Making the Moon Table
Above: Moon Table, made by Terry Martin and Zina Burloiu from jacaranda and ebonised Tasmanian blackwood, 450 dia x 730mm.
Words: Terry Martin
Photos: Terry Martin and Zina Burloiu
For the last few years my woodworking collaborator Zina Burloiu and I have felt that our creative path was set for years to come,
but in 2018 we had a surprise opportunity that injected new life into our creative veins. In early 2018 we were invited to submit an entry proposal to Studio Furniture 2018, which would be one of the most significant exhibitions of its kind ever held in Australia.
For many furniture makers this would be an opportunity of a lifetime, but for us it was flabbergasting because neither Zina nor I are furniture makers! We decided that this had to be our strength – that we came with no preconceived notions of what would be successful and, more particularly, no set idea of how it should be done.
Zina and I believe that while technical matters are important, it is the idea behind a piece that makes it sing. The idea for Moon Table began as a conversation about what a piece of furniture is. Zina and I have 21 years’ experience of working together and ideas flow so smoothly that words can hardly keep up.
Firstly we agreed that it should be functional, but certainly not conventional. We are very familiar with the space at Bungendore Wood Works, so we pictured the gallery filled with furniture on the floor. Perhaps we should consider a piece to go on the ample wall space?
‘A sculpture? No, that’s not furniture. Perhaps a mirror? That’s the kind of thing people might expect from us. A clock? There are amazing clock makers out there and we can’t compete with them. Alright, let’s play with “clock”. What would be a really unusual timepiece? How about a wall-mounted sundial? Not bad, but can we make it more unusual? A moon dial!? Why not? They probably don’t exist, so let’s make the first ever!
‘Wait a minute, sundials are usually horizontal, so why not make a horizontal moon dial, like a small table with the pointer on one side? That’s interesting because it fits the furniture brief better. Just a moment, if it’s like a table, why not just make it a table? A Moon Table!’
Finally we had our idea, but how would it look and how would we make it? We left the idea to cook overnight. The next day we started to sketch ideas and when we looked at moon images online we found a crescent moon with deep shadows in the craters. It was stunning and we both agreed that we could frame the surface of the table on one side with a crescent.
The ideas stared to flow as we sketched: ‘But what about the legs? It needs to float so they should be very slender...Yes, but not vertical...I agree...Maybe set into the base very close to the centre of the table so they splay out...three legs, so it’s always stable. What are we going to make the moon out of? It needs to be bony white...jacaranda is good if it doesn’t have a finish on it...and the legs should be dark so that the moon looks like it’s floating in space. Ebonised blackwood will be perfect.’ Time to start.
As a small aside, when Zina and I exhibit our work, we find ourselves quickly pigeonholed – ‘Terry turns and Zina carves’. While it is true that Zina is a better carver and I am a better turner, we do swap roles and for this project we each took over at different stages, each of us turning, carving and taking photographs.
For the tabletop we selected a nicely figured slab 170mm thick from my large stock of jacaranda and cut a disk just under 600mm in diameter, the maximum that can be turned inboard on my Vicmarc lathe. There were several bark inclusions, some of which needed to be turned away, but there was one fissure that we decided to retain to remind people that it was once part of a tree, something we both enjoy.
1. The blank on the lathe. The bark inclusion that we kept is on the left.
Because it was a substantial weight we mounted it on a faceplate, but we had to select screws short enough so they would not cut through to the other side. With this in mind, we brought up the tailstock for stability (photo 1).
2. Turning the central area to start the flat table surface.
The first stage of making the top was to establish the discus-like shape and to turn out the centre to the depth of the flat table surface (photo 2). After the unwanted faults were removed we ended up with a diameter of 450mm, which helped us establish the leg length, thickness and spacing.
3. With the top of the rim shaped, the piece is reversed onto the spigot left in the centre.
Much of the proud rim was to be cut away later. At the centre of the piece we turned a spigot so we could reverse the table to shape the bottom (photo 3).
4. The bottom is shaped and the recess for the leg structure is turned out.
Zina and I had decided to fix the legs to the top by making a separate insert and gluing it into a recess in the bottom. My drill press is not large, so the smaller insert would make it a lot easier to drill the angled holes for the legs. When the curve of the bottom was established we marked the diameter for the recess and turned it out, which also removed the faceplate screw holes (photo 4).
5. It was important to monitor the thickness.
It was important to check the thickness of the top as we went (photo 5). We tapered the recess slightly so that when we put the plug in the bottom it would tighten only when it was fully inserted.
6. The tapered plug for the legs is carefully turned to match the recess.
When the recess was finished we turned a slightly oversized blank from Tasmanian blackwood. Then by removing very tiny shavings and constantly try-fitting it, we were able to get a snug fit in the tabletop (photo 6).
7. With the plug fitted into the recess it is turned to match the curve of the bottom of the table.
After remounting the tabletop on the lathe we fitted the blank into the base and turned it to match the curve of the table, but we left a spigot as a handle to make it easy to remove (photos 7, 8). It would be turned off later.
8. The spigot is left to allow removal of the plug.
We found the next step quite interesting. How do you calculate and mark the curve of the crescent moon so that it blends naturally with the full diameter? We went through several methods, including both Zina’s amazing mathematics skills, and eyeballing and marking it with a flexible rule, but the best solution was very simple: we measured the width of the rim and marked a new centre that distance from the original centre.
9. Marking the arc of the crescent.
Then by drawing an arc with the same diameter as the original, we had the perfect complement to the original arc. We also found one way to solve the problem of not having a large enough compass – simply tape a pencil to the dividers (photo 9). The arc also had to include the portion of the natural fault that we wanted to retain.
Next we wanted to remove the majority of the rim down to the level of the flat tabletop, leaving the arc of the crescent moon. For this kind of work I usually use a die grinder held in a cross- side vice on my lathe, but we found this was not stable enough for such a large piece, so we had to think laterally.
10. Victor Verrecchia levelling the rim of the table.
For thirty years one of my closest friends has been Victor Verrecchia, the founder of Vicmarc Machinery. I bought my first lathe from him in 1988 and since then we have regularly helped each other in many ways, so I knew I could ask him for assistance. He was happy to take on the challenge. Every time I visit his factory I drool over his massive machinery, so I was very happy when he suggested we use his venerable 50-year-old Rambauldi milling machine.
With a lifetime of machining experience his coordination with the twin wheel controls was amazing and he produced a perfectly flat top very quickly, so thank you Victor (photo 10). Back at home Zina and I sanded the surface smooth with a random orbital sander and blended the curve under the crescent overhang with a series of sandpaper flaps held in a split pin mounted in a Foredom flexi-shaft tool.
Finding the angle for the leg holes in the centre plug was simply a matter of cutting a stick to the leg length we wanted, eyeballing the outward lean from the insertion point in the plug, then measuring the angle. It was easy to clamp the plug to the drill press table, which was adjusted to the correct angle.
11. Turning the legs.
We used a 50mm sawtooth bit as we felt blackwood legs of that diameter would be strong enough. We drilled right through as the protruding segments of the legs could then easily be trimmed flush with the top of the insert.
12. The first try-fit of the whole piece.
Turning the tapered legs was basic spindle turning that only required a gentle touch and a supporting hand to dampen vibration (photo 11). With all the components finished it was time to try-fit everything to see if the proportions were what we had anticipated (photo 12). Success!
We then ebonised the blackwood with nails-and-vinegar solution. I keep a jar of this mix fermenting away in my workshop and regularly add steel wool and vinegar to keep the smelly mix potent. By applying with 0000 steel wool, it stains and finishes for a perfect result (photo 13). When a finish is applied, it darkens wonderfully, but still allows the grain to shimmer through.
13. Staining the legs.
The most important part of the process was the carving of the crescent. We agreed that the best way was to imitate what has happened to the moon itself. The layering of craters has developed over millions of years as meteorites have pounded the surface, each impact overlaying previous ones. As well as the major impacts, there has been a constant shower of dust-like particles that have softened the whole to create that marvellous patina. So that is exactly what we did!
14. We constantly went back and overlaid new craters on the surface, sandblasting between each stage.
Using a rotary burr, we carved large craters first, then sandblasted the surface to make them ‘ancient’. Then we repeated the process, overlaying more craters and sandblasting, progressively getting smaller and smaller till we were working down
to craters only a few millimetres in diameter – all the time returning to the sandblasting cabinet between carving stages to erode and soften the edges (photo 14). It was important to protect the rest of the tabletop so we taped it securely (photo 15).
15. The final tiny holes are ready for sandblasting. The tape protects the tabletop.
Once the bark was removed from the included fault, it looked like a geological fissure. The end result was exactly what we wanted, functional but ethereal, with the flat and polished surface embraced by the eroded raw wood crescent. The finished table floats on dark-of-night slender legs, just as we envisaged.
On the opening night in October there was another surprise for us. We were delighted to learn that we had won Third Prize, which made us very proud considering the illustrious company in the show. We want to thank the judges and we also want to give special thanks to David Mac Laren and Linda Nathan. They challenged us and now we have a whole new set of ideas for our future work. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Zina Burloiu is a wood artist who lives in Brasov, Romania. Last year she was in Australia creating work with Terry Martin for their collaborative exhibition, Shadow and Light, held at Bungendore Wood Works Gallery prior to Studio Furniture 2018.
Terry Martin is a Brisbane-based wood artist, author and curator. See www.terrymartinwoodartist.com