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On Saturday afternoon the Washington Campaign Desk project officially became a completed piece of furniture when I moved it from our downstairs family room into our “office”. In actuality, the construction of the project was completed two weeks ago and the finish applied over the course of a week. While I’m very much an amateur when it comes to finishing, and I may have already mentioned it in another post, I will briefly touch on the topic again.
In most cases I would have finished walnut with BLO and some wax. I wanted to go with something more refined, and after some online research I wound up with a product from Rockler called ‘Sam Maloof poly oil/poly wax’. The instructions were similar to other finishes: sand to 400g, burnish with 0000 steel wool and a soft cotton cloth, apply liberally, and immediately wipe off the excess with a soft cloth. (I’m glad they added the immediately, because letting the finish sit is a recipe for disaster no matter what anybody, anywhere will tell you). Anyway, the recommended sequence was 3 to 4 coats of the poly/oil blend, and 1-2 coats of the wax blend, with a 24 hour drying time in between coats. I went with 3 coats of the poly/oil, and 2 coats of the poly/wax, and I can say without any reservation that it was the easiest and nicest finish I’ve ever applied. Even better, it is dead simple to apply further coats in the future for renewal purposes. At $20 per pint it was not inexpensive, but in my opinion it was well worth the cost.
I have two regrets with this project: One, I wish that I had documented the little details a bit more. Two, I would have done a better job on the through dovetails at the back of the drawers. Don’t get me wrong, the drawers are square and tight, but compared to the rest of the desk, I think the through dovetails are a bit sloppy. Speaking of the drawers, I did not fully assemble (meaning glue them together) and finish them until after the final coat of finish was applied to the desk itself, just in case some final resizing needed to be done. And the last task, adding felt bottoms to the drawers, was completed yesterday.
I felt a great sense of accomplishment when we moved the desk into our office. I added some of my memorabilia to it and it really brought the desk to life. Everything looked like it belonged, and when I replace the oil lamp with a real candle lantern I believe it will look even better.
This desk was the first full-sized piece of furniture I built this year, and more significantly, it could be the last full-sized piece I make in a long time. Not that I’m planning on giving up woodworking, but the real truth is I have very little room in my house for more furniture. Currently, the living areas of my house contain 14 pieces of furniture I built. That is a respectable number. So from now into the foreseeable future, I will likely be making small boxes and such, which I am fine with, because whatever else happens, I built something that I am extremely proud of, and I set the bar higher. Now, I just need to find a suitable chair…
This past weekend I began the scary phase of every one of my woodworking projects, and that is the time when there are a lot of almost finished, unassembled parts lying around waiting to be destroyed.
First things first, on Saturday afternoon/evening I spent two hours milling up the final two boards needed to complete the project. Well, it was about an hour milling up and an hour cleaning up. Rather than calling it a night, I wanted to get in a little actual woodworking, so I attached the cross brace to the back legs. I did not want to mortise out the legs because they are thin to begin with, so instead I dadoed the brace, 3/8 of an inch, planed it down, chamfered the edges, and sanded it smooth. I was satisfied with the appearance, so I attached it with some decorative brass screws. Thankfully, it added some much needed stability to the legs. Admittedly it took longer than it should have to lay out the dadoes, but I wanted the fit to be dead accurate, and I really didn’t want to waste a perfectly good board just by being careless.
Overnight Saturday we had a wind storm, so I spent a portion of the morning and early afternoon cleaning up the back yard, which really ate up the prime hours of the day. But I soldiered on and decided to get as much of the drawer unit finished as possible.
I took my sweet time with those dadoes, because I only had one crack at it, and once the kerfs were all sawn I used a chisel and router plane to get to finished depth. The fit was nice, so I moved on to what I believe is the most challenging part of this project, the ogees on the drawer compartment sides.
Considering that nearly all of the furniture I’ve built to date has been in the Arts & Crafts style (as well as some Shaker pieces), laying out and sawing an ogee with a coping saw is not my strong suit, but I decided to give it a try regardless. I used a compass and my limited artistic ability to lay out the ogee on one of the drawer unit ends, clamped both together, and started sawing. The results were mixed; I should have stuck closer to the line, but in the end it was done. Afterwards, I spent a good hour using a spoke shave, chisel, and rasp to get the pieces in shape. In the end, I wound up with more of a sloping cove than a true ogee, but I am not unhappy with it, and once it is sanded down I think it will look pretty good.
The last task of the day was adding rabbets to the side pieces of the drawer unit, which I did with a moving fillister plane. I could have pushed it and fitted the drawer dividers as well, but that part should be simple, and I didn’t want to push it, as it was getting late and I had a lot of clean up to do.
After clean up, I once again brought all of the parts into my family room for safe keeping. I attached the “ogeed” ends to the drawer unit top and placed it on top of the desk. I liked the open appearance, so I think what I may do is leave the space in between the two drawers without a back, just to see how it looks. If I don’t like it, I will simply add the filler piece, but I think that open area may add some lightness to the desk, and I could always bore out a space for an inkwell cup there.
Happily, so far none of the pieces have been damaged in any way. By the end of next week the desk should be ready for finish, as the only thing really left to do is make the drawers along with finishing up some light sanding. I’m hoping that my lovely wife steps in and does the finishing for me, as she is much more patient than I am when it comes to stuff like this. Otherwise, I am in the home stretch. And for those of you who celebrate the holiday, have a Happy Thanksgiving.
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.
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.
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.
I may have mentioned in a previous post that my wife and I picked up two pieces of furniture for my daughter, a chest of drawers and a bed-side table, at an antique store a few months back. The antique store is local, local enough to where it’s easy to just drop by a few times per month, and luckily we happened to wander in to see what was new and discovered the pieces there.
Firstly, the furniture isn’t “antique” in the sense that it is ancient. I would estimate both pieces were made roughly 75 years ago. I know that both the dresser and table were made in Pennsylvania because the faded makers mark is still on the back of both, I just cannot make out the name of the manufacturer. It is extremely well made stuff, solid maple casing, dovetailed drawers and case sides (the chest of drawers case sides), all poplar innards. Knowing what I know about furniture, I would estimate that a similar chest of drawers “new” would likely cost around $900-$1000, possibly more, and the table in the $350 range. We paid just around $180 total for both pieces including tax. So why is the price important? The answer to that question needs some background information.
Some time ago I wrote a post which asked the question: If some sort of theoretical disaster were approaching, and you either save the furniture you made or your woodworking tools, which would you save? Firstly, this question was meant to by hypothetical. This wasn’t meant to be a real world scenario and I wasn’t interested in the logistics of saving both.
What it all boiled down to is: Are your tools more important to you or is the furniture you build with those tools the most important thing? There was no lesson to be learned, I just wanted opinions.
Of the dozen or so people who commented, to a man they all said they would save their tools over their built furniture. And I felt the same way.
I wrote that post a few years ago, and my views regarding the subject haven’t changed too much. And in fact, I can confirm that many people share the same sentiment, because often times when entering a place such as a flea market, or antique store, vintage tools often cost more than vintage/antique furniture, even tools that look like hell compared to furniture that looks great. Of course there are exceptions, and certain pieces of furniture sell for large sums. But, more often than not, even “valuable” furniture sells at auctions for pennies on the dollar. Why?
Here is something I’ve discovered in the time since I first began to woodwork: most furniture is worthless. I don’t care if it was handcrafted, or machine made, or a little of both. I’ve found (though this is hardly a new idea) that furniture often becomes a burden to the owners, and worse than a burden to the people who inherit it. To put that in perspective, the two pieces of well-made furniture we purchased for my daughter were likely once part of a bedroom set, and the original owner, I would think, was probably proud to have them in his/her house. They were likely sold as a ‘lot’ at an estate auction or some such sale after the owners died, or sold their house, or whatever the case may be. Less than 100 years later, within a lifetime if you will, they ended up at the back of a dinky little antique store, priced to sell so the store could make room for more stuff. They were essentially given away even though their ‘intrinsic’ value was theoretically more than double the cost that I paid for them, and many times more than the dealer paid.
As I said, there are high-end antique stores that sell both expensive furniture and tools. I’m not denying that. But well-made, “middle class” furniture costs next to nothing on the pre-owned market. And I’m not referring to mass market stuff, I’m not bringing up IKEA or places like that. I’m talking about the very good quality furniture that the average person had in his or her home 75-100 years ago. While not claiming to be a furniture expert, I know more than enough to recognize a well-constructed piece of furniture, and the stuff I’ve been coming across is extremely well made, and it is selling for “cheap”.
Here is the sobering news: This isn’t a market anomaly. I’ve been in dozens of antique stores and in general you can get good quality furniture without spending much, and at auctions it can get even more crazy. And all of this makes me wonder, wonder about what I do with my time and what woodworking means to me.
For the record, I don’t make furniture to sell it, or in the hopes that it will one day become valuable in a monetary sense. But it dawned on me that there is a chance that some of the furniture I made may end up having a dollar value placed on it, not so much because it will be sold, but because that “dollar value” may decide if it is worth keeping. Or it could very well end up at an auction or an estate sale of some kind. It most likely won’t sell for much, if anything at all. Don’t misunderstand me; I make my furniture as well as I can using sound, time-tested methods. But that really doesn’t mean much with the realization that much of the furniture I have built or will build in the future will probably end up in the garbage.
The standard response I will probably get is: “Then strive to build stuff that won’t get tossed aside!!” My reply is that I already try. I can also point out that the vaunted furniture makers of yesteryear, the fellows who made some of the best furniture ever produced; the fellows that the experts tell us are far, far better than we could ever hope to be, built a lot of stuff that ended up in the garbage too, not because it was garbage, but it became garbage nonetheless.
In conclusion, I guess what I am trying to get at is the whole “make stuff that will outlast you” is all nonsense, because it will not. It is rare to find furniture more than 200 years old. Most furniture 300 years old or more is in a museum, and in some cases not just because it was well-made furniture, but because it belonged to somebody of historical importance. The stuff older than 400 years is relatively non-existent.
I know I’m going to get some responses pointing out “all of the antique furniture” that is still out there. Yeah, there is still a lot of antique furniture, a boat load of it, tons, but it is a miniscule amount when comparing it to all of the furniture made at the same time that no longer exists, or still does exist in the back of somebody’s storage basement. And all of the stuff that is still out there is worth little in a monetary sense when it really comes down to it. And here again, I am not trying to put a cash value on what I make, I’m trying to say that just because one of my grandkids may one day have a table I made sitting under a sheet in his or her attic doesn’t mean that I built a piece of furniture that “outlasted me”.
Furniture, like most things, is perishable. It is a fleeting object made by those doomed to die and fade into obscurity. Rest assured, I’m not preaching doom and gloom. I’m saying that working under the pretense of “it outlasting me” may be a losing proposition. I’m not advocating slapping together garbage out of wood and calling it furniture, but I am advocating the end of the high and mighty notion that our furniture is oh so important in the grand scheme of things.
Build furniture; build it the best way you know how, and most importantly have fun, but sooner, or later, nearly everything we make, no matter how lovely or well-made it may be, will likely end up being sold at a yard sale, or covered in dust in somebody’s attic, or gracing the bottom of a land fill. And that is a very sobering thought.
On Memorial Day, my family and I went to a Church Service at Valley Forge National Park. While most of the attendees were adults, there were obviously children there with their families just as my daughter was with me. I saw a few of those kids on their cellphones before the service, and that in and of itself didn’t necessarily bother me all that much. I’m not a curmudgeon and I don’t think today’s generation of kids is doomed. I do think they are a little less athletic, a little too educated (for their ages) and a little more self-absorbed than kids of past generations, but those things are hardly signs of the apocalypse.
One thing I’m not fond of is the “selfie”. This may be cliché’, but I’ve seen kids walk into walls, into the street, and into other people while taking selfies. I personally think it is the worst trait of the cell phone generation, and when I saw a kid take a selfie it in the church it did bother me a little. I’ve taken one selfie in my life, which was a photo of me in a Halloween get-up, and the first was very likely the last. I’m not knocking the occasional selfie, just the people who spend hours of their day taking them.
So what am I getting at?
This blog became my own woodworking selfie.
If I can recall, I started this blog for two reasons, one being that I started to hate what I was reading in woodworking magazines, and two because I wanted friends of mine to see and read about what I was building. I won’t lie; vanity certainly played a part in that. In my defense, I don’t consider myself a vain person, at least not in an unhealthy way. A little vanity is, in my opinion, a good thing. A little vanity can keep you driven; too much vanity can make you a pathetic jerk.
Anyway, seeing that kid take the selfie in a church struck a chord with me for whatever reasons, so recently I made the conscious decision to hold back on the blog and not worry about documenting my every woodworking move. In doing so, I’ve gotten more woodworking during the past 3 weeks than I have in quite a long time. I can only attribute that to the fact that I’ve been far less worried over writing about what I’m doing and instead concentrating on actually doing what I’ve been doing. Don’t get me wrong, I still took some photos of my work, but when I did I wasn’t really worried about captioning them, and I sure wasn’t worried about showing the “steps” of the process. I just took a photo when I felt like taking one, and it made everything far more enjoyable. And that is how I think I will continue to work from now on.
I hesitated in writing this post, because I’m not trying to insult those woodworkers who also enjoy blogging. I would bet that in many cases blogging may actually help woodworkers by giving them new inspiration, or by helping them focus etc. And of course professional woodworkers may use a blog to promote their products or reach new markets. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things. But for me, blogging had become a distraction, and I think I will become a better woodworker if I stop worrying so much about documenting it, and rather focus more on just enjoying it.
My “ingenious” clamp rack/shelf. I plan to write a post about this later…
My long lost Enfield Cupboard finally has a finish coat of paint…
#4 sole after its initial “probing”…
The #4 “out of the box”…
As flat as it needs to be….
The iron and chip breaker after the initial clean-up…
Starting to look like a working plane…