Woodworkers Club of Houston
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by Ridg Gilmer
It seems that most of our woodworking projects have a story or two behind them. Here’s how my oak baby cradle came about. Three people inspired my project: Tom Moser, James Krenov and Mom-to-be Missy, with an assist by Jack Hutchison.
The recent Moser Event and reading his book, now available in the WWCH Library, inspired me to try his finishing method, to be described below. So now I needed a suitable wood and project.
In his classic work, “A Cabinetmaker’s Notebook”, James Krenov advises his readers and students to regard special examples of wood in our shops as waiting for the project that will inspire you to transform it into a desirable object. Several years ago, my woodworking mentor and friend, Jack Hutchison, offered me his entire residual stock of spalted Black Jack Oak. The tree is found in Southeast TX and grows in sandy or clay soils, reaching as high as 50 feet. Its name comes from its dark bark and its leaves are three lobed. Spalting comes from the warm moist climate we know so well in which various tree fungi invade and partially degrade the wood, creating colorful patterns that we value for our projects. I’ve built a large bookcase, a corner entertainment center and several bandsaw boxes, trays and other small items from my stash. Beginning to feel a bit spalted myself as my 80th birthday looms, I was looking for a suitably significant project to use some of my dwindling stock.
This spring, spouse Kris’s son and daughter in law announced they expected their first child, poetically due Labor Day weekend this year. Well – babies need cradles, so I Googled and found plans for A Spalted-Oak Cradle, appropriated published originally in Mother Earth News.* When shown the photo, Mother-to-be Melissa or “Missy” and husband John said they would be thrilled for me to build one for their new baby. So now I had a project and the ideal material to build it. However, there was insufficient spalted Black Jack left for the large cradle, so I supplemented with red oak and tried to use it where least visible.
The first step – and an extremely important one in this case – was to find and purchase a cradle pad or small mattress. We located one in Rice Village and the size and dimensions became the critical measurement for the cradle bottom. I made the bottom out of red oak – it would have a pad and baby hiding it – and the lower sections of the sides. The Black Jack end pieces are angled outward at 20 degrees and this provides the only complicated steps. The plan called for also angling the sides out, but I didn’t have enough spalted oak for that and it seemed unnecessarily bulky, so these remained at right angles to the ends. The plans also called for a rocking base, which we chose to leave off, so the cradle could later be used on the floor as storage for stuffed animals, toys, etc. I modified the design by adding rails to the side tops and these required some fancy fitting to match the complex angles formed between ends and sides. I used red oak 2X2 stock with bull nose routed on outside and inside upper edges.
Before assembly, I sanded all sides to 240 grit, as prescribed by Moser’s method. I chose small Miller Dowels as fasteners for all joints except the top rails. For those, I rabbitted a groove on the underside to fit the sides and glued them into place. So finally it was time to finish. Moser’s craftsmen swear by Boston Polish Amber Wax, available from Google and the BWC Company, San Jose, CA. If anyone wants to try some, I have a 16 oz can to share. The wax is from a 100 year old recipe and blends Canuba with “other waxes” and Turpentine and mineral spirits, but no silicone.
I have always been advised to not sand beyond 180 grit, as oil and stains may not penetrate. So it was an act of faith, plus a trial on scrap stock, to sand all the way to 240 grit before adding finish. For this, Moser sticks with a combination of oil and wax. The procedure calls for boiled linseed oil, heated to 140 degrees F and liberally applying to the raw wood. I used a sponge brush. Then leave it to set overnight. The next day, one is directed to sand again lightly with 320 grit. This is simply to remove any grain raised by the oil and regular random orbit sanders are fine for all stages. The top coats are thin applications of wax, applied with the grain of the wood and lightly wiped with a super fine Scotch Brite Pad (White #7445), running with the grain. The wax is allowed to dry several minutes, then rewipe first with a clean pad and then with soft cloths.
To be honest, I was not thrilled with the Amber Wax, which is good, but no better than clear BRIWAX, that I have frequently used on my projects. So – I kinda alternated coats of the two waxes on different sides to try to see a difference, but I could not. The wood gained a nice luster, but I attribute this to the multiple light coats and the elbow grease from rubbing. Anyway – the oil brought out the beautiful spalted oak flames of color and, as you see in the photos, the cradle turned out OK. We presented it to the expectant parents that evening, after the club meeting, and they are most appreciative of my efforts.
My next project is now well underway – to make a substantial table on which to place the cradle for while it has a baby in it. The table will later become a desk or other flat surface in their condo and the cradle will wind up on the floor for baby’s stuff. For this project, we’ll revisit cutting mortise and tenon joints.
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