Archive for writing desk

Whale Tail Desk – for Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Posted in Artisanal, FSC, Furniture Making, Interior Design, Studio Furniture, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2014 by johnwiggers

The story behind the creation of my Whale Tail Desk was published in issue #79 of Canadian Woodworking Magazine, in August/September 2012.

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What follows is the content that was submitted for publication.

In the Autumn of 2001 my daughter was working on a school project that had to do with whales. Her writings contained all the standard textbook information available on these creatures, i.e. “whales are the world’s largest mammals; they live in the sea; they eat fish or plankton, and they are endangered.”

After reading her project to me, she asked what I knew about whales. I told her that when a whale turns up dead in the St. Lawrence River it’s carcass is so contaminated with pollutants that it has to be handled and disposed of as toxic waste. Needless to say, her eyes went wide as saucers and her whale project evolved along a whole new tangent.

That conversation made me wonder about what it is that our schools are teaching our children. Or, rather, what it is that our schools are not teaching.

My daughter and I ended up talking a great deal about whales, and out of those discussions came a promise that the following summer we would take a trip out east to see some real whales, up close and in the wild.

Not long after this discussion I received an invitation from World Wildlife Fund to build a showcase exhibit for the inaugural “Forest Leadership Forum” to be held in Atlanta, Georgia in April, 2002. Given that the show was focussed on protecting the world’s forests, I was challenged to come up with a cool idea for a piece of furniture made of FSC certified wood.

For several months I wavered on the idea of whether or not to even participate in the show, because after 9/11 the thought of flying anywhere wasn’t holding much appeal for me.

By early 2002 I was still undecided about whether to participate, but now faced a deadline. I was stuck with the furniture designer’s equivalent to writer’s block. Nothing clever was manifesting in the way of ideas, although I had concluded that my furniture piece should be a desk of some kind.

Then one night I’m watching television and there’s a program on about saving whales, and I see the actor Pierce Brosnan speaking on behalf of the whales.

I was already familiar with Brosnan because at that time he was also a spokesperson for FSC.

The connection of Brosnan to both whales and FSC suddenly melded with my idea for a desk, and everything came together in a flash: FSC + Whale + Desk.

Grabbing a pencil and a thin piece of cardboard I scribbled out a quick rendering of a desk based on what a whale’s tail would look as it breeched in preparation for a deep dive. Cutting this out with scissors I then Scotch taped the pieces together into a crude scale model. The result was an actual miniature prototype, and the whole process probably took no more 15 minutes to do.

This model was then scaled into working drawings, and the woodworking process began. The main face of the torso and tail started as an oversized T-shape slab of 1-1/4″ veneer core ply that was cross laminated with Macassar Ebony veneer. Relief kerfs were cut into the underside for bending the curve. Plywood offcuts were used to make elongated L-shaped vertical gables, with the 1″ ply floor set into dadoes.

An anthracite grommet was inset into the top, to allow wiring to pass through to the vertebrae wire management column running vertically inside the torso of the desk. For stability the desk was engineered to be secured to the floor with lag bolts.

After a thorough sanding the exposed surfaces were finished in a high gloss low-VOC polyester finish to enhance the grain and give a glossy “wet look” to emulate a whale rising from the water.

The finished Whale Tail Desk was displayed at the “Forest Leadership Forum” in late April, 2002 along with a custom made Andiroba Credenza crafted from the same wood and finish. These pieces are both now part of a private collection in Moscow.

A few months later our family travelled east to New Brunswick and took a long ferry ride to a remote island called Grand Manan, which lies just off the coast of Maine. We arrived on the island on August 6th and had advance reservations to go on a whale watching tour the following morning.

As we travelled around the island I soon learned from the locals that whale watching was not an exact science. Even in optimal summertime conditions such tours are highly dependent on the weather, the seas and the fog. I was told that in the previous 2 weeks hardly any tours had managed to make it out to sea because of heavy fog. And even when boats did make it out, there was no certainty of even seeing a whale – let alone seeing one up close.

I now felt concern that expectations for the trip might not unfold as planned. We had a wedding to attend in a couple of days, and our only opportunity to see whales would be the following morning. My daughter in particular was excited at the prospect of seeing a whale, and I did not wish to see her disappointed.

That night I took a walk to a small rise of land overlooking the sea. I prayed for good weather and silently called out into the darkness – asking for a whale to make an appearance the following day.

We arose before dawn and made our way to the harbour where a small converted lobster boat took us into the Bay of Fundy, to an area where whales traditionally feed. Luckily for us, the weather, the fog and the seas were all working in our favour, and conditions were nearly perfect.

After a bitterly cold 2 hour ride, the boat’s captain spotted a pod of 6 or 8 whales on the horizon. He slowly eased to within about 1/2 mile of where these whales were, and shut off his engine. Now we had to wait, with cameras ready, scanning the horizon in anticipation of the whales coming to the surface. We didn’t know when, or where, these creatures might appear.

For the next 20 minutes we enjoyed sporadic sightings of whales in the distance. These massive creatures would suddenly and unexpectedly emerge from the depths, then crash back into the sea with huge plumes of water and spray. Everyone was crowded to the starboard side of the boat, methodically snapping off frame after frame of film.

Given the unpredictability of the whales appearing on the horizon, I was snapping through an incredible amount of film in the vain hope that one of these shots might yield an incredible photo. At one point I stepped back from the group to change film when the most amazing and magical thing happened. Unbeknownst to any of us a huge Humpback Whale had quietly surfaced behind the boat. This whale didn’t make a noise, and not one of us even noticed he was there.

As I busied myself with changing my film an odd feeling suddenly came over me. Casting a slow sidelong glance over the stern I found myself looking – no more than 10 feet away – right into one of eyes of this massive creature. In one brief moment I felt the whale say to me, as if telepathically, “you asked for me to appear. Here I am.” Needless to say, as soon as I announced the whale’s presence behind our boat everyone stampeded to the back for a better look.

The feeling of being small and powerless was overwhelming. Humpbacks can grow to a size of 40 tons, and if he wanted to this whale could easily have flipped our boat like a cork in the water. But this was not how things unfolded.

It was as if this whale had been waiting for us to show up, and he was floating patiently in the water until he was sure he had our undivided attention.

He slowly raised the top of his bumpy head out of the water, as if to confirm with his own ancient eyes that we were all watching. He then exhaled a huge, bushy spout of misty air with a sound not unlike that of an elephant’s trumpet. And let me tell you, after a lifetime of eating seafood that fellow could definitely have used a breath mint. Children were giggling at how bad his breath smelled.

But the best was yet to come, and the only way to describe it would be to say that this whale grabbed this moment to, literally, seize the proverbial stage and ham it up for our cameras.

It was a most amazing few minutes of time, during which this wild mammal – of its own accord – decided to approach our boat in a manner that gave us both the time and the angles necessary to take some absolutely phenomenal photographs. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this whale was probably posing for some of the shots.

On our long ride back to the harbour I considered what might have motivated such an untamed creature to behave in this manner. I know that whales are highly intelligent, so on some instinctual level this individual would probably know that the greatest threats to its survival (i.e. pollution, collisions with ships, entanglement in fishing nets, and slaughter by commercial industry) all come from humans.

In spite of this, this whale took incredible risk to reach out and connect with us.

Perhaps, deep down, it was because this whale also realises that as much power as Man has to destroy, Man also has the power to change – and to protect. And maybe through connecting with us, this whale is also trying to secure his own future survival by sharing with us that feeling of oneness with him.

It would be easy to dismiss this magical moment was an isolated incident, a coincidence, or a figment of my imagination. But I do not believe this to be the case.

When we arrived on Grand Manan the day before, there was a story circulating amongst the locals about a Humpback Whale and her calf which had become entangled in fishing nets earlier in the week. Such entanglement is a guarantee of certain death for a whale, especially calves. To the amazement of the locals these two wild mammals instinctively swam right up to a research vessel and waited patiently on the surface of the water while deckhands used knives to cut away the netting. Somehow these whales intuitively knew what they needed to do in order to survive.

Life always finds a way, and we should never underestimate the magic at work in Nature.

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Custom Writing Desk

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on June 14, 2011 by johnwiggers

I am always amazed at the things that turn up while digging through the archives.

Recently I was looking for photos of a Pyramid Keepsake Box and Humidor we made in the mid 1990s, and in the process I also came upon these images of a custom writing desk we made almost 20 years ago.

In the early 1990s we were commissioned by Katherine Burke of Katherine Burke Design Consultants of Toronto to build a custom writing desk. The modified oval shape of the top was anchored by a curving modesty panel in the centre, with tapered solid maple legs at each end.

The extra thick granite top was visually lightened by means of an undercut bevel going around all edges.

What I like most about this desk is its classic understated design – 20 years later and it doesn’t look dated.

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 6 of 6) – The Completed Desk

Posted in Artisanal, Canadian Woodworking, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

With the finishing process now complete the desk can be assembled.

The completed desk is shown as follows:

Front view of desk.

Front corner detail.

Rear view of desk.

(I love this) detail of where the drawer meets apron.

Drawer open, showing dovetails.

Inlaid grommet in desk top.

After the desk was delivered I received the following testimonial from the client:

We just finished building a custom home and had been searching for the “perfect” desk for our new home office. We wanted something that was original in style, made to last a lifetime and not too large. It was impossible to find something ready-made that fit all of our criteria. We contacted John and within a few days he had prepared detailed drawings for us to consider. After some fine tuning, we quickly settled on our perfect desk. The desk is flawless and looks exactly as drawn, down to the last detail.

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 5 of 6) – Finishing the Desk

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

Most woodworkers will tell you that the most tedious part of the furniture making process is the hours of final sanding required to prepare the wood for finishing.

In my mind this stage is actually quite exciting, because it helps me to anticipate more clearly what the finished piece will look like.

In the previous post the solid cherry received multiple coats of a vinegar and iron solution, which is the traditional way of ebonizing wood to a darker colour.


A black toner is then applied to ebonize the darker areas more consistently.


At this stage I am extremely pleased with the decision to add the beading details to the aprons and drawer fronts.

The Macassar Ebony looks incredible!

Next: Custom Writing Desk – (Part 6 of 6) – The Completed Desk

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 4 of 6) – The Making of the Desk Begins

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

With the drawing and finish sample now approved it is time to proceed with the actual making of this custom desk.

First the Macassar Ebony veneer is carefully cut and bookmatched, before being laminated to rigid veneer core Birch plywood panels.


The aprons are double laminated for strength, and solid corner blocks are added to receive the legs. The front legs (alongside where the drawers will be) are going to be mechanically secured with steel hangar bolts.


Pipe clamps hold the framework square while the glue sets up.


The desk legs are milled out of solid 12/4 Maple stock.


These solid cherry bead details will be added later to the underside of aprons and drawer fronts.


This view shows the pocket that will receive the dovetailed drawer boxes. The legs are also bolted in place.


The Macassar Ebony apron showing leg and beading detail.


With the woodworking portion nearly complete the desk is stood upright to verify proportions, fine tune the details and ensure stability.


Front corner detail showing drawer closed.


Drawer open.


At the intersection where drawers meet centre apron the beading detail helps accentuate the lines.


The desk is now disassembled and ready for sanding and finishing. At this stage a traditional vinegar and iron solution is applied to the solid cherry to naturally darken the wood. This solution reacts with the natural tannins of the wood to achieve the ebonizing effect.

Next: Custom Writing Desk – (Part 5 of 6) – Finishing the Desk

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 3 of 6) – Sample for Approval

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

In tandem with sending drawings to the client for approval I always like to make actual finish samples of the wood we intend to use. This helps clear up any misunderstandings that might take place regarding what the finished wood surface is going to look like.

For this particular Writing Desk a bundle of quarter cut Macassar Ebony was selected, and after confirming the yield a portion was cut and glued to a piece of plywood.

After sanding and lacquering the full panel was then cut into smaller squares, with the edges being sanded and slightly bevelled. The backs of the samples are then covered in felt, and a labelled to identify the project, wood species, type of finish, and date.


Two of the samples are then sent to the client, with copies kept as control samples in our shop.

Once we receive client approval on these samples, the woodworking on the desk can begin.

Next: Custom Writing Desk – (Part 4 of 6) – The Making of the Desk Begins

Custom Writing Desk – (Part 2 of 6) – Scale Drawings

Posted in Artisanal, Furniture Making, Woodwork, Woodworking with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2011 by johnwiggers

The next step is to take the approved design concept and turn it into a scale drawing. This will give a better idea of what the finished desk will look like.

This drawing can then be submitted to the client for approval.

Once the drawing is approved we can select the appropriate material and make a finish sample for approval.

Next: Custom Writing Desk – (Part 3 of 6) – Sample for Approval