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Architect, master craftsman and client design the definitive game table.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking
ISmile-Jacques Ruhlmann was one of the best designers of the Art Deco period. In the 1920s, he designed and produced many memorable furniture and other items for the interiors of the wealthy.
Many of his pieces combine dark wood, such as walnut, with metal. He is best known for inlaid cabinets, and most of his designs incorporate elegant, subtle curves.
In the summer of 2004 the Metropolitan Museum of Art set up an exhibition of Ruhlmann’s work. I went to the exhibition to see this magnificent work and shortly after I received a call from the architect Donato Maselli, with whom I often work.
He had visited the exhibition with the master craftsman Frank Pollaro. Pollaro is an expert on Ruhlmann’s work and has made many faithful and intricate reproductions.
Donato asked to come to my shop with a client who wanted to make a Ruhlmann-style poker table. I have a Ruhlmann style bar stool in my showroom that has a steel ring that pierces the legs. We all liked that detail and wanted to incorporate it into the poker table. On the original Ruhlmann stool, the ring is fixed to the legs with flanges. The pierced legs look cleaner than the original.
This made the table harder to build, but for cabinetmakers like us, the more complicated the idea, the more we like it. We are paid to face difficulties; this is our specialty. All three of us worked out the details, then the architect made some sketches and came back with the finished drawings. After a few steps, we decided on the final project. The table is 48 “in diameter with a leather top surrounded by 23⁄4“Walnut band.
A dozen drawers
Under the top there is a walnut apron containing 12 drawers. In each of the four places, there is a large central drawer to hold poker chips, a wallet or other items. On each side of the center drawers, there is a smaller drawer for holding drinks. You may have a different drink on each side of you, but I don’t know if that’s a good idea when playing poker.
The structure of the table top begins with a piece of 3⁄8“- thick plywood veneered in maple on an MDF core. On top of this are support pieces made from 3⁄4“- plywood often glued and screwed to the disc from below. These stiffen the structure, define the drawer openings and provide support for the top.
We usually make leather tops with a machined edge, that is, the edge of the leather is hidden in a channel where it meets the wood. The client didn’t want it, so I glued the leather to a piece of 1⁄4“- MDF thick veneered and finished in leather flush with the rim edge.
The drawers are made with extended sides so that they do not tip over when pulled out. The drawer fronts are curved both on the inside and on the outside. The fronts and sides are connected with semi-blind dovetails and the rear part fits between the sides with sliding dovetails.
The drawer fronts and the apron trim in between were cut from large pieces of walnut and held in sequence so that the veins matched continuously from one end of the table to the other.
The decorative pieces in solid walnut between the drawers are curved only on the outer faces. All of these curves were all cut on the bandsaw, cutting just off the line.
Taking the table for a spin
After making all the drawers and applying the liner, I wanted to bring all the parts of the apron into a perfect circle with all the faces aligned.
I made a trammel jig for my disc sander to smooth and shape the edge of the apron and the edge of the top itself. The jig was made so that when I changed the grit on the sander, I could only move the piece a little. I sanded on the machine through No. 180, leaving only a little hand sanding to do.
The walnut veneer surrounding the leather top has been sanded to shape in the same way. After sawing the eight curved pieces and assembled around 3⁄4“- thick piece of veneered plywood, then sanded them to a perfect circle. The leather top fits inside the walnut veneer, supported by the thicker plywood below and the plywood ribs. With these parts for the plan completed, I started working on the curved legs.
The legs are folded rolled. Each leg is made up of thin strips cut from a single board and kept tidy. To keep the pieces in their original order, I marked each stack with a triangle, using a white pencil.
Normally one leg would have been glued completely into the shape, but I had to do it differently to get the ring through the legs. I glued each leg in two halves, separating the halves with a piece of wax paper.
When the glue dried, I tightened the halves together and drilled the holes for the ring. Some carving was required to provide space for the ring on the inside of each leg. A stainless steel foot completes the bottom of each leg and I removed the material before final gluing to keep the face of the foot even with the face of the leg.
The final assembly of the legs was done by gluing the two halves around the ring. No shape was needed, the half legs were stiff enough to hold their shape during final bonding. As you can see in the photo above right, it took a lot of clamps – some to hold the two halves together and others to keep the edges aligned.
The final connection
The legs connect to the tabletop directly under the double 3⁄4“- Plywood slats. A 5⁄8“Gusset fits into a hole in the top of each leg and a hole in the bottom of the table top assembly. My original plan was to glue the legs to the top after delivery. It is much easier to move something of the typically in two pieces rather than carrying the entire table, especially when it comes time to walk in through a door or climb stairs.
Instead of gluing, however, I attached the legs to the top with two screws at the top of each leg. This was very robust with this connection, so I decided not to glue it after all. Should the table ever be moved, it will be much easier to remove the top.
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