Making Art Deco Furniture
Wednesday 18 August 2010
John Bullar interprets the key Art Deco signatures of French designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann
This article describes some techniques suitable for making furniture in the Art Deco style, illustrated during the making of a birds-eye maple and Macassar ebony dressing-table. The legs are torpedo shaped, reminiscent of Ruhlmann designs. There are no right or wrong ways to make Art Deco furniture, and there never were, as I will explain.
In the second quarter of the 20th century many furniture makers, particularly ones with larger workshops, were buying their first machinery and radically redeveloping their methods of work. Art Deco style came to furniture at this pivotal time and embraced the changes.
Before Art Deco, the Arts and Crafts movement had grown from the ideals of William Morris who rejected machine work as a matter of principle. Hand-work techniques were an essential feature of pure Arts and Crafts, which was good news for individual furniture makers and small businesses that could not afford to invest in machinery. The downside was it severely limited throughput, making Arts and Crafts furniture an elitist product.
Art Deco however was a style rather than an ideology. The designer would concentrate on drawing the external appearance, leaving it to the maker to work out how to construct the furniture by whatever means suited the workshop and its resources. Small workshops applied techniques that would be familiar to their Georgian ancestors while larger ones used machinery and production line systems.
Birdseye maple, Acer saccharum, and Macassar ebony, Diospyros celebica, were both firm favourites in the Art Deco era for their distinctive figuring. In this example I used both of these together for contrasting tone.
Birdseye maple is a natural variant of American hard maple or sugar maple selected for a fine knotty figuring similar to a burr, but continuous over larger areas. Macassar ebony has a predominance of black colouring like the better known African ebony, but with large streaks of brown. This makes the veneer effective in parquetry work where the strong figuring shows the differences of grain orientation.
I also used small amounts of American black walnut, Juglans nigra, in the project where its brown colouration matched well with the lighter streaks in the ebony.
The skirt around the side of the dressing table butts with the top to give a deep solid appearance. Both the skirt and the top are semi-elliptically curved at the ends.
I started by marking out the elliptical ends on the plywood top using the simple but trusty slack string technique because I love its utter simplicity. It allows any shape, size or section of an ellipse to be drawn using no more than two mapping pins, a piece of string and a pencil.
The skirt is core-built from blocks of MDF cut to shape on the bandsaw. The dressing table top is used as a stencil for marking out a set of MDF cores to form the elliptical ends of the skirt. The blocks have staggered joints like brickwork so as to avoid creating lines of weakness.
After the glue had set on the core construction, I smoothed over the surface using first a spokeshave, then a linear sander. MDF creates a lot of hazardous dust when you work it so you need to wear a suitable mask.
I arranged the Macassar ebony veneer in strips across the dressing table top, butting into a radial pattern to echo the elliptical outline at each end.
Cutting all the veneers separately and then aligning them accurately against one another would be very difficult and likely to result in gaps. Instead I cut each piece oversize first to create small overlaps on the edges. I dampened the veneers to stop them curling and remove the brittleness then used a small dab of hot hide glue to hold the pieces in place. I then used a surgical knife and straight edge to slice down the middle of each overlap.
To cut the curved joint between the ebony and the maple I used a cutting gauge fitted with a fine disposable knife blade. I honed the blade to a razor edge first to avoid tearing the veneers.
The veneer shapes were then peeled off before being permanently glued in place one at a time using hide glue. Alternatively you could use a vacuum bag and synthetic resin glue with veneer tape to hold the pieces in alignment.
I made the octagonal torpedo-shaped legs from solid birdseye maple. Each leg was sandwiched with four layers of 2mm-thick walnut arranged at angles of 45 degrees to each other. These layers would meet the surface of the finished legs on the vertices or corners of the octagons.
Each leg started off as a single square-section baton of maple, approximately the size of the finished leg. The maple was then ripped in two lengthways and the first walnut layer laminated in the middle of it using PVA-based glue.
When these had set the legs were rip-sawn on the bandsaw at right angles, a second layer of walnut laid in place and the legs glued up into a square section again.
The exercise was then repeated twice more with the bandsaw table tilted at 45 degrees. Each time the sawn sections were glued up again with a layer of walnut in the middle. Finally this produced a pattern like the British flag running all the way through each leg.
To convert the square section legs into octagons, I used the surface planer fitted with a set a Shaw guards on the fence. The fence was angled at 67 ½ degrees to the table so, in a succession of deeper cuts, the cutter would convert the square section into an octagon, leaving the vertices unplaned.
One of the problems with shaping wood into a polygon section like this is usually the difficulty of keeping all the sides straight and equal in width. However, the walnut pattern made the job much easier. Because the walnut was accurately positioned, with each piece passing through the centre and meeting its neighbour at 45 degrees, the walnut lines breaking through the surface made a good guide to keep the octagon symmetrical.
The next stage in shaping the legs is to introduce a long taper on the lower end and a short, steeper taper at the top end. I used the bench plane for this job, but it was a slow process, requiring the blade to be set fine to avoid ripping knots out of the maple. An alternative would be to make a sledge board to support the leg at a suitable angle and pass it through the thicknesser, then finish off with a hand plane.
Where the two slopes meet, approximately two-thirds of the way up the leg, I used a spokeshave to remove the transition edge and blend each upper facet of the leg into the lower facet.
Again, the walnut laminations breaking through the surface on the vertices helped keep the shaping operations on-course, making this part of the job easier than you might expect.
At the base of each maple and walnut laminated leg is a foot made from solid walnut. I made the octagonal section as a single length on the surface planer then cut it into four short pieces, one to attach to each leg.
The walnut was dowelled to the maple legs using a short piece of steel studding set in epoxy resin. The foot was then shaped with a bench plane to match the tapered octagonal section.
On top of each leg is a shouldered walnut sphere. These were shaped on the lathe before fitting. Each walnut blank was first attached to a steel studding dowel in the same way as the feet. With the epoxy resin set, the dowel was clamped in the lathe chuck for turning.
The turned spheres were mounted in holes bored into the top end of each leg, again using epoxy resin. Finally, with the resin set, the shoulder profiles beneath the spheres were shaped using a chisel so they flowed into the tapered octagonal sections at the tops of the legs.
I decided to attach each leg to the skirt of the dressing table using a Domino jointer. This effectively allows you to insert a loose tenon at right angles to both leg and skirt. To cope with the awkward shapes of the legs I clamped each one in the vice and aligned the fence of the jointer against the vice jaws.
Before boring the mortices with the Domino jointer, each leg needed a section to be cut away to match the curvature of the skirt. I ripped a straight cut using the bandsaw then hollowed the sawn surface slightly with a carving gouge.
The legs were dry-fitted temporarily to check their alignment and fit before the veneering work was completed and the dressing table finally assembled and polished.