Eyesight gets worse as you get older.
This project started when we began to lose the ability to read The Walls on the television quiz show Only Connect. We would have to sit far forwards on the sofa for that round, to make the writing big enough. It was no good, we would have to get a bigger TV.
A bigger TV required a new TV Table to stand on. OK, here’s a chance to really test what I’ve learned so far with woodworking; can I make a piece nice enough to be placed at the focal point of the room?
Our town recently gained Oxford Wood Recycling, truly a place of woodworking dreams. It offers everything; old scaffold and skirting boards, roof beams, cupboard doors, right up to freshly cut timber from managed sources. It’s a pleasure to wander round and just smell the place. In there, I found just the piece…
In amongst the stacks of natural edge timber I found a slice of a cherry tree. 40cm wide, 3cm thick and almost as tall as me. It was rough cut and presented as if fresh from the sawmill. It looked brilliant. It would have to come home with me.
My first step was to give it a quick going over with the sander, to take off the splinters and some of the roughness and to let me see what it looked like. I could then pick over the piece, decide what would be usable, and begin to plan out how to turn it into a TV table.
I drew a quick sketch to show dimensions, and to understand how I could divide it up into suitable pieces. I knew my table would require two surfaces; a top surface to hold the TV and a lower shelf to hold digibox/games console type gadgets. If I planned well I could get both surfaces out of this one piece.
I took a look online too to identify the typical dimensions of different sizes of TV. What size could sensibly fit in the place we had available? And would the table-top be deep enough to cope with the spread of the TV’s legs? Gradually I sketched out a design that used as much of the timber as possible, allowing for some necessary waste at the top and bottom where the wood had split. I would be able to produce a table a little under a metre long and around 35cm wide, with a shelf below being a little narrower and about half a metre long.
So now I had a basic size and shape, I could complete the design. I would make legs for the table that would be spaced to balance the top nicely with the shelf held between them. The legs would be made to hold the TV at a nice viewing height, and to allow some clearance between the top of the TV and a wall-mounted speaker.
I have had for many years a pair of nesting coffee tables, made in cherry wood by a local craftsman friend of my mother’s. I quickly decided that the TV table, being cherry too, should echo their style, from the curved tops and rounded edges to the shaped legs. I shall save the talk about legs until the next blog post, and for now will concentrate on forming the table and shelf tops.
It was time to saw up the wood into the two main pieces. This is a nerve-wracking step to take, and it feels sad for any part of such good looking timber to go to waste. But the split ends couldn’t be used, and the sides needed to be made level and even.
Sadly I would have to lose the bark too – the rough bark looked great, but bark itself isn’t well attached to the wood, and would invariably flake off over time. Having decided on the rounded edges, I had to accept that the bark would go.
The next major step would be to plane the timber and turn it from a rough plank into a polishable surface. The trunk had been plain sawn and air dried, and as a consequence the timber was not flat. As it had seasoned it had naturally bowed down its length so that one surface was convex, the other concave.
This would be the point where I would learn how to wield a Hand Plane. A hand plane is basically a wide chisel set into a long, flat metal plate. The chisel shaves away at the wood, and the metal plate ensures that the shaved areas are as flat as possible – it won’t cut into a hole, and it will always take off high points first. So, my task was to scrape away at the middle of the convex side and at the edges of the concave side.
So, I planed, and planed, and planed. I planed until my back was sore and hands ached, took a few days rest, then planed some more. It took the best part of three weeks to get the pieces into shape.
Planing has a few golden rules; use as long a plane as you can possibly work with, keep the blade sharp, set the blade properly, and always go with the grain of the wood. When I’m a little more practiced, and no longer feel a bit of a fraud when talking about technique, I shall write up something about the ins and outs of planing and chiselling. For now I shall just mention something about that last point, going with the grain:
Wood grain is often described as being like a set of straws. The direction of the grain is determined by the angle at which these straws meet the wood surface. A plane works best when the straws lie away from the blade – it will clip small bits off the ends of the straws but otherwise leave them intact. If the plane is used in the other direction, it could just as easily pull up these straws and split them away from each other. The blade will then follow the length of the straw and dig into the wood, rather than scrape off the top surface. This digging in will give you a rough splintery surface.
For most of the work on my table tops, I needed to plane across the grain rather than with the grain. The wood was flat down its length, while the curve appeared across its width. It is ok planing across the grain, but you still have to think about grain direction. A slight twist in the grain might mean you switch briefly from going across the grain to going against the grain. I found the safest way to proceed was to work at a slight diagonal, so the plane was working across the wood but generally always going with the grain.
Planing a knot is hard whichever way you approach it. A knot is formed where the tree divides to produce a branch. Grain goes every which way around and through a knot, and the resultant wood is very hard, very prone to splitting and really, really resistant to being worked. My piece of timber contained a few small knots, which were ok to manage, but also one major lump that had been big enough and tough enough to have bent the saw blade out of line while the trunk was being cut! Looking down the edge of the wood at this point showed a very obvious bulge that would need to be dealt with. I managed this first by marking the timber out so that the knot would end up in the lower shelf rather than the table-top – I figured that if I made a mistake here it would be easier to hide under the digibox than have out in full view. I then spent an age just focusing on this one part alone, gradually stripping it down until it was the same thickness as the rest of the plank. Then I could get to work on the plank as a whole. These pictures show the effort that was needed to bring this knot in line:
With the table-top and shelf flat and smooth, the final step to cover in this blog post is the setting of the table-top shape. The shelf would be basically rectangular, to sit flush with the table legs. The top would have rounded corners, to match the style of the larger of our coffee tables. To make this, I marked a stencil on a piece of card, and when happy with the shape, traced it to the four corners.
Then it was time to get out the jigsaw and give the table its shape.
And with that I could move on to the table legs, which I will describe in the next blog post.