Build a Huon Pine ‘Clasp’ Table
Join one of Canada’s most prolific furniture makers as he turns a very special board, gifted to him decades ago, into a beautiful coffee table.
In 1978, I was given a 2″-thick, rough-sawed board. It didn’t look exceptional – that is until the tightly packed annual rings were counted. To my amazement they came to nearly fourteen hundred years of growth. It was Huon pine, and it comes from Tasmania, Australia. Don McKinley, who gave me the board, was at the University in Hobart working as a Craftsman in Residence for the university and the timber industry. They were grappling with issues around this rare and endangered wood. At that time, the valley where the Huon pine grew was being flooded for a hydro project. He worked for months in a workshop in Tasmania then returned to Sheridan College in Ontario with several pieces to continue his explorations in this unique wood. The gift of such a special piece of Huon pine was exceptional.
Finding the appropriate time and place took time. It occurred to me a client from a couple of years ago had many unusual woods in the architecture and furniture of their home. I contacted them, suggesting a side table with the Huon pine board making the tabletop. The client liked the idea, and I went ahead with developing a design.
The leg frame was made with the regional white ash, which is about to become an endangered species as the Emerald ash borer arrives in the area. Trees are under siege, and it’s important for woodworkers to treasure all the woods from around the world, especially those at home.
A mock-up gives you a much better sense of how 3D objects relate to one another, and how size and proportion affect the overall look. Hogbin developed a sleeker version of the turned leg after seeing his mock-up.
A Bit of Glue
A bead of glue near both ends of the glue-up keeps the four legs aligned during the turning process.
Clamps and Curved Cauls
Hogbin used simple pipe clamps, along with shop-made curved cauls, to clamp the four legs together while the glue dried.
Bevel Then Re-Clamp
Once the glue dried, and he bevelled the four corners of the blank, Hogbin added a different pair of pipe clamps to help keep the four legs together while turning them.
A drawing on the shop wall behind the lathe helped Hogbin create the shape he wanted.
Turn the Ends, Too
With the majority of the outer surface of the legs turned, Hogbin moves the pipe clamps to the turned face so he can shape the last portion.
Move to the Inside
Hogbin hollows out the inner area of the tops of the legs, but is careful to not remove too much material and cause the center core to break during the process.
A band saw, with its table angled, creates the rough face for the leg to rail joint. Hogbin trues up the surface afterwards.
A Quick Trim
A hand saw makes quick work of the center core that remains on each leg.
Two Straight Holes
With the help of a caul and clamp, Hogbin bores two 3/8" dowel holes in the legs.
Another Quick Trim
The shoulder for the rail to sit against is created with a hand saw.
Band clamps bring the first leg assembly together, but long bar clamps provide the necessary pressure to bring the join together squarely.
Add Some Colour
Hogbin layers colour onto the top of the rail and the inner surface of the legs. Starting with reddish/orange, then adding layers of blue to finish with the colour he was after.
Concept for the Huon pine table
I wanted legs that would hold and present this special piece of Huon pine top. The gesture was to present this beautiful piece of wood, similar to how a precious stone is held in jewelry, while still enabling a regular function.
Making a sample joint gave me the opportunity to see the problems and get the feel of this sculptural connection. In some ways it worked very well, although I found it bulbous, so the overall shape was changed. It was also complicated to make. For me it lacked the rightness of form with the means of production. It lacked elegance in its relationship of visual appearance to structure.
I went back to a familiar approach used before, which would make four legs from one turning. It also had an angularity that fit the client’s aesthetic and related to the dining chairs I made a few years ago. After the drawings and full-sized detail, the way forward was clear. While the concept of a clasp came quickly, the means of production was slower to be resolved. For me, it’s an interesting chicken-and-egg situation. Does the concept, form or construction drive the finished piece?
Workpiece for turning
There are two different approaches for holding the blanks ready for turning. The parts for the legs include four milled 2-3/4″ (70mm) square blanks. Finish the inside of the legs where they are put together for the turning. The height of the table will be 16″, and I add 4″ for waste.
Select the right length band clamp and crescent spacers. Run a tiny bead of glue on the ends of the four blanks, and clamp the parts together. This bead of glue, when dry, will prevent the four blocks from slipping if the chisel catches while turning.
On some designs it’s best to keep the square cross section on the ends as a base for drilling or cutting a mortise. This way is a little slower but more accurate later in the process. For this table it’s not necessary. Once dry, the four blanks can now be machined with a 45° angle to remove the bulk of the waste. Metal band clamps are then clamped to both ends of the blanks to help keep everything together.
I use a lower speed for turning. The cut is not quite so good, but it’s safe. Turn the four legs in the band clamps into a cylinder, making sure to keep your turning tools away from the metal clamp. Attached to the wall behind the lathe is a full-sized drawing of the profile. It could also be a thin cardboard template if I were making many tables. The drawing guides the shape. Lay out the major dimensions on the blank.
Take dimensions from the drawing, and use calipers to see where the turning needs to be thinner. It’s easy to get this stage wrong, as there are four legs in one. It looks heavy, and this is where it’s useful to have a sample made up or an already-finished piece nearby.
A top quality, versatile lathe, like the Laguna Revo 18|36 will last a lifetime of turning. Turn bowls and platters up to 18″ in diameter, and table and chair legs, balusters, bed posts, and all manner of spindles up to 36″ long. If you need more capacity must add the optional bed extension that increases the swing from 18″ to an impressive 32″ and spindle distance to a whopping 56″. The bed extension comes with a tool rest height extension that adds 7″ to the height of the tool rest to accommodate the lower positon of the extension bed.
Sometimes the drawing looks right, and then the turned object does not. Going from two to three dimensions will often need adjustment.
Things can change as the idea becomes three dimensional. Think about the end product and how it will look and function. The leg is horizontal on the lathe and may look great until it is stood on end.
The top of the leg
Since the shape is established, the band clamp can be moved onto the finished form so the top can be completed. Use a thick leather pad 1/8″ (3 mm) to protect the finished surface from the band clamp. The band clamp is covered with masking tape to reduce the problem of coming into contact with the screw whipping around looking for loose clothing or a wayward chisel. Finish the outside first, then go into the end of the leg. There’s no waste material on the end of this design.
When turning into the end of the blank to create the hollow, you will be weakening the glue bead. Material is being removed so the work is becoming more vulnerable. Keep the centre core as large as possible. Getting inside to give a perfect finish is hard on the hands. It’s one reason I use paint and colour after seeing my fingers beginning to twist. Also, I really like introducing colour into my designs. Turn into the end using a round-nosed scraping chisel. To separate the four legs, use a sharp broad chisel. Stand the legs upside down on a soft cloth or thick-piled carpet. To remove the core, mark out where the table top will rest, and with a hand saw, remove the core.
Cut the table top to size, and mark out where the rails will fit. It was difficult to make a decision about where the rail should connect to the leg. A square table is straight forward, as it’s a symmetrical frame. When the table is rectangular, should the leg be angled to the rail? On a very long rectangular table, it becomes necessary with this design. The table has a ratio of 2:3, so it’s not so far off square. On this occasion I decide to keep it simple for the joinery. There are no difficult angles to work out. Set up the legs on the table top. And measure between the legs to establish the length of the rail on the diagonal.
Rail and leg connection
Cutting a face on the leg at 45° for the rail attachment is done on a band saw or with a hand saw. Mark out on the leg where the rail will join the leg. The leg is cut on the band saw to expose a face for the connection to the rail. The triangular stem is cut off and the face cleaned up true and square, ready to receive the rail.
With the help of a caul to hold the legs so the faces that will join to the rail ends are level, and a clamp to hold the leg in place, drill holes for the dowel connection on your drill press. I used 3/8″ dowels. Mating dowel holes were eventually drilled in the ends of the rails.
Huon pine (Lagarostrobos fraklinii) is a conifer native to Tasmania, Australia. Australia’s oldest living tree, Huon pine may live for 3000 years. It only grows in the west and southwest of Tasmania in cool, wet areas on river bank rain forests.
The wood is highly prized for boat building and furniture making. It is resistant to rot and insects due to an essential oil, methyl eugenol, which gives it a unique and pleasant odour.
The smell of spruce and cedar are the equivalent of Huon pine, and when worked in the studio the air is filled with its wonderful aroma. The wood is a light honey colour when first cut, and like many woods, darkens closer to bronze with age. The tree grows very slowly, and the annual rings are fine. The difference between summer and winter growth is quite noticeable. Huon pine has about the same density and works similarly to North American white pine. It works beautifully with sharp cutting tools. Turners like the fineness of the grain. Carvers would find it similar to basswood. Abrasives tend to gum up due to the high oil content of the wood.
I used 1-3/8″ × 4″ stock for the rails and tapered the ends to 2″ wide. The connection at the centre is a loose cross, held together with a bolt. A wide table top in solid wood will expand and contract, and with this design, it will accommodate the changes.
Dry test fit
A dry fit is always a good idea. I had to make an adjustment on one dowel that was not perfectly aligned. If I had glue at that point, it would not quite have been a disaster, just a big mess of glue and dead dowels.
Gluing the parts
PVA waterproof glue was used to connect the legs and rail. The band clamp was applied first. It works well to a point but tends to twist the leg to the rail. The two bar clamps pulled the connection tight after the initial pull-together. A snug connection with a tiny bead of glue squeezed out. Don’t forget the spacer at the feet of the legs to keep things square during glue-up. The clamps pull up against the spacer, making an accurate square set of relationships between leg and rail.
Assemble the Huon pine table frame
Slide the bolt in, and adjust the legs to receive the top. Make sure it stands level on the floor. Fit the top just to make sure all dimensions are right before applying finishes.
I proceeded with the rails as they were, but it wasn’t until the table was complete that I realized it rocked too much. A 1/4″-thick × 12″-wide rectangular piece of plywood was inset into the upper edges of the rails and screwed in place. The edge of the plate was eventually finished to match the legs. Although I did this work later, it would be best to add this plywood plate now.
Colour the legs
Teal was complimentary to the orange/brown of natural wood, and it’s a very dynamic contrast. As the wood ages, oxidizing to a mid-brown, the colour will remain a vibrant contrast.
First was an off-white undercoat, followed by reddish/orange background or under-painting. This colour should have a tiny amount of blue included. Next, a light blue with a touch of green to take it towards the teal colour I was aiming for. All these colours and amounts depend on what you’re after. You can also go with a natural wood if you’d like.
The blue and red did not look like the teal colour we had in mind. Not enough green and white in the blue. Painting sometimes does not work out, but continuing to work on the surface does often develop a richer look. Let the previous colours show through, giving the surface depth and complexity. It’s the hand finish with the brush marks, layered colour, and textures I prefer. A final skim of iridescent turquoise catches the light beautifully. These five layers are capped with clear urethane, as the bare wood gets a further two coats of finish.
Finishing the table top
Next, I applied Lee Valley tung oil. It is oh-so-slow, with each coat needing to dry 48 hours. The board, however, looks like solid gold. With a coffee table, it really is necessary to give the wood some prevention from partying. Lacquers are more difficult to repair, and with the flexible nature of the tung oil it is less likely to chip than a sprayed industrial lacquered finish. It all takes a bit longer but makes for better quality, and it’s easier to repair.
Stephen Hogbin - [email protected]
Stephen Hogbin is one of Canada’s most accomplished, skilled and celebrated woodworkers.