Captain's Desk

Long, long ago, way.. way back in 2016, a client who inherited this Captains desk from his father, asked me to take the piece into my shop and spruce it up a bit. I cannot image the places it has been. It was not signed and there was nothing in its construction to allow me to confidently give an accurate estimate. My seat-of-the-pants guess is early half of the nineteenth century just because all the boards were obviously milled and worked by hand. I could be, and probably am, wrong.  

Instantly the yellow, crazed surface becomes clear when redissolved. 

Instantly the yellow, crazed surface becomes clear when redissolved. 

So, the first and most obvious problem was that the finish was riddled with tiny cracks giving the whole surface a yellow cloudy appearance.  The topmost finish was not original to the piece, but it was still very old and had become so brittle that just about everything left yellow scratches on it.  I did some experimenting  with various chemicals and decided that I would repair the existing finish rather than completely remove it and refinish.  


The truth is that it was probably more work than merely refinishing it, however I think it was the right move. This way, the original oil and wax finish was left intact along with all the accidental damage imprinted on it as the years passed. It was charming in this case and would have been wrong to simply erase. With the right mixture of solvents and some fresh shellac to restore the integrity of the finish, all the cracks melted together and the dried film was flexible enough to prevent them from showing up.  It took weeks to dry completely but once it did, the whole surface was clear and resilient.

In addition to the finishing stuff, I also reglued some cracks which the drawer frames had caused.  

The desk must have been made either when the wood was still wet, or at least in a much more humid environment than New Jersey in the winter time (very dry). Some careful chiseling of the drawer frame's rear joints will allow for the wood to expand in the future without blasting out the sides of the desk again.. or, more accurately, allow the sides to blast themselves out when they shrink each winter.



Finally, the potential coolest part of this desk was missing. Originally it had little trays to help organize the things inside but at some point they went missing. "No matter I will make new ones!" I said, and to my delight, my client said "Ok Mickey! Lets do it."

These parts will be the top trays. The sides will be spanish cedar and the bottoms, mahogany.

These parts will be the top trays. The sides will be spanish cedar and the bottoms, mahogany.

A finished tray

A finished tray

Here are the trays all finished. They are able to slide forward and back in order to access the things beneath and the dividers are able to be reconfigured as well. Before and after photos of the whole desk are right here. Enjoy and thanks for the interest!

Table progress

Here I am, after stalling for almost the ENTIRE DAY, finally crosscutting the piece which will be the top.  

My day described in the historical present just because I can: Go to the hardware store, take a walk, I stroll to the convenience store for a snack, I take a walk, I then vacuum the shop, take another walk, just sort of stand there doing nothing and looking ridiculous, what the heck, let's take another walk. One can only do this for so long before he is forced to admit to himself that he's just plain scared and needs to cut the thing. So...

Now its time make this giant thing flat.  Here's my router setup to do just that.

A router can get you where you're trying to go in quite a hurry but it also makes a huge mess. I love it.

We're half way there. Just look at this thing!

Taking a break from the flattening, here's an action shot of my hand polishing a finish sample. It's always exciting to see how the wood will look eventually.

The next move is to make all the curved base parts. The top of this table will weigh about 400 pounds. I am confident the base will not just collapse but am unsure of how much it will flex and wobble, so I constructed a mockup of the base i'd like to make. This allows me to see how stable the design is and it also gives me a chance to wrap my head around the joinery before attempting to cut into the real bubinga. Here's the mockup in poplar:

It works. There is a little wiggle but I think the bubinga will be stiffer than the poplar (it certainly is much heavier) so i'm moving forward. Soon i'll post some pictures of the base's construction, me figuring out how to attach it to the top as well as making a shelf to hide up underneath the tabletop.

The open-ended design process

For me, one of the best parts of making a custom piece of furniture for someone is that you get to work in a way that is somewhat loose. I say somewhat loose because there are always constraints, there have to be. Sometimes they are practical; the piece has to fit somewhere or be used by persons of a certain size. Sometimes they are aesthetic; "Mickey please don't make it look like a wooden electric chair" or "Mickey for goodness sake don't carve it up and down like a cuckoo clock." Sometimes they are simply economic.


Last year I made a piece in which this design process unfolded just about perfectly and wanted to mention it here. The concept began as simply as it could have. My client had a bench in mind and she and I quickly drew some rough sketches until we had some sort of a direction to head in. Once we had pinned the design down a little more, I suggested and procured an appropriate plank of wood... in this case it was an extremely thick piece of cherry from Hearne Hardwoods in Pennsylvania (it was wonderful thank you). There were rough dimensions, material was left oversized and blocky in order that it might be shaped as the piece unfolded.  We talked about perhaps a carving somewhere and settled on a simple relief pattern I sketched up.  The carving, type of wood and the shape of the base influenced one another to some extent.  The piece was always going to be stained dark but just how dark was a decision I left somewhat undetermined until the time came and we explored the possibilities.


In the end the design rationale and the piece itself are probably not perfect; some parts of the process were worried over by me too much while others may not have been deliberated upon enough, but the whole experience, the way in which an idea became an object, could not have been better.  It was exciting for me as a craftsman and in the end my client was delighted. I'm sure she was also relieved that it did not end up looking like one of my fanciful aforementioned descriptions. 

Small time wood harvesting.

Some might choose to use such pejorative terms as "scavenging" or worse yet, "hoarding"; and while these words may well express this peculiar activity, I stubbornly maintain that what I am doing is not in fact crazy. Moreover it might be as natural and basic an activity as gathering provisions before an impending long and severe winter.  It is springtime now. True. I'm not gathering this wood to burn for warmth. Also true.  

So, while my friends and family debate on the exact level of insanity at work here let me just say that it is just one of the things I truly enjoy doing and, like most of my other wood-related endeavors, I too find myself asking why. Today, however, as my son excitedly  helped me paint wax onto the end grain of some half-rotten maple logs, it was clear that we were doing a good thing. 



Carving and Coloring.


Here are some photographs of a small repair, but one that turned out quite well. The piece is a church pew made of Walnut and heavily carved. It is fairly old and had a damaged foot. Two sides which were glued on had fallen off. The course of action was to glue on more material, recarve what was added and finish it to look like it had always been there. 




I chose to do the work on site rather than in the shop. Not many tools were required and it would be easier for me and safer for the piece this way.