Thursday, December 12, 2013

Building a Custom Desk - Design (post 1)

Shortly, I'll be working from home and thus need a desk, so it is a great opportunity to build something that I'll enjoy sitting at day-after-day. Designing a "major" piece of furniture from scratch is always a challenge and something I enjoy. The stakes are large because it will take many, many hours and many dollars in material.

My designs tend toward the mixing of traditional and modern lines and material. I enjoy the juxtaposition of modern shape and form all-the-while using material with suggests something older, but in no way taken for an antique. I am not alone with this idea.  The modern studio furniture movement is replete with craftsmen using this general design philosophy who build all kinds of beautiful things.  However, the variation in form produced is quite incredible.

the idea

Thinking about a desk naturally leads thinking about a chair. One is not very good without the other. Naturally, the next thought is about a comfortable chair; an office chair. The light bulb went off - I have a chair and a superb one too. quartersawn white oak in wide boards; the largest of which is 17" across and 12' long. I've got material which matches the chair!
It is an antique and was my Grandfather's chair. It came from a Goodyear factory and a time when industry purchased the best and design was important. My Grandfather refinished it and it looks terrific. It is made of white oak, as was so much furniture of the time, and I just happened to purchase a fair amount of this wood last fall.

The interesting design element for this project is that little modern furniture is made in white oak. It is the wood of mission and Arts & Crafts pieces. I can then use recognizably "old" wood and put a modern twist in the design. This works well with the design concept. The difficult conceptual element is that quartersawn white oak has an unmistakable grain with a very strong pattern on it. It is beautiful, but it is very easy to overdo the design due to the visual confusion produced by the grain. You have to know your design limitations before you can begin your design, and with white oak you cannot ignore the grain; it leaps out at you.

With the wood selected I thought about design. I had recently made this walnut bench and used a seven degree tapered Windsor-type leg connection. It was the first time I made this joint and I really enjoyed making it and thought it absolutely rock solid. I had to make a special tool for the job which took quite some time, so I have a head start. Using this joint allowed me to make the bench with no visual distractions under the seat (stretchers). I allowed the leg to pass though the seat and carved the endgrain of the leg. It was a nice effect; somewhat oriental in look, but unmistakably modern. With this idea in mind, I thought about the desk. The desk would have too long a leg for a single connection like the bench. But, I didn't want stretchers either. That suggested two connections near the top. And, that suggested a box.

This is a picture of such a desk with such a box.However, I can't pass the leg through the drawer, so I need a extension of some kind. I thought about that for a while and ended up with this basic design.

This allows the leg to pass through the desk without stretchers and yet be very solid. I started out with the top and bottom of the box square, then went to both being radiused, and then to only the top being radiused. The top, to my eye, needed to be different.






the details

Wood moves. Sometimes, it can move a lot. You can't fight it, and if you try the wood will just crack or crush. This movement dictates the design, or at least parts of  the design. Here's an exploded view of the parts after I went though the process of thinking about building a solid, well constructed piece.

The side, "toothed" pieces are multiple through tenons with go through the top. (I've been thinking, woodworkers need a new name for this joinery. How about, soldier tenons?) I could have used other types of hidden joinery, so this is design element. It was popularized in Arts & Crafts furniture. I wanted to interrupt the vast expanse of  the top with something; take it from plain to clearly handmade. Also, I like the joinery to be visible; at least on this piece.  I'm not against hidden joinery, but if joinery is well executed it can be a great design element.

Otherwise, you can see the dadoes and dovetails for various parts and the legs piercing the box. The two drawer dividers will  fit into a small dovetail and will be have a loose joint on the other end. This will allow the bottom to move  across its width. Here's the basic idea after about four or five hours of design time. I'm happy with it and next I start milling up the wood.

I will design and size the smaller elements as I get feedback from the wood and the relationship of the parts to each other, the viewer, and the user. The drawer pulls are only there for a visual....I will likely make the drawer pulls, and will think about that design as I go through the building.

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