Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hand tool project no.2: knock-down slab desk.

This project started with a beautiful redwood slab, salvaged from a from a fallen tree in a creek bed by Anderson's Alternatives (definitely worth a visit when in Mendocino, CA!)

The plan for this hand-tool project was to make a desk that was 1) knock-down, i.e., could be dissembled for easier relocation, a non-trivial consideration with a 2” thick, heavy slab, 2) solid enough to support the slab, and 3) relatively low, around 25”, to avoid the raised shoulders and aggravated back issues that 30" desks seem to encourage.

After considering several fancier approaches, I decided on a caveman version of an arts-and-crafts design to complement the slab. I was inspired by the furniture in the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church (Bernard Maybeck and Joseph Worcester, 1895),  an early example of American Mission-style furniture. I was also inspired by a library book, “Fine Woodworking on Tables and Desks” (Taunton Press, 1986) which described a trestle table with dovetail cleats at the top of the legs. Wedges are used to draw them together inside tapered mortises in the underside of the tabletop. 

The whole desk can be broken down into 4 pieces: the slab, 2 pairs of legs (each fixed together with small stretchers and pegged-and-glued tenons), and a larger stretcher with arched bottom. The project required cutting four legs, three stretchers, six through-tenons, four dovetail cleats, ten mortises, four pegs, and two slots for the draw-wedges. No nails or screws. All of the non-slab pieces except the peg doweling (likely birch?) are redwood, purchased from Fairfax Lumber, a great, worker-owned hardware store that has been in business for 103 years.

I left a lot of flaws in the wood surface (including milling / chainsaw marks) and did not use sandpaper, but a card scraper created a pleasing smoothness. I finished the desk with Minwax “Tung Oil Finish.” I was dismayed to find out afterwards that it is not Tung Oil at all, but rather a wiping varnish mixture of mineral oil, an unspecified vegetable oil, and various resins. So much for truth in advertising, and my attempt to emulate George Nakashima. In any case, it ended up being easy to wipe on with a rag and I think it looks fine. Interesting how the old-growth, salvaged slab took on a much darker color than the new-growth legs, which also possessed a much wider grain than the slower-grown slab.

This was another slow project, undertaken in fits and starts. Mostly an exercise in practice, patience, and appreciation of wood. In general I am happy with how it turned out!

Tools used:
Two Japanese planes and a card scraper to smooth the surfaces of each redwood piece (I left one side unplaned on each, though, as I couldn't bear to eradicate these textures completely) and the corners.

Japanese saw for making the tenons, and cutting the redwood lumber and dowels down to size.

Brace for drilling out mortises (one of my favorite hand tools - so efficient!), which were then cleaned out using two Japanese chisels and a rubber mallet.

Drawknife (pictured here) for shaping the curved underside of the large stretcher.

Gimlets and hand drill for making the peg holes.