A Piece of Work: Building My First Entry Table

WoodWise

When I left my cozy marketing job in April to become a furniture maker, my friends and family were a wee bit baffled. And who could blame them? To me, a screwdriver was just a cheap cocktail and a joint — well, I won’t go there. But after a summer at Maine’s Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, I’m proud to share my first major piece, a mid-century style entry table.

Our assignment was seemingly simple: build a solid-wood item with at least one door and one drawer. Students spent a week designing original pieces, producing full-scale drawings and quarter-scale models. This process was critical, as my teachers and I quickly identified potential problems with wood expansion, joinery and proportions. My final design for an entry table with a built-in hat rack won my teacher’s approval, and I was off.

Before I began building, I had to select my lumber. Professionals say it’s overkill to use more than two wood types, but I was eager to experiment with a variety. I opted to use walnut as my primary wood, with cherry for the web frame, maple for the turned legs and ash for the bent hat rack. Screw the professionals, I say — the more wood, the merrier!

I hoped to incorporate the simple, uninterrupted lines of mid-century design in my piece, which presented a unique challenge in its construction. Much furniture from that era is made with veneered plywood to limit wood movement, but I was working in solid. So to address issues of expansion and contraction, I used a frame and panel technique. To assemble the hollow body of the table or the “carcass,” I joined the table’s two sides with the back slab using half-blind dovetails. This U shape was then sandwiched between the top and bottom frames and fixed in place using epoxy and a small army of clamps.

The door and drawers posed yet another test, as I insisted on using mitered joints to allow the wood grain to wrap seamlessly around the case. I nervously applied hinges into the miter, careful not to blast through the side of the case. Thankfully, I didn’t screw up. I then turned my attention to the turned maple legs. For days, I was lost to the lathe, shaping four tapered legs with Zen-like focus. (For dinner, I ate a grain of rice and prayed I’d finish my piece by our late August deadline.)

The table’s final touch was a playful hat rack. I’d spent weeks doodling designs before settling on a shape inspired by the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. After ripping the ash into long, thin strips, I placed them in our campus steam box. After steaming in the contraption an hour per inch of thickness, I was able to easily bend the wood around a pre-made form. The heat from the steam loosened the wood’s lignans, making it surprisingly flexible — albeit for a short time only.

My finishing touch was 3 coats of Waterlox, a tung oil based varnish. To produce a diabolically smooth finish, I gradually sanded the surface to 600 grit while it was still wet with the finish. This “wet-sanding” technique requires special wet/dry sand paper, but the results put a baby’s butt to shame.

Now I’m eager to hear what you folks have to say about it! Apartment Therapy readers have a keen and critical eye for design, so I'd love to hear your feedback! Finally, I'd like to announce where this piece will spend the rest of its days. I'm giving it as a gift to someone who has lent endless support in my new life as a struggling furniture maker: Surprise Dad, I hope you like your new table!

(Images: 1 Johnny Williams)

Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student and amateur woodworker. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner. Email any inquiries to johnnyawilliams@gmail.com