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Project Summary: A Red Gum Chair

The first thing any non-woodworker does (and some woodworkers, too…) to decide the quality of a piece of furniture is to run their finger tips across its surface. “Ahhh“, they affirm, “smooooooth.”

The decision is instantly made: this piece is categorised as ‘good’.

The human finger tip is a remarkable thing, capable of detecting a change in a surface equivalent to the depth of a fingerprint ridge: somewhere in the region of 0.2 to 0.4mm. As far as I’m aware there is not yet any robot with this level of sensitivity.

But how to make wood smooth? How to achieve the seemingly impossible task of flattening a surface to a tolerance of 0.2mm? In an ideal world this would be done with a cutting tool. Cut wood is a wonderful thing, and a handplane in the right hands, and on the right wood, leaves a glassy finish that no other method can compete with.

With the right wood. Some woods are… disagreeable. Unfortunately these woods are often the most interesting to look at. It’s the figure that causes the beauty, and the problems. The changes in grain direction that result in a highly decorative piece also mean that any time a blade runs over it a smooth surface will be left where the grain is going the right way, and a torn surface will be left everywhere it goes the opposite direction.

Sometimes this can be tamed with a finely set plane with a steep blade angle. I have a smoothing plane of my own making with a mouth (the gap between the blade and the hole it pokes out of the bottom) of 0.3mm, and a bed angle of 55°. A standard metal bench plane might have a mouth of 2mm or more, and has a bed angle of 45°. These differences allow the plane to hold down the shaving as the plane severs it from the surface, and usually results in a smooth, glassy finish regardless of what the grain is doing.

But some wood is so cranky that nothing works. This Red Gum was the most difficult wood to work that I’ve ever encountered.

What I wanted for this chair was the legs be shaped with a tapered chamfer. This would reduce the apparent bulk of the legs without removing much material, leaving it at maximum strength while appearing to be delicate and fine. I’m a sucker for a tapered chamfer.

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