By David Rae, With help from Me
Almost ten years after David approached me about building a custom designed record box, I was sketching out plans for another project to satisfy his eclectic taste. This time I was working on a butcher block with a special compartment to act as a dough-box. Despite all these years and all the lessons learned I made the same mistake I did all those years ago – my initial excitement for the project lead to feverish sketching, and in the end I set David off building a massive project, with much more intricacies and fewer short cuts than initially meets the eyes. I spent a week drawing up each joint in sketch-up and David spent the next year diligently working through the 75 dovetails and at least that many tenons. He didn’t make it easy on himself, after initially ripping the stock with a little help from our friends at the Boneyard Studio lot, he stuck to a hand-tool only approach, harvesting a twisted hickory log with a scrub plane and a 12 pack of DC-Brau. The finishing touches are custom made knobs from a VA based potter. All things said and done, David has emerged as a more polished woodworker, and hey the piece looks pretty spiffy too.
Triangulating what was local and cheap, David selected southern yellow pine for the base. After yet another hectic albeit satisfying trip to Hicksville we were set up with all the lumber we needed. This was my first time working with it, and what a pleasure it was. Yellow pines takes to cutting tools wonderfully and boasts a vibrant grain through out.
The top provides a girthy four inches of hickory for a generation of chopping and dicing. A hole cut through the base of the top allows for food scraps to be shoveled out of sight and into a waste bucket underneath. If the scraps miss the bucket, there is a cutting board in place to act as a fail safe. A slot on the other side of the top provides a secure home for David’s prized cutting knife. A feature which will become more useful when then hickory reaches a full dry. To maximize the thickness of the table and preserve some of the character the rounds of log are visible from the front face. The top is finished with a beeswax conjunction which adds to the glow and made a horrible mess in my shop.
David elected for through dovetails along the front and back of the drawers. If this butcher block ever sees a kitchen where it is placed in the middle of the room, the drawers are accessible from either end. Although the same drawer can’t go both ways at once.
The truly eclectic part of the project is the custom dough box. Heralding back to designs of yore, the box provides a safe and secure place for dough to rise free of both drafts and passersby. The angled drawer provides enough space for two pizza dough to rise and is prevented from fully extending by the top. I am embarrassed to admit how haphazardly we figure out precisely what shape the sides of the drawer need to be to achieve the desired effect. The bottom of the drawer is a raised panel.
Building the Frame
In retrospect there was probably an easier way to join the frame than all the mortise and tenons, but hey cutting and attempting to square a frame with so many moving pieces has catapulted David’s woodworking education. He walks with a new confidence in the shop. Assuming he cut all those joints snug this thing is going to outlive all of us no matter how much it gets abused in the kitchen.
Achieving the dream, one long plane shaving showing the side is approaching something close to straight. After a couple of attempts at this, you have a really good incentive to learn how to cut straight.
With both of us at work how did this take so long? Oh yeah, I left him to his own devices for most of the work, yet here I am writing it up on my blog.
With the legs squared up, David set to work cutting 5/8ths mortises. This is the moment for precise marking and measuring.
The frame slowly takes shape. The first side is glued together – what a sense of accomplishment. I would tell you that we had a beer to celebrate but we probably would have had a beer either way.
Huh, this handy bench hook is really reducing the number of kerf marks in my bench. Ever since making his own saw David would not be caught dead using my Veritas.
Assembling the Pieces
Ok I know that open-concept is all the rage these days – but the problem with poor measuring and an open concept is that all of your mistakes are visible to the world. I leave it to you to inspect. We glued the piece together in segments, careful not to glue it together in such an order which made putting the whole thing together impossible.
The three dowels above hold up a custom fit cutting board. All food stuffs other than onions are cut on the butcher block top.
The project proudly displayed next to the sketch-up drawings. The joints might be tighter in sketch-up but it lacks a little character in two-dimensions.
Slats of hickory harvested from previous projects lay in wait. We painted the end grain to reduce checking as the wood dried and than we placed these boards anywhere in my apartment which was dry, warm and out of sight. The frigid nights in the shop were too cold to get these boards ready for action. You lose a lot of wood bring logs to planks but hickory faces imbue the piece with a flavor of our year together.
The back of four drawers – dovetailed and ready to be installed. This was David’s first attempt at dovetails, something that he gain proficiency with very quickly.
Oh the glories of hand fitting drawers in a cabinet which is a little less than square. Gentle plane strokes slowly brought each into alignment. .
A hearty set of dovetails holds the dough box together. When David started dovetailing, I really started helping – late one night we nailed this drawer face – cutting matching pins with no trimming. Notice that the top of the box has a mitered dovetail.
Building the Top;
Initially thinking we would make skis, the twist in the wood made this log better suited for a top which didn’t need to be split into such thin strips. The log was bucked and sawed into appropriate pieces and than began drying.
After broad axing the log chunks into boards, David is going to end up with one arm a hell of a lot stronger than the other. Practice pays off – he is now able to slice ax shavings as fine and magnificent as you can imagine. From the ax we took the wood to the plane. Green wood planes so easily we did feel like kings as the shavings flew out of the long angle plane.
Guess how much this weighs? After some drying, David brought the face down square. We may not have let the wood rest long enough before working it, as over time the top has taken on a slight curvature ; It is an homage to an angle top on an antique Chinese cabinet.
Look at those pearly whites on the final days of the project. David drilled the hole for the refuse escape hatch. Also he cut a slot for his knife which he trued up with a float.