I drew inspiration on my latest project from my recent experience visiting South Africa to build something for my in-laws (originally from Cape Town, SA). I wanted to design a table and set of benches that reflected the cultural experience of the visit, as well as their own personal style and needs for utility and durability.
To start, I put Google to the test for some images showing unique slab-style pieces built by other people. I came across a few that were interesting enough to pull together as a potential solution for the commission. The two examples are below:
I also drew from my visits to the South African coastal town of Knysna. Knysna is a coastal town that was originally built upon a significant lumber industry, and continues to flourish as a beautiful tourist stop still leveraging their lumber industry, which is now fully sustainable. There were some pretty neat African-rustic slab pieces that used some amazing boards from indigenous species like yellow wood, stink-wood, and iron wood.
Once I had an overall design concept in mind, I moved to my favorite part of the project, wood selection. As usual, I knew I was going to work with my supplier Frank David of Midwest Woodworking, here in Cincinnati. Frank has an exceptional supply of both domestic and imported exotic species. Much of his supply has been sitting around for up to a half-century or more from when his business was importing significant volume. Today, he is more modestly supporting the business with a combination of large installation projects and wholesale material sales. I’d say he still has a supply of at least 1 Million board feet of dozens of species, including entire 26’ long boules of sapele, makore and mahogany.
I worked with an interior designer to select just the right species to visually connect with the overall design aesthetic she helped create for my in-laws basement entertainment area. The benches and table will need to get lots of heavy use and abuse from 6 Grand-children and holiday gatherings, and compliment the woodwork case pieces that occupy a space of around 700 sq/ft.
We ultimately came upon a “small” pile of a West African species, Niangon of about ten 16’ x 16-20” x 2”. This hidden stack among a random set of project left-overs that had been sitting around for at least 30 years or more in his warehouse. I had the 5 boards cut, rough milled and loaded up into my van…OK, I’ll say it, my wife’s mini-van.
CONSTRUCTION AND ASSEMBLY
Masculinity only slightly slightly marred, I began selecting which pieces would go into the 4’ top, legs and bench parts. All of the pieces had a natural sapwood edge still in place. It’s lighter than the honey-amber colored heartwood, and splinters like oak. Niangon is very dense and oily which made it a good species for boat-builders and the construction industry. It planes easily, but you can feel the oily surface come back after it sits for a short period. From what I have read, it still accepts oil-based finishes easily, without issue. I’ll still probably prepare the final surface with Naptha. I’m also using Gorilla Glue’s polyurethane-based glue. This will work well with oily species like Niangon, and gave me a good, long open time to man-handle the big boards during clamp-up.
The legs that support the top are also large slabs around 14” wide, and are positioned at a 45 degree angle to the sides of the table top. I’ve never seen any pictures that showed how these tops are attached without the use of an apron. I came up with a solution of using 2” angle steel and heavy bolts, along with some slotted holes to allow for wood movement. This solution effectively tripled the surface area of the leg connection to the top. I ground the edges smooth on the steel, buffed and waxed each before drilling the pilot holes to attach them. The table and benches have a profile that resembles “Pi” and the metal braces remind me of heavy bridge truss assemblies. Hence the design name ”Pitruss”.
With the top all together, I moved on to construction and assembly of the benches. Each leg assembly has two floating tenons 3” wide and 3/4” thick. This makes for a beefy assembly that should hold up for at least a couple hundred years. Because each of the boards widths varied, each bench is a subtly unique shape, complimented by the gradually undulating natural edge.
I was able to dry-assemble all of the pieces and lay them out in a room as they will be used. I like the feel and mass it has. The height and overall placement of the legs allows for generous leg room for 4+ adults or easily 6-8 grand-children without any territorial conflicts.
READY TO MOVE ON
I’ve been going a little strong recently on the “slab-style” projects, and want to stay diverse, so this may be it for a while. I’m ready to work on some lounge chairs for our study that will be less free-form in their design. I still have plenty of sanding and finishing left to go, so it will be at least a few weeks before I have final pictures posted to my project gallery. The design and construction of this has been interesting, so I thought it was worth covering in more detail here.
-- Andy Brownell