For awhile now, I have really felt like I should be working on a project of my own in this shop, but I keep getting hung up on the design process. I know that I love the process of building things, but I struggle with choosing and beginning projects. First of all, I don’t have a lot of ideas flowing out of my brain about what kind of furniture I want to build, and it’s often difficult for me to know whether I like something even after it is finished, let alone only a drawing. But a greater obstacle than just coming up with a concept, is that the actual design process requires an intense amount of work. One has not only to draw out what the piece looks like, but also to figure out how to create each of the parts and how those parts will come together in the end. And when Heinz says figure it out, he means figure it out completely, and draw the whole piece in full scale, accurately and precisely, and all the joints, and the spacing for your dovetails, etc. etc. So before I even touch a piece of wood, the whole thing has to be planned out. Fully planned out. Organization and planning are not items I would list among my strengths, and drawing neatly is something that is possible for me, but that I don’t really enjoy doing.
So in order to make this whole process of beginning a project slightly less daunting, I decided to try to copy a piece of furniture that already exists. (Another wise old woodworker that I know has told me several times that the way to learn to so something is by copying someone else’s work.) I have known since I moved into my room last April that I wanted to build a night stand, and I went through a phase of scouring the internet for inspiration a few months back. There was one design by a place called City Joinery in Brooklyn (I like a lot of their stuff) that I kept coming back to and comparing all of my ideas to. It was a piece that I knew that I liked, so I decided to figure out how it was made, choose my proportions and get building—well drawing.
|This is a picture of the ORIGINAL. (I did NOT build this one)|
After drawing it in full scale, and figuring out how the legs and shelf and panels all come together, Heinz told me to make a test leg, so that I could work on the joint where the shelf comes in, and figure out how to taper the leg. The piece of poplar that I milled out was bigger than I needed for just one leg, so I made all four, and then decided that I might as well make the whole piece out of poplar (to be painted in the end, rather than stained) so that I would have a chance to “practice” and work all the kinks out before I used some nice material like walnut or cherry. And thus I began building it.
The Building Process
Legs and shelf
Although the final shape of the legs involves a distinct taper, it was necessary to keep them square for as long as possible for the purposes of measuring, clamping, and keeping my lines square. I created a router jig in order to cut the mortise in the leg, and then created the tenon on the corner of the shelf by hand.
Next I made another router jig, this one for the grooves into which my side and back panels would slide.
|jig for mortises|
|fitting the shelf, side panel and leg with groove|
|legs after being band sawed (right) and shaved and sanded (left)|
Side and back panels
The side panels slide into a groove in the bottom of the shelf as well as into the legs. I realized later that the groove in the shelf was much too deep and close to the outside, so I was left with fragile end grain that chipped off as I was assembling the piece. This is an aspect I will change in my next version.
|broken off piece of fragile end grain|
I used the dato blade in the table saw to create the tenons on the side panels that fit into these grooves. When I finally put these together, the table was much more stable, but was still lacking some bracing in the front. So here is a cross piece that I attached with sliding dovetails so that the front of the cabinet was stable.
|assembled without back panel|
|assembled with back panel and cross piece in front|
Next, we have a long pause in progress. I finally, more than two years after picking up my first chisel, I am faced with what some consider the quintessential test of one’s fine woodworking abilities. One that I have barely dabbled in, and never come close to perfecting or displaying.
Da da daaaaa
|one of my first|
|some more practice half-blind dovetails|
Haha. So I took a couple days off from working on my piece in order to practice this skill, which involves a lot of sawing and chiseling. Over three or four days I got slowly but surely better at splitting my lines, marking my second piece accurately and precisely, and chiseling cleanly and squarely.
|final drawer, not too shabby (admittedly my tightest joint)|
In the end, the practice was worth it, and my final drawers look pretty good. Although I made the first one wrong-- the correct layout allows the piece of plywood that composes the bottom of the drawer to be slid in and out even after the drawer is glued up. It is good to know that my second attempt at this piece of furniture will be so much nicer than my first attempt.
|correct layout of a dovetail drawer with plywood bottom|
I attached some drawer slides into the body of the night stand, and had quite a time of routing out the grooves in the drawers to match that height. First, I did some math wrong (adding instead of subtracting) so I grooved the drawer too high and it didn’t fit in, so I had to move the drawer slide. Then my jig moved as I was using the router, because I didn’t clamp it well enough (twice! Yikes!). Then on the bottom drawer I didn’t mark on which side of my line I was supposed route, and so again had to move the slide when I realized I had made the groove three quarters of an inch too high. But in the end, they fit in, and the gap around and between the drawers is uniform from the outside, and that is what is important.
|bottom drawer sliding out|
Adding some shape and style
Now that all my individual parts were done (other than the very top, which I was in the process of gluing up but will not be added until the last step), it was time for the fun part: adding some shape and curves. Taking inspiration from the original piece, I shaved the corner of the front edge of the shelf with a block plane, taking away more in the center and less on the edges, creating the illusion of a curve on the bottom of the shelf. I did the same thing on the bottom of the top drawer, and then used a gauge chisel to carve out the section where my drawer handles will go.
|drawers with shape|
|what the handles will look like|
And then the moment I had been waiting for since I began this “practice piece:” Tapering the legs! Oh but before I tapered them I had one final step, which was to drill the holes in the tops so that I can insert dowels to attach the top in the end.
Here is my jig to taper these on the table saw. It worked spectacularly, and below are photos of the night stand before and after the tapering.
|jig for tapering legs|
|before leg tapering|
|after leg tapering|
After sanding all the pieces it was time to assemble. The bottom of the table had to be glued up before I could mark the table top, since the placement of the dowels that attach the top to the legs is liable to change when the whole thing gets glued and clamped.
|glued up body|
|It's getting there|
The next thing I did to finish the construction was create the scalloped corners of the top, which I did with a series of gouges, and then to dowel and glue it on. As soon as I glued it, it occurred to me that it would be much harder to paint now, and it was. I had to cut the handle off of a brush in order to just barely be able to paint.
But before I painted it, I also made handles for the drawers. First, I had to create the mortise in the drawer front where I would attach the handle. To do this, I made another jig for the router and used a dovetail bit so that the handles would be wedged in and not solely held by glue. I then cut my handles out of walnut, to fit into the mortises I had made. I carved the handles with gouges so that they feel good to use as handles.
jig for mortising handle in
Close up of handles before they were glued in
Finally, it was time to paint. After some thought, I chose a dark blue color that I thought would be appropriately subtle and classy. A coat of primer and two coats of paint on the outside, and a clear-coat of polyurethane on the inside of the body and the drawers.
And here's the final product!