Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Building rustic furniture for a log cabin.#1

Some of the completed furniture prior to varnishing.

When we recently decided to stop renting our log cabin ( which I built thirty years ago) and turn it back into our family`s cottage we needed to furnish it again. Our financial resources were scanty but we were excited to imagine what our little log house in the big woods could be made to look like after so many years of renting. One last major job of cleaning, re-finishing the lodge pole pine walls and washing those high windows in the vaulted ceiling and then we were free to turn to watching the used furniture ads.

Skinning the bark with the drawknife.

Our daughters, who would be the major users of the cabin now, felt we should furnish totally in Ikea furniture, but in the end we found a couch and chair of a Quebec heritage style and realized that they would suit the log cabin perfectly. Their strong ash-wood frames set a style that permitted me to make some of the other furniture myself out of materials I had right to hand. I`d always looked for an opportunity to make ‘rustic furniture’ and with a pile of recently cut poles waiting in the forest and a ancient cedar door that had been accidently split down the middle taking up room in my workshop, I realized that I had everything I needed. I was not interested in the more ‘expressive’ examples I found in a book on the subject but wanted to make fine pieces of furniture that would look right beside our ‘Habitant’ furniture and the log walls and beams of the cabin.

The former cedar door cut up to make the tops.
Drying the pole parts beside the stove.
After measuring for and making a list of pieces of furniture (many side tables, desk and chair, bed frame and backboard) I cut up the solid door into various sizes and sanded them. Then off to the woods to select and carry back all the thin poles that I would need for legs and rails. These I peeled of their bark with a draw knife ( it came off easily because they were recently cut),cut them to various lengths and then added an innovation of my own by using my circular saw to make a longitudinal cut in each piece so that the stresses involved in shrinking wood as it dried would result in one crack instead of many( that could be filled later with a thin piece of wood). All were cut to length and then brought into the house and placed beside the wood stove to dry quickly ( my equivalent of kiln drying.) Here they sat for two weeks getting as dry as possible before I started the assembly process.

I was also out among my big cedars clipping thinner curved branches to form braces for some of the pieces. I`d need plenty so I could select matching pairs: these I skinned with a knife and also set to dry.
The new bed frame and backboard would be needed quite soon for a family Easter visit so even though it was the biggest item, it was the first to be built from wide cedar planks and vertical poles. Heather particularly urged me to avoid the overly dramatic effect of the massive pole construction we had seen illustrated in the reference book ( ‘Making Rustic Furniture’ by Daniel Mack.) Although large in size, the frame and backboard were simple to build. Balanced across the wheelbarrow, the bed trundled easily up the hill to the cabin. Without it`s varnish finish as yet, I am planning to do some carving on the backboard once all the visitors have left.

The desk, seat and multiple tables were the next project to fit into the busy week of cabin preparations and first Spring garden planting. I first made the seating bench for the writing table to make sure I had my technique correct ( I `d made one coffee table using this method a couple of years ago).First I drilled four mortice holes with a one and a half inch drill bit into the bottom corners of the cedar seat top (being careful to not drill right through). The legs needed tenons on the tops to fit into these mortices and so I drilled the same bit on the ends of each leg to mark the correct size and then used the table saw to cut the waste depth about an inch back from the end. I chipped out the waste wood with my Swiss Army knife and sanded for a close fit.

Once propped up on it`s legs, I marked where the rungs would best go and drilled out the holes with a three quarter inch drill bit. After measuring for length, I cut the rungs and used a Veritas tenon cutter to shape the ends ( what a great tool to fit on an electric drill.) After dry assembly to check, I used yellow carpenters glue for final assembly and held the whole thing together with pieces of rope cinched up tight. Over the last couple of days I have mass produced a desk and five more side tables in an assembly line manner. A final hand sanding and several coats of satin varnish and they will be finished.
Much of the satisfaction in this project has been the making of something practical and beautiful from free recycled materials. Those poles were extra thin pieces left over from fence post and firewood making from beetle killed balsam firs. As mentioned, the cedar tops were made from a broken front door. Those wide cedar planks for the bed frame were cut several years ago from dead red cedars that had slowly died while we were away sailing. Of course, if I charged for my labour then Ikea would have been much cheaper (and they do have some nice designs). No personal satisfaction though, and our little cabin will show the difference.

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