As usual, click any photo to bring up a larger version.
Necessity is the mother of invention...
In this case, what was necessary was a nightstand to go beside my bed. Also, thanks to an inconveniently located heating register, it needed to be mostly open underneath -- so a boxy cabinet would not work.
I already knew what wood I wanted to use... I had bought a pair of gorgeous African Padauk boards over two years before building this nightstand. I knew that I wanted to use them in a nightstand, but it took a while to come up with the right design.
African Padauk (Pterocarpus soyauxii) is a heavy and dense wood, of a stunning orange-red colour. It machines well, but you will find it's fine red dust all over your shop. According to a few sources, the dust can cause skin irritation in some people, so caution is urged when working with it. The wood can darken to a reddish or purplish brown with age. However, the boards I was using had not changed much in the two years I've had them, so I have high hopes that the majority of the reddish colour will be there for a long time. It does have large pores, so you may want to use a grain filler when finishing.
So as I mentioned, I had to work around an in-floor heating register. So I needed a design that was fairly open underneath. However, I still wanted to incorporate some storage. The other idea that I kept coming back to in my thoughts was some sort of a double decker top. I keep a clock on my nightstand, but I also end up piling books or magazines (and so on) on the nightstand as well. So I had the idea to lift up the clock on a smaller upper shelf, keeping the main part of the nightstand top open.
So here was my first idea, a small shelf on a post, just for the clock.
As well, the shelves are from Padauk, and the body of the nightstand is shown as being maple. I am a big fan of putting contrasting wood colours together.
However, I quickly realized tha the small shelf was too small, and lacking in versatility. So then I moved on to considering a larger shelf, as shown in these diagrams.
I liked the shelf, but not the support. So here is the final design that I settled on. It has a fairly large upper shelf, almost the full width of the nightstand top, and it is supported by two narrow posts, extending up from the back of the nightstand.
One other change was that I decided to make the drawer fronts also out of Padauk, just like the nightstand tops. This adds more colour to the piece, and it balances against the maple of the body. I think it gives a bit more visual impact than having an all-maple body.
There are two shallow drawers for storage, and a large open space underneath to allow the floor register to do it's job. The overall design is very much influenced by shaker style furniture, with clean simple lines and tapering legs.
Unfortunately, I do not have a lot of build photos or other "in-progress" images for you. I do, however, have quite a few photos of the piece.
Start by choosing and dimensioning stock for the legs. Arrange the four legs with the best faces forward, and mark each leg to keep track of it's position and orientation. If you have a tapering jig, you can use it to cut the inside tapers on the four legs. I usually mark the tapers on each leg, and then cut them roughly on the bandsaw, staying outside the pencil lines. Then I fine-tune the taper on each leg with a few swipes with a sharp hand-plane, cutting right to the line.
Next cut the sides, back, and front pieces to size. I used a dowelling jig for this section of the assembly, but mortise-and-tenon or pocket-hole screws would also work well. The sides are to be inset where they meet the legs, giving a 1/8” reveal. This needs to be taken into account when drilling dowel holes in the two side pieces. The back of the nightstand, unlike the sides, is aligned with the inside of the legs, to leave room behind it for the two uprights that support the mezzanine (the upper shelf).
Plan now for how you are going to attach the main top. I used metal clips, which require a mounting slot to be cut near the top of the four sides. Once the carcass is assembled, those slots would be very difficult to make, so you want to cut them now. Cut these slots with a biscuit joiner, or on the tablesaw.
Also make plans now for attaching the mezzanine top. I used two pocket-hole screws at the back, through the uprights, and a screw through the underside of the front curve of each support bracket. It is a good idea to predrill holes now for installing those screws at the end of the build process.
Use a 45-degree bit on a router and chamfer the two ends and the front side of each of the tops. Position the main top on the carcass, and mark and cut out two notches to allow the top to fit around the two uprights.
Do not attach the tops at this point in the process. You will want to be able to access the body of the nightstand from above and below during the process of building and fitting the drawers.
I built my drawers using a small drawer lock bit. I documented this process in a later project article on my website: Small Drawer Lock Joint
I used a 1/4" thick veneer of Padauk for the drawer faces. In part I was trying to make a little bit of wood go a long way. As well, this permitted me to bookmatch an interesting piece of Padauk for the larger drawer. Finally, this method allowed me to "experiment" with the drawer joinery, and get it right before committing the prized Padauk to the front. If there were any mistakes made, I'd rather make it in some easily-replaced maple than in the African Padauk.
Attach the tops to the carcass with screws and clips. The tops are attached without glue, to allow them to expand and contract with the seasons as needed.
Make a final check of the piece to ensure that all have been sanded sufficiently. Use some 220 grit paper on a sanding block and ease all the edges. Then carefully vacuum the entire piece to remove all dust.
I chose a two-step process for finishing. First I sprayed on a coat of shellac. This was followed by several coats of waterbased varathane. A penetrating oil finish was tempting, but this is a place where a glass of water (or similar) will inevitably end up being placed, so I think a film finish like varathane is a wiser choice.
The final step is to drill the drawer fronts for mounting the knobs. Place a small piece of painters tape in the centre to protect the finish. Use a ruler arranged from corner-to-corner to mark the center area. Repeat with the opposite corners, and the resulting X marks the exact center. Clamp a piece of scrap wood to the inside of the drawer before drilling, to prevent a blow-out where the drillbit emerges.
Close up of the two drawers. This shows how the "veneer" of padauk was laminated to the front of the maple drawers. As well, you see the simple clean lines that you get from a drawer lock bit joint. These are definitely not dovetailed drawers!
Close up of the main top, showing the absolutely stunning grain and colour of the African Padauk. Unfortunately, it will not stay this colour red. (I updated this article in 2015 and the top has toned down to a burgundy colour from this deep red.)
This project was originally published in the March 2011 issue of Canadian Home Workshop Magazine. (I have condensed and edited the original written article to appear here. As well, these are all my own photos, not those of the magazine.)
This magazine has since ceased publication, though as of September 2015 I note that their website still online. This project, however, does not appear to be available there.
Thanks for reading!