Do Your Traditions Include a Family Meal?

“The special things we look forward to as a family and the everyday routines we abide by such as the time we get up, the foods we have for breakfast, the things we do on the weekends, and the activities we are involved in during the week are the threads of life that bind us together as a family [emphasis added].”  Family Traditions, OSU Fact Sheet, Melinda Hill.

With so many activities, events, and distractions, today’s families don’t send as much time together as earlier generations did.  Extra curricular schedules, enrichment programs, social media time, increased work demands and more all chip away at opportunities for the family to engage each other, share successes and challenges, and grow together.

As a family, set a weekly time for an essential family ritual – a sit down meal where the attention and focus is on each other.  Highlight this focal meal’s significance with a unique menu, favorite food or home-made dessert not included in other meals.  Once a month expand the focal meal to include extended family, to keep and grow bridges and bonds across generations and give both seniors and children a greater sense of belonging and support.

Bringing together the members of a newly blended family can be a significant challenge that can take many months of constant work, and the family dining table tradition might need help.  Merging might be assisted by jointly choosing or designing a new family dining table and selecting the day and format for the focal family meal together.  The children collectively could each week select the menu for the following week, or each one could request one item on the menu.  There are many other family-oriented practices that could be used to bring everyone closer.

To make the “family together” focal meal enjoyable and positive, the table needs to meet the physical needs of the family.  “Standard” table sizes may leave elbows and feet too close together, fostering combat rather than harmony.  There may be insufficient room for casseroles and serving dishes, forcing a parent to make repeated trips to the stove. Chips in the finish, loose joints, and other defects should be explained as necessary sacrifices and rather than decreased respect for this fundamental family tradition.

A dining table is a piece of furniture, and should be treated as such.  Spills are unavoidable, but should be wiped up promptly.  Placements are always appropriate, and coasters for glasses suggest that the family’s home focal point is important.  Clear the table at the end of the meal, not at the end of the night, and wipe clean with a damp cloth.

A compilation of dining table design considerations at provides guidelines that may prove helpful.  When considering a larger table, a piece of cardboard can suggest how well a larger table would fit the room and people walking around it.  In these challenging economic times, estate sales sometimes will include larger, well built dining tables.  When looking at a new table, consider how likely a built-up finish is to chip, or perhaps an oil-varnish blend finish that cannot chip because it does not build up into a film.

A family dining table represents many hundreds or thousands of hours of family interaction and engagement.  When used for years and years, it helps everyone remember the good and bad times that the family worked through and grew strength from, a symbol of the family.  If passed on, it becomes a bridge between generations and helps the next generation lead and nurture their own children.

A Favorite Piece

My wife and I love our two cats in part because they are constantly showing new and old character traits.

(Yes, this is only one of the two – have you recently tried to herd cats?)

New meows, new ways of playing with their toys, new places to be scratched, odd sleeping postures – all invite and reward our attention and interest.  But we wouldn’t get more enjoyment from having twenty cats – too much quantity to allow quality interaction.

Like a beloved spouse or favorite pet, a treasured piece of furniture also can continuously reward closer inspection and interaction.  It might be figure that becomes more noticeable in winter sunlight, chatoyance (changing luster) we hadn’t observed closely before, or a scratch bead or drawer slip hidden inside.

In an office or home, most of our furniture blends together, as would too many pets.  But hopefully we each have one treasured piece that has special meaning, because it was passed along with family memories, was a special gift or purchase, or matches goals and aspirations.  A treasured piece doesn’t have to be large or outrageously expensive, but all should have one, to add comfort and character to your personal refuge from life’s trials and tribulations.

Next time you walk by your treasured piece, stop for a few moments to discover or revisit and enjoy one of its marvelous details.

Improving Board Matches

(Part 3 of 3)  The final step in board matching is trimming edges for an even better match.

Here are four boards in selected orientation for a specialty cabinet side.  Color and grain pattern flow across the four  boards, but the overall appearance can be improved with five minutes of work.  On the right edge of the 2nd board from the right, there is a strip of sapwood that will stand out after finishing.  On the left edge of the 2nd board is a small defect on the back side.  And the grain pattern on the 3rd board from the right is diagonal to the edges, making more visible the joint with the adjoining boards.

Those trims have been made.

With the trimmings removed, the resulting matches between boards are improved.  The eye now sees the grain and fiigure of the wood without being distracted by joints.  It is hoped that with this attention to detail the piece of furniture is more likely to be used and enjoyed for many many years.


(Revised 30 September 2011)

Although I did turn a lightpost this summer for a customer, my lathe has gotten too little use.  So I’ve begun making treen or treenware – small domestic wooden items – on the lathe.

Spurtles were perhaps introduced to the general public by Richard Raffan, a well known Australian turner.  I’ve always thought they were an interesting project, and well suited to these challenging economic times when eating out is more of a luxury.  Instead,  make kitchen time more rewarding by trying new recipies and using fine handcrafted woodenware to elevate the practice of food preparation.  Home made soups, sauces and puddings can be more fun when stirred with a handcrafted spurtle rather than a plastic spoon!

Spurtles are perhaps best known historically as a common kitchen item in Scotland for constant stirring of porridge (oatmeal in North America), so that it did not become lumpy.  2011 is the eighteenth year for an annual porridge-making contest in Carrbridge, Scotland, with entrants from around the world.  The traditional category uses pinhead oatmeal, salt and water; the specialty category allows contestants to get very creative.  Competition is always spirited for the annual Golden Spurtle award.  Details are at 

At about 10 1/2″ long, these spurtles make efficient use of what might otherwise be scrap wood.  These were made from short offcuts of what will be a sideboard for a repeat customer.  Relatively long and thin, spurtles are an excellent item for developing proficiency with the skew chisel.

My design is not original but that shown by Mr. Raffan in his 1991 Turning Projects video.  It works so well, it doesn’t seem likely it could be improved.  The cuff nestles just below the fold between thumb and first finger, the narrowing helps keep it there, and the wide base more effectively swirls liquid than a thin one would.  Overall, the spurtle is quite comfortable to hold and use.

These spurtles were turned from select all white hard maple so they can stand up to regular use.  But being wood, normal use should not damage pots and pans.  For safe use in the kitchen, they were wiped with pure mineral oil.  Hand washing would be recommended, with re-coating with mineral oil as needed.

Antique Weather Vane Stand

A very interesting challenge began a few weeks ago when a gentleman carrying a large box entered the workshop.  He was carrying a newly purchased antique weather vane and wanted to make the weather vane a noteworthy office addition to be seen by clients and co-workers.  A stand should present and complement artwork and collectibles without competing for attention, and that was our goal.

After exploring some wood choices, quartersawn cherry seemed a perfect complement to the aged copper, and it was fortunate I had a suitable board on hand.

The board was crosscut into three pieces, and each then was trimmed to align the grain direction with the edges. 

After flattening and straightening the surfaces on machines, the faces were refined with a jointer plane so eventual glue lines would be as tight and unnoticeable as possible.

The weather vane has a central almost vertical rod, for which the stand had to be drilled.  This rod was angled slightly, both left to right and front to back.  Tapered wedges were used with a test block to find that compound angle at the drill press.  The drilled hole had to be slightly oversize so the rod could be inserted, but this would allow the stand to lean slightly.  Front-to-back slight leaning would not be noticeable, but left-to-right would stand out.  Small cherry alignment blocks were planned to address this issue, to be hidden behind the horses’ hooves and the pumper’s large rear wheel.  They work perfectly, and are not noticeable unless pointed out.

A reddish brown dye deepened the color of the stand without obscuring the wood the way pigment stain can.  Three coats of an oil-varnish blend highlighted the character and figure of the wood and provided protection without masking the wonderful tactile stimulation of wood.  As the cherry develops its natural aged patina, the stand will even more successfully present and complement the weather vane.  This small project was immensely satisfying and a pleasure to complete.

Raw Veneer versus Hardwood Plywood

Not infrequently I’m asked “why bother working with raw veneer.”  For example, commercial walnut plywood is ready to use, while raw walnut veneer leaves have to be ordered, trimmed and edges jointed, taped into sheets, the sheets glued to a substrate, and the surfaces then sanded. 

A conceptual bookcase project may help explain the difference.  The bookcase will be in the middle of a long wall.  It will have a lower section with doors, and a set-back upper section with open adjustable shelves.  The doors of both examples will have panels faced with crotch figure.  Plywood will be used for the sides and back of both the lower and upper sections, and the shelves.  Solid wood will be used for the face frames and doors.

Using commercial walnut veneer, joints in the veneer likely will not be symmetric across the backs and sides. Almost certainly the grain pattern and figure will not be consistent across the inner and outer surfaces of the sides and the visible  back of the upper section.  The crotch veneer on the door panels may be gorgeous but too visual for the veneer on the hardwood plywood.  A stain and glazing may be advised to make less noticeable the differences in grain pattern and figures on the various plywood surfaces.  The lasting visual image may be the dark finish and not the wood.  After ten to fifteen years the dark finish may be considered a dated look and plans inititated for yet another bookcase.

By starting with raw veneer, the width and length of the raw veneer are chosen for the bookcase dimensions, and the leaves trimmed so that joints between the leaves are balanced and symmetric across the sides and backs of the lower and upper sections.  Bookmatched ropey quartersliced veneer could be used for the sides and backs to produce intriguing arrow or chevron patterns for added visual interest.   Walnut burl accents could be incorporated in the corners of the lower and upper sections to further tie them together.  And the crotch veneer door panels will look more part of a whole when matched with the bookmatched ropey walnut and burl accents.  A clear finish over oil would be appropriate to highlight all the character and beauty of the walnut wood.  The lasting visual impact of this bookcase would be the combination and use of figure and the wood itself.  This bookcase would be likely to become a family treasure to be kept for decades and desired by the next generation.

An Interesting Chair

A gentleman brought in this chair considering having a similar one made using a different wood.  For several days I postponed calling with a price, trying to decide why the chair was so interesting visually.

Eventually I realized I kept looking back at the chair because there is so much visual tension in the design.  In most chairs, the back legs are closer together than the front legs, but that is just the beginning here.  The front legs lean towards the back, the seat slopes forward, and both edges of the back legs are curved, but they are not parallel.  The top of the rear legs is wider than the top cross member is thick, so the back top of the rear legs are scooped to transition between the two dimensions.

At 20 1/2″ off the floor, the front edge of the seat is higher than the normal 18-19″.  With the pronounced seat slope, I wonder if the chair was designed for a particular use, perhaps paired with a drafting table.

The owner finds the chair very comfortable, but about 1 1/2″ too tall.  If another is made, it would use primary and accent woods to match the intended use and immediate surroundings.

Sometimes a design can be just unique enough constantly to invite closer examination and study.  In certain situations this uniqueness can be a feature, othertimes a distraction.  But this chair has been a delight to have in the workshop these last few days.

Growing Bonds With A New Daughter-in-Law

Imagine giving to a new daughter-in-law on her anniversary the next size of your set of handcrafted Shaker nesting oval boxes.  The annual exchange symbolizes the ever growing bonds between the families.  The partial nest in each household is a constant reminder of what is evolving.  And the practice can become a treasured family tradition to repeat with the next generation.

The Shakers are legendary for their sense of honor, commitment and craftsmanship.  A Shaker reproduction shows the recipient how much you love, respect and cherish them.

Handcrafted Shaker oval boxes show subtle variation in the trimming of the fingers and placement of the tacks and pegs.  In respect to the Shakers, there should not be any glue or filler used – craftsmanship is all.  The boxes will not have machine-like regularity, but neither do memories and traditions.

Needs Can Be Multifaceted

A need, such as for a dining table, seldom is one dimensional.  If it were, any horizontal platform would suffice.

Continuing the example, related kitchen dining table needs might be to blend with existing cabinetry or a favored furniture style, use a particular wood, be a particular color and hue, accomodate casserole dishes for those that cook from scratch or prefer longer meals, have extra space for two or three large boxes on family-and-frfiends pizza nights, and so on.

Noteworthy veneer combinations can result in a table that makes a lingering positive impression on invited guests.

For a family that emphasizes togetherness and life long bonds, a well built table that lasts for decades represents and kindles fond memories of time spent together, traditions and transitions.  Imagine sharing with friends and neighbors “I remember sitting at this table helping the kids with second grade homework, with college applications, and with wedding plans; yesterday I was feeding my grandchildren at this very same table.”

Furniture that serves a single need can be functional but remains an impersonal tool.  Furniture that answers a hierarchy of needs can make a dwelling a home and personalizes a room.

Vineyard Table Harp Base

The pivoting harp on this piece made in the style of French provincial vineyard tables is a smoothly flowing curve from top to bottom.  The plan was found in a modern publication, but the half lap joint at the bottom of the harp was simplified into straight lines.  The transition interrupted the flow, and visually was unappealing.

About three hours were required to make and test a curved pattern for the bottom lap joint, but the result was well worth the investment.  The sinuous curve now extends unbroken from top to bottom for each side of the harp.

This small change elevated the resulting table from tolerable to charming, and rewards those who take a closer look.  A picture of the entire table and some details on the genre can be found at  Additionally there are some pictures of antique vineyard tables in my workshop files I’d be happy to share if you’d like to drop by.