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Making a Nakashima-Inspired Coffee Table

Inspired by George Nakashima's Minguren-style coffee table designs, I constructed my own rendition between December 2017 and February 2018. This was woodworking project #163 for me (excluding picture frames), but only my 5th furniture piece, and it required a few new tools and techniques. The table is constructed from a single board of black walnut, sourced from near Charlotte NC, with an accent of curly maple. Below is a step-by-step walkthrough. If you make it to the end, you will be rewarded with a gallery showcasing the finished product.


Step 1: Design and wood selection

My wife and I decided that my old Craigslist coffee table, which had served me well for the better part of a decade, no longer fit the decor of our new home. This provided an excellent opportunity to construct a replacement, and to experiment with new designs and new construction techniques. The process began with seeking inspiration, and for that I turned to George Nakashima, my favorite craftsman. Flipping through The Soul of a Tree and Nature Form and Spirit gave me a general sense of the design aesthetic I wanted to achieve (something loosely based on his Minguren tables), and internet research of other woodworkers' Nakashima-inspired pieces provided more specific ideas. Ultimately, I settled on a design that I believe is unique, but inspired by and borrowing from similar pieces by other makers. It features a single large black walnut slab top, cantilevered off of a 4-part black walnut and maple base (two vertical pieces and two horizontal pieces, one of which is hidden). Over half of the table is suspended over empty space, but the table is quite stable on hardwood floor or thin carpet. I'll discuss individual design choices further below.

After designing the piece, I had to find the right lumber. This is a critically important step, as this table is fundamentally designed to showcase the beauty of the wood used in its construction. I was able to find a suitable slab of air-dried black walnut from a sawyer outside of Charlotte, NC (Kyle with The Sawmill Ltd, now retired). While the slab I took home was but a small portion of a once-giant tree, it weighed more than I do and was a challenge to maneuver. As pictured below, the left side of the slab (where heartwood rot had created an interesting void) would become the two vertical leg pieces, while the right side became the tabletop.


Step 2: Flattening the top

After letting the slab acclimate inside my shop for a few months, I rough cut it into its respective parts and began flattening the top. Given that the slab was roughly 2 feet wide, I couldn't run it through my planer. Instead, I had to construct a jig to flatten the top with a router. The basic idea is to move a router back and forth over the slab on a perfectly flat X-Y axis, so that it takes off all of the high points, leaving a flat surface (then flipping the slab and repeating, creating two parallel faces). My jig was simpler than those found elsewhere (such as this one designed by Nick Offerman), and I used a tiny 1-hp trim router, but my setup worked surprisingly well. After flattening the top, I used my #4 smoothing plane to create a truly glass-smooth surface (handplanes leave a much smoother surface than sandpaper).


Step 3: Shaping the top

Ok, so I have a large, flat, 3" thick slab of wood for a top, and two chunks of wood from the end of the slab for the uprights/legs. What next? As you'll see, many of the design elements that define the piece emerged as I began working the slab. That is, they weren't all planned out from the start, but rather evolved from the unique characteristics of this particular piece of wood.

Let's start with the top. First, I decided to significantly trim the length of the top to remove an area with significant checking (i.e., cracking) at one end of the slab, reducing it to around 39" long. A few checks remained, but they aren't too distracting and I think they add character to the final piece.

Next, I had to decide: live edge or square edge? While I am inspired by Nakashima's live-edge pieces and thrilled that this style has become popularized over the last decade, sometimes too much of a good thing (live edge) leads to an awkward organic form that just doesn't fit the space. On the other hand, it seems a shame to strip a slab of its character by reducing a natural flowing form to a sterile square. At the end of the day, it all depends on the character of the wood and the space it will occupy. For this piece, a combination of the wood (one live edge had some damage from the milling process) and its intended space (modern architecture home with strong vertical elements) led me to a compromise: one live edge, and three straight edges. As you can see from the images of the final piece, I think this combination turned out great.

Here's some more detail on this phase of the process: Using my trusty circular saw (one of my first tools, predating my true woodworking days), I ripped one edge of the slab, crosscut the two others, and cleaned up the cuts with handplanes (#4 smoother for the edge; low angle block plane for the ends). I retained the best live edge, removing the bark with my grandfather's drawknife, and using my spokeshave to create a glass-smooth but multi-faceted surface. The live sapwood edge has an underhang; the bottom edge sticks out more than the top edge. This showcases the cream-colored sapwood of the black walnut. By contrast, when I cut the three straight edges, I made these cuts with a 10 degree overhang, such that the bottom edge is hidden under the top edge. I like the effect created by this opposition between the flowing angle of the live edge and the crisp undercut lines of the remaining 3 sides.

These two reductions (length and width/shape) collectively transformed the piece from a long-and-narrow unruly organic form to a more golden-rectangle proportioned modern form. However, there are enough organic elements to keep the piece interesting. Notably, I retained a cavity caused by heartrot on the front edge of the table, and fit a nice butterfly/bowtie as an accent (note: this butterfly was cut from a highly figured offcut of the same tree slab). Top complete!


Step 4: Shaping the base & joining the pieces.

Shaping the base pieces and creating the joinery that would hold the table together took as much time and effort as the rest of the project combined. As you can see from the finished photos, the four-piece base is comprised of the following structural elements: (1) a thick, wide, vertical slab providing side-to-side stability; (2) a near-central pillar that helps support the cantilevered crossmembers; (3) a top cantilevered crossmember connecting the heavy top to the two vertical pieces and supporting the top; and (4) a bottom cantilevered crossmember that similarly supports the cantilevered top and provides what is essentially the third leg of the tripod base. Most of the force exerted by the heavy table top is supported by the top and bottom crossmembers, rather than the vertical pieces (which are both off-center). Does that make sense?

Ok, enough of me pretending to be an engineer. Let's turn to the aesthetic design elements of these pieces: As I mentioned before, the two vertical pieces are offcuts from the end of the overall slab, so there is continuity between the top and base. (1) The larger base piece retains two live edges. One is a typical live edge, from the outside (bark) edge of the tree, and has some creamy sapwood color that lines up with the live edge of the top. The other "live" edge is more unusual, created from a void in the middle of the tree (the same void showcased on the top front edge of the table). (2) The smaller vertical piece is more clean-cut and angular, tapering from back to front in order to draw the eye towards the unsupported front of the table. (3) The top crossmember is hidden under the top, and for good reason: I ran out of wood from the large slab, and had to use a piece of walnut from a different tree (same species). It just didn't quite match the color of the top and base, but it was close enough for the hidden piece. (4) On the other hand, for the exposed bottom crossmember, I just couldn't use a substitute walnut board that didn't perfectly match the top and base. Instead, I went with a high-contrast wood: curly soft maple. The contrast of the light, figured crossmember with the rest of the black walnut table emphasizes the unusual base, empty space, and floating top. I'm quite satisfied with how these design choices turned out.

If the above descriptions were boring or hard to follow, I apologize (just look at the pictures!). I'll try to avoid this mistake with respect to the joinery that holds the table together, by keeping it relatively simple. Each of the vertical pieces are connected to the horizontal crossmembers with bridle joints. I rough cut these with my bandsaw and/or router, and refined them with chisels and a shoulder plane (this took a lot of time, effort, and attempted precision). After the joinery work, I pre-finished the exterior surfaces. The pieces were then glued together, and I used a few hidden screws to help clamp the pieces while the glue set. The joints are tight-fitting and mechanically rock-solid, designed to resist the racking forces that are associated with this cantilevered table design.


Step 5: Assembly and finishing

As noted above, before gluing the assembly together, I pre-finished all exterior surfaces with 3 coats of Minwax Polyurethane (an oil-based varnish), thinned down with mineral spirits. As any woodworker knows, seeing the wood come to life with the first coat of finish is always an exciting moment!

In order to securely mount the top to the base, I routed out a mortise in the top for the entire base to sit within (about 1/4" deep), before fastening with glue and screws along the centerline. This method of fastening should allow for both the tabletop and the larger vertical base slab to expand and contract with changes in humidity without cracking or separating.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the finished product gallery below!




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