About the beginning of May, I met with a friend of a friend at their new photography studio in Fairbanks, Alaska. Heath and his wife Audrey worked the last several months to establish their business in a new location and they had a need for some specialized woodworking. Between the two, it’s obvious that they have a complimentary advanced sense of design and spacial relation. On entering the new studio and office of Focus Unbound Photography, it’s immediately apparent that a good amount of thought and resources went into the look and layout of each section.
Heath wants a few things from us to help him achieve his goals and vision for the place, but the first and foremost was a hanging wall for the reception area. The project consists of total form and function. The idea is to create a hardwood, visual separator between a seating area and a bathroom door as well as provide additional vertical display space for select photo prints. Heath expressed his concern to use as much local material as possible and he had his mind set on using aspen for the rails and walnut for the contrasting stiles.
This is one of those projects that is exciting for artisans. It’s a significant design element for a professional and visually appealing setting. I sent several SketchUp drafts for review and they decided on one with the cleanest linearity.
Chosen SketchUp Design
|| Stiles ||
The specs required 2 1/2″ square walnut stiles and ~1/2″ thick aspen rails. The approximate overall dimensions 8′ wide by 7′ tall. The rails are 3″ x 96″ x 1/2″ and the clients wanted a 3/4″ space/gap between them. Each rail needed to be mortised through each stile and everything had to end up parallel, starting 6″ from the ground and ending ~12″ from top. As you can imagine, it was far easier to draw this all nice and square and pretty, but far more complicated in execution.
Rough sizing the walnut stiles
The first thing we started on was, as usual, major components that would require glue ups. In this case, it only the stiles. At the requested dimensions, I calculated that the wall would end up with 19 rails.
Very thankful for ink rollers
In order to prepare for mortising operations and a final thickness of 2 1/2″, we glued two 5 1/2″ 4/4 boards of walnut together twice (then thrice – later on that one).
Got enough clamps? Never!!
Those boards, mortised and ripped at 2 1/2″ wide, flipped and secured together would take care of the stiles nicely and efficiently.
Total coverage as indicated by squeeze out
|| Rails ||
The next step was to mill the aspen to equal dimensions. As with the stiles, it’s critical that all dimensions and cuts are super tight for this project because of the through mortises.
Final thickness passes
Unlike typical through-mortises, there were no real tenons or shoulders to mask any inaccuracies. Milling each board in equal width and thickness is not too difficult though, but structurally sound lengths at 8′ is a tall order.
Unique local material
Like many hardwood species in the interior of Alaska, aspen does not normally grow to impressive diameters. As a result there are many knots from branching. Most boards are milled to ~6″ wide (yah, very aggravating trying to get two 3″ boards from that) and after they are ripped to 3″ wide, almost every other board will have a concerning defect. Cosmetically, the client enjoys any natural aspects, so that wasn’t an issue. What was a problem was keeping some boards from falling apart at the several knots. Thankfully, we ended up with what we needed, and a couple extra for them also. Getting the boards to 3″ wide had it’s challenges also. These boards don’t come with a ripped edge from our supplier. That’s not normally a problem, except that these needed to be 96″ long.
No straight edge…no problem
Even with my longer infeed jointer bed, it wasn’t even close to long enough to properly establish an index edge. The solution was easy though and involved double-sided tape. We took a walnut board with a clean edge, made a clean pass on that edge to ensure, and taped each board on top and off edge to run through the table saw. The walnut board provided the straight edge along the fence as well as the platform to hold the aspen board. That’s all it took.
|| Mortises ||
At this point, I should catch you up on a late-breaking design change. Once I ripped the aspen to 3″ wide and let them sit, I noticed they all bowed at the edge, some more than others. There was even one that would have closed up the 3/4″ space between another. The solution became immediately apparent. I called Heath, since we were supposed to hang it at his grand opening event the next day, and told him we really needed to add a third stile in order to lock all the rails straight as possible. This species of wood likes to move radially and it was necessary, and simple, force the boards to conform with a middle stile. He agreed and I got the extra material right away. I conducted the same glue up as before and let it sit over night. We got to work early in hopes of meeting the deadline of their event. There are a couple ways to approach the method of cutting these mortises.
Nothing else would’ve worked as well
I prefer using a table saw or router. In this case, a router was clearly the better choice. The complete focus was to establish each edge exactly at 3″ width. The solution was a custom guide system. A little time spent creating a dead accurate guide would pay off huge, in time and accuracy. All told, there were nearly 120 half-mortises required.
No other method would have worked this well. It was also the only way to ensure every single cut lined up perfectly upon assembly.
It took about 6 passes per to remove the material in each, but it was completely worth the effort.
I don’t recall a previous project this size that didn’t require lots of little touch ups and tuning.
Pleasant result – (aspen leaning on birch)
This one is an exception. The extra care and time spent ensuring accuracy worked wonderfully. The assembly occurred without a single problem or modification and the 19 rails are parallel on perfectly plumb stiles. Each top end of the stiles got a groove to hold a threaded rod and a chiseled out portion for the long nut in order to hang the wall to the ceiling above the tiles. The final fitting is so good that we will likely only need 9 fasteners to lock it all on place. We decided not to use glue which would’ve been a hundred times more and unnecessarily difficult. Plus the wall can be disassembled if needed and if a rail is ever damaged, it can be easily replaced with one of the extra provided. I’ll follow up with images of this piece oiled and hung in it’s final setting.
Thanks for reading!
Your Arctic Woodworking Friend,
-- Troy Bouffard || Master Sergeant, US Army (Retired) || http://www.birchhillwoodcrafts.com