Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Benches find a home

by Elisabeth

Well, now that my benches are out in the world, I suppose it is finally time to tell the story of the project that I started in March after finishing my swan bowl, that is, a pair of benches that I finished just in time to display at Jazz Fest. After their glorious debut at our Jazz fest tent:
Girls sitting on the bench at jazz fest

they sat around the workshop for awhile, waiting to be used as saw horses, which was the intended fate for this first piece of “apprenticeship” furniture that I made. They turned out pretty nice though, so it seemed a pity to use them in such a way. Consequently, they mostly just sat under a table, occasionally being used as the site for my afternoon nap. 
That is, until a few weeks ago, when a friend told us that he had a friend who was about to start up (and furnish) a new Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu gym in Metarie, and consequently was in the market for benches.
I took the opportunity to learn router based inlay techniques, and personalize the once-neglected benches with the NOLA cross that the Nola BJJ gyms use as their logo.
the final benches

They will now be used by students of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu getting ready for class!
But let’s go back to the beginning of the story which takes place in early April.

The creation process:
The first step to creating a new piece of furniture is the design process. I was told to take inspiration from  a bench that was made in the shop a couple of years ago, so I knew the general joinery that I was going to use. The real design question involved the profile of the ends/legs of the bench. I knew there would be a shelf partway up that stretched the length of the bench, and that the sides needed to be straight at that point, because of the way the cross pieces joined with the legs.
So I started drawing shapes. I drew a couple, and I didn’t like them. I drew another one, and thought, “Ok; That’s alright,” showed Heinz, and was told “where are you going to put the shelf. That looks weird there, do you actually like how that looks?” So I drew some more shapes. Then he said, “why is it so wide? That’s too wide for a bench. And the legs can’t stick out down there; people will trip.” So I drew more, and he said “The shelf is too high. You know you don’t HAVE to have a straight section for the shelf. It’s just easier that way. It doesn’t have to be just like the other bench.” And I was like, why didn’t you say that? And he said “it’s all part of the design process,” or some wise words like those. So I went home and just sat down and drew something like thirty different profiles and came back to ask Heinz and Patrick for their opinions. 
brainstorming sheet
I found one that I liked and that got the OK from both of them, drew it out full size, and after a little more tweaking, I had decided on my profile. 

Building the bench
The legs/ end pieces:
After deciding on a design, the next stop was the creation of that template, so that I could create four identical end pieces. I traced my final drawing from velum paper onto MDF, cut it out on the bandsaw, and then sanded the edges exactly to the line, so that the piece was symmetrical and all the curves were smooth.
my template

Next, I traced that onto a piece of European Beech that I had machined earlier, and again used the bandsaw to cut it out roughly. Then, I screwed the piece of beech and the MDF together, and used a flush cut bit on the router table to trim the edges of the beech exactly in line (flush) with the MDF template. Then repeated that four times.
Once those were cut to the right shape, I needed to create a way to join them with the top. Heinz used his shaper to cut a long tenon at the correct angle in the top of those pieces, so that I could cut out my tenons from that starting point.
end piece with the one long tenon

During this process, I got a lot better at sawing straight and to the line. Because the farther the initial saw kerf from my final line, the more I had to pare away with the chisel. (Heinz says: “you realize that when you cut that far from the line you are doing twice as much work.”) It’s scary to cut close though, when you are not yet very skilled and don’t want to hit your line…
me using a chisel to bring the tenon to the line

tenon cut out with saw, before chisel work
The top:
The next step was to machine out a piece of wood for the bench part of the bench and cut the mortises to fit the leg tenons. After machining my piece to its final dimensions, I traced the shapes of the tenons onto the bench top and started chopping out mortises. I started by drilling some of the material out and then used a mallet and chisel to bring it to the line. 
roughly drilled holes

finished mortises?

next step
It took me quite a long time to get those babies to fit in, but finally…
and the legs fit into the top!

Once they all fit together, I used the router and a round-over bit to round the edges of my bench top so that they were nice and smooth and not painful to sit on.
Side rails:
The next step was to add some support so that the legs would not collapse outward in the event of someone actually sitting on the bench, so I made two rails and attached them using dovetail tenons, the shape of which serves to pull the legs back in towards each other.
bench with one side rail

Cutting this joint also took me a long time, the first couple especially, as I was being extra cautious with my initial saw cuts.
dovetail mortise and tenon

The shelf:
Now that my benches fit together, the final step before gluing them up was to add a shelf. So I cut datos in the rails (making sure to stop before the end of the piece so that it wouldn’t be visible from the end of the bench), and cut a plywood shelf to fit. 
Gluing my bench together was a stressful process, but we did a dry run and then with a little help from Patrick, a hammer and a wooden pounding block, it all came together. 
The glue-up

My finishing touch was to pound in some wedges into saw kerfs that I had cut in my tenons in order to hold them fast into the bench top (so that it wasn’t depending on the glue to stay together).
wedges made of rosewood and mahogany
wedges glued in

Finished tenons with wedges

At that point, I thought I was almost done. All I had left was sanding and finishing.
sanding the pieces before assembly
However, sanding takes a long time. I had to sand all of the pieces with the random orbital sander before assembling the bench, and then I had to sand the joints in all the places where it was uneven after being assembled, and to break any sharp edges so that they were nicer to touch and less prone to being dented if bumped. Then I applied a finish of polyurethane using a rag to wipe it on. After the first coat had dried, I sanded the entire bench again by hand with 320 grit sandpaper, and applied another coat. Then I sanded again and applied a third coat.
And then they were finished! And that was how my benches went to jazz fest.
side rail detail
Finished benches, version 1

The customization/ inlay
The process of making the inlay was quite simple, but it required a lot of practice on a new tool, the scroll saw, before I dared start on my final product.
Once I felt confident enough to begin, the first step was to draw out the design of my inlay. I traced it onto the bench using carbon paper, and then used a small router to follow that pattern and create a void in that shape about an eighth of an inch deep.
the "void" made with the router

The next step was to trace the shapes that I had cut out of the bench so that I could cut out shapes to fit into those spaces, sort of like puzzle pieces. I traced them onto some dark green poplar that was slightly thicker than my eighth-inch-deep void.
the puzzle piece fitting
It was very important for this process to cut exactly ON the line with my tiny scroll saw blade (By the way, I broke about 20 of these little brittle blades, not exaggerating), so that minimal sanding was required in order to fit them in, because it turns out it takes a VERY LONG time to sand a piece to fit when it is that is that intricate and delicate, especially if there are several areas where the fit is not good.
Once the pieces all seemed like they were going to fit, I applied some white glue, pushed them in, and clamped the whole thing in place.
gluing the pieces in

after the glue-up

Next I planed and scraped the inlay it flush, and then scraped the finish off of the top of the bench, and sanded and finished them both all over again (again, this part took much longer than I expected).
scraped planed and finished

finished benches version 2
And that is the simple story of how my benches were designed, created, and sent out into the world. Thanks for reading!

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