View from the Garage

April 15, 2007

A Library Stand

Filed under: Woodworking — thefusionguy @ 12:05 pm

When my niece married, I decided to make a piece of furniture for her and her spouse. After a discussion, we decided that a library stand would be just the thing. And that presented some new challenges for me, so I was enthusiastic. And I do enjoy having something I’ve made in the homes of people I care about.

Here’s what I came to making:



I thought the usual kind of stand in a public library would be much too massive and utilitarian. This is often a heavy carcase of white oak, resembling an upright coffin for an overweight midget. I was thinking of something more light and pleasant to look at, which would support a large book but not look like a refuge in an earthquake. I immediately decided to use my favorite combination of woods, red oak and purpleheart. From their names you might expect a color clash, but while purpleheart is really a reddish purple, red oak is more of a creamy light brown, and they go together beautifully. Also, purpleheart can take on a very fine jewel-like appearance when carefully finished. I decided the stand should have a drawer, for glasses or a magnifier, for a pen and paper pad, for yellow stickies.

The first step is some research. Dimensions of the key parts, like the height, the angle of inclination of the top, and the size of the platform are nearly fixed, while everything else can take on very different forms. So I got out my Webster’s Unabridged and made some temporary stands out of boards C-clamped together, until I got the angle and height to what I thought were reasonable. I also googled around a bit to see what people are selling as library stands. So with the key dimensions fixed, I started sketching some designs, often during some boring meetings at work.

The key problem seemed to be the design of the legs. I remembered from way way back, the art teacher pointing out that the columns of the Parthenon are not simple right cylinders, as I’d idly supposed, but subtly curved. This makes them not only much less boring, but suggests the weight they are carrying. So I thought I’d do something similar, and increase the volume of the legs toward the bottom. I also noted that the back legs should be heavier and less dramatically curved than the front legs. I sketched quite a few options, then drew a front leg carefully on 1/4″=1″ graph paper. Looked good! So first chance I got, I transferred the drawing to a scrap of 1/8″ plywood for a template and bandsawed that. Still looked pretty good, so I took a piece of scrap red oak and milled it to 1 5/8″ square and bandsawed the oak to the line scribed from the template. The result looked like a piano leg! Much too heavy and clumsy, although the drawing looked ok. This is kind of what I expected, but the extent of the discrepancy between the image in my mind and what I had in wood was still surprising. So I redrew the template, cut the template, cut the oak, and it was much better but still not quite right. Then I used a spokeshave on the template to make small adjustments, then a final bandsaw on the trial leg. After cleaning up with a spokeshave, I thought it looked pretty good.

The next step was to make the actual legs. I had a nice 8/4 board of red oak, wide enough for two legs and about 10′ long, which I’d been saving for something special. I cut two 4′ lengths, then ripped two pieces 1 3/4″ square from each board. These I let sit for a few days to let the wood relax, so that the final legs wouldn’t be bent from internal stresses in the wood.
legboards.jpg cutlegs.jpg

Then I milled each piece to 1 5/8″ square. Then the fun. I had four pieces of wood to make legs, but how to arrange the pieces? A bit of combinatorials here for the mathematically inclined. For the front right leg, I could pick 1 from 4 pieces. That piece could go with 1 of 4 faces forward, and a choice of either end up. So this means the front face of the front right leg could be picked in 4x4x2 = 32 ways. The front left leg was the same, except that there were only three boards to pick from. So in total, the number of unique choices for the front faces of all four legs is the product of all these combinations, or 4!*8^4 = 98,304. No wonder it’s difficult to arrange! (For a table, there’s only half as many, since there isn’t a front or back, and for a square table there isn’t a unique side either, so you lose another factor 2, or a relatively trivial 24,576 unique possibilities.) So lining up the boards for the best arrangement is not so easy!

But there are some saving considerations. First, the type of grain for the face. The board had been originally pretty much plainsawn, meaning that the face of the board was nearly parallel with the growth rings of the tree, while the edges of the board were quartersawn, which shows the prominent radial rays characteristic of oak. I knew I wanted the quartersawn grain forward. Second, I was using legs flared weakly toward the bottom and strongly toward the top, and I wanted the long grain of the legs to mimic those curves. This was pretty successful on the front legs, especially, as you can see in the top photo above. Finally the original board had a slightly different color on the top and bottom, and viewed from the side the legs should have harmonius coloration. The job is to find the best arrangement consistent with all these constraints. This took only a few hours, in the house where the light is different, rather than in the workshop.

Before bandsawing the legs to shape, it is easiest to do the joinery first. The legs are joined by rails which are mortised into the tops of the legs. The mortises are cut with a router, as in this photo (click to enlarge). I used a shop-made jig and a plunge router with a straight 3/8″ bit. For these
cases where good finish is important, I use a HSS router bit made for cutting metal in a commercial milling machine. This cuts slowly, but with more control and cleaner than with a carbide router bit.

Here’s the mortises cut into two legs.
If you look closely at the upper leg in the photo, you will see a patch. Like a dummy, I cut one of the mortises in the two back legs in the wrong place! This is a big problem, because getting new wood for the back legs would be very difficult, since matching the color and grain of the front legs would be nearly impossible. So, I patched it by cutting a scrap from the same board into the shape of the mis-cut mortise and gluing it in. It’s not very noticable if you don’t look for it. I guess that any woodworker who doesn’t try to fix mistakes rather than starting over is likely to become very popular with the lumber yard, yet not produce much furniture.

Next to make are the rails. These are cut again from the same board as the legs, for the back and side rails. Then tenons are cut on the ends to fit into the mortises in the legs.
aprons.jpg cutting-tenons.jpg
Here’s how the rails and legs fit are marked out to fit. Notice that the tenons have to be trimmed at a 45 degree angle to fit into the two mortises.
marking-out-mortises.jpg readytoassemble.jpg
The front rail is purpleheard, using a single piece for both the rail and the drawer front, arranged so the curved cut between the two follows along the grain.

The next step is shaping the legs. First I bandsawed them about 1/8″ outside the scribe line from the template and again let the legs set for a few days. Then I remilled the two flat sides of each leg if they had bent from the relieved stresses, rescribed the line from the template, and bandsawed again. Then I used a spokeshave to trim and smooth the shape, doing the right and left legs at the same time to keep them equal. This gives a good finish which needs only very light sanding. I also cut a chamfer in the outer corner of each front leg to give them an interesting facet, reduce bulk, and make them seem a little more user-friendly by avoiding a sharp front corner. Then the side assemblies could be glued up.
markingoutlegs.jpg shapinglegs.jpg sidegluedup.jpg

Before I could glue-up the legs and rails, I needed to add the shelf. The shelf, a grill-work of purpleheart, is needed to stabilize the legs without drawing the visual point downward. It also makes a convenient place to have an alternate book. The shelf is made from wood thickness-planed to 5/8″ x 5/16″, with the parts dovetailed together and then the assembly is mortised into the legs. Here’s the assembly:
The pieces are cut to length, then the tails are cut on the sides of the rails using the router with a cutting jig:
cuttingdovetails.jpg closeupdovetail.jpg dovetailsingrill.jpg
The matching tails are cut in the ends of the joining pieces using the opposite end of the jig. (The clamps are shop-made.)

With the shelf done, the assembly could be glued up:
glueup.jpg grillgluedin.jpg

The top was made by thicknessing an oak board to about 5/8″ and joining two pieces to make a top wide enough. The purpleheart bookstop was let into a 1/4″ mortise across the bottom. The top will expand across the grain in summers and contract in winters–not a problem in California, usually, but a big issue in Pennsylvania–so the ability of the top to move relative to the rest of the frame is preserved by attaching the top to the front rail but attaching it to the rear rail with a cleat which can slide in a groove in the rear rail.

Then everything was done but the drawer. The front was already cut from the purpleheart board that was used for the front rail, so I cut some sides, back, and bottom from a piece of 1/2″ poplar. This is my first attempt at blind dovetails, and I’ve not done so many through dovetails by hand, so I did a couple practice pieces first. First you cut the drawer sides, mark that onto the drawer front, and cut that. Hopefully, they fit together. Using poplar made it a little easier since poplar is pretty soft and conforms well. It makes nice friendly drawer surfaces because of its softness and nice finish-ability. The drawer bottom has the same issues as the stand top with seasonal movement, so it is not glued in, but fixed in its mortise by only a single brass screw. This also means that it can be replaced without too much work.

blinddovetails.jpg drawerassembly.jpg

And that’s it. The stand was finished with three coats of Minwax wipe-on poly satin, and then a little Renaisance wax.


  1. WOW! Now that’s a blog post! 🙂

    Comment by Owen — April 15, 2007 @ 2:49 pm

  2. I saw your library stand on your blog. I am interested in having you make a custom one for my husband. Can you tell me what the cost would be for the one you show and how much additional it would cost to make changes. Thank you. Cheryl

    Comment by Anonymous — April 15, 2007 @ 8:52 pm

  3. Sorry, Cheryl, my work is one-of-a-kind, and for love only. But I’m flattered by your request.

    Comment by ron — April 16, 2007 @ 7:10 pm

  4. Lucky Niece here. We love the library stand. Having just returned from Glasgow where I took in as much Rennie Mackintosh as I could, I’m keen on the Arts & Crafts look of it, especially the elongated proportions, the arch of the drawer, and the fretwork shelf. We have a low mahogany bench in the same room, which I believe to be a Chinese temple bench, and there’s a subtle fretwork on that which nicely resonates with that detail on the stand. Ron, I’m guessing that Maloof oil/wax is named for/made by Sam Maloof–is that right? xo, R

    Comment by Robin — April 17, 2007 @ 5:43 am

  5. Ron you are my hero. Are you taking students? Any chance of discounted tuition for family? Or does family cost extra?
    Seriously I’d love to help you put something together sometime. Its beautiful work – just beautiful. Thank you.

    Comment by walter — April 17, 2007 @ 7:04 am

  6. Robin and Walter, I’m glad you like it!

    Yes, the Maloof oil/wax is a commercial formulation attributed to Sam Maloof. I attended a lecture to a woodworking group by Maloof in the early 1980’s, and I have his recipe for the finish he was using written on a scrap of borrowed paper, which if I recall correctly was approximately equal parts boiled linseed oil, beeswax flakes, and a solvent. He was already into manufacturing his incredibly beautiful rocking chairs. He said that it takes him about 16 hours–two days–to make a rocker. We were all flabbergasted, to use a quaint but appropriate word. Sam is famous for being able to bandsaw exactly to a line, but only two days for something so complicated and exquisite! In the question and answer period, though, he owed up to the broader truth. After his 16 hours, each chair took the attention of three undoubtedly highly skilled helpers for several weeks, refining the curves, sanding, and finishing. We in the audience felt a little less disconsolate about our own abilities after that.

    Comment by ron — April 17, 2007 @ 10:31 am

  7. Oh and I thought you cared about me but I don’t see a beautiful piece of furniture in my home! Boo hoo! You really do beautiful work. Do you think you could give Gary a lesson on how to finish those projects you start!??? Your blog inspires me to try to make something – but I may have to wait until retirement to do it. Great blog!

    Comment by Susan — February 10, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

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