Midnight Woodworking


Large walnut & cherry desk part 1

After finishing my office/shop addition, I moved right in. This was the start of several other projects to be done to the house so my time to do shop projects has been limited. My old office was very small and crammed full of stuff. Since I don’t want to see any of that stuff blocking my view of the cherry walls and maple floors, I left it all in the old office. My wife would like my old office to go away and once the wall is removed, that stole 5 feet from the dining room to create the office, my stuff will then be cluttering up the dining room… Apparently that is not acceptable so I had to come up with a way to house all of my stuff in the new office space without seeing it. Being eager to use my new office space, I repurposed two folding tables to become my new desk. They are very unattractive so I need to build a new desk with storage. Unfortunately, I will be returning to work several days a week soon, instead of working from home 100% of the time. This means that I will be getting a work computer and two more monitors at home (why they didn’t get them for me two years ago, I don’t know). All this means that I will need a much larger and preferably more attractive desk to replace the folding tables.

I thought about making the desk out of cherry to match the walls, but I get morning sun through the window on the left and cherry will get darker in the sun. Whatever I have on the desk will leave tan lines. I don’t have access to a lot of maple (to match the floor) and I don’t think it would look right blending in with the floor anyway. So, I decided on walnut for the desk top and shelves below to match the walls. I can get some beautiful air-dried walnut from my buddy Dave and I recently discovered a fellow nearby who has a bandsaw mill and he has some cherry that has been air-drying for two years. I bought a few boards from him as well. My plan for the desk is a crude pencil sketch at present because I am going to work on the walnut top first. I will be making a U-shaped desk that will be approximately 7′ long and about 9-1/2′ wide. The left side and middle will be similar to the two folding tables in size and location, and on the right, I will have a large 3’x7′ peninsula with a half round end. Beneath the peninsula will be a 6′ long cherry shelf that will have V-grooved panels on the back to match the wall. The shelf will support the right side of the desk top. The left side will have a much smaller shelf supporting the end that is in the corner so it will mostly be out of sight. The other end of the left side will have some square legs of some sort. The middle section will be suspended between the two sides and maybe, eventually have a small shelf for wire management.

I drove out to my buddy Dave’s shop and acquired some 4/4 walnut boards that were between 11″ and 15″ wide. Dave gets some really nice big boards He needs the thicker 6/4 boards for another project so no live-edge slabs for this project…

Some of the boards were rough-sawn and some were already planed. I began cutting them all down to a manageable size, setting aside the off-cuts for future projects.

Most of what I need will be under 8 feet long so I can use my jointer to square up one of the edges.

Then I use my table saw to make the opposite side parallel.

Next, I run both faces through the planer. These boards are too wide to flatten one face on the jointer so I get them down to size on the planer and I will force them straight when I glue up the tops later.

Man, these boards are beautiful.

I will have to be careful with the more figured boards, they tend to bend and cup, following the figure.

I have to spend a lot of time on the jointer to get a straight edge on some of these.

After all of the planing is done, I start taping off the back side of the larger knots so I can fill them with epoxy.

Since this will be a desk, I need the surface to be flat for writing on. The epoxy I use is pretty thin so it seeps all the way into the knots.

When it dries, I often have to come back a second or even a third time to fill them all the way up. While the first batch is curing, I finally noticed that all of my planing filled my dust collector again. I think I managed to fill four 30-gallon bags with sawdust, just planing down the walnut for this desk. Luckily my wife wanted to plant garden boxes this year and all of the sawdust got mixed in with the dirt for the boxes where it can break down into the soil.

I needed to set up some saw horses to lay out my boards for epoxy and sanding so I expanded into my part-time spray booth area.

After another round of epoxy, I started milling down the rest of my boards.

The building where these were stored will occasionally get some water in on the boards as they are drying. The water stains them but is is only on the surface. When they are planed, all the staining is removed.

It takes a while to get all of the knots and cracks filled. I usually sand the excess down with 100 grit paper initially then add a bit more epoxy to fill any air bubbles. Eventually I will sand the surfaces down to 320 grit so the scratches will not be noticeable when finish is applied.

Since I only had one piece with a lot of sap wood, I decided to cut that one in half and glue it together to create a panel with boards that matched. This will be my middle section since it is only about 48″ long.

I cannot fit the finished panels through my planer but I took my time clamping them together so the surfaces are fairly well aligned. A little scraping and sanding and the panels are smooth enough for a desk.

The peninsula will be the largest and most visible section of the desk. The other two sections will be covered with monitors and keyboards. I want the best looking wood to go into the peninsula. I have some really cool knots and curl at both ends so I align the boards in a way that shows them off the best. I was in luck because the two center boards are actually book-matched. The two outer boards are from the same tree so their color and grain matches fairly well too.

I carefully joint the edges and cut around the features I want to keep.

The grain matches well but there are a few bends in the boards. The grain features I like so much also cause the deformation.

To align the boards better, I will be using some fairly big loose tenons. To mark the tenon locations, I use painter’s tape instead of marking the walnut. The pencil marks are far more visible on the tape.

I use a utility knife to slice the tape so I can move the boards apart to cut the mortises.

I will be using the largest floating tenons that I have so I setup my Festool Domino and start cutting.

Once all of the mortises are cut, I place a drop of glue on one side and press in the tenons.

After a test fit, I apply glue to the edges and the other mortises.

A little gentle persuasion is required but the boards draw together nicely. The Dominos keep the surfaces aligned but I put a clamp at the end of the glue joint on each end anyway.

After the center section is dry, I repeat the process with one of the side boards.

And, after that one dries, I add the opposite side as well.

While the last board is drying, I add more epoxy…

When dried, I moved the peninsula out of the way so I could start on the opposite side.

Then it was time to sand epoxy.

With the three main sections glued and sanded, I can mark the ends and cut to the final length.

I set up my track saw to make these cuts. It is not an expensive one, but it makes nice, clean cuts.

I flipped all of the panels so that the top side was up, then added yet more epoxy to any tiny defects I can find.

At this point, I can clamp it all together into it’s final orientation so I can mark where the mid section hits the sides.

I plan on connecting the mid section to the sides with Dominos as well so I add more tape and mark their locations.

My granddaughter stopped by to help with load testing the desk.

Since it passed the load test, I could proceed with cutting the mortises.

I glued the tenons into the middle sections and left it to dry while I cut mortises into the sides.

I flipped everything over to assemble but noticed that I needed more epoxy…

After assembly, you can see that I left the peninsula much thicker than the rest. The boards I had were thicker and I didn’t want to plane them down more than I had to. I will accommodate this when I add a second layer around the edges.

To lay out the curve, on the end of the peninsula, I will need a very big compass. Since I don’t have one that big, I just made one.

The pencil is press-fit but if it loosens over time, I can use a small screw to hold it in place.

The point is a finish screw and the pivot is a machine screw and a wing-nut.

Simple but very effective. I wish I had made one of these years ago, it works really well.

After that fun little project, I laid out the round end of the peninsula.

I had several boards left-over that had veining and cracks in the middle. I epoxied those spots as well but I plan on cutting them into 3″ wide strips to double up the outer edges of the desk.

I had a really pretty board that was about 10 feet long. Too long to go onto my jointer, but I didn’t want to cut it shorter because I only needed 3″ off the side of the board. I clamped a straight piece of oak along the edge that I wanted jointed to see how far off it was.

It was out almost 1/4″ at one point. I decided to leave the straight edge on it and use my jack plane to take the high spot down.

The blade was sharp so it worked really well. It only took about 5 minutes to get a fully straight edge.

Of course it made a large mess…

But I was able to get the 3″ strip I needed while keeping a 7″ wide piece at 10′ long for another project.

I cut and mitered all the strips I needed to wrap the perimeter, then cut some wider pieces at an angle to double up the rounded end.

After cutting the first two angled pieces and clamping them down, I traced the angle onto the end piece to cut on the miter saw.

I intend for the middle section to be removable so I can transport and install the desktop, so I had to account for that when laying out the strips otherwise I could have used that 10′ piece along the back side.

I grabbed an off-cut and used double-sided tape to place it in the center of the rounded end. This will make the center level to the edge.

I marked the inside and outside radius of the peninsula.

Then I cut both inside and outside curves and sanded the inside one smooth.

I applied wood glue and tacked the round edges in place with my brad nailer.

I added clamps as well to get the tightest bond that I could, then preceded to attach all of the rest of the second layer.

I had to pull most of my clamps together for the effort. I think it took about 60 to get it all on at once.

When that had dried, I could pull the clamps and sand off any of the glue squeeze-out and make sure all of the edges were flush.

To cut the radius through both layers, I am going to use another homemade compass. It is just a piece of 1/4″ plywood with a hole pattern for mounting my router. I drilled a hole at the pivot point to attach with a screw to my center block.

I have a 3/8″ spiral cutter bit that I set 1/2″ deep to cut the first pass. then I dropped it another 1/2″ for the second.

Unfortunately, the bit was too short to go any further so I used a jigsaw to remove most of the waste that was left.

I found a flush trim bit that should work to finish up the cut.

That got it within 1/32″, close enough that I can sand it the rest of the way.

After sanding, it looked pretty good.

Now for the edges. I want to be able to grab the edge of the desk comfortably to pull in my chair as well as not have any sharp edges to bang into so I have a 1/4″ and a 3/4″ chamfer bit for the bottom edges.

I ran the 1/4″ along the inside edge and the 3/4″ around the outer. I did the outer in two passes just so I didn’t take off too much at one time.

Looks nice, but the edges are still a bit sharp so I sanded all of the surfaces with the orbital and eased all of the corners into a nice rounded edge.

I think it looks pretty good.

Time to take it all apart and flip everything over.

I sanded all the surfaces smooth and flattened the joint between the sides and the middle section.

Then I used a 1/4″ round-over bit to radius the edge of the desk all the way around.

This is pretty much done now so I worked my way through the sand paper grits until I got to 320. This is higher than I normally go but there was a lot of epoxy and the finer you sand that the nicer it looks when finished.

All done and ready for finish.

Oh yeah, this is also my spray booth. Time for a clean-up break.

My wife took pity on me and came down to help sweep and vacuum the area. I adjusted the saw horses and placed the tops on them, upside down. In case you were wondering, to extend the length of the saw horses, I screwed two 8′ long 2″x4″s on edge, then wrapped them with some left over foam sill sealer. This gave me a soft surface to avoid marring the finished walnut. And, yes, I did learn that you need to leave the heaviest section in the middle or the entire thing will fall over if you remove too much weight from one side. I did not take a picture of that lesson…

Before spraying on the finish, I wrapped all of the exposed tenons in painter’s tape and covered the mortises as well. These have such a tight fit that I fear several coats of finish may make the joints too tight.

I loaded a pint of oil-based satin polyurethane into the HVLP spray gun and started spraying. Glad I started on the bottom because the sprayer started leaking when under pressure. The gasket between the sprayer and the can has gone bad after about 10 years, so I had to order a new one. $4 shipping for a $2 part. I ordered four of them so this won’t be a problem again. For the moment though, I cut some thick duct tape into strips and wrapped the top of the can and clamped it all beck together. It works, but I am not taking it apart until I am done spraying…

The grain of the walnut really pops out with the oil-based finish.

I sand between coats with 400 grit paper and wipe it down really good before applying the next coat.

Two coats down. When it is dry, I can flip them over and apply three more coats to the top.

All the pretty grain is on top so it looks even nicer than the bottom when the finish starts going on.

More sanding, then the second coat gets applied.

Two coats should be enough, but this will be my desk and I think a third coat will give me a bit more protection from pencils and small children beating on it…

After the third coat has dried, I needed to buff off any remaining dust nibs or dried vaporized polyurethane that dropped back onto the surface while the last coat was curing. To do this, I crumple up a torn off section of a brown paper bag and start rubbing down the surface.

No, it is not very abrasive, but it does smooth down the surface, and from the picture below, it seems to remove a lot of surface debris.

To finish it up, I grab a clean rag and some paste wax.

After rubbing it in, I buff it back off with a clean, dry side of the rag.

The buffed surface leaves behind a very soft, worn feel. Mixed with the satin finish, it has a warm luster that I like a lot.

Now I need to talk one of my kids into helping me carry these upstairs without banging them into a wall. They are surprisingly heavy.

Next, I need to figure out what they are going to sit on…

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