Interview Series, Tom Baker
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A Conversation with Tom Baker

Tom Baker Pedestal Table

Every now and then I run across woodworking that is very creative and should be shared. Today, I am starting a series at woodfever.net where I highlight the work of woodworkers who are doing work I wish I were doing. These conversations will likely be sporadic in frequency, but something that I will definately continue doing as time permits. Enjoy.

I am currently working on the renovation of my front porch. This project includes replacing the newel post, which is commonly ornate in some way. I wondered if I could do something with my table saw to add some decoration to it.

About that time, I ran across a dining table on Lumberjocks.com; it had an unusual pedestal design. I instantly took interest in this table and wondered if I could create some relief cuts in my newel post like the builder did with his pedestals.

After closer inspection, I found the table had several creative design ideas and I really wanted to find out more about it. I asked the builder, Tom Baker, if I could do an informal interview and after several email exchanges, our conversation is shown below…

Tell us a little about your woodworking in general. Do you work on commissions, or are your projects mostly for around the house?

No commissions, woodworking has remained a hobby for me. Actually, I prefer this, no schedules or deadlines, just work at my leisure, with the only concern being what I think of the finished product, and I think I’m harder on myself than a paying customer would be. I have plenty of customers though, all are family members, and grandchildren get preferential treatment.

Tom BakerI started woodworking in 2003, for two reasons; a stress relief from work, and a need for a specialized cabinet in our game room, one that we could not find anywhere in the marketplace.

I prefer hand tools, but will use power if I have the power tool, and really feel like using it in lieu of a hand tool option. This happens when I’m in the mood for the easy way out, such as using my Delta 13” planer instead of my hand planes. The hand tools are what prompted my interest in woodworking though, from the articles in the magazines about tools such as spokes haves, hand planes, scrapers, scratch stocks, and especially the old wooden molding planes.

All my hand tools came from flea markets and antique shops; I was always on the lookout for these as I traveled for business. The only new hand tool I’ve purchased is a 9” Record Smoothing plane, No. 4. It was the first real hand tool I bought.

What is your shop like?

My “shop” is a one car integral garage. Not much room for a lot of big power tools, but plenty of room for working wood with hand tools. The single largest project I’ve undertaken was the pedestal table I posted on Lumberjocks. There were times when I had to move my work bench, then some tools, just to manipulate the table components so I could work on them.

I don’t think I’ll be going into another shop, although I’ve thought about it. Right now, when I feel like doing woodworking, I just go to the garage and do so, regardless of the weather, or the time of day. Besides, I just retired last year, so I’m not looking for any full time commitments, like a business. I spend a lot of my time with our four grandchildren; woodworking really comes second.

Tom Baker Shop

Who has influenced your work and why?

All the contributors to the available magazines, but if selecting one, I would have to say Glenn Huey. I like to make furniture most of all, something my “customers” can keep for a life time, and I really like the furniture Mr. Huey makes, the early period furniture. I have all his books, and I’d like to make one of everything he’s put in them.

I’m also very interested in Shaker style furniture, some of which he’s done, as well as Kerry Pierce, who mainly does Shaker.

What kinds of projects do you like to build? For example, do you tend to create tables more than other types of furniture?

Up until now, the type of furniture I’ve made is what is or was needed by my “customers”. I’ve made desks for two of my four grandchildren, a rustic dining room table for my son, a step back hutch for my wife, a game table for another son, etc.

As long as these customers continue to request something I’ve not done before, that’ll work for me. I like the challenges of something new to me, like figuring out how to do the pedestals on the LJs shown table. If the project looks like it will allow me to use most of my hand tools, the spoke shaves, the scrapers, etc., I’m all in.

A project I have been toying with is a new dining table. I was very impressed with the table you made for your son which you shared at Lumberjocks.com. The pedestal design is pretty unique and I thought very creative. How did the design come about and was it difficult to create?

The design of that table was my son’s request from pictures of furniture he was looking at. He recently moved into a new home and is in the process of furnishing it. His taste in woodwork is towards the rustic, handmade, early American type of style.

Tom Baker Table Pedestal

He purchased several living room pieces advertised as being made from 100 year old reclaimed pine from old factories in England. The finish on these was either minimal, or nonexistent. The surface is rough, just like it came out of the factory, except with sufficient sanding to remove any possible splinter material.

The pedestal table I made him was very similar to three examples he showed me from three separate catalogs that offered what he wanted. “Can you do that?” was how it started, and I said most probably, as I’m always up for a good woodworking challenge.

The pine I used wasn’t reclaimed, so I made it look that way. Rough cut from the sawmill, I surfaced it on four sides so as to remove any warp or cup, etc., then I resurfaced the table with a wooden coffin shaped smoothing plane that I sharpened to have a cambered blade.

I use old traditional “buttons” to secure the top to the legs, and the feet and pedestal cross members are mortised and pegged. I made one inch cherry pegs for this, for a chance to use my draw knife.

The pedestals were easier than I originally thought, but I did lean as I went. The second one was done differently than the first. If I do another, I have already determined a better approach to do it.

Pedestal During Construction

Since your designed was inspired by photos, how did you transform what you saw into a project plan?

Generally, if I am working from an example photograph, I use a draftsman’s scale, which is simply a conversion ratio of inches to feet. But for this table, the procedure was to first determine maximum table size for the room, then set the trestle legs positions for comfortable end seating. For the leg design, I was using 6/4 pine, so I estimated by making a 4″ square leg and glueing two layers of this material around it, I would have close to an 8″ square. This was very close to the catalog picture dimensions when scaling the leg width against the table height, a typical 30″.

Once I determined dimensions, I made a full scale leg drawing on heavy cardboard to use as a pattern, the lines of which are visible in some of the photos. I don’t use sketch-up or any other CAD software, but I do sometimes make scaled drawings, really more like sketches, for assistance in construction.

The table top retains hand plane tracks which imparts a very rustic look. Had you seen that kind of treatment before? How did the look come about?

I used the coffin smoother. This was one of the many techniques I read about in woodworking magazines, with descriptions of how to camber a blade. This provides the early American country look that also shows “handmade”.

Tom Baker Hand Planed Table Top

Not only does the table have an old world look to it, but the joinery is very traditional. Do you use old world joinery often (mortise and tenons with pegs) or do you use some of the trendy modern techniques (pocket screws, dominos) to join wood?

I try to use only traditional joinery, mortise and tenon, pegs for strength, the wooden buttons for table tops, etc. I don’t own any pocket hole jigs, or a biscuit slot cutter, or a domino machine.

My interest in woodworking was through the magazine descriptions of the “old ways”, which I wanted to try, and I keep doing it that way. Besides, I think it provides a bit of beauty to the furniture, and reflects handmade craftsmanship. I don’t have anything against the other methods, just my preference for work.

This table is made from pine which can be hard to stain. What was your finishing process like?

I learned early that the real beauty of wood is the natural color, especially cherry. However, if I need to add color, I use an alcohol based dye. The dye doesn’t blotch, at least it hasn’t for me, and it dries very quickly.

Tom Baker Table Close-up

I wipe it on with folded cheese cloth. I prefer to leave cherry wood to age naturally, but with a couple of small curly maple tables I made, I simply finished with amber shellac. This gave a warm amber color, and amplified the curl in the wood. If a piece needs additional protection, I use a wiping varnish, which also accents the wood itself, and provides a hand rubbed oil look.

What are you working on now and what is down the road for you?

Currently, I’m making my wife a chest on chest for use as a spare bedroom dresser. It’ll have four drawers on the bottom, double doors on the top, and the step back large enough to allow her to display pictures and some kind of craftwork paraphernalia on it. After that, a formal dining table has been requested by my daughter-in-law.

Where do you hang out online? Do you have a website or blog?

I watch several good woodworking blogs, like the ones associated with the Lumberjocks; Woodworking for Mere Mortals, Wood Whisperer, and the many videos by the LJs members (see Tom’s Lumberjocks page here).

I especially like the Logan Cabinet Shoppe with very nice tutorials on the old ways, and the Woodwright’s Shop on the public television web site.

I don’t have a blog or web site, since retiring I’ve started to stray away from technology, except for viewing.

______________________________________________

My thanks to Tom for being so willing to be interviewed. A few things I found interesting from our conversation: First, I am also a fan of Glenn Huey (see Glenn’s blog here). I highly recommend Glenn’s book, Fine Furniture for a Lifetime which was recently rated a must have by Popular Woodworking magazine.

Tom and I have a shared interest in the Logan Cabinet Shoppe. I recently watched Bob Rozaieski working on a ball and claw foot making the process less intimidating for me and something I may try to do myself (visit Logan Cabinet Shop here).

Also, Tom’s method for coloring pine is interesting. I once used a water based dye but did not like the color. I’ll have to give dye another try this time using alcohol.

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