Lessons/Guides – Bending the Rules

In a move away from typical solid-wood construction with invisible glue joints, Petter Southall has developed an innovative design/construction method using 3⁄8-in. slats joined with copper boat rivets to create tables, benches, beds, chairs, and sideboards. The genius of this approach is the combination of beauty, strength, and the efficient use of wood. There is cross-grain wood movement in each joint, but because the pieces are thin, they are able to restrain each other. Also, the rivets allow more movement than glue would. Ultimately, the table is extremely strong and rigid, though the construction is surprisingly basic.

Southall begins with the end units and arranges all the slats around a clamping jig to keep them in place. The pieces are left overlong and will be cut to size on the bandsaw after the rivets are in place.

Southall uses a handheld drill in a drill-press attachment to drill the rivet holes. Standard copper rivets with roves are set with a ball-peen hammer. A heavy hammer is used on the nail-head side for support.

All the slats are pulled from the steambox and bent at the same time on a wide form. The slats are over-bent to allow for springback.

With the bottoms of the arches clamped to the trestles, the tops are overlapped at the center and loosely clamped. To create the staggered overlap, Southall draws a cutoff line on each slat, and then slides out one slat at a time so he can cut it to length with a handsaw before hand-drilling and setting the rivets.

With its arched base made entirely of thin oak slats clinched by copper rivets, Petter Southall’s dining table interweaves fine cabinetmaking, traditional boatbuilding, and sustainable forestry. It’s also a portrait of its maker’s journey as a crafts-man. Southall, now settled in southern England, lived in many parts of the world as a child and spent his 20s building boats in his mother’s native Norway. Working in an ancient Scandinavian style, he specialized in row-boats and sailboats whose wooden planks were riveted together. He ran his own boat shop for five years, but a gift subscription to Fine Woodworking from his American-born father opened his eyes to the world of furniture making, and he made his way to California to study under James Krenov.
After a few more years of boatbuilding, Southall attended Hooke Park College, the experimental design school founded by John Makepeace in Dorset, England. Hooke Park challenged students to utilize small trees, thinnings, and waste products of the lumber industry in their designs. Southall’s system of slats was inspired by that challenge. There is virtually no glue in the table—just a bit in the upper crosspieces where spacers between the slats create the impression of solid wood. But the rivets alone create a rock-solid structure. In another nod to boat-building, Southall steam-bends the slats that make up the arch. The boards in the top are dry-fit with loose tenons; bolts attaching them to the base also serve to hold them together.