Designing furniture to avoid precision work

I may no longer manage a well equipped workshop, but I haven’t stopped wanting to be able to make furniture. After finishing up my tenure as manager of The Bower Woodworkers I shuffled up to Brisbane (to spend a month and a half with my wife) before heading off to study furniture conservation in the UK.

We did not have a well equipped workshop in Brisbane. We didn’t even have a proper workbench or any power tools, but I did have many of my hand tools with me, which was more than enough.

You see, we desperately needed more things around the house to set my coffee on, and I felt staunch in my feeling that I should still be able to make those things. I was worried, however, about my ability to achieve the precision necessary to produce good work.

So the first thing I did, to put my own mind at ease, was to choose and design projects that didn’t require a certain type of precision, specifically square ends and joints.

If you are beginning to think about making your own furniture with some simple tools at home, the seeming level of precision that is required to do even the most basic of things can be overwhelmingly intimidating. In my opinion, one of the reasons for that is that we are currently in an industrialised age of machine production. A world where square, straight, and flat, is a lot easier than has been possible for so much of the history of making. What we have come to understand as simple designs are actually really difficult, if not impossible, to a pre-industrial woodworker.

To get a piece of wood flat by hand, for instance, you need to have a few well tuned planes at your disposal. You need to spend some time dressing your timber, carefully flattening one face, then an edge, then making all the other faces of that board square and flat and parallel. This process isn’t as impossible as it may seem to newcomers, but it can be a bit of work and time. Sometimes, for the casual woodworker, a bit too much time. So many people either resort to machines or purchasing their stock pre-dressed. That’s fine, but there is another option, which allows you to take advantage of almost any resource of timber at your disposal: Design

Here are some tips for designing projects to avoid necessary precision which I learned while trying to make some furniture with basic tools at home in Brisbane.

Beyond Flat and Square

Firstly, look past designs that are square and flat in favour of designs with a slightly more organic or vernacular look. Staked furniture is a great example of this. In my most recent project for instance, a rush woven footstool, all of my joinery was staked in some way, and none of the pieces were either flat or square, but it doesn’t impact the success of the design, or it’s function and longevity as a piece of furniture.

The stock I started with for this project was off cuts of american white oak and scraps of dowel, which I picked up from a local secondhand materials shop (Reverse Garbage Queensland). The oak stock had a slight curvature in it’s length, and wasn’t equally proportioned, but I had an extremely limited time frame in which to complete the project, so I designed my project with this in mind.

Admittedly, it wouldn’t have taken all that long with good equipment to flatten and square these pieces, but I am not convinced I would have been more happy with the final outcome. As it stands, this piece now has a texture and natural feeling to it that flat and square could not have achieved. It fits in well in our Queensland home amongst some of my other more eclectic pieces.

Avoid Meeting at the Corner

In the Beginners Woodworking course we set up for Sydney Community College the very first challenge we foisted upon our students was to cut their timber pieces to precise lengths by hand with perfectly square ends. I can’t think of a single sudent out of the hundreds we taught who was able to get something precise enough for a fine furniture piece.

This is very understandable. Even with a mitre saw, perfect square is difficult. This is why we have shooting boards. With a well constructed shooting board you can plane any end back to square (or whatever angle you need depending on your shooting board). If you don’t have a shooting board I highly recommend getting or making one. The shooting board is best used with a number six plane or some kind of specialty shooting plane.

However, those can be prohibitively expensive or not always handy for some people, especially early on (once you get into woodworking more passionately though, you will definitely want some good planes). As always, this shouldn’t stop you from being able to make a sturdy and beautiful piece of furniture to serve a need in your home. I shiver to think of the person who would say, “welp, you don’t have this specific piece of kit, so you can’t have a coffee table”. Bollocks to them.

An easy way to avoid needing to cut all of your pieces to perfect lengths and degrees is to design furniture that doesn’t have it’s pieces meet in the corners.

If you look at this coffee table I made for our Brisbane home, none of the joints happen at a point where both pieces end. Every joint is either somewhere in the middle of one piece, or if you look at the top you can see that the two cross pieces overlap and extend beyond the corners. Using a lashing style joint I picked up from a replica sled project earlier in the year, I could get the structure square without having to worry about cutting perfect cross pieces. Because I was able to get relatively close in y initial cuts of the pieces, the lack of absolute perfection wasn’t a hindrance to the look.

Go Big and Cut Back

This last tip is the one that really changed how I approach everything. I first learned this when studying furniture repair and restoration techniques at The Bower. Say a piece of timber has chipped away on a piece of furniture and you want to patch it with a similar piece of timber. You chisel out a space for the new piece to glue in, but you don’t need to make that piece the perfect size before gluing it in. Leave it oversized, glue the piece in, then cut it back to perfect flushness. This is the most essential trick for achieving precision without having to do precision work and it applies everywhere.

Want a perfect curve between to timbers at a joint? Glue them together square then carve the curve out afterwards. Want a through tenon to finish flush? Cut it oversized then pare it back flat. Etc, etc. This is the professional way to get beautiful perfect looking joinery in your furniture. Cut oversized initially and cut it back afterwards.

In the first of the three projects I made while briefly staying in Brisbane I wanted a more modern design with leg frames which met up perfectly at the corners. I decided to use bridle joints for this job, intentionally over cutting the joints, so that I could cut them back flush afterwards. I never once in this project had to cut a perfect end to any of my pieces, so long as they joined up well i could clean them up afterwards. These may not be the finest pieces I have made, and I probably wouldn’t do work like this for a client or an exhibition, but as projects for my own home, I am perfectly happy with them. Plus all were from otherwise discarded materials with potential now to last as functional pieces for many years to come.

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