Getting to the bottom of things

Once the grooves were cut into the carcases of the oak trays, I needed bottoms for them.  Now, I could have used oak plywood and it would have worked just fine (as long as the plywood was the same width as the iron in my plow plane: check first!).  But in this case, I wanted a solid wood bottom.  I also wanted a different species for this application.  Red oak is all well and good, but I thought the unrelieved strong grain might be a bit too much for something this small.  So, I decided on mahogany, because while the colour was close, the grain pattern was completely different.  This way it would complement and contrast at the same time.  The interesting part about this is that I had this mahogany squirreled away in what might seem like an unlikely spot.


Yup, that’s the footboard of a bed.  This is an old piece of furniture that was slated for the landfill.  It is made of mahogany panels that have been overlaid with a thick walnut veneer.  The veneer was so thick that it might have been repairable as it was, except that it had been damaged enough for chunks were torn out, instead of merely scratched and scuffed.  But it worked out for me, because I had some mahogany panels already glued up!  How did I know there was mahogany under the veneer?  Well, once upon a time, I needed a tray for a pipe threader I own.  I used a little piece of that bed as exploratory surgery, and after peeling the veneer found out it was mahogany under there.  Score!


But why?  It’s not like mahogany is cheap.  Why put it together just to veneer it?  The best answer that I can come up with is that these panels are put together of pieces that have big knots in them or big torn out chunks of reverse grain.  One part included a piece with so much wane in it that the veneer had a big soft spot in the middle of the footboard.  My guess is that the furniture factory, knowing that the veneer would hide all those accumulated flaws, used up the bits and bobs from a shipment of mahogany so that they could get a few more pieces finished for their dollar.  Just a guess, but it’s what makes sense to me.  But even though there were a lot of rough spots in there, I only needed some small sections, so I was able to finagle both bottoms out of that footboard (once I cleaned off the entire thing to check for hidden flaws), and they turned out pretty nice!


This is one reason why I’m always watching the curbs for old furniture that people don’t want anymore.  The new stuff, made of solidified termite waste, is useless.  Refuse refuse*!  Old furniture, on the other hand, is usually made of salvageable timber.  So pick it up when you see it, and you may be surprised at what you can glean from the waste stream.  The worst that can happen is that you have to set it out on the curb again.

So with the bottoms being prepared, I could glue everything up.  I MADE SURE that everything would go together properly with a dry fit, then assembled.  After planing the dovetails flush and a quick sanding, an oil finish completed the trays.


*Yes, that’s two different words: English is such a funny language sometimes… 


Trays (not from Muskogee)

It so happened, recently, that I received an order that involved a variation on one of my proven designs.  The call was for two serving trays, which I normally make out of painted softwood with nailed-in bottoms.  But this request was for two made from solid hardwood, with a transparent finish.  This meant that a floating panel bottom was required.  Now, we went over how I put in a floating panel bottom when we made our canning jar box.  But in that case, we worked straight through and then plugged the resultant holes after the fact.  In this case, it was to be as seamless as possible, without even the modest discontinuity that a plug would present.  So for these two trays I would need to make a stopped groove.  No problem.

The first part of the process is ripping out the required stock for the sides from a piece of red oak.


This piece was thick enough that I was able to resaw it further, splitting it down the middle of the board to make two sets of perfectly matched sides.  The process of dovetailing them together and making the rasped out handles and side curves is just the same as when making a softwood tray…except that it’s not quite as fast when you’re working with oak instead of white pine.

The big difference with these trays comes when we put in the bottoms.  Now, it would hold the bottom in just fine if I were to nail through the oak.  I actually considered using a series of forged nails.  But I decided to go for the cleaner look of a floating panel.  The sides get their grooves plowed quickly with my old Stanley 45.


But it’s the end pieces that are the real difference.  Instead of plowing right through the pins (and plugging later), we’re going to have a stopped groove.  If we were to work across the grain, then it would be a stopped housing dado, such as is common for putting shelves into cabinets.  It’s a very similar process in both cases.

First we have score the outer edges of the groove.  I use a mortice gauge for this.  Set it to mimic the dimension and placement of the grooves in the side pieces.  Take care to stop short of the ends, so the effect won’t be ruined by errant gauge lines.  Then, start by chopping a series of stop cuts across the grain in your prospective groove.  Now, when you carefully begin to run a bevel-down chisel in between your gauge lines, maybe with little judicious malleting behind it, it will cleanly pop out all these little chips, rather than potentially peeling out great stringy chunks that go under the scored gauge lines and tear craters out of your work.


Continue doing this until you get close to the depth you want.  Then, again carefully, use a narrow blade in a router plane (my Stanley 71 in this case), and nibble away at the groove until you get an even, smooth groove that goes most of the way to the end.  You should be leaving a piece of wood at the terminus of the end grooves that is just long enough to give you an even groove all the around the tray.  Since I’m using 3/8″ stock, and my grooves go halfway through, that means that I needed to leave 3/16″ at the ends of my stopped sections.  BE CAREFUL when you cleaning out the groove bottom with the router plane.  By the time you get close to being done, you can be…excessively enthusiastic with

your planing in anticipation of having all the grooving done.  It doesn’t take much to push the router plane a little too hard into that fragile little stub of wood and splinter it right off (invariably into the pile of shavings, never to be seen again).  This will require a noticeable patch job and you will be excruciatingly irritated.  Go ahead, ask me how I know this…