DCW Woodworks

handcrafted fine furniture & custom woodworking

This site is about my woodworking and furniture making, as well as my musings on both modern and traditional hand tool methods, my journey in learning the craft, and my thoughts on goings-on in the woodworking world.

Prairie Sofa and Love Seat, Part 2

It's been a couple of months since Part 1, and there's been a lot of progress. So much, that as of this writing, I'm almost done, but I'll save that for Part 3. I left off in Part 1 with readying the design and acquiring the rough lumber. But since then, both of those things changed.

Frame and panel style sides

The design is now different. In the plans, and my original intent, I was going with the frame and panel style sides. That design depended on getting one important type of material for the panels: 1/2" quarter sawn white oak plywood. I needed 1/2" plywood, not 1/4" (which was readily available) or 3/4" (also readily available), because I wanted to have a 1/4" reveal on the outside, and flush panels on the inside. With the stile and rail stock being 3/4" thick, the panel material had to be 1/2". Sure, I could have gone with solid wood, but after going through that dance with the recent wardrobe build, I wasn't in the mood to do that again so soon. The advantages of going with frame and panel, with plywood for the panels, were many...

  • I could build and assemble everything, then apply finish (i.e., no pre-finishing needed).
  • I could glue the plywood into the frames, adding strength to the piece.
  • it would be faster to build and finish.

So, I looked around for 1/2" quarter sawn white oak plywood, G2S (good on 2 sides), but simply couldn't find any in the Chicagoland area. My local hardwood dealer gave me a quote for making a sheet up from two sheets to 1/4", with some MDF in the middle to pad it out (two 1/4" piece squeeze down to 3/8" when pressed to gather in their plywood machine), but that would cost $250/sheet. And I needed two sheets. That was pushing the pricey end of the range for project, considering a sheet of 3/4" QSWO ply G2S costs $134. I found some other sources in adjacent states, but with shipping the cost came to $250 per sheet, so that was a no go.

I decided that instead of using solid wood panels, I would try something different. There is a variation on this style of sofa that uses square spindles to fill the area between the upper and lower rails. In these pieces, I like the spindle design and the frame and panel design equally. Going this route meant a few things...

  • I would need to do pre-finishing of the spindles
  • I could use material I had on had, no plywood needed
  • It was going to take longer to assemble
  • I could keep the rail material thicker than 3/4",  (which was desirable, as I wanted to add to the overall strength, to compensate for losing the strength of the glued-in plywood panels)

"Spindle" style sides

Test build of the "spindles" sides, with a decorative cutout slat in the middle, which I later ditched.

To see if the spindle design was feasible, I did a test build. The results were good, so I decided to go for it. The disadvantages of all the additional work and having to pre-finish were more than offset by not having to buy plywood. The design had begun to grow on me. I now had a good idea of how much extra work the spindles were (not as much as I'd feared), and I was able to settle on a good mortise and tenon size. In the test build, I toyed with adding a decorative center slat with a pierced design in it, but ended up ditching that idea, as I felt it was piling on too much decoration, and would take away from the other details of the pieces.

The next change involved the wood itself. As I discussed in Part 1, I was very pleased to be working with the urban forested lumber sourced from the University of Chicago. But much to my dismay, as I started milling up the lumber, it was evident that many pieces were lacking in the classic quarter sawn white oak figure. Some of them were fine, but too many were angled just far enough away from being true quarter sawn, veering into rift sawn territory, that they weren't showing the medullary rays, a.k.a. "ray flecks" I wanted to see. That meant I had to buy some more deeply figured material from the hardwood dealer. While far from a total loss, it was disappointing I wasn't able to get everything from this one source. But, that's just the nature of working with wood: sometimes it's hard to know just what you're working with until you start working with it. 

Almost quarter sawn white oak, with a "rift" appearance - not enough figure!

Quarter sawn white oak showing great figure with ray flecks, that's what I want!

With a new batch of lumber, I was ready to proceed with the build. The first steps were to laminate the legs. One hallmark of this sort of piece is that legs are usually put together in such a way that the quarter sawn face appears on all four sides of the leg. There are several ways to do it, one being four mitered sides with a square core, and another being a simple rectangular glue up with with 1/8" veneers on each side. I opted for the latter, as it is much easier to do. In addition, it allowed me to use some of the less visually optimal lumber for the center pieces.

Four mitered pieces attached around a core, left, and pieces with two 1/8" veneers, right

The glue-ups went well, and I was able to get some great looking faces for the legs. For each set of four legs, I was able to the glue-ups all together in one big glue-up sandwich, which was a ice time saver, and made efficient use of my clamps.

Below, showing some of the "ugly duckling" wood used for the centers of the legs, and veneered faces, and the four-at-once glue-up...

top view of a rear leg, showing the two tenons meeting on the inside.

With the leg blanks glued together, I next laid out the joinery for the mortises in each leg. In the original "panel style" version of these pieces, the side stiles were simply glued into dados in the side of each leg. With approximately 22" linear of long grain to long grain glue surface, that's a very strong joint. But by moving to the spindle design, that glue surface isn't present, as there are no side stiles. Instead there are just two rails going into the legs. That meant I had to lose the stub tenon/dado for the joint, and instead use full depth (or as deep as I could make them) mortise and tenon joints. In those parts of the legs where tenons were coming in from two directions, I had to work with the tenons running into each other. But luckily, there was enough depth to where the joints were going to be very strong with a lot of "meat" in them. With that problem solved, I proceeded to mill all the rails, cut the mortises and tenons, and fit the basic structure together. I took care at this stage to make sure all the joints were seated nicely, with no gaps at the shoulders, and that the fit was snug but not too tight. I didn't want to fuss with the fit later while seating the spindles. For the legs, I had picked the best faces for the showy parts, and the not-as-good faces for the areas that would be against the wall, and marked them with a triangle, also marking an (S) for sofa, and an (L) for love seat. It seems obvious, but clearly marking out parts as you go, especially when building two almost identical pieces at the same time, is a lifesaver. I ended up referring to these marks constantly throughout the whole build. I also made sure to mark each of the rails as they were fit, making sure there wouldn't be any mix ups later.

When the joinery was complete, I did a dry fit of each piece. This is always an exciting moment, when all the flat two dimensional pieces finally come together and form these three-dimentional sofa and love seat looking things! At this stage the legs still needed shallow 1/2" x 1/2" dados cut on the sides to accept the corbels, and this was the perfect time to mark the legs as there was no chance of confusion while they were standing in the dry fit. I also marked the rails for the 1/4" x 1/2" dados that will accept the spindle mortise strips. Again, doing it now while the pieces were in place greatly reduced the chance of marking them incorrectly while they were disassembled.

The next stage involved setting up for the spindles. From my test build at the beginning, I'd decided to go with 5/8" square spindles, set 1" apart on center, with 1/4" square x 1/4" deep mortises. Of the several combination's I'd tried, this seemed to look the best. At first, I thought I was going to need much larger tenons, and my first test had them at about 1/2" square. But that meant the dado to house the crenellated strip that would make the tenons would cause the remaining sides, or walls, of the rails to be less than 1/4" each, and that seemed too flimsy for my taste. 

The 1/4" square tenons were surprisingly strong, and more so when all lined up together in each side or back assembly. I had no worries this was going to be the right approach.

Now it was time to make all these things. Between the sofa and love seat, there were 206  12 1/2" long spindles, needing 412 mortise and tenon joints, with 824 faces. Each part needed to be jointed, planed, cut to length, have tenons cut, and each face hand planed. Later, they were sanded, had the grain raised, sanded again, had the dust removed, dyed, then shellacked. I spent a LOT of time processing those spindles.

I made the crenellated strips, cut the dados in the rails, and glued that together, taking care not to fill up the little mortises with glue. I only had to dig glue out of a few of the 206 mortises. I did a full dry fit of each of the two sides and the back, for each piece. This process made sure I discovered any malformed mortises or tenons, or any part that wasn't fitting, well before I would be doing final assembly. For the final assembly, the tenons would be going into the mortises dry, with no glue. Gluing them would have been tedious, and would have caused lots of squeeze out that would have required meticulous clean-up. The glue wasn't going to be adding anything in the way of strength on such tiny glue surfaces. The dry fit showed the spindles to be nicely snug in their mortises, and my fear that they would end up loose was assuaged.

This was as far as I could go without doing some pre-finishing. I made test boards to get the right balance of the dye and shellac, trying out a few different dye concentrations and types of shellac. I was going for a similar color/appearance to the mission pedestal table I did a couple of years ago. The final formula was full strength Transtint dark mission brown water based dye and several coats of dewaxed garnet shellac.

I started the pre-finishing process, working the two sides of each piece together, then later doing the backs. That split the work into four roughly equal sized labors (love seat sides, love seat back, sofa sides, sofa back). Managing the spindles individually was troublesome, so I constructed a couple of racks that would support each spindle by its tenons, letting the faces be free to air dry during the various finished steps. This also made moving them around the shop easier.

Spindle racks in action

At first, I used little dot stickers to make sure I didn't get any shellac into the tiny mortises, but after testing it out, I realized this step wasn't needed, and stopped doing it for the rest of the process. 

That's it for Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 3 coming soon.

The Robie House and Red Oak

 
 

Living in the Chicago area means that I have a lot of access to some great Frank Lloyd Wright stuff. As a fan of Arts & Crafts/ Prairie/ Mission/ Craftsman furniture and style, I love being able to visit the FLW Home & Studio in neighboring Oak Park, the Robie House in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, not to mention the number of houses and buildings that Wright, his partners, students and admirers built throughout the area. Like many, I have a love/hate relationship with Wright's works. They're full of intense positives: they are undeniably creative, challenging, innovative, and wonderfully thorough, while at the same time full of terrible shortcomings and flaws: often poorly built, uncomfortable, limited in utility, often with a preference for style over practical considerations. In some ways Wright comes off sort of like a high-faulutin' fashion designer, one that makes incredible designs that are totally impractical, but when their influence trickles down do the "real world", are sound and rewarding. Not always, but sometimes.

(I guess its sort of silly to try to wrap up the essence of the Frank Lloyd Wright experience in a few sentences, but you get the idea. Apologies to the millions of scholars and thousands of art and architecture authors out there.)

But as a woodworker, I love visiting Wright's sites and looking at the woodwork and furniture, and trying to imagine the eccentric Wright driving them all nuts as they tried to execute his ideas. Recently, I had a chance to visit the Robie House in Chicago's Hyde Park area with my family, a place I'd always meant to go, but hadn't had the chance. Needless to say, it was absolutely great, and so very worth it on many levels. While there's a lot to discuss about the house, this post will focus on my observations as a woodworker and furniture maker.

Let's get to it. Red oak. Among woodworkers, there is a pretty big crew of red oak haters out there. They have their reasons: red oak, being one of the most plentiful hardwoods in the midwest and eastern United States, is cheap, and thus, everywhere. Being everywhere, its overuse has made it tiring to the eyes. Add to that the flood of "golden oak" finished, tacky "country" style house trim and furniture, and it has been beaten. to. death. For woodworkers, they find it brittle and splintery, and some don't even like the smell! Oh poor red oak, you are indeed the red (oak) headed stepchild of the woodworking world. But, do we blame the poor noble red oak for being the victim of abuse and misuse? Is it red oak's fault that it is plentiful, and thus used on cheap pieces and tacky interiors? Clearly, that's unfair. I put it to the red oak haters that they need to challenge themselves to use red oak creatively and tastefully, and discover ways to give this maligned and disrespected wood another chance.

Which brings me back to Frank. One of the central themes of Wright's "Prairie Style" philosophy was the use of local materials, the use of which blended a building to its surroundings. This is a tenet of Stickley's Craftsman style, William Morris's Arts & Crafts movement as well. In the 1909 Robie house, aptly called Wright's "Prairie style masterpiece", did he use mahogany, or sepele, or wenge as the wood of choice? Did he use chestnut, black walnut, or even noble white oak? No, he used red oak. But he didn't use it all flat sawn, with crazy cathedral patterns, and stained "golden brown". No, he used it all sort of ways, dyed/stained a deep brownish red, and often quarter sawn, or rift sawn, with nice tight grain. (If you think you hate red oak, and instead think quarter sawn white oak is vastly superior, you need to take a good look at quarter sawn red oak, it is every bit as amazing). Here's some pictures from that interior...

And the piece de resistance, the kitchen counter...

(while my iPhone photos here aren't the best, here's a Google search that get you many more interior and woodwork shots)

Yeah, pretty nice. And very nice all together, the furniture and the woodwork working together. The lesson I take away from all this is that Wright took something mundane and common, red oak, and not only found fantastic ways to use it beautifully, he made it part of the whole theme, connecting the house, the interior treatments, and the furniture, to its place in the world. (I'm sure he could have just been being cheap as well, opting for red oak over white as a cost cutting measure. But look at the result). Sure, it's subtle, but the best parts of Wright's designs are just that: subtle, direct, and seemingly so simple after they're explained and pointed out that they come off as "obvious". That's the genius in great design.

Thanks Frank, and red oak!

Prairie Sofa & Love Seat, Part 1

I've always loved the iconic L. & J. G. Stickley No. 220 Prairie Sofa. As the pair of sofa and love seat in our own living room have aged, and as my skills as a furniture maker has increased, I knew this day would come. This is going to be large build, as it is two pieces of large furniture that I'll be building at the same time. Space in the shop is going to get tight. Although these are once again reproductions, I'll make changes where it suits me. The first obvious change is that Stickley never originally produced a love seat version of the sofa. The love seat is a more modern type of furniture. The modern Stickley company still sells the sofa today, and has made a love seat version as well.

Generally, this build is pretty straight forward; three frame and panel sides, a front stretcher, seat frames, and then upholstery. There is also an alternate variation in the construction of the piece; instead of frame-and-panel for the sides, another popular variation is one that uses lots of little vertical slats, or square spindles, in place of the panels. I am still considering this option. 

This is the first piece(s) that I'll be working with an upholsterer on, and I'm pleased to have found a great local shop to work with on that. The pieces can be upholstered with either leather, or fabric, but I'm leaning towards leather.

The materials are going to be classic quarter sawn white oak; an old friend of mine by now. And speaking of old friends, I'm thrilled at how the material part of this is going. An old friend of mine, and fellow woodworker, David, works for the University of Chicago, and is involved with their urban lumber reclamation processes. Basically, when a tree on the universities property needs to be taken down, instead of being chipped, he helps make sure it is harvested for lumber. For the harvesting and, milling, and drying part, he works with one of my favorite local lumber suppliers, Horigan Urban Forest Products. When I was looking for the lumber for this build, David let me know that they were selling a lot of quarter sawn white oak they had on hand from a tree that had been harvested and milled in the summer of 2013. The price was right, so I jumped at the chance. David even had photos of the tree being removed.

Thank you David, the U of C, and Horigan UFP!

I picked up about 100 board feet of these great planks this week (with the help of another fellow woodworker, Brett), and they're now filling up the shop, ready to start the rough milling process. I'm excited about this on so many levels; excited for the end product, and the chance to work with others on making this a reality.

Stay tuned for part 2.

Walnut Snare Drum Shell

My wife is a drummer, and her snare had a thin, brass shell. While she liked the attack, it was "ring-y", and she wanted a more solid sound. I thought I would try my hand at a stave snare, and founds lots of info online on how to build and calculate the pieces.

You woodworkers will notice a sort of "mistake" in the build photos. I approached this like a piece of furniture, so of course, I used a nice board, and wanted to cut the staves so that the grain was continuous around the shell. So the "mistake" (after I'd already cut the parts) was that the glue joints were all end grain to end grain. The "correct" way would have been to cut them so that the grain was oriented vertically, making for long grain to long grain joints. I decided to stick with what I'd cut, as it just looked too good. I figured that if the joints fell apart during the fairly vigorous smoothing out process, so be it.

The most laborious part of this build was smoothing over the faceted faces of the staves. No Virginia, I don't have a lathe, and that meant rounding them over had to happen by other means. For the outside, I was able to use a hand plane for the high corners (which would have been easier if the grain was running vertically), and then a belt sander. My belt sander is 4", and the shell is about 5 3/4" deep, so I had to keep shuffling the shell left to right, while turning it like a wheel. For the inside, which wasn't as important, I set the shell on a bench hook, then used a big round plane to take off most of the waste, then I used an oscillating  spindle sander to smooth the rest. The oscillating spindle sander only went 4" too, so I had to keep flipping the shell over, back and forth. Then it was finished up with hand sanding.

I left the inside a little thick (just under 1/2"), and we put it into her snare rims and gave it a try for sound. The thought was that if it was a little too low or dead sounding, I'd thin the walls a bit more, approaching the typical snare shell thickness of 3/8". But the sound was good, and no more ringing. The snare system she has is the Pearl Floating Snare system, which essentially just sandwiches the shell between the rims: no need to drill any holes to fit lugs. That makes switching out shells super easy. But, we kept it in the snare for a few months, and played several shows with it, and many practices. Either I got it perfect the first time out, or she just grew to like it, she felt there was no need to change the thickness.

So, it was back to the shop for finishing, and that was just several layers of padded-on blonde shellac, with a coat of paste wax buffed on with steel wool. With that all nice and pretty, its a good match for the guitar amplifier head enclosure I made a few months back. Throughout the whole process of smoothing, planing, sanding, going into the snare, back out again, and finishing, the "mistake" of the long grain to long grain glue joints wasn't a problem. It is very, very solid. And of course, once sandwiched in the snare rims, is pretty well supported all over anyway.

I liked this project, and hop to do other shells from different woods, and we'll try them out and see how they effect the sound. I'll also try both types of grain direction, to see if that effects how easy or hard it is to round over the stave facets. I am also going to be getting a the in the shop, and with the right chuck/holder, should be able to do the smoothing there, which should be much faster.

Walnut, elm, and cork coaster set

This was a nice little project to use up some scraps in the shop. We needed a nicer coaster set than to stained, worn out set we've had for years. I designed this on the fly, imagining the chamfered bottom edges and the grooved elm holder/stand as I went. I do love the look of walnut, and elm has a lot of nice character to it. To cut the cork, i put an x-acto knife into a compass, which gave me nice, smooth circles. I went with a lacquer finish on these, and thicker than I like for furniture, as they will be getting wet and and be in contact with alcohol. I did do a final coat of paste wax applied with steel wool to do the final smoothing. Hopefully, they'll hold up over time. Structurally, the only concern is that the walnut might cup. A more stable approach would have been to laminate three pieces, (maybe with elm in the middle for style), while alternating the grain direction. Basically, a plywood. If these coasters do fail, I'll do that next time.

© 2013 Douglas C Ward