Sleighbed with Coopered Panels

This is a summary of our adventures in building a sleighbed.

We wanted a sleighbed for our son, but were unable to find decent plans.  All the plans we found, and all the manufactured beds we looked at (except the really expensive ones, like $8000) had flat panels set into curved posts.  There was a reasonably good set of Plans in FWW  of a bed made by Chris Becksvoort that gave us some useful tips.   We wanted properly curved panels.  So we just decided to make up our own plans.  We did this by drawing a few sketches and first trying to figure out what we wanted it to look like.  Then we started drawing parts of the bed in more detail to try to get an idea of how it could be done.  Things like how to join the rails to the posts, and how to turn a long cylindrical top rail for the head & foot boards with a short lathe, & cetera.

We built a half scale prototype in pine (cheap & easy to work with) before we tried making a full-size bed in hardwood.  This allowed us to test our design and methods and make adjustments before we got into the serious work.  There was a bit of a temporal gap between the prototype and the full-size bed.  I had to build some Christmas, birthday, and wedding gifts, then we moved house, then our daughter was born, then I had to build a shop in the new house, make another round of Christmas & birthday gifts, and so on... but finally I had the time and place to complete the project.

The curved panels are made of 1/2" by 3/4" strips that have been bevelled to fit together on the forms.  We decided to make the head and foot the same so we only need one set of forms.  The forms are just 3/4" plywood with 2X4 stretchers between them, set for the width of the panel.  The first of the half scale panels was glued up on a form that was not wide enough, and so we determined that the form must be full width, otherwise the task of keeping everything square is way too difficult.  An interesting aside is that the curve we ended up sketching out freehand is nearly symmetric.  It just 'looked right' to us.

I calculated the number of strips I needed and then ripped a batch big enough to do the job.  Then the glue-up started. This was very easy but spread out over quite a few days. The first strip is clamped to the form.  The next strip is placed against it, and you 'eyeball' how much you need to take off for it to match up.  Then I used my wooden jointer to bevel the strip.  This kind of application pretty much requires a handplane.  I wouldn't go near a power jointer with a 1/2 X 3/4 strip of wood.  Too dangerous.  Besides, I don't own a power jointer.

I used 3/4 inch stock for the strips, so I cut off 1/2 inch thick slices.  This meant that I pretty much had to bevel the edges of the strips as a separate operation.  Access to 1/2 inch stock might have made some difference to the process at this stage.  I could have ripped the strips on the tablesaw with the blade set for have the required bevel, and flipped the stock on each cut.  Maybe next time.

I found that it gets difficult to make a series of long strips stay accurate.  Periodically (every dozen or so strips) I had to take the panel off the form and joint it square again.  If I make another, bigger bed, I would consider putting a centre post in the head and foot boards, and use two narrower panels at each end.

The glue up is done one strip at a time.  Once a strip is bevelled, apply glue and attach it to the growing panel. You place some small clamps along the completed portion of the panel and tap in small wedges between the clamp bars and the new strip.  The first panel for the prototype I glued up I did all at once.  Frantic, hectic, messy, and a good way to induce marital strife.  The rest of the panels were glued up one strip at a time.

Every night I would do one strip when I got home, one after dinner, and then one every hour until bedtime (to give the glue a chance to set).  Each panel took about a week to put together, including ripping, bevelling and gluing.  Then the fun begins.  You've got these nice big curved panels, but there's sawmarks, facets, and little offsets all over the place (so much for good intentions and careful clamping, eh?).  I found the best thing to use was a good sharp hand scraper (ow my aching thumbs!).  I scraped and scraped and scraped every night for a week to get both sides of each panel smooth.  Lee Valley sells curved scrapers, and they work quite well once you get the hang of them.  I also built a curved 'buckhorn' scraper (from FWW #118) to help smooth the panels.  This worked pretty well, but I'm going to replace the blade in it with a thicker one to see if it makes a difference.

The groove in the posts was plenty fun too.  I used a morticing chisel and a Stanley #71 router plane on the prototype (it was just pine so it was easy to work).   The grooves on the bigger bed were roughed in using a template and a power router with a guide bushing.  The worst part was that the panels were not exactly the same, nor were both ends of either panel the same.  Close, but not close enough to cut a full-width groove with a router.  And the thickness varied a bit from one point to the next.  My solution was to make a template that was "close enough" to both ends of the panel, and route a 1/4 inch groove that could be widened to an exact fit.  I scribed the edges of the panel onto the post and used some incannel gouges to work the groove out to the lines.  This worked quite well, but I really hate that Craftsman router.

The head & foot board crest rails were going to be turned as three parts, a central portion (as long as I can make it on my small lathe) with holes bored into the ends, and two short extensions with tenons to match the holes.  I figured I'd put a bead or two at the junctions to help hide them. However, when it actually came time to start turning I had had a bit more experience with the lathe and with boring [non] concentric holes in turnings, so I decided that the job required a single turning.  How was I going to make a 42 inch turning on a 36 inch lathe?  A cheap crummy home-centre lathe at that.  Ah, wait now... that cheap lathe has an interesting feature: no solid cast-iron bed!  Instead there is a big steel tube that the rest & tailstock ride on.  I disconnected the bed from the headstock and moved it over about a foot and bolted everything down to the lathe bench.  Now I had a 48 inch lathe.  If I had purchased an expensive ("better") tool I would not have been able to do this so easily!  I was able to turn a pair of 42 inch crest rails on this setup with no trouble at all.

Grooving the crest rail: I used a trick from a Fine Woodworking issue.  You put square end caps on the crest rail, and then add two 'sides'.  This gives you a flat side to place against the fence and a flat side against the table on the tablesaw.  Then you run the assembly through and cut the dado (making sure that any screws or nails won't get hit by the blade!).  I suppose that the ENB's in the crowd could rig up a similar arrangement to run their plow planes against ;^)  I'm lucky, my wife has a tablesaw I can use for stuff like this.

I cut out the legs from 8/4 beech with my bowsaw.  This was not as difficult as I had feared, but I still only did one leg each night.  Then I used spokeshaves,  rasps, floats, and scrapers to smooth the legs and fair the curves.    I bored a 1 inch diameter hole for the crest rail mortice in each leg using my A. B. Jardine post drill.  If anyone has any information about Jardine (from Hespeler Ont) please let me know.  The mortices for the lower rails were bored with a 12 inch brace & Rockford Bit Co #10 auger, and pared with chisels.  I used a trick Roy Underhill explained on one of his shows: an auger bit will cut at a specific rate determined by the pitch of the lead screw, so a hole of a particular depth can be achieved by counting the correct number of revolutions of the bit.

Then it was time to try dry-assembling the headboards.  I had to make a few adjustments to the tenons to get everything to fit nicely.  I used a file to clean up the crest rail tenons and I used my Hoosier Tools shoulder plane for the tenons on the lower rails.  When I stood the headboards up I discovered that there were still lots of tool marks and blemishes to scrape out.  I'd never had the light shining on the panels from that direction, and now the problems showed up.   Another couple of evenings scraping fixed that problem.  After I had fit everything together it was time to cut the side rails to final length and mount the knockdown hardware.  I used my Stanley #246 mitre box with a Disston backsaw to crosscut the rails.  I foolishly decided that the mitre box needed just a wee bit of adjustment for the last cut.  Not that there was anything really wrong with the first three cuts, I just thought it could be better.  So I spent an entire evening fiddling with the saw guides until I finally got the contraption to work like it did before.  And then I made the last cut.  If it ain't broke don't fix it.

When I laid out the mortices to receive the knockdown hardware (acquired from one of those big mail order places, I forget which one) I made another mistake.  I laid them out from the same side of each leg, rather than all from the outside faces.  Since the rails were 1/8 inch thinner than the legs, this put the mortices in two of the posts off-centre of the rails.  Of course I only noticed this after cutting the mortices in the posts.  Luckily, the rails were still thick enough to account for this mistake and still provide adequate support for the hardware.  And besides, no one will see it once the bed is assembled.  I roughed out the mortices with a Millers falls #12 breast drill and a forstner bit, and then pared with a couple of "Major Brand" Sheffield chisels and gouges.

I rounded over all my nice crisp razor sharp arrises using spokeshaves (a little Stanley #64 and a modern Record #151 round bottom shave) and a Lee Valley beading tool.  Sure, I could've used that Craftsman router to round everything over, but I don't trust it.  Everything happens too fast with power tools, and when I'm this close to being finished the last thing I want to do is slip with a tool that will destroy the stock I'm working on.  So I stuck to the slower handtools for this.

Our design called for rails that flared out a bit at the ends, to blend the curve of the posts into the rails.  I just glued blocks on the ends of the rails, and shaped them to blend in with the posts.  I glued and screwed 1X1 ledger strips on the lower inside edges of the rails to hold the support slats.  The slats are just 3 1/2 inch wide beech 3/4 inches thick.

After all the parts were shaped, I went over everything once more with scrapers, and some sandpaper in the really nasty areas (I only had to contend with a couple of knots so there wasn't much sanding to do).  Then it was time for the finish.  We had been trying various finishes on scraps and decided that tung oil followed by blonde shellac looked nice on the beech.

And then it was done.  I took a few pictures of the finished bed.  We couldn't get far enough away from it indoors to get the whole bed in the pictures, so we set it up outside just to get these shots.

The Bed.
The Bed with David.
The Bed and the Prototype.

Now, what am I going to do with all that extra room I have in the shop...?

Copyright 2001 Darrell LaRue

Larchmont@Sympatico.ca