Introduction: Making a Walnut Desk & Chair
Story by David Haig, Centre for Fine Woodworking, New Zealand
This story was first published in Australian Wood Review, issue 65, December 2009.
Recently I was contacted again by customers who had previously bought a walnut rocking chair and had it sent back from New Zealand to their home in Northern Ireland. This time they ordered a desk and chair in walnut. Luckily I had the perfect timber waiting for the right commission. When it was originally milled I was able to select every cut for thickness and I ended up with over a cubic metre of sawn heartwood which was highly varied in colour and texture. Surely, of all the exciting parts of a woodworker’s life, there is nothing that quite matches the satisfaction of getting timber from the tree and having that insight as you fashion your work. I selected and sized the best planks, then brought them into my seasoning room where a dehumidifier reduces moisture content down to around 9%.
Apart from the overall dimensions and the need for an upper section with a couple of drawers, the design of the desk was left to me. I thought the particular challenge was to make the upper section and the writing desk feel as if they belonged together and not just one sitting on top of the other. My solution was quite traditional, but the incurving sides and top add a satisfying sculptural quality.
I decided that it would have to be of solid timber construction as the incurved sides had a profile of such varying thicknesses that they would need to be worked from the solid. That meant that the horizontal sections would also have to be solid so all the parts could adjust uniformly to changes in relative humidity. Where possible I decided to use only quartersawn wood, which moves in width only about half as much as flat-sawn wood.
To attach the incurving sides to the main structure of the lower desk I cut a relief detail on the inner curve of the sides, just above the writing surface. This allowed for a flat surface to be planed and trued across the width of the sides at that point. That gave me a reference for jointing to the desk carcase by mortise and tenoning at the front and back, and splining across the width. As it happened, I liked the detail of the little quarter round just above the writing surface and it also allowed me to fine down the thickness of the sides above the writing surface.
I made up the sides from the widest walnut boards that contained straight-grained quartersawn wood, cutting the boards sequentially into 50mm wide strips, then bandsawing and copy routing the ten pieces I needed for each side. I rejointed them in small groups before putting them all together by routing locating splines referenced off the flat part to relocate all the pieces accurately.
I was able to cut front legs from the solid timber, but was not able to cut the back legs in the same way as I did not have enough curved timber with the grain configuration to match the sides. I steam-bent them to give myself enough room to work. Eventually I had to make up two sets of legs, as the first set were too light in cross-section to prevent the whole desk from excessive wobbling, a design flaw that was only apparent once I had the sides and desk dry-fitted. Having already fully shaped them and attached them to the sides, I had to bandsaw them off and make new and larger sectioned ones from scratch. I was lucky to have more wood to match, but it added an extra three long days as well as time for allowing the new steam-bent legs to set and dry.
The most difficult part was joining the top of the sides, which were curving at that point, to the top of the upper section. A butt joint with splines might have sufficed, but I was not prepared to compromise and it was an opportunity to test my hand skills by using dovetails. Unfortunately, the geometry of the piece meant that I could not make the dovetails fit vertically, which would have meant I could assemble the desk and sides first, then fit the top from above. Because they could only work as through dovetails from side to side, I had to pull all the main desk parts together simultaneously.
One of the most important preparatory stages was preparing the inner faces of the two curved sides dead straight and parallel to each other so that the shoulders of the dovetail pins would pull up tight without any gaps on the top or underneath. I did the scribing work using a block of wood referenced off the dry assembled writing surface below, which of course then had to be trued flat too…and so on it went. However, the careful preparation really paid off, as the dovetails pulled up almost fully tight on the first trial clamp and needed very little adjustment.
Another challenge was making the top two drawers fit as they had quite a steep angle at the front, as well as curves running side to side and top to bottom. I had to build up layer by layer, getting the angles to fit as much as possible, then applying the highly figured front wood to match the main drawer while allowing sufficient thickness to work the final curves on the solid wood. I used cedar of Lebanon for the drawer bases with quartersawn oak sides.
I carved the handles from a small piece of walnut I had kept from a huge old tree milled many years ago. It had an eight foot long, four-inch diameter cart axle sticking out of its base just above the ground. It had been put in the tree by goldminers at least a hundred years ago as an anvil to beat their fluming into rounds. The wood immediately around it had turned as black as ebony, so that was what I used. It was actually much nicer to carve than ebony!
The desk took me nearly two months to make, but it’s probably the finest piece I’ve made. I later heard that the desk and chair arrived safely in Northern Ireland and were very much appreciated.
Photos of the desk and chair by Daniel Allen. David Haig teaches at the Centre for Fine Woodworking in New Zealand, and in 2017 is Lead Tutor of the Furniture Makers' Progamme.