Furniture Focus: Federal Hall Tables

New fea­ture today!  We’re start­ing a series called Fur­ni­ture Focus, where Dad will high­light the design and his­to­ry of pieces he’s made in the past.  First up are his Fed­er­al Style Hall Tables! — Jenn

Federal Hall Table | Bedside tables in the Federal Style | Two Drawer End Table | Custom Walnut Burl with Inlay | Charlottesville custom furniture | see more at


The tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can fur­ni­ture style that I find most attrac­tive is the Fed­er­al peri­od, just after the rev­o­lu­tion. The ful­ly pre­served Roman ruins at Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum were unearthed in 1748, and the result­ing influ­ence of clas­si­cal design had ful­ly trans­formed fash­ion­able Euro­pean fur­ni­ture by 1760. Gone were the curves and flour­ish­es of Queen Anne/​Louis XV and the roco­co styles, and in came a grace­ful rec­ti­lin­ear style with fine inlay lines and flat pan­eled cas­es.

Work­ers con­ver­sant in these styles emi­grat­ed to the US in the 1760’s and 1770’s, and fash­ion­able Colonists embraced the style. After the rev­o­lu­tion, Eagle motifs and oth­er sym­bols not from Europe became promi­nent.  The small­er hous­es here changed the scale of the fur­ni­ture, and Amer­i­can Fed­er­al is lighter and more grace­ful than most com­pa­ra­ble Eng­lish Hep­ple­white fur­ni­ture.

Federal Hall Table | Bedside tables in the Federal Style | Two Drawer End Table | Custom Walnut Burl with Inlay | Charlottesville custom furniture | see more at

I pur­chased a bed­side table while a stu­dent, and made anoth­er in my first wood­work­ing class, from ply­wood. Almost thir­ty years lat­er, a refresh­er seemed in order.  Cher­ry Fed­er­al bed­side tables would be attrac­tive, almost go with our oth­er bed­room fur­ni­ture, and were some­thing I’d want­ed to make for some time. The size of the tables was dri­ven by the space avail­able in our bed­room – 22” wide by 16” deep, and 24” tall. Two draw­ers made them use­ful, and siz­ing them at 3” tall was enough for util­i­ty with­out unbal­anc­ing the design.

Federal Hall Table | Bedside tables in the Federal Style | Two Drawer End Table | Custom Walnut Burl with Inlay | Charlottesville custom furniture | see more at

The rails between the draw­ers are 5/​8” – it’s amaz­ing how much lighter they look than ¾” rails. The inte­ri­or space between the legs is 17” wide and 15” tall – far enough from square to look like it was done on pur­pose. The legs are tapered on both inside sur­faces – this makes the table much more ele­gant while keep­ing the visu­al weight inside the feet.  The legs have inlaid band­ed cuffs at ankle and shoul­der, which is appro­pri­ate for the peri­od and man­ages the tran­si­tion from the rec­tan­gu­lar post block to the tapered legs. Thin wal­nut inlays in the cher­ry legs are also typ­i­cal, add empha­sis to enhance the ver­ti­cal­i­ty of the piece.  A tra­di­tion­al ogee mold­ing on the under­side of the top light­ens the look of the hor­i­zon­tal edge.  Case join­ery is com­plete­ly tra­di­tion­al – mor­tise and tenon through­out.

Federal Hall Table | Bedside tables in the Federal Style | Two Drawer End Table | Custom Walnut Burl with Inlay | Charlottesville custom furniture | see more at

The draw­er fronts are in book matched wal­nut burl veneer, which adds sym­met­ri­cal but ran­dom pat­terns and col­ors to the front of the case, to counter the extreme rec­ti­lin­ear­i­ty of the case and the oth­er design motifs. The draw­er fronts are cog-bead­ed, to pro­tect the veneer and pro­vide anoth­er shad­ow line for the case front. Draw­er con­struc­tion was tra­di­tion­al : the draw­ers were dove­tailed, half blind in the front, and draw­er bot­toms are poplar pan­els inset in a groove in the draw­er front and sides.  Real­ly nice Fed­er­al brass knobs from Hor­ton Brass­es add some zing.

The pieces were fin­ished with shel­lac and wax, which looks great but doesn’t with­stand abuse well on hor­i­zon­tal sur­faces. I may change that one day but for now they are hold­ing up extreme­ly well.

Inter­est­ed in Fed­er­al Fur­ni­ture?  You may enjoy some of Dave’s favorite Fed­er­al and Amer­i­can fur­ni­ture books:

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Why use veneer?

examples of fine veneered furniture | Heller and Heller FUrniture | Heirloom quality custom furniture in Charlottesville, Virginia

We get this a lot — in dis­cussing a piece with a client we’ll men­tion the word veneer and they sud­den­ly freeze with a ques­tion­ing look. I know what they’re think­ing — “Wait, isn’t this heir­loom qual­i­ty fur­ni­ture?  Why on earth would we use veneer instead of sol­id wood, isn’t that infe­ri­or?” Dave is here today to clear up some of the mis­un­der­stand­ing, and some neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions you may asso­ciate with the word veneer! — Jenn

Why (and when) do I use veneers? They have a poor rep­u­ta­tion. I didn’t use them at all for my first 20 years mak­ing fur­ni­ture, because of the nasty cheap stuff that is called veneered fur­ni­ture by the fur­ni­ture-indus­tri­al com­plex. And yet much of the finest west­ern fur­ni­ture ever made is veneered. How to rec­on­cile this?

Let’s talk a lit­tle bit about what exact­ly veneer is for a moment: Veneer is defined as a thin lay­er of some­thing, in our case wood, that is lam­i­nat­ed to a sub­strate to cov­er it. We are not going to be dis­cussing any oth­er type of veneer here, so for­get about veneer made of plas­tic, or for your teeth!  Just wood on this blog peo­ple.

You can make wood veneer in sev­er­al ways. It can be sliced around the cir­cum­fer­ence of a tree radi­al­ly for very wide sheets that might be used to make ply­wood; imag­ine a set­up sim­i­lar to an apple peel­er. You can also make veneer by slic­ing thin sequen­tial sheets off sec­tions of the tree — like slic­ing a loaf of bread. One impor­tant thing to note is that in both of these cas­es, veneer is gen­uine wood that is now only 1/​42″ thick.

Veneer allows sev­er­al things to hap­pen that couldn’t oth­er­wise. First con­sid­er mate­r­i­al rar­i­ty. Ebony, king­wood, tulip­wood, rose­wood: all are avail­able in solids, but at quite amaz­ing(!) prices. That will get worse in the future, and was also true sev­er­al hun­dred years ago, when these and sim­i­lar exot­ic woods were first intro­duced to the West. Slic­ing the wood allows much more of the very expen­sive mate­r­i­al to be seen and appre­ci­at­ed, and dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduces its cost. As a vari­ant on rarity/​cost, ebony is quite unsta­ble, and prone to crack­ing. Most burls are sim­i­lar. Slic­ing them, then affix­ing them to a sta­ble sub­strate, cures their insta­bil­i­ty.

That leads to the sec­ond oppor­tu­ni­ty: sequen­tial veneer slices (think our loaf of bread anal­o­gy) are very sim­i­lar to each oth­er. Pat­terns can be gen­er­at­ed by ori­ent­ing these sequen­tial slices. There are many options: slip-match­es, book-match­es and radi­al pat­terns are three of the more com­mon. Dia­monds and more com­plex shapes can be gen­er­at­ed by ori­ent­ing the right pat­tern pieces prop­er­ly. There is lit­er­al­ly a kalei­do­scope of pos­si­bil­i­ty.

Some of the pat­tern oppor­tu­ni­ties can also be done using sol­id wood. Sequen­tial boards in a tree can yield a won­der­ful table­top. I book-match my sol­id wood mar­quetry box­es and jew­el­ry box draw­ers.

How­ev­er, radi­al or four way match­es are unsta­ble in solids due to a fun­da­men­tal prop­er­ty of wood: it changes size over time, con­tin­u­ous­ly, as a result of changes in humid­i­ty.

As wood absorbs mois­ture from the air, it expands across its width but not its length. Sol­id wood fur­ni­ture needs to be designed with that con­straint in mind.  This is the dri­ving fac­tor behind many tra­di­tion­al fur­ni­ture forms, such as frame and pan­el doors in sol­id wood fur­ni­ture. The pan­el can move with­in the groove of the frame as it expands, while the door size (ie the frame) stays con­stant.

Veneer wants to move, but can’t when glued to a sub­strate.  Fed­er­al fur­ni­ture, with flat case sides and fronts, is always veneered. Some parts of that look can­not be achieved with sol­id woods.

Mar­quetry is anoth­er way to gen­er­ate pat­terns on the sur­face of an object. Some­times the pat­tern is geo­met­ric, such as dia­monds or lat­tices. In Eng­lish this is some­times called par­quetry, though that can get con­fused with par­quet floors, which are sim­i­lar in con­cept but should be sol­id wood, for dura­bil­i­ty. Geo­met­ric pat­terns for fur­ni­ture are cut with a flat sided saw, and use jigs to insure that the pieces are con­sis­tent sizes. Pic­to­r­i­al mar­quetry – tra­di­tion­al­ly flow­ers, rib­bons, and rich peo­ples’ toys, is cut with a very fine jew­el­ers saw. If the pic­ture has sim­ple edges it can be inlaid into a sol­id wood sur­face (though wood move­ment can be an issue) but most­ly the back­ground is also veneer, and the pan­el is the whole sur­face of the piece.

So those are the rea­sons we use veneer to make qual­i­ty fur­ni­ture. On to the neg­a­tive asso­ci­a­tions: why is crum­my fur­ni­ture veneered, and why isn’t it durable?

It is veneered for cost rea­sons. Wood costs more than par­ti­cle board, which is made from saw­dust and glue. Less wood is less cost. Some “veneered” fur­ni­ture uses no wood at all – the wood pat­tern is print­ed on plas­tic.  It’s not durable because it’s made to be inex­pen­sive, not durable.

Real wood veneer attached with good glue on a flat and smooth and sta­ble sub­strate is durable if prop­er­ly fin­ished and designed for. Edges also need to be pro­tect­ed – either with sol­id wood or some oth­er durable mate­r­i­al – since veneer edges are not impact resis­tant.

Veneered fur­ni­ture is not as durable as sol­id wood fur­ni­ture. The glue will fail even­tu­al­ly. Fail­ure of the fin­ish can allow water into the veneer or sub­strate, which will cause bub­bling. In high use fur­ni­ture – such as a kitchen table – a veneered sur­face won’t last as long. My kitchen table is hard maple, so my kids could “work” on it. They did, and it sur­vived, when a veneered table might not have. How­ev­er, for fine items that take lim­it­ed abuse, the longevi­ty of a veneered piece should be mea­sured in gen­er­a­tions. Many fine veneered Vic­to­ri­an jew­el­ry box­es are avail­able – so many that they aren’t all in muse­ums. 18th cen­tu­ry veneered fur­ni­ture gen­er­al­ly needs some work, if it hasn’t already been repaired. Hide glue even­tu­al­ly fails when veneer­ing to sol­id wood (all that was avail­able then). It is very repairable though, which mod­ern glues are not.

For me, the design ben­e­fits avail­able using veneers war­rant their use. I pro­tect the edges, and apply a durable fin­ish if the sur­face will be exposed to mois­ture. Some decades from now, some of my pieces will need repair. I have recent­ly switched to using hide glue for my veneer work, so that repairs will be pos­si­ble.

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Fairfax Art Show this weekend — April 23 & 24

Heller & Heller Furniture | End Grain cutting Boards
Heller & Heller Furniture | End Grain cutting Boards
Heller & Heller Furniture | End Grain cutting Boards and Marquetry
Heller & Heller Furniture | End Grain cutting Boards and Marquetry


One last reminder to come out and see us at the Fair­fax Cor­ner Art Fes­ti­val this Sat­ur­day and Sun­day!  Eliz­a­beth and Dave will be there from 10 – 5 each day with chop­ping boards, mar­quetry box­es, and brand new pic­tures — includ­ing this gor­geous dog­wood design Dave fin­ished last week in tons of wood vari­a­tions!

You’re bound to find some­thing beau­ti­ful for Mother’s Day — com­ing up on May 8th!

Fair­fax Cor­ner Art Fes­ti­val

Sat­ur­day, April 23 & Sun­day, April 24 from 10 – 5

4100 Mon­u­ment Cor­ner Dr. in Fair­fax, VA



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Meet the Maker — 2016 Spring/​Summer Show Schedule


Just a quick post today — our first shows of the year are rapid­ly approach­ing! We’d love to meet you in per­son and answer any ques­tions you might have about our work, cus­tom fur­ni­ture, and out wood­en wares.  Here are the details of our spring/​summer show cal­en­dar:

April 23 – 24 Fair­fax Cor­ner Art Fes­ti­val 

  • Sat­ur­day, April 23rd, 2016, 10:00am to 5:00pm
  • Sun­day, April 24th, 2016, 10:00am to 5:00pm
  • Free Admis­sion & Park­ing!

At Fair­fax Cor­ner Cen­ter — 4100 Mon­u­ment Cor­ner Dr. in Fair­fax, VA . Our first show of the year, we will have stacks of end-grain chop­ping boards, mar­quetry pic­tures and wall pan­el art, mar­quetry box­es, shak­er box­es, and more!  And of course, Dave and Eliz­a­beth will be on hand to answer your burn­ing fur­ni­ture-relat­ed ques­tions.  Just in time for Mother’s Day — stop by and intro­duce your­selves and pick up some­thing spe­cial.

From the fes­ti­val web­site: “Pro­duc­ers of the Alexan­dria, Arling­ton and Vir­ginia Beach Art Fes­ti­vals are proud to announce the Fair­fax Cor­ner Art Fes­ti­val! This excit­ing, new show will take place at Fair­fax Cor­ner, an upscale shop­ping and din­ing vil­lage. Nation­al and local artists will be exhibit­ing out­doors on the streets of Fair­fax Cor­ner with work such as paint­ing, sculp­ture, pho­tog­ra­phy and more!”

- May 7 – 8 Crozet Arts and Crafts Fes­ti­val

  • Sat­ur­day, May 7th, 2016, 10:00am to 5:30pm
  • Sun­day, May 8th, 2016, 10:00am to 5:00pm
  • Admis­sion: Adults $6, Kids under 12 are free. Free Park­ing.

This fun-filled day out would be a great Mother’s Day treat in beau­ti­ful Crozet — Claudius Crozet Park, 1075 Park Rd in Crozet, VA 22932. From the fes­ti­val web­site: “Today’s award win­ning fes­ti­vals cen­ter around the Juried Art Show along with enter­tain­ment for the whole fam­i­ly. Great food and some of the best local wines are becom­ing a larg­er attrac­tion each year. Enter­tain­ment is diverse and reflects the melt­ing pot of tastes found in Cen­tral Vir­ginia.”

- July 14 – 17 Cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia Fes­ti­val of the Arts

  • More infor­ma­tion com­ing soon on this one!

etsy items-2
etsy items-5

We’d also like to announce that each and every day you can find our work in the C’ville Arts Col­lec­tive locat­ed at 118 E Main St, Char­lottesville Va 22902. If you’re lucky, you might even run into Eliz­a­beth while you’re there!

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ASFM Followup and Progress: Piece by Piece Marquetry

Piece by Piece marquetry work

Fig. 3 Piece by Piece mar­quetry work 

Wednes­day we talked about the first part of Dave’s ASFM expe­ri­ence — today he’s back with more detail on piece by piece mar­quetry tech­nique. — Jenn

Piece by piece mar­quetry is pret­ty intense. This is both men­tal­ly and phys­i­cal­ly more demand­ing than pack­et cut­ting.  Pic­ture 3 shows the fin­ished result so that the sub­se­quent pic­tures make sense. The con­cept is pret­ty straight­for­ward: mul­ti­ple copies of the pic­ture pat­tern are made, and cut up so that each piece has all of its lines vis­i­ble. Three addi­tion­al copies are made: one for the back­ground, one to mark the shad­ing, and a third one show­ing wood selec­tions, which can also be stud­ied while cut­ting then assem­bling the picture(s).

Figure 4 - Prepped & nailed packet

Fig­ure 4 — Prepped & nailed pack­et

Veneer pack­ets are made up in each wood used in the pic­ture. There needs to be one lay­er for each desired final copy of the pic­ture. We made three, so our pack­ets had three pieces of the same veneer, with a grease paper sheet and a backer board. The pack­ets we used were 6” square or so, big enough to allow many parts to be cut but easy to han­dle in the chevalet. Pack­ets that are big­ger than about 9” in any dimen­sion are more dif­fi­cult to han­dle, though the saw capac­i­ty is 28”. I haven’t worked a large pack­et yet. Any­way, each piece of paper is laid on the cor­rect wood pack­et, ori­ent­ed for the grain. Since you can’t see the fig­ure on any but the top lev­el, this tech­nique works best if each lay­er is the same is grain and fig­ure. All of the paper pieces are laid out and then glued to the top lay­er of the cor­rect veneer pack­ets. The pack­ets are then nailed togeth­er, between the pieces. The pack­et gets flop­py very quick­ly as it is cut, and the nails help to coun­ter­act that. The nails are cut off then clinched to hold the pack­et tight. Fig­ure 4 shows the leaf pat­terns glued to the pack­et, which has been nailed. Each leaf piece is then cut clock­wise, just cut­ting away the line. In the­o­ry you should leave half of the line, but it’s only 0.1 mm wide, far thin­ner than the blade. In prac­tice even Patrice most­ly cuts away the whole line. Patrick no longer does piece by piece – he feels that his eyes aren’t good enough. He uses Paint­ing in Wood, and his work is stun­ning.

Since the out­side of each piece is waste, the saw blade can be tak­en into the waste area when­ev­er is use­ful. Most fre­quent­ly this is done to turn the blade around, allow­ing very tight inside and out­side cor­ners. In prin­ci­ple one can be relaxed when cut­ting, since dupli­cate pieces can eas­i­ly be made if the saw wan­ders. In prac­tice, each piece takes long enough to make that mak­ing extras is very unap­peal­ing. Laser­beam focus when cut­ting is the result. Hand cramps are also com­mon. Fre­quent breaks are nec­es­sary to keep your hands and eyes work­ing well, as well as using Mag­nifer glass­es.

Figure 5 - Piece by piece, foreground cutting completed

Fig­ure 5 — Piece by piece, fore­ground cut­ting com­plet­ed

Figure 6 - Shading completed

Fig­ure 6 — Shad­ing com­plet­ed

Once all of the pieces are cut they are placed in the assem­bly tray in the cor­rect place and ori­en­ta­tion, fig­ure 5. Once all of the pieces are cut they should be sand shad­ed, using the dia­gram you pre­pared as a guide. Tra­di­tion­al­ly the light source for shad­ing is com­ing from 10 o’ clock — the upper left.  Fig­ure 6 shows the sand shad­ed pieces.

Figure 7: Cutting the background

Fig­ure 7: Cut­ting the back­ground

Only now is the back­ground cut, since it has a nasty habit of expand­ing or con­tract­ing. Con­tract­ing is par­tic­u­lar­ly bad, giv­en that our fore­ground piece cut­ting is as tight as we can man­age. The back­ground has nails through the fore­ground areas, to stiff­en the pack­et. It is cut coun­ter­clock­wise, so that the waste is to the right of the saw­blade, the same as the fore­ground pieces. Since our view is unob­struct­ed to the left of the blade, the right side is always the reject side. Left­ies of course have a saw con­fig­ured the oth­er way around. Fig­ure 7 shows the back­ground in the chevalet, being cut.

Figure 8: Background cut completed

Fig­ure 8: Back­ground cut com­plet­ed

Once the back­ground is cut the pack­et can be dis­as­sem­bled. Fig­ure 8 shows the back­ground pan­el dur­ing dis­as­sem­bly of the pack­et. The pic­tures are imme­di­ate­ly assem­bled the same way as pack­et cut pic­tures. The clear­ances are less reg­u­lar though, so there is poten­tial excite­ment. It is impor­tant to have knife to pry or lift pieces as need­ed.

Mas­tic is then applied, to fill in the vein lines (and any imper­fec­tions in the pic­ture).  Once the mas­tic is dry the pic­ture can be glued to a sub­strate. The paper on the front is removed once the glue has dried.

For a first piece, the result is impres­sive. The chevalet pro­vid­ed suf­fi­cient con­trol by this point to make a decent pic­ture, and that will only improve with prac­tice. It would have been nice to com­plete a sec­ond piece, but some of the stu­dents labored on this one, so Patrick kept the pace mod­er­ate. It took 4 hours of prep time then 8 – 10 hours of cut­ting to make this piece. With prac­tice it would take less than half as long. If 12 copies had been made that would trans­late to just more than an hour per pic­ture even at my speed, which would trans­late to a rea­son­able price while I improve my tech­nique.

Since we had some time on Fri­day, Patrick also demon­strat­ed how to glue up columns and pan­els using hide glue. Since hide glue tacks very quick­ly but dries very slow­ly, it is ide­al for sequen­tial lay­outs. Piece one is glued, piece two laid next to and on top of it, then the over­lap is cut off. Since both pieces of veneer are cut at the same time, there is no gap. This can be repeat­ed for hours, so com­plex pan­els can be assem­bled, the band­ings applied, and then cross­band­ing, all with no gaps or veneer tape.

Figure 9 - The Chevalet

Fig­ure 9 — The Chevalet

ASFM’s teach­ing meth­ods are acces­si­ble to any lev­el of stu­dent, but I real­ly feltl I got much more out of it by hav­ing some expe­ri­ence already. This was the best class I’ve attend­ed, and I high­ly rec­om­mend it. Since return­ing home I have built my chevalet (fig­ure 9) and am mak­ing mar­quetry pic­tures using both pack­et cut­ting and piece by piece approach­es. My intent is to design mod­ern pic­tures but make them using the chevalet, since it is more pre­cise than any oth­er I know of.



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