Every now and then I get asked to do some decor-style stuff, and with the right audience, these ceiling tin wrapped wood letters are big winners. Having gotten a new bandsaw for Christmas, I figured I might as well start breaking 'er in by knocking out another set of these gems.
Christmas might be over, but we still have serving boards to make. This one's a freshly oiled babinga and maple model.
As much as we all wanted to take a few days off around the holidays - work usually slows down a bit, and a little break every now and then does all of us some good - for me, it didn't happen. One of the jobs that had to get banged out in time for a client's Christmas Eve get-together was a kitchen backsplash.
I didn't take a lot of pictures, mostly because there wasn't a minute of extra time between getting drywall up, getting tiles set and grouted, and then caulking everything and cleaning up before Santa showed up.
Some furniture builds are pretty straightforward, and require tools or materials or processes that I deal with on a fairly regular basis. But every now and then...somebody asks for something that forces me to step up my game. Luckily, I'm kind of a sucker for challenges and this latest project was exactly that.
It started with a client asking for a coffee table built out of reclaimed lumber. After a few conversations, the client gave me a picture of what they were looking for:
Simple enough, right? Basic metal frame, throw down some old barn boards, and you're done.
Except it's not at all that simple. That metal frame would require welding, which I don't do a ton of. Sourcing barn wood isn't difficult, but unless you want to pay silly prices for it (and import the stuff from more barn-heavy parts of the country), sometimes finding good-lookin' stuff here in St. Louis can be tricky. Barn lumber usually requires a decent amount of work just to make it usable; those barn boards - regardless of whether they had been used as siding, flooring, roof sheathing or anything else - don't come off the barns flat, or straight, or without warping and cupping and twisting and, sometimes splitting and rotting. And the size of the requested table...about 5' by 3'...wasn't going to make things any easier; that's a BIG coffee table .
After ironing out the details of the design with the client, I picked up some steel from the place I usually go to for that sort of thing, Shapiro Metal Supply. I've been in enough lumber yards over the years that they don't open my eyes a whole lot anymore, but the steel yards...still a pretty new experience, and for construction guys like myself, seeing different and much larger tools than I'm accustomed to dealing with...pretty awesome.
After picking up the steel, I went out and got the barn lumber. I've bought barn lumber from a number places, but I recently stumbled across a wholesaler - 10 minutes from my shop - that has a ridiculously large and constantly changing selection of lumber that's come from local barns, and with prices that are relatively affordable. It's very difficult to go see the guy and not end up buying 17 times the amount of material I really need.
Once I had all the materials I was going to need, I got to work welding the frame together. As I mentioned previously, welding is still a fairly new thing for me, and I don't have a real great setup for it. As a result, it's kind of a tedious process. Cutting the steel with a grinder, not having a big surface on which to work, working outside in an unheated garage...it's slow work, but work I have a lot of fun taking on, especially when the welds all end up looking pretty good, the welds solidly hold everything together, and the work piece ends up being exactly the shape I want.
With the frame welded up, I turned my attention to the barn lumber. Before I could think about how to mix and match the boards to look the way the client wanted, I had first identify which parts of the boards were usable and/or looked the best, and then I had to use a wide variety of tools to get the boards in decent enough shape to be usable. Everything had to be cut to length with the miter saw, and then each board had to be sent through the table saw several times to cut off the rough edges, or to cut really wide, cupped boards into several less wide and less cupped boards. Following that, both the jointer and planer came into play to get the edges square and the wide surfaces halfway flat.
I've probably written about it before, but with barn lumber, using the planer is a dangerous game: planing off too little doesn't do any good, and planing off too much gets rid of all the old saw blade marks and nail hole discoloration - the stuff that gives barn wood the look people want - making the lumber not suitable for its intended purpose. There is an unbelievably fine line between the two, and after a lot of wrestling to get the boards to a point where they'd sit halfway flat in the metal frame, I went old school and got out the bench (hand) plane.
I used to HATE having to use the bench planes, mostly because I sucked at using them. Like most any other tool, there's a bit of a learning curve - not just using them, but in how to set them up, keep the blade sharp, adjust the tool to do what you want it to do, etc. - but now that I've kind of gotten over that hump, I find myself relying on the hand planes more and more. They simply do a lot of jobs that no other tool, electric or otherwise, can do as well.
Anyways...with the individual boards milled and ready to be glued together, I opted to glue the top and bottom barn wood slabs together in chunks. I don't have any 5' clamps so I couldn't have done everything at once even if I'd have wanted to, but as it turns out...I didn't want to to begin with. Anybody that's ever glued a bunch of boards into 1 large slab can vouch for how much of a fiasco it can be; glue starts drying before you've got everything where you want it, and you need something like 700 clamps to keep everything lined up, halfway flush, etc. Gluing up individual chunks, and then gluing the chunks together, was entirely more advantageous.
It took every clamp I own, and just about every square inch of usable space, but I got all the barn wood boards glued into chunks no wider than 12". Each section consisted of 2-3 boards, which made the glueing process very manageable, and left the chunks narrow enough to fit through my planer for any large-scale post-glue flattening that might be necessary on the underside of the chunks.
Once the glue dried I was able to cut the chunks to length to fit snugly in the steel frame, and start dry fitting everything together.
With everything dry fit to my liking, I turned my attention to the steel frame. I believe the steel frame in the example the client showed me was just left as-is, but I wasn't a huge fan of that **exact** look for a number of reasons, so I had some work to do to get the look I wanted.
When you buy raw steel, it's usually charcoal in color. But when you weld pieces together, you want to first grind down the areas being welded to bare metal, which makes those area very, very shiny (and silver). I didn't like having two distinctly different colors in the end result. Similarly, raw steel sometimes has a little surface rust, grease, dust, and who knows what else growing on it, which I wouldn't want the client getting on their clothes, and which a clear coat wouldn't stick to very well. So I lightly cleaned the steel frame, hit it with a grey primer, and followed that with some flat black spray paint.
Flat black by itself wasn't going to yield the right look either, so I'd paint a small section with the black and then, while the paint was somewhere between wet and tacky, wipe it down with a rag. It's always kind of a trial and error process, but what that essentially left me with was steel that looked like it it did when I bought it - raw, industrial, etc. - minus the rust, dirt, grease, etc., and without the blinding brightness of the freshly ground weld areas. Then the whole thing got a quick clear coat.
With the frame complete and ready for the barn wood chunks to be installed, I started final assembly. Each chunk - there were 5 to 6 of them per slab - was already cut to length, but I still had to plane the sides of the chunks so that 1 chunk would fit snugly up against the next. Similarly, with the chunks being of slightly varying thickness, I had to use to plane to shave small areas on the underside of the slabs so they'd all sit flush in the steel frame, and then where 1 chunk butted to the next, plane down any high spots to create an almost entirely smooth and uniform surface.
The final assembly process required a lot of glue, and planing, and wrestling, and clamping, and there was a little cussing going on (par for the course), and I had to pull an all too legit all-nighter to have the thing ready for the scheduled delivery date and time, and when it was all said and done the shop was an absolute disaster. I got a little nervous when I hit the final product with some wipe-on satin polyurethane, because the barn boards were so dry they soaked up an amazing amount of poly and all the wood turned very, VERY dark, but I figured (correctly, thankfully) that the color would come back to normal once everything dried.
I had a little help getting the thing delivered and after looking at the coffee table in its final resting place, I think - I'm a little biased, obviously - she turned out pretty good. Maybe even better than the one in the picture the client sent me. :)
Gluing up over a dozen table top slabs today led to running out of clamps to keep gluing slabs together, and those that were being glued up - and occupying a LOT of shop space - led to not having enough room to move on to any other big projects. During the dry time I had to turn my attention to an activity that would kill 2 birds with 1 stone: finish a stack of serving boards that have been collecting dust for a while now, giving me something to do while waiting for glue to dry and freeing up some room in the shop.
I don't make a lot of serving or cutting boards for a variety of reasons, but as a project to occupy the odd hour or two here and there while waiting for glue to dry, and as a means of getting rid of (sometimes relatively pricey) scraps from other projects, they're usually fun little things to put together. The one shown below is a cherry, maple and walnut concoction.
I don't normally get real personal with this blog, but for a number of reasons I spent the better part of today at home, sitting on the couch watching whatever was on TV, and accomplishing very little. Normally, a day "off" like that during the week would drive me nuts.
But as is the case more times than I sometimes admit or recognize, there are more important things - sometimes - than working. Today was one of those days.
Today I got a new roof put on the house. The old one was trash, and with water coming through the ceiling in my bedroom after the last heavy rain we got, it was (very obviously) time for a roof replacement. Having a bunch of roofers climbing all over the house isn't reason enough to not get any work done, but there were some mitigating circumstances.
And by "mitigating circumstances" I mean Roscoe, my 6-year-old dog.
I've had Roscoe since he was about 6 weeks old, and when I got him I was told that he was a lab/Rottweiler mix. As it turns out, he's about 98% lab and 2% Rottweiler. We've been on more adventures together than I could ever begin to count. We've spent a LOT of time together, and as a result (make no mistake, allowing him to occasionally eat pizza and ice cream doesn't hurt), he's fiercely loyal, obedient and maybe more than anything else, protective of me, the house, and everything in it. That protective part, that's the 2% of the time when he's very Rottweiler-ish. When he hears noises - voices, car doors, etc. - outside and close to the house, he growls like it's his job.
Today, with people climbing up ladders and bouncing all over the roof, and then the nail guns...he laid in his guard-the-house spot on the couch and growled, intermittently, pretty much all day long. I don't mind the growling - it's in his genes to be a "guard dog" - and trying to keep him quiet would have been a losing battle. Had I left the house and gone to work in the general contracting field, or had I gone to the shop or garage and spent my time there building furniture, he'd have been fine, but I didn't like the thought of him being worked up all day long. So...I spent the day on the couch, right next to Roscoe, listening to all the commotion outside (and Roscoe growling), and doing my best to let him know that I was going to weather the noise storm with him.
After the roofers left, I headed to the shop to deal with a coffee table build. I got the coffee table frame all welded up yesterday, and it turned out pretty well. I cleaned up a few welds today, and added a few for good measure, and then turned my attention to the barn wood being used for the top of the coffee table as well as a lower "shelf" of sorts.
I really enjoy working with any kind of reclaimed material; there's something extremely satisfying about giving new life to something that might otherwise be discarded, as well as in trying to figure out how to make the material usable without getting rid of all the character that makes the material unique and desirable in the first place.
Of course, until the satisfaction part...there's usually a lot of frustration.
Most of the time, especially with barn wood, the lumber is twisted, warped, cupped, bowed, crooked, damaged, rotten...you name it, it's the polar opposite of "perfect". In some applications, those imperfections are tolerable. For example, in an accent wall application, one can generally get away with leaving the imperfections as-is (within reason), as they add character and visual interest. But for something more structural in nature, like a tabletop...things can get tricky.
If I'm building a table out of, say, brand new walnut, the surface of the wood looks the exact same as it does 1/4" below the surface. If I go to my hardwood guy, buy a bunch of walnut and it needs significant milling to get the boards flat, straight, square, etc., I can use any number of tools - jointer, planer, bench plane, table saw, etc. - to remove as much material as I want without sacrificing anything in the way of how the lumber will look. This is definitely not the case with barn wood; the top 1/16" or so - complete with old saw blade marks, rusty nail holes, ghost marks where an old hinge or piece of lumber covered up a portion of the board, etc. - is what most people requesting barn wood want, and once you cut away any more than that top 1/16", barn wood looks just like any other piece of brand new lumber you can buy off the shelf somewhere.
Unfortunately, more times than not, the lumber is twisted or cupped or bowed or whatever - out of square and shaped more like a banana than anything flat - by way more than 1/16". Therein lies the challenge when using reclaimed lumber to build something like a table top, which needs to be relatively flat and sturdy: figuring out the bare minimum amount of lumber that needs to be cut or shaved to yield something usable, figuring out the maximum amount of "character" that can be cut away without losing the barn wood look and feel, and then figuring out which combination of tools can be used, and how they can be used, to connect the dots between those minimums and maximums.
When it's all done, it'll look great.
Until then...a little frustration.
It was bound to happen sooner or later.
I've been looking for an excuse to get into welding, and a recent client request - a giant coffee table with a steel frame - was just the excuse I needed. Much like anything else in life, laying down a decent bead isn't as easy as it may look, and it'll take a significant amount of practice before I'm welding anything to my complete satisfaction,. But so far...things have gone well. I spent the better part of yesterday practicing, and today I did it "for real".
The good news is nothing fell apart after all the welds were complete, and a lot of the welds look pretty decent, so that's a start. The bad news is that there are a few welds that will need to be cleaned up a bit with the grinder, but sometimes that's the nature of the beast. Between the grinder and a little paint, this coffee table frame is going to be lookin' good in no time at all...