Furniture Design Heads Outside – Birth of the Arc Table

Until recently, I’d never designed or built furniture to go anywhere but inside, mainly for the obvious reason that wood and water don’t make a lasting match. Even in situations for which it is suited, like decking and trim on a sailboat, wood needs to be protectively coated yearly or face certain deterioration. While I was not intending to go ‘full outside’, I realized that a covered porch afforded an opportunity to build for an outdoor application without being fully at the mercy of the elements.

Truth to tell, I had just completed my own home renovation porch/deck project and needed to populate the space. I’m not sure I agree that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, but new open space certainly provided some incentive!

The design of the table was centered on the base – a simple sub-assembly comprised of 2 solid and massive slabs of walnut with their ‘live edges’ left intact (a live edge is the terminology for the part of the plank that formed the outside face of the tree, not ‘squared’ or sawn off as is customary. Sometimes the bark remains but generally it falls off as the plank goes through its drying process). Those 2 uprights, 3″ thick and 36″ wide, were massive and sturdy enough not to need much more structure, requiring only one horizontal rail secured with removeable through-tenons to hold them rigidly vertical. In fact, those ends were so massive both visually and physically, that I needed to take some weight out of them which I did by cutting out large half-circles in each (partly how the table got its name).

As I learned from my conceptual sketches – and this was borne out in the construction – there was a fair amount of visual interest created by the curves and by the connecting rail. It would have been a shame to cover it all under a solid top which is where the idea for the inset glass in the top originated. Being traditionally, even parochially, a wood guy, I’d never used glass in a top before – only in door panels. So….I had to strike a delicate balance between making the top substantial enough to be in proportion with the base, not overpowering it, as well as in making the glass just the right size proportionately and practically.

Now, about that finish.

I’d never pickled walnut before, another first as far as I know, and I had never used a new exterior oil product intended specifically for decks. What better place to try both experiments out! ‘Pickling’ is just a fancy name for ‘whitewashing’ wood with a heavily diluted white water-borne (not latex) primer. After it dries, most of that coat is removed through sanding with 180 grit paper. I added one preliminary step just to be sure I’d get even more ‘character’ in the result: instead of smoothing out my hand-planing marks, which I usually due prior to sanding, I left them in. The tool marks combined with the grain to capture the whitewashing in completely random and attractive patterns. A very pleasant surprise! Application of the oil sealed in the effect permanently as well as created a waterproof barrier without the drawback of film finishes (lacquer and varnish) which always look like there’s something between you and the wood.

 

It doesn’t always turn out this way; in fact, most of my ‘experiments’ in woodworking have either been part of learning curves or more Life’s Lessons. This table was a happy exception.

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