Thursday, September 10, 2009

What To Do With a Seven Foot Flitch

"A tree is our most intimate contact with nature." (George Nakashima)
A few years ago, Kim's uncle, a woodworker, gave us a couple of large flitches of willow that had been stored in his garage for years but that he had never found a project to use. Being a designer myself and having a deep respect for the work of Japanese-American craftsman George Nakashima, my mind immediately started thinking of the wonderful things we could do with these beautiful pieces of wood. But once we got them home, they sat in our basement and then our shed for a few years, waiting for a "someday" project.

Well, "someday" finally came over Labor Day weekend this year when we went down to visit my parents in Pennsylvania. We decided to do the project in Pennsylvania because my Dad has taken over one-half of their garage as a shop, and with the car parked outside, he has a nice, spacious setup for working. He also has all the requisite tools I do not have room for at my own house in Connecticut: a table saw, a band saw, a jigsaw, and myriad other hand tools, both power- and hand-operated. Before this little project, I had almost forgotten how much I liked working with wood in a nice, clean, well-appointed shop! And how wonderful it was to do a project with my Dad! It has been a while for both of these.

Kim and I had imagined for some time making a table and benches for our backyard out of two of the flitches, so this past weekend we made great headway on the table, which is completed except for the finishing (multiple coats of exterior-grade polyurethane). The particular flitch we wanted to use for the table top had a few long cracks in it. (Don't worry! It's okay! They aren't flaws, they're character)! In the spirit of Nakashima's work, we decided to bridge the gaps with contrasting color walnut butterfly joints. Though butterflies are sometimes used to join two adjacent pieces of wood, in this case they are not designed to close the gap, which is the result of many years of seasoning, but instead to bridge the gap, strengthen it, and help prevent it from cracking further. We also did not attempt to cut down or shape the flitch in any way, allowing the rustic beauty of the original slab of wood to remain essentially as it was when it was cut.

Traditionally, the shape of the butterflies would have been carved out by hand with chisels in a bow-tie shape. Our attempt, however, was a little more modern: we made a template and used a router to carve out a slightly more rounded butterfly shape. I actually think the curved butterfly turned out really well, and it hints at the fact that it was made with a router instead of by hand. Talk about truth in design!

The design of the base of the table was inspired by a trestle table that my Dad built with his Dad a number of years ago. (That particular table was actually our dining room table for many years when I was growing up.) The real benefit of a trestle table is that it is easily disassembled for storage. This was one of my main criterion for the design of the table as I do not want to leave it outside over the Connecticut winter. Trestle tables are also generally simple, and they allow for the base to be set up and freestanding separately from the table top (i.e. the legs of the table are not attached to the top for their support).

The trestles are each made of two douglas fir 2x10s squared up along one side and edge-glued. To strengthen this joint, and to echo the design of the table top, we also used walnut butterflies here. The crossbeam is a douglas fir 2x6 which is held in place on the trestles with walnut edges. The end of the crossbeam and the bottom of the trestles were cut with a shallow curve to echo the curved side of the butterflies. Overall, I tried to keep the design of the base simple and elegant, so as not to compete with the beauty of the table top.

I am actually really pleased with the result, especially given that the whole project cost less than $100! The flitches were free, the walnut pieces were made from scraps my Dad had in his shop, and the base was made of framing lumber from Home Depot. The most expensive part of the table is the exterior grade polyurethane! Before we came back to Connecticut, we sanded the table like crazy, took it apart, and stored it in the storage room off of my parents' garage. I look forward to putting the finishing touches on some other weekend very soon. (My Dad is going to do some prep work with a few initial coats, but we will put at least one final coat together.) I also hope to get a start on the benches next time we are in Pennsylvania. These will be made out of one of the other remaining flitches split long-ways down the center. The third and last flitch is in my mind as the top of a sideboard for our dining room, but that project is not anywhere on the horizon. Right now I am just trying to finish this project before going to Brazil to meet our children!


Jim Fullton said...

Very few things in life make a dad more proud than working with his son on a project like this. I only wish I'd been more interested when I was young and my dad wanted me to learn from him as he worked in his wood-shop. My dad, James' grandfather, used most of the exact tools we used and his hands and ours enjoyed the touch of the wood; his nose and ours smelled the aroma of sawdust and spar varnish. Yes, it was a wonderful weekend.

Art in Nature said...

Thankyou for sharing your experiance. I love your line "a tree is our most intimate contact with nature". I as a photographer specialise in trees. Trees are my thing! Please take a look at my Australian Snowgum trees, macro shots on colourbond steel. A part of nature in or outside of your home, looking superb against any medium. I have made them on colourbond so they are totally weatherproof.

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