Introduction: Bird Table
My great great grandfather was a master woodcarver in the Chicago area at the turn of the last century. He immigrated from Sweden and legend in our family is that he became a woodcarver for architectural decorations in commercial and government buildings in the city. We have no proof of that but from the several pieces of his craft still in hands of family members, he was definitely one of the most skilled woodcarvers who ever lived.
One piece that I am most familiar with is a side table that my aunt owned while I was growing up in the ‘50s. As a young child I would sit in front of that table for hours marveling at its design and craftsmanship. In 2003 I had a couple months of spare time and decide to tackle building my own version of the table. The first three photos show my reproduction. The other photos above show another of his carvings I have uncovered and the inscription he carved on the underside of the top of the table. It appears he was not totally fluent in the English language! Other photos in this posting show views of his table. I included a photo and brief bio above. He had a pretty good run for that time. He was evidently 67 when he carved the table in 1903, died 3 years later.
Tools used are typical shop tools
Forstener, spade wood, and twist drill bits
Lots of woodcarving gouges and chisels I have accumulated over the years
a couple sizes of wood carving mallets
nylon strap clamps
various types shop clamps
yellow carpenter's glue
To make my reproduction I needed a pattern. While visiting my cousin who is the current owner of the table I took a bunch of pictures. Some were for the carving details so I could attempt an accurate reproduction. Other very important images were square-on views that could be blown up and used to make accurate patterns for cutting out the parts. From those photos I did some large sketches on white paper then took those to Kinko’s to be printed in full sized working patterns. I had a couple large copies made, one to cut up and glue onto wood blanks to be cut out on a band saw and one to be displayed during carving to keep things in perspective.
Once I had a pattern I started building the wood parts needed to assemble the table. The original table was made from mahogany but I had a pile if nice cherry wood so decided to make mine from that. I cut all the parts from darker heart wood and saved the light sapwood for another project which turned out to be a kids table and chair set.
The top and bottom shelves were glued up to the proper size then sanded flat. All my wood was ¾” thick so the bottom shelf thickness was fine but the top shelf is twice as thick so I glued a 1” x ¾” rim on the bottom of the edge for the illusion of a thicker top. The indention caused by this rim also hides the square plywood blocks that mount the bird heads to the top. More about that later.
The bird body blanks were made up of glued together boards cut to rough shape on a bandsaw. If I had a place where I hadn't included enough wood in the carving process, all I did was glue in another chunk to fill the gap. The knee of the birds is very thin so the bottom leg and upper leg were made separately with the grain running long-wise and the joint made with overlapping ¾” thick extensions of the boards. All the other parts of the body are robust enough I didn’t need to worry about grain weaknesses.
The crossed wings were likewise made from glue-ups of ¾” boards. Each set of wings is comprised of the wings of adjacent birds crossed at the tips making it a single piece. My grandfather’s wings have cracked at the juncture over the years since this is the weakest cross section that also has the wood grain in the weakest vertical orientation. I attempted to overcome this flaw by drilling cross-holes in the wing tips and gluing ¼” cherry dowels in the holes to buttress that thin section. Time will tell if I was successful.
Once I had the basic pieces roughed out I determined I had to do the joinery before I could start carving. The table is essentially a very 3-dimensional composition with every element seamlessly melding into the adjoining one. The joinery is pretty straight forward for most of the parts but the joining of the wings to the body is a bit tricky. Notice that he bodies are at 45-degree angles to the wings. I was dreading this step but when I got into it was actually pretty easy.
I first drilled ½” holes perpendicular into the back of the bird knees to accept cherry dowels. Then I flatted the corners of the bottom table at 45-degrees to be flush with the bird knee and drilled matching ½” holes in those corners (you can see the 4 dowels in the corners of the table in a picture in this posting). This solidly anchors the shelf and bird legs. Remember the rim glued around the top of the table in step 2. I cut 4” square pieces of ¾” birch plywood that I screwed to the neck of each bird with 2” drywall screws. I don’t think my grandfather used drywall screws in 1903! Then the blocks were attached to the table with 1-1/4” drywall screws.
Now that the corner birds were solidly attached to the table, it was time to attach the wings. Note that at the crossed tip of each wing set there is a 1.5” x ½” piece of wood sticking up. This is not obvious in the finished table but is a critical feature allowing secure attachment of the wings to the table top. These extensions were cut to fit up into the recess in the table top then a plywood “C” cleat was made to straddle it. That cleat was screwed to the extension and the table top for a very secure attachment.
With all those pieces assembled, all that was left was a 45-degree gap between the bird bodies and the wing blanks. All I did was cut some cherry strips at 45-degrees and wedge them in the gap, gluing them to the bird bodies. Once the glue was dry I drilled two holes in each wing and body for ½” cherry dowels. That menacing joint pretty well fixed itself!
Now the carving. I carved the bead molding on the lower shelf but looking closer at the original table I think my grandfather used pre-made strips of bead molding. Oh well. It didn’t take that long to do. I carved the egg and arrow trim on the top and am glad I had some close-up photos of the corner trim which is a bit involved. Egg and arrow, or egg and dart, motif is a classic trim design that traces its roots to ancient Greek architecture.
The bird bodies are actually pretty simple carvings, mostly comprised of rounding off the shapes. The 4-toed feet are examples of another very common classic carving decoration called claw and ball. Historical experts think this motif came to Europe from ancient Chinese art. The Chinese rendered it using dragon claws, the Europeans transformed it to bird talons and even Lions claws on some renderings. The claw and balls on this table were done in the New York style with heavier, more square feet as contrasted with the Philadelphia style with a more slender foot and somewhat flattened ball. The head, eyes and mouth are all easily carved with not a lot of difficult detail.
The wings as shown in the photos were carved mostly with a big web of wood left between them for strength. Again, not a lot of detail so the carving consisted of rounding, carving recesses indicating overlapped big feathers, and a few groves and veins to further highlight the feathers. The body and wings were mostly carved apart on a carving table but were temporarily assembled as a complete table to carve the critical transition from wing to body.
Once all the basic carving was done, everything was sanded smooth. Missing at this point where the small feathers covering the body and wings and the lizard skin patter covering the head and legs. Again, the table was temporarily assembled and all the small feathers drawn on with pencil and carved with a V-tool. If you study the feathers they are just interlocking long zig-zag shallow troughs with a few strokes of the tool on each feather for detail. When you break the pattern down it is fairly simple. It got a little complicated where things curved and/or narrowed and the grid needed TLC.
Surprisingly to me was my difficulty in reproducing the lizard skin from the original table. I never did figure out what chisel stroke he used so all mine has is a dense pattern of veiner (very tiny U-shaped chisel) divots all over the surface.
Now for assembly. Obviously, the only way to get the whole table to come together seamlessly is to assemble it all at one time. The photos show how I used strap clamps to accomplish this task. I just glued up all the doweled joints, and screwed all the table top attachments together. Before the glue had time to set I pulled it all together with the strap clamps. It really was pretty anticlimactic. The only possible flaw in the assembly was non-perfect joints at the wing and body. I applied blue painter’s tape on either side of the joint ad squeezed in stainable wood filler. In actuality the joints were already near perfect but this was just a precaution.
Once the glue dried I finished the table by another go-over with 220 sand paper. I then stained it with dark walnut stain (remember the original was made of already dark mahogany and mine is lighter cherry) to get the requisite gothic dark finish. The Cherry will also darken under the stain with age achieving that wonderful patina. In fact, in the intervening decade and half it has darkened considerably.
One final note I forgot to mention when I wrote this Instructable. My Aunt's original table was being packed for shipping a while ago. They built a wooden crate to protect it during the move. All good so far. Then some slack-jawed mouth breather closed the lid by nailing a bunch of 6-penny nails through the top of the table. My uncle patched it with wood filler but the surface was ruined. I plan on offering to my cousin to install a mahogany veneer to cover the top and restore as much of the original patina as is possible.