Arts and Crafts Dining Set

I just had the pleasure of building this dining set:

My clients recently built a beautifully detailed Arts and Crafts house and asked me to make them some furniture that felt right within the period, but wasn't totally constrained by it. The table and benches are pretty straight forward and show the classic Stickley influence, but the armchairs push tradition a bit (in a good way, I think). 

Here are some closer details of the table:

Breadboard end. Draw-pegged mortise and tenon joinery holds them in place.

Breadboard end. Draw-pegged mortise and tenon joinery holds them in place.

The table stretcher connects the trestles with a wedged through-tenon.

The table stretcher connects the trestles with a wedged through-tenon.

And here are a few details of the chairs:

Backrest

Backrest

Backrest

Backrest

Where the arm joins the back leg

Where the arm joins the back leg

I like these chairs upside down almost as much as right side up.

I like these chairs upside down almost as much as right side up.

Walnut Slab Coffee Table

This old walnut slab came to me unexpectedly a handful of years back. A guy stopped by my shop one day and asked if I wanted to buy a walnut slab that he'd had in his family barn for a few decades. I told him to bring it by and I'd take a look at it. He was back a week later with a 5' long log that had been sawed into four 2 1/2" slabs. I bought them all and squirreled them away.

I ended up making a desk for myself out of this slab by attaching galvanized gas pipe legs to it. We decided recently though that this slab would be a better coffee table though, so I replaced the gas pipe with slab legs, and here you go:

 

A little Cafe

The past few posts have been about the process of renovating the Twisted Tree Cafe, which my girlfriend Rachel and I bought last April. The tools and sawdust are cleaned up, and the cafe is open again. To the point:

We worked hard to design a beautiful, comfortable, and flexible space. Overall, the cafe now feels much more open, yet we have added 7 more seats to the layout. While I've been able to do essentially whatever I want, we had very real constraints. Every idea had to fit within our relatively short time frame, and very small budget. (Granted, I was able to absorb my own labor costs, but raw materials and supplies cost real money.) 

The tables, chairs and counters are reclaimed heart pine. The window counter stools are made from old barn siding left over from this project. The built in banquette is made from regular lumber yard 2x4's (Because they're cheap, ya know?). A few coats of waterborne grey lacquer from Target Coatings makes those wall studs look way better than they deserve to. The cabinetry around the service counter was built on site from lumber yard plywood and painted with the same grey lacquer. All the chairs, tables and counters are finished with Target Coatings finishes as well. Check out their stuff, they make the very best waterborne finishes I've ever found. And I've looked. A lot.

The menu chalkboards are plywood painted with chalkboard paint, which works so much better than you'd think. (I love how chalkboard menus look; I gained a new appreciation for how long it takes to draw all of those letters!) We sanded the old worn finish off the floors and left them raw. 

Finally, I usually hate before and after photos, mostly because they tend to be unfair. The before shot is often a terrible snapshot, while the after shot is professionally styled, lit and photographed. Here is a before shot with about the same perspective and lighting as the first photo in this post.

The Background Process

Much of my design process is a quiet, solitary activity. I do a lot of thinking and sketching to flesh out an idea. If I like how it's shaping up I'll make a presentation sketch to show my client or another designer if I'm collaborating. Those sketches get discussed and red-lined. Sometimes there will be a series of sketches and then a final "proper" drawing. Sometimes I just do my shop layout from a sketch. Here are a couple pages from my sketchbook for the Twisted Tree Cafe project:

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Process and Romance

I think there's a lot of romance associated with making something like a chair from something like a pile of lumber. But I find it is more process than romance. In the simplest terms, you get a tree, cut it into pieces, dry them out, cut them into smaller pieces, cut them into smaller pieces yet, cut a bunch of joinery or shapes (or both) into those pieces, then assemble them together into something new like a chair or a cabinet or a boat or a house. Most of that lumber from the previous post got cut up into the piles of parts stacked in the photo below.

 

Here are the tabletops cut, planed and glued back together. There are technical and practical reasons why you go through this, rather than just getting one board as wide as you need. I'll save you the long explanation, but it's part of the process.

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Onto the chairs now. It takes a bit of cutting and shaping to get a pile of rectangular lumber into a chair. Here is the aftermath of trimming a chair leg to a pattern. The process is sort of like using a stencil to get the letters on your yard sale sign or ransom note to be identical, except you aren't masking off paint, you're cutting off wood. And it throws a pretty amazing amount of wood chips and dust around. Right here it looks a bit romanticized. In the shop it's primarily a mess. A loud, dusty, sometimes hazardous mess. But it's part of the process, and if you're lucky enough to enjoy it, it's a rather nice way to pass time.

 

After shaping the legs, the back legs still need some more sculpting so that they twist just so into the curve of the backrest. That's what I'm doing here on the bandsaw. (#selfie alert!)

 

Stacked chair parts. Seat blanks are piled in back, and from left to right are: backrests, front legs, rear legs.

 

And here are the parts for one chair. It won't be long now...

Next up for The Cafe: old, reclaimed Heart Pine

Rachel and I decided to make the new chairs and tabletops for Twisted Tree Cafe from reclaimed Heart Pine. I've used it in the past and besides being a good environmental choice, the stuff is absolutely breathtaking. The dining set pictured on my homepage is made from it. That photo is a good preview of what we're doing in the cafe: we're using the same wood species, and the chair I designed is a simplified variation of the one in the pictured.

On our day off this week we jumped in the truck and headed to a mill that specializes in reclaimed lumber from old buildings. They've got an amazing amount of space just crammed with stacks and stacks of old beams. I love workspaces of all kinds, and I can't help romanticizing them, so here's a little black and white photography:

The saw mill

The saw mill

 
Our beams getting sawn...

Our beams getting sawn...

...and loaded into the truck.

...and loaded into the truck.

So there was this cafe in town...

...and the couple who owned it wanted to sell it. It happens that my girlfriend Rachel has always wanted to have her own cafe. So last Spring we became the third owners of the 10-year-old Twisted Tree Cafe in Asbury Park NJ. 

And that's why I haven't updated the blog for the last 6 months or so. 

Now that the Summer vacation crowds have dissipated, I'm back in the shop at least a few days a week. And what does a guy who's used to building everything in his life do when he has a shop and a cafe? Right: cafe makeover.

 

The first phase of the project is being built from these babies:

Yes, those are 2x4s. No, I'm not framing walls. We just happen to need a lot of banquette on a little budget. Here's one section set up in the shop:

How we figure people will react.

How we figure people will react.

How we hope people won't react.

How we hope people won't react.

How we hope people do react.

How we hope people do react.

Check back- we've got a lot planned for our little cafe! And stop in for lunch or a snack if you are ever in the area and say hi!  :)

Last piece for a while...

Here's a console table done in White Oak with a cerused (aka: limed oak) finish. The lower shelf and hardware are brushed aluminum. It is actually the final piece of a commission for a beautiful apartment in NYC, so it seems fitting that it will be a place holder here. 

This will be the last piece I post here for a little bit. I'll explain why very soon in another post. (The reason falls into the "good news" department, don't worry.)

Lattice Subwoofer Cabinets

Here's the final result from all that grid work from this previous post:

The finish is milk paint, which is unlike any modern paint, and really quite beautiful.  It has a unique look which works well with antique type finishes (probably because it's the finish that's actually on so many antiques.)  Here's a detail:

The cabinets are open on the bottom and simply drop over the subwoofer. Each has a section of lattice that opens to reveal a shelf for some other electronics.

Chalkboard Blocks

I've made several sets of blocks over the years as gifts for friends with new babies or grandchildren.  Blocks are wonderful toys: they foster creativity, hand-eye coordination, and last for generations.  Two sides of each block have chalkboard surfaces.  There are 32 blocks in a set, housed in a little box with a sliding lid.

 

I make blocks from cut-offs and scraps from past projects.  These are reclaimed southern yellow pine from a dining set.  I have 4 sets available.  If you are looking for a perfect last minute Holiday gift for a baby or toddler, look no further.  Price is $120.  Drop me a line or call (732-996-9740) if you're interested.

Grid work

I'm almost finished with a couple of subwoofer enclosures that I designed as grid work boxes, sort of like a tightly compressed shoji screen.  They are getting a distressed black milk paint finish; here they are just sanded.

The grid panels are made up of half-lapped strips of wood.  It's one of those painstaiking processes that either put you in a zen like state or drive you batty and go on forever.  This is what they look like as they are during assembly:

When I was an apprentice my mother brought me a magazine photo of some antique wooden cookie drying racks and asked if I could make them.  If you bake (or know anyone who does) you are familiar with the common drying racks made from metal wire. They work, but they're not very pretty.  The antique ones were made the same as my grids above, although the pattern was small squares rather than narrow slots.  I avoided it for a while, but finally surprised my mom with a pair one Christmas.  She loved them, and has used them ever since.  They took so long to make that I never made another set.

 

But I made a pile of extra slats for the subwoofer enclosures in case any of them broke or warped during construction.  I put them together for a new set of cookie drying racks.  These were for my girlfriend.  She put them into service immediately.