The third article in an occasional series on woodworking by self-taught furniture maker, Barry Tucker.
I was considering ways of fixing a broken beam for the back of my entertainment console when I began thinking of the Gothic arch, renowned for its weight distribution. That was the spark for a dining suite featuring curved legs.
The first sketch involved deeply curved legs and some confusion about which way the curves should go. The second sketch produced more shallow curves and a different idea about securing the legs to the table.
I then drew a full size template of the chair’s back leg on paper, but the curves were further limited by the width of the available timber: four stringers from one of the first pallets I dismantled. One of the chair legs features gashes from the garden mattock used in the dismantling process. All of the timber used so far has come from pallets. The table top will require hardwood and some hard polishing to make the most of it.
After removing some twisted shank nails from the first stringer, the template was outlined on both sides and the process of removing the waste by ‘toothing’ began. The remaining nails were more easily removed during the toothing process. I injured myself at the start of this project when a nail I was hauling on with a small wrecking bar suddenly gave way. I’ve since learned to tap the nails sideways and back and forth a few times before pulling them with the wrecking bar or nail pullers.
The ‘teeth’ were then knocked out, the remaining stumps were chiselled off and a wood rasp was used to bring the waste down to the curved outline.
When I was satisfied with the shape, 40 and 60 grade sandpaper wrapped around a wooden block was used to smooth the surface, which was finished with 160 grade paper.
I had almost finished shaping the second leg when I noticed it seemed to be thinner than the first. A check of all the stringers showed there were two thicknesses. It is surprising what you don’t see sometimes when you are focused on what you are doing. I put the thinner leg aside and started work on the second thicker stringer.
I enjoy the experience of shaping with a wood rasp. Mine has a flat side, a half-round side (not used much) and a small-toothed edge running down the outsides. I’ve noticed the rasp seems to be more effective when it is reversed, held by the handle and the tip and drawn towards me. This is virtually the same as pushing the rasp in the conventional way, except perhaps that the tip is more effectively held down, causing the rasp to cut more deeply. I now wear leather and cotton gardening gloves when rasping and using the sanding block because my finger tips have become smooth and slightly numb.
With rasping, as with ‘toothing’, it is wise to be cautious when approaching the outline in order to avoid over-cutting and creating more work and inconsistent results by having to correct the error.
The first stringer had a slice taken out of the side of it at the foot end. I was aware of it before marking up and had decided to simply round it off. Doing that produced the odd humped shape at the foot of each leg. Having done it once, I had to try to duplicate it for each leg.
The curves in the legs are similar, but not identical, despite the fact that a common template was used. Faults in the salvaged pallet required some workarounds and knots (which I tried to retain) demanded careful and cautious rasping. I don’t mind the non-symmetrical shaping because this, and the damage sustained by the pallet during its former life, adds to the uniqueness and curiosity of the suite.
The curves in the chair legs are not really reminiscent of the Gothic arch, which will be more noticeable in the table legs. I have to buy timber for them and it will be wide enough to take a deeper curve. An original idea was to laminate stepped tiers of Pine which would then be shaped to produce curved and roundish table legs.
I began production of the seat to give me a break from shaping legs. For this I had to dismantle another pallet, which had 24 mm thick boards. I had planned to laminate a three-ply layer of thinner pallet boards, but I didn’t have enough of them to make two seats. The thick boards were cut slightly over-length and then ripped with the table saw to produce clean and straight sides for laminating.
This two-lever method of removing pallet boards works well if the boards are thick enough, the nails short enough or those twisted shank nails have not been used.
The thick pallet boards were fixed with biscuit joints, glued, clamped, weighed down with house bricks and left to cure overnight.
While the glue was setting, I turned to production of the front legs. These are meant to be a copy of the bottom 500 mm of the rear legs. They were made from two pieces of another Pine pallet, but there is not enough of them to make four front legs. Something will turn up for the other two front legs; it always does. Once you know what you want, it simply turns up, often fairly quickly.
You might have noticed that twice I discovered I didn’t have the wood for a particular part of this job. This never worries me. I am following an idea, a rough sketch and recycling pallets. If I had a detailed technical drawing for a piece of furniture I would take the cutting list to the hardware store and buy the timber and other supplies necessary to complete the job. I like the uncertainty of the way I work, the challenge of finding the materials to complete the job and the results I end up with.
With four legs completed and a laminated seat blank I faced a dilemma, due to my inexperience: Do I brace the four legs and then fit the seat, or do I dry fit the seat first, followed by the braces? Something about the way the seat is meant to fit urged me to dry fit the seat first. This would fix the spacing of the legs and help to stabilise the structure while I measured and cut the braces, to be mortised into the legs, about half-way down. The semi-round chair legs will be fixed into cutaways in the seat corners. Extra long 8 mm dowels will go from the outside of the legs into the seat. The method of fixing the seat is an attempt to avoid the usual box-like frame, or skirting, that a seat is dropped into.
The use of the BladeRunner for toothing was fiddly because the pressure plate had to be raised and lowered between each cut. The wood could be forced under the pressure plate, but I decided this was not wise because the machine is not meant to be used that way. The time taken to tooth was about equal to using a sharp hand saw. However, slicing off the teeth close to the outline was neater than bashing them out and meant less rasping was required. The waste was not ‘ripped’ out in one piece, which the BladeRunner is quite capable of doing, because the thickness of the leg is close to the machine’s limits. I did start ‘ripping’ the waste but I felt the machine was labouring too hard with the task.
The BladeRunner was used later to cut curved recesses into the seat blank to house the chair legs.
Stabilising the parts in a dry fit while measuring and fitting other parts is a problem for me, even with duct or masking tape. The structure tends to collapse, with parts and joints being damaged when they hit the concrete floor of the garage/workshop.
The first chair has been roughly assembled to check how everything is going, to check the appearance and so on. The seat seems to be too high. The top of it is 450 and 445 mm from the bottom of the front legs. This is an average measurement of several chair styles in a nearby café. If it does feel too high once everything has been locked up, this can be fixed by taking an equal amount off the bottom of each leg – a final chance to level the chair, if required.
The oblong seat back didn’t suit the curvature of the legs, so I did a little shaping of it to finalise the construction.
The camera is tilted, not the chair — I swear.
The last step will be to choose a staining and polishing method for a high gloss finish.
A keen observer will notice three inserts in the back legs. These cover up mistakes, which are known as “design features” in the trade. If it is meant to be there, it is a “design element”. If it is a cover-up, it is a “design feature”. I carefully measured and marked a mortise on the front of a rear leg, to take the seat back. Of course, it should have gone on the inside of the leg. This occurred the day after I carefully measured and cut two mortises into the back of the rear legs, when they should have been made on the front of those legs, to take the skirt boards that sit under the seat.
I am easily confused when working on a project that has been turned upside down. The top becomes the bottom and left becomes right. Or, I have to remind myself that what appears to be the left is actually the right because the job is upside down. I’m hoping it will become easier with more experience. I mentioned previously that I can become so intent on what I am doing that I can’t see the mistake I am making.
All of the timber used to make the chair has come from two pallets, with the exception of the two side skirts under the seat, which are left-overs from the slat bench that was recycled to make the entertainment unit.
Work has started on the second chair. I’m making a small scale model of the table so I can check my method for fixing its legs in place.