Building Beds — New Twist on a Sleigh Bed

In 1776, my great-great-great-grand-father (great-grandfather of the Ant-arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton) started the Anna Liffey flour mill on the banks of the river Liffey near dublin, Ire-land. After I emigrated to Vermont in 1981 and started a handmade furniture business, I enjoyed returning to visit relatives who still lived in the old mill house. In their dining room, I spotted some beautiful chairs. Known as Irish fork-backs because of their X-shaped back slats, these chairs were a wonderful combination of simplicity and sophistication. I thought that with a few changes their classic design could translate into more contemporary pieces.

The chair I designed was very popular with customers, who requested other pieces like it, spawning a family of furniture I call the Anna Liffey range. This bed is a member of that group. Besides the X shapes, the bed has another subtle design element, simple hand-carved curls on the ends of the legs, a whimsical trademark of my work. Making the bed requires a nice combination of machine work and handwork. To simplify the steps, I’ll demonstrate several handy jigs and templates.

I prefer cherry for this bed because of its attractive color and grain, but walnut, maple, or mahogany would work as well.

Lay out the legs. Use plywood templates to lay out the legs on the 2-in.-thick cherry.

Mortise the legs. Use a hollow-chisel mortiser, a router, or a drill press.

1. Lay out the curl. Design the template to match the sweep of the gouges you own, and then transfer the design to the leg.
2. Carve the curl. After making vertical cuts around the curl, come in from the side to relieve the design.
3. Round the edges. Use an inverted carving gouge to round over the outside edge of the leg and the sharp edges of the curl.
4. Clean up with sandpaper. It’s a personal choice whether you want to leave the curl smooth or still showing the facets left by the gouges.

Queen-size bed

The many curves mean that you’ll require a considerable amount of wood to build this bed, but the finished result has a delicate look that is light on its feet.
All of the dimensions for the queen-size bed remain the same except for the following: The number of headboard X slats increases to 17 and footboard to 18. The gap between each X is 1 and 9⁄ 16 in. on the headboard and 2 in. on the footboard. The cross rails are 79 1/2 in. long; the center support stretchers are 78 1/2 in. long.


To ensure precise spacing of the slats and the dowels, use a thin template to maintain accurate layout and work outward from the centerline of the bed.

Feel free to change the geometry slightly to match your carving gouges.

The headboard slats are longer and wider than the footboard ones.

The four legs are the foundation

Begin by creating templates for the legs on pieces of 1⁄8 -in.-thick plywood. This will simplify laying out the legs on the 10/4 cherry, which has been flattened and milled to 2 in. thick. Try to get all four legs from the same board to keep color and grain uniform. If the board is at least 7 in. wide, it can be just over 8 ft. long.

Cut out the legs on a bandsaw. Next, use the leg templates to lay out the mortises for the side rails and the lower cross rails, and then cut them using a router, a drill press, or a hollow-chisel mortiser.
Remove the bandsaw marks on the curved parts of the legs using a bench plane, a compass plane, a spokeshave, or just sandpaper. Lay out and then carve the curl on the outside of each leg. All the other corners receive a 1⁄8-in. roundover; the bot -tom of the leg gets a 1⁄4-in. roundover. Last, sand the legs to p320-grit. This may seem excessive, but because I use a linseed-oil finish, it minimizes blotching on cherry.

The purpose of this jig is to drill dowel holes into the ends of the X-slat blanks at 8º to match the angle at which the slats meet the cross rails. Because the headboard Xs are wider than the footboard ones, an insert is placed in the jig when drilling the footboard Xs.

Precision drilling. If you lay out the rails carefully, and build an accurate jig for drilling the slats, the dowels will line up perfectly.

Curve the slats. Cut the curved side profile of the slats on the bandsaw. Then bandsaw the X design on each of the slats.

Beading by router. Simple jigs attached to a router base allow you to bead the Xs quickly and cleanly.

Bandsawn and beaded, the Xs are dynamic and attractive

It may seem a complication to have different-size Xs for the headboard and footboard, but this keeps the two sections in visual harmony because the headboard is taller. whether you are making a king- or queen-size bed, make a couple of extra blanks for both the headboard and the footboard X in case you damage one. Before you start, build the first of three simple jigs. This one (see drawing, above) bolts to a drill-press table tilted vertically and is used to drill holes at an 8º angle into the ends of the X blanks to receive the 1⁄4-in.-dia. dowels. The jig is used with an insert when drilling each narrower footboard X, and without it for the wider headboard X.

Cut the blanks for the footboard and headboard Xs to their widths and thicknesses, but leave them about 1 in. long. on a miter saw or tablesaw, cut one end of each blank at an 8º angle and then, using a stop block to achieve uniform lengths, cut the same angle on the other end. Before drilling the holes, I lay out the curve on a side of each blank and then make sure that the concave side of the curve is always facing the inside of the jig. This ensures that the pair of 1⁄2-in.-deep holes in each end are angled the correct way.

Now cut the side profile on the bandsaw and clean up the surface using a compass plane or a sander. Lay out the X profile and cut it on the bandsaw, using a spoke shave to smooth the outsides and a chisel or sandpaper to work the insides.

There are a number of ways to bead each X: You can use a beading tool such as one made by Lie-Nielsen; you can make your own scratch stock; or you can use a 3⁄16-in. beading bit in a router attached to a jig (see photo). Even though you’ll need two jigs to match the different profiles for the two groups of Xs, they are simple to make and the beading is done quickly and cleanly. The footboard Xs are beaded on both sides, but the headboard is beaded only on the convex side that faces the bed’s interior. Use a chisel to cut a 1⁄8-in. chamfer on the V sections at the end of each X. Finally, sand all the pieces delicately to p320-grit.

Shape the cross rails. After drilling for the X-slat joinery, profile the top of the upper cross rails using a 1-in.-dia. roundover bit in a router table.

Dowels connect rails to legs, too. Drill 3⁄8-in.-dia. holes in each end of the upper cross rails. Insert dowel center points, and use these to mark the location of the holes in the legs.

The side and cross rails come next

Mill the wood to 1 and 1⁄4-in. thickness and then cut the side rails to length and width. Cut and dry-fit tenons on each end, and put a 1⁄8-in. roundover on the long edges.

For the lower cross rails, mill the wood to 1 and 3⁄ 8 in. thick and cut them to length. Next, cut the tenons, using a tablesaw or a router. Finally, give the long edges a 1⁄8-in. roundover and sand to p320-grit.

Before the next step, cut the upper cross rails to width and the same length as the lower cross rails minus their tenons. don’t shape the top of the upper rails yet.

Drilling holes for the Xs—The Xs are joined to the upper and lower cross rails with dowels, so the next step is to use a template to mark the location and then drill the holes. Use the plans on pp. 78-79 to make a thin layout template, and space the Xs along the top of the lower cross rail and then along the matching underside of the upper cross rail. Mark off the center of each hole using an awl and then drill each 1⁄4-in.-dia. hole to just over 3⁄8 in. deep.

Shaping the upper cross rails—After drilling holes on the underside, shape the top sides of these two pieces using a 1-in. roundover bit on the router table or by taking several passes on the tablesaw with the blade at different angles. Then plane by hand to the desired rounded shape. Even though I sand lightly with p320-grit paper after planing, I leave the subtle lines where the handplane has done its work. It leaves a rippled surface that your fingers will reach out to touch each time you pass the bed.

Bed bolts connect the side rails to the legs— Traditional square-headed bed bolts, combined with small tenons, are the best way to connect the legs and the side rails, creating a strong joint that can be disassembled to move the bed.

The side-rail and cross-rail tenons are offset so the bolt can pass between them. on a drill press, use a Forstner bit to drill a hole 1 in. dia. by 3⁄4 in. deep. Complete the hole by drilling through the leg with a 7⁄16-in. bit. dry-fit the leg to the side rail, place the bed bolt in the hole, and use a mallet to imprint the point of the bolt on the end of the rail. Transfer this location along the inside of the rail, calculate the point the tip of the bolt will reach in the rail, and then use the 1-in. Forstner bit to drill a 15⁄16-in.-deep hole at this location. Using the 7⁄16-in. bit, drill a hole in from the end of the rail from the point marked by the bolt, following the line drawn on the inside of the rail, until you break into the 1-in.-dia. hole. Last, on the side of this hole in the rail nearest the end, create a flat spot for the bed bolt’s nut to bear against. Test-fit by connecting the leg to the rail.

Counterbore first. Use a 1-in.-dia. Forstner bit to create a hole big enough for the head of the bed bolt and the wrench used to tighten it. Follow through with a bit the diameter of the bolt and complete the hole.

Mark the spot. Attach the leg to the side rail, place the bolt in the hole drilled in the leg, and use a mallet to mark where to drill the rail.

Drill down the line. Use careful layout to drill a hole on the inside of the side rail where the nut will be located; then sight down the layout line to drill in from the end of the side rail and break into the first hole.

Assemble with help. You’ll need a second pair of hands when attaching the upper cross rail and aligning all the dowels with the slats. When you are gluing the cross rails to the slats, attach the legs to keep the rails aligned but don’t glue them at this time. After the rail and slat assembly has dried, remove the legs, apply glue, and clamp in place.

Dry-assemble before using glue

With up to 18 Xs and 72 dowels, assembling the head- and footboards requires a dry run and several pairs of hands. Beginning with the headboard, clamp the lower cross rail in a bench vise or onto the bench -top, and dry-assemble with an X at each end and one or two in the middle using 3⁄4-in.-long dowels.

Drill two 3⁄8 -in.-dia. holes about 1 and 3⁄ 8 in. deep in each end of the upper cross rail. Place dowel centers in the holes, put the rail on the Xs, attach the legs, and transfer the dowel points onto them. Remove the legs and drill 1 and 3⁄ 8-in.-deep holes.

After a final dry run with all the Xs in place, glue the dowels into both cross rails and attach the Xs. Apply glue to the dowel holes in each X as you attach it. Fit but do not glue the legs, and apply plenty of long clamps between the upper and lower cross rails. Let the headboard dry overnight and then repeat with the footboard.

Final assembly and finishing—with the clamps from the previous step out of the way, you can now glue and clamp the two pairs of legs to their head- and footboards using the tenons on the lower cross rails and the dowels in the upper cross rails.

I finish all of my furniture with two coats of boiled linseed oil, a rubdown with 0000 steel wool, and then paste wax.

You can use slats to support a mattress, or metal “L” brackets to hold up a box spring. On the queen-size bed, you’ll need a wood-en crosspiece to support the box spring; the king-size bed has three crosspieces. Finally, with the bed in its final location, attach four brass bolt-hole covers.