Construction of the Butternut Headboard

You might notice that this headboard seems a little less contemporary than most of my designs. And it is. The concept was a collaboration between my client and I – she wanted lots of curves and I needed to come up with a design that inspired me.

I drew up a sketch of what it would look like and we decided that butternut would be the best choice because it was the right colour and a great carving wood. Normally, I would build a project using the materials I have in my own backyard, but the butternut that I had on hand was neither long enough for the rails nor remotely dry.

So made some phone calls and found that the closest supplier of butternut was in Chilliwack at Mount Cheam Woodworking. So I made a cutting list to ensure I got everything I needed – Chilliwack is a two-hour drive, and I did not want to have to make a second trip. My brother Brad and I made the trip to Mount Cheam Woodworking and met with the owner Rob Prinze where we picked out the required materials. I was lucky enough to get one 8/4″ board wide enough to cut the top rail out of with no glue-ups required. Rob cut the boards to 6′ so that they would fit in the bed of my truck, we loaded up, closed the tailgate, and headed home.

It was a miserable drive back – pitch black and pouring rain. The next day, I unloaded the materials into my shop and left them alone for a couple of weeks to acclimatize to the humidity levels of my bench room while I worked the Portland and Sacramento Woodworking Shows.

When I was done globetrotting, I started the headboard construction with the rails and post.. I surfaced the 8/4 boards, then made a half-template for the upper rail from 1/4″ MDF. By marking the centerline of the template and flipping it, I was able to lay out a perfectly symmetrical rail. Before cutting the top rail though, I routed the tenons on each end. It was much easier to ensure they were square while the board still had a straight reference edge.

After routing the tenons on both rails, I cut out the top rail. To get matching legs, I laid out the curve on one leg, cut it out, then traced the profile onto the other. All the curved edges were smoothed with a spokeshave and the difficult areas scraped. I mortised the legs using a plunge router guided by a fence, then squared the mortises with a chisel. Lastly, I used a slot-cutting bit to rout a groove around the inside edge of the rails and posts to accept the panel.

With the rails and posts complete, I turned my attention to the panel. I started by gluing up three 10″ wide boards, minding the grain direction – by running the grain all in the same direction, the adjacent boards can be carved with no risk of tear out. I did not use any dowels to join the 4/4 boards because they would not have been a great help for alignment and I did not want to have to worry about carving into one, which would be a disaster. Once the glue dried, I surfaced both sides using a scrub plane, finishing up with a jack plane. I laid out a carving pattern on the face using a carpenter’s pencil first, then once I was happy with the design, I went over it with a black marker. Layout took about one hour.

Minding the black lines, I routed away the bulk of the waste with a plunge router. From there, I proceeded to carve the background and further define the shape of the leaves and vines with my carving gouges. Lastly, I added shape to the leaves, making them curl and overlap each other. The layers give the carving the effect of depth. When the carving was complete, I gave it one coat of orange shellac before assembling the headboard.

Assembly went surprisingly smoothly. I did a dry run and identified where I might have problems – getting the panel and rails simultaneously into the posts. I set up my clamps and positioned my dead blow hammer close by. Assembly took just over ten minutes, from the time I opened the glue bottle to the time the final check was performed. It went smoother than the dry run. Excellent.

Because I had done such a good job fitting the mortise and tenon joints, the rails and post needed very little in the way of leveling. I gave everything a final scraping before moving onto finishing. I sprayed on two coats of orange shellac with my HVLP (high volume low pressure) spray gun before the feed tube broke. I ordered a replacement part and epoxied the broken one back together in hopes of continuing spraying until the replacement part arrived. Did it work? Let me answer your question with a question: Have you ever seen a foot-tall geyser of shellac?

So I decided to brush on the shellac. I built up about eight coats on each side. I then leveled the finish with 320-grit sandpaper with a sanding block, then applied a ninth coat. This mean that the final coat went on very smoothly and very little work was required to rub it out. I let the shellac cure for a week, then rubbed out the finish on the rails and posts using 0000 steel wool lubricated with paste wax.

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