Ladder Desk – A Creation Story By Joe Schissler
This is the story of the creation of a desk that I built for my daughter, Erika. I am writing this to show others, both blind and sighted, that it is possible to safely build a fairly complex piece of wood furniture, even when you can’t see what you’re doing. Also, I want to leave a record of how I did it, in case anyone, including my family, cares a few years from now. (I probably will have forgotten by then.)
The story starts with Erika’s request that I build a desk for her and ends with the resulting desk winning a second place ribbon at the Howard County Fair in August of 2015. This story covers the initial concept and design, the purchase of materials, the construction and assembly, and the final finishing.
In the main body of this article, I have attempted to limit the discussion to these subjects, but I got carried away in a couple of areas, so I refer to five appendices that describe detailed information that some readers may already be familiar with and others may not care about, but which I found interesting. Scattered throughout all this are lessons that I have learned over the years and techniques that I developed for this project. There are also a number of safety tips, some of which are for all woodworkers and some are focused on those who are blind. The appendices are placed at the end of this article, and there is also one reference listed after the appendices.
I am a self-taught, amateur woodworker and have done this as a hobby for most of my adult life. When I totally lost my vision in February 2009, I thought that hobby was over. My basement workshop sat idle for about three years. Then I enrolled in a rehab program for seniors who have lost or are in the process of losing their vision. This program is run at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM), where they have, among many other things, a full-blown woodworking workshop, equipped with all the professional power tools and equipment anyone would want, most of which I do not have at home but learned to use. I quickly realized that I can continue my woodworking hobby.
My first project at BISM was a small, decorative table, which I built there and in my shop at home. It was also the first project I ever built using only hardwoods. It won a first-place ribbon at the Howard County Fair in 2014. This confirmed my belief about continuing my woodworking. Erika and my wife, Eleanor, helped me clean up and reorganize my workshop, and I have been there almost every day since.
After the fair in 2014, I asked myself what I was going to build next. Then Erika asked me to build a ladder desk for her. My response was, “Okay, but what’s a ladder desk?”
Concept and Initial Design
Erika had seen a ladder desk somewhere before and was able to describe it in general terms, and apparently the internet has lots of photos of them. Of course I couldn’t see them but she and Eleanor talked me through the general characteristics. I now describe a ladder desk as resembling a step ladder with the steps being replaced by shelves and the main shelf being the working surface of the desk. And the back legs are vertical rather than slanted as in a typical stepladder. So the frame of the desk consists of two triangles, one on each side, and the shelves are supported by the frame. In our initial discussions Erika also asked that it be made of cherry and maple and finished with tung oil and paste wax.
With this understanding, I asked her to do the basic design of what she wanted, and I suggested that she sketch it out to get a feel for the proportions that she thought were correct. She responded by drawing the desk and defining the height, width, the number of shelves and where they would be placed, and the sizes of wood to be used. She described this design in text and sent me this information in an email as follows:
Here are the dimensions.
Vertical rail of frame - 64 inches tall, three quarter inch thick, and 3 inches wide. Front rail that is diagonal - 67 inches long, three quarter inch thick, and 3 inches wide. Bottom rail - 14 inches long, three quarter inch thick, and 3 inches wide. The outside measurement at the bottom is 20 inches. In other words the front leg of the desk sticks out from the wall by 20 inches. This mirrors the distance of the desk. This will make one triangle, need two.
for frame (leaving extra length for safety) - three quarter by 3 by 67 - need 2; three quarter by 3 by 70 - need 2; and three quarter by 3 by 16 - need 2
For the shelves:
Top shelf - 4.5 inches deep, 24 inches long, three quarter inch thick. The bottom of the top shelf is 6 inches from the top of the back rail. Second shelf - 7.5 inches deep, 24 inches long, three quarter inch thick. The bottom of the second shelf is 17 inches from the top of the back rail. Desk - 20 inches deep, 24 inches long, three quarter inch thick. The bottom of the desk is 35 inches from the top of the back rail.
Each shelf and desk will have a backstop that rises 2 inches.
Parts list for shelves:
three quarter by 4.5 by 24 - need 1; three quarter by 7.5 by 24 - need 1. Backstop parts list: three quarter by 2 by 24 - need 3.
The desk dimensions are 24 by 20 in total, but there will be a three inch border of a different wood. So the inner square dimensions are 18 by 14. For the border, will need 2 pieces that are three quarter by 3 by 20 and will need 2 pieces that are three quarter by 3 by 18.
Let’s forget the bottom shelf, but instead use a three quarter by 3 by 24 inch backstop that connects the two vertical rails, or whatever you think will work best for stability.
We had talked about all this before, but this was her first email, and it was followed by several email exchanges in which I asked some questions and made some suggestions and she gave responses. Several changes were made as a result. Some of these changes are important and will be discussed as they appear in this story.
The result of all this was a “final” design that is very similar to her first definition but had many minor modifications. I do not mean to imply that this was a quick process. The whole thing took place over several months and the design was not really settled until the project was complete, as has been the case for all my woodworking projects.
As the building progressed, I found I had to figure out how I was going to accomplish each step in construction and finishing. And, since I am totally blind, I frequently had to find new ways to do things. This is not a complaint, because this is the part of woodworking that I enjoy the most, although I have to admit that the challenges are a little greater now that I have to do things without seeing what I’m doing.
Among other issues I was faced with, the 15 degree angle that permeates the design was the most interesting. This reminded me of mathematics that I hadn’t thought about much since high school. I found myself using algebra, geometry, and trigonometry to work out some of the design issues and cuts that had to be made, as described below and in Appendix A.
Many decisions as to the construction details were made during December. Among other things, I had some concerns about constructing the 15 degree angle. In addition, I had made the decision to use edge-to-edge joints at the top, where the vertical and diagonal frame members meet, and overlapping joints where the frame members meet at the bottom. An overlapping joint involves removing one-half of the thickness of each board to be joined so that the two boards fit together perfectly. (In referring to several woodworking books that I have in my library, there seemed to be no real consistency as to the names for these overlapping joints. I’ve seen both “cross lap” and “end lap” used, depending on where the joints fall on the boards. So I will just call them lap joints.) At the bottom, the two lap joints between the vertical and horizontal frame members are 90 degree angles, but the two lap joints between the diagonal and horizontal members are 75 degrees (90 – 15 = 75).
So I made some test cuts using some old ¾ inch pine boards that I had in my shop. My wife helped with the first cut, which cut a wedge shaped piece at the top of the board that simulated the vertical frame member. We used a woodworking protractor that I had, and she sighted along it to get as close to 15 degrees as she could, and I made the cut. I verified the angle using the trigonometry described in Appendix A at the end of this article. I also realized that I could have used trig to make the first cut without any help. I also remembered some geometry that said that that wedge could be used to set any later 15 or 75 degree cuts. These test cuts turned out perfectly, and are shown in the photos below.
Three of the photos referred to below are shown in the photo gallery within this site. However, I have retained the photo descriptions and captions in this article. For anyone interested in the complete paper, including all the photos and the PowerPoint illustration, I can provide a complete M/S Word version.)
For better understanding, the first two photos show the cuts unassembled, and the third photo shows the bottom joints assembled. They are shown as viewed from the left side as seen facing the desk, so that the front of the desk is on the right and the wall is on the left.
Photo 1. Test frame, top joint – open
Photo 2. Test frame, bottom joints – open
Photo 3. Test frame, bottom joints – closed
The following is a description of the desk as I started construction. This description is somewhat redundant with Erika’s 28 November email, but I retain the redundancies for the sake of completeness and clarity. (As we go, I will note the major changes made during construction.)
The frame consists of three boards on each side. Each board is 1 inch thick by 3 inches wide. On each side, the vertical board is 64 inches long, the horizontal board is about 20 inches long, and the diagonal board is about 67 inches long. The horizontal board is joined to the other two using lap joints, and the vertical and diagonal boards are joined edge-to-edge at the top and may use a screw from the back. The angle used for all the angular joints is about 15 degrees.
All shelves are 24 inches long by ¾ inches thick and are joined to the frame using 3/8 or ½ inch deep dados. The top two shelves should extend to the outside edge of the diagonal frame member and be beveled to the correct angle to be flush. All shelves will have a two-inch high backstop. The top shelf is about 4.5 inches deep and the bottom of the top shelf is 6 inches from the top of the frame. The second shelf is about 7.5 inches deep and the bottom of the second shelf is 17 inches from the top of the frame. The desktop (shelf) is about 20 inches deep and the bottom of the desk is 35 inches from the top of the frame.
The desk dimensions are 24 inches wide by 20 inches deep, but there will be a 3-inch border of a wood different from the center. So the inner square dimensions are 18 by 14. (Note: At this point, the details of the desktop remained to be determined.)
The horizontal frame member will be joined to the other members a couple of inches above the floor. This will make the bottom of the vertical and diagonal members the legs of the desk.
A brace will join the bottoms of the two vertical frame members at the back for stability. It will be three inches by ¾ inches by 24 inches and will be joined using 3/8 inch mortice and tenons. In addition, I also saw the need for a cross-brace at the bottom rear of the desk; this will provide more lateral stability. The details of this were to be determined later.
The above is a good description of the desk at this point in the process. The major change was in the thickness of the boards that composed the frame. I recommended increasing them to 1 inch from the ¾ inch for strength and appearance. And cross bracing was added for better stability, and some of the joinery details changed.
Buying the Materials:
Next came the calculation of the lumber needed and the actual purchase at Exotic Lumber in Annapolis, Maryland. Both Erika and Eleanor joined me in making that purchase. The following is a list of the material we wanted to buy. It is copied from an email that Erika sent me. What we did buy changed based on the reality of what they had available at the time. For clarity, it is noted here that the thickness of the rough boards purchased are expressed in increments of ¼th of an inch; this is described in detail in Appendix B.
“For the frame, we need to buy three 6 and ½-foot rough cherry boards. Two are about 7 or 8 inches wide and one is about four or 5 inches wide, either five quarter or six quarter inches thick.
“For the shelves, etc., and assuming 8 inch widths, we need four cherry short boards, which are six or seven feet long and 4/4 inches thick.
“We also need to look at what they have to do the design for the desk shelf, either soft maple or exotics in one quarter thickness or something else.”
That’s the end of her message. Next comes the buying of the wood. For those readers who are not familiar with but are interested in the details of how to buy wood for woodworking projects, I have incorporated some of these details in Appendix B at the end of this article.
Although we had been there before to see what they had and how it worked, we finally made the buying trip to Exotic Lumber on January 2, 2015. Using Erika’s initial specification and the modifications we agreed to, the final list of the boards we needed for construction follows.
The frame required five 6 and ½ -foot pieces of cherry each three inches wide and one inch thick. Four pieces would be used for the vertical and diagonal members of the frame and one would be used for the two horizontal members. The rough boards should be 5/4 cherry six feet long. These will be planed to one inch and ripped into five 3-inch wide boards. The shelves, including the desktop, and the backstops and brace at the bottom are all ¾ inch cherry. These can come from several of the 4/4 rough Cherry “shorts,” which are six feet long. We needed a total width of at least 42 inches of 36 inch long boards, all ¾ inches thick. This would determine the number of cherry shorts we should buy.
At the lumber yard, we found that the 5/4 cherry boards were not to my liking, so I asked to look at the 6/4 boards. These were very nice, so I paid a little extra for the better boards. My original plan was to buy these rough boards and take them to BISM to plane and rip them myself. Then I sort of accidently found that Exotic Lumber would do all the planing and ripping for me for $25 for all the boards – both the 6/4s and the 4/4s. It would have cost me that much just to get the boards to BISM, and then there is all the time and effort to do the work. And the lumber yard could do it while we waited. So we came home with six 6-foot boards planed to ¾ inch and various widths, mostly five and six inches wide. And six pieces of 3 inch by 1 inch by 6 feet boards, all cherry.
The only fly in this ointment was that Exotic Lumber’s planer had a couple of slight chips in the blade. I didn’t notice it at the time, but when we got the boards home, I found a couple of slight ridges running the length of each board. They all had to be sanded smooth. This wasn’t hard to do, but it took a fair amount of time and effort.
Erika also requested a decorative inlay of maple on the desk surface itself. We did purchase a ½ inch thick piece of hard maple that was about 4 feet long and 4 inches wide for this purpose. It turned out in the end that I couldn’t figure out how to use it in a pleasing way for this project, so it has been used to good effect in a jewelry box I recently made for my granddaughter. (This is shown in the photo in Appendix E at the very end of this article.) So my wife and I later returned to Exotic Lumber for a rough board of soft maple, which they planed to ¾ inch. Its use will be described later.
The first step in construction, after sanding both the ¾- and 1- inch boards, was to cut and build the two frames. Before proceeding with this description, let me give a brief overview of the tools I have in my basement workshop, where all this work was done and which is shown in the below photo.
Photo 4. My (slightly messy) workshop
The shop includes a 10-inch, 2-horsepower, Craftsman radial arm saw that is more than 35 years old, a small, portable 10-inch table saw that is fairly new, a 6-inch band saw several years old, a 3/8-inch power hand drill that I bought in 1970, several kinds of sanders, and numerous hand tools including many chisels, rulers, and clamps of various sizes. I also have a very nice, sturdy and fairly large workbench with a good wood vise. The only saw I used for this desk was the radial arm saw. For a discussion of the three power saws I own and their attributes and pros and cons, see Appendix C at the end of this article.
One of the key tools for my projects since I lost my sight is a Click-Rule. It allows me to make measurements accurate to 1/16th of an inch and 1/32nd if I try hard. I used it for almost all the measurements for this project. I purchased one ($80) from the Independence Market at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore (410-659-9314). It is the only tool that I use that is designed specifically for use by blind woodworkers; all my other tools are of standard design for general use.
The Click-Rule has tactile markings to enable blind users to tell where a moveable shaft is set. Moving the shaft in or out makes a clicking sound when it moves; hence the name. One click represents a movement of 1/16th inch. My Click Rule is shown in the below photo – with the movable shaft extended 2 inches of a maximum extension of six inches. The Click Rule as shown can measure from 1/16th of an inch up to 1 foot, but it comes with three 12-inch extension rods to expand its capability to 4 feet. The leading edges of the two flanges are exactly six inches apart; so the ruler as shown is set to measure either two inches or eight inches, depending on which flange is used for the measurement. And the flanges are each exactly ¼ inch thick, which can be used to accurately position cuts. (See the discussion on cutting dados later in this article.) I found this to be tricky, and I made a few errors at first, and I still have to think carefully to get it right.
Photo 5. The Click-Rule
For approximate measurements, I sometimes used a wooden, folding rule. I know how long it is for any number of open segments, and I could get within a few inches with that. For this project, I also cut several strips of wood to lengths that I frequently had to measure, in particular the 25 inches for the distance between the two frames.
The very first cut for the desk was at the top of the first vertical frame member, using the aforementioned pine wedge to set the angle, and the resultant cherry wedge is shown in the photo below. This was used for the second vertical member and for all subsequent angular cuts. This was done for consistency.
Photo 6. The cherry wedge
Using this wedge often required thought, creativity, and experimentation to get the required angular cut. I had to use the radial arm saw’s fence, which runs perpendicular to the saw blade in the cross-cut position, and/or a right angle square to create a fence parallel to the blade. Then I used the wedge to get the desired angle.
Another problem that had to be solved was how to make a cut on the end of a 6-foot long board using a radial arm saw with a 3-foot wide table. The end not being cut had to be supported, and I don’t have any sky hooks in my shop. Nor do I have any of the adjustable supports made for this purpose. These have a height-adjustable roller so the board can be supported and moved, but they aren’t cheap. So I made a substitute using a stepladder, a support that fits over one of the steps, and some of my wife’s sewing magazines to adjust the final height to the height of the radial arm saw’s table. One end of the board sits on the saw’s table and the other sits on the jury-rigged stepladder – problem solved. It’s crude, but it works. I used this device many times in building this desk. Again, this is a part of woodworking that I really enjoy.
As described above, the first two cuts for the desk were to create the angled surfaces at the top of the two vertical frame members. Later, these angled surfaces would be glued (and screwed) to the top edges of the diagonal members. Then one of the uncut 6-foot 1-inch cherry boards was cut in half to become the two horizontal frame members. At this point, all these boards were cut longer than required, to allow for mistakes and “final tuning.”
Next came the four lap joints that would join the two horizontal frame members to the vertical and diagonal members. This required removing ½ inch thickness from each board involved in each joint. There are four joints, so there were eight areas where wood had to be removed to a depth of ½ inch, and each area was about three inches wide.
In woodworking terms, a dado cuts across the grain of a board, so all these lap joints require making dados. (In woodworking, a groove is a cut that runs along the board.) There are circular saw blades for just this purpose; called dado blades. In previous projects, I had made narrow dados by making repeated passes with a standard blade, so I didn’t own a dado blade and had used one only at BISM. Since I had to remove a lot of wood for these wide dados, I bought one. They consist of multiple blades that can be stacked together to make a wider cut on each pass. In Appendix D, I have included many details about dado blades and making dados, including ensuring their accurate placement on the board.
There is an old, and very true, saying in woodworking: Measure twice and cut once. For all my recent work, I always expand this saying to include the set-up for the cut and I increase the “twice” to three or four times. And, for all woodworkers and particularly for the blind woodworker, the setup must include the placement, and any needed movement, of hands. I am right handed, and I usually used my left hand to hold the wood and my right to pull the saw blade, and I always made very sure that my left hand was not where the blade was going to go. Making one wrong cut can lead to one or both of two results: one can remove fingers and the other will lead to lots of extra work to either fix the piece or do it again.
Next came the gluing and screwing required to assemble the two frames. For each frame, the first joint that had to be done was the one at the top – the edge-to-edge gluing of the top of the vertical and diagonal pieces. Because of the 15 degree angle at the top of the vertical piece, the problem here is that there were no parallel sides to make a good clamp that would not slip as tension was applied. This was exacerbated by the fact that liquid glue is actually a lubricant until it sets up, and the joint has to be held motionless until that happens. (I used Elmer’s Carpenter’s Wood Glue throughout this project. In many of the joints, I also used either wax paper or plastic wrap to protect surfaces I did not want glue on.)
To glue this joint, I decided to use a single screw to hold the two pieces together until the glue was completely dry. I used a large wood screw about 4 inches long, and I drilled holes from the back through the vertical member into the diagonal, front, member, such that, once the glue was applied, the screw would pull the joint together as it was tightened. Once the screw was in place, I was able to apply pressure over the length of the joint. This same procedure was used on both frames, and in the end, I decided to leave the screws in place. These screws are the only metal objects in the desk. (In trying to countersink the screws, I inadvertently chiseled a gouge around the head of one screw. I was told that the county fair judges took points off for this.)
Photo 7. Upper frame joint with screw
Once these joints were done, and I was mildly and pleasantly surprised that the joints were solid and the angles of the two frames were virtually identical, the horizontal member had to be attached near the bottom of the vertical and diagonal pieces. I left 1 inch of these pieces extended to become the “legs” of the desk. Also, the lap joints at the back had to allow for the brace board to fit into that joint along with the horizontal frame member. It was in making these lap joints that I made a somewhat serious mistake. I failed to get one of the angular dados in the correct place. I missed by about ¼ inch. This led to making the dado wider on one side and filling in the gap with a slice of cherry on the other. I did it the best I could, and after the sanding, it didn’t look (feel) too bad. If you are not looking for it, you might not notice it. (However, the judges at the county fair did see it, and this, together with the aforementioned gouge around one of the screws, may have cost me a first-place ribbon.)
At the same time I was working on the frame, I was also cutting several pieces of ¾ inch cherry, each about 30 inches long. These were for the two top shelves, the three backstops, and the braces at the bottom in the rear. The boards for each shelf were edge-glued to appropriate widths, and sanded smooth, and set aside for later use. The only noteworthy issue with the shelves was the actual gluing. This required applying the glue to both edges of each board and clamping them together so as to minimize the sanding required. I have done this many times before, but I had never had to glue boards this long when I couldn’t see what I was doing. It had to be done by feel and fairly quickly. This initially led to much glue on fingers, but I figured it out without too much mess.
Once the frames were complete and sanded, dados had to be made in the inside edges of the vertical and diagonal members to slide the shelves into. These dados were ¾ inch wide and about 3/8 inch deep. While different from the original specification, my plan at this point was to make the width of the desk 27 inches as measured from the outsides of the frame. This made the width as measured between the frames 25 inches. (This choice would turn out to be fortunate, as will be seen later.) Of course, the dados had to be at the correct height, as specified in the desk descriptions above, and the dados had to be aligned so that the shelves would be level when the desk is upright. The last point was easy since the dados could be cut in both the front and back members at the same time with the vertical frame member against the fence on the radial arm saw. This is another situation where I could have used sky hooks, but I had to use my jury-rigged stepladder to support the end of the frame. The only problem here was that the dados had to be on the correct side of the frame, and this required putting the stepladder on different sides of the saw for each frame. Not hard to do, but it took a while to get it set up right.
What has not been discussed yet is the third shelf – the working surface of the desk. This is the 20-inch deep shelf that Erika wanted to be a decorative desktop, one that has a pattern of maple incorporated into the cherry. We tried many variations using the hard maple that we bought on our first trip to Exotic Lumber. These included cutting the maple into rectangles that could be pleasingly inlayed in a solid cherry surface. To make a very long story somewhat shorter, none of us could come up with a design that made anyone happy, and I had reservations about doing inlays since I don’t have a router that I would trust to remove ½ inch of the cherry so that the maple pieces would fit tightly. I also did some research on the hardness of hard maple versus cherry. I was concerned about having to sand the finished surface and the problem that might result using two woods with very different hardnesses. (See Appendix B for a discussion of the Janka hardness scale.)
So we did a reset and looked for other ideas. Erika was busy at the time with her job and said “surprise me.” I had decided that soft maple would be a much better hardness match with the cherry, and my wife and I made another trip to the lumber yard. We bought a piece of rough 4/4 soft maple that they planed to ¾ inch.
Then Eleanor came up with the idea that is reflected in the final product. We talked through it and, when we visited her sister, Rosalie, in Jupiter, Florida, in late February and early March, I sat down with Rosalie to make a scale drawing of the pattern so we could see what it would look like. With my help, Rosalie was able to do it using Power Point software, and the result is shown below. We all liked it.
(Again, this PowerPoint diagram is not included in this article, but the desktop consists of a border of cherry surrounding alternating thin rectangular bands of first soft maple and then cherry . Each band is about 3/8th inch wide. Finally, there is a rectangle of Maple in the center. Easy to describe, hard to construct.)
Power Point design for desktop
Then, the next challenge was to build it, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it. It required a lot of cutting thin strips of both maple and cherry and lots of gluing and trimming and sanding. And I had to keep the maple separate from the cherry.
I first calculated the appropriate sizes of each piece and started from the center and worked out. The rectangle of maple was easy. Then I built the cherry surrounding it. Four strips of cherry glued on one at a time. Glue the first strip, cut and sand it to length, then do it three more times until the cherry ring was complete. Then repeat for the maple ring. Then the result had to be surrounded by wider pieces of cherry, and the width of each piece had to be carefully calculated to ensure that the final desktop was exactly 20 inches deep by the 25 and ¾ inches wide required to fit in the frame’s dados. Then the final step was to sand the whole thing and make sure it was both smooth and flat. The result is shown in the photo in the photo gallery.
Photo 8. The resulting desktop
Next came the assembly of the desk. This took a long time and was rather frustrating, but was fun because it took a lot of imagination and figuring things out. I started this process without any glue, called dry-fitting. I was dealing with the two very large frames, three shelves, and a lot of smaller pieces. During these many dry runs, I felt like I needed several extra hands, but, after much trial and error and the use of several measuring sticks and clamps, I was able to figure it out.
All these pieces had to fit together and in a certain order. If the order wasn’t right, I could get to a point where I could not fit in a piece, and that would be a huge problem once I got to the point of actually using glue. I can’t count the number of times I put it together and took it apart. These dry runs were rehearsals to get the order of assembly correct and to do a lot of fine tuning of the individual pieces. I did all this with the desk lying down, sometimes on its back and sometimes on its front. On its back, it was easier to fit the shelves, and on its front, it was easier to work on the braces that fit on the back.
The only part that hasn’t yet been discussed is the cross-brace that provides lateral stability. This was done by using two pieces of ¾ inch cherry that fit in an “X” shape that fit between the frame members on the sides and between the bottom of the third shelf, the desktop, and the top of the horizontal brace that fit in the dados that also held the horizontal frame members. It turned out that that rectangle was actually a perfect square – 25 inches by 25 inches. This made the construction of the lap joint easy; the two pieces crossed in the middle of each, and the angle was exactly 90 degrees. These pieces were added last, and I was concerned about how tightly these pieces would fit, which was important for the stability of the desk, but they went in very tightly, to the point that I did not use any glue in the lap joint itself. The result as installed is shown in the photo gallery.
Photo 9. Cross-brace, bottom rear
As an afterthought, I used some of the leftover maple and cherry to make two desk accessories: a small, tall box to store narrow and long objects, such as pencils and pens, and a small, shallow box for other desk-related accessories, such as paper clips, erasers, etc. These small boxes required the use of thin pieces of wood, and this allowed me to explore the world of resawing. Resawing is a technique of cutting a thick board into thinner boards; in this case cutting a ¾-inch thick board into two ¼-inch thick boards. This is usually done using a band saw, and I have one in my shop. I had used one at BISM for this purpose with less than satisfactory results, but I had no troubles using mine at home. So I used the resulting pieces to construct the two small boxes.
Photo 10. Small desk accessories
Now the desk construction and assembly was complete, and the last step was to apply several coats of tung oil and two coats of paste wax. Erika had specified both, and I had done some of each on my previous project, the small table. But this was a much larger task. At BISM, I had used the easily available product called Tung Oil Finish before, but I wanted to do some research to find if that was the best thing to use. It turns out that this product is not really tung oil. It may contain a small amount of tung oil, or it may not, but the rest is chemicals that are added to speed up the drying time.
On the other hand, pure tung oil is a natural product that comes from the seeds of the tung tree, which is found only in China and in some areas of South America. It is a nontoxic vegetable oil and can be used on surfaces that are used for food preparation. And it cures, rather than dries, over time to bring out lots of rich color and grain patterns that my wife says makes the wood “pop.” It does take a long time for each coat to cure before applying the next coat. It is rather expensive and cannot be found in any hardware store, but my favorite woodworking supplier, Lee Valley, carries pure tung oil so I bought some.
Before starting to apply the oil, I spent some time “raising the grain.” If this is not done, some bad things can happen, as was the case for the first top I built and finished for the small table. In that case I had perfectly sanded the glued-up top and followed that with tung oil and wax, just as I was instructed at BISM. A couple of days later, I noticed with much dismay that I could feel the seams of the top’s surface. For several months, nobody could explain what happened. I ended up making a completely new top.
When I read the directions for the pure tung oil, they reminded me that the oil will raise the grain if it is not already done. I knew this but had forgotten it. It turns out that a wood surface will become slightly rough if it gets wet. The water causes the grain of the wood to stand up, and it has to be sanded again to get it smooth. Later applications of water will not affect it nearly as much, and one time is usually enough. The technique is simply to use a fairly wet sponge (You really can’t get it too wet.) To wipe all the wood surfaces, let them dry, and sand. When I used the wet sponge on the desk, I was surprised to find that the tiny ridges mentioned above when describing the cherry boards that Exotic Lumber planed for me had reappeared. Not as much as before, but it was pretty noticeable, especially on the desk frame. So I had to seriously resand all those surfaces. Then I raised the grain again, and sanded again, just to be sure.
Once all that was done, I used a small pump-style plastic bottle to help in the application of the tung oil. This was the first large piece of furniture that I had the pleasure of putting pure tung oil on. The oil actually smells rather nice; even my wife agreed. And there are no warnings about ventilation, as exist with many other finishing products. I simply pumped a small amount onto my fingertips and rubbed it on, spread it out as far as I could, which wasn’t far for each pump’s-worth, and spent a few seconds rubbing it in. The pump bottle made this task much easier than it would have been without it, and I soon got the hang of it. It took about 90 minutes for each coat. I did a reasonable area (about one-fourth of the project), then went back to wipe off the excess, and continued until that coat was done. Then I came back about an hour later and wiped again to get up any resurfaced excess. (Note that tung oil is an oil and rags that get damp from wiping off any excess oil should be properly handled. They are susceptible to spontaneous combustion and should be spread out to dry and disposed of properly.)
I found no consistent directions as to how long to wait between applications and how many coats to apply. I waited at least three days for each coat to cure and put on three coats on the frame and four on the shelves. (The Lee Valley directions recommended up to ten coats on surfaces such as the top of a desk! But it gave no explanation of what the value of this many coats is.) No one said anything about putting furniture paste wax over tung oil, but I did it anyway.
The final result is shown in one of the photos in the photo gallery.
Photos 11 and 12. Ladder desk – final product with and without accessories and ribbon
And this project and story are finished.
Erika saw her desk for the first time at the Howard County Fair, and I believe she was surprised.
I need to thank a few people, primarily for their help during the design and construction of this project. Erika Schissler, Eleanor Schissler, and Rosalie Knowles helped as mentioned in the text. Also, Eleanor helped in finding burn marks, which I couldn’t see in some of the cherry boards that I ripped.
Although this story was written by me, Eleanor, Erika, Mistra Moazami, and my son, Aaron Schissler, took photos. Mistra also helped with inserting and sizing the photos into the original text. Thanks to you all.
Appendix A – Trigonometry used in desk construction
The 15 degree angle runs throughout this desk and is made using a wedge that measures about 14.72 degrees. This first cut was made using my wife’s help to sight along a protractor as described in the main text. The angle was later confirmed using trigonometry’s tangent and inverse tangent functions, and I later realized that I could have used trig to make the first cut without any help.
For those interested, the tangent of an angle of a right triangle is defined as the length of the side opposite the angle divided by the length of the side adjacent to the angle. This is usually referred to as the opposite over the adjacent. Measuring those sides of the wedge that resulted from the first cut and doing the division yielded 0.262712 as the tangent of the angle. Then looking up the inverse tangent of this number using an inverse tangent calculator found on the internet yielded an angle of 14.72 degrees. (This could also have been calculated using Excel functions on a spreadsheet.) The tangent, 0.262712, can also be used to check the measurements that Erika called for in her original design. This yields a very close confirmation of the above shelf depths and the depth of the desk itself. For example, applying this calculation says that the front of the diagonal leg extends 19.8 inches from the wall, compared to the 20 inches that Erika specified. As they say, close enough for government work.
Appendix B – Buying wood from a lumber yard
To begin this discussion, I note that most of my previous projects used pre-planed, softwoods from Home Depot or Lowes. These boards are referred to as 1-inch but are actually only ¾ inch thick, and recently they have become even thinner. Also the widths of these boards are somewhat smaller than the size quoted. For example, a 6-inch board is actually only 5 and ½ inches wide and a 12-inch board is 11 and ¼ inches wide. Both Home Depot and Lowes also sell pre-planed hardwood boards, but only oak, maple, and poplar. All these pre-planed boards come in a variety of widths (also narrower than advertised) and lengths and are priced by the linear foot. I always had a hard time finding boards that met my quality standards. Many are warped or twisted and many of the softwood boards have other defects as well. It was not unusual for me to pick through ten boards to find one or two I liked.
(The actual hardness or softness of a wood does not determine whether it is a hardwood or a softwood. A softwood is defined as coming from a tree that does not lose its foliage in winter, while hardwoods do lose their leaves. For example, while poplar is a hardwood, it is only slightly harder than most pines, which are softwoods, and there are hardwoods that are much softer than some softwoods. There is a Janka scale that quantifies the hardness of a lot of wood species, most of which I have never heard of. Relevant to this project is the fact that hard maple has a hardness of 1540, and cherry and soft maple are both about 1000. The higher the number, the harder the wood, with numbers that range from 22 to 5040. To name two fairly common species, balsa is 100 and ebony is 3230.)
All the discussion of wood sizes changes when buying wood from a lumber yard such as Exotic Lumber. First, they sell mostly rough lumber, both hardwood and soft, but they specialize in hardwoods. Rough lumber needs to be planed to the desired thickness and ripped to the desired width before it can be used for most applications. You can buy it rough and plane and rip it yourself or, for an extra fee, they will plane the rough boards and/or rip them to width according to your needs. They carry many species in various sizes – lengths, widths, and thicknesses. You can wander through the stacks and pick want you want, or they will help you out to the extent you need. All their lumber has been well dried and is usually much better quality than what can be bought at a hardware store. If you don’t count the cost of planeing and ripping, starting with rough lumber is also quite a bit less expensive.
Next comes the method used to describe sizes and how it is sold. All boards at a lumber yard are measured and sold by the board foot, which is defined as a volume that is equivalent to one foot by one foot by one inch, or 144 cubic inches. And the price is per board foot. The measurements of a board are real inches and feet, and thickness is measured in quarters of an inch. The thinnest rough lumber board is 4/4, which is 1 inch, which is usually planed to ¾ inches for standard usage. Next comes 5/4, which is 1 and ¼ inches. Then comes 6/4, 1 and ½ inches, and 8/4, 2 inches. The language used for these is four quarter, five quarter, six quarter, and eight quarter. And the thickness can go up from there. (When I bought wood for the aforementioned small table, I bought a large, and heavy, piece of 8/4 cherry that was four feet long by nine inches wide. That was a total of six board feet. I cut it in half to yield two 2-foot long pieces, planed one to 1 and ½ inches thick using BISM’s planer, and ripped four blanks for the table’s legs, each 1 and ½ inches square and 2 feet long, using BISM’s table saw.)
Exotic Lumber has a web site, which has a table with all the species and thicknesses in stock and the price for each board foot. They usually also have special deals, including something called cherry shorts, which are rough 4/4 boards either six or seven feet long. They also usually have a small stock of boards that are already planed and ripped in common dimensions, but I don’t know how these are priced.
Appendix C – Power saws
For those readers unfamiliar with the three power saws I have in my shop, this appendix is a basic overview along with some opinions I have formed over the years. First, any saw can be dangerous and must be used with care, and this is especially true with power saws. The circular saw blades on the radial arm and table saws are very sharp and spin very fast (about 4,000 rpm), so they can do a lot of work , or a lot of damage, very quickly.
For most readers, the table saw is probably the most familiar of the three. The blade is mounted under the table and can be raised or lowered (or tilted) through a slot. The blade can be retracted below the surface, or it can be raised to nearly three inches above. For safety, the blade should be set only high enough to do the job.
The table saw comes with a movable fence that is parallel to the blade and an adjustable miter gauge that is usually perpendicular to the blade. These are used to guide the wood while cutting. The fence is used for ripping along the wood’s grain, and the miter gauge is used for cross cuts across the grain. Once set to the proper height, the blade spins but does not move. Thus, the wood has to be pushed through the blade to make the cut. There are tools that can be purchased or made to help with this – including push sticks and featherboards – but I use these only in special circumstances. There are also saw guards, usually made of see through plastic, that can be used to cover the blade. My table saw has one, but I find it very awkward to use. (And I never even saw the saw guard at BISM.)
The ultimate in table saw safety is probably the “Saw Stop” table saw. It will stop the blade nearly instantaneously if the system detects that flesh is being cut. But it stops by destroying the blade and related components, and it costs a lot extra. (See a longer discussion of the Saw Stop in Reference 1.)
Next, I describe the radial arm saw. The major difference between the radial arm saw and the table saw is that the blade on the radial arm saw hangs from an arm that extends above the work table instead of under it. For cross cutting with the radial arm saw, the cut is made by holding the board still and moving the saw blade through it. Most of these cuts are made with the blade actually riding in a slot in the top of the table, which is made with the blade before ever using the saw the first time. (I put a sacrificial sheet of Masonite on the table that came with the saw.) The arm can be raised and lowered to make partial cuts, such as is required for dados, which figured prominently in the ladder desk project. The arm can also be swiveled to the side to make angled or miter cuts. There is a fence at the back of the table running perpendicular to the blade. The blade itself can be rotated to make it parallel to the fence; this is done for ripping, in which case the blade remains fixed and the wood is pushed between the fence and the blade to make the cut.
As with the table saw, the radial arm saw blade can be slanted for beveled cuts. But the radial arm saw can be changed in other ways and is thus more versatile than the table saw. For example, I have used my radial arm saw as a horizontal drill press. And there are other, creative ways to use the saw. Most recently, I have used a simple jig to cut miter joints without bothering to swivel the arm to the 45 degree angle. Instead, I used a scrap board that was long ago cut at a 45 degree angle. I laid it next to the fence and put the piece I was cutting along the slanted edge and made the miter cut using the standard set-up for cross cutting. Very simple and very accurate as well.
The radial arm saw has the reputation for being more dangerous than the table saw. This is undoubtedly because the saw blade hangs from an arm that extends over the table, and the cut is made by moving the blade instead of the wood. There is a cover that fits over the top half of the blade, but it is true that more of the blade is exposed compared to the table saw. And the blade has to be pulled through the wood to make a crosscut. The wood is stationary and the blade moves.
This may seem more scary, but I believe that it is safer; I can hold the wood against the fence with my hand or, in the case of cross-cutting, I can use a clamp to hold the board in place. Also, if a problem arises and the spinning blade wants to send a piece of wood flying, the fact that the top of the table saw’s blade does the cutting will send it toward the operator while the bottom of the radial arm saw’s blade does the cutting and will send it away into the fence. While this is not true for ripping with a radial arm saw, the blade cover has anti-kickback pawls to prevent kickback from happening.
After years of use, I have to say that I prefer the radial arm saw over the table saw. It’s true that I did buy the small table saw to make slots in the edge of a board (to receive a recessed panel in a cabinet door), since I could not figure out a safe way to do this with the radial arm saw. And I do have to admit that since I made that purchase, I have found a few other uses for the table saw. Other than those special situations, the radial arm saw is my power saw of choice. In short, I find the radial arm saw to be more versatile and just as safe if not safer than the table saw.
In my opinion, safe use of the table saw, and the radial arm saw, requires thinking about where the hands are at the start and will be throughout the entire cut, and this must include how the piece will be removed from the surface. It is also good to know where the saw’s off switch is and how it works. All this constitutes a mental rehearsal, which I consider mandatory, especially for the blind woodworker.
Table and radial arm saws take a ten-inch diameter circular blade. These days, nearly all blades have carbide tips on the teeth for greater hardness to make it last longer. There is a great variety of circular saw blades available, with differences in the number and design of the teeth. Numbers vary between about 24 and 80, and there are various sets and widths of teeth. I use an 80 teeth blade to get a very smooth cut, but smaller numbers of teeth have their uses.
The third power saw I will describe is the band saw. This is very different than those previously described. It is a tall saw with a relatively small footprint that is primarily designed to make curved cuts, sometimes to the point of intricacy. The sharpness of the curve is limited by the width of the blade. The blade is a long, continuous, narrow blade that runs over two large pulleys, one above and one below the cutting area. The cutting is done on a small table that can be tilted if desired. The blade runs in only one direction, such that the blade is always moving straight down through a small opening in the table. The wood is moved through the blade to make the cut. Only the work piece being cut is moving. The band saw is much safer than the table or radial arm saws, since the blade moves relatively slowly and only downward. Thus there are no forces to cause the wood to fly off into space. Because I can’t see to cut curves, the only thing I use my band saw for now is to resaw thicker boards into thinner ones. To resaw a board, a fence has to be set up to guide the board through the blade in a straight line, with the board sitting on it edge. It is important that the fence be parallel to the side of the blade. In this case, the cut will be straight, and the thickness of the resulting board is the distance between the fence and the blade. Resawing is best done using a wide band saw blade, as this tends to cut straighter than a narrow one, i.e., a ½ inch blade is better for resawing than a 1/8 inch one.
One caution concerning resawing with a band saw has to do with the type of blade used. Most saw blades have a set to the teeth such that alternate teeth are angled differently, which aids cutting, but it also can result in a rough surface. This has to be sanded if the surface needs to be smooth. There are band saw blades that have no set to the teeth, but I don’t have one.
Before turning on any power saw, check to see whether there is anything sitting on the table that doesn’t need to be there. When the saw starts, the table will vibrate and things can move, potentially into the moving saw blade, and this can be very dangerous, especially for the table and radial arm saws. If something hits the spinning blade, it will go flying at a high speed. This is most important to remember for the blind, since we can’t tell if the table is clear at a glance. This has happened to me and it is truly scary. I was not hurt, but could have been.
Appendix D – Cutting dados
Dados are cross cuts that go only partially through the board, leaving a groove that is typically ¾ inches or wider. To make dados easier and faster than using lots of passes with a standard blade, which is about 1/8 inches wide or less, the dado blade was invented. A dado blade is actually a number of blades that can be stacked together to achieve a width between ¼ and ¾ inch in 1/8 inch increments.
I bought a dado blade. When I tried it out I was disappointed in the result. First, my saw is not a full-powered, professional one, so it didn’t have the horsepower to make a wide, deep cut in one pass. Second, it left the bottom of the dado rough. All regular saw blades have teeth that have a set to them, which makes it easier to saw a board in two, i.e., to make a complete cut. But a dado only removes some of the wood to get the required depth. If you use a regular blade to cut a dado, you have to make repeated passes and the bottom of the dado will not be smooth. I always thought that a dado blade not only required fewer passes but also left a smooth bottom. The one I bought did not do this. I ended up using some of the blades from the dado set to cut 3/8 inches with each pass. So I got to make fewer passes but still had a rough bottom. I did some sanding but did not get all the roughness smooth, and it did not seem to matter; it glued fine.
(Another attribute of a dado blade that I wasn’t aware of is that it has a diameter of only 8 inches. This is done to make the blade lighter than a 10-inch dado blade would be. No big deal, but obviously it does affect the height setting of the saw.)
There were several challenges in making these dados. First was the depth of the cut; for the lap joints in the frame, it had to be exactly ½ inch of wood removed, and this had to include the sanding. Else the surface of the finished joint would not be flush, which would require more sanding. Then there was the angle of the cuts for the two joints of the horizontal and diagonal frame members. Lastly, there was the issue of exactly where to start and stop cutting to get the required placement and width of the dado, and this was complicated by the 15 degree angle for those joints affected.
The solution to the first issue was easy; I simply adjusted the blade to the correct height and made some test cuts using scrap pieces of the 1-inch cherry, until I got the desired depth of cut. Next came getting the angle right, and making sure I was cutting the correct side of each board. All I can say is that I had to be very careful and double check myself multiple times before I started cutting. Setting the angle using the wedge was as described in the main text, but I usually had to consider several different possible setups before I got it right.
The last issue, figuring out where to make the dado, was the hardest and the most prone to error. In fact, I did make a couple of mistakes, which I had to fix later. (The discussion that follows was written assuming using a radial arm saw, but any changes needed for a table should be clear.)
For setting the location and width of a dado, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is that any saw blade has a thickness, called a kerf (slightly less than 1/8 inch for my regular circular saw blade), and that it is important which side of the blade is the one to measure to. For example, if the dado is made using multiple passes from right to left, then the important side for the first cut is the right side of the blade and the important side for the last cut is the left side. Because the saw blade does not move left or right, making multiple passes requires moving the board between passes. The method I ended up with was to use a “stop.” A stop is a stick clamped to the table or fence to stop the motion of the board so that the last cut is exactly where the dado is finished.
In the above example, where the dado is made with the first cut on the right side of the dado and the last cut is on the left side, the board being cut will be moved to the right between passes. In this case, I put the stop on the right, exactly where it needed to be to ensure the last cut is correct. Then I made the first cut exactly where it needed to be and move the board to the right and continued until the stop was reached and then made the final cut. Note that the dado can also be made by reversing all the lefts and rights above. Also note that, for angled dados, the width of the dado must be measured perpendicular to the sides of the dado, not along the board being cut.
Appendix E – A jewelry box made from desk leftovers
Photo 13. My granddaughter’s new jewelry box
This jewelry box was made from several pieces left over from the ladder desk, in particular the hard maple board originally purchased with the idea of inlaying it in the desktop. Instead, this board was used for the sides of the jewelry box, and the top is made from the cherry. Also, some small pieces of the soft maple were used. There is a small removable tray inside the box, making two levels of storage. Each of these two levels is further divided with two thin strips of cherry and soft maple that run diagonally from corner to corner. The box was finished with tung oil and paste wax.
“A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sander races, blind woodworkers, and baseball bats,” By Spike Carlsen. Published by Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers. Copyright 2008 by Spike Carlsen.
As I was browsing the National Library Service’s BARD (Braille and Audio Readable Download) website, I discovered this book. It is available there as a digital talking book. (DB72200, read by Bob Moore in the studios of Potomac Talking Book Services Incorporated for the Library of Congress, May 2011) It contains a lot of information concerning all manner of subjects having almost anything to do with wood. Of particular interest to the blind is a chapter on blind woodworkers. , and the following website is contained in the list of resources at the end of the book: www.woodworkingfortheblind.org . This site provides free voice recordings of woodworking publications for use by blind and visually impaired woodworkers. This reference is how I found this organization and I am now a member.
“A Splintered History of Wood” is written with a good sense of humor and is a very fun and informative read.
For questions or comments
Author’s Note: A short version of this article appeared in the December 2015 issue of The Braille Monitor, , an online and print magazine of the National Federation of the Blind. Permission was granted for further dissemination.
See the Photos in our Furniture Gallery