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Building furniture, day 2

We are making progress rebuilding the Caravel’s furniture.   Today, being the only day this week without thunderstorms in the forecast, Eleanor and I decided to clear the decks of all other obligations and work exclusively on the Caravel project.   I started around 8:30 a.m. and Eleanor joined me at 10, and we worked steadily through the day until 5:30 p.m.

caravel-closet-doors-stacked.jpgWe managed to complete the other closet door, most of the gaucho, most of the major plywood pieces, and we rough cut most of the doors and drawer fronts.   As we finish parts, they get stacked up in the Armada with the old parts for reference.   (At right, old and new closet door frames.)

It’s encouraging that much progress has been made, but discouraging to see how much there is left to do.   The entire morning was spent building the gaucho.   This turned out to be the most challenging piece so far, because the gaucho has been hacked up by at least three previous owners.   Only about half of its structure was original; the rest was a mish-mash of do-it-yourself “repairs”.

A fun part of this project has been studying how the furniture was built by the unnamed craftsmen in Jackson Center, Ohio, back in 1968.   It’s not complicated, but it is mildly impressive by virtue of its simplicity, functionality, and light weight.   The entire gaucho frame is about ten pounds.   The frame was trimmed to a bare skeleton, but despite its parsimony it has managed to last for forty years in regular use.

At the time that our Caravel was built, Airstream had been making trailers for about 33 years (minus a hiatus caused by World War II).   I suppose it’s not very surprising that they had figured out how to do it well by 1968.   Even in the 1950s, when Wally Byam was still alive, he would harp on the furniture makers to trim ounces (“Ounces make pounds”) and make use of every inch of space.

With the gaucho in our trailer, however, a bevy of hacked modifications layered upon previous repairs resulted in a very confusing mix of construction styles.   Each of three structural legs of the gaucho was constructed differently.   One appeared to be original but had a giant L-bracket screwed onto it.   Another seemed to have been stripped down and pieces were missing.   The third was augmented by a horrible heavy subframe made of 3/4″ plywood.

We also added some challenges to the project, as a result of our joinery choices.   The original design relied heavily on staples, which we don’t want to use if we can help it.   No staples or glue can be used because we need to disassemble many of the parts for shipment.   We’re using screws, which means some design modifications to the internal frames.   So far we’ve used over 100 screws, each one hidden from view.   We’re also taking the time to countersink every screw.

With the challenge of forensic study added to the task of building the thing, it ended up taking several hours of the day. We built about 90% of it, then set it aside to start cutting plywood.   Tomorrow we’ll complete it, and then break it down to a set of four flat pieces plus connecting boards.   Even unfinished, I have to say that it is a huge improvement over what was there.   I’m fairly pleased at the results.

The budget has continued to rise.   We’re up to about $900 so far, including everything.   The “general purpose” blade in my table saw was not up to the task of making clean cuts in 1/4″ veneer plywood, so Eleanor and I went to the hardware store last night to get a better one. We also got some specialized blades for the jigsaw, a couple of additional pieces of pine, and some stain.   We’ve decided that the look of the ash is a bit too “raw”, and are looking for some way to even out the appearance of it.   We’ll do some stain tests shortly, to see if we can find one that gives it a nice mellow tone without getting too red or yellow.

caravel-old-new-bulkhead.jpgWith the new blades in place, plywood cutting was fairly quick, but selecting each piece prior to cutting took some time.   We cut a major bulkhead (wall), five doors, one dinette end, and one large interior partion for the gaucho.   This took a bit of time just because of the task of wrestling 4×8 sheets of plywood, but also because each door requires two separate pieces.   The doors need to be 1/2″ thick, whereas bulkheads and interior partitions are 1/4″ thick.   Rather than buy 1/2″ and 1/4″ plywood and have more waste, we chose to duplicate what Wally’s guys did, and glue two 1/4″ sheets together to make the doors.

To complicate things, we decided to save money by using ash on the outside, and birch on the inside. The birch was about half the cost of the ash plywood.   Each sheet has an “A” side with the best appearance, and a “B” side that gets glued.   So for asymmetrical parts like the dinette end, we have to be careful to select   properly oriented pieces that look good and make good use of the sheet.   Even doors are a small challenge, because we need to orient the grain of the wood properly and avoid bad spots in the plywood.   Once we’ve selected the section of wood we’re using, we rough cut them with the jigsaw or tablesaw about 1/2″ oversize, glue them together, and trim to finished size after the glue is set.

caravel-glue-pile.jpgSince we don’t have enough clamps for all the pieces we are gluing tonight, we just slathered the pieces with glue, stacked them on the workbench, and piled heavy paving stones on top.   Hopefully this will give us a nice even attachment between the birch and ash pieces.   We’ll find out tomorrow when we come back to trim them all to final size.

After a long day like this it’s hard to have perspective.   It seems like we have more work left to do than we started with this morning.   But when I tally it up, we’re actually doing quite well.   Whether we finish by Friday is an open question right now, but if the weather is cooperative I think we just might.

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