My favorite part of any furniture project is the point when a solution has been found to a challenge. It’s a figurative crossing of the “hump” which then signifies hopefully smooth sailing moving forward. This past Saturday I crossed that hump.
The bad news first. The temperatures in the area dropped well below freezing, and though that is not unheard of in my neck of the woods, it is uncommon for this time of year. So after I returned home from work on Saturday the first thing I did was check on the desk top panel. The panel is just fine, but the breadboard end with the issue was not looking so good. The underside developed a split that was instantly noticeable. Maybe the cold exaggerated it, but at that point I didn’t care, so the instant decision was made to saw off both of those bread board ends, which I did using the table saw and a cross-cut sled. I understood it meant losing a few hours of work, but I know the decision was the correct one because I felt no real remorse then or now, and rather than dwelling on it, I moved on to putting together the leg assemblies.
The leg assemblies posed a bit of a challenge, at least to me they did. Firstly, I wanted them to appear as if they could fold up, so I could not ship lap them together, though that in some ways may have been easier. The dilemma was attaching them to the cross cleats, which sounds simple but was a bit complicated.
The issue was the offset of the legs. Because the legs were not ship-lapped, one side of the leg would obviously offset, in this case ¾ of an inch. So my solution was to make a filler board to make up the gap made by the offset. At that, I wanted the board to match the angles and width of the cleat board as closely as possible, so I spent a good deal of time clamping and measuring. Once I was as sure of myself as I was going to get, I made the cuts, planed it to final size and started drilling holes for the quarter inch hardware I purchased for the project. I won’t lie, those first couple of holes were nerve-wracking, because a mistake would cost me several more hours of work, but once I got moving things went relatively smoothly. It took more than two hours, but in the end I had a finished leg assembly.
Sunday morning I started on the second assembly, and using lessons learned from the previous night’s experience, I had it finished and ready to attach in under an hour, so rather than leaving those two assemblies on top of the workbench, I did just that attached them to the desktop using some angle brackets. I hadn’t planned to do an assembly to be honest, but curiosity got the best of me. The good news is that so far it looks pretty good. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that the breadboard ends needed to be removed, but it doesn’t look bad in my opinion. But the better news is the fact that the legs all sit level with the ground. Generally, when making a table, there is usually a bit of wobble. As of right now the table sits nicely, and when I placed a level on the top I found it dead flat. At that, the table does rock a bit back and forth, but considering it is not permanently attached to the top yet, and considering the leg assemblies haven’t been joined together yet with any cross bracing, that was to be expected.
Lastly, I removed the assembled table from my garage and placed it in the family room, where I think it will be much safer. Over the years, I’ve found out the hard way that leaving unassembled furniture projects in my garage is a recipe for disaster. Maybe it’s gremlins; I don’t know, but whatever it is my projects seem to take a beating if they sit in the garage for too long, so I was taking absolutely no chances. In any event, the cat seems to like it, because as soon as I brought it inside the house she promptly hopped onto it, sprawled out, and took a nap.
Next weekend I will mill down another board to use for the cross bracing as well as the desktop drawer unit. Thankfully, I already have the drawer unit finalized in my mind, so the construction should have no unwanted surprises. So with a little luck I could quite possibly have a desk ready for finish a week from now.
On another note, some of you (or none of you) may be wondering why I did not post last week. Well, I had the very good fortune to go to Washington DC and not only take a tour of the White House, but to visit Mount Vernon as well. The Mount Vernon trip was not planned, it just happened to fall into place, and because I had not been able to go there last time I was in DC, I made it a priority. I will only say of the trip that I was completely blown away. The furniture examples in Mount Vernon alone are beyond description, and I would have taken photos, but they are not allowed inside the house itself. And because I believe that rules are a good thing (they are hardly “for fools” as some in the woodworking world would claim) I did not attempt any, and instead purchased a very nice book with photos that are much better than those I would have taken anyway.
My family, who was skeptical about the Mount Vernon visit in part because the day was cool, cloudy, and damp, was nonetheless blown away. My daughter in particular was completely awestruck. But the highlight, for all of us, was visiting the final resting place of George and Martha Washington and paying our respects. When I say that this trip was beyond inspirational and much more of a spiritual experience, I am understating to the highest degree. Upon leaving Mount Vernon, my admiration of George Washington, which was already immense, grew even greater. And more than ever I am committed to making this desk to the highest level I possibly can.
I started and completed phase 3 of the Washington Campaign Desk project on Sunday afternoon, but I ran into a few problems, one minor, two a bit more concerning.
As I mentioned in prior posts, when I began this project I decided to build the top with a breadboard end detail. The reason for going with breadboard ends was not only for added stability, but also for appearance.
I’ve seen breadboard ends made in several different styles, from one long tenon, to a ‘haunch’ style tenon, to dowels. I decided on the one long tenon (1 ¼”) for no particular reason other than it seemed to fit. The process for creating the joint went smoothly enough, though it was somewhat time consuming. I set up the table saw with a dado stack, made several test cuts to center the groove, and proceeded to make the groove, raising the blade height ¼” on each pass. Once that was finished I did the same for the tenon on the desk top.
The first issue, and to my mind the biggest, came when I was cleaning up the tenon. I used a shoulder plane to do the bulk of the work, and that worked well, but a slip of the hand left a nice little ding on the front left corner, which would not have made a difference had I not decided to go with breadboard ends. Unfortunately, when I was doing a test fit I noticed the gap that the ding made, around 3 inches long and 1/16th of an inch wide, which doesn’t sound like much until you compare it with the rest of the joint, which is pretty much right on the money.
The second issue, and to me almost as troubling as the ding, came when I installed the dowels.
I used 3/8” oak dowels to hold the joint in place, and I decided to drawbore the joint for added security. I’m not overly experienced in the art of drawboring, but I’ve done it enough to not be afraid of it. Drawboring, briefly and in layman’s terms for those of you who may not know how a drawbored joint works, is when you drill out the hole of your tenon slightly closer to the shoulder than the holes bored out on the breadboard ends. This, in theory, will pull the joint closed very snugly and help to eliminate any gaps between the shoulder of the desktop and the breadboard ends. To leave out the dull details, it worked just fine in 5 of the 6 holes. On the last joint (as usual) the dowel pin I used went crooked, which is a sure sign that it needed to be tapered more. So I took a nail set and used it to tap out the pin, and of course it blew out a very small but noticeable chunk of the wood on the breadboard piece. Under other circumstance it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least, but because this piece is right next to the dowel, which is oak and much lighter in color than walnut, that little ding looks huge. I of course glued the blowout back in, but I have no idea how it is going to look until everything is completely sanded down and ready for finish.
The “minor” issue, and the easiest one to fix, is nonetheless the most disappointing to me. After all of the work, I’m not exactly sure that I like how the breadboard ends look. It’s an easy situation to remedy; I can just saw off the ends and in the process I would only be losing around 4 inches of desk top length (along with several hours of work and effort). I can easily chamfer or round over the top for a pleasing appearance. So I trimmed the breadboard ends flush (almost) and gave the top a light sanding and I’m still on the fence. I won’t lie, the dings are bothering me, and one showed up inexplicably near the center of the panel; don’t ask me how as nothing was dropped on it, but stuff like this seems to happen in my garage.
The center ding should easily be fixed with an iron, but that gap is not as simple. One option is to make up a filler with some glue and sawdust, the other is to just hide it with the drawer compartment. A third option, as I said, is removing the breadboard ends completely. I wanted the gappy area to serve as the front of the desk, because I like the grain pattern there and also because the other panel has two knots with some really funky stuff happening.
My plan now is to fix the dings as best I can, and then adding a coat of sanding sealer to see what I am working with. Otherwise, any advice would be much appreciated.
Ever thought about a little home renovation? Considered coffered ceilings? Until recently, it was uncommon to find these in modern homes. As they become more and more common, homeowners are remodeling their homes and including this unique home upgrade. Take a look at the infographic below by Jason Tilton of Fanatic Finish for more info.
This past Sunday afternoon I began day 2 of the Washington Campaign Desk project. The main objective was to get the legs sawn to finish length and width along with the cleats to attach it to the desk top, the secondary objective was to get the desk top planed flat. If everything was working at optimal level I even considered getting the rabbets cut for the breadboard ends. Happily, I at least got the first two items on the list checked off.
To start, on Friday night I got the desktop sawn to final size (minus the breadboards) 40 inches. I then ripped one of the boards I had prepped last week into 4 strips, 2 ¾ inches wide and 6 ft long. Those boards were to be used for the breadboard ends and the 4 legs. So on Sunday afternoon I first chose the nicest board and cut that to the rough lengths needed for the breadboard ends. I then got to work on the legs.
The legs turned into a bit of a challenge. Cutting the angles was not really much of an issue as I simply used the cardboard template I made, but working around some of the knot holes and defects was a bit more difficult, or at the least time consuming. I basically hemmed and hawed for 15 minutes trying to lay out the cuts in such a way as to utilize the best parts of the boards, and then I got to sawing with the table saw.
The table saw work went quickly; after a few test cuts to set the angle of the legs, I had them sawn to length along with the cleats in a matter of minutes. But there was a minor drawback; in choosing the best aspects of the boards, I was forced to shorten the overall height of the desk from 29 inches to just over 28 inches, which I can certainly live with, in particular if that is the worst thing that happens during this project.
After the legs were sawn to length, I ripped them to just over their final width: 2 ¼ inches, as I will use a hand plane to finish them.. I then did a few test layouts using the template and so far everything looks good. Once that was all finished I turned to the desk top, where I discovered a minor issue.
When I glued up the two boards to make the desktop I wanted to remove any of the sapwood that I could, and I thought that I had. But at the seem there is a very fine line of sapwood that I honestly hadn’t noticed. Initially I thought it was just a bit of glue that had seeped through when the boards were clamped, unfortunately I was wrong. But, I am not going to worry about it. These boards are old and have a lot of “character”, so going in I knew that I was not going to end up with a French Polish level of refinement. But I did get the top planed to where I wanted it, using the jack plane and smooth plane. On that note, in cases like this I use the jack plane very much like a smooth plane to take fine shavings. The Walnut planed nicely, and I can live with the results.
Before I called it a day I gave the underside a quick plane as well. As I had mentioned in the prior post, the glue up went smoothly, so the panel was nearly flat to begin with, and really only needed some touch up work. While I had the desktop flipped over I added some epoxy to a knot that had developed a small crack, just in case. Lastly, I got to cleaning up the garage. It wasn’t too late, so I probably could have made an attempt at the breadboard ends, but I didn’t want to push the matter; I’m in no rush.
Next weekend, my goal is to complete the breadboard ends, and quite possibly assemble the base. If I manage to get the breadboard ends finished I will give the entire top a quick once over with a plane and possibly start sanding. Once I do that I can get to work on the base assembly. Initially I was a little worried about the base, but I figured out a very simple method to attach the legs accurately that should allow me to get to the fun part: the desk top cubby.
As far as this desk is concerned, I am trying to make it as close as I can to the original piece using only a photograph. I know there are woodworkers that specialize in reproductions who are experts at working from photos. Unfortunately I am not one of those experts, so this project has required a good bit of guess work.
For instance, I want the desk top to have a height of around 29 inches, and that is because my computer desk at home is 29 inches tall (most desks seem to fall in the 27-31 inch height range) and for me that is a comfortable working height. The length of the top will likely finish off at around 44 inches, which was my original guestimate from the photo using the book and pen as a guide. Why likely? Because I still have to do some trimming, and that trimming may change the finished size, depending. The width of the desktop (front to back) should finish off at around 23 inches, partly because of the stock I am using, and going by the original photo, I believe it is close to the actual width of the desk shown.
The legs are a bit trickier. Most woodworkers will make a “story stick”, which work well for projects like tables and traditional desks with bases, but for this project the ‘X’ pattern of the legs make the story stick a less viable option, because I want to have the ability to see that ‘X’ in full size. So the simple solution was to draw out a side view of the desk on a sheet of corrugated paper. The drawing not only gives me an easy lay-out guide, it also provided the angles needed for the legs. And after looking at the drawing, I came to the conclusion that screwing the legs to the face of the desktop cleats is a better solution than using a mortise and tenon joint, as it will be stronger and allow for the panel to expand and contract.
Maybe most importantly, this drawing helped to eliminate a lot of measuring, and the full sized drawing allowed me to proportion the top drawer compartment to dimensions I found pleasing, and once the desktop base is completed I will use the drawing as a template to saw the curves for the drawer unit.
It’s always nice to find that the simple, low tech solution is usually the easiest and fastest. Some woodworkers prefer to use drafting programs such as Sketch-up to do layout work, but that has never appealed to me, though I do believe that Sketch up is a valuable tool. But as far as this project is concerned, I found it enjoyable to use a basic pencil, T-square, and yard stick to design the desk, and at that, I think GW would have approved.
I woke up on Sunday morning feeling a little under the weather. My back was a little stiff, I had a headache, and I didn’t sleep very well on top of it. I almost put my Washington’s Desk project on hold, but I knew that if I didn’t get started I probably never would. So I cleared out the garage and got to work.
The plan was to mill up enough material for the desk top, the breadboard ends, the legs, as well as cleats for the desktop underside and the cross stretcher. So I chose 3 boards, two 6 footers and one 4 footer (all of the boards were 12 inches wide by 1 inch thick). To mill down those boards I used my Ryobi surface planer. For the record, this isn’t what I consider a great or even good tool. I purchased it almost 14 years ago while doing a kitchen remodel. It does the job, but it is loud and messy. Nonetheless, I had to work with the tools I have, so I checked the blades, and they were reasonably sharp, so I started milling.
What made this such an arduous process was the collection of the shavings. Because I rarely use power tools, I don’t have a dust collector or even a large shop vac. The shop vac I do have is perfectly fine for cleaning out a car or keeping a workbench clear, but it is not made for large scale work. But once again I had to use what was available, and it was not fun. Initially, I was hoping to finish up with two boards just over 7/8” thick for the top and one board just over ¾” thick for the legs. But, I underestimated the amount of material I needed to remove. The boards I was working with were very rough sawn, as in just a shade beyond still having bark. So I had to remove nearly ¼” of material just to get down to usable boards that were flat. And it also meant a lot of starting and stopping to empty out the shop vac. I was actually sore from the constant bending over to pick up the shavings, which I did at the very least fifty times. In the end, I filled up an entire lawn bag with shavings.
After the boards were milled I used the table saw to trim the two boards for the desk top to rough width and length (as well as getting rid of planer snipe). I then aligned the boards for a nice grain pattern (at least to my eye), and trimmed the boards to very near final size. To join the boards I decided to match-plane them.
Match planing works well, especially if your plane is set properly. I used a strange sequence: jointer plane first, a couple of passes with a jack plane set to take gossamer thin shavings, jointer again, and then one final pass with the jack. I’m not sure how other woodworkers match-plane, but when I am able to take a full width, full length shaving from both boards I call it joined. And in a surprisingly short time the boards were ready to be glued. I am very happy with the joint, as it was air tight, and the top is thankfully nice and flat. It will take a good amount of plane work and sanding, and probably some scraping as well (there are a few funky grain spots) to get the top ready for finish, but I should have a top ¾ thick when all is said and done, which is a bit less than I wanted, but hardly the end of the world.
At that point, I decided to call it a day. There was a lot, and I mean a lot, of clean up to do. In fact, I spent nearly as much time setting up and cleaning up as I did woodworking. This coming weekend I am hoping to get the legs sawn to finish length and width, the breadboard ends ready, and with a little luck I may possibly have the entire base and desk top ready for assembly. I was a little worried over laying out the legs, but I figured out a simple solution that I will detail in my next post.
Do we ever reach an age where we become too old for heroes? And I don’t just mean every day heroes such as firemen, policemen, and teachers (not that they aren’t important), but legendary heroes such as King Arthur or Babe Ruth. Maybe you all have, but I haven’t.
Growing up in Philadelphia, stories about the American Revolution were pretty much second nature for me. Some of my earliest memories revolve around Valley Forge Park, the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, and the Liberty Bell. The battles of Brandywine and Germantown were fought basically at my back door, so it was just a normal part of growing up, for me, to learn as much as I could about the War for Independence.
However, of all the legendary names from the War for Independence that I can spout off automatically, George Washington stands atop the list.
As a child, Washington was a mythical figure, a larger than life titan, a legendary demi-god who descended from Heaven, led America to a glorious victory, and rode off into immortality in a chariot of fire. As I grew older, my hobby of researching the American Revolution turned more towards the battles and tactics of the time. I loved the political intrigue, the clandestine spy operations with code names and invisible ink, and the sacrifices of the common soldier. Yet, I always found myself coming back the Washington, even if in passing.
Fast forward into married adulthood. Four years ago my family was going through a difficult time. A very close family member had become ill, I was not feeling so hot myself, and it was quite frankly very difficult on all of us, in particular my wife. Living so close to Valley Forge National Park, I found myself there often, taking long walks just to ease my mind. And though I had been to VFP many times, and though I had known the story of the park since before I could read, the park was still to me in many ways a place of legend, in much the same way that George Washington had become a legendary figure. But it was during those walks that began to look around, and not just inwardly. I found myself reading the many marker stones and inscribed monuments to those who served there; I spoke to park rangers and historians, I attended park events, and soon after I found myself once again engrossed in history. It saved me.
I read at least 50 or more books on the Revolution. I volunteered at the park whenever possible (and still do to this day). I took it upon myself to become a steward of history, learning whatever I could whenever I could. And in doing so I came to admire George Washington more and more, not just for his war time exploits, but as the leader of a new nation.
I don’t know how many books I’ve read just on Washington to be honest. I now count 22 on the book shelf right behind me, and at least that many more in my Kindle reader. A few of those books were little more than fluff pieces, but the majority of them are true in-depth studies, and just as I chose those books specifically to de-mystify the legend and learn more about the man, instead his legend grew in my eyes and I now hold him in greater esteem more than ever. He was far from perfect, and I am not implying that he was; he had faults like all of us do; I am only doing my utmost to understand the man in context to the era he lived in, and I found perhaps the greatest leader of men the world saw in the entire millennium.
So this is a woodworking blog, right, and not an ode to historical figure? Why then post a fanboy crush diary entry on George Washington and his ragtag band of rebels? Glad you asked.
A few weeks back I went with my family to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. It was a geek-out heaven for me, and among the thousands of artifacts were some of George Washington’s personal belongings. Of course, there were also replicas, and among those was a desk that was believed to be similar to the furniture that would have been used by the officers, and perhaps Washington himself, during the American Revolution. I made the decision right then and there to build one for myself.
It just so happens that I have been planning for the past year to dedicate a section of our family room to my love of history. I have collected dozens if not hundreds of historical artifacts on the era: artwork, newspapers, broadsides, books, lamps, and tools. Admittedly, most of those artifacts are replicas, but they are of high quality. As of last month it was my plan to restore a desk which belonged to my father-in-law’s family and use that to house and display some of my collection. Though I still plan on restoring that desk, I have decided to make the “Washington” desk my centerpiece.
Even better news is that in doing some more research, I’ve found that most of Washington’s campaign furniture was made from walnut, which I thankfully have plenty to use ( I had planned on using it regardless). I’ve recently consulted with my first and best woodworking mentor, his excellency Chuck Bender, on some of the construction details, and he was, of course, a huge help.
With any luck I am hoping to not only have the final measurements down, but the material milled and the desktop panel glued up this weekend. The top I will make using breadboard ends. The legs may be a bit of a challenge in that I don’t plan on making them foldable because I have no intention of moving this desk throughout the colonies. So I may make those using a ship lap joint, which is a joint I’ve generally only made perpendicular. Otherwise, I plan on staying pretty much true to the photo.
I’m hoping this turns out well, because even though it may not be my most ambitious project, I can already guarantee that it will be my favorite thus far. George Washington has inspired me for much of my life, even more so as an adult than as a child, and I cannot think of a better way to adorn my home and continue my research than to create a piece of furniture inspired by the man himself.