shellac. I used blonde tiger flake shellac from Tool for Working Wood, mixed to a 2lb cut. This went on very easily, and after two coats the figure on the table top was popping nicely without becoming brash. Using a rubber left a smoother texture than brushing shellac, which reduced the need for sanding between coats, and will definitely be my preferred method of applying shellac going forwards.

The final step was to apply the Osmo. I ragged generous coats on to every surface save for the underside of the top (which left with just a shellac coat) and then wiped off the excess after 20 minutes. Two coats applied 24 hours apart gave a good build up of finish and left a matt sheen which is attractive without being distracting.

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Quality inspection by the Apprentice

After leaving the desk for another 24 hours to get rid of the worst of the chemical aroma of Osmo, I moved the desk up to my study. This is the first piece of furniture I’ve built for our house, and the first time I’ve decorated a room with a specific furniture project in mind. When I started to decorate the study I wasn’t sure what colour to paint the walls – it is a small room so I wanted something that made it feel light and vibrant. Dr Moss suggested that I look to my favourite vintage guitars for inspiration, and so the walls were painted sea foam green and teal (my two favourite vintage Fender colours) with the knowledge that the Anarchist’s Office Suite of desk, chair, and bookcase, would all be maple. Moving the desk in was the first opportunity to see whether this combination had the desired effect. I’m pleased to say that seeing the desk against the painted walls really does evoke a mid-1950’s Fender Stratocaster, so the concept worked!

But more than that, the desk is sturdy, comfortable, and provides a very generous working area. It is also a very tactile piece – the smooth top contracts wonderfully with the roughly scalloped underside, and it is wonderful to run your fingers over the facets of the legs.

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Loaded up with my iMac and ready for work.

And so, I’m sitting in my study, typing the first of many blog posts which will be written at the new desk (not to mention magazine articles, and the small matter of the John Brown book). The study will continue to be a work in progress until I’ve finished the staked chair and bookcase to match the desk, but already it feels good to have a dedicated and comfortable place to work. I’ll be covering the progress of the rest of my Anarchist’s Office Suite over the coming months.

Level Up

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A sharp No.3 smoothing plane and raking light. One of the greatest pleasures imagineable.

After several months of working on the individual components of the staked work table, it was time to assemble the whole piece. Well, almost. The final task before I warmed up the hide glue was to finish surfacing the top – this is a task more easily accomplished while the top was on the workbench instead of on its own legs.

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This goose neck lamp from IKEA is perfect for adding raking ligght exactly where I need it.

Flourescent lights flatten details and make it hard to spot surface imperfections. So when it comes to surfacing I kill my overhead lights and rely on raking light – either from the up-and-over door at the end of my workshop (if it is a sunny day), or an IKEA goose-neck LED lamp which handily has a clamp at the end. Clamping the light to some stout scrap in my vise provides all of the raking light I need, meaning that I can easily zero in on tool marks or the last remnants of tearout. With the smoothing plane freshly sharpened and set to a fine cut, I cleaned up the table top, finishing with a cabinet scraper to remove any stubborn spots or stray plane marks.

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The desk assembled and clamped while the glue cures

And then, it really was game time. I drove both leg assemblies into their sockets with a lump hammer, and then treated the front inch of each socket with a coat of warm hide glue before driving the battens into their final position. This will hold the battens in place, but still allow for any wood movement (which gluing the full length of the batten would prevent). A pair of clamps on the front edge of the table top held the battens in position for good measure, although the tight fit of the battens meant that these were probably overkill. Jim suggested to me that glue-ups were a bit like a first date, which had me wondering if folk date differently in North Carolina. Most glue ups definitely get the heart racing, and language can get a bit salty, so I dig Jim’s analogy. But this was one of the most straight forward glue-ups I can remember, probably helped but having only two components to glue and easy clean-up. So I’ve definitely had worse first dates (not that those are stories I’ll ever tell on this blog).

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Marking off the foot height. Wedges and a knife taped to a 1/2″ block make this an easy task.

One of my favourite stages of working on legged pieces is levelling the feet. Once the glue had cured on the desk I moved it inside for this stage of the build – my workshop floor has a pronounced slope and getting anything level in there can be a  real bind, so I decided to level the desk in the dining room, which has a much more level floor and plenty of room to work in. I used a series of fine oak wedges to get the desk level front to back and side to side. Three of the legs were in very good order, and the fourth leg was just short enough to encourage a bit of a rock. With everything wedged up and stable I measured the table height on all four sides which showed that I only had to remove 1/2″ from the legs to get the 30″ final height I was shooting for. Digging in my scrap bin revealed some 1/2″ thick southern yellow pine, to which I taped a Hock Tools marking knife. These knives are sold without handles, with the intention that the user fits their own handle. I have deliberately left mine without a handle, specifically for table and chair leg levelling. Thick blade is good and rigid, and it takes a very keen edge. As a result the knife is perfect for making off legs as all I have to do is tape it to a block of the appropriate height.

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Marking off the dimensions of the chamfer

With the final height of the feet marked, the desk went back into the workshop. I really enjoy cutting the feet – at first the compound angles all look a bit screwy, but there is a real pleasure in letting go of the fact that you’re not cutting at 90 degrees, and just following the layout lines. With careful body positioning you can sight down 3 of the 8 facets on a leg, which gives plenty of visual guidance when making the cut. I use my Bad Axe 12″ carcase saw for these cuts – this a very precise saw which leaves a fine finish behind and is easily handled at unusual angles (unlike a larger tenon saw). Having trimmed the feet I righted the table and was pleased (relieved?) to find that it was rock solid with no hint of rocking.

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Chamfering

The final foot detail was to add a chamfer to stop the corners chipping out when the desk is moved. Maple takes details like this really nicely, and some time with an Auriou 9 grain cabinet maker’s rasp left crisp chamfers on each facet of the legs. The chamfers are parallel to the floor, and thanks to the splay of the legst the chamfer becomes progressively wider for each facet towards the back of the leg. It’s just a small detail, and one which probably no one will ever notice, but it pleases me.

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Facets on facets.

This build is drawing to a close, and all that is left to do is final making pretty and applying the finish. More of which next week.

 

Get wedged, or die trying

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Kerfing the leg tenons ready to be back wedged

With the leg mortises drilled, the next milestone on the staked desk build was to glue the two leg assemblies. The tenons are back wedged to ensure a strong mechanical joint, and so glue-up involved a couple of simple stages, the first of which was to prepare the wedges. Previously I’ve sawn wedges out of scrap, but this time round I decided to follow the example of chair makers I know, and rive the wedges. The advantage of riving stock for wedges is that splitting out the wedge blank severs the blank along the grain, and ensures that the wedge will be strong with grain flowing from tip to blunt end. I had plenty of maple scrap left over from the table top, so using a 2″ chisel and mallet I split off four sections, each 2″ wide and 1/4″ thick. Then using the same chisel I pared the wedge down from each side until it was at a 4 degree included angle. Working the wedge on a bench hook, paring into the hook, provides a safe way to remove the waste while keeping your fingers behind the business end of the chisel. Once I had pared the wedge to the desired angle, it was then a case of continuing to pare from each side until the wedge had a sharp point and consistent taper.

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Paring a wedge using a 2″ chisel and bench hook

The wedge needs something to drive into, and the next step was to kerf the tenons for the full depth of the mortise. For the staked saw benches I used my dovetail saw, but as these tenons are much larger (2″ thick compared to 5/8″), and the wedges much larger, I reached for the Roubo Beast Master saw instead. This established a precise kerf for the wedges to expand the tenons against the mortise walls. After deciding which leg would go in each mortise, and which facets I wanted facing forwards, I painted the tenons with hide glue and fitted them to the mortises. The wedges were then driven in with a 1lb lump hammer, and the assemblies left to cure.

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The wedge is at the right angle, and just needs to be pared down to a sharp point

Once the glue had cured, the tenons and wedges needed to be trimmed flush to the top of the batten. Again, the Roubo Beast Master was my saw of choice for this operation – although it is a rip saw and this was a cross-cut task, the deep saw plate and hang of the tote meant that I was able to cut the tenons flush without fouling on the side of the battens. A few swipes with a block plane cleaned up the surface of the tenon.

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One leg assembly glued up and wedged

The final task before the leg assemblies were ready to be fitted to the table top was to sign one of them with my maker’s mark stamp. This project offers plenty of end grain suitable to be marked with my OtW stamp, and I decided that the front end of one of the battens would be the perfect location. Several gentle taps on the stamp with my trusty lump hammer and the batten was signed and ready to be fitted.

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Trimming the excess tenon and wedge

Some projects barely change from the first cut of a rough board to the final application of finish, while I find that some evolve as I work on them. As the end of this project comes into view, I’ve decided not to install the drawer that Chris included in the original design, at least not initially. While the drawer looks attractive, I want to live with the desk for a while before I start screwing drawer runners to the underside of the table top. Also, I have in mind that rather than a single drawer, I might build a small freestanding chest of drawers to sit on the floor under the table top, which would offer more storage space and possibly give somewhere to sit a scanner/ printer on top of. The stock I cut for the drawer and runners will not be wasted, as these can be used for the drawer unit when I come to build that. This, I think, goes to the real versatility of the designs in the Anarchist’s Design Book – they provide a set of building blocks and solid techniques which can then be easily adapted to suit a particular user’s needs.