Emulating Esherick


2012-08-06
/ Report & photoby Greg Niederhaus

This article will require at least two segments...  I have worked with interwood for about 5 years now as an editor, but concurrently stayed busy with my own woodwork.  Editor in Chief, Mr. Gary Liao called me into his showroom and presented me with a big coffee table book about the works of Wharton Esherick. In his day, Esherick was an unconventional master carpenter, and to this day, his work is treasured by collectors. Rustic and rugged, much of his use of irregular shaped wood seems to defy the logic of many.  Gary asked me to select a piece to recreate for his own furniture collection. When I saw this table I was blown away. I marveled at the geometry of the structure. He said that it is one of his favorites, and asked if I could make one...

A Little History Jumping back a couple years from now, Gary had me go in and extract all of the wood from his childhood farm house. The neighborhood was slated for demolition due to rezoning by the city government.  Most of the wood was Chinese Hemlock, well over a hundred years old. After having me build a few pieces for the showroom, Gary wasn't sure how much timber we had left. I told him he had enough Hemlock for the structure, but that the top would have to be of Walnut and some other wood I do not recognize. I explained that Esherick's photograph didn't reveal his joinery in detail, and that I didn't care to copy. Could I take inspiration from the old master, and just sort of let the table come to life as we go? He said, "Do your thing. How much is this going to cost me?" I replied that I'd need an industrial bandsaw, and that would be enough. He pointed out that Esherick's lines were all straight, compound angles. My intention was to get myself that bandsaw, so I explained that his table would sport the curves of a Countach. He asked how much time I would require, and I said, "Two weeks once the bandsaw arrives." I should have said eight weeks, because that's how long it took to complete. The last question was whether or not it would include metal fasteners. The answer was, "Zero."

Joining the top I pulled the two largest planks of timber out of the ivy that had taken them over. Wasps were not happy about that. The walnut was 6 cm thick, and the mystery wood was about 8 cm thick. It took 3 blade changes on the thickness planer to bring the two planks down to 5.5cm. With the biscuit jointer, I used the maximum depth setting and created 8 matching cat's-eye shaped joints on the edges intended to be the seam. Those were 15mm thick, so I made my own biscuits from Mozambique Teak. The two planks were somewhat warped, resulting from decades of being outside. One challenge was getting the seams to match in a perfect line. Not having a jointer, I used an I beam and a cordless circular saw. Several passes got a good result, but the planks were still warped. Some fancy clamp work and a sledge hammer got the planks on the same plane and dry fit with the biscuits. Biscuit grain went cross-wise to span the seam, so as not to split under the pressure.

Resulting, the warpage of each plank counteracted each other, and we ended up with a rough table top to start with. Problems Bring Character The two planks were of different lengths. Problem one. The leading edge had been gnawed away by bugs. Problem two. There were two gaping holes where heavy doors had hinged in the walnut which used to be a threshold. Problem three. The answer to problem one was to make an angled cut at each end of the table top to maximize existing wood, yet provide clean lines. I made what I call “wing tips” with Hemlock and some old Hinoki (Japanese Cyprus). Three hefty Teak biscuits hidden inside and three bowtie plugs sunk 4 cm deep is how the wing tips joined in. Down below I added in two Teak dovetail slides for more stability.

For problem two, I decided that the bugs had done me a favor. I decided to showcase the imperfections they left behind as a thing of Nature. Now, for those gaping hinge holes… I found two big Hinoki knots with colors similar to the walnut. Those ended up being sunk in to deceive everyone that they were naturally there. 5.5cm thick. Is that cheating? Figuring out the Structure Esherick was ingenious. He configured his table to have two joining legs that meet the top in the middle. How he joined them is still a mystery to me. Supporting the ends of the table are two separate cross pieces that go down from the top and through the legs. The cross pieces intersect each other and go through the legs again lower towards the feet. On the outside of the legs, they are wedged tight through a mortice. In the diagram, the black lines are the rough stock we began with. Red lines are the eventual curves and blue lines are joinery. Legs First None of the Hemlock was true, so with some hand planing and a thickness planer, it got sorted out. I needed two boards per leg. Joining to the table top was a challenge. I wanted to do a sliding dovetail, but to join 4 pieces and still have the required strength required a day of failures before I figured it out. That joint ended up involving 10 pieces of wood.

This is where a few strategically hidden screws would have made life easier, but rules are rules. With all the components lapp joined and clamped together, I fashioned a sliding platfrom level to the workbench. The router with a dove cutter slid along that to mill the top surfaces of all that wood flat to each other. Then the platform got secured in place to act as a guide fence to route in the male dove slide. That operation took all day, partly because 100 year old Hemlock can be obstinately fragile. It is heavy and strong, yet the grain does not like to be dictated to! Then I machined an exact female copy out of the bottom of the table top, and the leg assembly was able to slide in. Auspicious Audacity As a foreigner in Taiwan, one tries to embrace the culture a bit.

"Feng Shui" is relevant to observe when building. Tape measures have red and black numbers, red being good and the other to avoid. It may be considered audacios of this American chippy to think he understands Feng Shui, but then again, it may bring some character to the table. 8 is a prosperous number. So, I used a total of 8 types of wood in this project: Chinese Hemlock, Hinoki, Walnut, Mystery Wood, Iron Wood, Mozambique Teak, Elm and finally, Lychee Wood. 28 is doubly as lucky, so 28 centimeters depicted the start and end points of the compound curves. 69 is also a lucky number, possibly because it looks like Yin and Yang doing there thing. Quite by coincidence, there are exactly 69 joints in the finished piece. That was an accident, but hey, why not showcase the fact? Below is a shot of the end result, but next month I plan to share how the rest of the structure and detail work got achieved. Thank you for reading, and I hope you join me next month for the rest of this story.
Leave a message