In the studio – Making the benches

It might seem from this blog that all I ever do is travel abroad, run around the Bayarea with my faithful pooch Nico and read books. This is what I’d LIKE to be doing most of the time but I have also been spending a huge amount of time in my studio since I got back from my travels last year. I thought there might be some interest in seeing some behind-the-scene’s, in-process shots of the outdoor benches I’ve been creating over the last few years. You can see all of the benches in the commissions part of my site.

Each bench is tailored specifically to its site on the paths that wander through the private sculpture garden. So each design must be prototyped in situ before any material is cut. I do this by making a foamcore pattern of each location and then transferring that pattern to an MDF ‘cartoon’ in the studio. I subsequently test that MDF pattern one more time at the site to make sure that everything will fit correctly and to get the client’s final approval.

Fitting the foamcore template on site

Checking for details and a perfect fit

Two MDF cartoons in my studio

The MDF cartoon then acts as my shop drawing, my lamination jig, my joint layout template and finally my archive of the piece (in case a section needs to be replaced or repaired in the future).

Detail of the MDF cartoon showing how the laminates will be spliced together

Once the cartoon is approved by the client, I finallize the arrangement of laminations and joinery details on the cartoon. Then I can order the lumber that I need. I have been using Jarrah for the project. Its a wood I fell in love with in my native Australia and which I find challenging but a great joy to work with. The color of the raw material is mostly a deep blood red sometimes trending to pink. Its incredibly hard and due to silicates can be tough on both machine and handtool blades. But it planes to a mirror finish and takes a wonderful crisp detail. Over time, out of doors, it ages to a glorious pale silver and its very durable (it has been used historically for railway sleepers (ties), fence posts and wharf pilings). The perfect material for outdoor furniture in my opinion. My only problem using it for this project is that it has to be imported from Australia. This goes against one of my manifesto admonitions that is to use locally harvested materials whenever possible. But in this case I have defied my own principals to work with a material that has exactly the properties that the client and I am looking for. The fact that Jarrah is from my home country and that I have a 25 year history of working with it comes into play. My client commissioned me to do this project and he took on my aesthetic, skills, limitations, philosophy, and passions when he did so. The Jarrah is part of that package.

I proceed by having all of the Jarrah that I use sliced up into thin laminates by my colleague Chris Lomis’s at his studio in nearby Alameda. The laminates are delivered to my studio and I begin the process of building up the laminations. Each lamination is built directly on the cartoon and glued up with a slow setting epoxy glue (Smith’s Tropical Hardwood Epoxy).

A lamination being glued up

Once I have all the laminations completed they are scarfed together according to the plan on the cartoon with a long tongue of solid jarrah inserted between each pair of laminations.

Scarfing the joints

Getting the long curved scarf joints perfect and having all of the curved lamination come together in a tight and even pattern is both a joy and challenge.

When the whole surface is complete it needs to be sanded flat and detailed with both a router and chisels.

Detailing

End details in process

The legs are quite simple and are also individually tailored to the site. They are joined to the tops with inlaid metal plates and then set into the ground with small footings.

Yvonne building the legs

Finally the finished pieces are installed with small concrete footings to secure the legs.

'Crossroads' bench installed

I love the color and texture contrasts

3 Comments

  1. Awesome process shots – thanks for the insight!

    Reply

  2. Thanks for sharing your process Donald! I find it most educational. I hope you are well!

    Cheers

    Sebastian

    Reply

  3. Hi Don.
    Karen referred me to this site and I am in awe of the works you are creating.
    I am about to have some more time to do some” layman type” woodwork myself, since I have now ended my time with the Department of Education.
    David T

    Reply

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