The Difference One Table Can Make
It was hot. Really hot, thought Jonathan Drake as he paused in his work to wipe the sweat from his brow. The weather was quite cool this morning when he awoke and he was excited to get to work and finish the table he was building for the Assembly Hall of the State House. In fact as he walked to work he had passed one of the delegates of the Congress whom he had witnessed every morning to diligently make notes of the weather. A quiet man named Jefferson, but friendly enough and quick to share his observations. Evidently also a lover of the joiner’s art for each morning he would pursue me with questions after my work and progress.
“Fine morning we have today sir! Just 68 degrees.” he said. “Excellent weather for your labors I imagine.”
“Indeed it is Mr. Jefferson and I thank you to keep it that way for there is much to be done today”, I replied.
“Much indeed Mr. Drake, if you only knew the momentous things for which posterity will remember this day. But enough of that, tell me sir, what progress have you made on the table the Congress has commissioned?”
“I am almost done in fact sir. I expect you shall see it in the Assembly Hall by midday for Mr. Hancock requested I wait to apply my customary Buttonlac until later today. He seemed rather adamant that my table be present for a vote that is to take place today. Could the rumors of independence be true sir?” I asked hesitantly. Not waiting for an answer for as I said Mr. Jefferson could be quiet, I rushed on.
“Forgive me for saying so sir, but shouldn’t the congress have made this declaration some time ago. Mr Paine has stirred up a hornets nest of late some time ago and the public sentiment is for it. If nothing else, our boys have shed blood already and certainly King George already treats us as if we were at war.” I stopped for perhaps I had said too much.
“Sorry sir, ’tis not my station to tell you your business.”
“Not at all, my good sir” said Jefferson with a smile. “It is nothing less than your duty to tell me what I should do for it is we your congress that represent the wishes of the people. ‘Tis premature of me to say so, but I hope with all my being that today shall be the day we formally declare to that despot King George, that we are Americans and English no more.” I swear his nostrils flared and a flush arose in his cheeks as his already considerable height gained and inch or two more.
“Indeed sir, and Godspeed to that. For now I must take my leave. Mr Hancock will not be pleased if I deliver my table late. Good morning Mr. Jefferson.” With that I headed with haste to the shop to begin my labors.
Now several hours later, though the cooler weather persisted the Joinery was stifling with the stove blazing and the glue pot warming. The wheelwrights were heating their tires today and waves of heat from their fire washed over the shop. “So much for the cool weather” I grumbled aloud. “At least the smoke from the wheelwrights is keeping the bugs away.”
With a sigh Jonathan returned to his work. Just one more mortise to cut and the table would be ready to test fit together. It was a simple affair not much bigger than the tables he has made for the tavern last week with turned legs and a low stretcher around the perimeter set just high enough on which to rest the feet. Constructed from a lovely Walnut tree the sawyer has delivered earlier this year, it would make a handsome yet functional addition to the Windsor chairs and long tables already in the Assembly hall.
Johnathan set his chisel between his scratched lines and began to drive it in with his mallet. Strike, lever, move the chisel, strike, lever, etc, etc. In a few moments he had reached the slight knick in the side of his chisel blade that told him his mortise was to depth. Flipping the bevel towards the bottom of the mortise and making a few light taps with his mallet, Johnathan cleaned the floor and he lifted the last chips from the mortise.
With a grunt he rose from his sawing bench where he had sat astride his table leg and returned to his workbench where the 3 remaining legs and aprons lay with mortises and tenons already cut. Was that a breeze he felt? Perhaps a change in the wind might blow this infernal heat away from his open Joinery windows.
His joinery slipped together neatly as was to be expected from his long hours of practice. He has lost track of the number of mortise and tenons he had cut sometime around the second month of his second year as an apprentice. That was more than 20 years ago now and the joints of a table practically cut themselves these days. With his fit assured, Jonathan quickly sketched in some dimensions for the turning on his legs. Shoulder a finger’s width below the apron and above and below the stretcher. A bead of half that width flanks each shoulder. The foot rounded off to the floor and equal to the stretcher in width. Now to connect the space between the beads with a cyma for a delicate touch. Johnathan merely marked the inflection point in the curve and knew he could shape the flowing curve once he was at the lathe. Some things just needed to be cut and all the laying in of guide lines would not make a difference.
Crossing to the opposite side of the shop he smiled in pride at his treadle lathe. He remembered the day his master had approved his design to build it. He knew that it would be a great boon to the shop if they were able to do their own turnings instead of jobbing it out to the turner down the road. Indeed he had been right and the shop had prospered since their furniture could be constructed differently from the repeated patterns the turner created day in and day out. In fact Jonathan’s shop had gained quite the reputation for fine work and he believed it was this reputation that had gotten him the job to build furnishings for the State house. Mr. Hancock is from Massachusetts yet he has a decidedly Quaker lean to his taste in furniture.
Once he had secured his leg in the lathe, he spun the wheel towards him with his hand to get it in motion then took up the call with his right foot. Settling in to a rhythm first was absolutely key as he spun up the leg until he soon forgot his leg was moving and he began to focus only on the tool in his hand and the point at which it met the wood. To falter now would set him back significantly since the leg was almost completed.
Leading with the point of his chisel he lightly severed the fibers and created the transition from square block to round leg. With sweeping cuts Johnathan angled down and away until he heard the rattle of the spinning wood turn to a hum signifying he had reached a round surface with no flats. Switching to a gouge he quickly removed the wood in between the square mortise blocks until it too was round. Back to the chisel and he marked the bead locations and inflection point of his cyma. Each bead was to be just a hair thinner than the square parts and the fattest part of the cyma was the same. With the point of the chisel he removed wood around the bead then rolled the chisel over to round the corners and produce the bead.
Widening his stance just beyond his shoulders, Johnathan shifted his left foot to the treadle and leaned his body into it shifting his balance to the head of the cyma. With the gouge in hand Johnathan made one continuous sweep with the tool down from thickest part of the curve or the “knee” and into a gentle vase like taper that would meet the lower bead just thinner than the bead itself. He liked this part because as he shifted his weight to follow the tool he felt as if he was falling down the slope of his leg and landing strongly on his stationary right leg. Long, flowing curves were much more fun than short beads and coves and these vase like shapes seemed to appeal to the modern sensibilities.
As the lathe spun slowly to a stop Jonathan was pleased with the look of his 4 legs. They were as close to identical as anyone could tell and once separated by aprons any slight difference would be invisible. His treadle lathe truly was a revelation for his little shop and it was rare for any piece to leave it that did not incorporate some turned, decorative element. It was time to assemble and peg the joints for it was pressing on towards 11:45 and he had promised Mr. Hancock that his table would be delivered to the Assembly Hall in time for the vote.
Johnathan grabbed a hand full of pegs from above the stove where they had been drying for a few days. It was essential these pegs be shrunken and dry or unsightly gaps would form after the table has been assembled and pegged. A few turns of the brace later and Johnathan was pounding his pegs in place through offset holes that drew his table up tight and strong. Stepping back he was glad he had scratched the bead profile into the lower stretcher. It would prevent the wood from splintering as countless feet were dragged across it, but he especially like the way it caught the light and added a little interest to an ordinary stretcher.
Some glue on the top pegs and they were pounded into place securing the single board top in place. And just like that his modest little table was complete and with not a moment to spare. Johnathan rushed across Chestnut street and into the state house. It was eerily quiet inside, it seems the congress was on a break. He heard raised voices from the corridor and cries of “Mr. Rodney!, how timely your arrival.” None of his business Johnathan thought as he carried his table into the Assembly Hall. He set it in the center of the room and draped one of the matching cloths over the top. This seemed appropriate considering he had not applied the finishing touches yet.
As Johnathan stepped back for a final look he stretched his back and glanced around the room. Recalling Mr. Jefferson’s comments from earlier today he wondering just what this room might witness on this July 2nd, 1776.
“Perhaps my little table will have a great tale to tell one day” he thought.
“Enough of this daydreaming, daylight remains and Mr. Franklin’s footstool won’t build itself.” With that Jonathan left the State house and returned to his shop to build his next piece of furniture.
This is a work of historical fiction. While some elements are based in fact, like the fact that the Declaration was actually signed on July 2nd and it was unseasonably cool in Philadelphia that year, much of the above story originated inside my own head.