Jeff Segal Cabinetmaker - Handmade furniture in the Arts and Crafts tradition

Cherry stretcher tables

Cherry tables - technical drawing

Pair of stretcher tables in English and Japanese cherry

These two tables, designed to sit at each end of a sofa in a Georgian house in north London, are made entirely from a winter-flowering cherry (Prunus x subhirtella Autumnalis 'Rosea') which stood in the clients' front garden until it succumbed to fungal disease and had to be felled.

Like a lot of ornamental cherries, this one was a graft, where the Japanese species was spliced into a standard English cherry (Prunus avium) rootstock by the nursery. That meant of course that there were two subtly different woods in the same tree.

Each table will essentially be made up of a top, a carcase with two dovetailed drawers, and a mortice-and-tenoned underframe. The drawer unit is 'jettied' over the base - hanging over it like the first floor of a mediaeval timber-framed house. The antiques trade uses the term 'stretcher tables' to describe pieces like this with horizontal rails at the base of the legs.

Every single component - right down to the drawer knobs - will come from that little cherry tree, and the design evolved from thinking carefully about how to exploit the limited amount of timber available. Most of it came from the English cherry trunk, but there was also some interesting figure and contrast in the Japanese cherry branchwood which the clients were keen to make use of.

Working with wood from the limbs of a tree can often present problems: it's inevitably small in section, curved in the length, with a lot of paler sapwood. There may be deep cracks and the timber may not be structurally very strong. Woodturners are happy to use it, but furniture makers will hesitate.

The solution we came up with was to create bookmatched veneer panels from the branchwood and inlay them into the tabletops. The veneer will utilise only the most striking pieces and will be glued on to stable, strong home-made plywood which I'll make from the plainer material.

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Cherry tables - winter-flowering cherry blossomThe winter-flowering Japanese cherry is a compact ornamental tree that can grow up to 20 or 30 feet in height. Fairly common in British parks and gardens, it reliably produces an impressive crop of pink flowers on bare stems from around November to March.


Cherry tables - crown of treeIt's not a long-lived tree, and this particular specimen survived in its Islington garden for around 30 years before becoming diseased, with fungal growths at the base of the crown. It had a preservation order, but in 2011 the council's expert agreed it needed to be felled.


Cherry tables - rootstock and graftThe Japanese tree is usually propagated by inserting a wedge-shaped graft into a notch cut in English cherry rootstock. It's easy to spot the difference between the short, stout trunk and the limbs above. The joint was just over a metre above the soil level.


Cherry tables - boards stacked by tree surgeonsThe tree surgeons mill the trunk into full-width boards 1-3/4 or 2 inches thick. After a few weeks I move the timber to a more exposed spot on site, get rid of the tarpaulin (which is delaying drying), saw the remaining branches and seal the ends with aluminium primer.

Cherry tables - boards in workshop for conditioningAfter 18 months outdoors, I transport the wood to my workshop to complete the drying process. By then the moisture content has dropped to around 15%, half the original level. At the bottom of the picture you can see where the fungus has attacked the trunk.


Cherry tables - boule in workshopThe English cherry timber has been stacked and air-dried in the traditional way, in a 'boule', where the boards are put back in the exact order in which they were milled from the trunk. This kind of saw cut is known as 'through and through' - like slicing a hard-boiled egg.


Cherry tables - bandsawing straight edgeBefore the wood can be fully conditioned to the humidity level in the workshop, the waney edge (the bark) has to come off - otherwise it can trap residual moisture. I use the bandsaw to cut slowly and carefully along a pencil line. The bark makes good kindling for a fire.


Cherry tables - skimming surface of timberThis stage of what's known as the conversion process involves quite a bit of machine use. I still need to skim off a few millimetres thickness from the cherry boards to release any remaining water from the body, and so the planer-thicknesser is called into service.


While the timber is in the workshop I take regular measurements with an electronic probe to monitor the moisture. This gives a rough indication of how well it's drying, but it's much more accurate to take a slice from the middle of a board and test it in an oven.


Cherry tables - weighing oven-dried timber samplesBy July 2013 a series of oven tests confirms that the moisture level has fallen to around 10%, just right for interior furniture. You calculate the residual moisture by noting the sample's initial weight, then checking it repeatedly while it's baking over several hours.


Cherry tables - grain detailThere's a good quantity of the English cherry from the trunk, and the some of the figure is very pleasing. It's a fairly consistent straw colour typical of this timber, but there are occasional swirls of darker material, as in this section from near the graft with its wavy grain.


Cherry tables - colour and figureThe Japanese cherry from the limbs of the tree is in some ways more subtle in its pattern and colour, with smoky pastel shades. There are lots of greys, pinks, yellows and reds in the mix, which should contrast nicely with the more even colouring of the English cherry.


Cherry tables - splits in heartwoodBut at the same time there's a problem with the branchwood - much of it isn't very stable and hasn't dried very well. There are deep cracks like this in a number of the pieces, which could be to do with the narrowness of the stock and inherent stresses in the branches.


Cherry tables - shakes in postSeasoning issues have also caused the 'shakes' in these posts, and by this point it's becoming clear that there won't be enough of the Japanese cherry branchwood to use as solid timber. The solution will be to stretch the quantity by making it into decorative veneer.


Cherry tables - plywood mock-upNow I've got a more precise idea of the timber volumes I make a rough mock-up of the proposed design. The clients test the mock-up in their home and we agree some changes in dimensions. Now I can start making my own cherry plywood as a base for the veneer.


Cherry tables - thicknessing laminates for plywoodThe idea is to produce plies, or laminates, from the branchwood and glue them together to make a stable 'ground', or base, for the veneers. I cut the laminates carefully on the bandsaw then use the thicknesser to trim them down to the 3 or 4mm required.


Cherry tables - laminates lined up for making plywood groundI'm using the plainer, poorer quality Japanese material for the plywood inner core - it won't be visible once it's in place. Each board will be 5-ply, with a 3mm thick sheet at the centre, two 4mm layers outside that, and 3mm pieces top and bottom - 17mm in total.


Cherry tables - plywood panel taped up for pressingThe raw material, from the branches, is so narrow that every sheet has to be stitched together from several strips of wood, glued along their matching edges and held tightly in place with white veneer tape. Each tabletop will use one large board, to be cut into four later.


Cherry tables - plywood panels placed in pressThe 3mm central cores are made up first and placed into a hand veneer press built by my colleague Paul Shrubshall. It's a simple but effective design: two MDF 'cauls' held between straight timber beams below and cambered beams above, to apply focused pressure.


Cherry tables - press screwed down for plywood panelsThe beams are connected by threaded steel rods which have to be pulled in as tight as possible. That will keep the laminates dead flat. It's critically important when producing veneered panels like these that the substrate, or 'ground', is perfectly level and stable.


Cherry tables - removing veneer tape from pressed panelThe paper veneer tape, which comes with a self-adhesive layer on one side, has to be carefully removed once the laminates come out of the press. That involves dabbing it with an artist's paintbrush moistened in warm water and scraping it off with a cranked chisel.


Cherry tables - cross-bandings and core ready for gluingComplete stability depends on gluing each layer of the home-made ply at 90 degrees to the next sheet. That guarantees the completed boards won't expand or contract. You can't allow any movement when the panels have to sit tightly inside a solid wood frame.


Cherry tables - Japanese cherry boards resawn into bookmatched leavesOnce the rough ply interiors are ready I start preparing the ornamental surface veneers. I'm using lengths of the most highly figured branchwood for the face veneers, with a striking contrast between the harder, darker heart and the softer, paler sapwood.


Cherry tables - resawn Japanese cherry timber for bookmatching The inlaid veneer will be 'bookmatched' in the traditional way, with one half of each panel mirroring the other. I batch up the best sawn strips and flip the leaves like the pages of a book to reveal the matching figure. Each mirror image is one side of a single saw cut.


Cherry tables - marking up resawn Japanese cherry for bookmatchingOf course there's not much of this timber, so I've got to be very economical. I mark it up carefully to minimise waste and extract the maximum usable material. Sections with too much pale sap and too little contrast are rejected. They won't colour well in future years.


Cherry tables - laminates broken in the thicknesserDespite my best efforts there are big losses when it comes to machining the short pieces down to the required thickness. Basic structural weaknesses mean lots of them smash in the thicknesser. It's safer to plane them by hand - even if it takes much longer.


Cherry tables - shooting edge of veneer sheetThe mating edges - which will be glued to draw the bookmatched halves together - need to be planed so there's no visible gap between them. Old-fashioned thick veneers like these have no give at all, unlike the fragile 0.5mm commercial veneer sold nowadays.


Cherry tables - bookmatched veneer panels taped for pressingThe inlay panels are now taped up tight ready for pressing and the three-ply cores I made earlier are cut into quarters. All I need now is a 'balancer' - a plain laminate for the underside of each plywood block. The five levels will eliminate any tensions in the product.


Cherry tables - bookmatched veneer panels in the pressThese individual tabletop panels are much smaller than the cores I've already made, so when I'm gluing on the face veneers and the balancers I don't need the big press. Instead I use a selection of g-clamps and small cambered bearers to target the force required.


Cherry tables - bookmatched veneer panels out of the pressI'm pleased with the eight little finished blocks when they finally emerge from the clamps. They're unique and varied enough to make an animated display. But I do spend a bit of time shuffling them around to create the most harmonious pattern for each tabletop.


Cherry tables - veneered panels showing laminated pliesIf I stack up the veneered blocks you can clearly see the construction method. Each layer is at right angles to its neighbour for strength and stability. The dark stripes reveal end grain on alternating plies; the light stripes show long grain on the intermediate levels.


Cherry tables - smoothing veneered panels There's still more hand-planing needed before the little plywood boards reach the desired thickness and smoothness. I start with an old Stanley no. 5 with a cambered iron, then a Veritas low-angle smoother, and finally a Philly Planes wooden coffin smoother.


Cherry tables - shooting edges of veneered panelsIt's critical to get the panel dimensions right and the angles square. Again, a hand plane does the job best: a heavy Philly Planes wooden mitre plane, used on its side. I first shave a fraction off the side and the sole of the plane itself to make sure they're at 90 degrees.


Cherry tables - laminated layers in home-made plywoodOne of the many pleasures of hand planing is seeing the shavings as they emerge from the throat of the plane. They can be delicate, almost transparent, or relatively heavy and curling. These edge cuts from the mitre plane are miniature cross-sections of plywood.


Cherry tables - monitoring stability of veneered panelsI check the planed panels for flatness with a straight edge, and for squareness with a digital angle gauge and an engineer's square. I also monitor the workshop humidity to make sure the panels won't cup - turn concave or convex - as the moisture in the air changes.


Cherry tables - medullary rays on quartersawn woodTo make the rails for the tabletops I'm looking for some English cherry that's beautiful and stable too, so I select quartersawn boards with a delicate ray pattern. These come from the centre of the log, where the growth rings are perpendicular to the surface.


Cherry tables - shavings from try planeMy antique Stanley no.7 try plane - a long, heavy steel tool - is ideal for eradicating any bumps or hollows along the length of the rails. As a bonus it produces yet more extraordinary shavings: these amazing coils of wood that curl off the plane tightly wound like springs.


Cherry tables - rails grooved with plough planesThe rails need grooving to house the panels, and I do this with a pair of plough planes. Ploughs are sensitive to grain direction and may tear the wood if the grains runs against them - so I have one right-handed and one left-handed plane, switching when necessary.


Cherry tables - mortice and tenon joint in grooved railsEach tabletop has two narrow inner rails, crossing at a halving joint and morticed into the wide outer rails. They're like the thin beading in a panelled sash window that holds the glass. I chop the mortices with a sash mortice chisel, originally used to make window frames.


Cherry tables - repairing damaged shoulderNot everything goes according to plan, and at one point I accidentally crack a shoulder of one of the inner rails. The damage is very minor but it will be noticeable, so I cut out the broken section and splice in a piece of cherry with grain that matches the original.


Cherry tables - planing repaired shoulderThe insert has to be oversized or it would be impossible to grasp and glue into place. So once it's firmly attached I cut off most of the excess with a fine Japanese saw and trim down the repair with a tiny Clifton 400 shoulder plane. That's how I do invisible mending.


Cherry tables - cutting mitres on table sawThe corners of the outer rails will be mitred up against each other at 45 degrees. I cut the initial rough angles on the table saw, but the machine can't work down to the tolerances I need - as little as one tenth of a degree - so all the fine adjustment will be done by hand.


Cherry tables - trimming mitres on shooting boardI can get a high level of precision using a simple shooting board with a 45 degree plywood jig clamped into it. Running the heavy mitre plane carefully along the board lets me take fractional shavings off the mitres, which I can check for accuracy with an angle gauge.


Cherry tables - cutting rebates with antique plough planeThe veneered panels now have to be rebated to make tongues that can slide into the grooved rails. The best tool for this is my hundred-year-old Stanley 45 combination plane, a beautiful but quirky instrument that works well once you're used to its idiosyncrasies.


Cherry tables - veneered panels inserted into frameAll the components now come together for testing and fine-turning to ensure a precision fit. One sash cramp is enough to pull two parallel outer rails into place, leaving the other sides open. I can slide the veneered panels in and out while I make the final adjustments.


Cherry tables - side rails glued into inner frameI could in theory glue up all the parts at this stage, but I don't want to risk even the tiniest gap around the finished panels. So instead I only glue in half of each frame. The missing outer rails could still tip the whole assembly off square if they're marginally out of line.


Cherry tables - checking fit of mitred railsI use a clever adjustable 'speed clamp' from Veritas to pull the final pieces of the puzzle together, constantly checking and re-checking every angle and paring back each mitre until the fit is 100 per cent accurate. Now you can see how it's made up like a Georgian window.


Cherry tables - top glued and crampedIf this was a conventional piece with solid wood panels I'd have to leave them loose in the frame to let them expand and contract with the humidity. But the plywood and veneer construction will eliminate any movement, so I can glue the inlays straight into the rails.


Cherry tables - bevelling underside of tabletopsOnce the tabletops are out of the cramps, I need to work on the undersides. The rails are pretty thick, to accommodate the veneered panels, but they make the piece appear too heavy. So I put a substantial bevel around the edges to give a more refined look.


Cherry tables - handplanes for bevelling tabletopsI gauge the position of the bevel on the wood, then use a fleet of hand planes to gradually remove the unwanted material at exactly the right angle. Lots of wood has to come off, so I start with the heavy-duty planes and work slowly through to the finest smoothers.


Cherry tables - completed tabletopsThe narrow bevel might seem a small detail, but it will be a focal point and needs to be correct. I feel the whole composition - the inlaid panels and the surrounding rails - now has just the right balance of solidity and delicacy, of fine craft work and functionality.