Chabudai Challenge

Hi all, Andy here stopping by to share a behind-the-scenes blog post on a fun art project I just completed for DANESSA Art!

Our latest commission was to build a Chabudai – a Japanese style table.  These tables are similar in height to a coffee table, where you can eat while seated on a tatami mat on ground level.  This ended up being one of my most challenging projects to date. 

Jointing slabs together

Although it sounds trivial, glueing slabs of wood together is not as easy as it would seem.  It involves being able to cut the slabs to be perfectly straight, then glueing them together.  To my surprise, many woodworkers don’t use anything besides glue to join slabs of wood together – the reason being, that wood glue is actually stronger than the wood itself!  It is possible to use dowels, biscuits, or dominoes to reinforce the joints, but it is mostly not necessary in most cases.  Biscuits, in general, don’t add much strength to the slab at all, and are mostly used to keep the slabs aligned when jointing.  

To simplify the process, I decided to just use wood glue for jointing for simplicity.  After some trial and error, I was able to cut the slabs to be sufficiently straight, then apply glue, and clamp them together.  The challenge for me, was that I don’t have a jointer, so I had to make a straight edge cut with a circular saw for one of my slabs that was slightly warped. I used some cauls on the top and bottom to keep the slabs aligned with each other.  In retrospect, it would have helped to use some dowels or dominoes in the center, because I found it difficult to straighten the slabs near the center of the table.  That made my life harder in the end, as I had to sand more than I wanted to.

Some other learnings from this process – it’s important to keep constant pressure of the wood against the fence to make sure the cut is straight.  Placing your guiding hand on the table and pushing towards the fence constantly helped with this.  I also realized that I probably need a few more large clamps to make this process a bit easier.  

Flattening the slab

First, I filled some gaps and holes using epoxy, and wood hole filler.  The slab was already somewhat flat, since the wood game planed on both sides.  However, my jointing caused there to be some unevenness.  I decided to just use a combo of a hand planer and my orbital sander to flatten this out.  I spent a lot of time feeling and looking for dips and mountains to flatten the slab as much as I could.  

Making table legs

I bought some large slabs of Cherry (about 3 inch by 6 inch in cross-section). I was able to cut these down into 2.5 inch by 2.5 inch legs.  This process was pretty straightforward, as the legs didn’t need to be perfectly straight.  I decided to use mortise and tenon joinery to attach these to the slab.  I cut the tenons using the table saw, but cutting thin, shallow cuts. 

Attaching the legs to the slab

Next, it was time to cut the mortises in the slab.  I used a combination of a router, and chisel.  First, I marked the exact location of where the mortises should go using a mechanical pencil(for precision).

Next, I used a router to cut out most of the mortise.  Finally, I used a chisel to cut out the remaining portions of the mortise.  I used a scrap piece of wood clamped to the wood to keep the chisel straight.  This was not foolproof, as the scrap tended to move a bit, and the clamp got in the way sometimes.  It’s probably easier to start the chisel cut before cutting out most of the mortise, to prevent slippage.  

I used high strength epoxy to then attach the legs to the slab.  I wanted the table to be absolutely solid, so decided to use epoxy, due to its hole-filling abilities.  This way, the mortises and tenons don’t need to be perfect for the table to be stable and solid.  

Finally, I sanded off the excess epoxy and sanded some wood off to make sure that the legs were absolutely flush with the slab.  Finally, the table was mechanically finished! (Minus final sanding)

Aging the Cherry

Our client requested a dark finish for the cherry table.  The problem with dark stains on cherry is that it is very prone to blotching.  After much research, I decided to age the cherry artificially instead, using a solution of baking soda and water.  Cherry naturally darkens with age, especially if left out in the sun.  I didn’t want to put the table out in the sun for too long, in fear that it may warp.  So I decided to use baking soda.  

This took a bit of experimentation.  The problem with using a water solution is that the end grain is going to absorb much more solution, than everywhere else.  I feared that this would cause the ends to look much darker.  After some experimentation, I decided to use a less concentrated solution on the ends, and a more concentrated solution everywhere else.  Also, by soaking the ends first, this prevented the more concentrated solution from seeping into the ends.  I had to be careful not to get water solution in parts I didn’t want it, so used some painter’s tape to help here. 

This ended up being a success! I also sanded the table to 400 grit, and purposefully did not use tack cloth on the result, to prevent blotching.  

Staining & Top-coating

Staining was one of the most straightforward parts of this project.  I used my go-to Danish oil finish, that gives nice depth to the wood, while also protecting it very well.  The only downside is the long cure time, and the fact that you need to be very careful not to bunch of your rags, or you could easily start a fire!

After a few coats, I realized that the stain wasn’t quite as dark as I wanted.  So, I decided to leave the table out in the sun for about an hour or so.  The California sun helped add a shade to the finish, and helped even out the shades a bit too.

Last but not least was top-coating.  I had done my research and decided to go with pre-cat lacquer.  This was a brand new process to me, so I was a bit nervous going in.  But this finish turned out to be brilliant! I used spray cans, and had to put on at least about 4 coats to get a nice and even finish.  Before the last coat, I sanded the entire table top with 600 grit sandpaper, and made sure NOT to use tack cloth. The reason being, lacquer melds in chemically with the existing finish – so using the sanded off residue actually helped fill in remaining grain, and helped even out the finish even more.

The final product was an extremely smooth finish that I’ve been trying to achieve for awhile now.  To top of off, I buffed with some denim to make it super smooth. 

I love that lacquer dries extremely quickly, so it’s fast and also gives you a smooth, durable finish.  The only downside is that it stinks! So make sure to use a p100 ventilator and also eye protection if you choose to go this route!

And that’s all folks! All that hard work paid off in the end!  Looking forward to making more custom tables for y’all in the future!

Peace out.