Making the Blue Gum Table
Words and photos: Richard Vaughan
The way Australian light dapples through gum leaves has been a lifelong source of delight, wonder and reflection to me. Over 500 species of eucalypt have evolved to populate just about every climate and terrain on this vast continent since Gondwana drifted off on its own some 50 million years ago.
The tough blue-green leaves have learnt to turn sideways to the sun to reduce moisture loss. The volatile oils add to the blueness of the light in eucalyptus forests. The resultant appearance in the Great Dividing Range west of Sydney led to the region being known as The Blue Mountains. This table was conceived to allude to the way the light comes through the open foliage in this the land of the gum tree.
The first step in making it was the full size drawing of plan, front and end views to get pleasing proportions and shapes. From this drawing ply templates were made for the front and end rails. The drawing also served to locate where to cut the mortises in the legs.
The timber is Sydney blue gum (Eucalyptus saligna), the ‘blue’ being for its forest appearance and not its wood, which can vary from rich red wine to rose in colour. The leg material was dressed to 45mm square. Each leg was clearly marked from the drawing to identify where the mortises would be, and where the shaping for the junctions would start.
Once the mortises had been cut (much easier while the workpiece is square) the legs were turned, tapering from 40 to 25mm diameter, taking care to leave enough wood around each joint for shaping.
The timber available for the rails wasn’t quite as wide as was needed so it had it be built up. The boards were dressed and then the template was traced onto them, taking care that the ends were at right angles to the jointed top edge. This edge is the reference for subsequent marking and cutting.
In order to get a good colour and grain match the build-up pieces were taken from the waste under the arch of each set of rails [photo 1]. Once these were glued on, the boards were docked to length with an allowance of 25mm at each end for the tenons.
My very good friend the router was used to cut the tenons. The shoulders were marked using a square and knife. A fence, in this case a piece of 12mm ply with a straight and smooth edge, was clamped to the workpiece so that the router bit exactly followed the knifed line [photo 2].
Once all the tenons, including those on the end rails, had been routed the shapes were bandsawn and the tenons were fitted. Photo 3 shows the components ready for the next stage.
A spokeshave and patternmakers rasp were used for the shaping and the surface was cleaned up with a scraper and sandpaper. The scraper I used here was an old jointer knife, no longer wide enough for use in the thicknesser, but its length and high-speed steel made it ideal for shaping these rails. The 30 or 40mm at the ends of the rails was left almost square, to be shaped into the legs after glue up.
A full dry clamp-up, upside down on a flat and level surface, made certain all the joints were gapless—or at least drew attention to those that weren’t so they could be adjusted. Strap clamps applied the right sort of pressure here but care had to be taken to not overtighten lest the rails flexed and opened the joints.
Putting it together
To be extra careful the glue-up was done in two stages. First the end rails were glued, but with the side rails in position to reduce the chance of them twisting out of square. Then the side rails were dry clamped and checked again before they too were glued.
Epoxy glue allowed a relaxed working time and was tinted with powder ochre to match the wood, just in case. All surfaces to be glued were cleaned with 240 grit sandpaper immediately before gluing. This should be standard practice when working with eucalypts.
More rasping, scraping, carving and sanding let the lines flow into one another. A carver’s skew chisel is a lovely tool for subtly shaping curves, particularly in tight spots like the junctions of these rails. This very attentive and rather meditative shaping process is some kind of bliss. Ah woodwork.
Holes about 16mm deep were drilled into the tops of the legs with a 16mm forstner style bit. Blue gum dowel was turned to a bare 15mm diameter to fit them comfortably.
Topping the glass
The process of making the glass top was simpler than you might expect (once you know how of course). A piece of 18mm MDF (it has a fine and uniform texture) was cut about 30mm longer and wider than the glass for the top and the corners were gently rounded.
Using a carving gouge the surface was carved with generally leafy sort of clusters of oval dimples about 4mm deep. The entire surface was then fine sanded with 240 grit paper, sealed with shellac and then resmoothed. A couple of pieces of pine were fixed along the edges of the back to act as handles [photo 4].
These handles are for lifting the pattern once it has been pressed into the sand mix in the floor of a kiln set up for slumping glass. Some phoning around will put you in touch with the right people to have the glass formed to your pattern.
With the frame inverted on the glass the positions for the locating dowels were marked by borders of masking tape. A bit of testing led me to using 5 minute epoxy glue, with powder ochre colouring, to attach the dowels to the glass. The glass was thoroughly cleaned with metho beforehand.
The frame was brought to a soft luster with my usual rubbed Floorseal finish. And even people who’d hate to be called ‘tree huggers’ like to stroke this table.
This story first appeared in Wood Review magazine issue 46.
Richard Vaughan is a furniture designer/maker and teaches woodwork in Brisbane. See www.richardvaughan.com.au