Monday, February 25, 2013

Building an 18th C. Low Post Rope Bed

For Julia’s birthday, I built her a 18th/19th century low post rope bed. The design is based off of several beds from the era but is scaled up to Queen size. After two nights in a row of 3am scrambling, I got it done just in time for her surprise birthday party. It was my first project involving turning. I quickly realized why spring pole lathes work much better with green wood. Fully dried hardwood is a bear to deal with relying on thigh power alone.

I decided to use poplar lumber. This is was a common secondary and paint grade wood for antiques. It would be perfect for a simple low post bed like this: it’s hard enough for the demands but not too hard to work… and oh, and the price was right. ($2.30 b/f)

After I cut the lumber to rough length, I brought it down to my generous cabinetmaker friend, Basil. He helped me get the stock to dimension for time saving purposes (a real boon when you have a deadline looming!).

After I laid out the mortises and turnings on the four posts, I began to chop out the mortises. I had in the past used forstner bits to drill out the waste followed by a paring chisel to bring it to the edges, but last fall I bought a pigsticker mortising chisel from Tools for Working Wood. This thing is a beauty. Not only is it effective, but it’s really really cool. (Here’s a great video of one in action.)

You begin by chopping in the center and prying out the chips, working your way out and deeper at the same time. The head and foot board mortises were chopped 2” deep. Since the side rails were made to be disassembled with bolts, they were chopped at 1” deep.

Now for the lathe work. I began by taking the edges off with a drawknife. This made roughing a lot faster. The lathe is foot operated. (Here is a more detailed post about it with a video of it in action.) Because this wood was hard dried lumber, my thighs were burning up. And because I am new to turning each post took about 6 hours to turn. I know, I know. That is way slow. I am sure an experienced turner could have finished the whole thing much quicker.

I did find the Underhill pine lathe I built was a tad under built for this intensity of turning. I had a few mishaps and repairs to the lathe along the way.

I laid out the rounded corners and carved them off rather than turning them with the skew chisel. I had zero success at that with all my practice attempts so I opted just to do it at the bench.

I made a scratch stock cutter for the profile on the outer top edge of the rails. I scratched it in before I cut the tenons. I forgot to get pictures of shaping the head board but needless to say it involved a hatchet, spokeshave, and chisel.

For paint, we went bold. We always loved the turquoise / teal historic paints. So we found Cobalt blue milk paint from Real Milk Paint Company in Quakertown, PA. This is a historic formula from the early 1800s. What we hadn’t anticipated was just how vibrant this stuff was. I mean it was electric! (Funny how after it was finished some friends said it seemed peculiar to them that it was such a “modern” color. This definitely reflects the mistaken notion that every fashion before the 1950’s was muted and drab. Oh how wrong that idea is!)

Finished. I first dyed the raw wood with golden brown TransTint dyes to give some age. The first coat of paint was “Slate Blue” followed by the “Cobalt Blue”. After this dried, I rubbed through the edges and dinged, scratched, and dented the bed a bit. This (mis)treatment was followed by brushing shellac and lighting it immediately on fire before it could dry. This creates a wonderfully crazed texture. Then I applied Van Dyke glaze liberally which was finally sealed in with another flaming shellac treatment.

Because I didn’t feel up to constantly fiddling with tightening the ropes to support our mattress, I decided to install angle iron on the inside of the rails and lay in some ¾” cdx. For the rope strung look, I wove the rope in and out of the rails and nailed it inside at the ends of each individual rail. This is a very handy way to make a maintenance free rope bed.

The foot and head of the bed is drawbored and hide glued in place while the side rails are attached with large Timber Tite screws. Being able to knock down the bed makes transporting it a lot easier.

For the final touches, I printed my 18th century style label, distressed it and dated it. I always attach this on the back with hide glue.