This handmade oak and walnut desk was commissioned early last year and was a pleasure to make. It was designed by architect Tom Allen, and intended to match the existing oak and walnut joinery in the home study where it was intended to sit. Here’s a photo diary about how it was made, including some photos of the finished piece…
The design is composed of a single thick band of timber, folded at each corner, which curves like a crescent around the user. Contained within the thickness of the band is a set of three drawers, each with a gently curving front. The top and sides of the desk are constructed from solid oak panels, but the underbelly and insides of the drawers are made of walnut. This creates a beautiful contrast between the honey-coloured oak and chocolate walnut.
Before starting construction, I sent the client a drawing showing how the desk would be constructed and all the details that I would incorporate. Because the desk was going to be handmade and completely bespoke, it was important that these details were just as the client wanted and any changes could be actioned before construction started.
In particular, there was a nice groove detail on the underside of each drawer-front which allowed them to be opened without a visible handle. Another nice moment was a 3mm bead of walnut which was inlaid into each of the top corners, gaving a hint of the rich walnut of the underbelly.
The first job of the construction was to join all the oak and walnut boards into solid panels. This is a really time consuming job, as each joint line has to be hand planed until smooth. The more accurate you are with the jointing, the less work in smoothing once the glue is dry. There’s a huge amount of timber in this project, around 40 linear meters, which also means is a heavy piece of furniture.
Once the panels were jointed and smooth, I set about constructing the legs. On first glance, the desk might look like it’s made from solid 100mm chunks of oak, but this would not have been dimensionally stable with fluctuations in moisture. The legs and top are actually constructed with hollow centres and mitered corners to hide the join lines.
It was crucial that the curves of the desk top and underside matched perfectly otherwise the assembly, and so the finish, might be compromised. For this reason, I made a huge compass with a router as the cutter head and a 3-meter board as the boom. With one end screwed down to form a static centre-point, the router at the other end could be used to cut a perfect arc. The resulting curves were accurate to within about half a millimeter.
The top and bottom panels of the desk are separated by dividers which guide the drawers into place. In order to assemble this part of the desk, around 50 loose tenon joints were cut, glued, aligned and clamped in one go. However the most challenging part of this assembly was that the top and bottom panels were so wide that, if clamped around the edge like normal, they would barrel in the centre, and there would be big gaps left between the joints. To avoid this I set up an array of ‘force-spreaders’, which spread out the clamping force across the entire length of each joint. They are very simple – just thick chunks of wood with a curved surface on the clamping side. As the clamps are compressed at each end, the force-spreaders bend and so apply the clamping force first to the centre of the panel, and then steadily out toward to the sides. This a great way of getting perfect carcass assemblies without breaking the bank.
The leg pieces were attached to the desk top piece with loose-tenon mitre joints. These were made more complex because each side had two joints to align – there was the top side where the walnut bead would be inlaid, but also the under side. This called for a glue with a long open-time, which is what Titebond 3 is designed for (I’m not on commission). I was really glad of it, because each leg took around 30 minutes to align and prepare for clamping.
The drawer fronts are made from a single thick piece of oak. The curved front was cut very very slowly on the bandsaw and sanded smooth. they were then rebated on the back on accept the dovetails of the drawer boxes. The finger grove was cut into the underside with a dome-headed router bit, a guide, and a steady hand. Having been concerned about how much time it would take to construct the drawers, I was pleasantly surprised that they went together in around a day.
After fitting the drawers into their slots with a little hand-planing, it was time to oil the piece. It took around 7 coats of oil to get the finish I wanted, wire-wooling between each coat in order to get a really smooth surface. The piece was finished off with felt applied to the base of each leg and a little bees wax to really make the grain ping. It’s one of my favourite projects to date.
Thanks very much to Tom and Nigel for designing and commissioning the piece, and being a joy to work with.
If you would like to know more about the bespoke handmade furniture and hardwood interiors I make at HM HandMade, check out the website at www.hmhandmade.co.uk, or call Hugh on 07789 768 302.