A Table Built Without A Shop

There are those people that you meet and certainly they can be an acquaintance, but then there are the the people you meet where right off you find trust and mutual respect for each other. Right off you know that this fellow you’d do anything for if he was in need. The fellow that runs Upper Cuts Barber Shop is the latter. His work ethic, his pride in his craft, and his admiration of his family. That’s a good dude right there.

A couple years back my wife wanted to downsize her desk. The top was a made of a few pieces of cherry with some contrasting butterfly splines. I converted the top into a table. Next haircut Josh asks what I was working on in the shop, so I tell him of what I was up to the night before, converting the desk top into a table. He liked the idea. He liked the idea so much that he’s got the table in his shop now. He uses it for his workstation.

Some months ago, Josh expanded his shop to three barbers and asked for a table similar to his. Since my mind resembles a sieve, he sent me a couple pictures, including dimensions, of the existing table. I sketched it out real quick to help put it back in my memory.

I built Josh’s first table in one night. The second? I wasn’t quite as fortunate.

Through life, you encounter changes. Little did he know that when he asked for me to build the table, my shop was packed up and stored away in many a friend’s barn throughout the county. Plus due to life changes, I had the motivation to build the table, but lacked the heart to start.

Where was I going to build it? In the tarp roofed portable carports that house the majority of tools and lumber?

There’s no room There’s no power. I needed boards planned. The boards I picked out were from a 1954 sawmill..which translates to thick on one end, skinny on the other. It also translates to beautiful characteristics that only a circle blade can leave. My plan of attack on these guys is to just plane enough, mainly on the underside of the board. This gives a wonderful surface to hit lightly with sandpaper, leaving the texture of the blade from the sawmill.

At the sawmill, there is an old planer run by a Detroit diesel. I didn’t need something that aggressive, nor did I need something that fuel hungry. Instead I opted for the newer model Dewalt straight knife planer. These types of planers have earned the nickname “Lunch Box Planers” due to their size of a small jobsite lunchbox cooler. That nickname was given to models some fifteen years ago. This “lunchbox” planer could eat two lunch boxes and not show it.

There has always been a problem with theft and vandalism at the sawmill. One day we set up to saw, but the 5’ blade was no longer on the arbor. Another we went to use the 40” bandsaw, but the wire leading to the panel box was missing. Sometimes its parts off the motors, sometimes its veneer walnut logs cut into firewood. Because of the threat of theft, the lunchbox planer was tethered to the somewhat portable (three strong lad type) tablesaw via a logging chain. This made the entry and exit path of the ten foot longboards though the planer a bit of a challenge due to the surrounding equipment and posts, but barely doable. The first board went through without a hitch.

The second board was a bit more of a problem. Thick and thin. The planer encountered a thick part in the middle of the run. It quit. I unplugged the machine, pressed the reset button, but to no avail. I made my way to the breaker box. Wrong one. I went back to the plug and traced the wiring. Third breaker box was the charm, but the path to get there was laden heavy with sprawling antique machinery, healthy saplings, and slithering members. Fortunately the last remained dormant and out of sight. The breaker box was unlabeled. There was no main. I took the cover off to see which one was acting as the main. Upon doing so, I had my toes crossed for good luck. This box is of great size, almost three feet in length. It had been previously used in an industrial application since all of the 3” dia knockouts had been previously used and left open. I once opened up a breaker box thinking I’d find a snake and instead found a hissing opossum. This box was large enough to house a family of both.

Removing the cover, I found no animals, no bees. I stopped and took part in a sigh of relief. The top left breaker looked to be the feed, but the wires were smaller diameter than the wires leaving the other breakers. A sphere of fear began to encapsulate me as I followed the feed wires, who’s outer sheathing was non existent. I knew exactly where they led. There’s a meter base on the side of a pump house. It’s not a far walk, but its a long walk. First one has to squeeze between two industrial sized genearators. Their metal cabinetry makes for more fine homes of sawmill creatures. Then pass between several Diesel engines from various tractor trailers that are awaiting for their time to shine again. Some have their heads removed and their cylinders now act as vases of raspberry bushes, as they sit under the roof’s edge on the non sided side of the one sided building. Exiting the building, things get a bit strange. First you go through a thicket so thick and green that it mimics a jungle. Once emerged in the green thick, you are worried about what might be habituating in the jungle with you, but after the lacerations from the young locust and other throned flora, your concern is to just get to the other side with skin still somewhat intact.

After the jungle, you find yourself in a place quite like the Saharan desert. An interesting and widely reported fact is that dust from the Sahara has been found blowing around in Kansas City. An interesting hypothesis of mine is that the majority of the dust was dumped here at the sawmill, on its way to Kansas City. The grass is sparse, but sharp when encountered. The ruts from years of heavy equipment passing through are feet deep, but bone-dry. The destination is in site, but so am I to all that lay between my location and the pump house.

I’m a fan of snakes, really I am. I grew up with them about, and my father had a great love for them. My problem with snakes is that when I inherited the love, something got scrambled. Instead of having the desire to go out and find snakes and appreciate their beauty before releasing them back, I have the ability for snakes to seek me. They seek me for a close friendship, but forget to let their presence known before they reach out for a friendly embrace.

Roughly thirty miles away and some thirty years ago, I once counted thirty copperheads during a field trip. The teacher was so amazed after the thirteenth snake I found, that he no longer wanted an update on my count. In fact he began to distance himself from me. Now retired, he was a teacher of biology, much preferring the well-rooted variety.

Reaching the pump house, I felt as if I achieved a great accomplishment, but in reality, I had only covered two hundred linear feet. It was an old building, about six feet in width and ten in length. The board and batten structure had been insulated with various methods over the years. The most recent was pink insulation. Due to moisture and heat, the insulation looked as if it was in a slow drip from the ceiling. Pink stalactites everywhere. Clumps on the dirt floor. Old abandoned wires haphazardly coiled up in knots. Some of these wires had skins laced through them. This is all I see from the doorway. I was hoping to see a black snake due to the simple fact that I’ve never seen a copperhead around a black snake. I know what you are thinking, so let me be the one to burst your thought. Black rat snakes do not kill copperheads nor any other venomous snakes. But I’m like you, I’m going to keep on thinking the myth is true and black snakes reign.

I turn on the light. There is power here. The breaker box is right next to the door. All breakers seem to be on, so I toggle them and walk back through the Sahara and Jungle without incident.

I usually don’t leave home without my electrical multi-meter. It’s a nice one. I spent several hundred dollars on it years ago and it’s worth every penny. I lent it to my friend this weekend as I hadn’t planned on doing any electrical work. Without the meter, I had no idea if a breaker was bad or the line was burnt/broke in two, but figured it was either or. After a bit of rummaging through a nearby desk, I found a cheap multimeter..with battery and it worked! Also there was a double pole fifty amp breaker. What luck! With the meter, I found it was the breaker in the nearest box that was setup as the main that was toast. I replaced it and continued planing boards down to a consistent thickness.

There was no jointer, so I used a track saw that I brought with me to rip the boards straight. I then Dominoed all together and tightened up in clamps.

Lastly, I ran a piece of walnut through the lunchbox to be the butterfly splines in the table top. All was finished that I needed to do at the sawmill, so I packed up and returned home.

The property adjoining mine is where I grew up. There is a workshop next to my family’s house. It’s where my dad and I built countless projects together.

Weather will prevail. It’s prevailing through the workshop as the tar impregnated roofing that mimics terracotta is living way beyond it’s lifespan. As I mentioned earlier, my shop is packed away all over the county. I’m building a new one, but just finished excavating the site. I have a few tools and lumber stored in tarp carports next to the shop’s footprint, but have no power there. I have a generator, but have yet to replace the ailing carburetor that overloads the genset with fuel.

The past table, I re-sawed a cherry timber for the legs, cut the bow-tie/butterflies with a bandsaw, and then final shaped them with a stationary sander. I made some table top connectors out of oak with the drill press and domino. Any thickness that needed to be tended to was with my 5hp helical planer. My jointer straightened all edges. My tablesaw ripped and re-sawed all that was needed. And all of this was done dust-free with the massive dust collector and vacuums.

This second table I began making in the tractor shed portion of the workshop, with a much smaller selection of tools. That’s where I ripped the glued-up top to be square. Also where I ripped the three inch thick cherry timber into table legs. As long as the wind didn’t blow, the open tractor shed remained dry through the rain.

The first day of rain, the wind behaved. The second I wasn’t as fortunate. I moved the operations into the workshop itself. The workshop had quite a few leaks. Caution was needed when setting up the makeshift shop. I brought in my mitre box, and my boxes of cordless tools. I cut the butterflies out with a jigsaw. I then traced them onto the table top and routed out the profile. Most folk don’t let their splines (no matter the shape) be thick enough to do any good. The spline is to help lock two adjoining boards together, or a place that may be prone to splitting (knots, etc). Too thin, and the spline is of no help. I always try to make my Splines 3/8 to 1/2 the thickness of the material I’m trying to stabilize. Making them a little more proud helps, then once they are glued into place, they can be finished flush with a few swipes of a hand plane or chisel.

With the top done, I flipped it over and drew out a proportioned rectangle to mimic the outer edge of the table’s apron. I then cut a few pieces of cherry to the measurements of the apron and attached them with glue and pocket screws. I usually attach them to each other with loose tenons, but without perfectly flat workbenches and router setups, I didn’t want to take the chance. Pocket holes used to be a crutch that other “woodworkers” used. I’m now embracing the crutch with open arms.

I tended to the cherry legs next. I left the weathered face intact, along with the sawblade markings from when it was milled. After cutting the legs to proper length, I pre-drilled and made a countersink hole for each leg to attach to the apron. A drill press usually saves me time on such a task, but since I didn’t have one, I marked and drilled the legs with a handheld battery drill.

The cherry was almost pink in color after planing off the well oxidized dark brown surface area.

I finished assembling the table, shaped the edges of the top one last time, then gave it a final sanding. I put the first coat of oil on heavy, then set the table outside in the sun to bake the oil and oxidize the cherry.

After a few coats of coil and a bit more tanning in the sun, the table was complete. It makes me laugh how easy it is to build a piece of furniture with minimal tools. If I had my hand tools, I could have built it even faster, but they were stacked in a tool cabinet, buried by sanders, sandpaper, and router bits. The battery/jobsite tools were great, but what I would have given for a sharp chisel and a sharp plane out of my tool cabinet. Soon there will be a new shop. Very soon. But will this rain ever give up to give me a few minutes of dry construction?

1 comment

Martin Hogan

Good stuff……..on so many levels. (no pun intended)

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