Woodworking- Transitions


The Story of Harriett and Johnnie
By Ed West


It was a cold overcast June morning in Pacific Grove. I was out looking for “found wood” that I could use in my wood sculpture class at Monterey Peninsula College. Then I saw her. It was the first time I met Harriett. She was long and sleek, but weather worn. You knew that in her youth she was limber and beautiful and could sway with the gentle ocean breezes. Now she lay lifeless in a pile of leaves and fallen branches, she was a eucalyptus branch that had died and fallen off the tree.

Just think of the possibilities- She could be a walking stick; a cane; a towel rack; firewood; and so on. Just looking at her I could tell that she wanted to come to life again, but only in the special way that wood can. She wanted to be beautiful, colorful, and have the flexibility to sway with the wind again. She wanted to be appreciated for the beautiful wood she was.

By now you’re probably thinking I’m a little crazy, personifying an inanimate object with human characteristics, naming her Harriett, and referring to her as “she”, and “her”. Now you’re going to really think I’m crazy when I say that Harriett can speak to me.

Ask any seasoned woodworker if wood talks to them…see what they say. I know that wood talks to me and tells me what I can make from it. Its characteristics- grain pattern; color variations; if it is a hardwood or softwood; oil content; knots; compatibility with glue, stains, finishes, nails, screws; strength; and workability all speak volumes to me.

So, when I looked at Harriett, I knew that all of her characteristics worked well with the project I had to complete with articulated joints. Harriett was going to transition into a tree snake.

Now it was time to get to work and transition this lifeless branch of wood into a fully articulating object.  I begin marking the cuts I would make to create the articulating sections. Harriett told me where I could and couldn’t make the cuts making me pay careful attention to where the knots were. The branch was very easy to cut, had straight grain, and was very workable with power and hand tools. I cut the mortise and tendons; rounded the ends of each to make then fully articulating. I drilled the holes for each joint and created the pins by making dowels from some of Harriett’s smaller off shoots that I had removed and saved. Now it was time to assemble each joint. Everything went just as planned about two thirds of the way until the unexpected happened. As I drove one of the dowel pins into the joint the wood split on the section. Everything was lost, the larger body sections of the branch had all been used and this section couldn’t be duplicated. What to do? After a little thought I decided to make a new section by using two equal length pieces of the smaller off shoots I had saved and join them together. It worked, and I was off to finish the rest of the joints. Once the joints were completed I did a rough sanding, leaving sections of the bark intact while removing other sections of bark to reveal the white colored wood. Joints were adjusted to enhance the articulation. I used Watco Danish Oil Finish to apply a rub on rub off oil finish. When dried I wound some bands of colored nylon twine for decoration. Harriett was now beautiful, colorful, and has the flexibility to sway with the wind again. I appreciate her for the beautiful wood she is. Quite a transition.

The second part of my wood sculpture assignment was to create a complimenting piece that would work with the articulated wood object. The second object was to be constructed from laminated layers of plywood. In this case I didn’t have to worry about the plywood’s wood characteristics, it would let me do anything I wanted…gluing, nailing, sanding, finishing, etc.

Since Harriett would want to lounge on a tree branch, since she was a tree snake, a stylized tree branch was what I would make from the laminated plywood.

I purchased a 4’ x 8’, 1/2” thick sheet of plywood from Home Depot. I cut off a third of the sheet from the 8’ length and proceeded to cut it into 5”, 4”, and 3” squares. I began construction by gluing 5” squares together and used a pneumatic pin nailer to drive pin nails into the wood to hold it while the glue set. Each square of wood was rotated about 1/2” to create a spiral. As I continued construction of a section of 5” squares I switched to 4” squares, then 3” squares, back to 4”, then to 5” again to complete the 180 degree arching branch. To make the branch arc 180 degrees I had to use wedges on one side between the plywood squares. This process created gaps at the sides of each plywood square that would have to be filled in later. For many of the wedges I used 1/8” door skins, something I would not do again if I were to do some other lamination such as this one. After I had the 180 degree arch completed I stabilized the arch by screwing a length of plywood between each foot of the arch as a brace. This allowed me to rotate the arch in various positions clamping the plywood brace in a “Jaw Horse”. With this clamping process I could fill in the voids between laminated squares and sand the branch. I purchased a couple of packages of cedar shims to fill the voids. I cut the ends of the shims off and glued them into the voids of each layer. I quickly ran out of the shim ends that would slide into the voids. I tried filing the ends of the broken off shims which were much thicker than I needed. The filing didn’t work. I then used a small block plane to taper the ends to the required thickness, which worked perfectly.

I used an angle grinder with a flap disc to sand off the edges of each square allowing me to have a contoured spiral that would wrap around the branch from end to end. I decided to change some of the contouring to make a round branch section.

After initial shaping and forming I used water thin CA glue to join all plywood layers with a penetrating glue to solidify the branch. I also had planned to finish the branch with a CA glue finish but removed it after application because it made the branch look “plastic”. It took several hours to sand the branch to the desired stylized shape and smoothness.

Now it was time to remove the plywood brace so I could sand the ends of the branch that I hadn’t been able to reach and put the final stabilizing foot on one end of the sculpture, which I did. I cut the final pieces for the stabilizing foot and attached them to the sculpture. I began grinding the foot to contour its shape. I had someone help me at this point by holding up the other end of the arch as I worked on the foot. Then it happened, the branch broke, coming completely apart. The glue joint held, but the door skin wedge that I had used split from the weight of the branch. This brake turned out to be a blessing because it allowed me to finish the foot without a lot of grief.

To rejoin the broken branch I drilled a 3/8” hole 2 inches deep on each branch section. I then glued and inserted a wood dowel in one end, and let the glue set. I then glued the other section and forced both sections together again to complete the arch. I filled in the resulting voids from the brake with shims and CA glue. I re-sanded the repaired section to match the branch contour and all was well. Final sanding was completed, and a Watco Danish Oil Finish was applied.

Johnnie the branch was complete, transitioned from a sheet of fabricated plywood into a stylizing wood branch. Now to meet Harriett.