Laying Out The Curve In A Rustic Office Desk Top

A Basic Desk

Simple 90° Desk

This particular desk was pretty easy to design, there was no call for cabinets or drawers underneath. 

In designing this desk, the first thought is to fill the area with a simple 90° structure. This forces the user to sit at the right or left wing.

Desk With 45° Inside Corner

The next consideration would be to fill the inside corner with a triangle to create an angled seating area. This makes great use of the corner and creates a comfortable work station. The computer monitor is tucked into the corner and a person sits with books, papers, and folders arrayed on the right and left wings. This provides easy access to a large area to the right and left as office work tends to spread out. 

Desk With Inside Curve

The next step in the thought process of designing this desk was to fill the inside corner with a curve instead of a diagonal. Curves are a little easier on the eye, they tend to add a little more visual flow. The inside curve on this desk looks appealing and provides a good place to sit between the right and left wings.



The Layout

The desk material is 2" thick and I knew that I wanted to use a template in creating the curve in the desk. 

Scribing the arc.

I started with a piece of 1/2" plywood that was a little oversized of the arc I wanted to create. I mapped out the location of the desk that would be underneath the template. Now I knew where the structure was located.

I have a simple 4' flat metal straightedge that is quite flexible and would span the two points of the arc. But I needed a way to hold it steady while I marked both ends of the arc. I cut a couple of blocks that were 1 1/2" thick with a miter cut on one end.  


Blocks with miter cut allow access for pencil when scribing.

By using 1 1/2" thick material, that made the blocks tall enough to support the height of the straightedge. The angled cut allows me to get my pencil into the corner to mark as accurately as possible. Now keep in mind that accurate is relative here because I am working on a "rustic" style desk. 

After flexing the straightedge to create the desired arc, I scribe it. Then I like to flip the straightedge end-for-end and see how it reconciles with the first mark. There is almost always a little deviation and I scribe the new line. Before cutting I double check to see how the arc looks overall


Detail of scribed arc.

In my shop, as well as most shops, we are not running CNC equipment to layout or cut our arcs, so they are not going to be machine perfect. But you can increase the accuracy by doing a couple of things.

First, insure even pressure in the middle of the straightedge when when bending it to create the arc. Second, make sure the end points are securely and equally anchored, and the last step is to double check the layout by flipping your straightedge end-for-end and lay it out again.  

No matter what you use to create the arc, whether it be a metal straightedge, wood strip, or plywood strip there will be a slight deviation somewhere in the line. If you flip the straightedge and lay it out again, it will usually deviate at the same point in the straightedge. When you scribe the second line, the deviations will be revealed and you will be able to make adjustments accordingly for the actual cut.

Once you get the arc lined out, it is time to cut. But that is for the next installment...

That is all for now. Be sure to spend some time in the shop practicing what you learn.

Your friend in the shop - Todd A. Clippinger

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The Challenges Of Building A Rustic Office

A Couple Of Challenges

The challenges of working with the material for this project are ever present.

One issue is the maintenance that this material causes and the biggest issue is the dimensional stability.


For the readers that are just joining us for this project, I am using doug fir beams left over from the construction of a timber frame home to construct an office desk and cabinetry for that same home. The beams are about 10 years old and have been laying outside, stickered on the ground, but unprotected.

Any day that involves milling this material to any extent results in cleaning tables, blades, and knives down with solvent. Most of the sap has crystallized over the years and does not bleed out but it leaves a mess none the less.

The table surfaces load up with a sticky wax residue that causes a lot of drag when pushing the material across the tool. This causes a bit of safety issue because a smooth sliding surface is safer than a sticky one when milling and cutting material.

Blades and knives of the tablesaw and planer will load up with the residue. This causes more friction and thus leads to an ever rapidly increasing build up of the pitch. It is a situation that quickly decreases the cutting efficiency of blades and knives. It has occurred  on a regular basis that I have had to clean cutting edges and surfaces twice a day. While I did figure some time in the bid to do this, it has exceeded my estimations - lesson learned.

Cleaning Table Saw.jpg

Cleaning tablesaw and applying TopCote.

I use solvent to strip the sticky residue from the tools and I like to apply a product called TopCote to the tools. This creates a slick tool surface that allows for smooth feed of materials. This product does not cause contamination that leads to adhesion issues or fish eye when applying the finish.

TopCote is sprayed on and then buffed off when dry, similar to waxing a car.



Dimensional Stability

Dealing with dimensional stability has been a constant issue, but I will share with you what I have done to be as successful as possible.

Choose The Best Material Possible

I have been dealing with two sources of material, one is the original 10 year old beams and the other is new stock from the lumber yard. I took several moisture meter readings of both batches of material and have been following and observing them closely.

Stack of beams.jpg

Old beams on bottom, new beams on top.

To be specific, the old beams had a moisture content anywhere from 21% up to 28%, but with most of it in the 21% to 24% moisture content range

The new doug fir stock had moisture content readings from 21% to 25%. the most frequent readings were 21% to 22%

Solutions To Avoiding Dimensional Issues

The first action to reduce dimensional stability issues was to choose the best cuts of material. For the old 10"x10" beams, I had them milled into quarters. The pith of the tree was nearly in the center of every beam and this automatically created quartersawn rough stock. As I continued to refine the stock I have paid close attention to the grain orientation to preserve the integrity of the quartersawn cut.

For the new stock I also picked the best quartersawn material I could find. You might be surprised to know that it is very possible to get really good quartersawn material off the shelf at the lumber suppliers. It will involve some digging but it is do-able.

Quarter Sawn 4x4's.jpg

Quartersawn 4x4's

As I continue to mill it down, I plan the cuts to maintain the quartersawn orientation.

Quatersawn Stock.jpg

Maintain quartersawn orientation throughout milling process.

Take It Down In Stages

Considering that both materials have different histories and origins, the same principle applies to both. Never mill the material down to the finished dimension right away, take it down in stages, always leaving it oversized. Milling the material open and then letting it relax allows it to acclimate and continue drying in a controlled manner.

Ripping Stock.jpg
Planing Stock.jpg

Ripping down to the final rough stage.Planed but left a little oversized and time for one last rest.

Monitor Progress

If you are dealing with stock such as this, a moisture meter is a necessity.

You will need to know how to use it and how to accurately read the material. I have extra material cut in anticipation of the higher than normal loss rate. As the wood twists, I will use the bad pieces to cut open and measure on the inside.

If you take a moisture reading on the outside it may be extremely low, but keep in mind the meter will only read to a certain depth. If you have the opportunity to cut the wood open and read the inside at the center then you get a more accurate reading and understanding of what is going on inside the wood.

Meter Reading 5.3.jpg

Meter reading 5.3 on outside face of stock.

You should do this to gain experience of using the meter and an understanding of what the numbers really mean.

Be sure to measure different boards in different locations. Remember that the readings will be low on the outside of the board, and if you cut it open, the readings will be highest near the center and lower near the ends even on the inside of the board.

Taking the readings and observing the behavior is the best experience that you can have to understanding the nature of wood.

Meter Reading 8.9.jpg
Meter Reading 9.8.jpg

Meter reading 8.9 on freshly milled face of wood.Meter reading reveals 9.8 in the center of the board freshly milled open.

Don't be desparaged by differences, you are looking for an overall average. But also compare your readings to the individual characteristics of the board. This is valuable information that you will draw upon as you pick lumber in the future.

Mill & Rest

After cutting and planing this stock down to it's final dimension I need to let it rest one more time. This particular project has required more of this than normal. A low moisture content on one side and a high moisture content on the other will lead to a warped board. Letting it acclimate and dry a little more alleviates the problem.

Always sticker the wood to create space between the layers. Also be sure to leave some space on the sides to create as much air flow as possible. Never blow a fan on it to accelerate the drying and acclimation. You will cause the wood to wick out the ends at a much faster rate than the center can give up and this will cause checking on the ends and twisting. The wood does what the wood wants to do in it's own time.

Restacked and Stickered .jpg

Stacked and stickered for what should be the final rest.

Do Not Introduce Too Much Moisture

During the glue up for particularly difficult material, do not use a lot of water to wipe away the glue squeeze out. This will have an adverse affect on the panels. Rely on scraping and sanding off the squeeze out to avoid adding moisture.

Sometimes It Can't Be Stopped

Sometimes you can do all the right things and it still doesn't work out in the end. While this is lost time and labor on one hand, use it as a lesson to understand what went wrong and why.

Sometimes you learn through success and sometimes you learn through failure. Even as a pro, the learning never ends.

warped panels.jpg

Warped panels.

That's all for now. Be sure to check back often to see what's new.

Your friend in the shop - Todd A. Clippinger

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A Shop Tip & A Door Model

Shop Tip

During the construction of a project there is often a need for organizing and storing parts. This is obvously a temporary need because as the work progresses, you construct parts and then assemble them.

I like to use a 4' scaffold as a mobile cart to store and organize the parts that I have made.

Using 4' scaffold as a mobile parts cart.

I bought my scaffold for $99 although I have noticed that the price has risen on them over the last couple of years. It comes with steel platform shelves to stand on and I used plywood to make more shelves. If it is not in use and I need more room, the shelves are removed so it can be folded and put in the storage room.

There are some nice storage carts on the market but I can still use this on a remodeling job as a scaffold. So it serves a dual purpose as it works well in the shop and in the field.

Designing & Project Modeling

I see a lot of discussions online about how to model and when it is appropriate. There are articles that describe a romantic process of applying the formulas for determining proportion, balancing that with artistic expression, and topping it off with a little social sophistication.

I do model work quite frequently for my projects and it is a function that seems rather pedestrian and normal in my shop.

I am currently working on some rustic cabinetry that is being constructed from doug fir beams, these were left over from the construction of a timber frame home (See previous entries to find out more.) I did the drawings in SketchUp and they looked pretty good.

SketchUp detail of cabinet doors.

However, I did have some reservations. One thought was that the rail on the bottom of the upper cabinets looked a little narrow. I also wanted to confirm the placement of the middle rail which separate the upper and lower panels.The best way to confirm the design was to make a full scale model.

The thing to remember with a model, is just that - it is a model. It is not necessary to use the intended or traditional joinery to build it, nor is it necessary to use the actual material. It can be hot glued, super glued (cyanoacrylate), stapled together out of cardboard, styrofoam, or any inexpensive material to create a representation in form.

In this case I used the actual stock because I wanted to see how the material I am using would handle. To date it has been giving me fits that at times just kills me.

For this model, I cut the pieces to the exact width and length so that I could arrange them on the table. This allowed me to see the outside dimension and play with the negative space, that would be where the panels go, by moving the middle rail into a location that "felt" right visually. This confirmed that the best location for it was where I had placed it in the SketchUp drawing.

The real quesion in my mind was about the bottom rail. I was not sure that it actually was wide enough to be properly in balance and proportioned to the overall width and height. There seemed to be no exact answer on this matter, but there was a range of acceptability.

My original drawing started out with a 3 1/2" wide bottom rail.

3 1/2" bottom rail just a bit small.

You will notice in the photo above that there are three more blocks of wood laying next to the door model. By adding each one I could make the rail 4 1/4", 4 1/2". or 5" wide.

The 3 1/2" rail felt narrow so I decided to go to the far end of the range of acceptability. I tried 5 1/2" but that was a bit too wide, so I immediately cut it down to 5" and it seemed that I had hit the other end of the limit pretty good.

5" bottom rail just a bit too big.

After trying all of the sizes I decided that the 4 1/2" bottom rail felt the best. It would also work with the overall plan in consideration of the other cabinets that will be part of the project. Some of the cabinets will go floor to ceiling and they may need a larger bottom rail yet. Everything will need to tie together proportionally.

After getting the layout and component sizes confirmed, I used cyanoacrylate glue to assemble the panel frame pieces. Remember - this is a model, there is no need to use traditional joinery. However, there is value to using the intended joinery if you need to do test runs to understand the handling characteristics of the material.

A quick assembly with cyanoacrylate.

I attached a piece of plywood to the backside and inserted some panel material that was too warped to use in the actual project. I cut the panels to drop into the frame then glued and face nailed it with the brad nailer.

Inset panels are added to the model, they are just glued and face nailed.

Now I have an accurate representation of how the actual panels will look.

I did not need to use the actual material, but I had enough and wanted to test it's handling characteristics. I can also show the clients a picture via email or the actual panel so they can have confirmation of how it will look.

Finished model confirms door proportions.

As you can see, models are quite often a part of the normal design process. Drawings in proportion will reveal a lot of issues with proportion and balance, but sometimes you just need the full mass of the project in front of you to make a final decision. If the project is too large, even a scale model will help.

I hope this helps you understand the function and importance of modeling. It is not just for artsy studio projects, but for common projects like cabinetry as well.

Your friend in the shop - Todd A. Clippinger

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