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Dovetailed Bench/Side Table

author-gravatar blucz Jun 17, 2018

This little bench will actually be used as a side table (and occasionally an extra seat) in our living room.

The design is inspired by a piano bench by George Nakishima, though not quite as minimalist as his.

The Black Walnut tree that it is made from lived its life about 10 miles from here as a yard tree, and was air dried locally. It was a dream to work with. 

Went out to the garage and dug this 5/4 Walnut board out of the pile. Then I laid out the three main parts of the bench.        

Next, I put one straight edge on the board to use as a reference.        

For a moment, I entertained trying to get the stretcher out of the same board, but ended up deciding to use a super straight-grained scrap I had laying around instead.

First cut--ripping the board down to 12". This both gets it in spitting distance of the final dimension and makes it fit on the jointer. Both important.        

Then I jointed and planed the board.

Oops, looks like I messed up with the circ saw a little bit. Good thing that little cut will be tapered off anyways..

Now, dimensioning the parts. I still only have one good edge, so I'm careful to avoid referencing off of the "wrong" one. 

Yes, I'm using an 80T plywood blade for all of the table saw cuts on this project. It is because I am too lazy to change the blade.

Finally, the last side.

3 Nice square pieces.

Preparing to dovetail. These dovetails are mitered at the edges, so somewhat different from the usual routine. I start by marking the corners so I don't forget who's who.        

First step is to capture the thickness of the board with a marking gauge.

Then the baseline can be scribed on all of the boards.

I did carry the baselines over onto the edges a little bit so as not to lose track of them. It will be important to know where the baseline is when cutting the miter later on. Unlike with regular dovetails there won't be a sawcut on the baseline here, so it shouldn't be super crisp or deep. 

I think this picture means that these are 5:1 dovetails. It was a little while ago. I don't remember.

Time to lay them out. The layout is a little bit different than usual because a half-tail is left at either edge of the board.

Finally, a chance to cut. I used a rip-filed carcass saw for this. A dovetail saw would work too, but mine has 20tpi, and that is a lot of work in 1" thick material. 

As usual, I remove the material with a fret-saw to get as close to the baselines as possible.

Now it's time to chop. A few pieces of advice here. First, use really sharp chisels. Second, keep them sharp. Third, remove a small amount of material at a time...

And fourth: whenever you lift up the board, brush away the debris. I can't count the number of times when I've dinged or dented the face of a dovetailed piece by getting one of those stupid chips underneath.

Don't do with test fitting what you can do with measurement tools. There's no point in even attempting to put these together until that square registers properly on the baselines.

Ok, these are clean and good.

Remember the thing about sharpening? Yeah, I could probably cut the second set of pins without sharpening right now, but it just takes a minute. It doesn't take a whole lot of sharpening before the blade is noticeably less sharp than it was when it was fresh.

Oh, one more thing I wanted to draw attention to. With smaller pieces, I almost never do this, but clamping the board down to the bench helps ensure success with bigger stuff, especially if the board is a little bit wide--since wide boards will almost always have a slight cup one way or the other.

Two sets of tails..._almost_ done.

But, before we finish those by cutting the miters, they need to have their geometry transfererd to the pinboard. This is much easier before the miters are cut. 

Another set of saw-cuts. Then the same procedure for cutting to the baselines and chiseling out the remaining waste. No need to photograph it all again.

Once that's done, it's time to cut the miters. The only important thing I can say here is--reference them off of the baseline, not the end of the board. The baseline is going to be what comes together when the dovetail joint mates, so the baseline is the only thing that matters.

In this case, you can see that the miter falls a tiny bit short of the end of the board. This is because my pins/tails are slightly long. That will be planed off. It will all come out right. I promise!

The miter was sawn with a dovetail saw..if your dovetail saw is not a super dainty 20tpi like mine, consider using a crosscut saw for this cut. 

Then cleaned up with a chisel. Just defining clean planes that match the layout lines and making it slightly hollow where it will help. This joint is a lot more forgiving than you might think. No need to obsess over it.

Finally, a test fit. These were a little bit tighter than I would have liked (i.e. I haven't been cutting dovetails in a little while and am a littel bit out of practice). That can be fixed, but be careful when trimming away material. This is the part in the process where, in my experience, the most innocent intentions turn into the most difficult to hide mistakes.

Ok, much better this time. The clamp is there to keep the board from splitting. Unfortunately, you can see that the top board has split a little bit. Oh well. This won't be noticeable so long as I fix the root cause of the problem before the glue-up.

Now that the dovetails are cut, it's time to finish these parts. The legs each get a gentle curve on the bottom, a taper along their length, and a taper along their thickness.  There is also a through-tenon piercing each one, which needs to be laid out before we go wild with all of the tapering. 

I cut the mortise and tenon joint using a drill press and a chisel. Nice and quick. Make sure to make a good center reference line with a marking knife for the holes you're drilling--don't just try to aim a forstner bit at the outline of a mortise. You won't do as well with it. If you make a straight line with the knife, the drill bit will find it and the holes will end up perfectly in a row.

All done at the drill press..time to clean it up with a chisel.

Nice square hole. 

At this point, I roughed out all of the curves/tapers at the bandsaw with the exception of the thickness taper (that one is coming up).

The edges got a quick cleanup with a smoothing plane. The curve on the bottom was finalized using a rasp and then a sanding block. 

Now, the fun part. I love making big tapered planes like this. Sure, I could have done this with a planer + a jig, or by putting the board on edge in the bandsaw..but this is a lot more fun, and not really that slow. I started by traversing the board with a jack plane to get the rough taper correct.  

Then, coming back with a smoothing plane, made it look nice. This took about 10 minutes per leg. No big deal in the scheme of the whole project.

At this point, I touched them together just to make sure everything was in roughly the right spot, but didn't want to do a full dry fit and risk bruising the dovetails.

One last thing to build..the stretcher for underneath. 

This tenon is a little bit tricky because the shoulder sits against a tapered surface. When laying out the taper, I took some measurements of this (I could not figure out a nice way to transfer it otherwise). The taper, at the point where the mortise is located, removed between 1/16 and 3/32 of material from the original face of the board. So the I set up the marking gauge for that angle and marked that out on the board.

Then I cut the tenon cheeks/faces at the bandsaw, approximately. 

The shoulders were cut with a knife wall + a carcass saw.

Finally, I slowly worked the tenons down to their final dimension with a broad chisel and a router plane. Because I was fitting to mortises that already existed, it was fine that the mortises were slightly different in width, for example. No-one can see both at the same time anyways, and both can end up nice and tight.

One last step, since these tenons will be wedged, I need to open up the mortise on the exterior side a little bit, so the tenon can flare when the wedges go in. This will lock the whole piece up super tight.

I thought I might not dry fit this, but the idea of having the dovetails + M+T come together at once made me nervous, so I did. No adjustments required, whew.

Now, time for a little bit of finish pre-prep, at least for the hard to reach surfaces underneath. Time to fix any shop rash/dents and sand the insides to near-finish levels. External surfaces can be cleaned up post glue-up.

Time to glue it up. I put the stretcher in upside down, and had enough time to take the thing apart again and get it sorted before the glue set. Liquid hide glue is the best.

The boards were all slightly cupped, so I did a little bit more clamping than I might usually for dovetails. There are little blocks under the clamps to make sure that pressure is exerted on the tails, and they are positioned/tightened until everything is just right.

After the glue, there are just a few more steps. First, I need to level the piece. The "highest" corner was about as high off the workbench as the thickness of my combination square blade, so I set the bench on the workbench and, while making sure it rested on the same points, made a knife line that height off the bench.

Then, I sawed back to that line. Now the bench will sit flat.

When flush-cutting tenons like this , I like to put something under the saw, since sometimes the little bit of tension required to lift the handle off of the surface causes the end of the saw to dig in. A sheet of sandpaper works perfectly--doesn't move, and the set-free saw passes over it smoothly.

Then, it's just some planing and sanding to get everything looking nice on the sides...

...and on the top. 

Towards the end, more of the details are seen to by hand. 

Now it's time for finish. Since it's summer and I can let this dry outside, I decided to use up some of my remaining waterlox. This was applied in wipe-on/wipe-off fashion, and the first couple of coats were wet-sanded into the grain. 

Joinery closeup.

Closeup of the stretcher. It is actually pretty invisible in real life unless you get down on the floor. 

View of the end.

Finally, the whole thing. Thanks for reading!


Wow.... I love the design elements on the sides. Really nice touch. The walnut has beautiful color too. I enjoy using air dried whenever I can get my hands on it. Beautiful piece. Thanks for sharing. 

That's really nice work. I can only imagine how difficult it is to align a through tenon stretcher, keep everything square, and keep all those dovetails fitting perfectly at the baselines.  If I had access to that kind of walnut, I'd change my tune about working with walnut. 

That through wedged tenon sets the whole piece on a higher level. Top notch craftsmanship 👌

This piece is great. Those tapered legs are just right.

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