Crafting a Life – Episode 16

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Hello, and welcome to Crafting a Life.
I’m Evan Dunstone and this is the Dunstone Design podcast
Episode 16, “A Table Fit for a King”

The other day my wife and I were at a dinner with some people she knew through her horse riding. On learning that I was a furniture maker, they took great delight in telling me all about the beautiful dining table we were sitting at.

This was a table that I had already cracked my knee on, and was now struggling to fit under. Now it’s true that I am getting a bit bigger every year, and not in a happy way, but I’m not Fatty Arbuckle yet.

The top was a bark to bark slab of figured red gum and I could see some splits in it. The finish was some sort of sprayed lacquer and I could see where is was starting to lift. Because the lacquer was heavily applied, and was in any case high gloss, the top was very shiny and reflected a lot of white light.

The understructure was made of huge red gum sections that were set in just far enough to be exactly in the way of anyone sitting towards the end of the table. The long rails were so thick that I could barely fit my thighs under them. Because the rails were so thick, the top of the table was unusually high, so that I felt like a little kid at the grown-ups table.

Our hostess told me with hushed awe that the chap who made this table was completely self-taught. I believed her. I asked her if I could looked under the table. As I suspected, the frame was simply screwed on to the top with coach screws, with no allowance made for the expansion and contraction of the top. The splitting of the top was the direct result of this omission.

To my eye, this table was a master class in what not to do as either a designer or a craftsman. It was a beautiful slab of timber, but so much of the colour and fire in the timber was obscured by the finish. It certainly had a strong visual presence, but the table could hardly be described as a pleasure to use. Worse still it’s construction and finish was actually pulling it apart.

I should stop myself at this point and make a critical observation; the family loved this table. They had bought it while on holiday from a bloke in a shed by the side of the road. By all accounts he was quite a character and he’d given them a good laugh. Organising the table’s transport across about 900 km of NSW roads became an adventure, and it took six strong guys to get it into the house. The table came with a great story and held a warm place in their hearts.

Does it make me a miserable curmudgeon to point out the table’s technical and practical flaws? I don’t know. With a little more knowledge on the maker’s part, it could have been so much better in just about every way, while potentially no less visually appealing.  Similarly, if our friends had known a bit more, perhaps they would have viewed the table differently.

So, how should you asses a dining table if you are looking to buy one? The most important thing to look for is technical, and therefore not very sexy. Its provision for the natural movement of timber in the design. If the table top is made from solid timber, it will expand and contract with seasonal changes in humidity. Obviously this is not a concern if the table is made from veneer, as veneer is dimensionally stable.

Solid timber is hydroscopic and will always, and I mean always, respond to the relative humidity of its environment. This ‘ll happen irrespective of the type or quantity of the finish used, the length of time the timber has been drying for, or any other factor. Some timbers move more than others, but all timbers will move.

When timber gains moisture, it expands. When it loses moisture, it shrinks. The power with which the timber will move due to moisture changes is truly amazing. Almost all problems with dining tables made in Australia are related to timber movement in the top, usually resulting in either a cracked top (due to shrinkage) or blown leg joinery (due to expansion). A good designer will put slotted screws, furniture buttons or sliding cleats on a solid timber dining table. I would not expect a lay person in a furniture showroom to crawl under a table and look for these things, but there is a much simpler way; just ask the maker or the sales person “what provision has been made for timber movement in this design”. If the designer or sales person tries to tell you that the timber won’t move, then don’t buy the table. Well, that’s pretty straightforward.

The second thing to look for is much more fun. It is usability. The whole point of a dining table is to sit people around it. All the top shapes and the positioning of the legs will effect this. There is no such thing as a perfect configuration, but some are decidedly better than others.

As a general rule, round tables and square tables are less versatile than rectangular tables. Round tables are very convivial, but specific diameters suit a specific number of people. Having only two people sitting at a round table designed for six does not feel great. Square tables are ok for even numbers of people (2, 4,6,8) but feel a bit strange with odd numbers. For example, 5 people sitting at a square table designed for 8 just feels odd.

So rectangular tables are often the most practical, however you might have a room shape or a family size that favours round or square.

Then there are extension tables. Most extension tables can only sit an additional two people when extended. Some designs can fit an additional 4, but these are usually fairly large tables to start with, for example an 8 seater that extends out to a 12 seater. The problem is, in Australia we tend to want to go from say a 6 seater out to a 12 seater, and then only once or twice a year. I am not a big fan of extension tables, because they tend to look out of proportion in one or the other configuration, but they certainly have their place.

The few times a year that you need a really big table are usually for family events such as Christmas, when you are really not that focused on the actual table, just its function. I suggest that you get your dream table in the size best suited for your normal everyday use. Then keep a nice sheet of sanded and finished 2400 by 1200 sheet of Birch ply, backed with a protective foam sheet, in the garage for those big events. When Christmas comes around, you just carefully dust down your beautiful table, let’s call it a six seater, and place the sheet of birch ply onto the table top with the foam pad down. Your six seater is now a very practical sixteen seater, and you don’t have to worry about what the kids are doing.

Then there is the question of where to put the legs on a table. Some people quite like to be able to feel the under structure of a table with their legs. These are the type who like to put their feet up on the rails. Others don’t want to be aware of the understructure at all. You could easily argue that the very best table would have no legs at all, and you’d be right, but that is a little tricky to organise.

Probably the most simple and common understructure for a dining table is to have the legs in the corners joined by a frame or skirt. The drawback with this configuration is the obvious conflict between the thickness of the rail and your poor old thighs. I personally hate this configuration, because it makes me feel trapped.

Look, the legs have to go somewhere. When you are considering a table, make sure that the legs of the table to not crack you in the knees of get in the way of your thighs. A well designed table should maximise the number of people who can comfortably sit around it, without being unstable and without injuring someone. You might laugh, but there are a lot of tables that will crack you one way or another if you aren’t careful.

The timber you select for you table is largely a matter of taste, but some timbers will perform better than others. In Australia, many of our timbers are quite hard, so they resist wear and damage. At Dunstone Design, we use a lot of blackwood, which is relatively soft by Australian standards, but reasonably hard by international standards. Blackwood has the advantage of hiding the inevitable small dings and marks because of its grain and colour. A timber like Huon pine, which is really quite soft, should only be used as a dining table by someone who understand and accepts that it is going to get dinged easily, and that the timber colour it will show every little mark.

One last thing about dining table design. Most dining tables are not designed in conjunction with a chair design. For example, the great Hans Wegner designed only a handful of tables and I don’t believe that any of them are in current production, despite many of his chairs still being manufactured. There are only a handful of Australia designer/makers who design and make entire suites of any calibre. I personally think it’s very important that the table and chairs are designed to go together to create a complete composition.

Finally, there’s the finish. Seriously, I could do a whole podcast on furniture finish, and not only would it be long winded and technical, but I would be bombarded by a multitude of makers arguing this way and that. They say that  politics and religion shouldn’t be raised in polite company, but nor should the subjects of finishes and glues around woodworkers.

Of course, there is no perfect finish for a dining table. Every finish comes with advantages and draw backs. The competing requirements are; moisture resistance, impact resistance, look, feel, serviceability, ease of application, environmental footprint and occupational health and safety. A finish is supposed to be a barrier between the raw timber and the outside world. At one extreme is the soap finish, which isn’t much of a barrier to anything at all, and at the other extreme is two pack lacquer, which can be as tough as nails. I’m not going to talk about soap finishes or French polish, because you are unlikely to encounter them on new furniture and I don’t want to bore you to death.

So, modern lacquers. Lacquers come from the petro chemical industry. They’re hard wearing and reasonably clear. They form what is essentially a plastic barrier over the timber. Lacquers offer a considerable amount of protection from general wear and they are relatively economical to apply.

Unfortunately, spaying lacquer is potentially toxic to the applicator and also poses a significant fire hazard.  Once a lacquer has fully set, nothing further will stick to it, not even more lacquer. Lacquers look best on pale or brown timbers, but they don’t bring out the reds or yellows in timbers. A lacquer that looks good on walnut might not look so good on red gum. As a lacquer finish wears, it develops lots of mirco scratches. This means that even the very best lacquer finish will start to look hazy over time, and there is very little that you can do about it. All finishes will yellow a little with age, but lacquers are particularly susceptible and can look especially nasty on pale timbers, such as rock maple or Victorian ash. And finally, a lacquer finish is essentially a gloss finish. A matte or satin lacquer is simply a lacquer formula that has a lot sterites in it to reduce reflection. These are much more prone to yellowing over time.

Varnishes are usually much less toxic to apply and their basic chemistry is usually pretty benign, compared to a modern lacquer. Varnishes can even be water based. Varnishes are usually applied with a roller or a brush, but some formulations can be sprayed. The biggest challenge with a varnish is getting a smooth, streak free surface. It’s really quite difficult to get a blemish free varnish finish on a dining table. Large flat surfaces such as dining tables really show up brush marks, roller marks and orange peel. Orange peel’s a sort of slightly mottled effect that, when looked at closely, resembles the skin of an orange. I hate it.

Water based varnishes have come a long way, but they still look a little milky and I’m yet to see a water based varnish finish that I would consider worthy of fine furniture.

Traditional or polyurethane varnishes give a much clearer, more durable finish than the water based stuff, but again I am yet to see a pure varnish finish that is completely free of applicator marks or trapped contaminates such as dust. An old varnish finish doesn’t respond well to having a new layer of fresh varnish applied over the top, but you can steel wool and wax a varnish finish to good affect.

Oil finishes. Oil finishes are made from natural oils such as Tung oil or Linseed oil that polymerise to form a solid. Oil finishes are not oily once they are set. Olive oil, for example, will never polymerise, so it is not a true oil finish.

Oils bring out the full colour of timber and feel great. They are also relatively easy to apply and maintain. The biggest drawback of oils is that they tend to mark relatively easily, and are more susceptible to marks from fluids etc than either lacquers or varnishes. Having said all that, there is now an oil by Osmo, which does not behave like a traditional oil. Osmo’s much thicker than a traditional oil and on a dining table, it’s usually applied with a roller. Once dry, it performs and looks very much like a lacquer, but with none of the nasty chemistry or health risks. Osmo’s a very good finish but for two things; I have never achieved, nor have I ever seen, and Osmo finish completely free of orange peel or contaminates The second thing is that, on red timbers such as jarrah or red gum, it looks slightly cloudy or perhaps milky.

Now admittedly I am super fussy about orange peel, colour and cloudiness. I have seen an excellent Osmo finish on spotted gum, but even then I was aware of some slight orange peel and a sort of cloudiness. There was definitely a noticible loss of colour. It looked like a well done lacquer finish, and I am sure that it was hard wearing.

Finally, there’s an oil/vanish mixture. This is basically what is meant by a Danish or Scandinavian oil. The key to a good oil/varnish is getting the right quality of linseed oil in the mix. Most commercial brews fall down on this point. An oil/varnish is usually a combination of 3 parts oil to 2 parts varnish. It can be thinned with mineral turps as desired. This finish has more build than a straight traditional oil but it is still a wipe on/wipe off finish, so you can get an immaculate surface completely free of orange peel, brush or roller marks and contaminates. The Oil/varnish mixture can be maintained almost indefinitely with subsequent applications, and it really brings out the colour in the wood. It is still more susceptible to damage than a lacquer, a straight varnish or Osmo, but it is much easier to repair than any of them. This is the finish that we use almost exclusively. I’ve been making furniture now for 25 years, so I am old enough to have seen furniture that I made as an apprentice a quarter of a century earlier come in for a refinish. In some cases I’ve taken a table that hasn’t seen a lick of oil since it was delivered and its taken us all of an hour to cut it back with some steel wool and bring it back to almost new with a fresh coat. Nothing ages better than an oil/varnish.

On the subject of finishes, every year I get a rush of blood to the head and I try something new, especially for table tops. I’m frustrated that the oil varnish is not as tough as the other common finishes. Yet every year I return to the oil varnish. I just can’t replicate the look or the feel of our oil varnish with anything else. Osmo’s come the closest, but I just don’t like the look of it on the red timbers and I can’t abide orange peel.

So here’s your check list when looking for in a new dining table; Does the design accommodate timber movement? Does the understructure get in your way or restrict the number of chairs you can fit around it? Is the finish appropriate for your lifestyle? Are the table and chairs a holistic composition? Is the shape the most appropriate for the shape of your room and for your lifestyle? Does the timber appeal to you and is it suitably tough for your purposes? You will probably have to compromise on one of these points, with the exception of the timber movement thing. That just has to be right.

You’ve been listening to Crafting a Life, the Dunstone Design podcast on all things furniture and woodwork. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please consider going to Itunes and giving it a like, it really helps me out. I’m Evan Dunstone, and I look forward to your company next time.