A Snakefoot Tilt-Top Tea Table

This piece was built with Canadian Rock Maple, a very hard, close-grained wood, and finished “Bright”, meaning with clear laquer to show off the beauty of the grain. When Maple ages it acquires a honey color, which many people favour.

To start the work, I glued up the stock for the table top, which I would turn outboard on my lathe to a finished dimension of 39 inches, or 1 meter. It would result in a thickness of 7/8 of an inch at the center, and close to 5/8 of an inch one inch in from the edge. But my blank would start out two inches thick. The glue up required five boards.  That took a full day, just getting the lumber cut to length, planed, jointed, sawn to the width I needed, glued up and clamped. It weighed a lot, too.

While the top dried in the clamps I milled the stock for the central column and then got it glued up and into clamps, as well.  Provided you have the material properly milled so the parts line up easily for glueing, there should be no need for them to sit in clamps for more than an hour while the glue sets. Leaving them in clamps for several hours or overnight puts a lot of unecessary stress on the wood fibers and can result in unwanted movement once you get around to removing the clamps. Not a good thing.

The next thing to do was to take an old scraper and remove the exccess glue from the very rough surfaces of the glued up maple blank. Please recall that my finished diameter was to be thirty-nine inches. My blank was much closer to forty-four inches square.

I  used a long straight edge off diagonal corners to mark out the center of the blank. I used a “Compass Bar” (also known as Trammel Points on a straight bar) to lay out the 39″ diameter for the finished top.

There was a large bandsaw in the shop and a few free standing rollers, so cutting the blank for the top was no where near as cumbersome as it would have been had I only a jig saw to hand. I first cut off the four corners outside my thirty-nine inch circle and then removed the remaining eight points so I had a rough circle just outside that diameter.

Here’s where outboard turning becomes an art cursed by harsh reality.  My lathe at the time was an extremely heavy and very accurate old cast iron metal spining lathe. Nothing else could have handled that massive top. A very good friend of mine and a master turner loaned me a gear box from an old Jeep to hang off the back of the 3-horse power electric motor to reduce the rim speed to something that would keep that massive lathe from taking wing and flying around the workshop while I chased it with my roughing-out gouge.

I had never before turned anything so large and heavy and only barely understood what I was getting into. I was about to find out.

The first thing to do was to mount a heavy face plate on what would become the upper surface of the top. That first face plate (I would use three of them before the job was done) would be screwed onto the outboard end of the drive shaft at the headstock.

When you turn “between centers” on a lathe, your turning chisles are supported on a tool rest that can be slid along the bed of the lather and raised and lowered as necessary. Easy-peasey.

When you turn “Outboard”, however, you can’t do that. What I used instead was a very heavy metal plate on which was welded an upright steel post with a long polished 1″ diameter steel rod welded horizontally to a collar with a locking nut that allowed me to raise or lower it as necessary.  That was my tool rest. That heavy metal plate was large enough for me to keep both feet on it. It was almost heavy enough.

My roughing out gouge was an inch and a half across the face. Big and heavy and made for rough use. Turning tools only rarely have to be razor sharp. Most of the time, what you want at the cutting edge is more close to an axe edge than a razor edge. You need to cut, not shave. That wood passes over the edge and pounds on it when you are roughing out, so you need a lot of steel behind the cutting edge to support the few bits of steel that are in contact with the wood. You need all that steel right behind the edge to absorb the heat generated by the friction of the wood inpacting with the edge.

When you first begin to turn a piece round, you have to deal with the lack of balance in your blank. Even as slowly as that blank was rotating, it was wobbling back and forth and was well and truly out of balance. There were sixteen or so sticky-out bits along the edge to deal with, but most of the off center weight was not in those pointy bits flying around the edges. It was in the mass of the blank. Not on th edges.

I could feel it through the thick concrete floor of the workshop and I could see the massive cast iron legs of my lathe bouncing up and down on the rubber pads I had under them. I was absolutely terrified of getting my roughing out gouge anywhere near that rock maple blank.

Once you have your workpiece secured to the lathe, either betwen the centers (headstock and tailstock) or outboard secured only to the headstock, you use your hand to rotate the blank slowly as you adjust both the height of the tool rest and its closest safe distance to the blank. I chose to work down the face of the blank before approaching the edge of the work, intending to remove as much of the mass  as I could in order to rid the work of the nasty vibration the imbalance was producing.

I got everything adjusted, had the rotational speed as slow as I could get it, and started the lathe. I eased the gouge in toward the blank, keeping the cutting edge high until I could feel the blank bounce against the steel and slowly pulled the gouge back toward me and eased the cutting edge down into the maple blank. Chips began to fly, and I began to smile.

Once the bottom of the table top was as flat as I could make it with the roughing out gouge I stopped the lathe and admired my work for a brief moment (and breathed a healthy sigh of relief that both myself and my blank were still in one piece). I shifted my tool rest around to the side of the blank and set the tool rest to begin turning the edge true.

At that point in the process the bottom of the table top (the face I had just turned flat) was parallel to the face of the faceplate the blank was mounted on. Once I had the edge of the blank turned true, the vibration from the out of balance blank would be vastly reduced. Then I could remove the 12″ diameter face plate from the blank and mount a smaller 8″ faceplate to the actual bottom of the table top and  work the top down to its finished depth. Then I could begin the detail work.

It took four days, with frequent breaks.

When I work on the lathe or get involed in anything that raises a lot of dust, I wear a Racal Air Hat. It is a full face helmet with a battery powered fan mounted on your belt that sends fresh  air through a filter. Its usually good for a few hours on a full charge. My shop apron is actually a lightweight pharmacist’s coat that will button all the way up to my neck.  It gets hot in all that stuff, and the vibration transmitted into your hands and shoulders by controlling the turning chisles can produce some serious muscle strain.

I take frequent breaks, not only to relax but to get away from the work and spend a few minutes thinking of what I have done so far and what must be done next. And to put a freh battery on my belt, drink a cup of coffee, make a few phone calls, well, you get the idea. Frequent breaks are nature’s way of saying you’re doing a job job. Or just goofing off, maybe. But the strain isn’t just physical – getting away from your work allows your mind and your body to relax. And that is a good thing.

You may have wondered why this particular design is called a “Snakefoot”. Well, the foot  kind of looks like the head of a snake, I suppose. It sort of does, I guess. I would have chosen another name for the style, but nobody asked me.

Anyway, there are three of them on these tables, and they are secured to the central column with stepped tennons fitted into matching mortices near the bottom of the column. Unfortunately, as you can see in the photos I am working on the base of the column with the three legs glued in place. What is unfortunate is that with these tables, you cannot finish the entire shaping of the legs until they are secure on the column. You need to glue AND clamp them until the glue sets, and you can’t do that if you finish the shaping of the legs before glue-up. You need to keep the knees in a square block shape so you can put a clam on the back of the sqare section and the opposite side of the column. Carefully on the back of the finished column. Use padding, please. And please note the use of thee word ‘finished’. Meaning, we’re done with it. Don’t mark it up.

Of course, there is no way of cutting the top of the knee into a nice curve on the bandsaw when all three legs are glued up on the column. But that is why Heaven gave us the coping saw, believe it or not. So you can cope with stuff like this. So you can cut through 2″ thick Canadian Rock Maple with a rinky-dink short coping saw blade you can only use with one hand. And keep your cut smooth and even on both sides so you don’t wind up with a curve that looks like it was cut by a drunken blind man with palsy.

Which means it has to be done very slowly. With lots and lots of fresh blades. With all of your friends and neighbors stopping by for coffee and cold drinks while they watch you cut through all of that 2″ thick rock hard maple. With a coping saw. In one hand.

And then, with that done, you have to work the rough cut knees down to nice smooth curves with rasps and files. While your friends and neighbors stop by to chat, and drink coffee and cold drinks. And watch.

Shaping those knees – and the feet – into their finished curves took a full week.

Sitting atop the column in those photos you will see a small box with columns at each corner. That box slides over the top of the central column and is held in place by a maple key that passes through the column. That box has pins at two ends along its top that are fitted into the trusses secured to the bottom of the table top. If you look closely at the back of the table you will see a small block also fastened to the back of the table between those trusses. That small block has a wooden pin sitting atop a small spring fitted into the block. The head of that pin meets a hole in the top of that box sitting atop the column.

When the top is lowered onto the column, that pin engages the hole in the box and locks the table top onto the column. The top can be rotated around the column and it can be raised up into the vertical so the table can be slid into a  corner of the room where it is out of the way.

In either position, such a table, finished bright as this one is, becomes a centerpiece and a highlight to any decor.

About Gary Showalter

Gary Showalter was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He lived in Aruba, Florida and the Panama Canal Zone before joining the U.S. Army during the 1960s. Following his discharge from the Army, Mr. Showalter picked cotton in East Texas, baled hay in Ardmore Oklahoma, sold light bulbs in Los Angeles, California, and built cattle pens in Fallon, Nevada (during a blizzard, of course). After settling in Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Showalter worked as a professional gardener before turning his hand to furniture making. In 1981, he moved to Israel, married, and raised four children while working as a furniture maker, silversmith, goldsmith, and ornamental wood turner. He served in the Israel Defense Forces Reserves for sixteen years, and when not on active duty he worked in government and private security. He has also served in senior management positions in two software development companies in Israel. During his time in Israel, Mr. Showalter published articles dealing with international terror and the Israel-Arab conflict in the Jerusalem Post, Israel national News and several political science web sites. Mr. Showalter returned to the United States in the fall of 2003, to care for an elderly parent. He published his first novel, “The Big Bend”, in the fall of 2008. His second novel, “Hog Valley”, is now in print. Mr. Showalter's third novel, “Twisted Key”, was published in the fall of 2011, and his fourth novel, "Lonesome Cove" is now available in Kindle format and should be published in paper near the end of 2012. Those words were written a few years ago. Frankly speaking, the literary well has dried up. I now live in Dunnellon, Fl, where I amworking as the caretaker on a horse farm and looking to build a workshop here on the property where I can get back to building furniture. With any luck I will be sinking piers some time early in November and hope to have the floor joists ready for flooring by the end of the month. I'll get back to you on that.
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