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When my frequent collaborator Jamie and I are at shows, people often stop to ask about making something from a special piece of wood they have had around for years, or just found. They see that I make a big deal of using local, often backyard, wood, and I often have natural-edge pieces that are clearly not from commercial lumberyards.

One of these was challenging and fun. A gentleman retired from a distinguished medical career brought us a section of a walnut trunk that he said had been in his garage from several decades. It was very light for its size, and we worried that it might fall apart before we could work it into the small table he wanted. Also it was quite warped, varied in thickness, and had a lot of the cambium (soft wood just under the bark). The chainsaw marks were deep and random. But it was clearly beautiful wood, so it was worth a try, and maybe a good learning experience.

Easy enough to trim the sides on the bandsaw to keep as much of the natural shape as possible. But how to level the raw slab to have at least one smooth surface for the table top? For once, a tip in a woodworking magazine turned out to be really useful. The idea was to build a crib for the piece that would provide level supports for a router mounted on a long steady board.

It's a great idea, but executing it for an eccentric piece is entirely up to you– but that appealed to me, as I rarely build anything from somebody else's plans. Above you can see how I have taken a first pass across the surface with my Triton router, a tool that becomes part of your hands and has terrific dust collection (I begged a hose from a vacuum cleaner repair place, then you have to thread it in counterclockwise, the way you have to zip an English "windcheater" with opposite hands). You slide the mounting board up and down, back and forth, deeper in tiny increments until it no longer makes contact anywhere (this means either cutting down the side supports or making several sets because the depth change for a raw piece is often way more than the router's vertical adjustment. But I have all the jig parts hanging on a wall for the next project, ha).

The next hurdle was to cope with the natural fissures around knots and the deep checking from stess cracks in drying. This took many repeated droolings of epoxy. The experts advise this but they don't tell you that thick gobs take days to dry, especially as winter approaches and your poor converted stable gets colder. But it works. If I have to do this with a lighter colored wood, though, I'm going to have to find some epoxy that isn't such a dark brown. Then what do we do with that nasty cavity just above the big knot at the bottom center? On some table tops of my own I have opened it up to a nice circle, like a cup holder. But we were asked to keep as close to the natural form of the slab as possible, so I thought maybe just clean it out and consolidate it with shellac. Yes, good idea; took a good hour with dremel bits, chisels and sandpaper toothpicks, but at least nothing will all apart later.

While I was freaking out about the finish, Jamie was lollygagging in Tennessee with an uncle. Who, fortuitously, was doing furniture in imported exotic woods now and had bunch of surplus walnut legs. So Jamie shaped clever base supports for these legs, and drilled the crucial pilot holes before I risked it all on the finish.

After rough smoothing with a hand planer and much sanding with a random-orbit sander, time for the showdown. The patron asked for a polyurethane satin finish. My initial plan for my ex-stable workshop called for a sterile finishing room, but boy was that a pipe dream! So I went back to my apartment-dweller days and set up a table in my (relatively) dust-free bedroom and went to work with a water-based varnish. I live in fear and trembling of varnish: every speck of dustmite poop settles in and makes a boulder when your finger runs over the finish. The first couple of coats looked like this:

 

I turned off the heat for hours on a couple of days to let dust settle out of the air, then went for it– but this time with good advice from guys like Kevin Alten, who turns out amazing finishes, in a garage! Sanding between coats, steel wool on later coats, up to #0000, worked like a charm and burnished the finish to give it depth. In the end, we were both happy with the results. Hope the patron was!