A LITTLE SLICE OF HEAVEN
Carving a mahogany pie crust tea table.
SHOP OWNER: Bud Segl
LOCATION: Orwigsburg, PA
I want to begin by mentioning that I'm not a professional woodworker, only an interested amateur who likes to try something new when it catches my fancy. I began carving quite late in life, well after retiring, encouraged by a friend who carved a carousel lion for us and offered to get me started. The short version is that I found that standing in a pile of chips while roughing out a carousel animal was both relaxing and satisfying. The added enjoyment of seeing objects emerge from the blank you started with, then ending up with something that was attractive and useful, was addictive.
However, I wanted to carve something more challenging than carousel art and signs, and happened to mention to my son, who also had recently developed an interest in period American furniture reproduction, that a pie-crust table might be fun. He later gave me a copy of Heller and Clarkson's "Making a Pie Crust Tea Table", a profusely illustrated guide with plans on how to make one, along with the jigs and techniques they used.
So, on one of our wood excursion outings, I purchased a mahogany crotch which I hoped would provide a beautiful top. In my ignorance, the crotch, even though the ends were sealed, began to check badly while stored in a shed, and became unusable. Perhaps it may become veneer one day. I subsequently located a replacement at Groff & Groff in Christiana, PA, a 10 ft. length of plain mahogany 3 ft. wide, which had nearly quarter sawn grain, and probably kept my sanity by keeping the crust carving within my ability. Carving crotch woods is not for the inexperienced fainthearted amateur!
The initial chore of scooping out the center of the top was done with a router, as had Clarkson, but I used a simple jig which guided off the perimeter of the table top rim to assure a constant depth, and also enabled the entire jig and router to rotate about a fixed pin in the center of the blank, scooping out the entire center area. I didn't want to leave islands to chisel out as they had done.
The concern for warping during removal also led to first fastening the blank to a 2" x 12" plank to assure flatness and prevent excessive movement during this operation. Many of the tabletops I've looked at show varying degrees of warp, probably due to age; I wanted to get the best outcome, and the combination of careful grain selection and jigging worked well. The battens easily pulled the minor warping that was inevitable to a minimum.
I need to explain that I'm not a purist when it comes to following or copying, but I do enjoy looking for something different to incorporate. Sack's Fine Points of Furniture - Early American, was particularly useful, in that “good, better, best, and superb masterpiece” distinctions helped in making some of the changes. This digital photo, for example, shows a particularly good looking shell incorporated into the crust of a beautiful example found in Colonial Williamsburg, but will have to await the next table.
My crust design thus reflects a pattern similar to what Clarkson used, but required a little more effort to carve. The feet suffered the same indignity, in that I was rather taken with some of the Rhode Island furniture, which incorporated exaggerated undercut claw tendons. I also changed the curve of the legs slightly, mainly because I didn't care for the shape of their sharper knee and "broken wrist". So while the table still reflects the proportions and much of it's purported Philadelphia origins, it incorporates the definite deviations of an amateur.
I also found the chisels Clarkson suggests, probably about a dozen in all, weren't enough to work the finest of details. Our collection of Swiss made chisels increased dramatically during construction, well beyond what was necessary, but since we were outfitting a new shop, we "justified" the expense. Thus, the actual selections will depend on the pattern and its size, and aren't listed here. Owing to my limited carving skills, I found it useful to have several more sizes and types of chisels than mentioned in his work. In addition, as usual, you may find that making a trial crust piece is a better way to determine what chisels best suit your preferences. I also fussed a lot longer than many may be inclined to do; this wasn't for want of a particular chisel, but mainly because time was plentiful, and I was enjoying the work.
The acanthus leaf patterns on the leg in particular, became my least favorite task, starting with creating and reproducing the pattern on the contoured surface. I found that a thin plastic pattern or series of templates, located about a carefully drawn centerline, worked best. I tried many suggestions, from making a custom-fit pattern from shrunken chamois, to stretchable rubber-like plastic film and carbon paper. The stiff neck, which attends focusing on lots of fine detail, forced periodic breaks and resulted in improved patience. Plenty of strong light was invaluable. Two tensor lamps are almost necessary to check progress, as the end result your after is actually the shadowing. The tendency to carve with more relief on these designs is great, but it isn't necessary.
If you follow their procedures and plans, a note of caution: the rather detailed pattern Clarkson uses results in lots of possible details breaking off, leaving gaps, ridges, or lots of re-gluing, rather than a smooth appearance. The main cause for this difficulty is that the curved contour of the knee surface results in many more grain reversals than you'd expect regardless of how careful you might be in selecting the blanks. Details like these need to be carved to a nearly final finish, as sanding destroys the shadowing effects. This requires good sharpening and carving skills to achieve a clean appearance. Sanding isn't a viable consideration in my experience, and the knee details are a prime example of this. They were satisfied with a rougher outcome than I wanted, so my comments here stem largely from my interest in a more refined final appearance. I spent an inordinate amount of time with the pedestal and knee carving, ignoring the fact that no one would probably ever get closer than to perfunctorily dust it from time to time, let alone study it closely. And while carving them, all the while remembering a comment made by an expert that all carving looks great from five feet! I was tempted to hurry along, but am not sorry about the time wasted or spent, as it turned out nicely.
While Clarkson's reference is quite complete, if you do choose to use it, I'd also urge you to carefully check his dimensions, as there are numerous places in the pedestal in particular, where cumulative dimensions as shown will leave you with no material to turn if you don't first reconcile the increments.
The finish consists of many coats of pure mixed blond shellac, and the top was French polished, another new experience I wanted an excuse to try. After reading and experimenting with the classical approaches, I settled for a more direct technique spelled out in Flexner's helpful book, "Understanding Wood Finishing"
The hardware, the tilt top catch, is a stock item from Ball and Ball, and the spider, a 3", 20 gauge brass-antiqued equilateral triangle (not shown), was home made. Horton Brass will make you one if you need a supplier. The spider, while not in Clarkson, was the most controversial item I found in asking around, generated responses like "is always seen on the best pieces" or "never heard of it". The engineer in me led me to fasten the three tenons to prevent breakage in the unlikely event the table were dropped or struck with sufficient force to split out the mortises, this sensitivity owing mainly to the fact that each of the three lay in different grain fields.
I now have a newfound respect for 17th and 18th-century craftsmen. I won't make a career of either carving acanthus leaves or French polishing. Rather, "been there, done that!" is more to the point. There's great satisfaction completing something like these challenges, however. It’s such a great feeling to be finished. Shells are a piece of cake by contrast to the pedestal and legs. Lack of experience makes me especially naive, but I sure learned a lot in the exercise, and the final product made it worthwhile. I think it turned out well.. . . Bud Segl
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