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Great Furniture: A Sum of All Parts

Jun 18, 2016 | Expert's Corner | 0 comments

A great piece of furniture is one that catches your eye as you enter a room, but there is nothing particular that stands out about the piece. It’s just exquisite in every detail. Joinery and lumber selection is top-notch and the finish is even, smooth and consistent.

Of course, most of the joinery cannot be seen, but joinery that is visible is near perfection. Dovetails are clean and tight fitting, mitered pieces are tightly closed and reveals around drawer fronts and door edges should be consistent. What’s just as important is what you should not see. Glue lines in assembled panels should be imperceptible as the grain flows continuously across the panels with little interruption. As for the finish, dyes or stains should not mask the wood’s grain. There should also be no vast differences in color and hue.

Of the woodworkers I talk with, most admit they have trouble finishing their projects – trouble in applying the finish, not completing the work. You’re more than likely reading this newsletter to gain a better insight into that part of woodworking. Many woodworkers admit – and I agree – that finishing a project is the “make it or break it” area of work. And while finish is important, it is has to be in balance with other parts of woodworking to be a success; you need also to have developed the skills necessary to build your project and then there is the lumber with which you choose to work.

As a group, woodworkers, for the most part, don’t try to build projects beyond their abilities. We all have projects that we aspire to build one day, and there is nothing more fun than to get into the shop to bust out a simple project quickly with great results – it’s a great confidence builder as well as a way to keep your skills sharp. It’s my opinion that most woodworkers actually over think the project in that they gather any and all information about their project prior to making the first cut. The single most often asked question I hear pertaining to magazine articles is if there are full-size drawings available. I appreciate the desire for drawings although I do not think full-size plans are a necessity because once you have a case, or other major section of your project, constructed measurements are taken from the work already completed.

What is amazing to me is the criteria that many furniture makers use to select their project lumber. It’s here that rational and common sense go out the window and dollar signs begin to take over. “The cheaper the better,” seems to be the mantra.

When I first met the staff of Popular Woodworking Magazine, they asked if I would share my finishing techniques for tiger maple. They were impressed by how strong the stripes stood out on my furniture, and they wanted readers to learn my secrets. I happily explained how to get tiger maple stripes to “pop” during the finishing process. I said, “Buy $10 dollar per board foot lumber instead of $3 dollar per board foot lumber because you cannot makes stripes appear if they are not already in the lumber.” There was a chuckle followed by a moment of silence as they thought about my comment. With figured hardwoods, the more the figure the higher the price of the lumber. While in regular hardwoods, there are subtle differences that push the per board foot prices up the scale. Those differences are worth the investment when building a great project.

In Chicago, at the Wilton School, cake-decorating classes are well attended throughout the year. As part of the Master Course, students learn techniques and decorate a three-tiered wedding cake. All the work is completed on layers of Styrofoam, as it’s the decoration on which they are judged and not the taste of the cake. (If you didn’t know, most of the decorated cakes in bakery storefronts are also on something other than cake.) The flowers and other decoration look great, but can you imagine biting into one of those cakes. Blah!

It’s the same when building furniture. Even if you are a Master at joinery (your dovetails are tight, mortise-and-tenon joints are perfect and your drawers slide smooth and straight), and you apply your finish to rival the best at the game, your project has the potential for problems as it may look unsightly if you “cheap-out” when it comes to lumber. Better lumber results in better projects.

But what about the extra costs, I hear you ask. My response to this question is philosophical. Let’s say you have set your sites on building a chest of drawers. The primary wood for a project – wood seen as one stands in awe of your work – is around 35 board feet. If you upgrade your costs from $5 per foot to $12 dollars per foot – the figures quoted to the magazine editors were from 16 years ago – you increase your cash outlay from $175 to $420, or an additional $245. Did you chuckle? I hope not. Let me explain.

You spend on average two or three months building a chest when working on weekends and the few hours you can squeeze out of a couple nights each week. If you have to spend extra time rummaging through cheaper lumber, cutting between knots and trimming heartwood from sapwood to find sections that are usable, the time spent building the chest will more than likely push into month four. As a result, fewer projects come out of your shop in a given year. Also, you’ll have to join more pieces, three or possibly four instead of two, to arrive at the sizes required for your case sides and top – clear, knot-free lumber of any species is more expensive, and boards of greater width also push the price higher. Additional pieces in your panel assemblies translate into more glue lines, more work achieving an appropriate grain match and a potential overall less appealing case. It’s a shame to put all the work into a chest only to think every time you walk by that it could have been so much better if you would have selected better lumber? Spending more money for better lumber just makes sense.

Next, consider the chest’s life. The work you’re doing is so much better than today’s veneer-wrapped, particle board stuff (I cannot bring myself to call it furniture), so your chest will be around for your children, grand children and great-grand children to enjoy, provided someone in the family wants Great Granddad’s chest of drawers. Sure, your family will desire the chest because it was built by you, but if it looks fantastic they will put the chest in a place of honor, instead of stuffing it to the third bedroom where it’s out of sight most of the time. Or worse yet, relegate the chest to basement storage. If you spread the additional costs over the next 100 plus years, it’s a much easier pill to swallow, and your piece will be treasured by generations to come. Again, it’s worth the extra outlay.

When you do get to the finishing stage of the project, better lumber makes this step easier, too. If there are knotholes, loose knots or multiple imperfections such as drastic color variation in your hardwood (streaks or mineral deposits) or you have to blend sapwood with heartwood, finish application becomes more work. Patches to cover knots look OK on some pieces depending on the style, but on a high-style chest of drawers you wouldn’t expect to find a fix. Panels and drawer fronts built from clear, knot free lumber accept dyes and stains more evenly, so you’ll achieve better color – the grain should be seen and appreciated otherwise you could simply paint the project. With quality hardwoods, you’ll have less time involved sanding during the finish process and topcoats will be easier to sand, flatten and level. These are all keys to a great finish, which begins with a good quality lumber.

With any project, you need to begin with a solid base of good lumber, you need the chops to build the piece and then you need to have a great finishing process that makes the wood look its best. With any one aspect missing, the resulting project will not be at its best.