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

Curved pippy oak desk

Completed desktop

Curved desk with drawers in English pippy oak

The client for this large desk wanted a simple, practical but unique piece of furniture for his home office. It will be the only free-standing item in the entire room - apart from a single chair - so it had to be striking but not overbearing. Solid pippy oak (Quercus robur) will give it a charming, rustic look, full of character but easy on the eye, gently contrasting with the room's prime oak doors, skirting and windows.

The user wants to be able to place it in different areas of the study, depending on the task in hand or the light coming into the room at different seasons. The shape means it can be used with either the long or short end against a wall.

The gentle curve will put everything on the large desktop within reach and avoids redundant workspace, but isn't enclosing and isolating like many commercial workstations that wrap around the user and jut out sharply into the room. The front and back rails will be laminated into an arc from thin sheets of pippy, sawn from the solid.

The desk surface will be big enough to take a monitor and keyboard at either end plus papers for reading or writing. Two shallow drawers built into the rails on the concave side will hold stationery.

You can see pictures of the completed piece here.

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Scroll down for progress on the project

Pippy oak at the timber yardThe 10-foot-long boards of 1-1/2-inch thick pippy oak ready for loading at a timber yard in Suffolk. The oak was grown at a wood just outside the village of Perton, Staffordshire, only a mile from Wightwick Manor, an Arts and Crafts house with Morris interiors.


Cat's pawsThe "cat's paw" markings typical of pippy oak, produced by small knots in the timber. Pippy is much more a wild hedgerow tree than a straight, clean, commercially grown oak. The outside of the log has the most "pip"; closer to the heart of the tree the wood is plainer.


Pippy oak stacked for checkingThe timber moved to a temporary store in London. The boards are stood against the wall to select the best for the desktop: enough pip to add character, but not so much as to distract the user. Some of the markings are subtle; others can be deep, wide and very rugged.


Building plywood templateIn the workshop the first step is to build a full-size template of the desktop. Working with sheets of plywood positioned carefully on the floor, I have to make a 10-foot "trammel", a kind of giant compass, from a softwood beam to draw the complex curves accurately.


Testing desktop templateThe completed plywood desktop, resting on a pair of metal trestles, is tested on site for size, shape and comfort. This is an opportunity to check that it does the job it's designed for and to make readjustments in the design before it's too late.


Foamboard templatesUsing a artist's display material called foamboard, I can then cut precise individual templates for each of the eight segments that will go to make up the fan-shaped top. The geometry of every segment is quite different from its neighbour.


Hand-sawing the boardsAfter selecting eight sections of timber for appearance, strength and stability, the first cross-cuts are made by hand. The boards at this stage are too long and unwieldy to put through the power saw, and too heavy - at up to 100 lbs each - for one person to handle safely.


Skimmed and shaped boardsEach segment is then roughly machine-planed, marked with its foamboard template and bandsawn to the approximate angle. Planing to the final thickness of 31mm, or one and a quarter inches, is done over a few days to control moisture loss.


Mortices for loose tenonsThe segments are all hand-planed along their edges, with a slight hollow lengthways and widthways to give a tighter fit when they're eventually glued up. Then I chisel 42 mortices, accurate slots in the edges, by hand - three along each mating edge.


Chopping morticesThe mortices are to hold "loose tenons", little tiles of oak which will be glued in between each segment. This is a traditional method designed to give the completed desktop extra strength and stability across its length and to stop it flexing.


Boards with loose tenonsYou can see how the loose tenons link the individual sections like square pegs. A modern cabinetmaker might instead use an electric "biscuiter" to cut elliptical slots and insert manufactured "biscuits" in place of the loose tenons. But this wouldn't give the same strength.


Glueing up desktopNow the uncut ends of the segments are shaped to a rough curve on the bandsaw and gluing begins. The eight pieces are first cramped and glued in pairs; then two completed pairs are glued together to make a half-desktop; then finally the two halves are connected.


Using a rasp on end grainThe curved edges are end grain and hard to work. The only hand tools that will remove a lot of material are spokeshaves - effectively tiny planes with winged handles and a low-angle blade - or rasps, as pictured. My left-handed cabinetmakers' rasps are by Michel Auriou.


Compass planeTo finish the edges with a perfect curve needs a really sharp, old- fashioned compass plane. You can adjust the sole (the baseplate) to run concave or convex to the radius you choose. This delicate-looking plane I use was made in about 1880 by the Stanley Rule & Level Co.


Smoothing desktop surfaceI use a modern Veritas smoothing plane to flatten imperfections on the desktop surface. It's slow going, and there's a problem with English oak: dark stains can appear with repeated strokes as the iron in the tool reacts with the high levels of tannin in the timber.


Coffin smoother planeSo the final stage of smoothing the surface and bringing it to a lustre is to use a traditional wooden plane, which avoids the iron staining. I ordered this "coffin smoother" (named for its shape, not its purpose) from Phil Edwards, who makes planes by hand in Dorset.


Completed desktop against benchHere's the completed desktop leaning against my bench. It shouldn't need any more work until the time comes for it to be brushed with an organic finish. I don't sand my work: sanding clogs the grain and dulls the appearance. The top's now wrapped up against damage.


Templates for box sectionNow I start on building the underframe, which in many ways is much more complicated than the top. The first step is to make several curved plywood templates. I'll use these to shape a solid oak box section which will hold the two dovetailed drawers.


Cutting plywood strips for the formersMaking the curved rails at the front and back of the desk needs two different formers. A former is a kind of mould, in this case made from plywood, which you use to laminate thin veneers of solid wood into the required profile. Here I'm cutting strips of ply on the table saw.


Plywood shaped to make the formersEach strip is marked up with one of the curved templates I made earlier, then cut with the bandsaw and the compass plane to the exact curve. The formers both use 12 strips of 9mm plywood which have to be carefully lined up and cramped ready to be drilled.


The completed formersThe formers are drilled on the drill press, making sure all the parts stay precisely aligned, then short threaded steel rods are bolted into place. I smooth down the surface a little, add some uprights to help guide the veneers into place, and the formers are ready for use.


Hand-ripping solid oakNow I need some oak veneers. I select a quarter-sawn board, which will give the characteristic silver "ray" effect to contrast with the pips. It's too heavy for me to machine by myself so I slowly "rip" it (cut it lengthwise) with an antique handsaw and plane the edge smooth.


Sawing veneers on the bandsawOnce the length of timber is squared up, I pass it repeatedly through the bandsaw to produce thin slices of oak. They're known as veneers, but of course they're much thicker than the 0.5mm commercial veneers used to face MDF in conventional veneered work.


Completed veneersThe sawn veneers have to go through the planer/thicknesser, which can take them down to 3.6mm thick - about the maximum you can use for laminating. It's tricky: the very character of the oak means there are vulnerable points that can easily shatter in the machine.


Laminates cramped on formerThe veneers are secured to the former with three strong ratchet straps (the kind used for lashing down cargo); squeezed still further with a forest of sash cramps; and finally tucked under blankets to keep the overnight temperature warm enough for the glue to cure.


Curved rails after laminatingOnce they 're released from the former, the newly laminated curved rails can can finally be seen as they're meant to look. The longer rail will go at the back of the desk and the shorter one on the business side, with two sections cut out to make the drawer fronts.


Glueing legsThere are lots of other components to build to make up the frame. Here I'm "bricking" the legs. This is going to be a heavy piece of furniture and needs strong support, so I double up two closely matched thicknesses of timber for each leg. The join is hardly visible.


Underframe componentsJust by standing some of the parts on the original plywood template you can begin to see how the whole infrastructure will work. The two curved rails and the straight side rails will be tenoned into the legs, while four solid ribs will stretch across the width of the desk.


Arched box sectionThese ribs will intersect with two arched rails to house the drawers. They'll give the drawers sideways support and strengthen to structure, while the two rails - sawn from solid oak, rather than laminated - will make a kind of letterbox for them to slide through.


Morticing at an angleThe joints to pull all of this geometry together are pretty complex. Tying the big curved, laminated rail at the back into the two rear legs needs deep, accurate mortices cut at precise angles. I use a block of oak secured to the leg to guide the chisel in at the right pitch.


Angled tenon slotted into morticeThe double tenon on the rear rail slides into the matching mortice in the leg - after a bit of fine-tuning. The legs are stout enough to bear the substantial weight of the desktop, and they'll be shaped at a later stage to match the curve of the rails where they intersect.


Double twin tenon At the front of the desk there's another equally challenging joint. The lower of the two arched rails - known as the drawer rail - has to be tenoned into the leg and into the recessed side rail behind it. That will keep it horizontal, stop it twisting and pull the front legs in tight.


Twin tenon fitting into legThis is how the two parts of the joint slot together. Measuring, marking up, making and testing these kinds of joints is complicated. Without the benefit of computer-aided design, getting the angles right depends largely on tracing them from a full-scale drawing.


Main components assembledOnce the main corner joints are completed the underframe can be assembled - without glue at this stage. A tiny image like this doesn't convey the true size of the desk or the dramatic sweep of the curves. But it feels very satisfying to see it standing up for the first time.


Ploughing the support railBefore I can put the upper drawer rail in place I have to tie in the four ribs, which will make the housing for the drawers. Once more there's a lot of hand joinery to do. Here I'm cutting a groove into one of the drawer supports using an antique Stanley 45 plough plane.


Ploughing the support railThe ribs are cut top and bottom with a bridle joint, which slots into the drawer rail below and the bearer rail above. Then double tenons are sawn into the front and back to connect with the big laminated rails. The whole thing looks like an elaborate wooden puzzle.


Ploughing the support railHere's a close-up showing how the ribs squeeze into the bearer rail above and the drawer rail below. This is how the two "letterboxes" are formed for the drawers to slide into. The hollow sections between the drawers will be concealed by sections of the front rail.


Ploughing the support railFrom above you can see how how the backbone of the underframe works. Between the ribs are the supports that the drawers will slide on: a cross-piece at the back plus two "runners", or running guides, left unglued to let the wide curved rails expand and contract freely.


Ploughing the support railBefore gluing the whole skeleton the four legs have to be moulded to match the profile of the rails. The tools I use depend on whether I'm making a convex or concave shape. Here are two spokeshaves, a vintage moulding plane, my coffin smoother and a curved scraper.


Ploughing the support railOnce the legs are ready the entire assembly can be glued up, though at this stage I leave out the bearer rail, which still has to be carefully dovetailed into the front legs. That final major component will give the underframe the stability it needs to carry the heavy desktop.


I need another complex joint to connect the bearer rail to the legs - a double lap dovetail, designed so the whole piece can be dropped on to the legs and the ribs from above. It's hard to measure and mark up these joints where a curved component meets a straight one.


Ploughing the support railYou can see the effect of shaping the legs once the bearer rails are pushed in. The angle of the leg - shown at the top of the picture - will blend into the curvature of the front rail and the drawer fronts, producing a seamless arc right across the front of the desk.


Glueing the drawer bottomsThe next big task is making the drawers. These are going to be solid pippy oak throughout, like the rest of the desk. I start with the drawer bottoms, planing 8-millimetre thick boards, cramping and gluing them together and rebating them to slip into a groove.


Sawing drawer dovetailsThen I make up the drawer sides and backs, from thin 10-millimetre pieces. These are hand-dovetailed in the traditional way - lap dovetails at the front and through dovetails at the back. Narrow "pins" - the gaps between the tails - are considered superior.


Assembled drawer showing dovetailsWith the drawer assembled, you can see how the lap dovetails provide beauty as well as strength. The contrast between the dark end grain of the drawer front and the paler long grain of the drawer side will be highlighted further when the whole desk is oiled.


Curved drawer frontI now saw the curved front rail into five pieces. Three sections - one at each end and one in the middle - are morticed and glued to the main structure. The two in between are attached to the flat drawer fronts by cutting a housing, a wide slot, in the back of the rail.


Completed front rail and open drawersWith everything in place, the drawers open and closely smoothly and quietly, without catching or wobbling. It's vital to take great care when cutting the rail into sections so that when the drawers are closed the grain flows uninterrupted from one end to the other.


Completed front rail and closed drawersHere's the same shot with the drawers shut. The gaps in the front rail are barely the thickness of the saw, so you can hardly see the drawers at all. I deliberately chose quartersawn oak for the front and rear rails to produce a vivid ray figure swirling along the length.


Fingerhold in drawerThe final detail on the drawers is a fingerhold carved into the underside of the desk, just big enough for a fingertip or two to pull the drawer out gently. That means I can dispense with knobs or handles, which would have interrupted the flow of the front rail.


Making the wooden "buttons"The very last construction job is to make the "buttons" - traditional fixings to connect the desktop to the underframe. I start by rebating a wide board and cutting this into six little pieces. Then I groove a long board to make the six blocks that the buttons will slot into.


Block glued to the front railsThe blocks are then shaped to match the curve of the rails and simply glued in place. Normally a cabinetmaker would just route or chisel a mortice into the rail to hold the button. But that wasn't an option with this desk, with its curved surfaces and awkward internal spaces.


Buttons slotted into a glue blockEach of the buttons has a tongue fits into the grooved block. The button is screwed into the underside of the desktop and the groove lets the top expand and contract freely. Otherwise you run the risk of the top splitting if you fix it securely to the frame and it then moves.