AN ODE TO LEE
A tribute to inspiration and mentoring gained from the master carver.
SHOP OWNER: Alan Young
LOCATION: Ypsilanti, MI
In an attempt to share information and techniques with other woodworkers, I wanted to document the construction of this coffee table, which I built to go in our living room. The design of this table is directly influenced by an antique couch and chair we have and indirectly by the coffee table designs of Lee Grindinger, a respected furniture maker and carver in Montana.
The tabletop design is based on the crest rails from a couch and chair in our living room. My wife wanted these profiles to define the look of the coffee table. The back of the couch lends its profile for the long side of the table and back of the chair is the profile for the ends.
In the summer of 2005, I attended a woodworking festival sponsored by Lee Grindinger at his Montana home and workshop. Lee has been at this craft for over 30 years and is well known for the excellent carvings employed in his designs.
During one of the campfire sessions, my brother pulled something from the fire before it was scorched. It was a cabriole leg that Lee had discarded because the interior of the piece had an unsalvageable defect. I decided to keep it as a fun memory of the trip. But now, almost two years later, I decided to use it as a guide for my own table legs. Lee had already laid out the carving design. Since I am using a slightly slimmer profile for my legs, I modified the layout.
The legs are joined to the apron via mortise and tenon joints. The apron joins at the midsections via splines. These spline joints will be covered later by carved elements. Here is a look at the leg and apron layout after the pieces have been cut to general size and the joinery has been cut.
The apron and legs of my table are made from a single mahogany board that was two inches thick by six inches wide and approximately seven feet long. The legs and apron pieces had to be able to come from this one piece. I wanted the profile of the apron to closely approximate that of the top. To get such a curved profile from the available piece of lumber required that I rob from Peter to pay Paul. After the joinery was laid out and cut, I transferred and cut the needed curvature by taking the cut-offs from the inside sections of the apron and gluing them to the fronts.
Now that the layout is this far along, I will finish carving the legs, then glue up the legs to the apron. The apron will then get further refining.
Gluing the legs and apron together is a tricky operation. To check the fit, I cut all the joints and band-clamped them together without glue. It looked good but I didn't want to make this glue-up in one operation. With all these odd shapes and angles, there is just too much chance for something to go wrong. So I am gluing these joint by joint.
These pieces are not square nor are the clamping points parallel with each other. So I made some small cleats and screwed them to the opposing apron pieces. The cleats are attached so that they are parallel with the leg joint. This allows me to apply even clamping pressure to the joint and the clamps won't slip.
The next joint to glue is the adjacent long apron pieces. These are made with a double spline joint. Again, I attached blocks on each piece to create a parallel clamping point.
I clamped the entire unit together but only the middle joints are being glued here. The end joints will follow.
I wanted the apron pattern to conform to the shape of the top as much as possible. To accomplish this, I placed the tabletop over the base/apron structure and centered it. Then I turned the structure upside down on my bench and moved the apron approximately ¼" past the top.
I inserted a lengthy (2") pattern routing bit in my router, and trimmed the apron to the top.
This leaves a matching pattern. I repeated this operation on all four sides. Now the top has an even overhang and the apron shape approximates the shape of the top.
The top is made from sapele, an African hardwood. I made the top from sapele because the mahogany board I had was only large enough to construct the apron and the legs. My goal is to tone the two sections in such a fashion as to provide an even color throughout the entire table when finished.
After looking over the base, the legs and apron, I made a decision to add some knee blocks. I added these using the sapele because it seemed to have an even coloring with the mahogany. However, after cutting the pieces and getting them glued in, I found that the sapele seemed quite a bit darker. Also, after getting a confident feel of how the mahogany responds during the carving process, I found the sapele to be denser and more brittle. What do they say about changing horses in midstream? So, I forged ahead.
With all the carving done, the next step will be finishing.
I am giving this table a fairly dark toned finish. The carving details will be subtler but the color will match the couch and chair in our living room. The first step was giving it a wash coat of Minwax Red Mahogany Oil Stain. I wiped that off fairly quickly and then let it sit overnight. Next, I mixed some Bartley's Pennsylvania Cherry Gel Stain with General Finishes Oil Urethane for a glaze coat. That's what you see in this picture. After this sets, I'll rub it back in the carved areas and re-apply several coats of the urethane only.
Here is the table with extra coats of the glaze on the base and the top with a couple of coats of polyurethane.
I started work on this piece in February of 2007 and worked at it sporadically through the following months. While it took me seven months to complete it, I didn't do a specific logging of hours. However, the real question for me was not how many hours, weeks, or months I spent building this piece but rather, how long did it take to learn how to build it? For that answer, I'd say I've been working up to this piece for at least the past six years and probably more like ten. The carving element is obviously a dominant factor in the design of the table. However, other factors such as form, proportion, joinery, and finish were not easily "thrown in" when I began contemplation of this piece. Acquiring the skills necessary to make all these factors emerge with a pleasing answer is a long process. While I am pleased with the result, I think there are many ways that this design could evolve in future iterations.
. . . Alan Young