Monday 9 July 2018
A few years ago whilst visiting a timber yard in the north of England to get some oak, I also bought two centre boards and four square sections of a timber sold as 'Thai rosewood', which caught my eye. It looks similar to Indian rosewood and shares the characteristics of that species, including the rose-like scent when it is sawn or planed, so it is probably safe to assume it is part of the dalbergia family.
After deciding this wood had been hanging around in the workshop long enough, I gave it a close inspection and saw that although the squares were flawless, the two boards, as is often the case with those containing the pith or middle of the log, had quite a few big shakes and other defects, which significantly reduced the area of useful timber. With careful cutting though, I realised that it would be very suitable for a small hall or side table, which could be used as an exhibition piece or offered for direct sale from my showroom.
The design is deliberately simple and understated to allow the rich colouring of the rosewood to predominate. The skeletal nature of the design suggested leaving the sides of the drawers exposed, and these can be seen when looking at the table end on. The single drawer adds to the usefulness of the piece and is intended to merge seamlessly into the front rail. In keeping with the Far Eastern origin of the wood and to suggest a feeling of lightness, the top 'floats' above the underframe in a way reminiscent of some oriental furniture – a device that has been used to good effect by others before me, including James Krenov and John Barnard. My hope was to come up with a practical piece of furniture that wouldn't take up too much space and fit in with many interiors, be they traditional or modern.
With such a straightforward design, I bypassed my usual route of preparing scale drawings, perspective views and even models in some cases, and drew the piece up full-size onto a sheet of MDF, mindful of achieving good proportions and getting all of the rosewood components out of the wood available. From this, a cutting list was prepared and the various parts roughed out and machined up.
The stuff chosen for the tabletop was somewhat thicker than required, so each face was surfaced on the planer and stacked on edge, back on the rack, to be machined to final thickness later. Had it been very much thicker, I would probably have cut a veneer off each side, which could have been used for facing the dust panel, or even used on some other project. The piece of timber chosen for the front rail/drawer front, was then ripped into three and accurately re-assembled to leave an aperture in the middle, which would receive the drawer later. The aim was to achieve a drawer front that would visually flow into the surrounding rail, so it was vital that it was rebuilt just as the wood had grown!
Owing to the oily nature of rosewood, the butt joints were degreased with cellulose thinners and then reinforced with biscuits along the bottom edge and screws at the top where there wasn't enough length
All the components of the underframe were then carefully set out using a marking knife in readiness for the cutting of the joints, which are all basic blind (stopped) mortise and tenons, apart from the kickers which locate into the front and back rails with small shouldered tenons. The mortises were cut using a Sedgwick mortiser,
The tenons were cut on the tablesaw except for the double tenons on the long stretcher rail, which was more easily done by hand. Dense, hard timbers such as rosewood, can be very unforgiving, and a mortise and tenon must be pretty well perfect to ensure a satisfactory joint. If the tenon is a fraction undersize, the fit will be sloppy with little mechanical strength, but a joint which is a touch too tight, will need excessive cramping pressure to pull up the shoulders, and runs the risk of bursting open on slender components. A tight hand-fit is ideal.
A 6mm (1/4in) wide groove was run along the inside edges of the drawer runners, and front and back rails to accept the dust panel, which was of white ash-faced ply to provide a colour contrast. I decided to use ply rather than, for example, solid cedar of Lebanon, because it could be glued in firmly all round, thus adding a bit of extra rigidity – quite apart from the fact that I had a suitable piece of ply to hand, left over from another job! Provision for attaching the tabletop was made at this stage, consisting of holes countersunk on the underside, drilled through the kickers. The holes towards the back are slotted to allow for any expansion or contraction of the top.
After skimming all surfaces with a finely set No.5 jack plane, all surfaces which could not be easily reached later were sanded to 280grit using garnet paper, with care being taken to keep all arrises crisp. The various parts were now ready for assembly but before any glue was applied, all the joints were assembled dry to make sure that everything fitted snugly. This was especially important in the case of the drawer runners and kickers – time spent making sure that they were truly flat and parallel at this stage would assist in getting the drawer to run smoothly later on.
After degreasing, gluing-up was done in three stages: firstly, the 'H' sections were put together, followed by the front and back rail to leg sub-assemblies. When the glue – Titebond Original – had cured, the whole table was glued up, not forgetting to slot the dust panel into its grooves. Great care was taken to make sure that everything was square and out of winding, before removing any beads of adhesive that had oozed out of the joints and allowing it to set overnight. The next step was to fit and glue in place the drawer guides, making sure that they were dead straight and parallel.
Attention was now turned to the top. The two pieces chosen earlier for it were planed and thicknessed then shot by hand with a jointing plane, biscuited and glued up. After squaring up to the finished dimensions, both sides were finely hand planed, gone over with a scraper plane and sanded, again to 280grit, after which it was secured to the under frame with steel screws. Later on, these would be replaced by brass equivalents.
Now to the crucial job of fitting the drawer. The running surfaces of the opening were first waxed and buffed to aid fitting and smooth operation then, using a suitably sized piece of MDF cramped to the bench, the drawer sides were planed down flush with the pins, and the drawer offered up to the opening. Since I'd already shot the sides to fit across the height of the drawer, I knew that any tightness in the fit must be in the width. The difference between a perfectly fitted drawer and a sloppy fit can be as little as a single shaving, so I proceeded with caution until the drawer slid in evenly with only fractional tightness, then sanded the sides to achieve the fit I wanted. A couple of shavings were removed from the top and bottom edges and face of the drawer front, to give the minimum clearance necessary to help give the illusion of the drawer blending invisibly into its surrounding rail. To allow the drawer to be opened, a small turned knob was fitted.
To complete the table, I decided to apply an oil finish for two reasons: firstly I was concerned that a sprayed lacquer might not adhere well to the oily rosewood; the other was an attempt to do the wood justice and bring out its full beauty.
The brand of oil chosen was Anglo Danish Oil, bought from a branch of Travis Perkins. Intended for floors, panelling and furniture, I was pleased with both the ease of application and the finished appearance of this product, although I have noticed that it is susceptible to finger marks.
One never quite knows how a speculatively made piece of furniture will go down with the public. I felt sure that this piece, in a rich timber and hardly outlandish in appearance – and if I say so myself, not a badly made drawer – would soon find a buyer, but three years on and despite having been in several exhibitions, it is still unsold. It has actually aroused more interest from other makers than among the general public. I might have to start using the sales pitch that in a mere 97 years, it will be an antique!