Tim's Pillar Lamps

Each of our table lamps reflects a pursuit to meld beautiful designs, materials and execution into an inviting, timeless balance of form and function..... and with each new design comes unique challenges.... This is the story of how one new design is accomplished, a matching pair of contemporary pillar lamps,  handmade from curly maple and black walnut with brass hardware.  Let's start with the design; strong, bold, clean lines; a deceptively simple form where precision is needed at every step.


 One of the challenges with this lamp design is making the cutout in the center of the lamp body and fitting the walnut liner.  The challenges lie in 1) making a flat consistent surface to adhere the walnut liner, 2) being able to cut and install the walnut liner with sufficient precision so the 45 degree corners (inside corners) are tight and 3) retaining the grain appearance of the curly maple lamp body at the top and bottom of the cutout.  The walnut liner should also be glued near the center of the liner so it's outer widths can float and allow for different expansion rates between the walnut and maple.  Although these different expansion rates may be minimal over such short widths they still need to be considered and this will be addressed in more detail later in this story.

There are different options for making the cutout in the maple; 1) cut the maple body into sections (rails and stiles as in a cabinet door frame) or,  2) cut out the center by mortising around the perimeter of the cutout then smoothing the surface by chisel. 

Cutting the maple body into stiles and rails will allow for the easiest and most accurate installation of the walnut liner and it will provide the straightest and smoothest surface for adhering the walnut liner.  This is probably the best method for making the center cutout but, the grains where the rails and stiles meet would be slightly interrupted so the maple lamp body would appear to be assembled as rails and stiles.  If the grains can be matched very closely this will be less apparent so whether this method is used really depends upon the specific block of maple and how closely the grains could be matched.

Mortising the cutout has one significant advantage, it would not interrupt the grains of the maple so the lamp body would appear to be cut from a single, solid block of maple.  This would give the nicest cosmetic appearance to the lamp body but making the cutout with the mortising machine (which cuts square holes) is considerably less accurate and will make installing the walnut liner magnitudes more difficult.  In the end it may not allow for sufficient precision to install the walnut liner. 

A little later when the lamp body is started a decision will need to be made which method to use for the cutout.  In the meantime, the finial has a cutout similar to the lamp body and this will be made using the mortising machine.  So, let's test just how accurately the mortising method will cut by making the finials first. 

First, small blocks of black walnut get selected and cut to rough size and threaded brass sleeves get set into the base of the blocks.  Here you can see that's been done and the center of the finials has been marked where they will be mortised. 


next is cutting the mortises which are actually rectangular holes in the center of the finials.  Here are a couple photos showing the blocks set up in the mortising machine and the mortises being cut.  

and here are a couple photos of the mortises cut to size.  You can also see the bottoms of the blocks have been polished square to bring the brass flush with the bottom of the finial.

once the mortises are cut, the finials are cut to size, here are a couple photos showing that's been done.

at this point the finials are still in a rough state so the all the edges and the outer corners get softened with a slight radius then sanded and finished.  Since these photos were taken the finials have had a first coat of finish and they look great.  It also appears from the mortise cuts that sufficient accuracy can be held to mortise the cutout in the main lamp body (the maple block) so this method is still a viable option for making the cutout. 

Next is selecting the maple for the lamp body and this took a trip to the mill.  Here are a couple photos of the maple blocks selected, they measure approximately 6-7" wide x 30"-32" long x 3 1/4 - 3 1/2" thick.  Each timber has beautiful color, the two on the left have wider curly grains and the one on the right has very tight curly grains.  These timbers need to acclimate for a couple days, then they'll be surfaced with a planer which will show the true colors and grains.... and that's when we'll select the pieces for the main lamp body and decide on the method for making the cutout.

While the maple is acclimating the bases can be made and here are a couple photos of the walnut that's been selected.  This is quarter-sawn walnut with beautiful colors and grains, these pieces measure approximately 26" long x 6"-8" wide x 2 1/4" thick.   

The walnut gets cut to size for each base and the edges get squared and sanded into a semi-finished state; here you can see that's been done.  Next these blocks go into the lathe so they can be surfaced to the right thickness and the hollow area on the underside of the base can be cut.  This hollow area is where the cast iron weights fit in each lamp for added stability, it's where the electrical cord enters the lamp and where the attaching hardware is located that holds the lamp together.  Once surfaced and hollowed, the bases will have the corners and top bevels cut, then the maple inlays get added.

The bases get mounted into the lathe for surfacing to the correct thickness.

once mounted they are turned carefully, at slow speeds with shallow cut depths  (since turning square objects can become problematic for the turner if not done very carefully). 

Here you can see the top of the base has been surfaced and the center hole for the brass tubing has been cut.

here you can see the top surface being checked for flatness.

Once the top surface is finished the base is flipped over and remounted in the lathe so the hollow section for the weights can be cut; here you can see that's been done.

... and once the hollow section is cut and preliminary sanding is completed the base is removed from the lathe so the beveled edges can be cut.  Here you can see the base removed from the lathe with a weight inside the hollow section.

The bases are done on the lathe, time to cut the bevels and first the corners are cut, here you can see that's been done.

All the bevels are cut on the band saw with a very fine blade so the cuts are as smooth and precise as possible.  

The first bevels to be cut are on the bottom of the base, here you can see that has been done.

Next are the top bevels and the geometry on these angles is a little different for each cut so the band saw needs small adjustments with each cut; first the end bevels are cut....

...... then the length-wise bevels are cut....

.... and lastly the corner bevels are cut.  The bases are beginning to take shape but the surfaces just cut are pretty rough so they need to be sanded.

Once the sanding is done, the holes for the electrical cords will be drilled and the top surface of the base will have a pair of alignment holes drilled.  These alignment holes will correspond to a matching pair of holes in the bottom of the lamp bodies and floating pins will go into the holes to align the lamp bodies on the bases.  The pins will be hidden (not seen once the lamps are assembled) and will prevent the lamp bodies from twisting against the bases, this ensures the lamp bodies are always properly aligned on the bases.  Once those holes are done, the bases will be marked and cut for the maple inlays.

Now the bases have been drilled and preliminary sanding completed, here are a couple photos...

... here is a view of the front of each base....

... next is marking the bases for the inlay, these will be 1/4" square maple inlays set into the beveled edges, 3 each on the front and back sides, 2 each on the ends.... and here you can see the initial grid layout completed. 

The square holes that accept the maple are cut with the mortising machine around the base, here you can see that being done.

.... and here are both bases ready for the maple squares.

the maple squares are cut individually on the bad saw and the wood is oriented so the face grain is at the ends of the plugs.  End grain absorbs finish differently than face grain and face grain will give the greatest contrast against the black walnut.

next the maple plugs are sanded and here you can see they are test fit for a nice tight fit in the holes.

once they are test fit, they are glued into the bases then the tops are cut off so they can be sanded smooth with the bevel surfaces.  Here you can see they are glued into both bases and the base on the right shows the tops cut off.

the maple plugs are then sanded smooth with the bevel surfaces and here you can see that being done.  The maple plugs could have been cut with a chisel but there was a risk they could break or chip out below the bevel surface so even though sanding takes much longer its makes for a nicer surface.

once the maple plugs are all sanded, the bases get finish sanded and the first coat of finish gets applied; here are a couple photos with the first coat of finish and you can see the strong color contrast with the black walnut and nice crisp edges on the inlay.  At this point the bases are almost finished and they really look good.  Next up is the lamp body. 

The lamp body begins by surfacing the curly maple and black walnut to the correct thickness.  Here you can see black walnut being surfaced to 3/16" thick and the maple has been surfaced to 3" thick.

This was the maple board that was planned for the lamp bodies.  However, after it was surfaced to 3", a series of cracks were discovered and here you can see them circled.  There's no way of knowing how deep these cracks run or which direction they take inside the board so this board has been ruled out for the lamp bodies.

Here are a couple photos of the maple board that was selected for the lamp bodies, it has great curl and the grains and colors are beautiful.

.... and here is a photo of the maple and black walnut that will make up the lamp bodies.

Next step with the maple is to sand the surface and check closely for any irregularities or flaws and to see how the curl and grains travel across the board.  It's hard to see in this photo but this is a really beautiful piece of curly maple.

Next is to get a straight edge one at least one side of the board which acts as a guide for cutting the board to the correct width and as a reference for laying out the lamp bodies.  Here you can see the edge being planed flat and you can see some of the curly grains along the side.

... and here you can see the straight edge after being planed.

Next step is a preliminary layout of the lamp bodies in prep for cutting but also to check what the curl and grains look like across each lamp body.  There is a little extra width and length to work with in this board so this preliminary layout will show if the individual lamp bodies need to be repositioned in the board for best curl and grains.  In this layout the lamp bodies are already in best position.  Next up is cutting the individual lamp bodies to size then cutting out the center window which will be done on the mortising machine. 

Here you can see the lamp bodies cut to size and the layout for the center window.  Once the lamp bodies were sized it was obvious the original layout was positioned correctly so that was adjusted.

... and here are a couple photos of a preliminary check of the lamp bodies for correct sizing on the lamp bases; everything looks good, time to cut the windows.

The center window is cut on the mortising machine and here a couple photos of that being done.  Because the lamp bodies are so thick, the mortising cuts only go half way through the blocks, then the block is turned over and the full through-mortise is cut. 

... and here are the lamp bodies with the vertical mortises cut through.

... next the top and bottom mortises are cut and the center window is now completely cut out.  Here the lamp bodies are set onto the bases with the windows cut out, it's just a preliminary check of proportions and they really look good.

All the edges of the lamp bodies get beveled, here you can see that in process on the band saw.

... once the bevels are all cut, the lamp bodies get a little more sanding.  Here are a couple photos where that's been done and afterwards the lamp bodies were set atop the bases for another look at the proportions but with the lamps in a little more finished state and you can see the spacing between the base and the lamp body to give the body a floating effect above the base.   

The lamps are looking really good at this point, next is preping the lamp bodies for the hardware and electrical, then the walnut picture framing gets set into the center windows.... 

One small but important detail in preping the lamp bodies is setting the top of the lamp body so it accepts and holds the hardware correctly.  Here is a photo that shows what the positioning of the top hardware should look like when the lamps are finished, it should be captured on-center on the top of the lamp so it can't shift off-center.  If it isn't centered, the brass tubing running through the cutouts in the lamp bodies wouldn't be parallel to the sides of the cutout and would look tilted or angled as it passes through the cutout.  The holes that will be drilled in the lamp bodies for the brass tubing will be oversized so the tubing slides easily through the lamp body and this oversizing would allow the top hardware and brass tubing to shift off-center if it isn't captured on-center by a seat. The top of the lamp bodies are smooth, there is no centering seat for alignment of the hardware so one needs to be created.  The bottom of the brass shown in the photo below, has a 1" dia. x 1/8" deep cutout or seat that it's intended to fit over, you can see this better in the next few photos.  So the lamp body needs a corresponding round flange 1" dia x 1/8" deep and the next few photos show how that's made. 

starting with a small piece of maple (same wood as the lamp bodies), a through-hole is drilled lengthwise through the maple.  Since this hole needs to be closely aligned on the vertical axis of the lamp, and it's almost impossible to do that on a drill press, instead of turning the piece and then drilling it, it get's drilled and turned around the hole.  

... here you can see the block has been drilled and it's mounted on the lathe in a special mandrel with tapered cones at each end of the hole, so the hole will be precisely on center of the turned piece. 

... and here you can see the finished piece, a slightly tapered tube.  The tapered end will fit into the lamp and you can see how the other end fits into the seat in the brass hardware.

Here is one of the tubes being test fit into the same size hole that will be drilled in the top of the lamp, and the brass hardware seats nicely on top of the tube.  All that's needed now is to drill the lamp body, cut the tube to the correct length and glue the tube into the top of the lamp.

.... and here are the tubes positioned on top of the lamp bodies and you can see the seat on the underside of the hardware that will rest on top of the wooden tube.  The wooden tube will only protrude from the top of the lamp about 1/8" so it's a small detail but it is the all-important centering point for the hardware and brass tubing. 

Here you can see the top of the lamp bodies have been drilled for the centering tubes and the tubes being test fit.... looks good.

Next up is getting the spacers that go between the bases and the lamp bodies cut to final size and drilled.  Here are a couple photos where you can see that's been done and the lamp bodies have been drilled for the alignment pins that float between the lamp bodies and the bases.

... and here you can see the lamp bodies, spacers and bases together as they will be when the lamps are completed; fit and alignment looks very good. 


Next is drilling the lamp bodies to allow for the brass tube to run the vertical length of the lamp.  Here you can see that's been done.

... and here are the lamps with the top centering tubes glued into the lamp bodies, the bodies and bases test fit together and the brass tubing test fit for alignment, it looks great.  The lamp bodies need quite a bit of sanding so that's next, then the surfaces of the center cutouts get smoothed and the walnut picture-framing gets installed in the center cutouts.  

After attempting to smooth the inside maple surfaces of the cutout it was clear that this couldn't really be done well enough to have nice crisp edges where the walnut beading meets the lamp bodies.  Here is a photo to show which edge this refers to.

So, several alternatives were considered and the concept that seemed like it would provide the best mechanical and cosmetic results is shown below.  To summarize it, the walnut gets cut so the edge which forms the beading, overlaps the maple edge to hide the irregular maple edge.  The walnut still has to allow for expansion so how it attaches to the maple is important.  The solution is to cut the walnut in half so the seam runs around the center of the cutout and this allows the walnut to be installed first around the front of the cut out then around the back.  Where the two pieces of walnut meet (around the inside center of the cutout) there will be a floating slip joint and the drawing below shows this better than I can explain it.  This slip joint will allow each piece of walnut to move with the maple as it expands and contracts.    

The walnut is quite thin (3/16" thick) and the next challenge was figuring out how to make these pieces accurately so they met the mechanical and cosmetic requirements.  Several different techniques were attempted and the photo below shows one failed attempt where the depth of one cut couldn't be controlled well enough.  

The photo below shows a test piece of walnut and the overlap at the edge of the maple that needs to be created.

After several attempts and a new, wide, featherboard was used, the process was perfected using the table saw and the photo below shows the set-up.  The featherboard is used to hold the walnut flat as it passes through the saw and a 1/16" deep cut is made.  This 1/16" is the amount the walnut overlaps the maple and what makes this cut difficult is the thin walnut's tendency to flex.  The wide featherboard solved that.

... and here is the first piece made from this process, you can see the cutout that allows the bead edge to overlap the edge of the maple and the slip joint that will run around the inside center of the cutout.  The slip joint is 1/8" wide and 1/16" thick, and it will join (floating joint) with the same type of cutout (but reversed) on the adjoining piece of walnut.

Here is a photo showing how the slip joints will work.

... and here are a couple photos showing the first pieces of walnut test fit and ready to be attached to the maple.  You can see how the overlap joint makes a clean crisp edge against the maple.  This process will take a little longer because the walnut gets applied first to the front of the lamp and then to the back.  Once all the walnut is installed, the bead edge gets rounded by hand to form a smooth rounded bead that frames the cutout.

Here you can see the walnut trim is all cut to frame the windows but it hasn't been cut to depth yet; so the slip joints aren't set yet.  

To make the slip joints, the back and front sections of walnut need to overlap each other and this joint runs around the inside center of the window.  The overlap (or slip joint) is 1/8" wide and in this photo, you can see where the trim still has excess depth to allow for that joint.

....after the slip joint is cut it's time to begin gluing the walnut trim into place... and once that's completed the walnut edges on the front and back side of the lamp body get sanded into a smooth rounded bead.

here you can see the walnut pieces have been cut to the correct width so they seat against the maple very well.... and then the real challenge started...

....as it turns out, what would normally be quite close tolerances (less than 1/64") were not sufficient for a nice seam in the center of the window at the slip joint. Most wood also has very slight deformations (bow, twist, etc) which are normal and compensated for in a build.  However, for this lamp design, those variables combined into a real challenge getting the walnut pieces to fit correctly.  The problematic area is the seam at the slip joint (see the photo below); the actual joint fits and works quite well but the seam between the front and back pieces of walnut was not satisfactory.  This seam should be tighter so if it's noticeable (from the normal movement of the woods) it should be slight... that's the way the slip joint works.

Although the walnut pieces all had a very slight twist which normally wouldn't be a problem, it did complicate all the test fits.  Thankfully the walnut pieces are thin enough to have reasonably good flexibility so they lay down against the maple without stress.  The roughness and small Irregularities in the maple surfaces which were created by the mortising cuts, were sufficient to affect the fit of the walnut pieces so all the maple surfaces needed to be smoothed by chisel.  The undercut edge of the walnut, where it meets the maple, had normal variations which also would not normally be a problem but in this design those variations prevented the walnut pieces from fitting far enough into the window so the seam was not noticable.  These undercut edges had to be adjusted by hand.  Lastly, the walnut pieces needed very slight adjustments by chisel, scraping or sanding to get a very nice fit at the seam.  So, after a lot of meticulous, very fine adjustments, the walnut has been glued into the first lamp and here are a couple photos where you can see that.  As it worked out, after all the fine adjustments in this lamp, the fit of all the walnut was so close it was best to glue it all into place at once rather than in steps.  The seams and fit are very nice all around on this lamp.  

... and here is a preview of the final design beginning to take shape.  This is the 2nd lamp which hasn't had the adjustments completed yet on the walnut so the center seam is visible but even at this early stage it's apparent that all the effort to get the walnut trim just right is certainly worth the effort, what a beautiful design if I do say so myself. 

... and here you can see both lamps with the walnut liner in place on the lamp bodies.  Next up is drilling the holes for the brass tubing to pass through.

The maple bodies already have center holes drilled so those holes are used to center a very sharp brad-point drill bit on the walnut, here you can see that being done.  This drill bit is turned slowly by hand until the point of the drill makes a fine pin-hole through the walnut. 

...next the center point is marked on the inside of the window and it's compared with the location of the pin-hole from the bit, here you can see that being done. These centers turned out to be very close for all 4 holes (two holes per lamp, one top and one bottom).  After checking centers, a smaller bit is used by hand to slowly turn through the walnut then a slightly larger bit is used to smooth the inside of the holes. 

Here you can see one of the holes drilled.  All 4 holes have nice crisp edges with not tear-outs, the holes just need a little fine sanding to clean them up.  These holes are sized so the brass tubing fits fairly closely.

... and here are a couple photos with the brass tubing being test fit in both lamps.  The length of the tubing hasn't been set yet so the lamps need to be elevated a little to allow for the over-sized length of the tubing.  Next, the lamps need quite a bit of sanding but once that's completed it's time to start finishing them. 

.... and here are a couple photos showing the first lamp after the sanding has been completed and the first coat of finish has been applied.  The lamp was assembled with the primary components for these photos just to see how it looked and how all the pieces fit after a coat of finish; fit is great and I'll let the photos speak for the looks.  The brass all needs to be polished, and finishing needs to be completed then the lamps will be fully assembled and wired.