Complete Your Country Bed

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This article is from Issue 5 of Woodcraft Magazine.

In the previous issue of Woodcraft Magazine, we showed you how to turn the four posts of this modern-sized, country-style bed. Now, add the unique headboard and footboard to finish up this stunning addition to your bedroom.

Whenever I design a piece that includes turning, I begin by laying out the turned parts, and then turn a sample. I do this because I’m not good at visualizing transitions between two turned elements or between turned and non-turned elements. I need to see these turned transitions “in the flesh” to consider how they might best work together, and how they might best work with the non-turned elements.

 This defect in my ability to conceptualize on the lathe is worth noting because I think everyone who works with wood has limitations. Truly great turners (I’m lucky enough to know several) aren’t necessarily good at casework; likewise, truly great builders of casework are often not great turners. Similar statements can be made about anyone who exhibits genius at any of the woodworking specialties: veneering, carving, finishing, etc. No one masters every discipline.

Certainly not me. Like most contemporary furniture makers, I’m a generalist who knows a little about turning, a little about casework, a little about carving and finishing (and almost nothing about veneering). 

To be the best designer/woodworkers we can be, we need to acknowledge (and maybe even embrace) our deficiencies. That’s why I didn’t finalize this bed’s design until after settling on a post that both matched my skills as a turner and provided me with an acceptable level of aesthetic satisfaction.

The finial on these posts is something I stole from a Brewster chair, a Pilgrim design I reproduced some years ago for a local collector of 17th-century American furniture. 

What I liked best about that Brewster chair – and about my bedpost and its finial – is the sharp transition between the half bead below the ball and the cove below the half bead. I used the same transition in the bed’s headboard and footboard.

You can see the transition in the drawing on page 19. That transition – writ large – is the bandsawn profile atop the footboard and atop the headboard. On the headboard, the transition is not only much larger, but is also presented in several variations.

The brackets

Before laying out the mortises on the posts, cut off the tail of scrap wood at the top of each post’s finial. I do this on the bandsaw, taking care to leave behind enough material to shape a nicely rounded ball at the top of the finial. 

I shape the top of the ball by hand with a paring chisel pushed across the endgrain at a skew, and then finish the ball with a rasp and sandpaper.

Remember that your finials and posts need not be absolutely uniform. These posts were turned by human hands, and should exhibit the subtle variations in size and contour that characterize good handwork.

The posts attach to the rails with bedrail brackets. Each of the four brackets comes in two parts: a male part which goes on the rail, and a female part mortised into the post.

The bottom of the bedrails will go 7" up from the floor, vertically centering the brackets in the 53/4" width of the rail. I also centered the brackets (rotationally this time) on one of the lines I made while the post was still mounted in the lathe during Part 1 of this project.

I start by marking the width and length of the properly positioned bracket. Most craftsmen prefer a knife to a pencil when marking. I do use a knife for the final lines, but I establish my initial layouts with a pencil, which I can erase if I find I’ve made a mistake. I then convert those pencil lines to scored lines using a Sloyd knife. Its edge is beveled on both sides, letting me work up to a straight edge with either side of the knife.

Use a paring chisel to remove enough material to mortise the female half of the bracket into place (Fig. 1). Notice the arrangement of U-blocks that allows me to work on round stock. Two U-blocks support the stock from underneath, while a bar clamp applies pressure to a third block from above.

In order for the hooks on the male bracket to seat properly, two secondary mortises must be cut inside the primary mortise. In Fig. 2, I’m marking the widths of these secondary mortises.

In Fig. 3, I’ve vertically positioned the bracket where it will be when the hooks are fully engaged. This allows me to establish the lengths of the secondary mortises. Remember that your secondary mortises must be long enough to accept the hooks before they’re fully seated, as well as when they’re fully seated.

I made the secondary mortises (Fig. 4) wider than needed simply because my narrowest mortise chisel is a bit less than 1/4" wide. Although the width of these secondary mortises can be safely increased, the length can’t – if you do, there will be too little material left for the bracket screws.

I then drilled the holes for the bracket screws (Fig. 5), choosing to mount the brackets with 2" coarse-threaded drywall screws. Like many furniture makers, I’ve switched from traditional woodscrews to drywall screws for most applications because they’re simply better fasteners. The threads are deeper than the threads on traditional screws of the same size, and as a result the holding power of drywall screws is greater. Plus, the heads are usually well-formed with deep incisions for screwdriver tips, making them easy to drive with an electric drill.

The wood joinery

The headboard and footboard are attached with 13/8" tenons that fit into mortises cut into the posts. These mortises are centered on a line 90 degrees from the centerline of the side rail brackets. Because the headboard and footboard are so wide, shrinkage across that width is an issue the bed’s design must accommodate. I don’t have any data to support these specific measurements, but experience tells me that, even in the case of the kiln-dried material in this bed, the footboard might shrink as much as 3/8" across its width and the headboard even more. 

To accommodate this potential shrinkage, I decided to glue the top tenons on both the headboard and footboard and left the bottom tenons unglued. In addition, I cut the mortise for the bottom tenon about 3/8" longer than the tenon is wide to permit the headboard and footboard to shrink across their widths without cracking. As the width shrinks, the bottom tenons will simply slide into the empty 3/8" of the bottom mortise on each post. (If my description of these mortises is unclear, jump ahead to Fig. 14.)

Because the headboard and footboard have only one glued tenon on each end, you might think the construction is a bit weak. However, the concept of the floating tenon has a long history in cabinetmaking, and since the mortise-and-tenon joint fits tightly it has significant mechanical strength that, even unglued, it will combine with the glued upper tenons to keep the posts rigidly in position.

I cut the joints using a 3/8" twist bit in my drill press, followed by a little cleaning with a 1/2" paring chisel. That done, in Fig. 6 I clear out the waste with a 1/4" mortising chisel.

Headboard and footboard

My 4/4 cherry arrived at my shop in lengths of 8'-10'. I cut the best 60"-70" section from each of those boards, then leaned them against my lathe to match them up (Fig. 7). Nearly all exhibited some significant cosmetic defect, in most cases the black, tarry pitch pockets very common in cherry. The worst of these I relegated to the headboard which will have one face against the wall; the boards that looked best on both sides, I set aside for the footboard. I then shuffled the rest to best match color and figure and edge-jointed all the boards in preparation for a dry run of the glueup.

I started by laying out a pair of 48" 2x2s, then set out a pair of 5' pipe clamps, placing one between the 2x2s and the other on the outside of the 2x2s. These two clamps would be the clamps on the bottom side of the panel.

After that, I laid the edge-jointed boards for the headboard across the 2x2s and above the two pipe clamps. (The purpose of the 2x2s is to elevate the boards so that they will be aligned with the screws in the pipe clamp heads. If I had laid these boards directly on the pipe clamp pipes, the boards would have been below the screws in the clamp heads, which could lead to a distorted panel when the clamps were tightened.

That done, I positioned two more clamps on the panel’s upper surface and tightened all four. Clamp placement is important, particularly with a panel this large. The clamps should be placed alternately on top and bottom with each clamp no more than maybe 15" from the next.

Ordinarily, I’d draw clamps as tight as I could, but because this panel was so large, any distortion of its flatness would have been difficult to correct. Therefore, for this dry run I tightened the clamps only enough to bring the jointed edges together to check for a problem with any of the joints which I could correct with another pass or two over the jointer.

Satisfied with the joints, I made one more check before removing the clamps. I laid a 48" straightedge across the panel at several positions. No panel is ever perfectly flat, as there’s always some small misalignment where butt joints meet, but I was checking to ensure that the panel’s surface was generally in the same plane.

Satisfied that the panel would come together nicely, I released the clamps and applied glue to the jointed edges, then placed the boards back in the clamps (Fig. 8). Before leaving the panel to dry, I made one more check of its flatness with my straightedge.

Unless you’ve got a really colossal thickness planer, you’ll have to surface these jumbo panels with hand tools. I suppose you might also use a belt sander, but I don’t think it does this kind of work very well. Unless your hands are perfectly steady – hard to achieve when leaning over a wide panel – you’re going to get some furrow dug by the edges of the sanding belt. At least I always do. That’s why I switched to hand planes for this task.

The first hand plane you’d use is a scrub plane. A scrub plane has a cambered iron rounded across its width, with a wide throat to admit thick shavings. If you’ve never used a plane with a cambered iron, you’re in for a treat. These planes don’t dig in, but simply remove lots of material with a minimum of fuss (Fig. 9).

To cleat or not to cleat?

The footboard has about a foot of its width above the top tenons, and the headboard has about twice that width above its top tenons. That’s a lot of unsupported material, and it’s possible that over time the tops of these panels will curl a bit. But after a couple months in our home, the panels haven’t curled at all. 

When I designed the bed, I included  a pair of cleats on the back side of the headboard and a pair of cleats on the back of the footboard. The headboard cleats would have been concealed because the headboard sits against the bedroom wall, and the footboard cleats would have been partially concealed by the box springs and mattress. 

The cleats would have been fastened in place by screws passing through oversized holes in the cleats to allow the headboard and footboard room to expand and contract with humidity.

I chose to watch the panels and later add the cleats if I need them. This is something I often do when building furniture for myself. I’ll experiment with features like these panels and watch them to see how they do over time.

My recommendation? If you’re building the bed for someone else, include the cleats. If you’re building it for yourself, wait and see if you need them.              — K.P.

Follow the scrub plane with a smoothing plane on which you have a very slightly cambered iron and a tight throat. If the iron is sharp, it will leave a slick surface requiring little sanding.

Surfacing these huge panels takes time. I’m admittedly slow in the shop so you may make better time than I did, but it took me a day and a half to surface both sides of the footboard and one side of the headboard (the back side of the headboard is against the wall and doesn’t need surfacing).

When the panels are surfaced, draw the pattern on the panel and cut out the headboard  and footboard using a saber saw (Fig. 10), then finish the edges with a plane, rasp and sandpaper (Fig. 11).

Joinery, Part 2

The next step is cutting the tenons that will fit in the mortises you cut in the posts.

I cut these with a backsaw, but they could also be cut with a router if you prefer. I first cut the shoulders, followed by the cheeks (Fig. 12). I deliberately cut the tenons a little thick, then went back with a rabbet plane and cleaned up the cheeks to bring them down to their final thicknesses (Fig. 13). In Fig. 14, you can see how the bottom tenons are fit into mortises to give the panel some moving room.

The rails

The bedrails have rounded ends that echo the rounded shape of the posts against which they’re fitted. I cut these rounded ends with a hand plane. 

If you’ll look closely at Fig. 15, you can see that on the back edge of the board, just below the knob on my plane, I’ve cut a little triangle off the corner. This lets me plane across the grain without tearing out long-grain wood fibers at the ends of the strokes.

I also made a couple of lines across the rail to help me create the round perpendicular to the bottom and top edges of the rail. A smoothing plane quickly creates this round (Fig. 16).

The female halves of the brackets have already been mortised into the posts. The male halves then need to be attached to the ends of the rails. It’s tempting to attach these brackets directly to the ends of the rails, but screws – or any other metal fasteners, for that matter – have little holding power when driven into endgrain. For strength, the male brackets are instead fastened to mounting blocks screwed to the inside faces of the rails.

I thicknessed, ripped to width, and cut to length the four mounting blocks, then fastened the male brackets to the sides of the mounting blocks using 2" drywall screws (Fig. 17).

After drilling and countersinking the holes for my mounting blocks, I attached them to the rails with five screws (Fig. 18).


My finishing regimen is nearly always the same. I thoroughly sand each part with 150- and 220-grit sandpaper as I make each component, then resand the assembled piece with 220-grit, followed by a thorough sanding with 320-grit. 

After the sanding, I apply the first coat of Waterlox, brushing it on with little concern for dripping. I then wipe as much of it off as I can with soft rags after the finish has soaked into the surface of the wood. The next day, the finish is dry and has raised the grain, which is easily removed with a thorough sanding of 320-grit, followed by 400-grit.

I apply a second coat of Waterlox, again wiping it all off with soft rags. This second wipe is critical; obviously, you can’t get it all, but you want is to leave behind a layer only a few molecules thick that will dry to a satiny smoothness. Anyplace where you leave more than that is likely to dry roughened.

Finally, the next day, I sand once more – with 1,000-grit paper this time – and apply a coat of paste wax which I buff thoroughly when dry.

As I assemble the completed bed, it’s probably a good idea to leave you with a few words about bed size. The headboard, footboard and rails in the drawings are meant for a full-sized bed. A queen or a king will need longer parts; just add the necessary length to the middle sections of each part.

Kerry Pierce

Kerry Pierce has been a professional furniture maker for more than 20 years. He is the author of a dozen woodworking books and more than 50 articles for woodworking magazines. His most recent book, “Authentic Shaker Furniture,” was the main selection of the Woodworker’s Book Club. 


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