In February of 2015 I was commissioned to build some furniture for a vacation property in Anguilla, a small island in the Eastern Caribbean. I was excited by the prospect, but also slightly nervous at the idea of building furniture that would need to travel such a long distance on a container ship, through drastically fluctuating humidity. I always design and build my furniture to deal with different humidity shifts because where I live in Ontario, Canada; our seasons shift from %100 to %0 humidity--but this was an added challenge.
The design process began with some sketching, and progressed to scaled drawings. This time, I tried out Sketch-up to make the drawings. I found the program novel--designing in realtime 3D space, but overall, I think I prefer the pencil and paper drafting. one nice thing about computer design was looking at the piece from all different angles. No guessing: you see EXACTLY what it would look like.
The next step was purchasing the lumber and breaking it down in my tiny shop (at this point I was still in my house's basement) I selected the best boards that I could find of Canadian Black Walnut, and dragged them down to my shop. (Note: those not in the industry probably don't know--but the price of this material has tripled in the last year. And not only is it expensive, but the quality has lessened due to demand. Its time to work with a different species! Although walnut is beautiful)
The most prominent element of these tables were the tapered legs. There are MANY ways to taper a leg, but I opted to cut most of the waste on my bandsaw and clean them up with a hand plane. In some ways this is imperfect because all the legs end up being slightly different--but the difference is impossible to tell-- and it adds a #handmade element to the piece.
The legs are held to the rails of the table with mortise and tenon joints. The mortises are cut into the leg, and the tenon is formed on the rail. Classic joinery: this isn't going to fail even if it has to live in a container ship for three weeks in the Ocean sun!
You can see above the mortises cut into the legs, and the tenon formed into the rail piece. When these are glued together they create the structure of the table.
Another note about black walnut: it sometimes has what are called 'inclusions'. These are small pieces of branches or bark that were trapped in the wood as the tree grew. They can present structural problems, but are often just an aesthetic concern. The best way to deal with them in Walnut is to fill them with tinted epoxy. Its a bit of a messy and time consuming process, but it solves the problem perfectly.
The next step (after some time consuming sanding and surface preparation) is to glue the legs to the rails and form our structure. For the two end tables, that involves 4 legs and 4 rails. But for the large coffee table there was a secondary shelf on the bottom: so there were 4 legs and 8 rails. it was a bit of a trick because the legs were tapered (angled) and I had to jig up the clamps a bit.
This shows a test fit of the legs and rails. Its important to do a dry run (without glue) to make sure that all your joinery fits perfectly. In the real glue up, the bottom rails were glued in at the same time.
The tops of the tables were made from solid wood. The end tables had a panel top with bevels cut into the bottom, and the coffee table top was made from 4 rails around the perimeter that held a huge piece of glass. In order to make a frame that was strong enough to hold the glass, I designed a beefy mortise and tenon joint.
This is a huge tenon. It is 3.5 inches deep and 3 inches in width. I chopped out some of the middle section so that all that wood wouldn't expand and contract so much. The corresponding mortise in the piece on the right was the same shape, and fit like a glove.
In the above picture, you can see the same joint on the finished top. The mortise and tenon are not visible, but you can see where I added a pin to reinforce the strength of the joint. The pin prevents the joint from pulling apart, as it passes right through the mortise AND tenon, marrying them together.
At this point I didn't take many more process photos, but there was much more work to be done! I had to build the tops, as well as the structure of the shelf under the coffee table. This shelf rested on the 4 rails around the perimeter, as well as on a centre rail. This centre rail was joined to the perimeter with another mortise and tenon joint. I ran this tenon right through the rail, wedging it to make another bombproof joint.
One of the last steps in the process is the finishing. This involves days of careful sanding, and then the application of hard-wax oil. This finish exposes the beauty of the wood, while making a durable finish.
That sums up many of the parts of building these tables. Check out the finished product images here . Thanks for reading!