Speculating in sy

A Shaker-influenced lady's writing desk is made from a timber which used to be more at home in the kitchen

BELOW: Checking the slide clearance of the lady's writing desk texture, gently understated figuring and creamy colour.

Deciding it would lend itself well to delicate work, I designed this lady's writing desk and its chair, see 'Shaker leg', page 87, as a speculative piece.

Timber selection

This moderately priced British hardwood is in plentiful supply, but must be felled in winter when the sap is down, and seasoned in an upright position - 'end-reared' - after conversion to boards and before kilning.

This treatment prevents staining from the sap, and penetrating sticker marks. Ideal drying conditions are cold nights and warm sunny days.

When buying, try to obtain a guarantee that the job has been done properly because the sap staining is an ugly, dirty, grey which I have not found any satisfactory method of removing; bleaching seems to turn it an equally ugly green.

Surface staining is of a similar colour, but comes off on the first pass over the planer; so it pays to test the wood with a small plane before buying.

Good sized, clean, through-and-through boards are usually available; quarter-sawn sycamore has an interesting lacy figure which blends in well as a special feature, perhaps for drawer fronts or door panels.

Rarer and more expensive is ripple or fiddleback sycamore, much coveted for musical instruments. I feel that a little of

IN THE PAST sycamore {Acer pseudoplatanus) was a utilitarian wood used for draining and wash boards, butchers' blocks and kitchen tables, and other utensils which came into contact with food; the close grain and pale colour allowed surfaces to be left unsealed while bleaching and scrubbing kept everything hygienic and looking good.

The Georgians used figured sycamore as a decorative veneer on fine pieces, although generally stained grey and referred to as 'harewood'.

The first time I saw and touched natural-finished sycamore, however, I was fascinated camore

"The first time I saw and touched finished sycamore, however, I was fascinated by the silky texture, gently understated figuring and creamy colour"

Table construction

Mortise the legs before tapering, and begin the taper 150mm, 6in down from the top of the leg. The tapers can be achieved with jigs on the planer-thicknesser or circular saw; but I find the simplest, safest, and most enjoyable method is to rough them out on the bandsaw and finish by hand, as the wood is such a joy to plane.

Round over the feet of the legs, see fig 1. Cut the tenons on the front drawer rail, sides, and back.

Before assembly recess the sides and front legs to take the slide. The sides and back should have recesses cut for the expansion brackets to which the top will attach; make sure that those in the sides are set well back to clear the slide.

The position of the brackets should be set just below the level of the top, so that it is pulled this goes a long way in furniture; it can easily become fussy.


This design is based on the traditional bonheur du jour, or small writing desk, but with a strong Shaker influence.

Space efficiency is good; with the chair placed under the table little room is taken up; the top gives a display area, the drawers good storage, and the slide under the top a decent extra writing surface.

The desk slips easily into most settings in most houses, being particularly useful in small rooms or niches, so making an excellent hall or telephone table.

The pieces pictured here have been displayed at local exhibitions, and design developments have evolved from both.

tightly down onto the sides and back when fixed.

Fit the brackets' faces with countersunk holes into these recesses; make them a snug fit as movement need not be allowed for at this point.

Suspension runners

The drawer suspension runners should also be made and fitted now. To ensure accurate running of the drawers, cut a test slot in a piece of scrap using the router cutter that will later be used to slot the drawer sides. Dimension the runners to fit tightly into this, so that only micro adjustment will be necessary later.

Screw and glue them into place on the sides.

Dry fit all the joints before below: a light and simple design, with interest added by the contrasting fumed oak pulls and the writing slide

"Make sure the screws don't inadvertently go right through the top!'1

ABOVE! Carefully sequenced clamping of the upper superstructure is necessary

ABOVE! Carefully sequenced clamping of the upper superstructure is necessary

gluing, finishing all the surfaces as far as possible. Glue and clamp the sides to the legs, checking for square, and leave to set. When dry these two subassemblies are joined by gluing and clamping the back and the front drawer rail to the legs; again check for square in all directions and leave to set.

Prepare top

Prepare the top for fitting by cutting recesses for the expansion brackets. The bracket's slotted faces are fitted to the top; make sure the screws are placed in the correct slots to allow movement across the grain!

The recesses must be oversize in the direction of movement -front to back and vice versa - to allow for expansion or contraction of the top. Be very careful to ensure that the brackets are set deep enough to allow the slide to move without fouling the brackets or the screw heads.

Cut two slots in the underside of the top to take the slide stop screws, see next paragraph; they should stop 75mm (3in) back from the front of the top. Fit the top to the brackets, making sure the screws don't inadvertently go right through the top!

Drawer and slide

The drawer also fulfils the function of lopers in that it supports the slide when extended. To achieve this, fit two fixed dowels to the underside of the slide, projecting downwards and set back 75mm (3in) from the front. These engage the drawer front as the slide is pulled out, causing the drawer to be opened with it, thus providing the necessary support, see fig 2.

The drawer is of traditional construction The drawer casings are cedar (Cedrus libani), and the bottom 4mm, 5/32in cedar-

veneered MDF. The sides are slotted to take the runners using the router cutter mentioned above.

The drawer should be fitted carefully; as it takes the weight of the slide, play between the runners and slot should be as small as possible while allowing free movement. Finally cut two i


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Fi scallops out of the back of the drawer to allow it to be fitted and removed without fouling the slide's dowels.

To prevent the slide being pulled right out, fit two filed-down screws through its back edge; these run in the stopped slots cut earlier in the underside of the top, see above.

These are screwed into place after the slide has been positioned and before the drawer is fitted.

Check the slide carefully for clearance; to prevent any scuffing of its skiver when it is in use, the underside of the table top should be covered with a piece of baize.

Top carcass

The top carcass is a straightforward construction in 10mm, (3/sin) thick stock with backs of 4mm (5/32in) sycamore-veneered MDF. The drawer unit can be fixed to the top in a number of ways; that shown is by shouldered tenons through the base, let in to mortises in the table top.

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Brackets, dowels or screws could be used on the back edges. One client wanted the option of removing the drawer unit, and did not want the top defaced, so we located it on the top with Blu-Tack to stop it slipping, a technique which I understand is still satisfactory!

Dimension all the pieces and cut mortises in the top and bottom to take the uprights -remembering to make the appropriate through cuts in the base for the shouldered tenons, if required.

Mortise the uprights to take the shelves, and slot them for the backs. Tenon the uprights and shelves, and cut the curved front on the middle shelf.

Dry assemble all the joints to check the fit, and finish all the pieces. Gluing up is a little tricky, and I used the following method, see photo: glue the shelves and backs in to the uprights - do not glue the tops or bottoms of the backs - and dry fit the top and bottom; pull up the shelf and back joints with sash cramps back and front; check for square and leave to set.

When dry, carefully remove the top and bottom, apply glue to the joints and re-fit them. Clamp them up, check for square and leave to set.

Make and fit the drawers -again the casings are cedar and the bottoms cedar-veneered MDF, glued in all round.

Contrasting detail

To provide extra detail interest to the piece I use a contrasting timber such as rosewood (.Dalbergia sp), or in this case fumed oak (Quercus robur), for the knobs. Turn and finish the pieces on the lathe, using a sizing tool to make the spigots, oil and fit.


Check all the joints for glue squeeze-out, then clean up ready for the finish. I apply three coats of an acrylic water-based varnish - preferably one with a UV filter incorporated to minimise yellowing or darkening - to the sycamore; rub down to denib between coats.

Fit the knobs and the leather skiver; and finish with two coats of clear wax, buffing to a gentle sheen.

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Wood Working for Amateur Craftsman

Wood Working for Amateur Craftsman

THIS book is one of the series of Handbooks on industrial subjects being published by the Popular Mechanics Company. Like Popular Mechanics Magazine, and like the other books in this series, it is written so you can understand it. The purpose of Popular Mechanics Handbooks is to supply a growing demand for high-class, up-to-date and accurate text-books, suitable for home study as well as for class use, on all mechanical subjects. The textand illustrations, in each instance, have been prepared expressly for this series by well known experts, and revised by the editor of Popular Mechanics.

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