Timber Selection

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The timber for these pieces came from a huge tree which I bought as a freshly felled log in the mid-80's - a victim of Dutch elm disease - and had sawn into various thicknesses at a local mill. It has been in stick since then, out in the open air covered with old sheets of corrugated iron to keep the rain and sun off. Never put iron or steel sheets over oak, by the way, or the timber may end up stained blue-black, as when an old nail is embedded in it.

After all this time the elm is as well air dried as it ever will be.The main drawback to seasoning and storing timber in this way is that it is prone to infestation by the furniture beetle.This generally seems to attack only the sapwood of elm, or boards which are a bit dodgy, that I would avoid using anyway. Suspect planks must be carefully checked and, if they have to go, can at least be cut up into firewood.

The various parts of the chair and desk were roughed out and stacked in the warmest part of the workshop, allowing air to circulate freely, and left for a couple of months until the moisture content had fallen to 10 or II %.The success of a piece of furniture relies heavily on careful timber selection. For example, make sure that a row of drawer fronts are all cut from the same board. If it is not possible to get a good grain match between adjacent boards, then adapt the design to make a deliberate feature of this.

71 t


below right: Arm to leg dovetails offered up

bclow left: Arm Joint showing 'ear' to assist assembly below right: Arm to leg dovetails offered up


The original ripple sycamore desk and chair were sanded down to 400 grit and sprayed with pre-catalysed lacquer, which is my preferred finish on most light coloured woods which don't have to work hard for a living. If hard wear is likely then an acid catalyst lacquer would be used. The almost unreal figure of the buffed up with a soft cloth.

Having recently seen the sycamore pieces again - the couple who bought them have gone on to commission several more items -I'm still not sure whether I prefer the design in one timber or the other, but it reminded me what an amazingly versatile material we have available to us, as woodworkers. ■

timber, combined with the finish, led several people to remark that it was hard to believe it was actually wood -I'm not sure if that is a compliment or not! Such a finish is in my view not appropriate to an open grained timber like elm, so the sequels are sanded to 280 grit and given several coats of Danish oil, carefully steel wooled and cleaned off between coats, then

right: Desk and chair -note sweep of arms into back and wedged tenon from seat support rails

"Repeats offer the near certainty that all the constructional headaches have been sorted out, and the job will be profitable"

right: Desk and chair -note sweep of arms into back and wedged tenon from seat support rails

Shelving some pr

Peter Scaife takes a piece of lime straight from the bandsaw to make a set of book shelves

• PETER SCAIFE trained as a woodwork teacher during the late 1950s and early 1960s at the former Borough Road and Trent Park Colleges, but found that while he loved woodwork he hated teaching, so switched to woodworking journalism. He describes his experience as broad rather than deep, ranging from boatbuilding to sculpture.

below left: The dilemma and the challenge -lime ripped by the local sawmill produced tapered boards below middle: Simple but effective - a feature is made of the fixings

Thirty years ago, in the first warm glow of marriage, I told my new wife I'd make her a hail table. It'll be an elegant long-legged piece, I said, with a half-round top probably made from satinwood enhanced with marquetry and fine stringing.

Well, I didn't actually promise...

.. .So - how about some shelving, I asked her? She agreed.

I had in my workshop a 1000mm (39'Am) by 400mm (15Jiin) by 75mm (3in) piece of lime (Tilia vulgaris) left over from a carving of Christ that I had done for a Norfolk church 20 years ago.

My muscles having become softer and the timber harder, conversion by hand was out of the question, so I asked the timber yard to tidy up the edges, rip it down the centre and deep-saw it into eight boards of about 1000mm (39IXin) by I80mm (7in) by 18mm (Min).

Instead of putting it through a circular saw to produce all eight pieces of the same dimension, a power-fed bandsaw which did not cut in a straight line resulted in timber ranging in thickness from 12mm CA'm) to 37mm (I'/sin), some of it curved along its length but none in wind.

Design opportunity

In this kind of situation you remember that there is no rule book.

No law exists that says every member of a piece of furniture has to be of equal thickness, has to be flat and has to be planed smooth. Design nannies do not exist.

Lime, being devoid of figure, of even colour and very crisp, is ideal for carving. The band-sawing had given it a pleasing texture; sunlight raking across it revealed small, regular ridges across the grain. My mind was made up - use it as it is, in the knowledge that any marks on the precious surface cannot be erased.

Because the texture could never be replicated, the first job, before marking out even, is to put on a coat of hard, clear varnish.

Only after that can the next stage in the mental design process be pondered: with the best two, slightly curved, pieces chosen for the sides, would they slope in or out? I set the lower ends vertical to the floor, sloping them slightly outwards at the top.

The four shelves start with the thickest at the bottom, with the thinnest at the top and the slight concavities upwards.

Fixing to sides

My next conundrum was how to join the shelves to the sides.

Because the sides are not parallel, the housing is tricky to mark out. I discarded the possibility of using through tenons because of the problem posed by their ends: smooth and flush would result in a clash of texture; allowing them to stand slightly proud would be too arty-crafty; but something brass would look good.

Countersunk screws are too ordinary, and cannot be screwed into end-grain. Look for bolts in the ironmongers, and find brass, 6mm by 40mm, pan-head, parallel-sided screws to be fixed into holes drilled in the ends of the shelves.

Instead of using glue - too risky - or chemical filler - unknown quantity - consider fixing nuts into the underside of the shelf, about 20mm (Xin) from the end.

This means a little 10mm by 3mm mortice must be cut to take a square, zinc-plated nut.

"No law exists that says every member of a piece of furniture has to be of equal thickness, has to be flat and has to be planed smooth. Design nannies do not exist"

below middle: Simple but effective - a feature is made of the fixings


"Picture wire zigzagging across the back and stapled in position adds greatly to the overall effect"

Back to the rule book: who says mortices must be rectangular? Why not round? A trial run in scrap timber demonstrates that a hole drilled to 10mm (%in) allows the nut to wobble, so make it 8mm (%in) with a Forstner bit to achieve a flat bottom, chopping out just over 1mm on each side.

The result is remarkably stiff, but will it need some additional rigidity -perhaps some triangulation at the back with brass picture wire? see right.

Drill all the holes for the two lower shelves; where the sides are parallel, chisel out grooves for the nuts, put them in, offer up the screws and tighten them. Offer up the next two shelves, mark the length required and drill more holes.

In fact, these 16 nuts and screws, with copper washers under their heads for the sake of appearance, do make for a rigid structure, but picture wire zig-zagging across the back and stapled in position adds greatly to the overall effect.

Cleaning up

All that remains is to clean up the front edges with a smoothing plane. I applied a blue-grey stain to the back edges, but found this added nothing, so varnished the front edges to match the rest.

So what did I gain from this? While many traditions are to be respected - and I'm very glad I once made a cabinet with secret lapped dovetails, all hand-cut, and then French polished it - taking a risk by innovating and experimenting is fun.

When success comes, it is all the more welcome - especially when the result has relied not on drawing but on eye and imagination alone. "?-'

LEFT: Bottom shelf detail - note the smooth planed finish to the whole of the front edge, in contrast to the sawn sides and shelves right: a design that evolved from the material

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