Archive for the ‘Woodworking’ Category

The New Shop Works

You should see the look you get when you tell a moving crew that you’re taking three 200lbs slabs of slate with you on your move across the country. Maybe it was just the fact that we were standing in a fieldstone basement, and they were suddenly wondering how many of the other rocks in few were coming along. At least there was no further argument when I added, “And this pile of wood too.”

Some time in 2005 I was tipped off that an old pool table was being thrown out. It had lived in a cabin, without climate control. The felt was shot, and not much better could be said of the wood structure beneath. I found myself drawn to the idea of the slate between the two, though. Probably there was a subconscious dream of refinishing a pool table for my own house, but there were definitely also thoughts of chalkboards and such.

And so, the chunks of table top made it down one snowy January slope, and up another, into the back of my truck, back to my home, and into my basement … where they sat for seven years. When I first felt the mass of them, the chalkboard dreams vanished — who would feel safe attaching that to a wall? It took a bit of time to come up with other plans.

The first test came right after building a bed. Much smaller pieces were required, which both alleviated the weight concerns, and also meant there was plenty of material to experiment (i.e. fail and retry) with. I had no stonework experience, but after reading, watching youtube videos, and playing around, I cleaved two pieces that made pretty, textured tops for our nightstands.

Then the slabs sat dormant again. Shortly after my previous blog post, we left Greater Boston and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. Thus, the sidelong looks from the movers.

While we moved most of the house, one thing we didn’t move was the coffee table. That was a varnished pine concoction that I built in college, and we found it a nice home instead of bringing it along. That opened a hole in the living room, and what else could I possibly see but the weighty, smooth, shady, cool slice of slate?

Some sketches, some planning, a load of lumber, and a few months of weekends later…


I’m super happy with how this turned out. The top is cut down to 21 by 42 inches, with some natural cleaving around the edge for detail. It’s finished with Glaze’n’Seal, to keep stains off. The base is mahogany, hand-planed planks glued edge-to-edge, so the weight is supported in the direction of the grain. The wood is finished with my trusty mix of mineral oil and beeswax.

This was the first project I’ve done where I didn’t have all of the dimensions nailed down before starting. Given the piece of slate, and the basic height and shape of the base, I calculated the maximum amount of wood I could need, and started there.

I found the wood at Global Wood Source. They had stacks of beautiful species, and they were very friendly and helpful. I settled on mahogany mostly for its color, which I thought would contrast with the grey slate without being jarring.

I probably should have bought a planer at this point. But instead I hauled out my hand plane and water stones. Three sessions, each a few hours in length, and I had some roughly jointed planks.

I cut these to length – 16 inches – and then determined how many I would need to span from one corner to the other of my slab. After a bit more edge cleanup, the gluing began.

The cross-pieces and shelves came together in a similar manner, and once they each had their basic shape, the work began to fit them together.

Sanding was the wonderful process it always is – tiring, dirty, but revealing. With each new grit, more of the figure of the grain became visible. And some day I’ll spend more time learning how to capture it on camera properly…

I risked doing all five pieces at once in the final glue up. It seemed like the best bet for making sure the whole unit was flat and stable. Luckily it seems to have worked.

If each successive stage of sanding makes the grain more beautiful, then the first coat of polish is the ultimate sanding. Though the dust was undoubtedly red, the pieces themselves had been quite pale to this point. When the oil and beeswax hit them, though, they popped.

Meanwhile, there was stonework. I found a simple wet tile saw to work fairly well, even if it did produce large clumps of clay. I took the slab to size early in the project, to be able to double-check and gauge true dimensions.

Once the base was done, I cut grooves in the bottom of the slab to keep it from moving around. This was by far the dirtiest part – the saw flung tiny bits of slate all over. I was glad to be wearing a dust mask and safety goggles.

The final detail on the top was a cleaved edge. A few minutes of scoring a line along the edge, 1/4 inch from the top, and then just a fun time tapping a cold chisel.

A bit of sanding on the top face was required to remove the dusty, scratched surface, and to remove sharp edges. Coats of Glaze’n’Seal went on with drama, and now the piece sits in our living room. It passed the dinner test. :)


I built a maple sleigh bed.

Some of you know that beyond beer and coding, I’m also an active woodworker. In this post, I’m excited to share the completion of my most recent project. Approximately 18 months after buying the first lumber, I’m now sleeping in in my hand-made hard maple sleigh bed.

The finished bed
The finished bed

It’s not my first piece of furniture, but it is, by far, the largest and most intricate to date. Despite some amateur imperfections (or are we calling those “artisanal qualities” these days?), I’m quite happy with how it turned out. It looks good, it sits straight, the matress fits, and it doesn’t squeak!

Slats hold the mattress
Slats hold the mattress

The matress is supported by fifteen poplar slats, each 4 inches wide by 3/4 inches thick, with an inch of space between them. That is to say, there’s no box spring. We bought the matress about a year ago, and we have used a futon frame (also a slatted frame), to support it since then. At “full” size, these slats seem to be fairly firm, but not hard. We like it.

Raw below, one coat of finish above
Raw below, one coat of finish above

The finish is a mixture of one part mineral oil to 4-5 parts beeswax, by volume. It’s not a hard, take-a-beating kind of finish, and it will need to be reapplied from time to time, but we couldn’t resist the beautiful natural color of the maple, the sweet honey smell, and the smooth matte texture. We don’t expect it to need to withstand much more than our touch and the seasonal humidity change anyway. Rumor also has it that the finish and wood should change color with exposure to the sun as the years go by, which will add a great living element to a long-loved piece of furniture.

Tenons on the footboard
Tenons on the footboard

You may notice that there is no metal hardware visible. The headboard and footboard are mortise-and-tenon boxes around a floating plywood panel. Glue and a good fit is all that’s holding them together.

Hidden bolt joinery
Hidden bolt joinery

Fear not, though, for I am not crazy enough to glue up a piece of furniture that cannot later be removed from a room. The side rails are attached to the headboard and footboard via bolts, but in a sneaky way. The bolts are recessed into the side rail from the inside. They protrude from the end of the side rail, and then pierce the headboard and footboard through a hole on each inner face. A square nut is captured in the tenon of the lower cross rail, to secure the end of the bolt. Wood pins also protrude from the end of the side rail, and slot into holes in the headboard and footboard, to prevent the side rail from spinning around the bolt.

Cleats, glued and screwed
Cleats, glued and screwed

Beyond connecting the headboard and footboard to each other, the side rail also holds the cleats, which support the slats for the matress. The cleats are attached with good, old-fashions glue-and-screws construction, to ensure they never pry themselves off.

Square Octagonal Sixteen sides Nearly round Polished
Progressively rounder

The crest rails atop the headboard and footboard are defining features of the bed. The first question I’m always asked about them is, “Did you use a lathe?” While there was a point, early in the project, that I may have had access to a six-foot lathe, the answer is, no, I did not use a lathe. Instead, I used only my table saw, hand planes, and a pile of sandpaper.

After making mortises for the legs, and routing the groove for the face panel (much easier on a square surface), I simply cut the corners off to produce an octagonal prism. I then cut those corners off to produce a 16-sided prism. Using a plane, I shaved the tips of those sixteen corners, then progressed through several grits of sandpaper. Because I decided completion was better than perfection, the rails are not perfect cylinders, but they’re close enough to please the eye and hand.

Homebrew serves multiple purposes
Homebrew serves multiple purposes
Gently adding a curve
Gently adding a curve

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the extra hardware that consumed portions of the living room for several weeks. The face panels in the headboard and footboard are not flat, but instead have a gentle curve to match the profile of the leg. To force the panel to maintain this curve, instead of fighting against it, I built the panel from two sheets of 1/4-inch plywood, glued together and squeezed in a bending form.

I did nearly all of the work in my simple basement shop, except for the very first cuts. Most of the wood I bought for this project was surfaced on at most one side. The crest rails are actually two halves of one very thick beam. The early work of surfacing and major cutting, I did in the MIT Hobby Shop. It’s a fantastic place that I never used as an undergrad, but I happily paid for a term of membership as an alumnus. Professional-grade jointer, planer, band saw, sander, etc. made the start of this project possible. It was also inspiring to see many undergrads taking advantage of what I had not, building everything from cabinetry to musical instruments.

I purchased the wood at The Woodery in Lunenberg, Mass. Despite having agreed to help a friend move, the operator of the yard stuck around an extra hour to help me sort through their stock to find exactly what I needed. With a great price to boot, I’ll likely be headed back there for my next project.

This design is not entirely my own. Beyond the influence of many woodworkers, both past and present, much of my final design is based on Jeff Miller‘s Sleigh Bed from his book Beds. If you’re planning to build a bed of any type, I recommend Jeff’s book, as it covers all of the basics (joinery, mattress support, etc.) with examples in many different styles.

What that next project may be, is up in the air. The next few months will likely be spent mostly on small projects that filled the queue while this bed filled the workshop. There are also holiday gifts to plan. After all of that, I’ll begin to consider the next large items on my list.


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