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The Spirit of WWCH
by Ridge Gilmer (Woodworkers Club of Houston)
The plan was simple. My wife brought home a green sticky note with "30 H, 28 W, 36 L" as dimensions for a table to go beside her desk. "No problem", said her neophyte woodworker husband, "I can do that".
Soon a piece of ¾" birch plywood was cut to 24" X 36" for the top, accepting 24" wide as one half the full sheet. Then I assembled a plywood apron, proudly anchoring the mitered corners with biscuits, having recently observed Norm doing same. For the legs, I went to the lumber yard and came back with a large hunk of solid birch, which I proceeded to rip, taper and chamfer the edges – pretty good stuff for a beginner!
About that time (probably weeks later) we had a club meeting and I was among many members gathered around Jack Hutchison and his gorgeous sofa table. I kinda stuck around for a while and then asked Jack if he would suggest how I should attach the legs to my apron and top. To my great pleasure and surprise, he replied, "Why don’t you bring it all out to my shop and we’ll have a look?" Offer gratefully accepted!
To shorten this piece a bit, we immediately abandoned the plywood apron and Jack showed me how to make a proper mortise and tenon joint from additional birch. I botched the tenons on my home shop saw, so he showed me how to fix that problem. By this time, we decided that a plywood top would not be acceptable, so I went back for more birch. But then I made a big boo-boo. Through combined ignorance and misunderstanding, I stained the birch apron pieces that we had just mortised to the legs. The dark walnut blotched badly and I was left with days and days of sanding it out. Ah well – a lesson well learned.
Meanwhile, Jack had planed the rough birch heartwood I had chosen for the top and he showed me how to cut and lay out the pieces. First we – mainly he – jointed the edges and glued up the three center pieces. While those set, we started on the breadboard end pieces, which had more sap wood. We used my router and guide to make a long shallow mortise in the end pieces, making sure to leave them longer than final cut length. After the glue set on the center, we smoothed off both flat surfaces with a scraper and trimmed the ends flush. Then we routed three haunch tenons and dry fit these into the end piece mortises. That’s where the extra length came into use as a purchase on the tight fit, so we had a way to take them apart. At some point in the process, we drilled three holes for dowels through the center of each haunch tenon and enlarged the two outer holes to allow wood expansion. We used contrasting walnut dowels to set off the top and later added similar decorative pegs on the legs. We glued up the completed breadboard top and trimmed off the excess lengths. Then it was more sanding and applications of natural Danish oil finish, followed by steel wool polishing and thin coats of tung oil. I brought the base and top back to Jack’s shop for final inspection. Previously, he had gifted me a supply of classic wood fasteners to place into biscuit slots to secure the top, which we did to complete the assembly.
All this time, Jack and I were becoming friends. I met his lovely Kathryn and his two large dogs no longer stirred themselves when I traversed their turf between garage/shop and kitchen. We visited over sandwiches and he gave me a tour of his home, filled with his masterpieces of gorgeous furniture he has built over many years. Later, they joined Kris and me for dinner at our home and a tour of my fledgling shop. Handshake greetings became goodbye hugs and we look forward to a warm continuing relationship.
At my request, Jack made suggestions for upgrading my shop and has encouraged me to continue improving my skills, such as they are. It has been a wonderful experience to observe and to learn from this master craftsman on an individual basis. I want to thank, not only Jack Hutchison, but also the WWCH meetings for providing the venue in which neophyte woodworkers may meet masters of the art and all those in between who enjoy our hobby. I’m getting a late start in my 70s, but it’s wonderful to have something new and stimulating to learn at any age.
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