The intent of this blog will be to describe my progress towards amateur woodworking for my own enrichment. Sometimes I will post about small items that I build in my basement shop and sometimes I will share progress or completion of projects. For my first post I wanted to share a project I completed today.
This particular table is a result of a desire to build a small table to sit to the right of our bed. Most of the pieces of furniture that we started with in our household were built to fill a particular corner or as my skills improved, a piece for a major entertaining room. Our personal bedroom had long lacked in any furniture that I had made for us. Nearly two years ago I made a small bedside table for Leonie to go on her side of the bed. It came out nice and had a shaker / arts and crafts vibe. Shaker in that it was a bit more slender and had some tapered legs but i used my old standby favorite wood in white oak so it still fit in with the general theme of the rest of our furniture. I liked Leonie’s piece well enough that I made a nearly matching table for our oldest Eric and our daughter -in-law Helina’s first apartment.
But I was looking for something a bit more masculine for my side of the bed so I decided to delve through my collection of Stickley catalogues and books to look for something a bit more substantial. I was also interested in potentially trying my hand at fuming some white oak to get that really dark stain effect you see in the turn of the century style. As it turns out I’m happy with the result but ultimately I chose a gel stain after getting increasingly concerned about the safety of trying to fume the wood.
We are fortunate to live in Southern Indiana which is rich in hardwoods in general and especially in white oak which is one of my favorite woods. Hard and tough, it can be challenging to cut and shape and you need sharps tools, but I find it very forgiving to finish and I love the permanence of the finished piece. Something about white oak speaks to honesty and endurance.
I have a blessing of selection nearby to get my white oak. I know at least one great woodworking shop, a local mill and a co-worker with a WoodMizer and I’ve been satisfied with all of them. But for this piece i was fortune to visit Frank Miller lumber in NE Indiana who just so happens to be one of the worlds largest white oak suppliers and they do almost every board in quarter-sawn which is of course essential if you want to get the flecks so associated with the “tiger” stripes on the early arts and crafts or mission style oak furniture of the turn of the century. While at Frank Miller lumber I took advantage of going through their “shorts” or “seconds” piles which is amazing value and perfectly practical for me because the size of my basement shop more suits smaller pieces of lumber than long stock and I usually don’t build any especially large pieces of furniture anyway.
So about 4-5 weeks ago I started the project by selecting some 7/4 stock for the legs and some 4/4 stock for everything else. I am incredibly thrifty with my pieces and I can spend half of the first day of any project just going through my pile trying to find just the right sized piece to minimize the cuts and wastage.
On this piece I found a board that was just the right length and just an inch shy of the right width to get all four legs out of a single board of 7/4 stock. Luckily because of the sweep and taper of the legs i knew I’d probably be able to shave the off-cut from the upper curve to glue it the same leg to form the lower curve. This amount of frugality may seem silly on hindsight, but it worked out and I after some careful layout I have four legs with the most dramatic fleck patterns all facing the front of the piece for maximum effect.
The piece that I was trying to emulate had solid sides but was based on a desk that had larger proportions. At first i looked through my woodpile to see if I had any quarter-sawn white oak long enough and wide enough to do the same but i kept thinking to myself that it seemed an incredible waste of wood to fully enclose the sides and that on such a small piece it might ruin the proportions. So instead I elected to create an open side with three slats. I varied the width of the slats and put a cut-out detail in the center slat to add some whimsy. I was pleased with the results.
For the drawer I was fortunate enough to already have a few fully made drawers that were sold as surplus drawers from my local woodworking store. The owner Mike put 5-6 of these beautifully dovetailed drawers out a few years ago (before i was brave enough to start hand dovetailing myself) and while I have been practicing my dovetails and could have done these myself, I was also eager to finally use this drawer for something useful. So all i had to do was cut it to length and add a new back and glue a matching board of white oak for the front.
For the drawer pulls I did very strongly consider asking a local artist to fabricate one for me. I really like the idea of partnering with a small metalsmith who can custom forge some hardware for me someday but since I have no intention of going into production I could not justify the expense or time for something that was simply for me. I was able to find the hardware off of etsy of unknown origin. But I got 6 drawer pulls for $24 so I figure that was a steal.
The stain was the area that I took the longest time deliberating on. I have never fumed white oak and I really wanted to try. I’ve often read about the dangers of ammonia fuming but i figured this was a small enough piece that perhaps this was finally a piece that I could try my hand at fuming the oak. After many hours sitting in front of the TV watching re-runs of “Agents of Shield” after dinner with the kids where i do some of my best internet browsing I determined that it was risky and potentially toxic so i started looking for more reliably safe ways to get the same dark look. I heard good things about the General Finishes gel stain line and in particular the “Java” color for antique arts and crafts oak finish so I finally decided to give it a try. Here is what i learned.
- Do some test pieces. I did 3 test pieces and was satisfied on smaller samples ranging from 2-3 inches wide to 4-6 inches long
- Sand to no more than 150-180 grit. This is fine for me as I usually don’t sand past 180 grit for white oak anyway. Apparently the gel stain doesn’t absorb as well on sanding greater than 180 because at about 220 and above you start burnishing the wood.
- Make sure you sand with the grain – yes I know this is obvious, but I always thought i did anyway. But with gel stain – especially darker gel stains make absolutely sure you sand with the grain. I thought i did, but obviously i had a few errant strokes in a corner or on the edge of a piece here and there and the challenge is that the darker the gel stain the more likely it will absorb straight into that cross-grain scratch and show it off like a scar.
- When you apply the gel stain do it in sections and be prepared to thin it slightly with mineral spirits – THIS IS IMPORTANT. And have plenty of wipes at hand. When I applied my gel stain it goes on like chocolate Nutella – thick and very, very dark. You can’t even see the grain at first.
- The first two parts went on fine as all I was doing was the drawer front and then the top and they were easy to apply and wipe off quickly.
- Here is where I had a mini-panic attack. I was getting a bit overconfident so i put the “Java” gel stain on the entire piece all at once instead of sections. Big mistake. As soon as I’d applied it all and started to wipe it off i realized that the extra time it took to apply to the entire piece gave the stain a bit more time to dry. So as i started to wipe I realized it took me a lot longer because the color was starting to set. And as i started wiping faster and faster I realized that i couldn’t wipe fast enough. In a moment of clarity i read the instructions and realized it cleaned up with mineral spirits. So after I started soaking the wipe up rags in a bit of mineral spirits and instantly it started getting much easier as the mineral spirits thinned and essentially re-liquefied it.
- All’s well that ends well as they say
- Final finish was with three coats of General Finishes Arm-R-Seal also thinned with approximately 10% mineral spirits and sanded lightly between coats.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.