When you examine the furniture record in person, you find almost endless examples of pieces of furniture that disobey the rules of wood movement – and yet have survived just fine.
I’m not here to tell you that wood movement does not exist – it does. But I think it’s important to know that you can get away with many minor sins without your furniture tearing itself apart. And the more furniture you study, the bigger the sins you can commit.
This week I got to study a table in Holland that definitely needs some time in the confessional booth. This chopping bench – used for cutting food to size in a kitchen – violates the cardinal rule of cross-grain construction. Yet it is still completely sound and ready for another 100 years of dismemberments.
What’s the sin? If it’s not obvious from the photos, the legs’ tenons pass through dovetailed battens and the benchtop. The benchtop and battens are oriented 90° to each other, and the top is about 22”-24” wide. The top should have split a little (or a lot). But the top is fine – just a little warped.
I have no idea how old the bench is. It has some fairly consistent machine marks on it that suggest it was made in the early 20th century. But this form is old. The earliest illustrated example I know of is from the 11th-century “Tacuinum Sanitatis.” And it can look quite modern – the form was the foundation for the staked worktable in “The Anarchist’s Design Book.”
The cross-grain construction used in this table is also found on thousands (millions?) of Brettstuhl, which are still made today. During the last week I’ve seen at least 100 of these suckers, and none have split.
This particular chopping bench is so charming that I hope to build one just like it for our newish kitchen. I have wanted to build a table for the center of the room, but a typical dining table would be too big. A chopping bench is just the right size for dumping our grocery bags, serving meals to family members and <insert joke about dismembering cats then retract it>.
And thanks to this particular table in Holland, I am ready for some serious sinning.
— Christopher Schwarz
37 thoughts on “The Sinners’ Chopping Bench”
Love your work!
Having worked as a furniture restore/conservator for about 30 years my opinion is that much of the reason the rule breaker pieces survive is that they had many years to slowly resolve their issues. The older pieces didn’t have to go through that first year of being built then experiencing extreme low/high humidity. Nails had time to loosen up, wood time to compress, and glue time to creep.
There be dragons!
While that is a common explanation, the other side of the coin is that kiln-dried wood doesn’t move as much as air-dried wood.
The snarky explanation I give students is that these pieces were built before wood movement was invented.
I love the look of that chopping bench!
Since you seem to want to reproduce its sinful construction: Is there a material benefit to mortising the legs through both the battens and the top? Even for an actual chopping bench it seems like overkill given how thick the battens are.
By tenoning the legs through the batten and the top, it prevents the batten from ever sliding out of its dovetailed housing. That is a real risk that I experienced when building prototypes for the design book.
One leg tenon for each batten also penetrating the tabletop would have the same effect of preventing the batten from sliding out without committing this particular sin…but it would commit the sin of asymmetry. 😉
Just add a woodsmith-style fake through-tenon on the other side 😉
Many times symmetry is a sin. It is not unpleasant most of the time but many times the space on each side of something in the middle is too small, while using something like the golden ratio is at the same time pleasant and efficient.
Lacking the leg tenons, the battens could be pinned in the middle with a single dowel or a lag bolt 🙂
If the bench is about 24″ wide, there is only about 8″ between the top of the legs, which is low risk (not to speak about the constraining effect of the dovetailed battens if the slab was dry at assembly time).
In the shop that trained me, they never went even to 6″ in cross-grain constructions without building in some sort of flexibility to the construction. And the maple is 100-percent flatsawn in the middle – very volatile.
Every shop is different, but this is a sin in my world.
6″ is also what Paul Sellers says.
What are the rough dimensions? I’m having a hard time imagining its use. Is this something you’d stand behind or straddle to use? The proportions make it look like a low bench, but maybe that’s an optical illusion.
It’s about 30″ tall, 24″ wide, 6′ long.
Ah, it really is an optical illusion. It must be the thickness of the materials that makes it appear proportionally smaller, to my eyes at least.
I’m kinda new at this. If the top moves, it’ll be across the direction of the battens. If the legs go through both, and the top moves, then the battens will have to move to allow for the expansion (that’s transferred from the legs being forced to move). But that shouldn’t happen as the wood of the battens won’t expand along its grain direction. No?
Well Peter, the problem with the available pics is we only see the top. These are obviously wedged tenons so those aren’t moving. What we can’t see is the bottom and if the battens have any wiggle room. The top can move independently of the battens thanks to the sliding dovetail. As mentioned, it looks to be about 8” or so between legs at the top. Pop in oak into a shrinkage calculator, oak can move 3/32” over 8” from 8-10% MC, so if the battens holes have 1/16” of play in them than that would allow the variable splay in this particular scenario.
Y’all are overthinking this.
We could point to planes and then conclude that maybe sometimes we make too big of a deal of gravity. However, that would be a bit…’odd’.
I still think that wood movement exists and should always be considered (and even calculated if necessary!) in the design of wooden objects. Pointing to some random examples of existing wooden objects that have happened to not fall apart yet isn’t going to convince me otherwise.
I think the post speaks for itself. Look at hundreds (thousands) of examples in museums, barns and antique stores. The furniture record is far more important than the formulas.
I agree that it’s useful to see how people did things in the past.
Do you have a record of the furniture that did not survive…possibly because it fell to pieces in a few years? I don’t. That’s like pointing to old buildings still standing and saying it proves older construction methods were better. Maybe, or maybe 99.9999% of the buildings made that way are nowhere to be found because they fell down centuries ago.
My point is merely that we should be cautious about chucking away tried and true methods that work well just because we may have some examples of instances that contradict current common woodworking practices. Lastly, I should make clear that ultimately I don’t care how anyone makes their furniture. I do however recognize a potential sampling bias when I see one.
I love a sampling bias. This particular form survived thousands of times, and they are all made in the same way – cross-battens, thin seat, through-tenons. I suggest that you don’t imitate the ones that didn’t survive. Imitate only the ones that did. That’s the point.
I do believe in science. I just also think it can focus on the wrong things. It can paralyze beginners. It can over-complicate things unnecessarily.
Feel free to have the last word because I’m done.
‘I suggest that you don’t imitate the ones that didn’t survive.’
Maybe the feature was “seasonally adjustable leg splay”? There is more splay in the summer for heavier duty chopping? Looks like a good table for choppin broccoli
This was also my thought. It doesn’t seem like it would take too much wood compression between the three pieces of wood to have this dealt with by changes in splay, but maybe that’s wrong too.
I just pictured a bunch of tables and chairs gleefully jumping about by means of changing their leg splay. But yes, I would think the changing splay is why this works
The first table I ever built (after wood movement was invented but before I knew about it – long before internet) had a seasonally adjustable solid wood surround around the oak plywood top. About half the year the wrap would line up and the other half there would be a gap. When guests asked about it I just told them it was because it was real wood, and not flat pack junk.
Don’t worry, brother. I got your joke.
Chopin would be proud!
And not to forget Moravian stools!
So you were in Holland! Did you have time to see any collegues and where was this auction?
Well, it could be the perfect spot for the cats to watch you from, whether you were dismembering anything or not. I’d have to establish a clear rule about whether it was a cat surface or not, or mine would quickly adopt it in addition to the kitty condo she already has in the kitchen.
The top of the table is relatively thick(2”?).
Thick wood tends to dry slowly, particularly dense woods like maple, if that’s what the top is made from.
Maple also has a relatively fine grain, which can take dings and divots without splintering, particularly when damp.
If all the table parts were assembled while still sort of green, the parts would compress and bend as the table dried, preventing splitting, particularly since much of the compression and twisting would happen towards the center of the top and batten, were the wood would have remained with the highest moisture content.
Maple in my experience can have a rather dry surface, while the core still has a much higher moisture content.
If the joint were cut in two, I would not be surprised if there was twisting and compression similar to the picture of the pegged joint in the relatively recent post for ‘Make a Joint Stool from a Tree’.
I’m curious about the height. Is 30 inches useful for your kitchen? It’s too high to sit on while you work, and seems too low for most of us, as a work table. It would have been a good height to sit in front of.
Is the height just a function of how tall people were in days of yore? Or did it start at 36 inches and someone just had trouble leveling it . . .
You’re not thinking of the added hight of the stuff (ie dead animal) on the table. Just like workbenches, depends on the tools and the work. I wouldn’t want to process meat on anything higher than 32 inches. The horse/trough/table thats used for the initial processing of elk is only about 20 inches at its low end.
Lively comments and replies to an interesting post. Like the hand tools vs power tools “debate”, there is nothing like a bit of wood movement talk to get all of us woodworkers excited.
“…I am ready for some serious sinning.”
When is this NOT true?
Not saying you always sin; just that you’re always READY to do so, to challenge the norm. 😉
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