First steps towards craftsmanship, and why your farmhouse table split
121 years ago this very month, in the January issue of "the Craftsman" an article on the influence that material things have on our lives - encourages the reader to subject those things "to the same rigors that we would a person with whom we intend to make friends." It is my hope and objective, that my articles educate both the consumer and the maker on how to do just that. This article aims more to the maker, but with valuable information for the consumer as well.
In speaking to the qualities of our items needing to be like the qualities of our friends, the author also speaks to the craftsman himself in these lines "For the existence or absence of such qualities and capabilities in material things, the intention of their maker is responsible. If he has produced under the lash of commercialism and competition, if he has sought to be original, that he might allure or startle, without wishing to serve fitness or beauty, then he has falsified himself and ruined his creation. But if he has wrought with every faculty alert, and with absorbing pleasure in his work, then the thing created will reflect to the latest day of its existence that same spirit of truth and love."
To the latest day of your existence... that's the standard for the longevity of every piece you build or buy. Welcome to the Craftsman Revival.
If you've built a farmhouse item, you are well acquainted with the feeling of accomplishment you experienced when you brought it into your home. I likely need not expand upon it further. When that table splits, you will experience quite another feeling, and I definitely don't need to expand on that one. Rather than viewing it as a failure, we should celebrate it as a catalyst for growth and improvement in our craft.
So, why did your table split? Because wood moves. The longer you work in your craft, the more you will become a part of it. Woodworking is shaping life, literally. Wood is alive. It inhales and exhales with the seasons, it breathes, well... real wood does, anyway. As it inhales and exhales, like your chest, it expands and contracts. It does this mostly along it's width and thickness, not so much along it's length. As it does this, it pulls and strains against the things that fasten it together.
The joinery techniques that are used in the authenticity aspect of craftsmanship are used not as a snooty showcase of skill, but to allow for this seasonal movement, which plays into the sustainability aspect of craftsmanship and making pieces that will stand the test of time. And finally, the quality aspect of craftsmanship, they fit perfectly.
Plans for farmhouse tables are available for free, all over the place. They often have versions for "with visible pocket holes" or "non-visible pocket holes." Here's a rule for you. Never rigidly attach a real wood table top to the base. I will explain how not to do that shortly, but for now, a note on what wood does.
Wood is dried (hopefully) after milling prior to being used in a piece. The drying process lowers the moisture content of the wood such that it is suitable for furniture. Hardwood for furniture is dried to around 8%. What that means is that the wood is 8% of it's weight now, than it was when it was green and full of water. Construction lumber is dried to about 19%. They have different uses, and different requirements. That being said, wood is going to acclimate to the relative humidity of it's environment. So if my 8% wood is in my relative humidity shop of 30-40% and comes into my home that may reach 60% in the summer and drop to 20% in the winter, the wood will acclimate to all of those environments, and...move. Now relative humidity and moisture content are not the same thing, but this is sufficient for now.
Farmhouse tables are often built of construction lumber. A lower amount of water has been released from this lumber than furniture grade lumber. That doesn't mean we can't build with it, but it does mean we have to make sure we are allowing for movement for sure! Rigidly attaching your top to the aprons means that as this top expands and contracts, it will rip those screws right out, or buckle, or crack.
The next place the table might split is along the seams of the boards used in the top. it's pretty common in these tables to see gaps between the boards. In fine craftsmanship, when joining boards for a top, we shoot to make the seam completely invisible. We want the top to appear as one solid piece. It looks that way, because it is. This is done by a process called jointing. Not joining, jointing. And we use zero screws or nails for this.
Construction lumber is bevelled on the edges. Bravo for you if you ripped these edges off to get a cleaner seam! (Ripping is a term meaning cutting along the grain of a board, as opposed to cross-cutting, which is across the grain.) If you did remove those bevels, you were in touch with your inner craftsman, and you did a rudimentary form of jointing! To expand on this practice, the goal is to have an edge that is perfectly straight and square to the face of the board. (Experienced readers will note that is doesn't have to be perfectly square, as long as it is complimentary to the board to which you intend to glue.) And they would say that because they have jointed by hand,
This is where the division begins, my friends. This is where the Craftsmen emerge and the rest fall away. True craftsmanship adheres to authenticity, sustainability and quality. A craftsman will not accept an edge that does not meet his standards. And a craftsman will learn how to get that edge. I encourage you to the depths of my ability, do not rush to purchase a machine for this task, not yet. For squaring and truing a board is the toughest skill to master in this craft in my opinion. If you can do it by hand, which you can, and for a small fraction of the cost of a machine, you will benefit beyond any other skill I can teach you, because it demands mastery of several competencies. These competencies are the secrets to craftsmanship, the ones that have been obscured for so very long, and are reviving now in each and every one of you.
I promised I would mention how not to rigidly attach a top to it's base. So I will. We use items called "table buttons" or even figure 8 metal fasteners that move with the wood when it expands and contracts. These are also recessed or situated within mortises or grooves within the aprons of the table. This begins to enter into the sub-competencies of craftsmanship. If you are interested at this point, table buttons should be the least of your concern.
If this helped you at all, please like the post, subscribe, send me a message, interact in some way so I'll know you're out there! We can revive our craft, and make the objects in your home reflect the beauty and longevity of the spirit of Craftsmanship. "The sooner that we appreciate the inevitable, strong, subtle influences which pass from eye to the brain, the sooner shall we give to ourselves (and with greater profit to our children than ourselves) surroundings conducive to plain living and high thinking : rooms in which each object shall have some vital reason for its existence, place and function, and which can form an unobtrusive background for the drama of life." - "The Craftsman, Vol. 1 no. 4" Jan. 1902.