Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lipstick on a wombat

In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t particularly like machined finishes, faultless layouts or sharp manufactured edges. Rather, I gravitate to furniture that makes little attempt to hide its man made heritage, or, better yet, holds them up as a rite of passage.

But it’s the handmade aspect that was in itself a bit of a challenge when it came to the stairs (see this earlier posts for the background). 20 drawers with four dovetailed corners each represents a fairly big time commitment. For me, the battle was how to be efficient and effective without compromising the very handmade quality that I was after.

Enter two design choices and two “secret” weapons.

Design choice #1 - industrial sized dovetails
These are about a half inch at their widest point, thinning down to a quarter of an inch. This is consistent with the story that I want the stairs to tell. Namely, that the staircase started life in a dockside warehouse some 150 years ago and was rescued just before the building was demolished. From a practical aspect, the big dovetails also allowed me to correct some of the cupping and warping of the 100+ year old floor boards I’m using.

Design choice #2 - through dovetails
This too is consistent with Australian factories and warehouses built in the 1800’s, well before tech screws, liquid nails and routers. Back then, dovetails were used anywhere a joint needed to be practical, robust and mechanically effective.

Secret weapon #1 - a template
Before launching head on I spent a while making a template for laying out the pins and sockets. Templates work well anytime you want to repeat the same layout, which in my case was 80 times.

Secret weapon #2 - the bandsaw
The second weapon, was the bandsaw. The tails were easy as the cuts are all perpendicular to the table. But the sockets required an angled cut. I considered making a jig, or moving the table, but after experimenting I got very acceptable results using a spring clamp attached to one edge of the timber. The spring clamp allowed me to quickly position the board at the correct angle and to make any minor adjustments to compensate for the tails - something a jig would not have permitted with such ease. After cutting, I cleaned out the sockets with a sharp chisel.

These four decisions meant that each draw carcase was completed in 10-15 minutes. Granted a dovetail jig would be quicker as may an accomplished cabinet maker with hand tools. But the approach I’ve used has resulted in exactly the look I was after within an acceptable time frame with tools and techniques I am proficient with. Besides, for me, to attempt fine woodworking on antique floor boards is like putting lipstick on a wombat - it doesn’t disguise the wombat, it just annoys it.

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