My Fiddlehead Shelf is a sculptural wall hanging that was initially designed and built during a summer workshop on bending and coopering at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in 2016. This past winter, I had the pleasure of revisiting the design/build process to make a more substantial installation, consisting of 4 shelves and varying in sizes. The client came up with the idea to display them in multiples, highlighting the energy of the piece and the natural way a fern unfurls.
This project is made with bent laminations and coopering. Read on to learn about these techniques for bending wood.
Lumber and Veneers
There are a few wood species that are notably better than others to bend. Most importantly, you want to work with woods that have very straight grain and are durable and resistant to splitting. For this reason, I chose to make the spine of my shelf from quarter sawn white oak. It's defining characteristic is the beautiful striped pattern of tangential medullary rays, also known as, wood grain.
Bent laminations are made by gluing thin pieces of wood (laminations or veneers) together and clamping them to a bending form. When the clamps come off, the veneers hold shape. Pretty cool!
To make the veneers, I cut 3/32" wide pieces with a re-saw blade on the bandsaw. It was important to keep them in order so the grain would look continuous once it was glued up. After re-sawing, I palm sanded the machine marks off of the veneers, and they were ready for glue.
Before gluing, I had to make my forms to clamp to. To do this, I made a full-scale drawing of my design. Below is an example of the smallest shelf: the circles representing the coopered cubbies and the S-shape representing the spine holding them together. The bending forms are then built from the negative space inside the S-shape.
Once I had a drawing of my forms, I labeled them and used spray adhesive to glue them onto pieces of MDF (Medium Density Fibreboard). The pieces were then shaped to the exact drawing size with the bandsaw, belt sander, and spindle sander. Then, I duplicated the parts, nailed them together, and used a flush router bit to get them identical. The result is a hefty solid block of MDF ready to withstand the pressure of many clamps.
The surfaces of the veneers were glued, stacked together and clamped to the bending form. I used 3 strips of 3/8" wacky wood (Bending Plywood) as a backing caul to keep the veneers from splitting under tension. This was one of those tricky glue-ups that require a bunch of clamps, and once you start, you have to move quickly.
You can find a few time-lapse videos of the process on my Instagram page here. They are fun to watch! There's also a video of what the spine looks like when the clamps come off. Check that out too.
To connect the spines together, I cut a half-lap joint in the center of the S. Since this process is tricky and specific, cutting the joinery by hand made for quick and accurate work. Once the half-laps were glued, I pined the joints with brass rods to create a stronger connection.
The client wanted the cubbies to contrast from the spines slightly, so we decided to make them out of European Beech. Another one of my favorite woods to work with because of it's tight grain structure and attractive tangential rays that finish beautifully.
To build the cubbies, first, I re-sawed and planed the staves that become the cylinders. There's a bit of drafting, calculating, and head-scratching that goes into figuring out the thickness, width, and the number of staves needed to make a cylinder, so I'll spare you the details. Once my staves were cut to width and thickness, I used a bench-top jointer with a tilting fence to cut the proper angle on the long sides. The picture below illustrates this nicely.
The staves are lined up, labeled and held together with blue painters tape before being glued. I used plastic wrap to keep the cylinder clamped together, but you could also use rubber or athletic bands.
After the glue dried, I removed the facets of the cylinders with a belt and spindle sander. Finally, a rabbet was routed into the bottom for the back piece to fit into.
Glass Cubby Backs
On the original design, the cubby backs are made from a thin piece of plywood, with a patterned veneered top. This time I wanted to add a bit of color to the design, so I decided to use glass. I went out and bought a glass circle cutter, which basically is a rubber nipple that suctions to the glass, attached to a revolving rod with an adjustable glass cutter head. Cutting circles took some getting used to and a lot of glass grinding, but I was happy to use some of my stained glass equipment. To protect the glass from breaking, I backed it with a piece of felt and plywood.
The shelves hang on the wall by a small stepped hole in the center of the plywood backer. The photo on the left illustrates this.
After everything was attached and sanded nicely, I hand-applied 3 coats of Waterlox, buffed and waxed.
This was a super fun project to revisit, and I am thrilled with the final product. It was a delight to get to collaborate with the client to develop their vision and build a piece of artwork for their home.
Thanks for making it all the way to the end of this blog post. Have an awesome day!