A Power-Sculpted Contemplation Bench

Dwell on this ... a contemplation bench project that will challenge you to learn power-sculpting techniques using a wide variety of tools. 

What an inspiration!

This bench has a simple design featuring assembly with mortise-and-tenon-style joinery but it will still challenge you creatively. By the time you’re finished, you will be comfortable creating gentle hollows and graceful curves over large surfaces using free-hand techniques. And since no two contemplation benches are exactly the same, each one is a chance to showcase your own design ideas.

Bench construction 

When selecting wood for the project, let your imagination run wild. A piece such as this lends itself to showcasing some pretty choice woods. Since the construction is so simple, it’s best to think about strength as well as beauty. Some of the best species for the job include zebrawood, purpleheart, tiger maple and mahogany. Feel free to mix and match species for visual effect; walnut and maple, for example, make a classically interesting match.

Mill your lumber and rough-cut it to size (see cut list). The bench itself consists of just three parts: two legs and a seat. If your leg stock is less than 9"  wide, you will need to glue-up two or more boards. The seat, on the other hand, will be constructed from three separate pieces that will form the open mortises while giving you the 9" width. The best-case scenario will allow you to cut the three seat pieces from a single piece of stock, thus maintaining grain continuity. Be sure to account for the kerf when milling your stock.

The centerpiece from the seat stock is then cut to 18"  by removing the appropriate amount of material from each side. The three seat pieces are then glued back together leaving an approximately 7" open mortise on each end of the bench. You do not want to use biscuits, dowels or any other form of fastener for this glueup. If you did, these would be exposed once the carving begins.

Once the seat glueup is dry, you will want to use the glued-up blank to mark the location of the tenon on the leg stock. You’ll have much better luck working directly from the piece than by measuring. Using a miter gauge, stop block, and clamp if necessary, make the appropriate cuts to reveal the tenon

(Fig. 1). Cut the tenon just a bit oversize initially in order to sneak up on the fit.

Once the tenons are cut, the carving can begin.

Let the chips fall where they may

Some of the tools you will use include a rasp, block plane, angle grinder outfitted with an Arbortech carving blade, a 7" polisher outfitted with a sanding disk and a random orbit sander for final smoothing.

Use the drawing to make a template for tracing the curves onto the middle of the seat. Templates can be made from 1/4"  sheet stock and should represent curves that are pleasing to your eye. Be sure to mark the curve on both sides of the pieces to be carved.  This will serve as a reference for symmetry during the carving process. Don’t lose too much sleep if the curves aren’t an exact match to the template, as long as the sides are symmetrical.

Take care not to remove too much wood at first. As the old saying goes, it’s easier to take some more wood off than to put some back on.

The simple object of your carving is to remove all the material in the most efficient way possible. For the larger curves, the best tool to use is the angle grinder (Fig. 2). You might want to start by setting a depth at the edge of the board, then working your way across.  Generally stay 1/16" to 1/8"  above the line in this rough stage.

The next step is rough smoothing and refining the curve. The surface is probably very uneven at this stage, and aggressive sanding is one of the best ways to smooth everything out. A 7" polisher outfitted with a sanding disk works great (Fig.3).  

Now you are approaching your pencil line. Once the surface is smoothed out, break out the random orbit sander with an 80-grit sheet and sand through to 180 grit (Fig. 4).

The center curve of the seat and the curves in the legs are cut before assembly. The outside curves of the seat and all final touches can be carved after the bench is assembled.

2. GRIND: remove the bulk of the material with an angle grinder or comparable tool. Be careful!

3. SAND: smooth rough countours with   a flexible-pad sander/polisher. Here's where dust will start to be an issue.

4. FINE SANDING: be careful not to overdo the edges when using an orbital sander prior to your final finsh.

Bringing it all together

Since this open mortise-and-tenon joint will bear all of the weight, you will want to use epoxy and two 21/2" screws on each joint to ensure a strong bond.

The recessed square countersink holes in the tenon are made using a hollow chisel mortiser outfitted with a 3/8" bit. The hole should be just slightly deeper than 1/2" . 

Once the square holes are cut, clamp the legs in place and pre-drill for screws. Remove the legs, apply a coat of epoxy to all the mating surfaces and clamp them together again before driving your screws in.

The square screw caps (Fig. 5) can be made from any contrasting wood that is 3/8" x 3/8" square.  Sand all four corners lightly at 45° and use the bandsaw to cut off the cap. Repeat this process for the remaining caps.

With the tenon in place, you can finish carving the outer seat curves using the power carving tools as before.

Once the main curves are carved and smoothed to your satisfaction, ease all sharp edges with a rasp, file and some sandpaper to blend the surfaces smoothly.

Sand the entire project to 180, and it’s ready to finish. One method you might want to try is putting on a coat of  dewaxed blonde shellac. Once that dries, gently sand the surface with 400-grit wet-dry sandpaper or #0000 steel wool. Clear all the dust off the surface and put on two coats of a natural oil-poly blend to really bring out the figure.

The only thing left to do is pour yourself a cup of coffee and contemplate what you are going to build next!

Tom Iovino

Tom Iovino is a hobby woodworker from the Tampa Bay area. When he’s not making sawdust in his shop, he enjoys time with his wife and two sons.

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