Auction As You Carve: Milling the Tabletop

Tim Peters' workspace
Tim Peters’ workspace

After the hectic, nail-chewing excitement of our recent Kickstarter campaign, it’s time for the Endangered Alphabets to get back to the most ambitious carving project yet: the Tibetan dining table. As you may recall, our plan is to auction it as we go, to offer you the chance to bid on what will be not only unique but quite astonishing item before it goes into a gallery and the price moves into the realm of the GNP of many small nations. The reserve price is $2,500.

The first steps in the saga have already appeared in this blog, as my partner-in-wooden-crime Tim Peters and I braved sub-zero cold to buy cherry boards for the tabletop. But how do rough, flawed (and very cold) boards become a thing of finished beauty? Read on, as Tim P takes up the story…

After I left you, I brought the wood up to the shop in Fairfax, Vermont, unloaded it, and set it up on racks so it could dry and acclimate correctly.

I usually do this in a couple of steps, because as you as you start to cut pieces of wood off, it changes the tension in the wood, and the wood will start to bend. You’ve got to let that happen, then cut it down a bit more, so eventually you arrive at the specific dimension of wood you want and it won’t move any more. It’ll shrink and swell with the seasons, but it won’t bend.

It’s a humidity thing more than a temperature thing. The more humid the air is, the more water is in the cell structure of the wood. It’s something you can’t see or feel, but it makes a difference in the size of the wood.

I left it there for a week or two, and then I began the milling process.

The wood we got was rough-sawn, so it was kind of furry and fuzzy. Milling it is the process of cutting it down to the shape and the dimensions you want it to be.

The milling process is mostly about power tools: joiner, planer, table saw.

The pieces of wood always come cupped a little bit, he said, making a bowl with his hands. I determine which will be the best side for the tabletop and I start with the joiner, which is kind of a plane. I run all the pieces through at the same time, so I’m not going back and forth all the time. I get one side nice and perfectly flat. I then tip it up on its side and join the edge, so I’ve got two really nice, straight, flat, clean sides, he said, holding his hands to show a right angle.

(Click HERE IMG_1788 to watch the video.)

Then I take it over to the planer, which will clean up one more side and dimension the lumber so it’s all perfectly the same thickness.

We started with six-quarters roughcut, so I think I probably took between a quarter and three-sixteenths off on the first run-through.

After all the boards have gone through the planer, you’re left with a board that is clean on three sides—it’s still got one rough edge. From there, I take it over to the table saw and rip it to dimension. Then I take the wood back over to the joiner and joint that one last edge, so you’ve got a piece of wood that’s clean on all four sides.

From there I put them back on the rack and space them evenly, so air can flow around each piece of wood. You don’t want them stacked on top of each other, because then you’ve got a face of each board that’s not getting air to it. It’s going to dry differently, and it’s going to cause tension, and the board’s going to bend and warp.

After a week of that wood sitting there, I did the whole thing over again. It goes a lot quicker because there’s less movement, and it’s a lot cleaner. And that’s the stage where I bring the wood down to the thickness we’re looking for. It ended up being pretty close to an inch—maybe fifteen-sixteenths.

The next stage is to lay them out and try to figure out grain patterns and how they’re going to fit together so they look the best way possible. The wood we got—some of the boards are a little different color from the others, and a little bit different grain. It’s a little hard to control, when you buy just enough wood—especially when it’s roughcut—you can’t see that stuff. It all kind of looks the same until you can plane it down and see the intricacies of the wood grain.

So at this stage I have eight or nine, I think nine planks, and I’m trying to match them up and get the best overall look. It’s very much the beginning of the artistic process.

First of all I picked all the best top sides. Some of the boards had knots or holes or cracks or resin pits. Then I’m looking at grain orientation, and how the grain looks. Also, color. It’s a subjective thing. Someone else could look at them and say, “I don’t like the way this looks. I’d rather have done it this way.” Personally, I set the top up as symmetrical as possible, and it worked out nicely because there’s a little bit of symmetry to the color and the grain.

Lumber consists of two parts, sapwood and heartwood. When cherry starts to tan, the sapwood doesn’t change that much. The heartwood gets really dark, and you can really didn’t see a contrast between the two. I didn’t want that. When we chose the boards I deliberately didn’t pick boards that have sapwood, because it’s lighter. A little bit got cut out, but it’s pretty much all heartwood on this table.

Sometimes the contrast between sapwood and heartwood is a desirable part of the design process. One of the guys who shares my shop space right now is making a standup desk. The four legs are straight, but they’ve got a really cool play between the sapwood and the heartwood so they look like they’re shaped. They look wavy.

When we were originally talking we thought of a five-foot radius, but it has worked out a little less—which is totally fine, because five feet is a big tabletop! And because it was that big, I wanted to have a stronger joint than just a piece of wood glued to a piece of wood.

So what I did (you can see this on the video HERE Gluing and splining) was I took a router and routed a groove out of the edge of every board, and I made a big, long custom-made cherry spline for each join. What that does is it allows a lot more glue surface area, and a much stronger glue joint. It’s like a tongue-and-groove, except that instead of one board having a tongue and the next a groove, both boards have a groove and there’s a spline in the middle. It also saved me wood, because if I’d made a tongue and groove I’d have had to remove some wood to make the tongue. The spline ended up being a quarter of an inch thick and about an inch and a half wide, so it’s three-quarters of an inch into each groove. The more surface area of glue you have, the more stable and stronger it’s going to be. This is going to be a strong table. You’re never going to break those glue-joints.

Next comes the gluing, and this is a tricky process in itself. You don’t have time to put glue on every board and every spline and glue it all together at once. The glue dries too quick. So I started with the two sets of outside pieces and glued them together, then put a third one on them. Then I did the same with the three middle pieces. So I was eventually left with three wider planks. Then I glued two of them together, so I was left with six pieces together in one unit and three together in the other. So it was a multiple-stage process. It took the best part of a day just to glue the tabletop together. (Video HERE Glued)

So that’s where this episode ends. Over the next 48 hours Tim will deliver the now-round tabletop to me, where I’ll lay it on a comforter on top of my Balinese dining table and then work out how the heck to carve a Tibetan blessing that runs in a band around the table, repeating like a chant, a mandala. Needless to say, there will be narrative and many photos of that process coming shortly–along with instructions on how to bid on the finished product. Later!