Written by David Savage
Originally published as Danielle's Table in Good Woodworking Magazine / 2001
This is the story of a special table for a special place for a special lady. It was now quite a few years ago that I made “Elvis”. This was a very elegant curvy Rosewood low occasional table that I made for a regular client of mine who now lives in the United States. Elvis has long since left the building but his influence still goes on and I still keep making tables that are influenced directly or indirectly by Elvis. This is the latest of that particular strain of thought. We started nearly a year ago now, a lady rang me up and said she was looking for an occasional table and yes she like Elvis and could I come and see her. This I duly did. What excited me about her brief was the thought that we would be making a piece of furniture that would be associated with a piece of sculpture. This was a sculpture by a quite famous British sculptor called Anish Kapur. Danielle had an apartment in London and wanted a table that filled a particular space and drew one’s eye towards the sculpture. I went along in due anticipation trying to think about what kind of table this was going to be. My client, had never been in the situation of actually commissioning a piece of art, she obviously had bought art before and was used to that but being involved in the process she found quite exciting. We chatted, and I showed her a photograph and she suddenly realised that the shape of Elvis was not the shape that she had in mind, what she was thinking was something much more sinusoidal or curvy or sinuous, “meandering” was the word she used. So that’s how it happened. I went off again thinking about low dark tables because that seemed appropriate but I was thinking how do we make this table wave and meander. A couple of weeks later I did the drawings and sent them up to Danielle and we chatted and talked about the various options that I had given her. She was now thinking that maybe in the fullness of time she may not stay in the London apartment but wanted to be able to have a table that worked in her cottage in the country. This would necessitate lopping off about 4 inches in length of the proposed size that we had talked about. Now that causes me some problems, when I am designing a relatively curvy piece I am very careful with the proportions of height to width to depth and I like to build in some very tough classic proportions usually based on the cube or the square. This gives the design a rigidity that is not immediately apparent within a flowing structure like this but is nevertheless there. If your client then merrily comes along and lops 4 inches off the length then all of that careful proportioning goes out of the window.
What I wanted to do and what Danielle was so interested in was to put a surface that wasn’t the usual sanded to 360 grit and polished in whatever way was appropriate. I wanted a surface that was more alive than that. I wanted a surface directly from the cutting tool – no sandpaper.
But we worked around it and I made a table slightly lower and slightly shorter and work commenced. Before we began making this table we got a lovely consignment of Indonesian Rosewood from Bob at Timberline. I have been dealing with Bob now for so long that I can ring him up and say yes I’ve got another one of those dark tables Bob do you have anything suitable and he’ll ring me back later with a yes or a no, usually it depends on whether Bob’s unloaded his kiln recently or taken a consignment of Rosewood. But Bob’s always my first port of call for anything dark, thick and lustrous. That’s a description of the timber Bob, not you! If my memory serves me correctly we spent over £1000 on that Rosewood so I was kind of anxious not to make a mess of it. Nev, who was given the task of making this piece first made a template of the top of the table, the plan view. We could then lay that out on the planed up boards of Rosewood and choose the orientation of the timber. As the grain of the timber ran across the width of the table rather than down the length of it, it’s very important to have a decent thickness. I don’t imagine the local rugby club would be dancing on this table but we nevertheless wanted to put two rows of splines in each of those butt joints. The other issue is matching the colour and graphics of the figuring of the timber. This can take a bit of fiddling about as the permutations are almost infinite. I did have a rather anally inclined craftsman who told me quite seriously that to make a table top of these eight boards there were eighteen thousand four hundred and ninety three options open to me. The mathematicians amongst you can tell me he was waaaaay out and …… no, lets no go there.
Next job was to assemble those joints and if my memory serves me right there was about 15 or so pieces of Rosewood and cut the ends off square. This was done because I didn’t see quite how I was going to treat the edges of the table at this stage ,this is not unusual the image of piece does not form complete in ones minds eye it clarifies as the job proceeds. The top was jointed up to the two ends of the table which were approximately 400 ml square. This gave us the wiggly shape in 3D and a chance to look at it from all round, remember this is sculpture. Then I took my courage in both hands and a steel rule and bent a wavy line down either edge down the two edges of the table Nev was on hand to mark a curve down the length of the table. Nev was then told to lop off a huge chamfer back to these lines. This of course meant exposing one or two of the biscuits carefully placed in the timber to reinforce the butt joint. I knew that this was going to happen but as I didn’t know where the chamfer was going to go, we couldn’t quite place the biscuits to avoid the chamfers. So Nev just had to cut out the areas where the biscuits came through and let in a Rosewood patch in each spot.
Once I had looked at the table in its square form I worked out that I needed a big bold 45 degree camphor that started on one corner, ran down one vertical facet of the table and slowly twisted until it was absolutely perpendicular at the other end of the table. So the chamfer flattened itself out as it went along the full length of the table. On the opposite diagonal side I did the exact opposite so that end started at 45 degrees and tapered out and became vertical as it came towards you. So there’s a certain symmetry within this asymmetrical table.
The edge of the camphor left a razor sharp edge especially when Ned had sanded and polished the camphor to 360 grit paper. So what we did was block plane a small flat on that edge. This was almost the opposite of putting a small camphor to “de aris” a right angled edge. In this case we were putting a vertical facet to a chamfered edge. I knew I wanted the edges of this table these thick, chamfered, swinging, curving, edges to be highly polished and shiny. I could even do that with the ends of the table, but I wanted to do something slightly different with the top of the table. The following is an exchange of e-mails between myself and my client.
So glad to hear from you. I feel really anxious sending photos of an incomplete piece especially so late in the process. On reflection I should have sent stuff as we did it . I have only just got a good digital camera and learnt how to easily send pictures to clients . Next it will be full digital video conferencing and should be a really good way to show you how the pieces are developing in the workshop .
Now we are working on the surface , this is real woody stuff, I want the polished “arrived perfect from Mars” feeling to the sides and edges of the table, these are important surfaces as they swing and move around a lot but the top is different. My fall back position for the table top is the same glowing oil polish as the sides however what I am playing with is a surface that is struck straight from the tool. No sanding just a tool burnished surface. He’s gone mad, I know. I just want to have a surface that says this is made by the efforts of a human being, skilled, struggling to be perfect especially with this bit of wood but ultimately failing . It’s the struggle that is interesting.
Is this silly, it will probably not work and you mustn’t worry or be disappointed if it doesn’t as I can “just polish it”
Tel. Int 044- (0)1409 281579
I hope the top does work. I love the idea of the contrast between the sides and the top, and I also love the idea of a table which says ‘ made by a human being’ rather than by God like perfection. You are absolutely right in that it is the struggle which is interesting… just as it is the flow which is interesting. We all want polished perfection in our lives, but the truth is that a struggle-free perfection is static and lifeless… and it tends to leave ordinary humans feeling like failures as we can never live up to the demands it makes on us. (I’ve done workshops with a Jungian Analyst whose most famous book is called ‘Addiction to Perfection’! ).
Now that’s what I call hitting the ball back. I had just about give up on the top, we had spent £200 on a new scraper plane that I had hoped would do it, but it didn’t. And I had even told Nev to sand and polish it but you now give me a reason to push on. Perfection is one of the bear traps of fine making. We need to have goals that are clear and the industrial perfect surface is one but as you say it is so dispiriting.
Its is interesting you mention Jung I am attempting to assemble a series of seminars for my students on design and Jung “collective unconscious” comes up as a rationale within my discussion for timeless work. The kind of design that transcends the fashion or style of the age. Not that I know much about Jung but what I know seems to fit with my general understanding. I will try to pull this one back you have inspired me
Don’t worry about the usability of the surface I will have an oil polish built up on the tooled “nearly flat” surface. This will take about six months to cure and harden so treat it gently, mats etc After that you can throw what you like at it.
Tel. Int 044- (0)1409 281579
We could deal with it once we knew which way it went but what do you do at the joins where the grain could be running in both directions in one plane stroke.
What I wanted to do and what Danielle was so interested in was to put a surface that wasn’t the usual sanded to 360 grit and polished in whatever way was appropriate. I wanted a surface that was more alive than that. I wanted a surface directly from the cutting tool – no sandpaper. To achieve this I played around with various different tools. I thought about using a bench plane with a slightly curved iron to plane little strips across the table, running with the grain. In this way we would get a slightly tactile surface but may have had a problem here. The table top was made up of several pieces of Rosewood and the grain was running in different directions. We could deal with it once we knew which way it went but what do you do at the joins where the grain could be running in both directions in one plane stroke. We tried all of the usual methods of raising the cutting angle to something in excess of 55 degrees. This involves using a mitre plane and playing with the overall cutting angle of the plane by changing the grinding angle on a bevel up plane (are you still with me ginger ),(I’ve spoken about this in previous articles) we even tried using a scraper plane. In the end what we came down to was a small block plane that we raised the cutting angle to just over 55 degrees and rounded the iron to cut a very small narrow shaving. This necessitated running across that table top hundreds of times with this little plane. But we’ve got a controllable result. I am not sure that the end result is that vividly different. What it is, is, it touches in a very different way. As you run your fingers across the table it feels distinctly unflat. Not corrugated or rough just unflat. There’s a sense of variance in that surface which is extremely appealing. It’s clear that its not the produce of machine but the product of human skill and concentration. Here you can feel a skilled hand wrestling with a very difficult task of creating a surface. It’s not perfect but the struggle is visible and it’s that very imperfection that I think Danielle and I find so appealing.
We surround ourselves with objects of industrial perfection that has this tendency to make us feel inadequate. Whereas if we surround ourselves with objects of workmanship of risk, mainly by human beings we can sense and place our own humanity within that context.
I am sure this won’t catch on, it’s something that’s impossible to photograph and as so much of our world is witnessed through the lens of a camera this will never find a value but thankfully my client finds it valuable. And the table now sits beneath the very beautiful Anish Kapur sculpture doing its job and hopefully being just as beautiful. And I look forward to making another piece of furniture for this lovely lady hopefully in the not too distant future.