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

Half-timbered oak office desk

Half-timbered oak desk - front elevationHalf-timbered oak desk - side elevation

Half-timbered office desk in solid English pippy oak

This will be the last in a family of three desks made in pippy oak from Perton Wood in Staffordshire. The design is inspired by the vernacular half-timbering used in English mediaeval construction, particularly the recently renovated Robert Raikes House in the centre of the city of Gloucester, which dates from the 16th century.

Originally, of course, in a mediaeval building the gaps between the timbers would have been infilled with 'nogging' - materials like brick, clay or plaster to keep the weather out. But this half-timbered desk is wood only.

Each of the five identical panels on the desk is made up of four quadrant shapes (quarter-circles) tenoned into the surrounding horizontals (the rails) and verticals (the stiles).

This piece of furniture is going to be used by a 'hot desker' in a busy office and will be located at right angles to its relatives, the pegged oak desk and the dovetailed oak desk. It's longer and narrower than those two and doesn't have their drawers.

You can see pictures of the completed piece here.

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Half-timbered oak desk - Robert Raikes HouseThis is one of the oak panels from the recently restored facade of Robert Raikes House in Gloucester, the timber-framed building which inspired my design. The British oak was supplied by Vastern Timber, a hardwood sawmiller and timber merchant based in Wiltshire.


Half-timbered oak desk - matching boards for desktopMaking up the desktop, it's important to match the surface 'figure', or grain pattern, on individual boards so they're visually consistent. But you also need to match the end-grain to stop the top 'cupping' - turning concave or convex - as it adapts to interior moisture levels.


Half-timbered oak desk - assembled desktopThe aim is to alternate boards where the 'heart side' faces upwards with others where it faces down. (The heart side is the one nearest to the centre of the tree). That way, if the growth rings in one board shrink or expand the movement is counteracted by its neighbours.


Half-timbered oak desk - technical drawingOnce the desktop is done, I make a full-size technical drawing of the quadrant shape, including the tenons. It's important to minimise the amount of timber waste when you're cutting out curves from straight boards, so I try to fit each quadrant into as narrow a piece as I can.


Half-timbered oak desk - plywood templateThe next step is to make a plywood template that I'll use to rough out the quadrant outlines on to the wood. It doesn't matter if the curve isn't totally accurate. I'm only using it to help choose the most suitable timber for the quadrants out of the boards I've got available.


Half-timbered oak desk - stack of blanksThen I cut out a stack of 20 oak blanks, each 360mm long, 115mm wide and 32mm thick. Ideally, if you're cutting curves in hardwood you try to find a piece of wood where the grain direction follows the arc of the desired curve. That gives the maximum strength.


Half-timbered oak desk - cutting out knotsBut that's not always possible, especially when you're fabricating a big batch like this. So in this case I deliberately select timber that's as plain as possible and cut around any knots or cracks that could otherwise compromise the structural integrity of the quadrant.


Half-timbered oak desk - using beam compassI use a finely adjustable beam compass to lay out the inside and outside curves on the 20 oak blanks. It's critical to match the two arcs accurately on the face and the reverse, so that the measurements and the locations of the joints coincide exactly.


Half-timbered oak desk - using carpenter's squareThe next step is to use a Japanese carpenter's square to locate the precise position and angles of the two tenons, one at either end of each curve. The square makes sure that the tenon shoulders are exactly 200mm apart and at 90 degrees to one another.


Half-timbered oak desk - mitre squareI can then knife along the pencil lines using a 45-degree Japanese mitre square to guide the blade. The knife mark will ensure that the shoulders are crisp once they're sawn down. If they wander at all from the 90-degree line the tenons won't fit cleanly into the mortices.


Half-timbered oak desk - bandsawing curveNow it's back to the heavy machinery, using a narrow blade on the bandsaw to cut as close as possible to the outside and then the inside curves. Doing this slowly helps you steer the cut accurately and reduce the amount of waste you need to remove later.


Half-timbered oak desk - shaping with raspA fine cabinetmaker's rasp quickly evens out any lumps, bumps and rough areas left by the bandsaw and starts to expose the figure of the wood. You get a unique pattern on curved areas: a mixture of end grain along the slopes and long grain at the peaks and valleys.


Half-timbered oak desk - shaping with compass planeI use my 130-year-old Stanley 113 compass plane to give the final touch to the outside radius, adjusting the sole to fit the curve. This isn't just a sentimental attachment to a quirky antique tool: it's practical too. I simply haven't found a better hand tool for the job.


Half-timbered oak desk - shaping with spokeshaveI use a Veritas spokeshave with a rounded sole to do the equivalent job on the inside radius, gently paring away the waste and giving a nice shine to the wood. You have to change direction when you get to the bottom of the slope to avoid working against the grain.


Half-timbered oak desk - sawing tenonFinally it's time to saw the tenons. I use a big Adria ripsaw to cut along the grain, a medium-sized Adria tenon saw to crosscut the shoulders, and a small Veritas crosscut tenon saw to remove the odd corners and ends, leaving me with neat rectangular stub tenons.


Half-timbered oak desk - completed quadrantsIt takes about two and a half hours to cut each quadrant and to trim the shoulders on the tenons. Finally there's a neat stack of 20, but I want to check the way they look and the way they fit before I start making the mortices for them on the oak underframe itself.


Half-timbered oak desk - test jigThat means making up a softwood jig to the same dimensions as the oak panels where the quadrants will eventually sit. It's got grooves running along the inner edges and a top rail that lifts off, letting me slot the quadrants in. I use it to test them for fit and for colour match.


Half-timbered oak desk - morticing with guideThen it's time to start chopping mortices in the legs, rails and stiles that will hold the quadrants in place. There are 62 altogether, each cut by hand. I use a 16mm firmer chisel and clamp a piece of timber alongside to act as a guide to keep the holes exactly vertical.


Half-timbered oak desk - testing centre quadrantsEvery mortice has to have a matching tenon, of course. I've already sawn 40 of them on the quadrants, so that means another 22 on the underframe components. As the jointing progresses and each part is completed I keep testing to make sure everything is fitting tight.


Half-timbered oak desk - chamfering legs with mitre jigNow the legs are chamfered to add a simple vernacular touch. I run my Philly Planes mitre plane on its side along a 45-degree jig to produce an accurate chamfer. This also takes out some sharp defects on the edges that might otherwise scratch the client's own legs.


Half-timbered oak desk - completed underframe partsAll the underframe parts are now ready for final testing and trimming before glueing up. At the top left of the picture you can see the four short side rails; at the bottom left, the two ribs and two stiles; in the centre, the four legs; and on the right the three long rails.


Half-timbered oak desk - wedgesGlueing the quadrants into the rails and stiles is tricky. Traditionally they would have been drawn into the mortices by hammering oak pegs into holes bored through the frame and tenons. I use oak wedges instead to coax them into position as I tighten the cramps.


Half-timbered oak desk - glueing up underframeI glue up the two side panels - quadrants, short rails and legs - first and leave them to dry. Then I assemble the triple rear panel, slot the two ribs into the front and rear aprons (or top rails) and finally push the two aprons and the stretcher (or lower rail) into the side panels.


Half-timbered oak desk - completed underframeYou've got to check constantly for squareness, tightness and 'wind' - making sure legs and rails are exactly in line - before the glue starts to cure. Then I do a final smoothing of the desktop and wipe on two coats of Organoil Hard Burnishing Oil, a tung oil-based finish.


Half-timbered oak desk - buttonThe top's attached with eight 'buttons', little oak catches with tongues that fit into slots along the rails. They're designed to allow side-to-side expansion and contraction of the top as the humidity changes, and are cambered to pull it tightly on to the rail.