Make a Twig Trellis
Dovetail aficionados, woodworking purists and any maker who has ever even considered why there are three lines between 1/16″ markings on your tape measure … this is your warning: Don’t ready any further or your blood will boil. Twig furniture requires a different mindset than most woodworking projects. Precision and accuracy are words that should not be uttered while considering this type of project, unless you’re talking about how little you actually need for the piece to turn out nicely.
Now that we’re rid of the 1/64″ snobs, the rest of us can feel more comfortable about discussing twig furniture in a safer setting. Twig furniture is about using the natural materials we can find nearby to build a simple, yet attractive, piece of furniture, without the pressure to reach for your tape measure every 30 seconds. Now, before we get started, if you have an engineer’s square nearby make sure you put it somewhere safe for the next few days, as it will only get in your way.
A to-scale drawing will help you work out proportions. It will also give you something to work directly on top of, and make cutting the twigs to length, and vague angles, easy.
Simple Crosscut Jig
Cut a 3/8"× 3/8" rabbet in the long edge of a 2×2, clamp it in your vise, and you have a 90° cross-cut jig. (above) If you want to work with angles, like this 45° cut, mark and cut them into the top of the jig to simplify the process. (below)
Ring nails (far left and center) have a lot of holding power, and are recommended for twig furniture. Finishing nails (right) will not provide as much holding power in end grain, nor are their heads large enough to stop a twig from sliding over them and coming loose. Select a length and diameter of nail that’s appropriate for the project you’re doing.
Pre-drill and Pre-drive
A hole should always be drilled where a nail will be used to protect against splitting. Brown also found it easiest to drive the nail into the hole so it protrudes slightly from the other side before aligning it with the other half of the joint.
Creating joints that overlap a number of times allows you to drive more nails, and increase the strength of the joint. You’ll have to be careful as nails will have a strange way of coming into contact, and blocking each other, near the center of the twig.
In order to increase the structural integrity of some of the thinner twigs, Brown drives a nail perpendicular to the twigs. He then uses pliers to fold the sharp tip over. A few hammer strikes seat the nail tip against the twig’s side.
Trimming Thin Twigs
A sharp pair of scissors will work wonders when dealing with thin twigs.
Nail Overlapping Joints
For some additional strength Brown pre-drills, then adds nails, wherever twigs overlap.
The design of twig furniture will be influenced by the size and shape of the materials you can obtain. It’s always easier to use straight and curved twigs as they are, and work around their natural beauty in your project. Once the design is complete work towards it, but don’t get too caught up in precision. Sorry about that … the “P” word just slipped out. That will be the last time, I promise.
The design of this little flower trellis is fairly straightforward, but it does include some simple arcs. Arcs and curves add a certain gracefulness to a design, but they can be a little bit more difficult to deal with. On the upside, they tend to add some structural rigidity to a piece of furniture or decorative item.
Since this trellis is only 2D, I drew it out full-size before beginning. This gave me the chance to make any adjustments to proportion, and I could also work directly on top of the drawing to size the pieces during the build. If you’re building a 3D project you might want to draw the project full-size in one view, or just jump right in without getting carried away with the details. Everyone’s approach will be different.
Materials – wood
Pussy willow is the best species to work with. It can often be found as an ornamental on someone’s property, or near lakes, streams and rivers. If you can’t find any, experiment with whatever you have on hand before committing to a large project, and being disappointed with how it bends, snaps or splits. Reasonably straight wood, with few knots, is obviously best for structural, and most non-structural, members, but each project is different.
The dimension of structural members can vary depending on the project. Similarly to working with dressed lumber, size the structural elements properly – or make darn sure your guests know to not sit in this ‘chair’.
Secondary members can usually be around 1/2″ to 3/4″ in diameter. These pieces will offer some strength, but don’t count on them for supporting anyone’s body weight unless they are used very carefully. Pieces between 1/4″ and 1/2″ in diameter are best used for visuals; creating decorative curved elements, or filling in an otherwise empty area. Pieces less than 1/4″ in diameter are hard to fasten without splitting.
I have only harvested twigs in the summer. A typical rule is that when wood is harvested in the summer, with its sap flowing, its bark tends to fall off. I’ve found this isn’t always the case. What I’ve found is that if you want the bark off the twigs, a summer harvest, and immediate bark stripping, is a must, otherwise the bark is all but impossible to remove. I would assume twigs harvested in the winter would have to be wrestled with if you wanted the bark off. As with the rest of twig furniture making, have an open mind, and go with the flow – whether the bark is on, or off, you can still end up with a functional piece of furniture that you enjoyed making.
I have heard people say they only work with green wood, even going to the trouble of keeping their twigs in a bucket of water until ready for use. With the few mall projects I’ve completed I’ve only used materials that have had the chance to dry for a few months. If you can use them freshly cut, go for it. Otherwise, use whatever you have on hand, and if you find the results questionable, change things up.
Materials – fasteners
For the structural members, and sometimes the largest secondary joints, I use screws. Depending on where the piece of furniture will spend its life, choose interior or exterior screws. You might want to also give some consideration to screw colour, as they will be visible.
For the remainder of the joints I use ring nails. They’re available in most hardware stores. They tend to not pull out of wood as easy as many other nails, and they have a larger head than other nails. In many instances, once the nail has been hammered into the pieces of wood, its tip can be bent over. This creates a positive mechanical joint between the large head and the bent tip. The only other way to use a nail is by hammering it through one piece, directly into the end grain of another piece. The tip of the nail will not protrude and can’t be bent over. In this case I would select as long a nail as possible in order to increase its holding power.
Though I’ve never used one for this purpose, some say an air nailer is helpful while creating the joinery in twig furniture. I would think this is especially true in the early stages of construction, as you sometimes wish you had a third hand while hammering and holding some of the twigs together. It might be wise to lower the pressure to the nailer, and only use it on larger members; I can’t imagine it’s easy to pin nail two 1/4″ diameter twigs together without shooting a few errant nails. Eye protection would be a must in this situation.
Thin metal wire might come in useful in some situations, though I’ve never felt the need. When you are working with thin pieces that are splitting on you, this might be the time to try some wire out. Warp the joint a few times, making sure the sharp ends don’t catch on anyone, or anything.
The building process
When you’re nailing the parts together, always pre-drill. The perfect sized hole should be either the same size or slightly smaller than the nail. If you don’t pre-drill, and the parts don’t split, you still run the risk of having the parts split as they dry. This is especially true near the end of a twig.
Joints are usually either butt or lap joints, and are always nailed. There may be times when a half lap or another joint would be used, but it’s rare, and I didn’t see the need with this trellis. Another joint detail I find helpful: don’t nail directly into the pith of the twig, as that tends to be the weakest point. A nail driven slightly off-center will have much more holding power.
Generally speaking I build the outside structural members first, then work towards the inner members. For this trellis I started with the outer rim. I also worked directly on top of the full-sized drawing, which helped select the twig with the right curve, and assisted me with determining what length to trim the twigs to.
I cross-cut, pre-drilled and nailed the outer perimeter pieces together, doing my best to use a curved piece, with a straight end, for the long sides. Butt joints worked okay for these corners, but it wasn’t until I added the secondary perimeter that the structure became a bit stronger. In addition to nailing through all the corners, in every direction possible, I added a few nails perpendicular to the two layers making up the outer perimeter, bending over the tip of the nails and hammering them flush with the twigs.
I proceeded to cut, pre-drill and attach the inner members with butt joints, keeping the process pretty light and simple. The process moves pretty quickly when gaps are seen as character, rather than mistakes.
For this trellis strength was of minor importance. As long as it stood up, and held itself together in the elements, I was happy. There are times when cross-braces are needed. Tables, and especially seating, are great examples of this. Think of creating ‘triangles’ when adding cross braces and you’re sure to create a piece that will stand up to the thumping of your woodworking friend, who loves nothing better than tight-fitting dovetails created with contrasting exotic woods.
Brushing on a few coats of linseed oil will help protect the bark, and give your rustic masterpiece a finished look worthy of a life indoors. If this project will stay outside you don’t need to apply anything for aesthetics, though a finish may repel water and keep the project in like new condition for longer.
Do you love the flexibility of twig furniture, or does the thought make your blood boil? Share your thoughts in the comments section at the end of this article, on our website.