It’s Simply Better in the Country

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This article is from Issue 4 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Those big beautiful beds from the 18th and 19th centuries easily dominated the big bedrooms they occupied. For today’s homes with smaller bedrooms, this country bed retains all the appeal of its ancestors, but in a size more fitting.

Bedrooms in 18th- and 19th-century homes were often quite large, with ceilings sometimes reaching 10'. They were appropriate settings for the also-quite-large four-post beds of the period. But contemporary bedrooms are smaller with typical ceiling heights of 8' or less. Contemporary homes are, therefore, less comfortable settings for grand period beds or even country four-posters. 

Our bedroom is even smaller than most. It measures 11' x 12' with 7'3" ceilings, so when my wife expressed a desire for a four-post bed, I realized I’d have to design one with relatively modest dimensions. 

We looked through some furniture books. I did a little sketching, and we settled on a fully turned post with a country feel rather than a period flavor, one embellished by a simple arrangement of beads, coves and vases. 

The problem with turned posts is that most modestly priced lathes have only a modest distance between centers, usually 36". Our small four-poster would require longer posts than that. 

This was a problem I had already solved because many of the chairs that make up most of my business have back posts between 40" and 46". Years ago, when I went shopping for my first – and only – lathe, I bought one that accommodated an extra mounting foot for the lathe’s tubular bed. I then built a lathe stand that put the tailstock of my lathe almost 48" from the headstock. To do this, I had to pull the bed tube from its mortise in the headstock assembly and mount the headstock end of the bed on the extra mounting foot. If you look at Fig. 1, you’ll see what I mean.

If you’re interested in building this four-post bed, put some thought into how you might lengthen the bed on your lathe. Even if it isn’t a tubular-bed lathe like mine, it’s likely that there are techniques you can employ.

Plus, the posts on this particular piece of furniture are designed so that turners with access to only short-bed lathes can still produce these posts by turning them in two segments and joining them with a 3/4" turned tenon in the top of one segment which will fit into a 3/4" mortise drilled into the bottom of the other. (See the drawing on page 41 for details.) This two-part construction works well with these posts, because all the joinery is cut into the bottom portion of the post below the location of the mortise-and-tenon joint. As a result, the mortise-and-tenon joint isn’t load-bearing.

Getting started

Material for turning must be good through-and-through, because there is no back side on which you can hide a knot or a pitch pocket. You’ll almost certainly pay a premium for the 3" stock you’ll need for the posts. Premium in this situation means this: If you can buy 1"-thick cherry at your local vendor for $7 a board foot, you’ll probably pay $7.50 or even $8 a board foot for 3". 

The bandsaw is the tool of choice for ripping thick stock (Fig. 2). You can rip it on a table saw by cutting it halfway through, flipping the stock over, then sawing the remainder with a second pass. But a table saw ejects an awful lot of dust into the air when used on thick stock. Plus, unless you’ve got a pretty hefty motor, it may bog down. The little 11/2-hp motor on my table saw does a lot of huffing and puffing when I use it to saw really thick stock.

The next step I’m going to recommend may seem a little silly, but it’s really not. Take the time to straighten your turning billets on your jointer, and then run them through your thickness planer so that the material is truly a square in cross section (Fig. 3). Why waste time to create smooth surfaces which you’re then going to shred on the lathe? 

The answer is balance. These turning blanks are big and heavy. It may not seem like it when they’re sitting on your workbench, but when a turning blank 48" long and 3" square is spinning in your lathe at 750 rpm, you want to be absolutely sure the blank is straight and uniformly thick. If it isn’t, your lathe may decide to take a walk across your shop while you chase it reaching for the off switch.  I’m exaggerating here, of course, but only a little.

Turning tools and technique

I envy craftsmen who can turn a complicated spindle with nothing but a skew and leave behind surfaces that need only the lightest sanding.

David Wright, a Windsor chairmaker from Berea, Ky., is such a turner, and I have on my desk a baluster leg he turned one day when I visited his shop maybe 10 years ago. I watched him turn the leg using nothing but a roughing gouge, the tip of which he had reground so that it could also be used as a skew. He never touched that leg with anything else, and the leg’s surface is almost smooth enough to finish.

 My turning kit is very simple. For these posts, I used only three tools: a 11/8" roughing gouge, a 3/8" fingernail gouge and a 11/8" skew (Fig. 4).

When I sharpen my lathe tools, I’m very careful to grind them so there’s only one bevel, not a series of little bevels. This means that my final passes over the wheel must dress the entire width of the bevel. The reason for this single bevel will become clear in a moment. 

Some turners – primarily bowl turners – scrape out their shapes, and although it’s possible to scrape out spindle shapes, it’s slow work that often leaves behind a coarse surface with lots of endgrain tearout requiring a lot of sanding. 

Other turners cut. I’m one of those other turners.

The most effective cutting is done with the bevel laid down on the work. If you haven’t tried this, experiment with the technique. With the tool firmly situated on your rest, move it toward the spinning work with the handle well down so that the cutting edge of the tool can’t come anywhere near the work. Then when the heel of the bevel has engaged the work, slowly raise the handle until the tool begins to cut without digging in. (This cutting technique is the reason for the single bevel grind; with many tiny bevels on the ends of your tools, it’s difficult to rest any one of them on the spinning work.) That’s the key point. If you turn with the bevel of your tool laying on the work, it is impossible for the work to grab the tool and with it whack the tool rest and dig a big gouge out of your work. Fig. 5 illustrates this posture.

There is an exception to this, of course. If you bring the tool into the work so that a part of the tool that is not supported by the rest comes in contact with the work, the work will grab the tool, whack the rest, and dig a big gouge out of your work. For example, if I allow the tip of either of my gouge’s sidewalls to come into contact with the work (holding the gouge so that the flute is facing the ceiling as I’m doing in Fig. 5), the work will slam that sidewall to the rest and dig a chunk of material from the work. I can use the gouge’s sidewalls to cut, but only when I’ve rotated the gouge so that the sidewall I intend to use is supported by the tool rest.

Post prep

When I’m turning long, thin blanks – like chair posts – I always convert the square blanks into octagons with a bandsaw jig I designed for this purpose. I do this because long, thin spindles tend to whip in the lathe, complicating the process of rough-turning those chair posts. These bed posts, however, are so beefy that no whipping will occur. I therefore dispensed with the octagon maker.

Because these turning blanks are quite large, set your lathe on its slowest speed. Carefully mount the blank in your lathe, making sure that the spurs on the drive center are engaged with the endgrain of the blank. Turn the blank by hand to ensure that both centers are well engaged. Then, before you’ve brought the tool rest into place, turn on the lathe while standing off to one side out of the danger zone. In most cases, such caution is unnecessary, but if you happen to mount a blank with a hidden defect – something like wind shakes, for instance – the blank could come apart. I’ve never had it happen, but I respect the potential for danger and approach large turning blanks very carefully. 

Then, if everything looks good, shut the lathe off and bring the tool rest into position. 

Establish the tool rest height so that its top edge is 1/16" below the lathe’s axis of rotation. Move it close enough to the work so that it is between 1/16" and 1/8" from the work. Again, turn the work several times by hand to verify clearances.

With the bevel of your roughing gouge riding on the work, turn the lathe on and gradually convert the square blank into a cylinder, taking the time to stop the lathe and reposition the rest when the distance between the rest and the work grows to more than 3/8". Fig. 6 shows the blank when I decided it was time to move the rest in closer.

Post time

I began the turning process by converting all four of my post blanks into cylinders before I did any decorative turning. Since my stock was dressed to 3" squares, these cylinders measured a bit more than 27/8" in diameter. I then began the fun stuff.

Because my tool rests are shop-made from wood, I find it useful to mark off sections of my spindle right on the rest. I can then transfer measurements directly from the rest to the work with no awkward and time-consuming stopping and starting. And when I go from one blank to another, I make sure to reposition the rest so the marks are correctly aligned for each new one (Fig. 7).

Basically, these turnings are a series of alternating coves and beads, and that’s the way I created the shapes. 

I cut the coves in several passes, each of which began near the center of the adjacent bead with the 3/8" fingernail gouge standing on its side – bevel against the work – with the flute facing the cove I was about to cut. With the bevel on the roughed-in cylinder, I moved the gouge into the cove, rotating the tool 90 degrees as I went so that when I reached the center of the cove, the gouge’s flute was pointing directly up. I then moved to the bead on the other side of the cove and repeated the procedure, this time working back into the cove from the other side. In four or five passes, I created the cove and half the beads on either side.

The vase at the top of the post was a bit more complicated. There, with my roughing gouge, I first reduced the cylinder diameter to the thickest part of the vase, its pudgy little base (Fig. 8). I then returned to my 3/8" fingernail gouge and created the abrupt little cove below the vase and the more gradual cove at the vase’s middle section.

I formed the top of the vase, as well as the top and bottom of the ball, using the heel of my skew to peel off layers of wood. This technique can be a little tricky, and if you haven’t done it before, you may want to shift to scraping in this instance, or at the very least practice first on some scrap.

The trick to peeling off layers with a skew is making absolutely sure that the only part of the tool to touch the spinning work is the very bottom. If any other part of the skew touches the work – however briefly – it will be wrenched in your hand, slamming it onto the rest and probably damaging your work (if not your nerves).

Begin this movement with the skew standing almost on its edge on your tool rest, holding it maybe 15 degrees out of vertical, tilting away from the center of the V-cut you’re about to make. Then bring the bottom tip of the skew into your work very carefully and, a layer at a time, cut the V-shape by rotating the skew to vertical while the bottom edge is engaged with the work and moved carefully into the V (Fig. 9).

The foot of each post is a cove above a big, fat bead which sits atop a little fillet. The fillet I formed with a paring chisel laid flat on my rest, bevel-side-down. If you bring that chisel very carefully into the work, it will scrape out a smooth, flat surface (Fig. 10).

This is the only bit of the turning on these posts that I did using a scraping rather than a cutting action.

I’m not an elegant turner. If I were, the shapes I turn would be silky smooth when I lay down my gouge. I always need to do some sanding, but because I cut rather than scrape, there is no endgrain tearout to contend with at the sanding stage (Fig. 11).

Lathe sanding goes quite quickly, particularly if you use high-quality abrasives. If you haven’t yet tried them, experiment with rolls of 2" cloth-backed abrasive. Get a variety of grits, beginning with 80 or 100, then progress through 150 and 220. (If you haven’t yet used abrasives like this, you’re in for a treat. They make the lathe sanding process remarkably quick and efficient.)

The posts are marked with scorings at a number of locations. There are single scorings in the middles of each of the big beads on the upper half of each post, as well as on the big bead on the foot, plus a double scoring on the base of the posts just below the stack of big beads. A second double scoring adorns the ball at the top of the finial.   These scorings are easy to make. Once you’ve completed most of the sanding, stand your skew on its bottom edge and carefully feed the skew’s knife edge into the work.  It doesn’t take long to make a nice scoring (you can see it in Fig. 12). I then do my finish sanding with a length of 220-grit abrasive.

Mortising the posts

In large part, the success of this bed depends on the accuracy of your layout work, and this particular project poses layout problems because the posts are round, and try squares and straightedges are hard to apply accurately to round surfaces.

To lay out the mortises on these posts, you need to draw two lines – the centerlines of the post’s mortises – along the lower half of each. They should be parallel with each post’s axis of rotation and exactly 90 degrees apart.

Depending on whether you’re using a lathe with or without an indexing head, there are two ways to accomplish this.

An indexing head is a disk centered on the lathe’s axis of rotation. The manufacturer has drilled holes near the circumference of the disk that allow you to divide objects mounted on the lathe into accurate segments. My lathe has 36 holes near the circumference of its indexing head, spaced exactly 10 degrees apart. This means that if I want to make two lines 90 degrees apart on the outside diameter of a turned object, I simply count off nine holes on the indexing head.

On my lathe, this is done by retracting and then releasing a spring-loaded pin into the indexing head’s holes as I slowly rotate the workpiece by hand. I retract the pin, rotate the work, and when the spring-loaded pin finds the next hole and drops into that hole, I know that my lathe has rotated 10 degrees (Fig. 12).

To mark the lines on the locations the indexing head identifies, first lock the post’s rotation with the pin. 

The next step requires a simple jig that will slide along the bed of your lathe while holding a pencil to mark a line on the outside diameter of your post as in Fig. 13. Your jig may look a little different because your lathe bed may dictate a different foot on your marking jig. Mine simply slides across the lathe’s mounting table.

Slide the marking jig along the length of the post so the pencil is in contact with the work to create the first line. Then, using the indexing head’s spring-loaded pin, count nine stops, lock the head, and make a second line with your jig.

In case your lathe doesn’t have an indexing head, here’s another way to draw the lines. 

This may seem a little goofy at first, but if you think about, it will begin to make sense. It’s a technique I’ve used many times.

Rip a wide, flat carpenter’s pencil into two, exposing the full length of the pencil’s lead. Then lay two posts side by side on your work bench so that they are touching along their full lengths. Take one of the carpenter’s pencil rips in your hand, holding it so the exposed lead is on the bottom side of the rip. Lay the rip across two posts so that the rip is perpendicular to their length. Then draw the rip along the length of the posts, and it will leave behind a line on each post that is parallel with the post’s axis of rotation. 

Next, mark a matching set of mortises along each line. By “matching,” I mean mark the footboard mortises on both or the headboard mortises on both. Then cut the mortises (the procedure for cutting these mortises will be explained in Part 2). 

The second part of this process requires that you fashion a tenon long enough to join the two posts via the matching mortises. Since the mortises will be 1/2" thick, you need a section of wood 1/2" x 1" x 3" (the total depth of the two mortises). Slide this tenon into one mortise. Bring the other post into position and slide it onto the tenon. What you’ve done is align these posts in the same rotational configuration they will have in the finished bed. 

To mark the second set of lines, repeat your earlier step, sliding the pencil along the lengths of the two posts. The lines that result will be parallel to the axis of rotation of each post, and each line will be exactly 90 degrees from the lines you made earlier.

In Part 2, I’ll explain how the remaining parts of this bed are created, followed by assembly and finishing. 

Kerry Pierce

Pierce has been a professional furniture maker for more than 20 years. He is the author of 10 woodworking books – including the recently published “Authentic Shaker Furniture” – as well as dozens of magazine articles. His work has appeared in many regional shows, including, most recently, Ohio Furniture by Contemporary Masters at the Ohio Decorative Arts Center.

Materials, Part 1

All parts are cherry. These are net measurements; extra length should be added to allow for centering in the lathe.

Headpost (2) 3" x 3" x 455/8"

Footpost (2) 3" x 3" x 395/8"


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