Improvising at the Table Saw

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This article is from Issue 99 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Improvising at the Table Saw

Design as Jazz

One of my favorite aspects of woodworking is designing new objects. Most of them start out as sketches, but bringing them to life sometimes takes more than just paper and pencil. I liken the process to playing jazz. You start out with a simple concept, or melody, then improvise the design. 

Take for example the vase on page 45. My sketchbook yielded the idea of framing a copper tube between two opposing coved moldings, but the exact proportions and interplay of curves and angles wasn’t something I could coax from the end of my pencil. It was time to hit the shop.

Designing new objects

Standing in front of the table saw with a short piece of copper pipe (cut from the 6' piece I had to buy) and my scrap bin nearby, I started by working out the basic proportions, width first, then nibbling away until the length seemed right. The cove came next. A quick sketch on the end of one of the pieces gave me enough information to make the cove set up. Then, angled fence clamped in place and a handful of light passes later, I had two pieces of coved molding. So far, the idea on the sketch was holding up. 

Balancing the pipe on end and moving the coved pieces in and out on either side soon yielded the overall width of the piece and length of the crosspiece. But the coved pieces needed something to make them more than just lengths of molding. Holes? Maybe. 1"-diameter? Nah, they look too small. Good thing the fence is still in place on the drill press. 1-1/2"? That seems better. Note to self: Next time, drill from the inside to avoid tearout. But the square ends need attention. Maybe a miter cut? No, too pointy. How about a reverse miter to remedy that? Ah, yes. 

Now the crosspiece needs to be installed, so to the router table. Mortise, mortise, chop the corners. Then back to the table saw for the tenons. Now we’re getting somewhere. 

But things still look a bit chunky. How about rounding the outside too? Ah, a chance to hand plane. Nice! And that curve looks sweet with the reverse miter. But maybe the tenons should protrude? Yes, that works. But the sides are still too square. Tilt the table saw blade and cut. Nearly done. Feet? Yes. Symmetric? No, too predictable. Bandsaw, bandsaw, sand. Splash on a little finish, and Voila! Done! Looks nice and resolves a lot of the questions left by the sketch. Now to recreate this off-the-cuff design for the article. 

But what to do with the extra pipe? Fortunately this jam session generated a raft of new ideas just waiting for an encore. 

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