Big Green Egg Table
Building this table for the Big Green Egg is chronicled in these posts as I was working on it, or it’s also quick-pasted below:
You know, while I’m at it making excuses for not woodworking over the past 6 months, let me throw one more onto the heap: picking up an old project, mid-build, is demotivating. Mainly because you have to take some time to figure out what exactly it was that you were trying to do.
Do you know what is motivating? Starting a new project (maybe that’s why so many woodworkers have about 5 projects going at any given time).
About a month ago, I bought this grill/smoker called the Big Green Egg. Like an egg, it’s inherently unstable so you need to have a cradle for it to nest in. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with one and I do get a little nervous in using the grill in fear that it may tip over when I open the top up. What to do, what to do… so the company sells a table to provide it stability:
Let’s see what $1150 (that’s about what £750 comes out to) will get you: a
royal “fake” mahogany table that is “uniquely grained” in which you have to assemble with screws and bolts. Now, I’m not downplaying Andiroba (aka, Royal Mahogany), but it is an economical substitute to Mahogany, making it a somewhat misleading name. In fact, let’s call Cubic Zirconia “Royal Diamond” instead… I digress. But for a price-point of over $1000 for a simple bolt-together outdoor table, I would fully expect it to be made of solid Mahogany! You can keep your table, Big Green Egg; I’ll build my own.
From the Wood Fair I attended on Monday, I went to the wood supplier (“timber supplier”, they call it in Britain) that was recommended (2 minutes down the road!) and I was very pleasantly surprised. He specializes in Elm, Yew (which is also a very beautiful wood), and Oak (meh…). If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that I have a love affair with Elm. It was also interesting to note that he supplies boards to Hearne Hardwoods over in the States (which I’ve drooled over while surfing the web). He showed me a burl Elm log, cut into boards, while I was gathering wood for this build; I’m very intent on buying it at some point for $1600… (for ten 8/4 10’x15″ burred elm?!?! That’s a steal! That could make a matching dining-room set of 6-8 chairs, if not more!). Again, I digress…
The detoured Plan:
Build a simple outdoor table to hold my grill (to prevent it from tipping) using bomb-proof joinery. I don’t care if it has flaws or what type of wood it’s made of (so long as it’s strong)… and it’s a requirement to keep the price under $1000 (otherwise I might as well just get ripped off by Big Green Egg with their table).
Above is all the wood I need to build this: 3″x3″ Elm posts (for legs), an 8/4 Oak slab (cut in half for book-matching) for the table top, and a few 4/4 7’x6″ Oak boards for my rails/skirts and shelving planks. Of course, the dimensions of the design will change slightly to conform to the wood that I bought (example: 3″x3″ legs instead of 4″x4″ legs, or a table that’s 28″x57″ instead of 31″x57″), but every woodworking project usually goes through this same evolution. The “musts” that I cannot bend on: 1) that it holds my 21″-diameter grill, 2) that the table is flat, and 3) that its joinery is solid. That’s it. The cost of this wood? $225. It sure beats $1150.
The purpose behind the plan:
Other than gaining a table for the grill, I want to get my hands re-acquainted with joinery on something that’s a few steps down from “furniture grade,” yet something practical that I can still use (I’m not a fan of doing joinery on scrap just for the sake of practicing joinery…). Let’s face it, this will be an outdoor table prone to weather and its effects, so the joints don’t need to look good, but they do need to be tight. This should leave a little leeway for errors should I happen to make one or two. Bottom line: I get an opportunity at practicing a few more through-mortises with corresponding tenons before I continue my furniture builds of a living room table and a woodshop toolchest.
Talk is cheap, let’s get building.
I remember when I made the jump from pre-cut Home Depot Oak to rough-cut stock… half your time for the project is spent squaring the rough-cut stock down to the final sizes! But the pre-cut Home Depot stuff is so limiting, boring and uniform. I found that the effort spent starting from a rough-cut board and working from ground up was well worth the extra time because I could venture into a myriad of other woods and grain patterns besides “Oak.”
In Italy, I used a full-up industrial woodshop where I would buy my stock and dimension it. Planers, table saws and belt sanders, oh my… And it still took a full day’s work (if not two) to get everything cleaned off, squared, dimensioned, and ready for joinery. Joinery will always be my favorite aspect of woodworking, but honing the rough stock has its own fun. In fact, it’s almost like unwrapping a Christmas present: you never truly know the beauty of the grain underneath until you start unwrapping it by planing the layers away.
Here in Britain, I have only me and my hand planes. That’s it. When it comes to dimensioning the stock, it’s daunting.
Using the power machines in the Italy shop gave me peace of mind: I knew after I ran it through the machines that everything was square, exacting, and perfect. By hand, I have to make compromises (in part, because I’m somewhat impatient). It’d take me an entire day to gnat’s ass just one board to square and exacting. I personally want to build and join, not fiddle around with a straightedge and micrometer for days on end. Instead, I find myself asking “what truly needs to be flat?” and “what truly needs to be square?” If it needs to be flat and square, then I’ll take the extra time to make it exacting. Otherwise, there’s a point when “good enough” is truly good enough (though it still lacks that peace-of-mind perfection I like to have).
So here’s the 4-hour montage of readying just one board for joinery (the upper rails & stretchers). They will ultimately be tenoned on both ends into the legs of the grill table.
The outdoor grill table I’m taking on is my case in point. The rails and stretchers need to be relatively straight boards, but they absolutely need to be straight and square where they will butt up against the tabletop as well as tenon into the legs. The other surfaces? Well, who cares really. They won’t affect the structural soundness at all, and I don’t think they will affect how it looks either.
That took about 5 hours today. I’m sure things will speed up as I go. Regardless of by power or by hand, dimensioning and squaring still remain time sucking processes. I couldn’t help but think that if only I had the use of that industrial power shop in Italy, I’d have all the boards dimensioned and squared today. Alas, I do not… but I will have the pride that this project will be made purely without electricity.
The next day or three: dimensioning the Elm legs that are caked in bird shit…
With dimensioning complete, I gained a golden nugget of wisdom: cut first, plane later. It saves you planing work. Now onto the joinery.
Perhaps I’m repeating myself from previous posts, but one of the reasons I find doing things by hand so attractive is that it gives you the ability to stray from accuracy yet still be extremely precise (thereby, freeing you from the shackles of numbers). What do I mean by this? I don’t have to create some jig to to find a point exactly 28.5″ up the leg to drill out a mortise exactly ½” wide by 3″ long. So without the numbers, how do you tackle the problem of cutting uniform mortises across four table legs? Here’s what I came up with:
I set the legs in their positions and determine which faces I want to be visible on the outside. Once determined, I mark and rotate them 180° out and clamp (or rubberband) them together. Now every face I see should contain a mortise (yet to be cut). With a square, I marked around the outside circumference treating the four legs as one. These marks will determine the length stops of my mortises:
The last cog prior to actioning the mortise is figuring out the wall. I eyeball it. In my case, I want the rails and stretchers to bias the outside of the table, so I find a depth that looks “good enough” for me, set my depth/wall gauge (which in this case, is a little Starrett square), and draw my pencil line to it:
With measurements complete, anchor your piece down (I use 2 holdfasts) and start chopping. How do you know what the other wall will be? I’m using a ½” mortise chisel, so my walls will be ½” wide (and all I really care about is the near wall I marked). When I saw the tenons, my ½” mortise chisel will also become the star performer in measuring those out (but that’s for the next post).
Mortises are always chopped perpendicular to the grain. Start about 1/8″ from one stop (with the bevel away from the stop) and start chopping. Make your way down until you’re about 1/8″ from the other stop (1), then reverse your bevel and start flowing the other way (2). Keep doing this until you reach the depth that you want for the mortise and tenon.
Once I reached my depth, I intend on foxing these bad johnnies, so you make your final chops to the line of each stop (3), at an angle to create a dovetail-like crevasse (4):
I usually stop twice during each “flow direction” to vacuum out the waste, which does kill a little time. When I was on my 16th and final mortise, I had this process down to about 15 minutes (from probably about 45 minutes) per mortise. Though this isn’t my first time chopping mortises, I mainly learned my method by watching Roy Underhill; look around the 18-minute mark.
Next up: foxing the tenons and assembling the fortress.
And for the last lesson learned: I have a garage-born workshop. Unless it’s really cold outside, the garage door stays open. Unfortunately, this leaves a way in for visitors. I also like to milk a tasty beverage while I work . Since I’m in Britain, I’ve found a 2.7% abv ale that fits this role nicely (albeit, I’m sure one can make an argument against this during “Woodshop Safety Week/Day” or the like). Unfortunately I get 2 or 3 thirsty visitors an hour (perhaps I should open a pub?).
The German’s are so smart…
I tend to look at the mortise and tenon like ye olde code of chivalry: ladies first. Even in a practical light, mortises are the “female adaptor” while tenons are the “male adaptor” of the joinery… so this analogy works out better than I initially thought. In my limited experience, I’ve found it is far easier to chop out mortises first and later make the tenons to fit: “Ladies first.” Of course, you know that “always” and “never” contain a corollary.. mine is that when you’re doing a table-top-exposed-tenon, it’s the male that’s exhibitioning in that case: so I guess it’s “men first.” But enough playful banter…
Let me preface everything: I am by no means a Master or have major handtool experience to back up what I’m doing. I simply do (and try to gain experience while I’m at it), getting the ideas from other’s blogs or from a book/DVD. For now, I blog about what works for me in hopes that someone else will find it useful or perhaps step over the potholes I’ve stepped in…
With mortises finished, it’s on to the tenons. Prior to sawing anything, I’ve found that making a “gutter cut” is extremely useful… Chris Schwarz calls these 2nd and 1st Class Saw Cuts (there’s also more useful info in that link, like an easy way of squaring a saw cut using reflections). I like to think of these “class” cuts as chiseled-out gutters to put my saw blade into (so it doesn’t hop all around as I try to start the cut). Do it; it will be your best friend…
So I suppose anyone (like myself) can cut a tenon with enough patience and time. But what I’ve enjoyed with handtools is the ability to cut sooner (and quieter) than I would with some machine; gone are the days where I fiddle with machines and scrap for a full day to mathematically measure out the perfect cut and trial it on multiple pieces. Every joint is custom fit, and here is the most efficient way I’ve found to do this sans numbers (by using the width of your mortise chisel as your primary measurement):
***A word of caution with this technique: treat that mortise chisel like a loaded gun. Handle it positively and deliberately and ensure the path from it to the the ground is clear if you decide to measure in the vertical (like the 6th picture, where the blade is resting on the shoulder for stability). Otherwise, I measured everything else horizontally on the workbench. The initial three pictures are taken next to the mortise for ease of understanding; I had positive 2-hand control of the chisel for “picture taking.” But I actually made the mark using my workbench (below): the chisel rested horizontally on the workbench while I pushed my rail into it to mark the measurements with greater safety and stability (rather than holding the chisel in the air with one hand while marking with the other):
I’ve done 12 of the 16 so far… this method averages about 30 minutes per tenon (including the measuring) working at a leisurely pace. Tomorrow’s project will be fine-tuning the fit and converting all 16 of the tenons to the foxed variety. More to follow…
Tenon scrap yields the perfect material to make fox wedges. It’s already more or less sized, length-wise and width-wise, to fit right into the tenon.
Since I’ve never done this before, I watched Kari Hultman’s video (explaining the fox wedged tenon) one last time to keep the confidence high. For the past few days, I’ve thought and thought and thought: how the hell am I going to make a small wedge safely?! Use a saw? That just strikes me like trying to kill a fly with a club. Use a plane? How the hell am I going to secure the wedge blank to plane it to a wedge? Then it occurred to me: how ’bout the simple chisel?
I initially chopped/split the blanks out in the vertical (as shown above), but this got a little precarious as the scrap stock got shorter and shorter. I found that splitting out the blanks from the scrap was far easier in the horizontal, just like the second picture above with how I shaped them.
I deviated from Kari’s video in two ways: my mortises were dovetail-shaped to account for the splayed tenon due to the wedge, and my wedges are slightly shorter than the tenons; I just don’t understand why you would want a wedge that is longer than the tenon? I just foresee this causing problems while trying to knock the tenon into the mortise.
Prepping the tenons went quickly. No lines; just free-hand saw work where you drill at the stop of your cut:
For ease of putting together, I lightly seated each wedge into the tenon cuts with a few gentle taps of the mallet. If I didn’t, the wedges had a tendency to fall out as I was lining the tenon up with the mortise; this was especially true on my final alignment where I was lining up four tenons simultaneously to connect the right side of the table base to the left.
Here you can see that it works… if you look close enough (probably on the expanded picture), you can see the wedges hammered home (I highlighted in green just for below), splaying the tenon and forever (hopefully) locking it into place:
I have to admit, my original intent was to do this all without glue, but I did have one tenon that seemed slightly loose as I was dry-fitting prior to wedging it all up. I ended up using glue as an added precaution.
After allowing it to dry overnight, I’m left with this:
An immoveable fortress… exactly what I set out to build for outdoor use. I know, it looks a little off from square in the picture, but I think it’s the super-wide lense I used that’s fish-eyeing it a little bit. It all matches up with about 1/8″ variation from left to right.
Next up: the dilemma of the top. It’s huge and undimensioned so far…
The table top. I’m looking for thoughts should anyone offer them up…
So on paper, I drew up this outdoor table to hold my grill. I purposefully used the same joinery techniques that I’m using for my indoor living room table (yet to be finished); practice the through tenons to attach the tabletop on an outdoor piece prior to doing it on the real thing (the indoor piece).
The goal of this project (from its inception): Build a simple outdoor table to hold my grill (to prevent it from tipping) using bomb-proof joinery. I don’t care if it has flaws or what type of wood it’s made of (so long as it’s strong)… and it’s a requirement to keep the price under $1000. Furthermore, I don’t necessarily care if the top is flat, so long as it holds my beer while I cook. Lastly, the lifespan of the table is the lifespan of the grill; once I get rid of the grill, I’ll have no use for a table with a big hole in the top. I put the lifespan in the 15-20 year timeframe.
So I have a co-worker that spent 3 months (three!!!) apprenticing under David Charlesworth, and it took a point-out from him to catch a major flaw that I completely missed in the designing of the table. Take a look:
Wood moves. Once he pointed that out, I looked it up: with seasonal movement, the front-to-back portion of the table top will contract and expand up to ¼” either direction (maybe even more). Over time (maybe a year, maybe ten years), the tabletop will either crack, warp, or pull the upper fox-wedged tenons slightly out of their socket, weakening the joint. Fortunately, the living room table I designed this thing after (at right) has a different top (it’s not one solid piece of wood) that allows through-tenons to secure the table top into place without the worry of movement.
What to do, what to do…
Here are the facts:
- the white oak top has been sitting outside, air drying, for a few years. I’m pretty sure it’s acclimated to the moisture content where I live now. So for now, this should minimize the movement. (Who’s to say when I move in a few years how much the moisture content of the new location will affect it)
- I plan on applying some type of liberal finish on the top to slow the movement down. I know, I know; I can’t stop it… but maybe slowing it has the potential to prolong against any catastrophic failures?
So what do I do? Here are the options I can think of:
- Build to fail (I guess this is the best way to put it): proceed as planned knowing that the top will warp or weaken the upper joints that oppose the grain movement. Like I said, this is an outdoor table whose lifespan will be that of the grill. Again, it just has to be flat enough to hold a beer successfully while grilling. I guess this way I can see wood movement in action (kinda like the experiments Brian was running over at Toolerable) and learn through failure to not plan like that again.
- Cut off the tenons that protrude from the base and find a movement-safe way to attach the top to the base. Things I’ve seen are wooden “buttons” or metal figure-8 braces. I hate to say it though: I really kinda liked the way through-tenons looked, and part of the reason I designed it that way was to give it a shot on the outdoor table before I do it on the indoor table (practice, if you will).
- Rip the top down the center (where I initially book-matched it together!!) and attach it to the base as 2 pieces, still using the the four through-tenons as points of attachment. It will allow the top to expand and contract towards the middle of the table. A lift grip centered on the sides of the table will obviously lift the tabletop from the base and stress the through-tenons. Therefore, any lifting must be done via the front and back of the table (rather than the sides). I dunno if I like the idea (visually) of having it split down the middle.
My co-worker did offer up that it can be ripped at an angle to attempt to hide the gap somewhat:
I’d be curious to hear what anyone has to say on how I should proceed… especially if you’ve had experience or horror stories with wood movement…
I had every intention of joining Brian (over at Toolerable) and Jonas (over at Mulesaw) this weekend in Denmark for the Great Welsh Stick Chair Extravaganza. It must’ve been a rough week at work for me when I bought the airline tickets… after traveling about 3 hours on Friday to the airport and 10 minutes of utter confusion, I realized that I had purchased tickets to depart on Saturday and not Friday. My return flight was at 6am on Monday morning, meaning I’d only have a 24-hour stay to woodwork in Denmark running on almost no sleep. That didn’t pass my common-sense factor, so regretfully I ate the ticket cost and found my way back home. About the time I would’ve arrived on Jonas’ doorstep, I pulled into my own driveway and bee-lined for bed. An expensive oversight indeed.
Since the original plan was to dedicate this past weekend to woodworking (via a Welsh stick chair), I wasn’t ready to let my bone-headed mistake get the best of me. I still dedicated the weekend to woodworking, but rather than coming home with camaraderie and a Welsh stick chair, I was able to knock off an unfinished project from my to-do list: the Big Green Egg Table.
From the last Egg-table post (almost a year ago!!), I was stuck on how to attach the table top to the base. I was left with a few options (see here). In the end, I decided that the best way to accommodate the seasonal wood movement was to mortise and tenon the front of the top to the frame and use buttons to attach the back to account for the movement. The thought crossed my mind to install fake tenons in the back to make everything look symmetrical, but I didn’t feel like doing the extra work. After all, this is an outdoor table that will get beaten up by weather, heat, and food drippings.
I ended up mortising the front of the top. No rulers; it consisted of turning the entire table and framing upside-down and marking where the tenons rested. From there I flipped the table up and, using dividers and straight edges, marked out the tenon locations on the top (based off what was marked on the bottom). Since I was doing two mortises on the top which would require alignment, I start mortising from the bottom of the table at an angle that would get narrower (1), and broke through to the top (which kinda gave me a “how am I doing” with my measurement transfer). I had to take care of blowout to the top surface, since it’s truly the top of the mortise that everyone sees. If there was any question, I stopped short with the chisel and drilled a small hole through the remaining. I then flipped the table top right-side up and checked the fit against the base. So far, so good… then I just did the same from the top, taking a little extra care not to stray from my marked-out area (2). I know there are opinions that critique adding a little bit of a slope to handle a wedge in the tenon, but that’s what I did… only on the walls of the mortise (left and right in the picture below) that would be affected by the wedge-spread. Good or bad, the two joints turned out relatively gapless and are indestructible when I lifted from the table top: tight mortise and tenon joints indeed. Mission accomplished. On a side note, I have a table that requires one of those on all four corners… I sweated enough to line two up, four is gonna be a nightmare! But at least I know now that I can do two.
On the back of the table top, I used chisel and router plane to groove out two trenches on the inside frame to allow for seasonal movement. The buttons were made from scrap and clamped down with a screw.
You’ll notice that there’s a slight gap between the top and the base. Obviously, the top isn’t dead flat; there was a conscious decision on my part to ignore this. Side-tracking to get the top dead flat would’ve added hours upon hours of extra time invested (keep in mind, I’m doing this entire thing by hand). Anyway, I’m holding to my stated goal: if my beer doesn’t tip over when I set it down to open the grill, then it’s flat. Guess what? It’s flat.
The design was to go for a rustic look as well. On the table top, I used a scrub plane (a nicely curved blade) to take out the major warps, but also stopped there and used sand paper to smooth rather than continuing on with a jointer or smoothing plane. It left the surface feeling bumpy and used, like the surface of old monastery floorboards. To complete the rustic look, I used Tremont decorative nails to nail the shelf boards down (using small hand-drilled pilot holes to prevent splitting).
The other dilemma I lost sleep over (the first being how to attach the top) was what finish to use for outdoor use. My brother-in-law sent me a book on finishing, and from reading it I was set on using marine-grade spar varnish. This is one of those “combine A and B, hack your watch, and paint it on” finishes… I’ve never done this and was a little apprehensive. I found myself complaining about this to a carpenter that frequents my local pub. His reply? “If you’re comfortable with oil, then just use oil!” His arguments made sense: marine varnish would make it look like plastic (which I didn’t want), and I had a cover for the table to protect it from the majority of the elements. Just keep up on the periodic application of oil and it should last just fine, he said. So back to “old faithful” I ran: Boiled Linseed Oil. A few coatings of that and I have a great grilling table:
This marks my first major project done, cradle to grave, entirely without electricity (except for cleaning up shavings and sawdust with my shop vac). Ok, so it sucks that it took a year to finish and that winter is around the corner for its use, but better late than never I guess. Though I don’t have a nice Elm chair to showcase, at least my mistake got something accomplished.