When I learned that Bruce Kieffer was building a replica chair from the El Tovar Hotel, my thoughts immediately raced across the road to a building called Hopi House. Designed by Mary Colter in 1905, it was her first of several commissions that have since become icons of American Southwestern architecture, greatly influenced by the living history of the region and the many ancient dwelling sites that have stood for thousands of years in the American Southwest.
Having had the privilege of walking amongst some of these places, I found it easy to see why Ms. Colter was so enamored. I’ve had an affinity for all things Southwestern since my earliest days as a woodworker. Whatever your discipline, the landscape, the light, the nature and the people of this vast area are sure to inspire anyone with an eye and a mind toward creative pursuits.
This “chair-table” style of furniture seemed to really catch on in Spanish Colonial times, and examples can be seen in photographs of some of the buildings that Mary Colter designed. When editor Rob Johnstone chose mesquite lumber for this bench, I couldn’t have been happier. Mesquite, a tree native to the Southwest and known for its dark, grainy and tough wood, is perfect for this style. Mesquite art and furniture can be found in fine craft galleries from Santa Fe to Scottsdale.
When the wood arrived from Art Flores’s sawmill, the first thing I did was spread all the planks out on the floor of the shop and carefully study what lay before me. Two of the planks were thicker than the rest; these would become the post and rail components. The rest would be divvied up for the panels, stiles and top. I chose some leftover longleaf pine for the floor of the chest simply to conserve the precious mesquite and give the project a nice pine aroma inside.
Mesquite is gnarly wood containing many cracks, voids, waney bark edges with streaks of sapwood and a distinct interlocking grain. To help map it all out, I took some scrap 1/4" MDF and luan plywood, cut them to rough component size and laid them out on the planks to determine grain direction and optimal visual interest while avoiding the largest of the natural defects in the wood. I then traced around these with a black marker before harvesting the parts. I used a combination of circular saw, reciprocating saw and ultimately the band saw, to break the exceptionally heavy planks down to a manageable size for hoisting around in the shop.
After a quick visit to the chiropractor, I proceeded to size and square all the components, using the jointer and thickness planer.
I then made “story” sticks out of the aforementioned templates, for posterity, and to keep as a reference in case I need to build more benches in the future. (I do this with nearly everything I make: hey, you never know, and they look so cool hanging in the shop.) These story sticks are exact profiles of the components, with markings to transfer joinery details to the set-off components. (Set-off means squared, sized and cut to length.)
I laid out all the joinery at this point, then set the tenon components aside to focus on the mortising. I always do the mortising first: it’s easier to make tenons fit mortises than vice versa. I bored holes with the drill press using 1-1⁄8" and 3/8" Forstner bits, the latter for getting closer into the corners.
I proceeded to chop these roughed-out mortises square with a selection of sharp chisels, mostly a 1" and a 1/2" paring chisel and a 3/8" mortising chisel for the tougher corners. Once the holes were more refined, I went in with my 1" chisel again, carefully paring the walls and making sure everything was nice and straight, to help eliminate hang-ups during assembly.
Cutting Tenons, Raising Panels
Now for the tenons. I occasionally cut tenons on the band saw, especially if there are not too many of them. I use the same setting on the marking gauge for the tenons and the mortises, and the same philosophy as if I were cutting them with a hand saw. I split the line with the saw blade and go nice and slow. Take your time on this, and follow your line with as much surgical precision as you can muster. (Do some test cuts in scrap.) Oh, and this may seem odd, but I choose not to use the fence; I do a better job freehand.
If you work nice and slow, you’ll end up with accurate cuts. Pat yourself on the back before cutting the shoulders on the table saw. You could also make the shoulder cuts first, before revealing your samurai skills on the band saw. Either way works well, in my opinion.
At this point, I put a 1/4" straight bit in the router table and cut all the housings (dadoes) for the box floor, as well as for what I find to be among the most harrowing of woodworking operations: panel raising!
To raise the panels, I used a large profile cutter — one that cuts above and below the material. The smaller of the two profiles appears on the outside faces of the panels, adding a nice visual detail to the heavy-looking post-and-rail assemblies.
I don’t have a 7-1⁄2-hp, 3-phase shaper in the shop, but I do have a 2hp router with a 1/2" collet that will accept the large, scary panel bit. Knowing this is an underpowered arrangement, I took the time to build a new fence out of some glued-up 3/4" MDF and screwed it to the table in a semi-permanent fashion. This made it virtually incapable of shifting, in the event my bit would kick back like an ornery mule in the desert. I then routed a slot in the tabletop to accept the miter gauge from my table saw, furthering my intention to keep all my fingers in place for the next project. After a number of test cuts in various woods, including our precious mesquite, and a prayer for additional reinforcement, I started in carefully, moving VERY slowly.
The prayers, the planning ... everything worked out well. I’m using the same two fingers to type this story as all the others I’ve written, and yes, I feel grateful. Before final fitting and surfacing, I cut the saddles into the front legs for the rails that will support the top in the “down” position. I then formed a radius on the back legs where the rails and top will pivot, which turns this entry bench into a “chair-table.”
Smoothing the Surfaces
I’m luckier than I am smart, so I was able to hand plane a fair amount of the exposed surfaces, including all the panels, posts and stile assemblies. The long rails were the toughest, but I managed to get the machine marks out before finishing with fine sandpaper.
I like hand planing because it’s less noisy, less hazardous (little or no dust), and it’s a good upper-body workout. Mesquite works surprisingly well with hand tools in spite of its idiosyncrasies.
After the finish surfacing, I whittled the edges of all the components using a small drawknife, a technique I learned from my days as a cabin carpenter in the far reaches of northern Minnesota. I think it’s a wonderful rustic touch that adds texture and visual interest.
I had glued and clamped the pine floor together a day earlier, and at this point I broke it out. After resharpening my #5 bench plane, I hand-planed the floor smooth (easy sailing!) before cutting a 1/4" tongue all around on the table saw. The tongue allows plenty of room for wood movement inside the chest. I left this wood bare, hoping to coax out some of that good pine scent for the inside of the case.
Before final assembly, I gave everything a coat of wax-free shellac, as is my style. I’m a big fan of shellac: it may be the most beautiful natural finish out there, and it’s nontoxic to boot.
A couple of humid and ultimately rainy days caused things to swell up on me a bit, so I had to re-fit all the joints before final assembly. The way I figure, bringing lumber from a place that sees less rain in 10 years than we might get in Minnesota in a good month, this is to be expected. Just don’t try to force it; mesquite isn’t forgiving like that. If you don’t break the wood, you’ll break your hammer beating on it or throw out your shoulder in the effort.
Beginning the Assembly
First, I assembled the ends of the case, then I drilled and chopped the mortises to accept the long front and back assemblies. By doing it this way, I eliminated some of the tearout you could get from drilling and chopping through existing holes in the posts.
After all this horsing around, I assembled the long sides, added the floor and brought all the assemblies together, using customary and prodigious amounts of glue. After getting it all clamped up real good, I turned on the air conditioner to hopefully lessen the effects of the steamy summer humidity we were experiencing here in “tropical” Minnesota. I let the project sit overnight, to give the glue plenty of time to set up and cure.
The next morning, I removed the clamps, which revealed a sturdy little piece of furniture. I added a ledge of two 1" x 3/4" x 1-3⁄8" mesquite cleats to support the box lid, which is simply a straight, thick mesquite board, planed and drawknifed at the edges.
Routing Sliding Dovetails in the Top
With the carcass completed, it was time to make the top. I set aside two planks early on for this component. After surfacing a straight, square mating edge on each, I chose two more boards to serve as the top support rails. These sit within the saddles cut into the legs. They have a pivot point at the back, drilled through and pinned to the legs with a couple of simple whittled pegs.
I attached the top support boards to the top planks, 2-1⁄2" shy of the leading and trailing edges of the top, using a simple sliding dovetail arrangement. After laying out my system on the underside of the top, I clamped the two planks together nice and flat before adding a straight board to use as a fence to guide my plunge router. Then I took three deepening passes with a 1/2" straight bit until I reached a depth of 5/8". I switched to a dovetail bit to shape both sides of the housings, taking one pass for each cheek. To cut the mating dovetails into the top edges of the top supports, I chucked the same dovetail bit into a router table and made a few passes on scrap wood to dial in the fit. Once everything was set, I routed the two supports.
Here’s how I assembled the top: I fitted the rails onto one plank before sliding the other plank into place. I glued only the edge joint between the top boards. (It should slide on the dovetailed supports as needed to allow for wood movement.) Once the glue cured, I scraped off the excess and took my drawknife to the edges. A light scuff sanding with 220-grit cleaned up the surfaces, followed by a topcoat of shellac.
Carving Out the Details
At this point, I decided a bit of relief carving might be in order. After much head-scratching and a number of studies in scrap wood, I made up a simple design to carve into the panels. Whenever I carve, I always do lots of studies in scrap to determine exactly what I’m trying to accomplish with the design before committing to the “money” wood.
I used MDF story sticks to transfer reference marks to the chest panels. It took just two tools — a #41 swan-neck V-gouge and a mallet — to cut the cross-grain and then long-grain relief lines.
Mesquite carves surprisingly well and holds nice, crisp details. Just be careful in those cross-grain areas that are close together, to avoid a potential chip of wood breaking free. If this happens (and you can find the chip), simply glue it back in place, like a real woodcarver would do. Go nice and slow with the gouge and mallet; you’ll maintain lots of control that way. As you go along, make minute adjustments to the angle of your gouge, in order to maintain appropriate depth without digging too deeply or cutting so shallow that you lose your cut. Carving simple lines like these effectively should only require one pass, but if you need to make another one to refine certain areas, read the grain and “work” each side of the cut to avoid unsightly tearout.
A few swipes of shellac in the carving lines completed the project. There you have it. Feel free to sit, stand, jump or park a tank on top of this bench. You won’t find a much sturdier piece of furniture or a tougher wood from which to build it. It’s gorgeous, too, just like the great American Southwest.