Have you ever had to build a piece of furniture in a hurry?
My wife gives voice lessons, and a student accidentally broke a makeshift end table in her studio when he leaned on it. This piece of furniture was previously considered unimportant, but after it collapsed and she got rid of it, more than a few students have asked "Hey, where's that little table that I use to set my books on?" It's funny how a seemingly insignificant piece of furniture can play such a major role in the function of a room.
Having a (fabulously talented!) woodworking husband, she requested a replacement for the table that would be ready before her next lesson—in a couple of days.
My marching orders: Produce a small table that will live in a corner, be around 25" high, and won't fall apart when someone leans on it. No drawer, no shelf—just a simple, square tabletop finished in black lacquer to match the piano already in the studio. It must be built and delivered in a couple of days.
My time constraints meant I'd have to build it using scrap laying about the shop. It also immediately eliminated the visions of cabriole legs and Queen Anne "cyma-curved" aprons. I am a notoriously slow woodworker, so I needed to scale back my design. Aesthetically and functionally I needed something with straightforward lines and sturdy construction, leading me to the Stickley catalogue. The Stickley number 603 Tabouret would fit the bill nicely.
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The size and stock requirements would allow me to build it with only the scrap laying about, and it would fit into a corner well. I liked the crossed stretcher and uniform design that allows you to place it any which way and it will always be facing front. My wife is not keen on the round top, and with some quick mocking up in SketchUp I was able to render this same design with a square top. That got the seal of approval and I was off to the races.
I did an inventory of my stock in the shop. Knowing that this piece would be painted, I wasn't ready to "sacrifice" my good hardwood. I came up with a piece of 2×12 construction lumber and a big hunk (5 × 4.5 × 36) of Kiri that I got for a song many months ago.
Knowing what raw material I had on hand, it was time to consider where construction compromises needed to be made. Since I was only using scrap, I would need to do some re-sawing and panel glue-ups to get the dimensions I needed. I hoped to save the time added in milling by attaching the lower stretcher with an integral tenon instead of the through tenon that Stickley so loved. (Not having to fuss over a clean exit of the tenon, and then clean up/chamfer the exposed end, would cut an hour out of the build easily.)
I considered attaching the top stretchers with pocket hole screws, but since I was building the piece out of softwood I was not convinced that the pocket screws would hold up over the years. Instead I stuck with the traditional half blind dovetails into the top of the leg posts. No one will see these dovetails, so they don't have to be show quality, and using softwood allows for some compression space when fitting the joint. (In reality these joints came out really pretty, and it was almost a shame to hide them under the top.)
The top was glued up from two pieces in probably one of the cleanest panel glue ups I have ever done, so there was very little surfacing to do once it came out of the clamps. It is attached through elongated screw holes from the top stretchers to compensate for seasonal movement.
From rough lumber to a sanded piece, I only spent about 5 hours. I kept to my promise of table saw and power jointer abstinence as well, but don't think that really added any build time since I roughed the pieces out on the bandsaw while cutting down that big hunk of Kiri. I usually do my joinery by hand anyway.
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This was a whirlwind build from concept to finish, and it taught me a lot about how I work and what decisions I make along the way. What compromises do you make in a design due to time and money constraints? How do you deliver a quality product on a tight delivery schedule while not sacrificing your style? I don't have a picture of the finished piece yet because by the time the finish was applied, it was dark outside and I really can't get a black lacquered piece to show up well in my shop lighting. I'll take some pics when it reaches it's final home and post them.
This "Hand Tool School" series is provided courtesy of Shannon Rogers, a/k/a The Renaissance Woodworker. Rogers is founder of The Hand Tool School, which provides members with an online apprenticeship that teaches them how to use hand tools and to build furniture with traditional methods.