IT ain’t CSI but Woodworking has its moments

Sometimes, even after years of coming to an understanding with something you love, in my case, making furniture, things still happen which leave us grasping for explanations. Years ago I was asked to do ten pieces for a prestigious law firm here in Seattle that was opening a new office. The  president of the firm was a very big art patron and he made it very clear that he didn’t just want furniture, he wanted pieces of art that would make his firm AND me very proud. There was even going to be a huge reception when they were done, because coincidentally with the large commission they were asking me to do, they were having an internationally famous Seattle artist, George Tsutakawa, do new pieces for them. This, clearly, was not a place I wanted to come up short.

The commission would consist of two conference tables, two credenzas, two coffee tables, a reception desk which I designed to look like a huge chambered nautilus, and several other smaller pieces. The entire commission was slated to be done in Imbuya, a beautiful, golden brown Brazilian wood.

Despite the complexity of some of the pieces, and the pressure of the deadline, ( the opening bash was already scheduled, and embossed invitations sent), I had a few good assistants at the time, and things were going, as they like to say in Britain, swimmingly. In fact we were just a few weeks from done when something seemingly inexplicable occurred. I had designed the two conference tables to have long, subtly arched edges to give it what I like to call a boat shape. These were going to be done with thick, heavy solid bands of Imbuya capturing a veneered center panel of bookmatched Imbuya veneer. To give the joint more strength and to help perfectly align the banding to the table top, we used biscuits inserted by a machine called a plate joiner, or popularly, a Lamello, for the original version. This is a technique that has gained enormous popularity in the last 30-40 years, as it is very fast, strong, and most of all accurate.

Well, we finished the last two pieces, the small and large conference tables, and I sent them off to my longtime trusted finisher, Chris Miller. They came back just the day before the whole commission was to be delivered, and the two table tops sat there in my studio on a pair of saw horses waiting to be attached to their bases.  When I went over to give the finish a final inspection, I literally gasped in horror. All along the joints between the edge of the table tops and the banding were white, ghosted images of the little football-shaped biscuits glued in below the surface. AAAAARGH!!

I called over everyone in the studio, and one by one they confirmed it wasn’t my imagination. What had happened? There is an understanding in woodworking that one never does a final sanding or planing  until at least 24 hours after something has been glued, because it takes that long for most glues to fully cure. Otherwise one runs the risk of a smoothed joint subsequently shrinking a bit and looking terrible. But we had not done the final sanding for days after assembling the tops. And it was also commonly held that the biscuits should not be placed too close to a finished surface, or the extra glue there could possibly bleed and show. But because this was such a thick table, these biscuits were at least 2 or 3 times deeper than usual. Lots of head scratching, and even a few calls to colleagues produced exactly no explanations. But those terrible little white silhouettes remained and haunted me. The worst detail was that the law office was in a skyscraper completely made of glass and the light flooding in was sure to worsen things.

Well, no matter, they were due to be delivered the next day, and I had no choice but  to deliver them, pray that everyone was more interested in schmoozing and drinking the client’s wine and would not notice during the reception. Then I would have to rent the truck again, bring the two tables back to the studio, and remake both tops at considerable cost in time and money. We delivered them.

The next day, with a sense of foreboding , I put on a clean shirt and drove across Lake Washington to the toney office building. When I got there, the soiree was in full swing and no one seemed too concerned about the finish on the tables. It was evening and I felt relieved that there was no heavy sunlight to expose me as an impostor. In fact, many kind people came up and shook my hand and congratulated me. Even Mr. Tsutakawa, in a warm way that was perhaps one of the high points of my career.

I slinked out of there knowing that what lay before me was to return the next day and start the whole process of taking care of my clients and repairing damaged tables and my surely damaged reputation. Again I drove across the lake , and I noted that it was that rare day in Seattle that was busting with sunshine. It would be shining on my tables and confronting me just like the bright lights the cops shine on a suspect. When I entered the first conference room, I stopped in shock.

No telling ghosted biscuit outlines showed anywhere in the surface. I stared for several minutes, moving all around to see from all angles. I ran to the other conference room: same thing. I was euphoric. I go back and check them every now and then, and they are still very pretty. I have in the intervening twenty years or so, thought often about what could have caused the problem to occur. AND to disappear. Never have come up with an answer. And neither has anyone I have ever asked. No matter. Everyone’s happy.

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