A Hanging Wall

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Blog entry by Troy posted 05-29-2010 01:34 AM 1784 reads 0 times favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch

The Commission
About the beginning of May, I met with a friend of a friend at their new photography studio in Fairbanks, Alaska. Heath and his wife Audrey worked the last several months to establish their business in a new location and they had a need for some specialized woodworking. Between the two, it’s obvious that they have a complimentary advanced sense of design and spacial relation. On entering the new studio and office of Focus Unbound Photography, it’s immediately apparent that a good amount of thought and resources went into the look and layout of each section.
Heath wants a few things from us to help him achieve his goals and vision for the place, but the first and foremost was a hanging wall for the reception area. The project consists of total form and function. The idea is to create a hardwood, visual separator between a seating area and a bathroom door as well as provide additional vertical display space for select photo prints. Heath expressed his concern to use as much local material as possible and he had his mind set on using aspen for the rails and walnut for the contrasting stiles.
  The Project
This is one of those projects that is exciting for artisans. It’s a significant design element for a professional and visually appealing setting. I sent several SketchUp drafts for review and they decided on one with the cleanest linearity.

Chosen SketchUp Design
  || Stiles ||
The specs required 2 1/2″ square walnut stiles and ~1/2″ thick aspen rails. The approximate overall dimensions 8′ wide by 7′ tall. The rails are 3″ x 96″ x 1/2″ and the clients wanted a 3/4″ space/gap between them. Each rail needed to be mortised through each stile and everything had to end up parallel, starting 6″ from the ground and ending ~12″ from top. As you can imagine, it was far easier to draw this all nice and square and pretty, but far more complicated in execution.

Rough sizing the walnut stiles
The first thing we started on was, as usual, major components that would require glue ups. In this case, it only the stiles. At the requested dimensions, I calculated that the wall would end up with 19 rails.

Very thankful for ink rollers
In order to prepare for mortising operations and a final thickness of 2 1/2″, we glued two 5 1/2″ 4/4 boards of walnut together twice (then thrice – later on that one).

Got enough clamps? Never!!
Those boards, mortised and ripped at 2 1/2″ wide, flipped and secured together would take care of the stiles nicely and efficiently.

Total coverage as indicated by squeeze out
  || Rails ||
The next step was to mill the aspen to equal dimensions. As with the stiles, it’s critical that all dimensions and cuts are super tight for this project because of the through mortises.

Final thickness passes
Unlike typical through-mortises, there were no real tenons or shoulders to mask any inaccuracies. Milling each board in equal width and thickness is not too difficult though, but structurally sound lengths at 8′ is a tall order.

Unique local material
Like many hardwood species in the interior of Alaska, aspen does not normally grow to impressive diameters. As a result there are many knots from branching. Most boards are milled to ~6″ wide (yah, very aggravating trying to get two 3″ boards from that) and after they are ripped to 3″ wide, almost every other board will have a concerning defect. Cosmetically, the client enjoys any natural aspects, so that wasn’t an issue. What was a problem was keeping some boards from falling apart at the several knots. Thankfully, we ended up with what we needed, and a couple extra for them also. Getting the boards to 3″ wide had it’s challenges also. These boards don’t come with a ripped edge from our supplier. That’s not normally a problem, except that these needed to be 96″ long.

No straight edge…no problem
Even with my longer infeed jointer bed, it wasn’t even close to long enough to properly establish an index edge. The solution was easy though and involved double-sided tape. We took a walnut board with a clean edge, made a clean pass on that edge to ensure, and taped each board on top and off edge to run through the table saw. The walnut board provided the straight edge along the fence as well as the platform to hold the aspen board. That’s all it took.
  || Mortises ||
At this point, I should catch you up on a late-breaking design change. Once I ripped the aspen to 3″ wide and let them sit, I noticed they all bowed at the edge, some more than others. There was even one that would have closed up the 3/4″ space between another. The solution became immediately apparent. I called Heath, since we were supposed to hang it at his grand opening event the next day, and told him we really needed to add a third stile in order to lock all the rails straight as possible. This species of wood likes to move radially and it was necessary, and simple, force the boards to conform with a middle stile. He agreed and I got the extra material right away. I conducted the same glue up as before and let it sit over night. We got to work early in hopes of meeting the deadline of their event. There are a couple ways to approach the method of cutting these mortises.

Nothing else would’ve worked as well
I prefer using a table saw or router. In this case, a router was clearly the better choice. The complete focus was to establish each edge exactly at 3″ width. The solution was a custom guide system. A little time spent creating a dead accurate guide would pay off huge, in time and accuracy. All told, there were nearly 120 half-mortises required.

Full-length view
No other method would have worked this well. It was also the only way to ensure every single cut lined up perfectly upon assembly.

It took about 6 passes per to remove the material in each, but it was completely worth the effort.
  The Result
I don’t recall a previous project this size that didn’t require lots of little touch ups and tuning.

Pleasant result – (aspen leaning on birch)
This one is an exception. The extra care and time spent ensuring accuracy worked wonderfully. The assembly occurred without a single problem or modification and the 19 rails are parallel on perfectly plumb stiles. Each top end of the stiles got a groove to hold a threaded rod and a chiseled out portion for the long nut in order to hang the wall to the ceiling above the tiles. The final fitting is so good that we will likely only need 9 fasteners to lock it all on place. We decided not to use glue which would’ve been a hundred times more and unnecessarily difficult. Plus the wall can be disassembled if needed and if a rail is ever damaged, it can be easily replaced with one of the extra provided. I’ll follow up with images of this piece oiled and hung in it’s final setting.
Thanks for reading!
Your Arctic Woodworking Friend,

-- Troy Bouffard || Master Sergeant, US Army (Retired) ||

11 comments so far

View a1Jim's profile


117955 posts in 4216 days

#1 posted 05-29-2010 02:31 AM

View Hisingwooddesign's profile


36 posts in 3605 days

#2 posted 05-29-2010 02:42 AM

Looks great

View grizzman's profile


7836 posts in 3943 days

#3 posted 05-29-2010 03:51 AM

what a great challenge , im glad it all worked out even though there were a few hicups…this has givin me an idea ive needed for my shop…....boy troy…this is the part of the year when i start hpwling at the moon..its summer time back home in eagle river, and i want to be home….....i hope the time will come and come soon…but i must be patient…and will have to beive got my gear ready for a assault on the bush…i wish…ive got to see it…its like driving me crazy…but i digress…you did a fantastic job…it looks like your shop help is proving her weight in gold…huh….keepat it…grizzman

-- GRIZZMAN ...[''''']

View lew's profile


12959 posts in 4395 days

#4 posted 05-29-2010 05:46 AM

Great Read, Troy!

Your ability to plan, organize and execute really pays off in time and materials.


-- Lew- Time traveler. Purveyor of the Universe's finest custom rolling pins.

View degoose's profile


7265 posts in 3994 days

#5 posted 05-29-2010 08:17 AM

I beg to differ regards the best way to do this… the TWC would have made very short work of such a project…
But not having one handy, then this is certainly a fine alternative..and a nicely executed piece of routing and assembly…good job.

-- Don't drink and use power tools @

View Eagle1's profile


2066 posts in 3704 days

#6 posted 05-29-2010 12:27 PM

Nice design. I wish I had that many clamps..

-- Tim, Missouri ....Inside every older person is a younger person wondering what the heck happened

View Jim Bertelson's profile

Jim Bertelson

4273 posts in 3804 days

#7 posted 05-29-2010 05:53 PM

OK, I am going to play idiot here. Now aspen, related to poplar, would not seem to me to be a stable wood over time, but then, I am just used to cutting it up for firewood or pulp wood. Between northern Minnesota and Alaska I have run a chain saw through a lot of aspen. I suppose if someone takes the time to thoroughly dry it, etc. I might be just fine, just like pine.

So I assume that must be the case, or you wouldn’t have used it. Correct?

Enlighten the village idiot, please….......(-:

And along the same lines, are other fast growing woods amenable to use in furniture, if properly handled?

-- Jim, Anchorage Alaska

View Troy's profile


186 posts in 3703 days

#8 posted 05-29-2010 07:33 PM

Griz, it’s hard to describe how intensely awesome the conditions are up here. Nature is bursting out each and every sun-filled day lately.

Lew, thx. Its hard to go wrong with working smarter, not harder.

Larry, LarryLarryLarry. I failed to specify between automated and not-so-automated and you got me. The TWC certainly has it’s merits.

Jim, all the hardwoods ay my supplier are kiln dried. My supplier, Rick of Superior Hardwoods, kiln dries all the locally milled stuff himself. Birch is the favored local hardwood for trim and furniture, esp rustic. Aspen is not in demand as much and Rick generally only Mills and stocks 1/2” thick boards. Local band saw milling is not lucrative with the few deciduous species that typically only grow about 9” in diameter at best, esp at any elevation. When milled, Aspen is a lot like poplar. Finished properly, it’s as predictable and stable. I’ll look it up, but I am sure the cellular structure differences between pine and aspen are significant. MC factors and movement seem completely different just based on this latest batch I milled. At final milling of nearly 22 rails, 8’ long, using over a dozen completely different boards, I noticed only gradual radial bowing consistantly; zero twisting and only the very slightest cupping. Locked into perpendicular channels, (mortises), the structual results are excellent.

-- Troy Bouffard || Master Sergeant, US Army (Retired) ||

View Jim Bertelson's profile

Jim Bertelson

4273 posts in 3804 days

#9 posted 05-29-2010 08:55 PM

Thanks for the education. I was really surprised to see you use it, but I knew it had to be OK. I’d be interested to know if it changes over time. Have you used it before? In Fairbanks, except for some changes in the summer, I assume it is going to be pretty constant low humidity. The reason I am asking is, I thought it would be kinda neat to build stuff out of it, since it is local, and since it should be available in the sense that it grows fairly fast and in large areas, but perhaps not so available insofar as it is probably not milled much. And of course over the years, other woods may not be so available.

Since I got you in the teaching mode:

OK, same question re black spruce. Is that milled here in Alaska as well, and what are its properties? I haven’t heard much good about black spruce.



-- Jim, Anchorage Alaska

View Troy's profile


186 posts in 3703 days

#10 posted 05-29-2010 09:19 PM

Jim, I am going to have to get back to you on that one. Black spruce is a very spindly conifer. It’s a visual indicator for permafrost ground, esp on north-side facing hills and the lower elevations in mountains. They branch starting just a few inches above ground so it can be hopelessly knotty. I don’t believe it’s milled up here; just too small. White spruce is a total different story though.

-- Troy Bouffard || Master Sergeant, US Army (Retired) ||

View Jim Bertelson's profile

Jim Bertelson

4273 posts in 3804 days

#11 posted 05-30-2010 01:07 AM

I have seen, I believe some bigger black spruce, but I could be wrong. I just never heard of anyone using the stuff for anything. Don’t burn any time on it mostly just an off the cuff answer is fine. I had a house on the Chena River, and I believe we had black spruce there that got high, but even then, were kinda thin.

I wouldn’t even have asked, if you hadn’t surprised me with the Aspen.



-- Jim, Anchorage Alaska

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