Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Walnut was the most popular choice this semester.

About a decade ago, give or take a year or two, I registered for a woodworking class. I took a LOT of unnecessary electives while I was getting my bachelor’s degree (the one semester I only took classes required for my major and minor was the most miserable semester ever), because I have wide-ranging interest and because I like having “fun classes” to help me relax. Although I love wood and had had some prior woodshop class experience, that did not end up being a fun class. Just a few weeks into the semester, I was overwhelmed and stressed out by all that was required for the class, and tearfully withdrew from the class. When the teacher signed the card allowing me to drop the class, he told me I should come back and try the class again when life wasn’t quite so stressful.

“Less stressful” is, of course, a relative term. However, having finished all the courses for my master’s degree and just needing to finish up my thesis, this semester seemed like a good time to follow the woodworking teacher’s advice and come back and try the class again. I enrolled, this time already knowing what was expected in the class (the requirements have not really changed in the past 10 years). The class was on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 in the morning to 11. Yeah. Pretty sure that’s the only time I have ever voluntarily enrolled in an 8 am class. Lab times when we could work on our projects and assignments were Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7-10 pm. Do the math, add in that on Thursdays I had to stick around to TA a 3-5 lab, and you will see that I had some very very long days on campus this semester!

I’m really writing about my semester project, and will not have in-process pictures. But just to give you more visual stimulation, here’s a picture of my turning project, a small bowl made from local walnut. It was my first bowl ever (and now I want to get some bowl gouges so I can make bowls on my own lathe), and I managed to get fairly impressively thin walls on it!

Early on in the semester we needed to turn in working drawings of our projects. I decided to make a desk. Mostly because I do not have a desk. I chose walnut because I tend to prefer dark woods—and about half of the class also had projects partly or entirely out of walnut as well! Sometimes it’s nice to be in with the in crowd. I modeled my desk in Solidworks, which meant that I first modeled each individual part, then virtually assembled the desk. I first sat down and measured the comfortable height for the writing surface. I’m short, and usually feel like desks are at armpit level, which is not very ergonomic. I also measured the height I would need to be able to scoot my legs under the desk. The difference between those two measurements drove a lot of my design choices.

A few key features: 1. The top is not as thick as it looks. The center is ¾” thick, with thicker pieces framing it. The top nests over the frame of the desk. This meant that the top of the drawer had to be at the same level as the bottom of the edge pieces of the top. 2. The drawer is not as deep as it looks, either, the drawer is only half as deep as the drawer front. This did complicate matters somewhat, but it was the look I wanted. 3. The legs are tapered on the inside faces. 4. For decorative purposes (and some added stability), a stretcher and three slats are placed between the back legs. If you were paying attention to point #3, you may be able to figure out what one of the complications with this feature was. The stretcher went into the legs with a mortise and tenon joint. I made the mortises before tapering the legs, having already used my solid model to figure how deep they would need to be. This was not difficult. However, for the stretcher…well, I needed to make the tenons to fit into a slightly angled surface! The taper angle was only a little over 1°. I made the mortises in the top of the stretcher for the slats, then carefully transferred the necessary angle to the adjustable miter gauge on the table saw, and carefully cut the angle. When I took the angled stretcher back to the legs to check the fit, I discovered that I had inadvertently cut the angles the wrong way, so the holes for the slats were now on the bottom! Other than that, the fit was pretty good…. I filled in those holes with pieces of maple—not that anyone will ever see them, but it makes it look slightly more intentional and less like I was patching!

Assembling and gluing the project was another adventure. I had designed the pieces to all fit together without screws or nails. I used a lot of dado and rabbet joints, so that the various components fit neatly onto each other even without clamps to hold them in place. But it was a lot to do, so when it came time for final assembly with glue, my teacher recommended I use a polyurethane glue that would allow me greater working time than regular wood glue would. I followed his recommendation, and the two of us were able to glue and assemble the whole thing ourselves, whereas others in the class often needed to have four or five people doing the glue-up. However, the stuff did seem to take forever to cure, so I quite cruelly monopolized 19 gluing clamps when everyone else in the class was trying to do their final assemblies, too! And that was just for the frame, not the top or drawer. Also, compared to wood glue, polyurethane glue is a pain in the neck to clean off after it squishes out (and foams out) from the joints. I will not show you close up photos of the desk, because you would be able to spot some of the damage I did to it with poor chisel-handling skills in the post-gluing clean-up. Oh, well.

At this point, I was rapidly running out of time to finish in time for grading. Since we could only get into the lab when the TA was there, I decided I wanted a little more flexibility. So I kidnapped my project and took it across the street to the lab where I did the experiments for my thesis. Because our research machine is currently not in the lab, there was a nice empty area of floor space for me to put my desk for finishing! I finished it with four coats of a penetrating oil finish, which brought out some beautiful colors in the walnut. There are at least two species of walnut in the desk. Some is the same kind of local walnut that I used in my bowl, and some is…well, I’m not sure what it is or where it’s from, but the coloring is different. When I was first preparing my pieces, I was careful to arrange them so that the color variations would be aesthetically pleasing.
All in all, I’m quite happy with my desk. It looks good and it fits me well! Using solid modeling was extremely helpful, because I could easily see what it would look like, “making” the parts before I made them helped me think about the best ways to make them for real as well as indicating potential problems, and it was easier to figure certain dimensional issues (like the fit of the stretcher and slats) than it would have been if I had drawn it by hand or with a 2d drafting program. Now I just need a bigger place to live so I have somewhere better to put it than at the end of my couch….
Oh. And my teacher’s comment on it: “Wow, it looks like the drawing!”


Giggles said...

Ah man! I should've taken more fun classes.

That's beautiful!

I could use a desk. And a sewing table. Maybe some day.

~T~ said...

Wow! That is infinitely better than the recipe clipper I made in 8th grade shop class. Want to build us a computer desk?

La Beq said...

T, buy me a good table saw, a jointer, and a surfacer, and I'll happily build you a computer desk!

Lauren said...

I love your desk! It looks great.