Several weeks ago some friends here at Sea Ranch asked me if I would help them with a center island counter top for their newly remodeled kitchen. This is a fairly straight-forward project, but I thought this small project is a good one to refresh our woodworking minds with some basic approaches to commissioned woodworking. There are several issues that this kind of project touches on that may helpful for new or even more experienced woodworkers.
First and most important is the issue that this is not a project for your own home, but for someone else’s. This requires melding your own design aesthetic with theirs, and it also must fit their logistical and ergonomic needs as well. In this instance, I came in late to their remodeling project, but it also meant that I was limited in what I had to consider. They also had a very good idea what they wanted and had spent some time talking to others and even spent a day looking at various wood species. The center island had already been built and was in place, sans top.
So the first thing I did was to meet with them in their kitchen and also brought a variety of finished wood samples for color selection. They had already thought that walnut would be a good fit in their kitchen, and we looked at that again, along with some other wood types. This was really to verify that we were all on the same page, as they had not seen finished samples. Their home was finished in mostly brown toned wood, and the kitchen cabinets were a darker birch tone, so the deep brown tone of walnut would blend nicely.
We also talked about finish, and I recommended a more durable build-type finish like urethane (not my favorite, but in this case a more lasting finish), because this was in a kitchen and would also be used as a place to entertain. The cabinets were finished with a flat, non-reflective finish, and I said I would try to rub out the urethane finish as flat as possible, but it would probably end up more satin than flat. This was acceptable.
We also settled on a finished size, one that would allow enough overhang at one end to accommodate a pair of bar stools. They initially indicated that they wanted rounded corners, like perhaps a 6 – 8” radius on each corner. So I said I would draw something up and let them see what this would look like. I also said that I usually work and charge by the piece, not by the hour, but in this case it would make more sense to take a more time-and–materials approach. So now it was back to the shop and the computer to get some more specific prices (which I already laid out for them in general terms at the initial meeting) and to work up some drawings.
Now you might ask why the need for a drawing of a counter top. My experience tells me that most folks, including myself, find it difficult to effectively see a three-dimensional image in their mind’s eye. We all think we’re better at it than we really are, and having a 3-D view helps everyone to really see the whole of an idea. And although I’m only building a top, it still sits on a cabinet and it all has to look like one unit, and not something designed by a committee.
So I drew up some measured drawings in Google Sketchup and emailed them as jpegs. This is when the collaborative design process really starts, when we’re all looking at the same three-dimensional idea. As the drawings below show, we came a long way from just rounded corners. We went through several iterations of corner radii, 6”, 8”, and 12” corners. It’s then when I realized that perhaps it was time to interject a different perspective for them to consider. So I suggested the bow-front type design, and then we ultimately settled on the final design where just the ends were bowed and the front and back (long sides) were straight. This was a very gratifying process for me, and I believe for them as well. As a woodworker in this type of situation, you have to remember that you’re not just bringing your woodworking skills to the project. I’ve been designing and building furniture for over 20 years, but even if you’re relatively new at it, you probably still bring something to the table that is fresh and new for perspective clients. Listen, and share.
The next part of the design process pretty much happens in your shop, and this relates to the top assembly. More specifically, this is about how the individual boards are arranged in order to capture the best grain configuration for the whole top. Grain patterns and wood tone/color are often ignored by beginning woodworkers who might be more concerned with construction details. But how the wood grain comes together among all the pieces can make the difference between just a nice piece and a real eye-catcher. This is where you want to spend your time, mixing and matching various pieces (always buy extra boards) in various ways to arrive at the best overall grain and color pattern. Below is an image of the final layout for the top before I glued it up.
The next stage involves flattening the top, which I will have done at a lumber wholesaler where I buy much of my lumber. I can’t really do this anymore as my shoulders just can’t handle the strain of hand-planing this large a piece. I’ll let you know how that goes. After that, then it’s on to final sanding and finish work.
The final sanding and finishing process is fairly straightforward, albeit a little tedious. I was pleased with the results of having the top flattened at my lumber supplier (Mt. Storm, in Windsor, CA). They have a commercial planner that can handle widths up to 55 inches. It was worth whatever I paid them to save me from having to do it. When I got it back from leveling, there were still a few grooves left in the top from the sanding drum/planner. I had to flatten these areas by hand, but it didn’t take too long.
When I got the top back from the planning, it was sanded to about #80 grit. I sanded the top through the grits up to #320 using a half-sheet random-orbit finish sander (Porter-Cable 505). All edges were rounded by hand using 220 and 320 grit sandpaper. I was now ready for the finish.
Deciding on a particular finish is something that needs to be discussed in detail with any perspective client. They need to know the tradeoffs between the beauty of a lustrous, hand-rubbed oil finish and the durability of a higher gloss and/or thicker finish of a build finish like lacquer or urethane. Because this was a kitchen setting and this top was likely to get fairly heavy use, we agreed upon a more durable urethane finish. I finished a couple of cutoffs from the table top in the exact finish we settled on, and we all agreed on this finish. Basically the finish involved multiple coats of fast-drying gloss polyurethane, followed by multiple coats of a Gel Topcoat Satin urethane finish. This finish is durable, reasonably easy to apply in a small shop, and looks great, with a nice satin sheen. The finish was rubbed out with a grey 3M ScotchBrite pad, followed by #0000 Liberon steel wool, and finally with a white 3M ScotchBrite pad. It’s also important to finish both sides of the top, as you want moisture exchange to occur evenly over the piece. If you don’t do this, the top can warp because of uneven moisture exchange with the air.
Below is an image of the final piece before it was removed from the shop for installation. Most importantly, we were all happy with the final product. If you would like any additional information on this fairly basic project, I’d be happy to share any other details or answer any additional questions.
Phil Wendt, 2/21/13