Joinery is a skilled approach to combining wooden elements so that the basic unit of lumber, the board or plank, can be combined in a functional and ridged form that is good for something. Joining these pieces has been refined into basic forms that are not simply good engineering, but required for the longevity and durability of what is made. Joining techniques have been so ingrained in our culture (I just love good puns), that it doesn't take an expert to appreciate an ability to join wood in its traditional forms.
In modern construction, these forms have all but disappeared, except as kept alive by architects and builders doing their best to convey a particular feel or style. Manufactured goods generally skirt away from joinery or attempt to mimic it only in appearance because manufacturers no longer can afford to take time to compose each piece, or deal with variation. The techniques of joinery require changing the geometry of the raw material, whereas modern products are generally variants on the shapes that are most easily manufactured. Good joinery is a preservation of a way of thinking in danger of replacement by a perspective of mass production. Historical artifacts are a testament to how durable and beautiful wood furniture can be.
So, after a long philosophical discourse on why I think its important to keep traditional joinery alive, here is how I built a bed frame using the mortise and tenon joint. The mortise and tenon is considered strong for good reason. The cross section of the horizontal member passing through the vertical post is what determines its strength. I cut the mortise with chisels and the tenons with saws and planes. Fit between the two pieces was aided with files. While my methods were somewhat crude and not as perfectly fitted as might be hoped, the joints are still attractive. One way the joints were highlighted was by allowing the tenon to extend slightly through the mortise, so it is both visible and can be felt without protruding far enough to be a knee knocking hazard.
In this piece, there are two mortises adjoining at right angles. I think it would be preferable spacing these apart and leaving material between, but it still came out strong. There were also blind mortises in the upper cap portion of the headboard that are not visible. The headboard and foot board both incorporated this joint in the lower frame area as well as to hold the cap on. Each cap and bottom rail in these was fitted with a blind dado which housed the ends of the ship-lapped planking. Shiplapping was used to prevent problems with shrinkage across the grain. So far, we haven't had any significant issues with this.
Here is the final product. The joints give a distinct look and unify the piece, giving it a solid, but refined look. I just realized I haven't said anything about the hardwood selected for this project. The hardwood we settled on was Khaya mahogany. It isn't known for being as flashy as Sapele, but it still has some fantastic striping.
The mahogany used here was finished with shellac and wax. The natural gold striping is very bold on this piece. Mohogany striping can be very dramatic. It also darkened significantly in a couple of months, so be aware of this when using clear or lightly tinted finishes. One reason mahogany has been so highly prized is because of this characteristic. It's rich brown color comes with age and has been a distinguishing characteristic of long lived and finely crafted work. For this reason, I'm especially glad it could be used on this piece using traditional joinery.
When I was just a lad, I remember a similar project that my father undertook. I'm sure my parents had some late nights building and upholstering a pair of small, hand-crafted couches. At the time, they used white vinyl that was commonly available for upholstery projects at the end of the 80's. I'm sure they admired their creation proudly when complete, but sometime in the intervening weeks, I discovered that a pencil, carefully sharpened, would make a nice, neat row of holes in the said material. Somehow, Mom and Dad knew exactly who had done it. On that occasion, I learned that hiding under my bed wouldn't serve to prevent the impending consequence of my youthful folly.
So maybe it was genetics or subliminal memories, but it just seemed natural with our young family, that there should be a comfortable place for tired adults to sit and visit at the end of the day. Getting that monster couch, which never looked so large at the store, down that pokey hall and through the doorway, after it turned the initial corner getting into the hall is never an elementary endeavor. Well, for that much effort, you might as well try something of your own.
For those looking for a nice starter project where space comes at a premium, this bench might be a good one to try. At the time, we didn't have a lot of nice wood, but showcasing what we have went a long way with the help of some clearance upholstery which covered the plywood frame. Hand coped and contoured edges, symmetrical detailing, square false tenons for the arm-rest, and uniquely carved legs make a rather small piece really stand out.
The legs were the most fun. Using a compass and some curve templates, along with a bit of creativity, the front legs of this bench extend upward to meet the arm-rest which appears to be tangent to the cylindrical top of the posts. The bottom of each terminates in something reminiscent of a horse's hooves. Perhaps there is a bit of an Egyptian theme going on there. In contrast to the complex shape of the front legs, I do like the gentle curvature seen by the shadows cast on the faces of the rear legs and the slight taper down to the bottom, so if fancy and carved seems daunting, the gentler shapes found there might be more appealing.
I am rather critical of my own work, so if you see something that really bothers you, just remember, I may be in full agreement with you; because, while I'm proud of some features of this bench, there were certainly a few things that could have been better. Here is a short list: If I were to do it over, I'd make the armrests from thicker stock to accentuate a larger round on the interior of the arm and to balance better with the stouter legs. The ears or "viking horns" are a bit much and might have been more subdued to reflect the lower rail, which I think is a better composition of curves. I also discovered, after the fact, that there are some fantastic products for giving a cushion a bit better curved shape and it would be easier to keep the lines nicely perpendicular. The upholstery tacks used here were pretty simple to use, but some piping on the edge of the fabric might help keep the edge a bit neater as well. I did wrap upholstery around the back and ended up using screw fasteners where they wouldn't be as likely to be seen to connect the top rail to the back to give it some extra height (be very careful when putting a screw through fabric because the screw can grab and ruin woven things pretty quickly).
Personally, the armrests were a bit low for me, so be sure to measure for what will be best for you. Significant help is available for anyone taking on furniture projects and wondering how to size these pieces. One good reference is http://www.brezlin.com/design/chairguidelines.html. Thanks for the info! Lastly, if you are anxious for the welfare of this bench, rest assured, it is safe. The bench now sits in my parent's home, safely away from the pencils and curiosity of six year-old's. ;)
Matthew is a talented young woodworker that enjoys unlocking the natural beauty of each piece of wood. He had an early start to his woodworking pursuits in junior high classes and has in the last 7 years, begun to combine his design training and experience with some talents that remained dormant for a number of years. He loves exploring techniques and the best that is out there and in so doing, he has created many custom pieces for family and friends and begun marketing his work for the enjoyment of those who appreciate hand-crafted, unique and inspiring work.