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.
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.