Coffee (Tea!) Table

My wife and I never drink coffee, visitors sometimes do, but to call this a coffee table seems a bit ridiculous to us, so we’re bucking the convention. (Brew-stand didn’t have the same ring)

This project grew from an unwanted piece of kiln dried olive ash which I picked up from Oxford Wood Recycling. It had been part of a larger pallet load of the wood which had been bought by someone who worked there. He had used the best bits but was left with many pieces, like this one, which carried some defect or other. Most had terrible splits which made them unsuitable for most uses.

I warmed to this chunk though, and wasn’t put off by the splits and knots. When I got it, it was one piece, 3 inches thick, almost 3 feet long and it tapered in width from about 3 or 4 inches to 5 inches. It was the second piece from the same lot that I’d bought. The first I had cut up and turned into bowls and babies rattles and that was what I intended to do with this.

A few weeks back I had a table at a Harvest Fayre and I had spent a lot of time at the lathe preparing for it. As much as I spend most of my time working on something or another, I was thin on the ground when it came to small things to sell. It had been a while since I’d done any straight woodwork.

Image: Laura Simmons

Inspiration for the shape came from a recent exhibition visit. Over the summer I had visited the Celebration of Craftsmanship and Design exhibition in Cheltenham and had seen the work (and heard the talk by) furniture maker Hugh Miller. He was displaying some work made as a result of his recent trip to Japan.

I already had an interest in Japanese design and ways of working (which is why I attended his talk) and I found Hugh’s work beautiful. He displayed a dining table with a tapered shape, made up of two right angled corners set off from one another to produce a tapered rectangle.

In this piece of ash I saw that if I sawed it down the middle and opened it up to book match the grain (as you do with a guitar body) that the already tapered shape would be doubled and create a pleasant shape and size for a coffee (or tea) table.

In all I spent just over a week of evenings fighting to tame the grain with a plane and, when that wouldn’t work a scraper.

I wanted to set the top on some contrasting legs, and it was a good excuse to pop my walnut cherry. Walnut comes up often in the videos of woodworkers across the pond (We love you Frank Howarth!), it always looks so beautiful and it’s something I’d not used before, which was reason enough to use it!

Image: Laura Simmons

Unfortunately I sourced the walnut off eBay, which apart from being a lottery on quality and sustainability is an expensive way to buy timber. It can be convenient though and in this instance proved to work for me.

I got two pieces, initially thinking I’d get two legs from one and 1 from the other with some leftover. But with some careful marking and sawing I got 4 out of the smaller piece, 3 to use and one in reserve. This left the other bit untouched to use for something else, which in my mind, lowers the price of the build.

The ash was ripped in two by hand (donations for a table saw welcome), planed and jointed together to make the basis of the top. Then came the pain.

The grain on the top was beautiful, but erratic. It changed wildly in direction from one end to the other, and each board was different across the top too.

Image: Laura Simmons

In all I spent just over a week of evenings fighting to tame the grain with a plane and, when that wouldn’t work a scraper. Now I don’t own a planer (see donations above) I plane everything by hand, and while I class myself as a student, I’m quite at home with the tool. I’m also very aware of grain and grain direction. We have two cats, and if I stroked them the wrong way, they wouldn’t thank me! But all that said I was reaching my limit.

Thankfully I do have a good friend who is a professional and on occasions like this, very graciously lets me use his machinery to get me out of trouble. A few passes through the planer and a drum sander and I was back in business.

The other challenging part of the project, and the place where there was the most learning was in the legs. Both in the turning and the fitting.

First they had to be a matching set of three. I’ve taken to turning quite quickly since I started over the summer, but making matching sets of things is a real challenge. The tenons had to be exactly sized for the holes I’d drill in the top. I knew I’d be wedging the tenons with a contrasting strip of the same olive ash, but that was no excuse for sloppy joints.

Image: Laura Simmons

I learned recently that in some cases furniture makers now stick on an imitation ‘wedged tenon cap’ to give the appearance of the joint, while not actually having to make it. This, I’m told, is because modern glues make the need for a wedge unnecessary.

I’m not sure how I feel about faking joinery in that way. For me it was something I’ve always liked the appearance of, and was pleased to have the excuse to try it. And I’m happy with how it turned out.

Image: Laura Simmons
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