Picking a favorite project is like deciding which of your children you love the most. Picking my favorite kid would be easy, I only have the one. Among all the things I’ve made from wood, the Byrdcliffe Linen Press is the one I like the best. It was featured on the cover of the April 2006 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine, and a version of the original article is one of the projects in my book; “Classic Arts & Crafts Furniture: 14 Timeless Designs.”
What I enjoy most about building reproductions is that it limits my choices. When you commit to making a piece look as much like the original as you can, it’s difficult to take the easy way out. If you meet the challenge, you find out that the things that appear too difficult, or not worth the trouble are the very things that make a difference, in the furniture and in the furniture maker. Left to my own devices, I could design a pretty good linen press, but I never would have thought of the carved, colored panels, nor would I have decided to stain the thing green. Instead of living with something pretty good, I’ve had the privilege of keeping my socks, underwear and sweaters in something great for the last seven years.
A long time ago, I had a boss tell me that 90% of woodworking is problem solving. I steal that line on a regular basis, and as the years go by the percentage goes up. The other 10% or so doesn’t go much beyond being able to cut to a line. The line may be straight or curved, in this direction or that, in material that may or may not cooperate. But if you don’t get the line in the right place at the right time, all the practice you have in hitting it doesn’t mean much at all.
There are a lot of parts in this case, but that complexity can be simplified if you get the sequence right. These parts need to be fabricated before those can be added to complete a side panel, and if the second one is exactly like the first, all the things that go in between ought to fit. There still comes a time when all the pieces need to go together. I’ve learned to make dry runs until I get get the entire thing together without too much force or wishful thinking. Then it’s time to take a deep breath, get out the glue and refuse to answer the phone.
One of my favorite times is when I get a project to the state seen in the picture to the left. It’s all together, everything fits, save for the lock stile on the left hand door that needs trimming. The piece is far from done; drawer boxes need to be built, the back boards need to be shiplapped and put in place. And of course there’s a final once over with some fine sandpaper and then the finishing . . .
What worried me most about the finishing wasn’t applying the green color (although that wasn’t easy) it was the need to complete the panels and assemble the doors before the color went on. I contemplated taking the easy way out and staining before assembly, but I didn’t want to take the risk of having the doors come out one color, and the rest of the piece come out another. The same batch of stain, on the same species of wood, prepared the same way can come out looking quite different if you do one part in the morning early in the week and the other part in the afternoon later on in the week.
I had too much time invested to take that risk, so I opted to take the lesser risk; stain the doors with the panels in place. I did stain the edges of the doors first, and sealed the carvings with a coat of shellac, and I was very careful when I stained the doors.
The picture at right is what things looked like last summer. The color has faded a bit, and the quartersawn white oak has started to naturally darken. It looks better than it did when I made it, and it’s beginning to look similar to the original Byrdcliffe pieces I’ve seen. Another eighty years or so, and it should be just right.
About a year ago, a couple of guys suggested that I teach a class on making this piece. I don’t think that could be done in a week, but that suggestion led me to investigate another Byrdcliffe piece. That one is a little smaller, and a littler simpler, but it also has very nice colored carvings, and it too is stained green. I’m hoping to start building it soon, and considering making two; one green and one with a clear finish. I’m not sure I have it in me to stain cherry green, and I’m really curious to see what it will look like both ways.
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