Once you have taken the clamps off of your base and your top you are in that dangerous period I think of as the home stretch. It’s easy to want to run into it. Stop. Sharpen all your tools. Breath. Think…then get back to work. Trust me, if all your tools are sharp and you are in the right mindset this phase of your work will be the most uplifting in your shop; it will be the time you breathe life into your furniture. If you are ill prepared for it you can make frustrating mistakes.
Start by getting the base ready. Remove the horns carefully by either chiseling a v-cut to the line, or sawing away from the line and cleaning the area up with a plane. If you plane to the line, make sure to chisel a light chamfer on the inside of the table assembly and plane into that…this prevents splintering on the back side of the cut while maintaining your fit and finish on the outside of the table. Remove the drawbore pins that are protruding at this point…I used playing cards to keep from scuffing my work with the saw and then trimmed the pins flush with a paring cut with my chisel…a bit overkill for hidden drawbores, but it’s nice to know how to clean up exposed ones so they look neat. Use a straightedge to make sure that your leg tops are parallel to the tops of the rails…this is key to the top joining to the base well. Take your time planing the tops of the legs and check often, if you go to low you have to plane the whole top of the base into alignment to fix it…a bit of a headache.
From a standpoint of work you are in the home stretch once you get around to working on the top…think about it like this: The base has about 24 components (I count the shrinkage buttons as part of the base), and 24 joints-give or take. The top on the other hand has 2 or three parts if you work with wide stock, 1 or two joints and then one final joint to meet with the base. Not bad really, but there is one thing I forgot: if you are anything like me you will have chosen a really pretty piece of wood for the top irrespective of its suitability for handwork. This is fine, after all it’s just a few pieces (this is why I think of the top as the beauty of a piece and the base as the bones).
This top was no exception….I have never worked with beech before and I got a really rough lesson in detecting enclosed knots in stock selection (I would have bought this piece of wood anyway, but I would have approached it differently to begin with). I did not bother to count the small knots…but there were quite a few…this means dealing with tear-out. This is my table not someone else’s, so I had some liberties that I would not normally take. I would rather have a hand-planed surface with a tiny bit of tear-out here and there than die-flat surface that has been scraped and sanded, it’s a texture thing, and I can’t defend it logically…nor would I care to try. That being said, I considered card scraping light areas of tear-out a non option for this table. This may seem like I am getting ahead of myself, this is about smoothing the table…first we need to get it flat and square, right? As it might have appeared earlier when I talked about gluing the top together it pays to have the end result in mind in the beginning. Knowing that this was going to be a cantankerous table to smooth early on would have kept me from cutting too deeply in the beginning, and I would have done my work more across the grain…both methods of reducing tearout. However I realized how gnarly this was going to be during the top (I had some suspicion that it would be ugly…but not quite that ugly). As a result of this I caused myself some extra work to remove tear-out that could have easily been prevented. First rule for tear-out prevention: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But for the sake of narrative let’s take this from the beginning.
First I recommend crosscutting the top and cutting it to width…you can cut it an inch over long and a ½ inch too wide, this will help deal with any snipe that your planing might cause, but if you go this route you will have to crosscut and rip again before going scribing your thickness. I just cut my board to finished length and width (this meant I had to be careful to plane a chamfer on the exit side of my cut to prevent splintering while planning across the grain). Also this is a good time to take a card scarper and remove any squeeze-out from the joints (the hardened glue can kill an edge on a handplane in an eyeblink).
Obviously you need to start with a straight edge (square is irrelevant at this point, but try to get it close). Before you make your cuts, set your rough top on your base first and see if you want to make things wider/longer than you planned at first…now is the time to change your mind (I made mine a bit wider for aesthetic reasons).
I cheated a bit here, I used a panel gauge to mark out the width and a framing square to lay out the crosscuts; neither of which are in the recommended tool kit. Since there is no joinery involved on the edges of the table top you can get away with a few tricks to lay out a square to eye crosscut, and a parallel to the eye rip cut (eventually a framing square and a panel gauge will be on your list of needed tools though). Use your combination square do draw thin pencil line as far across the table as you can, Then use your story stick (which should have one true edge), to extend the line through the end of the table top, take your time and mark things out neatly…even though it does not have to be perfect you can still aim for that. By a similar token, you can gang the story stick up with your combination square to make multiple marks at the same distance from the true edge of your top…connect the dots to mark out the width of your top. This won’t be perfect, but unless someone inspects your furniture with dial calipers, they are probably not going to notice.
Normally I flatten the bottom of a table top first, then thickness the top, this way your true face connects well with the base and if the top is a little of in thickness here and there, it’s not a big deal. The other advantage to this is you get a great idea of how the wood is going to respond to your hand-planes before you are dealing with a show surface. I could not do that on this table; the color did not go very deep, if I used the underside as my thickness judge I risked losing the color in thicknessing the top (not an acceptable loss). For this reason I had to surface the top of the top first. The best way to do this would be to, flatten the top, using a jack across the grain, and a jointer on diagonals and with the grain. This gets the top flat if not smooth, NOW is the time to transfer the thickness of the wood around the work piece…that way you can break the smoother out without messing up your reference surface for thickness…for those of you who watch the video closely, yes I did forget that piece of sage advice. As a result I had to mark my thickness, and then make the bottom flat to the average thickness of the piece (in other words not %100 percent accurate). I took one pass traversing the top (across the grain) with a very light cut for a jack plane, this gave me a pretty good idea of what I needed to remove (this method saves time on the cupped side of the board but can get you into trouble on the crowned face, use a straightedge there). I eased my blade forward and traversed the top, if you have knots in your board, soak those with a bit of denatured or %95 grain alcohol, your work will be cleaner, easier and the alcohol does not interfere with surface finish…you can use oil instead if you intend to use an oil finish, but I recommend the grain alcohol as the safest option. I mention this now because had I realized how many knots were in this table I would have bought some before I even got started on this top…I found out about all the knots once I started cutting on diagonal. What I should have done was back off my blade a tad from my traversing cut, and then take my diagonal cuts, this would have helped decrease any additional tear-out that occurs while working more along the grain. I left my plane as is and got a few gnarly patches, too gnarly to want to clean up with a smoother and a jointer (at least quickly). For this reason, I opted to totally soak the top and take a ginger pass across the grain with the jack (cross grain cuts have little to no tear-out), use a finely set jointer on diagonal and with the grain, and to switch to a smoother before I had removed all of the traversing marks completely.
I also used a scraper on the worst patch of tear-out…not for final surface finish but to lower the area and keep it from getting hit with the jointer or jack. That way I could flatten the top without worrying about causing more damage. I came in and cleaned that area up with a smoother once I was done. This is pretty extreme, but my desire to have a handplane only surface led me to this approach. If you are having issues with tear-out here is a decent list of remedies:
1. Sharpen your iron
2. Check that you are planing with the grain
3. Tighten the mouth on your plane
4. Take a thinner shaving
5. Use a circular motion while pushing through the area of heavy tearout…kind of odd but it works.
6. Use a higher angle of attack (My wooden smoother is set of 45 degree cuts. I have set up my metal smoother with a 10 degree bevel on the back of the blade and a 20 degree primary bevel to make it a dedicated 55 degree smoother). I like standard angle planes for this because you can change the angle of attack without changing the wedge angle, low angle planes don’t have this kind of luxury in my mind. If you just have one smoother I recommend grabbing an extra blade for this purpose since switching back and forth is a quick way to grind and iron into filings.
The above remedies should solve most issues with tear-out. However there are some more extreme methods.
7. Use a toothing plane to do the rough work, and remove the toothing marks with a finely set plane
8. Wet plane using alcohol or oil (keep in mind alcohol is safer). Since making the table I have had a chance to experiment a bit and I think that 95% grain alcohol is the best tool to moisten grain for this technique (it also help shear through end grain), it’s food safe, easy to apply, does not interfere with a finish and it drys quickly. It also bears less risk of burning the shop down.
9. Scrape the areas of heavy tear-out and sand the top lightly to even out the finish (scrapers and planes leave a slightly different surface)
I went to 8 (skipping 7 since I don’t own a toothing plane) and left one or two areas of very light tear-out…for personal reasons that I can’t scientifically defend I would rather have a handplaned surface with a little tear-out, than a pristine surface with a sanded finish…it just seems dull to my fingers and my eye. Find what finish you prefer and aim for perfection…even if you can’t hit it. Keep in mind that if you are removing spots of tear out you cant just hit the spot itself; this would create a dished effect. What you should do is work the areas around the tear-out and then hit your trouble spot; this still creates a dish but the transition is light enough that no one will notice.
Once the top is smooth you can plane the bottom flat…the good news here is you really don’t have to care about tear out. Get the bottom flat and to and even thickness and call it a day. Use a jointer to smooth out the remaining edge and plane it the table with width if you have not already. Now you are about ready to shape your top. I love this part. You can do just about anything, study tables you see in antique stores or in museums. Look at the nice pieces around your house. The variation in curvature in the top and edge profiles you can use is almost infinite. I kept things pretty simple because I wanted the focus of the piece to be the grain of the top so my top is a simple rectangle with a bevel on the bottom to make the top look lighter in appearance and a light curvature around all the edges to soften any sharp aris and give a subtle detail for someone to explore later on.
Since the bevel dictates the curved edge we need to do that first. I set the table upside down on my bench and took the time to center the base on the top using a combination square as a depth gauge from both sides of the top to the base…front to back and left to right. This is a good time to trace a line on the interior of top where the base goes so you can line in back up again quickly. Once I did that I use my combination square to trace a pencil line that was 1/8th shy of hitting the base on the front and back and I used this same measurement for the ends. This makes sure you get a gap free joint despite seasonal shrinkage. I like a 1/6 taper for this and have a dovetail marker I use to figure out where the other line for the taper will be (you can do this by eye with masking tape like we did on the legs). I then use a marking gauge to scribe that line all the way around the top. You can scribe or mark both, but I have found this combination works well because a scribe line in the face is hard to remove.
Look at that Marker…Thanks Julio!!!
Planing the bevel is a simple matter, and there are numerous ways to hold your work and accomplish the task. I just worked almost to my lines with a jack and then finished to them with a smoother…but there are a lot of ways to work. For instance, Tom Fidgen cuts a score mark with a fine saw every six inches or so that just licks both lines, he works with a jack until the lines are just visible and then removes them with a smoother. The big thing is when you shape any type of profile with hand tools you want to work the end grain first. That way you will clean up the inevitable splintering you will cause when you shape the long grain edges. Skew your tool towards the end of the board, this will give you a much better cut when working the ends.
After the bevels are done you can work the edges. I went for a simple section of a circle…a full round over looks too mechanical to my eye. I did this by feel and by eye, using a smoother and a block. Contrary to what you might hear you can shape end grain with a high angle tool…it just needs to be sharp. Again, do the end grain first. This is a good time to start finishing your project.
I am going to tell you right now I have nothing to say about finishes that is going to help you tremendously…I just have not used them enough to develop any sort of “extra” knowledge. I used an oil finish for the top (Boiled linseed oil…which I recommend you read up on the hazards of before you use so you don’t burn your shop down), and a beeswax concoction for the base (don’t ask me for the recipe…I don’t know it, my wife makes it for me and it works wonders on open pored woods like walnut, oak and sapele).
Once this shaping/finishing is complete you have to attach the base to the top. Center the top as you did before and clamp the base to your top on your bench. This makes life really easy when it comes to fitting and drilling the holes for the shrinkage buttons. This also takes any slop that might be in the joint between the top and the base away (the tension of the buttons will keep it that way). I like to “click” fit the buttons to the base. I set a button in it’s mortice and press it against the top as I slide it out of its mortise, if I hear a click when I do this the fit is right, if not I take a shaving off of the top of the button (meets with the top) and try again. I mark where I need to drill the pilot hole with the button inserted in the mortise (an Awl is great for this and the point creates a nice spot to start your drill). Keep in mind that the button needs to be centered in an overlong mortise on the ends (where they will move side to side) and set halfway into the mortise on the sides (where they will move in and out). High on this list of things that would make a grown man cry is drilling a hole all the way through your top…use masking tape and 10 extra seconds to prevent this from happening. Fit, Mark, Drill, and Screw in, the buttons one at a time, this will make sure that minor inconsistencies in your buttons don’t translate to a poor fit when you mark with one button and install another in its place.
I carve my initials, stamp a year date, and write the species of wood I used on the interior of my work…I hope one day when I am gone it gets somebody to think about the person who made this piece. I left tool marks here and there for the person to follow, fingerprints of the maker…leave those for posterity sake.
Last but not least, level the table by checking for any rock and removing a shaving from the longest leg that is throwing things off…I have no video of this because for the first time in my life the base came out perfect after being attached. Go figure.
That’s all folks. I can’t wait to see your tables. If you make one based on this class please tag it with “class011” and your project should be viewable through this link. Thanks to everyone that participated and commented on the class. I could not have put this together without your help. A few of you need your names called out.
Debbie, Thanks for contacting me and giving me a chance.
Wayne…wherever you are. Thanks for telling Debbie I would be able to do this. I hope you are well.
Tony, you really helped me keep the right mindset during this project, and you made me laugh when I needed it.
Andy, thanks for watching my back and for entertaining me with the mortise/mortice debate.
Last but not least, Jillian. You are the love of my life. Thanks for understanding while I snuck off to the shop and when I hijacked the computer for hours on end. I love the finish that you made me and the companionship that you give me. No, I will not be doing one of these classes for a very long time.
And Because I loved the way Tom Fidgen did his bibliography in his book I though I would go ahead and steal the style…here is some recommended reading.
-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan