You can already explore my reflections about woodworking in the book I wrote with John de Gruchy entitled Sawdust and Soul. Here are just a few pictures from my shop to give you an idea of how I go about making these pieces of furniture. Of course, I can’t show you everything! I don’t have pictures of drawings and plans, as well as some of the work I have done cutting trees, helping my neighbor saw them into boards with his Woodmizer portable sawmill, storing them in my sister’s barn, and all the other steps in preparing the stock for a project. And I don’t have any pictures of woodturning, either. Copious introductions to all of this can be found in Fine Woodworking and American Woodturner. But here are a few things people have asked me about.
Mortise and Tenon Work
Fitting pieces of wood together by cutting a tongue (the tenon) on one piece and a cavity (the mortise) on another is an age-old practice with a seemingly infinite combination of forms. Magazines and books are full of them, so I just show you one picture of me working on a joint. Around the pieces are my tools: a shoulder plane to trim the tenon, vernier calipers to assist in matching the tenon to the width of the mortise, a couple of dovetail saws with rigid blades, my chisels and mallet, and a file. And, of course, the glue! You don’t want to know how many hours have been spent in this position! Incidentally, that shrouded figure in the background is not a deceased woodworker. It’s just my lathe.
Constructing a Pedestal
A number of my round tables have rested on a pedestal that looks like a traditional well hoist. I usually use walnut pieces about 1.5 inches thick. They connect at the top with two bridge pieces joined in a cross by a lap joint. The bridge is then anchored into the legs with large mortise and tenon joints. The lower part of the legs is stabilized with a ring made of four pieces of a contrasting wood joined together with lap joints and then fitted into notches in the legs. After the bridge and the ring have been glued up, the pedestal has to be glued up all at once. In the fifth picture, you see me at work joining boards into a top. The round top is then cut with a router mounted in a plastic arm rotating around a center screw.
I have made a couple of headboards by joining a highly figured piece of walnut with a contrasting wood. In these pictures you see some steps in fitting together related pieces of a walnut board to form a single board. After smoothing up the edge of one board I then use a set of bushings on my router (see inlays, below) to create a matching edge on the adjoining piece. The pieces are then fitted together and glued.
When the walnut board is finished, I then use the same router technique to match it to the adjacent boards to create a final headboard. The ends are fitted into the bed posts with a long mortise and tenon joint.
People often ask me how I do these inlays, as if it were a magical or highly esoteric practice. But it isn’t. Here I show you some pictures from my construction of the top for the Boston University School of Theology. First, I draw the design (#1), then I select the woods whose figure, grain, and color best contribute to the overall symbolism of the inlay. Usually I order small boards cut to 1/8” thickness or I plane them myself. I then make templates from plywood with saws and drills. To cut out the cavity (the mortise) to receive the inlays, I attach complementary diameter bushings on the base of my router – narrower ones to cut out the inlay, wider ones to cut the mortise in the table that receives them. I made a chart to guide my selection of complementary bushing diameters (#2). In picture #3 you see me using the router with its appropriate bushing so that the bushing rides along the edge of the template. In picture #4 you see me working on an arc for the First Methodist table.
If the mortise is a circle, I fasten a plastic base to the router and fix it to the center to make the outer edge. Then I use the router, with appropriate support pieces, to rout out the remaining surface at the same depth (#5).
In picture #6 you see the finished circular mortise. Next to it is a template for the fish that will go on either side of the center inlay. I made this template by first cutting out a fish design on a piece of plywood. I then made the template using an appropriate bushing on my router to ride against the plywood original. I rout the mortise riding the router, with the right bushing, against the inside of this template (#7). In picture #8 you see the completed mortises.
To make the piece that will be inlaid in the mortise, I have to use double-sided tape (#9) to secure the thin inlay wood to a waste board underneath. The template is then securely clamped over the inlay wood. One slip will ruin the piece. Pictures #10 and #11 show the completed inlay piece.
With many of the inlay pieces I have to file, sand, or chisel down the edges slightly so they fit (#12). One thing you have to observe in placing the inlay is that the grain of the inlay must run parallel to that of the substrate containing it. Otherwise, wood expansion will pop the inlay out after a winter or two. Believe me, I’ve learned this the hard way (pictures not included).
Sometimes, as with this table for the Boston University School of Theology, one inlay needs to be set inside another, so I repeat the process over the existing larger inlay (#13, #14).
Once the pieces are all fitted, they need to be glued and clamped (#15). Finally, I sand down any irregularities in height between the inlay and the substrate (#16). I finish the whole piece with an appropriate finish. And then, relieved, I smile, as with a part of the top for the Awakening Table (#17).
While this process is complicated, it’s not magical. The problem is that you simply can’t make a mistake cutting the mortise. No repair will “make it right.” You can cut a new inlay piece, but a mortise mistake effectively destroys the tabletop’s beauty. That’s why the rehearsing is so important. What direction to move the router in order to avoid tearing the grain? What is the best way to support the router as it moves? When is the depth of the mortise just right? All of this is rehearsed until I feel comfortable entering the task.
Some of my tables have a glass tile mosaic inlay that Sylvia taught me how to do. Here, she is “supervising” my work. The mortise is cut with a router as with wood inlays. Then I shellac the cavity to seal it so that it receives the adhesive (Gemtek) for the tiles. Following a rough design, I cut pieces of tile to fill in the cavity.
When the pieces have set up, I can then rub in an appropriately colored grout between the tiles. I then clean them off with a vinegar solution, using a dental pick to clean out any residue in the face of the tile.
Fitting Mortise and Tenon Joint
2 Pedestal Leg Glue-up
4 Pedestal Glue-up
- Fitting the Walnut Sections
3. Complete Walnut Board Glue-up
1. The Design
3. Making the Mortise
5. Routing a Circular Mortise
7. Routing Fish Mortise
9. Taping Bottoms of Inlay Wood
11. Completed Inlay Piece
13. Working on a Complex Inlay
15. Clamping the Inlay
17. Inlays In, Then Smile!
1. Initial Tile Placement
3. Washing the Mosaic
1 Pedestal Layout
3 Pedestal Ring Glue-up
5 Table Top Glue-up
2. Glue-up of Walnut Board
4. Shaping Tenon
5. Headboard Ready to Finish
2. Bushings and Chart
4. Mortising Mandorlas
6. Circular Mortise with Fish Template
8. Completed Mortises
10. Routing the Inlay Piece
12. Fine Tuning an Inlay Piece
14. Work on Complex Inlay
16. Final Sanding
2. Grouting the Mosaic