Starting Points

Every project starts with the same elements: an idea (or an actual plan), a pile of wood, and – hopefully – some tools.  This is the “lost” Gustav Stickley side table, as published in Popular Woodworking.  It’s usually called the “lost” table because it was never a production model… there’s only one existing example.  Most Stickley furniture is identified by model number, as it was designed to be factory produced, but this particular table was never a general production design.

The wife-unit (Cathrine) wants a small table to go by the sofa, but there’s a space limitation.  If it’s too wide, it’ll cause traffic problems getting from the living room to the kitchen.  I looked at a lot of table designs, and didn’t find anything perfect.  This one is close, but I’m going to have to make a design alteration – it’s about an inch and a half too wide in the original version.  So, I’m going to narrow the front and rear aprons and the drawer to compensate.  I realize this will change the overall proportions of the table, and yes, I’m a little nervous about the outcome.

Some Challenges

This looks like a pretty simple design, but it’s got a lot of challenges: The 3 1/2 degree slant to the front and rear of the table has to be accurately reproduced throughout the construction, including the tops and bottoms of the legs, the side aprons, and the drawer itself.  Also, the drawer is built with dovetails – and I intend to cut them by hand, instead of by machine.  The slant of the drawer has to be included in the dovetails as well.

Therein lies one of the primary challenges: my dovetails are lousy.

There, I’ve said it. I’ve watched the amazing “three minute dovetail” videos, and mine take considerably longer. I took Howard Hale’s class at Woodcraft in Addison, and I’ve done some practice.  My chisel work is fine, and my layouts are correct, but I have a *terrible* time sawing accurately to the line.  I tend to drift to the inside, and have to do a lot of cleanup, which invariably makes them look sloppy.  Or else I saw past the layout mark slightly, which looks horrible when it’s assembled.

So one of the things I’ll be doing during this project is regular practice in cutting the joint, so that I’ll be able to do an acceptable job when the drawer construction starts.

Materials

Most Arts-and-Crafts (or Mission Style) furniture is quartersawn white oak.  I’ve already done a couple of pieces that way (see the wine cabinet pictures on my Flickr page).  It’s beautiful, and traditional, but not what I want to go with the other furniture where this table is intended.  I also don’t want to use walnut (my usual choice), because I think it will just look wrong somehow.

So I’ve settled on something really different: mesquite.  I recently did a jewelry box in mesquite, and I loved the texture and feel of the wood, but it’s going to produce yet another challenge. It’s extremely hard, dense wood, and it’s going to make some of the construction even more difficult and labor-intensive.

I picked up 25 board feet of beautiful, clear mesquite at Woods of Mission Timber last week.  I usually don’t try and obtain clear, straight wood – I think it looks artificial, somehow.  Wood is organic, and should be flawed and have character.  Wood with perfectly smooth, straight grain looks like formica. But the gentleman at Mission Timber laid out a perfectly matched set of almost flawless lumber for me, and I decided that deliberately including knots and flaws would be a distraction from the very clean lines of the table.

Mesquite wood is very distinctive. No two pieces look alike.  It tends to have a lot of knots, defects, ingrown bark, and mineral streaks. Even straight, clear lumber like I have for this project is going to have a lot of variation. Up to 50% of the tree is discarded, due to the thick outer bark and twisting surface.  Fortunately, it grows large with sufficient water – as large as mature oak trees. It’s considered a ‘replenishable’ hardwood, rare, and exotic.  It’s harder than either oak or maple. It typically doesn’t degrade in weather, and isn’t prone to splitting or warping. Most of the larger mesquite lumber (including what I’m using) comes from here in Texas, south of San Antonio. It also isn’t cheap – this was $14 per board foot.

Tools

I do as much as I can with hand tools alone.  But I’m also not a masochist.  Although a lot of this will be handwork – including almost all of the joinery – I’m not going to attempt to thickness all the lumber by hand, or ripsaw all the lumber to width.

That means table saw, band saw (for the front and rear aprons), planer and jointer to bring the lumber to thickness and square it, and probably mortising machine (which is a drill press attachment) to cut the mortises. I may decide to chop some of them by hand, but the angles are going to be extremely tricky, so I’ll probably get better results by machine.

Right now, the rough mesquite is sitting in a pile, letting the temperature and humidity equalize for a few days.  As you can see, Ceilidh is ready for me to get started.

Next: Tool preparation and sharpening. Oh, joy.

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4 comments on “Starting Points

  1. Rafe says:

    An enjoyable read. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the stages when I can get over to your house.

  2. Cindy McShane says:

    That should be a beautiful piece when done. Have you decided how you are going to finish the piece?

    • rhenton says:

      Most of my furniture finishes are exactly the same: one coat of Watco Danish Oil, one coat of Deft Sanding Sealer, two or three coats of Deft spray lacquer. Usually high-gloss, sometimes satin for finishes that I want to be less obvious. Sanded to 220 or 300 grit between coats, and I knock some of the gloss down with 0000 steel wool when finished.

      The only real variations I do are for mission-finished oak (where I use Watco “Golden Oak” Danish Oil, and sometimes amber shellac), and some pieces where I only use Danish Oil – usually 4-5 coats, hand rubbed.

      Smaller stuff like jewelry boxes, I usually do one coat of Danish Oil, and then polish them with a Beall Wood Buffer (tripoli polish, white diamond, and carnuba oil in sequence).

      I’m pretty monogamous about finishes. I think it’s best to find something that works for you and stick to it. Lacquer is easy for me; it dries fast and it’s easy to handle. Brushed or padded varnish can be amazing, but it dries slower and collects dust (a real problem for me).

      Actually, I think french polish looks best for glossy finishes, but it’s a tremendous amount of work, and I’m not very good at it.

      — Ross

  3. Mr. Timewise says:

    Much fun to read your description on the choice of wood, fabrication, construction, planning, safety, etc. I am not at all a woodworker, just someone who appreciates good soild craftsmanship and effort. Thanks you.

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