The Journey from Concept to Completion

Warning: This blog post should only be of interest to woodworkers, philosophers, and possibly a few barflies. Everyone else can spare themselves and skim the photos below.

What this project lacked in size it made up for in duration; one year from concept to completion. Twelve square feet of lovingly sculpted surface. Hard to imagine it could take that long to build something so small, but maybe once you understand the process it took to build it, well then it might just make perfect sense.

Design

The design process was relatively simple. As we framed out the wet bar space, our client wanted to do a raised counter-top bar. Something custom, something special. I love hearing those words because it usually means we’re going to do something fun, something different. So we looked at the space and then looked at a golden ratio/nautilus shape sketched on a board. It seemed to fit the space perfectly and the client loved the lines. We talked about building it out of wood species that would contrast each other, like walnut and maple, reminiscent of a ying-yang and that whole eternal battle between good and evil. Alright, not really, we just thought the contrast would look good. Our client happened to have a piece of walnut she had been holding on to for just such an occasion. We settled on the basic design above, all we had to do was find some highly figured bird’s-eye maple for the field. How hard could that be?

Material Procurement

Turns out, pretty f-ing hard. It was the single biggest challenge on this project. Highly figured bird’s-eye maple occurs naturally in maples, but very rarely. The material we were looking for accounts for less than 2% of all the maple milled here in the states and Canada. Local wood shops and hardwood suppliers have small quantities that come through and are quickly picked over. Long story short, it took months to find a supplier (Gilmer Wood in Oregon) and weeks to finally get the material. The folks at Gilmer took the time to pull the specific material we wanted, wrapped it up and shipped it to us, sight unseen. Gulp. The material did not look all that special upon arrival. In fact, it looked like it had been driven over a couple of times at the airport. The boards were also warped, and there was no sign of the “highly figured” bird’s-eye in its rough sawn state. Oh boy, I thought, this could be an expensive lesson.

Planing

After a few passes through the planer the character of the maple was revealed and it surpassed expectations, which was a huge relief. Take the time to slowly plane the boards, removing a slight amount of material with each pass. If you rush the material through the planer, the “bird’s eyes” (tight-grained clusters of little knots) will tear out leave lots of little divots in the material where the “eyes” were. Patience Grasshopper!

Joining

With the surfaces planed they were arranged to optimize the material for the final appearance, then joined with biscuits and glue. Mmmm, biscuits.

Gluing up the sub-top edge.

Sub-top and Acclimatization

After laying out the design onto the joined maple boards, the curves were rough cut with a jig saw. The maple was scribed onto a 1″ thick piece of plywood which was also cut to shape. With the two pieces clamped together the 2″ edge profile was sanded smooth and square all the way around. Despite the maple acclimatizing in Colorado for several months already, it shrank another 1/4″ across the grain in just a couple of weeks of hot summer air. The sub-top was easily trimmed to fit the shrunken maple, better now than with the rail on.

Walnut slab ripped into strips.

Walnut Rail

To make the big slab of walnut bendable for our curved rail,  it was ripped it into strips. But what thickness? Experiment with your material, get to know it. Strips too thick will break when bent around a small radius, strips too thin are laborious and can act like paper, edges cupping as the glue dries. The sweet spot for this wood with this radius seemed to be 3/32″ if bent dry, 3/16″ if soaked in water prior to bending. Finish nails were worthless, staples were the only fasteners that held the rips in place. This was an extremely time consuming process. You need working time with the glue to run longer strips around the curve, but then there’s the wait time until critical clamps can be removed to run the next layer.

Starting to glue up the railing.

Half of the rail glued up, thinking about butterfly placements.

Butterfly Joinery

To further highlight the contrasting colors of the two wood species, butterfly shaped pieces of walnut were cut and mortised into the maple. Decorative butterfly joinery, if you will. This was process in and of itself that started by laying out the walnut butterflies in a randomly logical fashion. Once we settled on the layout, blue tape was placed on the maple and the walnut butterfly on top of that. Then, with extreme care and precision, cut the tape around the butterfly and remove the cut-out. With the orientation of the butterfly marked for consistency, check the piece against the cut-out and make any small adjustments before rough cutting with the router.

Little router, big mess.

Check the piece against the outline before proceeding with a chisel.

Chisel with care, always mindful of the surface edge.

This is where both a clear mind and a sharp chisel are required tools. A dull chisel could tear the edge. A lapse in judgment could mean deep scars on the piece, or yourself. Sharpen your chisels religiously, or regularly, whichever will make you do it more often. Practice makes perfect, I mortised several butterflies on a scrap piece before I felt comfortable working on the big one. Initially I had trouble seeing the tiny lines scored by the knife and found pencil lines too thick and hard to follow with a chisel. So I used the blue tape cut-out method described above to clearly outline my cut. These are the kinds of things that need to be ironed out on a test piece, resist the temptation to test something out on the final piece.

Micro adjustments with a file.

Placing the butterfly over the mortise, it should flirt with going in but you still want it tight. Use an a file to make small adjustments and to ensure the side of the mortise are smooth and match up with your butterfly. Then take the file and put a bevel on the bottom edges of the butterfly piece. Don’t get carried away, the bevel will get the piece started into the mortise, but you still want a tight fit for the top portion of the butterfly.

Bevel back the bottom edges of the butterfly.

Glue up the edges and with a small block gently tap the butterfly into place. Work the butterfly piece in carefully, if it binds at one end the piece could break. Clean up excess glue and then immediately cut the butterfly off at the maple surface and sand smooth. By sawing it while the glue is still wet, any imperfections in the joint will be filled with glue and mixed with sawdust to conceal the flaw, to an extent.

Cut flush with a trim saw.

Sand, sand, sand…

Sand smooth.

With a dozen of the butterflies in place, the whole bar-top was sanded smooth. It was during these long hours of relative mindless work that I was reminded of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, well that and the movie The Karate Kid. “Danielson! Wax on! Wax off!”

It’s been a good twenty years since I last read Robert Pirsig’s philosophical novel, ZAMM: An Inquiry into Values. The book explores quality, truth, and the conflicting perspectives of romantic and classical ideals, I think. Like I said, it’s been a few years, I should probably re-read it before summarizing it here. Regardless, I do remember the author asking this approximate question;

“What is quality and how do we define it?”

It remains to this day, a very good question in my mind. It is a question that I’m faced with often as a designer and as a builder. It is a question that is not easily answered since what is regarded as “of quality” can be hugely subjective. One man’s seven is another man’s three. There are few in this world that have ever seen a true ten on the quality scale, and fewer still that ask for it. So when a client asked for a one-of-a-kind, handcrafted piece of the highest quality, I was humbled but jumped at the challenge.

Finish

With the piece sanded, blown free of dust and then wiped clean, it was time to seal it up. We opted for the typical bar top finish of clear epoxy. Again, get familiar with your material before working on the finish piece. The two-part epoxy used here had about twenty-five minutes of working time before it started to harden, then it’s tack free after six hours. So tent your work area and seal it off to prevent dust or bugs from settling on the finish.

Seal coat.

Finished!

After the seal coat, the final pour was about 1/8″ deep. Take a small torch to the epoxy to remove bubbles and make sure there’s plenty of good light to inspect the surface bubbles or shallow spots that need attention before drying.

The picture above is the only one that comes close to capturing the visual properties of the bird’s-eye maple, it is truly mesmerizing. After the final install, the client said, “It’s exactly what I had envisioned!” Thank goodness.

While it’s very rewarding to see the finished piece and to have a happy client, I think what I’ll remember best about this project are the long hours of focused thought and energy that allowed me to push my craft beyond what I thought possible. Or as Robert Pirsig would surely argue, it’s not about the tools or materials but the joinery, I mean, journey that it takes you on.

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