Sunday, August 24, 2008

Working wood

i like to say it started around the time mo and i bought this house. i had to save myself from ebay: enamoured of the cedar ceilings and eager to fill an imaginary space with pure objects, i started jonesing for arts and crafts furniture. turns out all the genuine stickley pieces sold for far more than their reserve, and even cheap ebay purchases add up, so eventually i hit on the bright idea that i should make the furniture i crave.

(an alternative beginning: a few years before his retirement, my father visited a financial planner who asked, among other things, how important it was for him to save money for the next generation. "your mother and i thought you should know, heather, that our answer was 'not very.'" this morphed into a conversation about wills in which it emerged that my father was planning to leave his workshop to my cousin bevan. "bevan!" i said. "bevan? i always sort of thought i'd want it. you know, given my interest in woodworking." "uh," said my father, legitimately, "what interest?")

at first i thought i might build a dining room table and chairs for the new house. subtly and with kindness, my dad talked me down to a side table. you do the arithmetic: if a side table took me three years, can you just imagine if i'd done a dining room suite? we'd be eating on TV trays well into our dotage.

i've always liked the look of arts and crafts furniture, and i love its philosophy. the arts and crafts movement emphasized honesty in materials and methods. its furniture is balanced and unembellished, unpretentious. finishes are minimal and lines are clean. the designs let wood be wood, emphasize its strength and the beauty of the grain. arts and crafts furniture is how the tradition of william morris and john ruskin found its way to north america. their emphasis on everyday beauty and the democratization of style has always resonated with me (i swooned the first time i saw a real william morris peacock design at liberty in london).

no point taking shortcuts, so i found myself a pattern in one of my dad's old fine woodworking issues and set about to get the materials. as i recall, windsor plywood had just enough quartersawn white oak, which is relatively stable. here is a useful little discussion of quartersawn vs plainsawn (vs riftsawn) lumber. oak tends to be porous and hard; it can be chippy and unforgiving; but it takes to fuming and staining and oiling and waxing with equal ardour. it's a relatively predictable wood and less dear than, say, cherry, mahogany, or walnut. for this reason, and because it was plentiful in the northeastern US in the late nineteenth century, when gustav stickley set up shop with a view to making good furniture accessible for everyone, it tends to be the most commonly used wood in arts and crafts furniture. and did i mention the medullary rays? here's another discussion of quartersawn wood, this one with more philosophy.

anyway, i built this little table. i learned how to plane and split wood. incidentally, chez papa you split wood by taking it to your friend keith's place, since dad owns a big jointer/planer and keith owns ... shoot, i forget: the machine that splits wood (but not a wood splitter, which is something else entirely). i learned how to make mortise and tenon joints, one of the staples of arts and crafts furniture. although in my imagination i had always thought i'd do it the old-fashioned meditative way, by hand with a chisel, i had done just enough woodworking not to demur when dad introduced me to the mortiser. there is no hardware in my little table save little biscuit joints holding the three pieces of the top together and a few little l-fasteners to secure the top. structurally, it's arts and crafts all the way.

that was all two or three years ago. we got the house, i learned how to refinish the floors, i scraped wallpaper, scraped stipple, scraped by. what with one thing and another, i let the table sit. also, i was undecided as to how i wanted to finish it. part of me wanted to fume it: you put it in a tent with aqueous ammonia and the oak darkens immediately. there's a famous story about a bank, behind schedule, that was finished overnight by fuming the entire building. part of me wanted to test the rust treatment: you put an iron nail in a tub of water overnight (or longer). when you rub the rusty water onto oak, it blackens. part of me felt that you just couldn't go wrong with tung oil, which hardens and protects the wood while bringing out the grain.

in the end, i went with tung oil, and am i ever glad i did. the first swabs on the legs brought tears to my eyes, the wood was so pretty. i worked in the tung oil on the top with 240 and 320 silicon sandpaper, so it feels like glass. there's an aliveness to the look of this table, especially its base, that i think pays homage to the oak tree itself. it's just an everyday object, but every time i set a coffee cup on it i'll know it, heart to finish.


Anonymous said...

The table is stunning -- and very, very Arts & Crafts. William Morris would approve.

Heather Zwicker said...

thanks jo-ann! think i'm ready for a DR table?? ;-)