Kaiden Tansu (Step Chest)
This piece was designed and crafted while studying Advanced Woodworking and Furniture Design at NAIT in 2005/06.
I found inspiration for this piece in a Canadian Woodworking article dating back to August/September 2005, issue 37. It drew me in as soon as I saw it and I decided to design my own take on it and make it while in school.
This piece was ambitious but I didn’t shy away, of course, I didn’t know what I was in for either. The tansu was constructed of solid black walnut for the case, douglas fir for the drawers and rice paper screens in the doors.
The case was entirely dovetailed with a dovetail jig (new skill); the “piston fit” drawers were through hand-cut dovetails (new skill); the doors were mortise and tenon joints for the rail and style; while the mullions were also mortise and tenon where applicable (new skill). It took 5 months for me to complete…and let me tell you, it was 5 months of hard-knock lessen after hard-knock lessen.
What you see in the photos is not what I had initially designed, but in furniture making I’ve learned that you have to roll with the punches and make the best of the situation.
There was fundamentally, nothing wrong with the design I had drawn up. The chest consists of three parts, the lower left steps; the cabinet; and the upper steps as seen in the photographs and just like the chest in the Canadian Woodworking article. My design twist was to make the chest transformable…both drawer components reversible so the overall look could change from steps going up left to right; steps going up right to left; or to have two steps on the left, a plateau then two steps down on the right.
Well, my idea didn’t pan out; I learned a very valuable lessen that I’ll pass on to you free of charge. Just because you bought a very expensive square from a very reputable company which I won’t name but rhymes with Schmee Schmalley, doesn’t mean said square is…SQUARE.
I’m not blaming Schmee Schmalley; they didn’t make the beautiful rosewood handle square; they merely sold it to an over enthusiastic student looking to learn…and learn he did!
As you can imagine after I had spent hours upon hours milling, laminating, dovetailing and dry-fitting all the walnut together, I was in for a shock. I couldn’t quite figure out why my larger square was showing a not-so-slight discrepancy from my smaller rosewood handled square and then it was pointed out to me how to check a square to see if it’s square. Sure enough, my beautiful rosewood handled square was out to lunch and my whole project was a complete flop…or so I thought. With the guidance of my wonderful instructor Monika we devised a plan to carry on with some design tweaks which yielded the end result you see here.
And then there were the doors…oh the doors. The doors you see in the photos were the 2nd set I made, it should have been the 3rd set but thanks to a wide belt sander and some veneer they are the 2nd set. The first set were beautiful; dark tones, beautiful grain and tight joints. However, there was a flaw or two or three but who’s counting?
That day, when I cut the mortises and tenons in the rails and styles you see my left and right sides of my brain weren’t cohesive. So I ended up with mullion joints that weren’t perfectly mirrored. unless you had the exact piece that went in that exact mortise, it was not going to fit together. I had it all laid out and dry fitted; it was beautiful…and then…glue up time.
For those of you who haven’t gone through a complex glue up; let me tell you; It’s stressful! The most stressful part of furniture making in my opinion. Shit can go south fast and leave you wondering what the hell happened. Glue ups will chew you up and spit you out like yesterday’s dinner and this glue up made me question whether I should pack it in because I was in over my head and I was bringing everyone else down with me. Just kidding; but this glue up went to shit.
I was slathering on glue to all the applicable parts when Monika came over to help; she could see I was in over my head. Glue has what’s called “open time”, that’s the time you have to get pieces glued, fit together and in clamps which is 10 minutes for the wood glue I was using (still use to this day). I was on pace for a 30-minute glue up. She saw that; she stepped up and started gluing parts; I was thankful as hell…until I lost track of what part went where. I didn’t have them marked well enough and Monika didn’t know I screwed up some of my mortise locations so when we tightened the clamps all I could hear was SSSSSNNNNNAAAAAAPPPPP! Both misaligned doors snapped under the pressure. Those little mullions didn’t stand a chance. Monika looked onward in disbelief as did I. I don’t recall what if anything was said but she quietly backed away and out of the shop. All I saw was red; man was I angry…not with Monika but with myself and those broken doors sitting there staring at me. Without hesitation, I picked up one of the doors and I chucked it clear across the shop. It sailed a good 80 feet before it hit the wall narrowly missing a computer which operated a very expensive panel saw. Needless to say, I needed some time to cool off and I exited stage left only to come back the next day.
I’m lucky for a lot of reasons…no person or object got hurt by the door toss; no instructor saw what I did and none of my classmates nicknamed me Jeckyl and Hyde. Up to that point I was the quiet reserved guy.
Any other mistakes I made along the way, and there were plenty, paled in comparison to those two valuable lessons.
The tansu took me so long to complete that I nearly didn’t get it finished in time for our year end furniture show and I missed out on building a chair.
I’m still proud of that piece despite all the mistakes that I see glaring at me when I look at the photos.
I left the tansu at what was called the TU Gallery in Edmonton for Alex to sell for me. It eventually sold for; I believe $3400ish. After my expenses of roughly $1500 and the 40% the TU Gallery took for their services, my profit was $540. It took me roughly 600 hours to make the piece which would bring my hourly rate to a whopping $0.90/hr. But how do you put a price on all that experience?!
I sincerely hope you enjoy the piece and the tale that was spun from making it. If you’d like your very own Weiss designed Kaiden Tansu; reach out and I’ll tell you I’ll think about it.
Shout out to Canadian Woodworking magazine, as I elected to cancel my subscription to the…cough cough…print magazine as I was a poor student. When I reached out to them and explained my situation, they happily continued the subscription free of charge. Who does that nowadays? Seriously…if you know a person or company, they should be acknowledged!
African Mahogany Hall Table
This piece was designed and made while studying Advanced Woodworking and Furniture Design at NAIT in 2005/06 as well.
Made from African Mahogany with a Quilted Maple and Wenge veneered top with anchored with tapered legs and a Wenge accent on the feet.