Ming Inspiration (50)

Before I start today, I want to express my condolences to those readers, friends and their families affected by the recent horrendous earthquake in Japan. I lived near Sendai for a year in 1995, and spent another 18 months in a small town on the southern coast of Hokkaidō, both being areas which have been severely affected by the quakes and tsunami. So the images I’ve been seeing are of places I have visited or lived close to, and I reflect upon how challenging things must be at this time for people in the affected areas.


I haven’t posted in a while, and that is not due to any lack of desire or absence of things to say- I’ve been flat-out busy getting the table completed.

I realized about a week ago that the finishing was going to be slower than I had initially planned/hoped, and also that I had delayed the delivery of the table several times already, which is hardly what I might term ‘ideal’. With some reluctance, I made a call to the client where I mentioned that another week’s delay would be mighty helpful. The client however, had made plans to take off for a two week vacation, and was really wanting to see the table before he left – hardly unreasonable since we were 4 months into the project. So I did the best I could, but of course, the Tung oil only dries and hardens as it likes to – even with supplementary heating and fans. So, longer hours ensued, and most days consisted of oiling and rubbing for a good 5~6 hours and then moving onto the ‘other stuff’.

Lots and lots of last minute details – the ‘other stuff’ – needed to be dealt with, and I had to do the work at a fairly high rate of speed to meet the deadline. I really didn’t have time to take photos most of the time – nevertheless, I have accumulated a good pile of pics to share today. Again, my apologies to those with slower connections or older computers.

One of the myriad tasks to complete was to put my makers mark on, which I composed out of ebony and holly and fitted to the underside of the central rail:

There is a jeweler’s shop upstairs in the building and I have become friendly with the two craftspeople there, and they kindly allowed – encouraged me, actually – to use some of their tools to work on the holly inlay. Jeweler’s gear is pretty neat, and like me, they are striving to be precise and fussy in their work. I found their equipment and advice most helpful.

With the oiling more or less to completion, I could start assembling the pieces. First, I slid the dovetailed battens into place on the backside of one of the top panels, and then fitted the central rail to that assembly:

The central rail is brought closer into position:

Then it is drawn tight against the shims to leave it at the desired offset:

Another view – the underside:

Next, I assembled the battens to the other top panel, and then brought that assembly into union with the first half:

Some clamps and more shims completed the top panel sub-assembly:

Then it was time to do a check-fit of the long side aprons, with their 13 dovetails/10 stub tenons/5 sliding rod tenons engagement:

Another view:

Satisfied with the fit and positioning, I pulled the aprons off and started fitting the dovetailed yatoi-sen:

After the fit was checked, I wiped the inside of the joint with Tung oil:

Here’s one rail with all the yatoi-sen fitted:

In the Chinese original, the dovetailed joints along the long edges were wiped with lacquer to serve as a weak adhesive – I opted to wipe some Tung oil/varnish mix on the joints, which should serve much the same purpose:

On goes the long apron with its five yatoi sen engaging into the ‘+’-shaped slots on the batten ends:

Getting closer, one tap at a time:

The white residue you can see on the inside of the apron is from wet-sanding the varnish. That gets wiped off later and more coats of oil get put on.

Once the rails were fully inserted, I put some clamps in place to hold everything firmly tight and then started fitting the shachi-sen to the inside corner joints. I used ebony for these wedging pins:

I find ebony has a fair amount of splits and checks in it, so there is about 30~40% waste whwn making such parts. Ouch!

Once the pins were at a satisfactory point, I fitted the dovetailed, cross-tongued locking bars for the corner legs:

Locking bar now fitted, and shachi sen driven in – you can see the tip of the pin on the front of the joint:

I fitted all four corners similarly, and then flipped the table over:

The finish on the table top was getting closer at that point, but is not nearly done yet:

That was midweek – the next couple of days were very intense and exhausting, but I managed to get the work done in the nick of time. We were scheduled to arrive at the client’s house at 6:00 pm, and pulled in the driveway at 5:59. Whew!

I wasn’t simply delivering the table – the client had put on a dinner party in which I would be assembling the table’s legs and giant arms braces to the table top in front of an audience. So, I had about 10 people watching me as I put the table together, which took a solid 90 minutes of work. It was a great opportunity to explain the work I do and to show how solid wood joined construction works. The people watching seemed pretty jazzed by that I would say. I managed to involve the client in the process as well, leaving an ebony peg for him to tap into place.

In the end, there stood the table:

A glance underneath:

The client was extremely delighted with the table and it wasn’t long before new guests showed up and he had them laying down with him under the table and was then recounting the details of how it went together. It was fun to watch and very rewarding for me to see the patron’s enthusiasm.

That’s my wife on the left, me, the client and his wife to the right.

The table is now 98% complete. With the fitting process comes peg trimming and that then requires some additional oiling work. The top could use another coat or two of oil, and when I got the sheen very even on the final day of work in the shop, I noticed a couple of small ripples in one of the top panels, which means I have to take the finish back down to bare wood in that area and smooth things a bit. The client likes the slight irregularities, however I cannot let the piece out of my hands quite like that. So, I have taken the piece back to my shop for those final touch-ups, and then will let the oil cure for a spell before I apply a wax. I will be re-delivering the finished piece shortly before the end of the month.

Here’s one last view of the table, short apron end, back in my shop and ready for some final touch-ups:

Gotta love that bubinga- though it isn’t the easiest material to work, and frankly such expensive material was scary to work at certain junctures. But the figure and colour is wonderful!

I also will take the opportunity to get some professional photos taken of the table and will be sharing those with readers in another week or so.

This project was a true challenge – pushing the envelope for me as a maker and exploring the ideal of glue-less, joined hardwood furniture construction in the Classic Chinese idiom. It went from Ming inspiration to Ming perspiration to, in the last couple of days, Ming desperation. At times I wondered, despite my many years of study and work, if I might be in over my head, biting off more than I could possibly chew. It was uh, a fairly demanding table to make on a technical level. Perhaps no one has attempted to make a table along these lines since the end of the 16th century.

Well, I managed somehow to get through to this point, and am very grateful to the maker of the Ming side table, the unknown craftsman whose brilliant design inspired my efforts. I couldn’t have done it without him and couldn’t have done it without the help of fellow craftsmen in the building who were generous with their time, tools, and help. My client was awesome – I have never had such an enthusiastic supporter. And finally, to my wife, who has put up with – moreover, supported – an obsessed maniac these past few weeks, my sincere apologies – I hope to return to being your sane reasonable husband in the very near future. For the next couple of days, I plan to take things a little on the leisurely side.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. –> See the final studio pictures!

12 Replies to “Ming Inspiration (50)”

  1. Well done Chris! Congrats to you and your client for having the courage to undertake such a project! I hope this commission leads to many more for you.

    -Chris in NZ

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for mentioning Japan and sending your condolences and concern for what so many people are going through here.

    The table is unbelievable. I think the pictures speak for themselves and it's been a joy for me to follow the progress over the past few months.

    I think it's really wonderful to have a client who truly appreciates and is so enthusiastic about the process and not just the result.

    Having guests invited to watch you finish assembly and installation of the piece offered you a rare opportunity to educate others, usually removed from the process, and give them a small taste of what is involved in producing such a beautiful piece of furniture.

    Kudos to the client for that. I have no doubt that they walked away with a greater appreciation for the craft and will also have that in the back of their minds when making future purchases.

    Thank you for sharing the process and your thoughts behind it with us via your blog. It was a monumental undertaking in my mind and a beautiful, beautiful piece.

    Thanks to your interest and appreciation in the original Ming piece, the work of the unknown craftsman will live on in your work… and possibly inspire some of us who have followed this project to adopt some of the methods we have seen.

    Again, beautiful work and a thoroughly enjoyable journey.

    Thank you,


  3. Hi Chris,

    For me, I couldn't even dream at this level of arts and crafts. To see such a thing in reality is almost unbelievable and easily deserves the best accolades one can give. Of course, we have come to expect nothing less from you while following your blog over the years.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing and congrats on a job most excellent.


  4. Pressure Pressure right up to the end! Many a lesser man would have succumbed. A Privilege to have been able to follow such a mighty build, I really enjoyed it immensely.
    It looks really beautiful with its finish applied.

  5. Most kind of you all! I'm honored that so many appear to have enjoyed this series, and look forward to getting those professional photos taken of the table as my photographic skills are not the best, especially in the past few days of work on the piece.

    The finish in the photos is only 'on the way' to the finish that will, hopefully at least, be achieved. It takes a while to build up a lustrous deep finish with oil/varnish. More tricep burn lays ahead…


  6. Good furniture stills the transitoriness of life. We have only our hopes as an offer to wager against the inhospitable aspects of the world. To try and make and use things that will occupy a comfortable and valuable place, it is a fine ambition, and one that unites the artisan and the user in a similar spirit of contribution, one that otherwise would be missed. Fine woodwork continually bears favorable witness to the movements where it is utilized and appreciated, the trust it gives back in the lovely patina, as the wood deepens to reflect the gift of our time.

    Hotaka, Japan

  7. Dennis,

    your thoughtful reflections are much appreciated. I look forward to seeing how this piece makes it's way along through the years. It was an extended 'birthing' process, and the memories of it will remain quite a while I think.


  8. Congratulations to you and your client. Both of you are very lucky to have each other. I think it is much more noble to create a new museum quality piece with a living craftsman, than to purchase an already existing antique. Both of you are keeping the art alive! Thanks for sharing the process with us, it's been great.

    jamie s

  9. Jamie S,

    most kind of you and I agree entirely in regards to giving a living person the chance to create. I am very lucky to have such a client.


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