Contains chemicals known to the state…

…of California to cause cancer.

What doesn’t have that warning on it these days?  I’m pretty certain that one day I’ll see it printed on a potato or something.  Since I’m not likely to ever go back to California, I should be fine though.

But this last stretch of our tabouret build does involve chemicals, specifically ammonia.  The original finish for Stickley furniture was one that involved putting the furniture parts in a miasma of strong ammonia fumes.  This reacted with the high tannin content in the white oak, and produced a characteristic gray-brown colour.  Laying a tinted varnish over that “fumed” surface created the distinctive Stickley hue.

Well, I’m not likely to be playing with ammonia.  Sorry, but bathing my work in poison for the sake of authenticity is beyond the pale (next week: lead-based paint!).  Not only is creating a fuming tent a lot of bother, but if you do it even a little wrong the fumes will kill you right quick.  Not a cumulative exposure over years, or eventually (only in California) causing cancer, but immediately.  So I shan’t be doing that.

But I do want a pretty close match to that finish.  I did the VERY IMPORTANT step of making a test board and tried a procedure that was in the Popular Woodworking compilation that uses a “Dark Walnut” tinted Danish oil under shellac.  On this oak, it was too cold, yielding a brown that was almost purple.  So, I tried again, using a regular Danish oil.  This was much better.  So after putting on a coat of oil and letting it cure thoroughly, I then started in with garnet shellac.  IT IS IMPORTANT that you let the shellac dry all the way before you sand in between coats.  Unlike other varnishes, shellac does not form discrete layers.  Instead, the solvent (alcohol) dissolves the underlying layers and turns into one thick layer.  So if you try to sand in between coats before it’s fully dry, you’ll pull up smears of gunk as the entire film of shellac comes off in little clots.  There’s not really a way to fix it rather than sanding everything back down to the bare wood and starting over.  It’s extremely frustrating.  Go ahead, ask me how I know this…

Once the shellac is on to a point you can live with (full satisfaction for a craftsman is a myth), put on some black wax and buff everything smooth.  The black wax will fill any pores discreetly.  It will also help a piece to blend in with the period surroundings.  It’s not as if you’re trying to “distress” or “antique” something (how that got to be a verb I’ll never know) artificially, but it will knock off the new penny shine.  It’s pretty easy to make black wax.  It’s just a regular soft wax inside of a couple layers of old T-shirt.  Sprinkle some carbon black artist’s pigment over it, and fold it all up inside a little cloth ball.  Start rubbing.  The wax will dissolve with the warmth of the friction and flow through the cloth, carrying with it the black pigment.  No big deal.  Once you get a dark haze over the whole project, buff it smooth with clean cloths.

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One thing I do as a final step is to put a pad on the bottom of the feet.  This keeps them from scuffing the floor if the tabouret gets scooted around.  The best thing I’ve found for this is cork tape.  It is very fast and easy to apply, it’s low-profile so the piece doesn’t look like it’s floating over the floor, and it doesn’t pick up pet hair like felt pads will.

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And with that, our tabouret project is done!  After I’d delivered it, I had a chance some time later to see it in its new surroundings.  Actually, I had to look for it especially, because it blended in so completely that it almost looked like part of the house.  I’ll call that success.  The dark stain on the bottom right stretcher below is also in the left background above.  It’s the solitary nail hole I left (oak tannins create black stains when they meet iron) as a witness mark that this wood was once a barn.

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The two become one

Before we put the top and the frame together on our tabouret, some things will be vastly easier if we undertake them before they’re a unit.

The most structurally important is to “evel” our legs.  It’s a two-part process.  First, we level the legs.  A tippy table is no fun to set a drink on.  So we go round and round, taking a bit off here and a bit off there.  Eventually, it will stand squarely.  Or you’ll go insane.  One or the other.  Do be sure that you aren’t gauging the quality of your levelling on an uneven surface.  Once the table stands level, we then have to bevel the corner where the legs meet the floor.  If we don’t make a small bevel here, it will splinter off bits of that corner when you scoot it.  It’s really quite curious how such a small thing can be so important in use.

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It will be easier to clean up any glue and get everything sanded on your framework before the top is on as well.  There’s no extensive joinery involved from here, so your bottom frame shouldn’t receive any bashing in the interim.

Once you are finally ready to attach the top, pre-drill the holes in your top stretchers.  You should have five countersunk holes, one in each stretcher and the very middle.  BE SURE you elongate the holes on the stretchers what will see movement (wood doesn’t get longer, only wider).  Once the holes are ready, you can use an awl through the holes to mark the top, after you’ve labouriously ensured that the frame is quite centred on the top.  Then, you can drill the top to receive the screws.  Or you could use a right-angle attachment on a cordless drill.  Either way, BE SURE that you have some sort of depth stop in place so that you don’t inadvertently drill too deeply and come out the top.  It will be quite infuriating.  Go ahead, ask me how I know this…

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Finally, insert your screws and tighten them down.  Just like on a car tyre, you should tighten them in sequence.  You don’t have to clock your screws (keeping the slots aligned) unless you’ve got a touch of OCD like me.  Then you probably have to.

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So now our tabouret is assembled!  Enjoy your feast tomorrow, and we’ll come back to this after the tryptophan wears off.

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Round and round

The top of our tabouret is a solid piece of oak that is an inch thick, and 18 inches in diameter.  You’ll probably have to glue up a panel for that, but do remember to keep your grain running in the same direction.  Take some time to ensure that your jointed edges are as square as possible to the face sides, because flattening this panel out is very important to the final fit of the top to the bottom superstructure.  Gluing your pieces in an arc will only make life difficult.  I usually start working against the grain because it cuts more easily this way.  The most expedient way to approach this is to make it flat, then smooth, rather than trying to do both at the same time.

If, on the other hand, you have pieces of oak that are an inch thick and 18 inches wide, go stand over there so the rest of us can despise your good fortune at a distance.

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Once everything is trued as well as you can make it, use the pattern mentioned earlier and trace out the required circle.  Notice that I avoided the big streak of sapwood on the side closest to the vice.  A little care will go a long way toward making a harmoniously uniform panel, which is especially noticeable in something like a table top.

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Now, you could cut this out with a variety of methods.  The easiest by far is to use the bandsaw, though you need to be sure to have the outer edge supported to give a square cut, and lubricate the table so the big chunk of oak doesn’t hang up from the friction.  For a radius this large, the easiest way to do this with hand tools is simply to keep taking slices off the outside, ever adding to the number of facets until you approximate a circle.  Either way, make sure to fair the outside at the end with a rasp so as to leave a smooth, continuous curve.

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And for those of you poking fun at the excessively festive coffee mug in the background, I’ll have you know I don’t drink out of anything so saccharine!

That’s where I put hot water so that I can warm up my glue bottle.

A leg up

Once the stretchers for our tabouret have been fit, we have to fit them to the legs.  For the bottom stretchers, it’s a relatively straightforward job to cut mortices with a mortice chisel.  Be sure to score around your edges with a knife or gauge to prevent splintering.  DO BE SURE to have some sort of mark on your chisel to know when to stop.  These mortices cut fairly deep into the leg, and it is all too easy (especially in the middle portion of the mortice) to be too enthusiastic in your work and punch out the other side, creating an inadvertent through mortise instead of the blind one that is specified.  Go ahead, ask me how I know this…

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Once the bottom of the mortice is clean and square, make sure that the tenoned stretcher fits as it should.  If you’ve cleaned out the bottom of the mortice sufficiently and by all accounts it should seat fully, do check the cheeks of your tenon.  If they’re a little fat, they will hold everything up, and efforts to force it together may split your leg instead of seating the tenon.

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Once the bottom stretchers are all in place, it’s on to the top stretchers.  Cutting out this open recess is more like cutting out a half-blind dovetail than a mortice.  Saw to the diagonal line from the bottom gauge line on the face side to the back gauge line on the top side.  Then chop down with a chisel and mallet to finish the rest of the recess.

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This joint has a lot of places where it can hang up.  Be patient, and keep at it.  If I were designing this tabouret today, I’d make this a dovetailed tenon, but since we’re reproducing a form, the fit of this joint is more essential as there’s no mechanical aspect to the security of its construction.

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Eventually, all the stretchers will go together.  Once that occurs, we need to bore the bottom stretchers for their pegs.  I clamp everything together (top and bottom stretcher, mind you) before I bore because I want the fit to be correct.  Be sure to clamp a sacrificial backer on because both sides of this hole are outside faces, and you don’t want the edges of your holes to be all splintery.

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Finally, the time will come to glue up the bottom superstructure.  It can take a while to get everything just right, so you’ll want to be sure to use a glue with a longer open time.  If you prefer not to use hide glue, a slow-set epoxy should work better than PVA.  Remember to bevel off the ends of your pegs, as that will make it a much easier job to hammer them through your holes.  If you run out of clamps, (you can never have too many!) then peg the bottom stretchers first.  Then you can use your clamps in a different spot without too much trouble.

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Topped up

There are two sets of stretchers on the Stickley tabouret we’re making.  Once the bottom ones are complete, we need to start on the top set.  It’s relatively straightforward, as the tenons are a simple rectangular form.

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One thing that is crucial to the overall success of the build comes through here.  IT IS ESSENTIAL that the distance between the shoulders on the top stretchers be as close as possible to the distance between the shoulders on the bottom stretchers.  I use the actual bottom stretcher as my measure for this.  If you have two different lengths between your tenons, even if it is only a small distance, it will cause your nominally square assembly to distort.  So do take some care to ensure that the stretcher lengths are the same.

A brief aside here as regards the difference between working in a “style” and making a reproduction.  If you’ve perused the extant body of knowledge on a particular genre of furniture, you can probably create something in that vein, or “style”.  In this case, the Craftsman style is characterised by massively proportioned components, rectilinear forms, exposed joinery, and the prevalence of white oak (preferably quartersawn).  So if you were to create a piece that did not exist back in the 1900’s and 1910’s (Stickley never created an entertainment center, for instance), you can use those elements to make something that will be harmonious with the extant body of work.  This gives you a lot of flexibility with only a few parameters, mostly dealing with aesthetics and not construction.

If, on the other hand, you are reproducing a particular, preexisting piece, you are bound by the exact characteristics of that piece.  No matter how you would like to achieve a need, you are constrained by the details of the piece, even if it seems as if you could make it “better”.  In this case, the literature I have on this tabouret specifies that the top stretchers are constructed with a simple square tenon (the abundance of long grain to long grain gluing surface ensures a sturdy assembly).  If I were designing this piece today, I might choose to use a dovetailed tenon to ensure that even if the glue were to fail, the assembly would still be secure.  However, as I am reproducing a form, I am bound by the previous construction.

At any rate, once the tenons are cut, we again have to cut a halving joint where the two stretchers meet in the middle of our framework, and that will complete the top stretcher subassembly.

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Stretched thin

The first bit of making our little Stickley tabouret is to make the bottom stretchers.  There’s a lot going on in there, though it doesn’t look like it.  I start by cutting tenons on the end.  To keep my shoulders crisp (a real essential for working in the Arts and Crafts style), I not only knife in the cut lines, but also pare down a little bit to create a trough for the saw teeth to ride in.  This helps to ensure that the saw doesn’t jump off the cutline, or wander even slightly, creating a gappy shoulder.

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I cut shoulders, then the cheeks on my tenons.  This way, if I somehow get a bound up saw and it decides to split the cheek off instead of saw it off, the split doesn’t continue down into the rest of my workpiece.  I saw from the corners down to my shoulder line on one side, then flip the stretcher around and saw in from the other side, meeting in the middle.  Then I’ll put the workpiece vertically in the vice and saw down to my shoulder line.  Doing it this way helps to make straight cuts down the cheeks, preventing any binding later.

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Next, I’ll cut the curved underside of the stretchers.  This will work better if you clamp the stretchers together and fair them in as a unit.  Not only is it faster than doing them one at a time, but it helps to ensure that any irregularities in your thickness are the same on both pieces.

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This idea of making sure that the stretchers are the same (even if they’re not exactly the nominal width) is important because the next thing to do is make a halving joint.  This seems pretty simple, but do take some care at it since not only are all the surfaces visible when you’ve got it assembled, but all of those surfaces are bearing on one another as well.  It will take a little fussing to get it together, but keep at it.

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Finally, the subassembly for the stretchers will go together, with the tenons cut, the curves faired in, and the halving joint fitted.

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One from the books

I research a lot of things about woodworking.  I consider it the “professional development” side of what I do.  And it keeps me going if I’ve somehow mangled one of my appendages or if it’s just too cold to work (that polar vortex is brutal with an unheated garage!).

One thing that I had overheard in passing was the bemoaning of how everything seemed to be cherry or maple.  “What’s wrong with oak?!  I like oak!”, she said.  Her house, built in 1920, certainly embodies that, with classic Craftsman style details, from wide oak mouldings to pocket doors.  When the opportunity came up to make a piece for her, I knew that it had to be in the Craftsman style to fit not only her house but also her tastes.

A very beneficial gift from the past (at least for me) has been the preservation of the catalogues of the various Stickley brothers.  Lavishly illustrated (especially for the time), they provide a fascinating view into an era that seems well and truly another country.  This is the top of page 37 in Gustav Stickley’s 1910 catalogue, courtesy of the local library system.

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This design seems to be fairly common, ranging from the diminutive to dining tables that will seat eight or ten fairly easily.  For this build, the number 603 tabouret is the one most useful, as it is a comfortable side table height (though I’ve also seen them used as plant stands without any fuss).

A couple of minor details here.  First, even though it looks like it should be pronounced like “filet” or (raspberry) “beret”, the interesting thing is that tabouret is in fact pronounced like “briquette” or “kitchenette”.  I don’t know why, but there it is.  I yield to the ghost of Murray in this matter.

Second, the quoted price of $3.75 might not seem like much, but do remember that this was in 1910.  A cabinetmaker such as myself was earning, on average, a whopping $0.24 per hour back then.  So, this little bitty side table would have cost two days worth of labour.  What will two days worth of wages buy you these days?

Right, so one nice thing about this particular piece is that I didn’t have to puzzle out how it was made.  I had a copy of Robert Lang’s superb book of shop drawings, and there was our little tabouret in all its glory.  So now I had an idea of what I wanted to build, and blueprints to do so.  All that was left was to cut some wood and glue it together.  Easy!

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