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A couple of years ago I moved to a new village and found (to my delight) that I have access to a lot of wood of various species in log form. Within a radius of 30 kilometers, there are plenty of old dead-stands, dead-falls, and the local tree feller is happy to let me take loads of any tree he is contracted to remove. All this wood could be mine as long as I fetch it myself. That sparked my cheap instincts.
For years I’d been dying to get serious about my woodworking, but the cost of good wood and tools while putting a couple of kids through school and university put that desire on hold for a too many years. Both the access to some potentially great wood cheaply, and putting waste wood to good use appealed to me immensely, so a plan was born. I bought a chainsaw, designed and built an Alaskan Mill imitation and went wood hunting.
The first wood I took home was some avocado pear branches that had been trimmed and left in a junk pile about a year earlier. Soon after that, a Wild Plum blew down on council land during a storm. Fortunately for me, the village council’s only chainsaw was out of service, so they didn’t immediately chop it up and dump it. I asked if I could remove it for them, and they readily agreed.
The avocado branches were quite small at 250 mm or less diameter, and had been lying in a junk pile for a while, so I decided I could afford to waste them while learning how to use my new chainsaw jig. My first attempt produced a few twisted, varying thickness planks that no one could use, but the wood inside was captivating. This was the first time I had seen rough-cut Avo and was pleased to find that the wood is soft, fine grained and the colour ranges from blonde to mid brown with almost an inner light. What pleased me even more was that the wood had spalted while it waited to be eaten by termites. I had never seen spalting in person, so that was a huge bonus.
I went on to plank one of the Wild Plum branches, but with no clue of how to dry the wood, they soon warped beyond use as it was still very wet. I did, however, find that this wood too, is beautiful. When this project presented itself, I found a partially burned dead-stand wild plum that had died several years previously. It turns out that it was decently air dried, and quite adequate for the planned use.
So, on to the project.
I made a display mirror for my nephew’s wedding present. The shape of the frame was decided by the wood, and the shelves were inspired by a mirror made by a woodworker whose name I can’t remember. All the visible wood is rescued waste, but the mirror is backed by purchased cheap plywood with an apparently spalted cherry veneer.
I did not want the mirror’s frame to completely surround the mirror, but the only design idea I had when I started was that I wanted a shelf against the mirror. I had seen this before idea, and I think the reflected shelf gives a beautiful affect. Other than that, I felt that the wood itself should tell me what the design should be, so I set about opening a couple logs to see what was hidden inside.
I slabbed an Avocado branch as close as I could to down the centre, as I knew this would give me the thickest possible book matched pair of planks to work with. I then slabbed a curved Wild Plum branch that looked like it could have some interesting grain inside. I was right. I looked at the planks for many hours on and off, and waited for the ideas to surface. I sketched out a few of the ideas that appealed to me and showed my wife. She had several comments, a few of which were incorporated into the final design. We are both quite creative, but I’m more technical, and she is more artistic. We make a good design team.
At that time, I had very few tools, so I had to get creative with how to achieve what I was looking for. The only power tools I had were an old radial arm saw, an old drill, an ancient bench grinder, a half decent orbital sander, the new chainsaw, and an even newer router. The only hand tools I had were an old cheap set of chisels, a few half decent hand saws, some hammers, various screwdrivers and spanners, 8 clamps of various descriptions, no vice, and no plane. My workbench is a 30 year old, warped, steel frame, chipboard topped office desk that I picked up for a song from my first employer. (One day I’ll make myself a good one from rescued wood) Whenever I need a flat work surface, I swing the RAS aside and work on that table.
I had some rectangular section aluminium lying around, so I built a router sled which is a lot smaller and lighter than yours, Marc, and flattened the slabs as best I could. I then photographed the Avo and played with pictures on the computer. I hadn’t even heard of SketchUp at that time, so I was using Visio to clarify my mental images. If you compare the basic design with the finished product, you’ll notice that the upper shelf leg is now shorter, and there was no backsplash above the shelf.
During fabrication, I realised that the shelf could not adequately support itself the way I had originally planned it, so I had to add extra support strength. I decided to make small shelf brackets from the Wild Plum for visual interest and cut the shapes you see in the pictures. I set them into the Avo with press-fit sliding dovetails about 80% of the length of the bracket leg. The shelf is not attached to the bracket at all.
The mirror glass is double-stick taped to a sheet of plywood that is trimmed back 25 mm from the exposed glass edges so you can’t readily see it, but the ply backing protrudes 50 mm past the glass in the covered edges to attach the mirror to the frame. The glass and ply are set in rabbets cut just deep enough in the frame to have them sitting flush with the back face of the frame.
The protruding ply is screwed into the frame, and screws from behind the ply go through the mirror into each of the shelf supports to hold all the layers together. Your browser may not support display of this image.I’ve used only brass screws as this mirror will live in a humid environment for most if not all of my lifetime, and rust would p*** me off BIG time. There is only one screw visible from the front of the mirror under the upper shelf. This is as a result of ?the accident”. I alluded to this earlier.
I had to work through several problems, mostly caused by my inexperience, ignorance or optimism. The first was that I ordered the wrong size mirror. It looked fine in the drawings, but when I trimmed the arms to fit each other, I had to cut more off the mitre ends than planned for aesthetic reasons. The mirror supplier had already cut the mirror but not yet delivered, so I called then with the new dimensions. I had to pay extra for the new cuts and edge grinding, and I now had some strip mirrors waiting for a use.
Then the second significant problem happened. During dry fit-up, I attached the mirror to the backing ply with double-stick tape for easier handling. Laid the frame face down without the shelves, and screwed them together. Crack!! Yes, I had over tightened the one screw and the mirror said goodbye. I now have some larger pieces of mirror looking for a new project. Needless to say, I had to order another mirror.
The time pressure was on just a week or so to the wedding, everything was working out, and the project was nearing completion. All that remained was to trim the shelf supports flush with the underside of the shelves, surface treatment, and final assembly. I tapped the dovetails supports into their slots and ran the radial arm saw across to cut both the support and the shelf arm at the same time. This is when the final straw happened!
The lower frame went perfectly. The fit could not have been better. Then the side frame. The blade cut sweetly through the Avo and entered the Wild Plum. Then all hell broke loose. The blade bit into something, and the shelf arm and the support exploded. Pieces of wood flew up to 15 metres through the door and hit me all over. Fortunately I was wearing my safety glasses, as the only piece that hit my face was at my left eye. I had some interesting bruise patterns on my left arm and chest. No blood, thank goodness.
I dropped the work piece, switched off the saw, threw my gloves down and walked away. I didn’t even close the door, but went straight to the house to sit and recover from the shakes. I couldn’t even stand to take a proper look at the extent of the damage. That was it! No wedding present.
After making sure that I was relatively unhurt, my wife steered clear of me. She could see that I really didn’t want to talk about it. A couple of hours later she came to me and told me that she thought the project could be salvaged. She was right (of course).
I made a new shelf support and shortened the arm as little as I could to get back to almost sound wood. There is still a 50 mm crack right through the arm, but it is in a spalting line and the attempted repair is almost invisible. The pewter dolphins on the glass cover the hole for the screw that was meant to tie into the shelf support. While re-cutting the shelf to arm joint, I went a bit far, and the joint became visible from above. It didn’t look good, so I made the decorative backsplashes to cover up the goof. The now visible screw was never even meant to be in the project.
I used no stain or dye of any description. The surface finish is one coat of very thinned sanding sealer rubbed almost through with P120 grit paper. Three coats polyurethane interior floor varnish (floor varnish must be tough right?) sanded lightly between coats with P120 grit paper to remove most of the brush marks. Two further coats of floor varnish followed by sanding with progressively finer grits up to P1000 to achieve the satin sheen shown.
The mirror is mounted on the wall using a split French cleat, and behind the ply on the left hand side is a hidden compartment that contains the provenance booklet I prepared for this special gift. My wife tatted a couple of heart doilies to fit the shelves.