Norm has already built several upholstered projects: a cigar chair and a pair of footstools. This episode, he'll build a bench that fits nicely at the foot of a bed, under a window or between a pair of windows.
Antiques expert Gary Sullivan has found a prototype bench. It's in rough shape, with upholstery failing, but it is the design Norm seeks. Norm likes the curved end and the upholstered sides. The bench still bears the original fabric; despite the fact that it is torn, tattered and somewhat drab. The bench is worth more with this fabric than it would be were the fabric replaced. Most pieces from this period no longer have their original upholstery. Norm tips the piece up and examines the details underneath. They include mortise and tenon joinery, corner braces to maintain square, webbing to support the cushion and even a few metal brackets added to repair it by some previous owner. Norm takes measurements and photographs.
Back in the shop, Norm's version has a darker finish and a lighter cloth. He has drawn again on the expertise of his friends from North Carolina, Kendrick Starnes and Bobby Gant for help with the upholstery. They helped him with his earlier projects.
Norm starts with the frame, built of poplar. The leg up to the curved end is the stump. Each pair of stumps connects with a heavy piece of wood that supports the side and forms the arm. Norm glues up two pieces of poplar to make a blank for this, and then turns his attention to the thinner, longer pieces he'll form into the stumps. He uses a full scale template of the stump cut from plywood to trace the design onto these pieces. Before cutting the shape he visits his dedicated mortise cutter to create the mortises into which the other frame pieces will fit. It is much easier to make these before cutting and shaping the stump than after. These mortises are 3/4” deep.
The long rails that form the front and back of the seat frame also require mortises for the center support rails; Norm cuts these while his mortise cutter is set up and ready.
Norm turns his attention back to the stumps, cutting the straight portion on the table saw and then turning to the bandsaw to cut the rounded portion. A mark on his fence tells him exactly where to stop cutting with the table saw so that he does not damage the stump. At the table saw, he uses relief cuts to prevent the blade from binding around the tight curve at the top of the stump. He finishes cleaning up the stump on the oscillating spindle sander.
With all four stumps cut, Norm clamps them together so that he can cut a notch to receive a tack strip – part of the upholstery. He uses an ordinary saw blade and simply nibbles away the material; it's not worth setting up the stacked dado. A slick table helps with the precision cuts, and Norm lifts the material off over the blade, rather than backing it through, for safety (backing the material through the blade could lead to kickback). When the notch is finished, Norm checks it with a piece of material he'll use for the tack strip to ensure it fits.
Now it's time to make tenons: on the long rails, short rails, cross pieces, and center legs. Norm makes all the similar cuts at once. The length is the same, so Norm has set up a stop block and locked his fence in place. What changes is the height of the saw blade. Norm uses a saw gauge to ensure the correct height. With the shoulder cuts complete, Norm turns to his tenoning jig to make the cheek cuts. Norm also uses a miter gauge set to 45° to make notches in the front, back and side rails. These notches will accept corner braces that will keep the piece square. After making the initial cut, Norm marks the final cut using the stock for the brace as a guide, and then nibbles away the inner wood to form the notch.
Norm tapers the inner edges of each leg to create a sense of lightness. That's two edges on each corner leg and three edges on the center legs. He does this freehand at the bandsaw and then smooths the cuts with a belt sander.
After dry fitting the frame to ensure proper construction, Norm glues and clamps all the major pieces, and then glues the corner braces and tack strips, tacking them with brads that hold them steady until the glue dries.
That brings Norm to the arm pieces that fit between the stumps. His blanks have dried, so now he forms the same shape found on the top of the stump in these pieces. He first uses his template to lay out the basic shape on the ends of these blanks. He'll square off the edge beneath the curved top to create a better surface for nailing the fabric. He removes most of the material by tipping his table saw at various angles. When he has it approximately the shape he wants, he applies glue and secures it between a pair of stumps with a three inch screw in each end. Norm's final task for the first day of construction is to stain the legs, so he can do the upholstery. He uses a mixture of red and brown mahogany stains and when it dries he seals it with satin finish lacquer.
The next morning, Norm uses a plane to knock the corners off the arms and sanding to smooth them. Removing the material at the table saw greatly reduces the work required for this step.
Norm begins the upholstery with synthetic webbing. The original used jute, but this synthetic will last far longer. A special upholstery stapler drives 3/8” staples to secure the webbing to the side, front and back rails; Norm weaves stretches it with an “upholsterer's tool.” The tool has a wide toothed jaw that grips the strap and a projecting fulcrum that permits the craftsman to apply leverage for a good, tight job. One piece runs the length of the frame, and two others provide additional support to the center, running front to back. On top of that, Norm adds a polypropylene fabric secured with staples. At the edge he bends it over and secures it with a second row of staples. Another piece runs between the tack strip and the arm to support the arm upholstery.
With the fabric secured, Norm attaches 1/2” thick foam to the sides. Then comes a layer of upholsterer's batting, barely large enough to extend over the sides of the form. This has no real structure, so Norm doesn't attach it to anything. The fabric, a Teflon cashmere, will hold it in place. It has a subtle pattern so Norm takes care when he positions and attaches it, so that the pattern matches on each side. He tacks it in place.
The hardest part of the upholstery is the pleats that go around the curved arm. Norm attaches the fabric with a few staples, and then carefully tucks and staples, cutting away material as he finishes each pleat. He pulls staples as necessary; his advisers did this – it's just part of the process. He repeats this on each stump, and then covers the middle of the stump on each end with a patch that he makes by folding over material and stapling it. A ribbon installed later will cover these staples.
The seat is Norm's next step. A five inch wide strip of batting goes on top of the polyethylene fabric to create a shallow crown. Onto that Norm lays some three inch thick foam that he staples to the edge. More cotton batting goes on top of that, torn off even with the bottom of the frame. With all this in place, it is time for the fabric. Norm carefully matches the pattern to the arms and then works from the center outwards, stapling the fabric in place (and realizing he may have to remove these staples later as he stretches the material.
Near the ends of the eat, Norm makes some careful cuts, parallel to the long rails and at a 45° angle, to help him pull the fabric through. He learned this trick from Bobby, his upholstery contact. He base tacks it after matching it to the pattern on the arms. With the arm in place, he tacks the cloth in the front, finally wrapping it around the stump.
Back at the end, Norm now pulls the bottom of the fabric that covers the arm down around the frame and tacks it in place. That brings him to the fabric covering the outside of the arm. He first secures it to the arm and then folds it over, concealing the staples. He traps a piece of low melt fiber between this fabric and the arm structure as he staples it in place. He folds the fabric carefully onto itself and staple it down the center of the stump. Finally, he covers the bottom of the piece Typar synthetic cloth. It keeps dust out of the upholstery.
To conceal the last of the staples, Norm takes “gimp” over the seam in the stump with large head tacks. Not only do these conceal the seams, they add a nice decorative touch, creating a bench at home at the foot of a bed, under a window, or even in a hallway. Share this article with your friends