Spreading Holiday Cheer Like a Boss... and more Tables

Spreading Holiday Cheer like Whaaat!

I risked life and limb to bring joy to the world tonight.  Nowhere near as good as Scott B. and the Carr Mill Mall Tree in Carrboro, but hey, at least its something!  I had the disadvantage of having a tree that's hella flimsy, riddled with leaves and tiny branches and no ladder or ttree climbing equipment, but I did it all the same.  That's my dedication to the joy of the season.  As my parents and I so loving say to one another "Merry fuckin' Christmas!"

There are so many things that I have to write about, and there's no way in hell I'm going to have time to do them all here.  I want to do really in depth post on each of three main things right now: the mobile I built for my parents' 30th anniversary, the table I'm currently building, and finally CT Image reconstruction.  The target audience for that last one is going to be a little smaller than the others, but hey, I've made a ton of progress lately and want to bring it full circle.

I think for tonight, I'm going to focus on the table that I'm building basically from its inception up though where it is now.  It is however still unfinished so I'll have to give another update sometime in the future (soon hopefully!).

I'm moving in with my good friends Jack and Liz in about a month's time.  Most projects I embark on I take up alone, but if someone else is going to help, Jack's that person so the prospect of being able to live together is definitely worth it.  I am sad to be leaving my current building though because everyone here is just such good people.  I guess everything is a little bit give and take in life though.  Anyways, Liz sold their dining room set about six months ago; neither Jack nor myself fully understood the motive behind that decision, but it happened.  The problem with that was that that particular table was our only place to play board games.  Forget all that eating stuff, we need a place to set up six square feet of map and reenact the cold war!

Building a table is not too crazy of a prospect and I could've probably knocked out a simple one in a couple of days at most, but where's the fun in that?  Something about just banging one together didn't appeal to me, so I set out to come up with something a little more exciting.  I surfed around the internet for some inspiration but wasn't really finding much so I just started drawing.  I've always loved the look of different types and colors of wood coming together to form a larger design so that's what I settled on.  I sketched out the "core" design and then expanded from there.

This was pretty much the extent of my planning for this entire project...

This was pretty much the extent of my planning for this entire project...

I had a couple of design considerations: (1) It needed to be big enough for a game of Twilight Struggle at minimum and preferably be big enough for a game of Mage Knight or Eclipse;  (2) It needed to not be so big as to dwarf the room. (3) It needed to be at least somewhat unique and rely solely on the wood and the design for its character. (4) I wanted it to be a bit of a challenge on the woodworking front.  Size-wise I settled on 4'x3'.  This actually feels larger than I thought it would, but it should be a really good size for most things.  The design is a fairly simple geometric pattern that I just came up with after an hour or so of sketching.  I though I might make it drop-leaf to save floor space when the full size of the table isn't it use, but bagged that after it was already more complicated than I was sure that I could make.  I knew that the table-top alone at this point was going to take me at least one weekend, so I didn't plan a base this early.

So on that flimsy premise (a poor drawing and a lot of uncertainty about how good I am at woodworking) I went out and spent a boatload of money on actual fancy wood: maple, mahogany, alder, and redwood.  Redwoods not a fancy wood, but I like the color.

I bought a very thin sheet of plywood and ended up laying the entire tabletop out at 1:1 scale which was a really nice thing to have in the end.  It came in really handy during the glue-ups to be able to lay the plywood on the pipe clamps and then use it as a quick-reference for where everything should be.

To start, it was mostly just a lot lot lot lot of careful cuts on the miter saw and a lot lot lot lot of carefully measured and drawn lines on the wood.  Fortunately my design only required 45 degree angles so that made life a little bit easier.  I starting in the center and worked my way out.  I would get each piece as perfect as possible, fit them all together with no space, adjust any cuts as needed based on the fit, and then move on to the next set of pieces.  After I would reach a point where I could get clamps on nicely and the grouping would hold together, I'd do a glue up.

The first glue-up was by far the most intense.   I think it was about 45 or 46 separate pieces of wood, all of which fit together in very specific ways and only certain sides of each got glue.  I've used Titebond III for this project as the open-time (the time during which you can work with the pieces before clamping everything down) is supposedly about 25 minutes instead of the 15 that it is for Titebond II.  I ended up using every bit of that during this first one.  It was so stressful, but somehow managed to come out alright.

Staging the pieces for the practice run before the first glue-up. That's right I had multiple practice runs to make sure I could do it all before the glue started to set.

Staging the pieces for the practice run before the first glue-up. That's right I had multiple practice runs to make sure I could do it all before the glue started to set.

I feel it's only fair at this point to put out the disclaimer that some of the photos hide mistakes that would be easily noticed in person.  This is not a perfect table and frankly, I'm lucky it has come out as well as is has thus far given that this is the first time I've attempted anything so substantial.

From here on out, it was just a lot of cutting and gluing my way out to the full size of the table.  I was typically able to do one new board on each side of the table per night (one "ring" of the design).

Laying stuff out...

Laying stuff out...

After the table was largely assembled, I set to work planing out the worst of the uneven spots.  This was exhausting.  If I were a better woodworker, everything would have been jointered and fit together perfectly and all the angles would have been perfect 45s or 90s... but I'm not and still have much to learn.  As such this step was largely cleanup from earlier sloppiness, but well worth it since I learned a ton about planes and sharpening planes and chisels.

Tabletop assembled but before smoothing.  You can still see glue stains and uneven spots if you look closely.

Tabletop assembled but before smoothing.  You can still see glue stains and uneven spots if you look closely.

While planing I learned a hard lesson. So you always want to plane with the grain, otherwise you get what's called grain tear-out where the wood fibers lift up, separate and break instead of cut. This is bad.  The way that I built my table, I focused more on making complete use of my boards than I did grain direction.  I still stand behind that as a broke grad student, but for things like the strips of mahogany, I would end up with grain that did stuff like this:

Board 1 (1.5"):  ---------------------------->
Board 2 ( 1" ):  <----------------------------
Board 3 ( 2" ):  ---------------------------->

so with a 1.5" plane blade it became impossible to plane the interfaces smooth without getting tearout on at least one of the the boards.  This wasn't a heart-rending, project-ruining mistake, but it's definitely something I would pay significantly more attention to next time since it was largely avoidable and is defintely a bit of an eyesore.

A brief aside:  I'm using a $30 "Buck Bros." 9" smoothing plane from Home Depot.  I would MUCH rather have one of those beautiful high end jack planes, but alas, they are quite expensive.  It took me an entire night of lapping the sole and sharpening the blade to get it even to a workable condition (and the sole could definitely be flatter), but I have to say that for $30 it's a pretty solid tool if you're in the market. It's also a nice thing to learn about sharpening on because if you completely screw it up, you're only out $30 .  (I only mention this because I went through a lot of grief trying to figure out how I was going to get this table even remotely smooth without a $250 plane and this was a happy medium).

You can see how uneven the sole was when I started.  The darker yellowish spot towards the middle is a high point cause by bad machining at the factory.  I think I lapped it for another two hours and still didn't get it fully flat.

You can see how uneven the sole was when I started.  The darker yellowish spot towards the middle is a high point cause by bad machining at the factory.  I think I lapped it for another two hours and still didn't get it fully flat.

After the table was largely flattened (there are some low spots that are too low to get out without removing half of the wood in the table), I moved on to sanding everything by hand.  When sanding, you also always want to sand parallel to the grain and there are so many grain direction switches in this table, that I was just afraid a power sander would do more harm than good. I dusted off my sanding arm and sanded for about 3 entire afternoons.  It was brutal. I did 100, then 180, then 220 grits.

After sanding.

After sanding.

Now came my least favorite question that I still haven't fully answered of figure out: how to finish the table.  It's a high use piece of furniture (kitchen/dining table) that will likely face spills, moisture, stains, etc.  I think the way that wood looks best is just with flax or boiled linseed oil and that's it.  Problem with that is that it offers essentially no protections to the wood.  I'll spare the details of all of the different options I went through, but I settled on three coats of boiled linseed oil and then maybe five or six coats of paste wax.  It's not as protective as something like polyurethane, but should be protective, easy to repair, and not a layer of plastic/epoxy on top of the table.

First coat of boiled linseed oil.  It's still a little wet, hence the nice shine.

First coat of boiled linseed oil.  It's still a little wet, hence the nice shine.

After the BLO cures.

After the BLO cures.

With the paste wax on.  This is currently where the table is.

With the paste wax on.  This is currently where the table is.

This would be perfectly fine, but for some reason the paste wax isn't adhering to the redwood, so I may have to revisit the final coating in the future.  For right now I'm going to leave what I've got. It kinda makes the star pop, which I like, I just don't want the wood to get damaged.  BTW if you're reading this and know why the paste wax won't adhere, drop me a line because I'm really really curious and haven't been able to find anything online about it.

Alright that brings us to the base.  Now as I mentioned prior, when I conceived of the tabletop, I did not also conceive of a base.  This has been a source of much stress and vacillation lately. I've settled on mahogany for the base, and I think I have a design, but that may change, so I won't outline it here.

See what I did here?  This is actually just a cat photo in disguise.

See what I did here?  This is actually just a cat photo in disguise.

I will talk about the $100 4"x8"x4' chunk of mahogany that I got from House of Hardwoods though because god damn that is a piece of wood.  You can't get big enough pieces of hardwood at Home Depot for something like a sturdy table leg, so my best option was to find something like this and then carve or shape table legs out of it.  I've actually moved away from the table leg idea, but this is going to form the upright papart of the base.  I smoothed the sides of the block minimally with the plane and then cut the block into a 30" piece and an 18" piece.  The 30" piece is what I'm using for the legs and the 18" piece will probably go to a carving project or something. I dunno though, I kinda just like having that huge chunk of beautiful hardwood in my place; makes me kinda giddy.

I cut the 30" piece into 2"x4"s and spent all morning squaring the four pieces.  I got through two. Haha.  Milling lumber with hand planes is no joke.  It's tough to get things just right.  Really tough.  I wasn't really even going to bother getting them perfectly square since I am most likely going to carve them, but then I remembered that the design I'm envisions involves a fair bit of joinery that needs to be very carefully laid out BEFORE carving.  If I tried to lay it out on the non-square boards I'd more than likely just waste about $130 of wood, so decided to take the time and *hopefully* get it right.  It's slow but the boards are looking good.

Boards on the left are square (or at least as close as I can get them... which is pretty good).  Two on the right are very much not.  You don't see mahogany like this much these days, which is part of why I'm enjoying working with it so much.

Boards on the left are square (or at least as close as I can get them... which is pretty good).  Two on the right are very much not.  You don't see mahogany like this much these days, which is part of why I'm enjoying working with it so much.

That brings us up through the present! I'm going to keep chugging away at it although I'm not sure I'll be able to finish it before I leave for NC in ten days.  Hopefully I'll at least have a rudimentary table base in the next week at the latest.

Aaaaaannnd, the inevitable aftermath of hours of planing.  My kingdom for a workshop.  Oh wait, my kingdom is my workshop... and my living room... and kinda my kitchen.  Who put up those sweet christmas lights in the window?!

Aaaaaannnd, the inevitable aftermath of hours of planing.  My kingdom for a workshop.  Oh wait, my kingdom is my workshop... and my living room... and kinda my kitchen.  Who put up those sweet christmas lights in the window?!

I'm going to end things here even since this is getting quite long.  There's more to talk about but I'll save it for a later post.

Merry fuckin' Christmas everyone!

<3,
John