Stacked Lamination Coffee Table Pt. 1
The following post is sponsored by Australia-based Arbortech, makers of power carving, sanding and cutting tools. This will be the first in a series of three posts on building, carving and finishing a stacked lamination coffee table project.
I mentioned in my previous posts on carved bowl making, that wood carving is a very different kind of woodworking. Grinding away material is more akin to sculpture, versus building a dimensional piece of furniture. With any new technique or tool, a learning curve is usually required to become proficient. This coffee table is probably a more advanced project, so if you are new to the process, you might want to start with some bowls first. 🙂
Museum Inspiration from Wendell Castle
About two years ago, while in Chicago, I stopped at the Art Institute of Chicago to check out their decorative arts exhibit, the furniture in particular. Among the exhibits, were a number of pieces by Wendell Castle [b. 1932]. This American born artist is often considered one of the founders of the Art Furniture movement.
With wood being only one of several materials he works from, his style is characterized by a very organic set of curves. Many of his wood pieces are made from a series of sequentially stacked laminations. These start as rough, angular pieces, and are then refined to beautifully curved pieces. His tools include everything from chainsaws, chisels and grinders, in order to achieve his characteristic style. Although I wasn’t able to touch any of the pieces in the museum, I knew right away that I had to attempt a piece like Castles.
With very few documented examples on how to build a piece like this—save for a relatively rare book published back in 1980, entitled: The Wendell Castle Book of Wood Lamination—I started out with a general idea of what I wanted to produce. I wanted to build a coffee table with a heavy base, and have it closely resemble the base of a tree trunk. So I started out by pulling from a few 10/4 boards of Ribbon Sapele.
Using a sketch pad, I created an overall shape for the bottom of the base, and then proceeded to make a series of patterns that got progressively smaller towards the middle of the laminations, and then widened towards the top. Using these patterns, I traced and cut out the shape from the Sapele pieces, and then glued the pieces sequentially with some polyurethane glue, in stages with a series of deep throated clamps to hold everything in place.
Once all of the glued stacked lamination pieces were dry, I had the base of the table ready for carving. [note: I’ll cover the design and assembly of the top in a subsequent post. Keeping the larger top off while carving the base makes it easier to move around during the early stages of carving the base.] Wendell Castle may have used chisels and burr grinders, but for this particular type of material removal, the Arbortech TURBOplane is a perfect choice for everything from hogging away waste through the refinement of concave and convex curves.
Power Carving with the TURBO and MiniTURBO planes
The circumference of the TURBOplane serves as a great guide for creating relatively consistent cuts into material. I used this to my advantage on a large portion of the base’s shape. Carving a piece like this gets you familiar with how the tool with interact with the grain direction of the wood, particularly in the end-grain.
With the grinding wheel (and teeth) only able to attack the grain in one direction, this is where flipping the piece upside down can help keep the carbide cutters moving in the same direction as the grain, and helps prevent tear-out.
Once you’ve found the sweet spot of the cutting surface, you begin to get the hang of what angles to approach a particular part of the sculpture. I found myself either repositioning my body, hands or even the piece to find the optimal point of contact. Lots of repeated light cuts are far easier to contend with than aggressively hacking away at your project. Although my grinder is a bit on the heavy side, I found that it’s rotation had almost a gyroscopic-like way of helping balancing the tool. It’s a nuanced feel for sure for any power tool, however, using this motion to your benefit, rather than fighting it is always a good plan.
What follows are a few shots from various stages of material removal. I found switching over to the MiniTURBO plane helpful when cutting the narrow channels on the upper and lower portions of the base. The goal was to create an organic flow from the heavy base towards the top to help simulate branches growing up to support the table top (yet to be attached).