I’m currently working on a Federal-style card table. A common theme of the designs of this period is the beautiful inlay work. The table includes sand-shaded oval fan inlays at the top of each leg. The sand shading gives the element a three-dimensional look to what is otherwise a flat surface. I thought it might be interesting to document the process, tools, and techniques used in making these inlays and share this with other woodworkers.
While you can buy oval inlays of all varieties, including fans, they are expensive, and where is the fun in buying something you can make! Also, I don’t like having to tell someone, “Yes, I made it except for the …”. With the right tools, a process to follow, and some practice they are not so difficult to make.
Tools and Materials
My fans are made using holly and walnut. The holly is used for the fan wedges and the trim because it is very light and easily shaded by the hot sand. The walnut gives the dark contrast that makes the design “pop”. Any dark wood works for this. I just happened to have walnut. You’ll also need a backing veneer that can be any straight-grained, flat wood. I used maple for this. It’s unseen so looks aren’t important. The veneers for my fans were about 0.040” thick. The backer was slightly thicker at around 1/16”. The final thickness of each inlay is about 3/32”.
The number of tools I used in making these simple elements surprised me. You can certainly get by with fewer tools, so don’t let this dissuade you. I enjoy making tools almost as much as using them and ended up making several of the ones you see in the picture below. I’ll go over the key tools you’ll need as well as the “nice to haves”.
You’ll need a hot plate and iron skillet to heat the sand for shading the holly. I don’t recommend using your favorite cooking skillet. Check out flea markets or estate sales. If you do get a used one run it through the dishwasher a couple of times and heat it up without any sand to remove any oil seasoning that’s been applied over the years.
Piece of ¼” plexiglass to make an oval template. If you don’t have this material you can use plywood or HDF. However, a BIG advantage of plexiglass is that you can see through it. More on making this later.
Work board with the oval and rays traced from the center. These lines guide the cutting and layout process. I used a piece of scrap ½” plywood.
A 2” chisel or wide plane iron for cutting the rays. I recommend the plane iron for it’s thinness over the chisel (I made a handle for the plane iron I used. Can you spot it in the picture?).
Fret saw for sawing out the oval. Could also use a coping saw or scroll saw. I have all three but felt like the fret saw gave me the most control over the final cutting.
Veneer tape (¾” width is fine) to hold the pieces together as you assemble the fan. I also used painter’s tape for some steps. Along with this you’ll need a damp cloth (or an acquired taste for moisture-activated paste).
A carving gouge or similar tool for cutting the curves around the perimeter as well as the matching walnut pieces. I actually made a set of matched, curved chisels for this step (not necessary). A #7 18mm or similar gouge will work. You’ll just have to tilt the bevel so that you’re always cutting perpendicular to the work.
Clamps and scrap blocks of wood for gluing the inlay to the backer veneer.
Stringing clamp to hold the holly stringing around the oval until the glue dries. I’ll explain later. For now, just know this is something you can easily make.
Nice to haves
Card scraper for cleaning up the final inlays after all the glue up is done.
Xacto knife for various trimming.
Magnifying lense or jeweler’s glasses. With lots of small parts, a need for precision, and 50+ year old eyes I need all the help I can get. Fortunately, I have a set of these with a variety of lenses that I use when sharpening saws.
Jack plane for getting a crisp edge on the fan wedges before cutting. The shading process can char or round the fine edges on the holly. I found I got a better fit if I ran the wood across the plane before I cut a wedge.
Small back saw for various duties.
6” steel ruler or other small straight edge.
Narrow straight chisel (⅜” is what I used) for use in trimming the veneer string to size.
Wax paper for glue up.
For those of you old enough to remember Captain Kangaroo, you may recall he would announce an upcoming project where he would show you how to make something with common household items -- an empty oatmeal container, old toothbrush, scissors, etc. This meant there would be 5 minutes of full chaos in your house as you ran around acquiring these “common” items in time to get back in front of the TV before the making started. I feel like I’ve just given you such a list. Now that we’re all back in front of the TV, let’s have some fun. BTW, if you have no clue who or what I’m talking about you’re probably under 40. Just Google “Captain Kangaroo.”
Making the Oval Pattern
This is one of the most important steps. You will use the plexiglass pattern throughout the process. Take your time and make sure it is as accurate as possible.
In laying out the size of the template it should be the size of the final inlay, minus twice the width of the stringing that goes around the fan. If your stringing is 1/16” wide and you want the final oval to be 1-¼” x 2-¾” then your ellipse template will need to be 1-⅛” along the minor axis and 2-⅝” on the major axis.
The next step is to decide how many rays you want your fans to have. The larger your fan the more you can have. Just don’t over do it. I chose 12 rays (3 per quadrant). On my fans this meant the end of each ray was about ⅝” wide when it reaches the ellipse.
Use an online tool like the one I mentioned in the Resources section to plot the ellipse. The program requires three numbers:
Length of semi-major axis (the template length) in millimeters (70),
Length of semi-minor axis (the template width) in millimeters (32), and
Number of increments (12).
Input these, press Calculate and you get a diagram like the one to the right you can print. When printing any sort of design template make sure to choose the print options that give you the actual size as opposed to fitting it to the page. Always measure the final print out and do not assume it is the size you expected.
Cut out the ellipse, leaving at least ¼” of extra space. Glue the paper pattern onto a piece of ¼” plexiglass using a water-soluble glue. It doesn’t need to be permanently attached as you will remove the paper once the pattern is cut and marked. Carefully cut around the ellipse on a bandsaw or scroll saw. Leave all the line and then finish the template by carefully sanding the edges until just a hint of the line remains.
You should still be able to see each of the 12 increments marked off on the perimeter. Before removing the paper use a straight edge (a 6” steel ruler works great for this) and Xacto knife to score the template by incising lines from each pair of perimeter points through the center point.
After scoring the lines remove all the paper. This is why you used water soluble glue. Here is how the final template looks. Note the etched lines marking the 12 rays of the fan.
Having evenly-spaced increments gives a more balanced fan, though each angle in a quadrant are of different measure. An alternate layout would be to go with equal angles, but (in my opinion) this is not as aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Some rays will look heavier than others and the cut outs around the perimeter of the design will be different widths.
Shading the Holly
Start by cutting rectangular pieces of holly. The fans I made required rectangles that were about 2” x 3”. This gave enough material for at least four rays from each piece and sometimes a couple more.
Put enough sand in the skillet so that it reaches a depth of about an inch. Stir it occasionally so that it heats evenly, avoiding hotspots. Once the sand is heated, place a corner of a rectangle about ½" deep in the sand, angling it to shade more at the corner and less towards the center of the edge.
Shading is not an exact process. By trial and error you’ll eventually arrive at the right amount of time to leave each corner in the hot sand. I had my hot plate on the highest setting and each corner took about 30 seconds. This was not a precise measurement, however. Sometimes it took more and sometimes less. Check frequently.
Some helpful tips:
Don’t place the blank so deep that the corner makes contact with the pan. This is a sure way to burn it. Once the wood is deeply charred it isn’t usable. Trim off the burnt edge and start again.
The shading process leaves an edge that is no longer crisp. Use a bench plane to rejoint the edge. Turn the plane on its side and run the edge across the iron a couple of passes. This restores the edge without removing a significant amount of the shading.
The shading should taper down to nothing at about the middle of a blank. If you go past this, just trim the edge back using the plane or Xacto knife. The important part is the taper. The center point will be adjusted in the next step.
Focus on shading the same amount on each corner. This includes the size of the shaded triangle as well as the depth of color.
Cutting the Wedges and Assembling a Fan
Making a cutting guide
Now the real fun starts -- no, seriously. Before you start cutting the fan wedges you need a surface to align and act as a cutting board. I used a scrap piece of ½” plywood. It needs to be light in color so you can easily see the guidelines and big enough to not cut directly over the lines. Otherwise, you’ll destroy your guide.
Make a set of perpendicular lines that intersect a few inches in from the side. Lay your plexiglass template over these lines so that the intersection is at the center of the ellipse. It works best if you use the template with the etched side down. With the template aligned trace around the template and mark each of the remaining increments. The last step is to draw the lines, extending these well beyond the ellipse.
The picture shows this best. These lines will guide the cutting of each ray of the fan. As you align a piece carefully slide it to the side and make the cut. This will keep your guide from becoming marred by the chisel.
Decide the starting position
Before cutting, consider how you want the rotation to go. By this I mean whether to proceed clockwise or counter-clockwise. If making multiple fans you may want all the same orientation or have half to be mirror images of the others.
Consider the image to the right showing a set of wedges ready to assemble. These were cut in the order shown, beginning at 1 and moving clockwise in sequence around to 12.
The next photo shows this effect with a couple of finished ovals, each assembled in opposite orientations. On the left oval I began at position 1 and went clockwise when cutting the wedges. The one on the right began at position 6 and went counter-clockwise. As you can see they “spin” in opposite directions.
Whether you do all ovals one direction or mix them up, be aware so you can be intentional. It would be a pity to complete the entire project only to notice one oval was different from all the rest.
Time to begin cutting!
Choose one of the shaded rectangles. Visually inspect the edge to decide where the shaded triangle tapers to an end. You may want to make a small pencil mark at this point to help in positioning the blank on the cutting guide.
Place the holly on the guide with this mark at the center of the ellipse and align the shaded edge along one of the guide lines. The placement shown is for cutting section 1 from the previous photo.
Carefully align the chisel or plane edge along the next line in the rotation with the bevel away from the finished wedge. Keep the iron perpendicular to the blank. Without lifting the iron slide the work to the side and give a firm tap to make a clean cut through the holly.
Congratulations! You’ve just cut your first wedge. Move this one to the side and repeat this process on the next section in the rotation you’ve chosen. Each time the shaded side is positioned along the guide line with the shading ending just at the center. As you add more wedges take care to keep them in the same order and with the same side facing up.
Note: The side facing up during this process will become the finished surface once the oval is complete. That is because the cutting edge makes contact here first and thus leaves the cleanest, sharpest edge. You’ll need to remember to flip these for the next step, gluing the face side down onto the veneer tape.
Assembling the wedges
Once you have all the wedges cut for a single fan you’re ready to begin the assembly process. This is a good time to remember to flip all the pieces over so the back side is now up. Begin by using some painter’s tape to hold a few strips of veneer tape onto a scrap board with the adhesive side up (don’t moisten it just yet).
Assemble the fans first in quarters. Then, assemble two quarters to form a half and lastly, put the two halves together to complete the fan. As you work through this you are gluing them to the veneer tape. Three side-by-side photos illustrate these steps.
Rather than moistening the tape have a damp rag or sponge and moisten the first holly wedge in the quadrant you’re assembling. Place the wedge onto the tape and press it slightly. Moisten the next wedge in the same manner, align it’s point with the previous one and press gently into place. Add the third wedge. That quadrant is done for now. Move over a half-inch over on the tape and assemble another quadrant. Once these are done place a flat weight on top to hold everything in place until it’s dry.
Remove the weight and use an Xacto knife to carefully slice through the tape as close as possible to the longer section of the quadrant (i.e., major axis). Moisten a single piece of veneer tape and attach the two quadrants. Again, place a weight on the half fan and give it a few minutes to dry.
This step is more or less the same as the previous one, only you’re working in halves and not fourths -- with one important difference. It’s likely the two halves don’t fit precisely. After you’ve trimmed the tape from Step 2, and before you tape the two halves together, check the fit and adjust by lightly sanding if necessary. Caution: It won’t take much! This is a good time to ruin the look if you aren’t careful. Moisten another piece of tape and form the complete fan. Weight it as before and leave it to dry.
Chopping the Scallops
With the veneer tape holding the fan together it’s time to cut the scallops around the oval. Position the plexiglass template over the fan and carefully align the scored lines with the major and minor axis of the fan. Being able to see through the template makes this step fairly easy. Once aligned draw around the template with a sharp pencil. This line defines the oval, minus the holly banding.
Take note of where the pencil line intersects with the edge of each wedge. Place the gouge such that the cutting edge intersects a single wedge at each point where the line crosses. See the picture to the left for placement.
If you’re using an incannel gouge (one that’s beveled on the inside of the curve as shown in the photo) you’ll hold the chisel vertical. For an out cannel gouge you’ll need to tilt it so that the bevel is perpendicular to the fan wedge. The point is to cut straight down and not at an angle. Make a clean straight cut by giving the gouge a quick tap.
Now, it’s just a matter of repeating this process for each wedge, working your way around the fan. Work on a solid, flat piece of scrap material since you want each cut to go clean through the fan wedge. The goal is to have a crisp, sharp scallop.
You may dislodge a wedge from the tape in this process. If that happens just carefully re-moisten the wedge and put it back in place. Weigh it down a few minutes and then continue.
Once you have all the scallops cut you’re ready to add the walnut insets. I chose to orient the grain of each insert perpendicular to the curve of the oval, but that’s not so important. In the final result there is just enough walnut to be seen.
I first tried using veneer tape to hold the walnut in place, just like I used for the wedges. I found this a bit cumbersome and switched to using a 2” wide strip of painter’s tape, instead. Place the scalloped fan tape-side down onto the sticky side of the tape. Leave enough room around the edges to place the walnut.
The walnut I used was a 11/16” wide strip the same thickness as the holly. Using the same gouge (or an out cannel gouge with a matching curve), cut one end of the strip. Use a saw or straight chisel to then cut off a ¼ - ⅜” piece. Fit this tightly against one of the wedges and press firmly into the tape.
Cut and fit the next adjacent inset. This may require a slight bit of trimming as you go. That’s why it’s important to proceed by working against the previous wedge as you trim to fit. The key fit is to match the curve on the walnut to the curve on the holly. Nothing beyond the scallop points will be seen in the final inlay.
Making the Final Cut
If you’ve gotten this far you’re over half way! Cut a piece of the backing veneer slightly larger than the fan is at this time. Spread glue evenly over the fan and attach the backing veneer. Clamp this securely until dry. I used a couple pieces of scrap plywood to sandwich the fan and veneer in between while clamping. Wax paper between keeps the scrap blocks from sticking.
Once the glue has set remove the clamps. Peel off the painter’s tape and use a card scraper to remove the veneer tape as well. Work carefully and moisten the tape if needed to soften the adhesive. In some places there will be multiple layers. This is your first look at the finished side of the fan.
Use the plexiglass oval to again trace around the fan, aligning along the major and minor axis as before. The pencil line is just visible in the picture, below. Note how the line just touches the point of each scallop. Use a fret saw, or similar tool, to cut out the fan. This is the last time you will cut around the oval.
Wrapping it Up
Before adding the frame take some time to make a simple clamping jig like the one I show below. This is nothing more than a flat backing board with a few shaped blocks and simple screws to tighten against each. This holds the frame stringing in place while the glue sets. You already have the shape needed from the plexiglass template.
Draw perpendicular lines onto a scrap of ⅜” plywood, align the plexiglass using these as the major / minor axis, and trace around. Cut on the outside of the line and you’ll have the correct curves, assuming your saw kerf is about 1/16”. It doesn’t have to be exact.
To make the clamps I used some small cherry blocks and tapped a threaded hole through each to accept a small bolt. These are glued to the backing board. Tightening the bolt pushes the curved form blocks evenly against the oval.
Slice a piece of stringing from 1/16” thick holly veneer that is about ⅛” wide. Use a damp cloth or sponge to thoroughly moisten a length of stringing. Once it’s damp carefully bend it around the plexiglass template until the ends overlap. Clamp it in place and leave it to dry. You can speed the process with a hair dryer if you like. The overlap should be on the long side of the curve so there is less tension and it’s easier to fit.
After it’s dry remove the clamp. The stringing should still hold the shape -- roughly. The point here is to create enough of a bend so that you aren’t forcing the wood when it comes time to clamp everything together in the form.
First you’ll want to dry fit the stringing and cut it to length. I began by securing the oval with the banding into the form using only the end blocks (blocks I and III in the picture). Before applying too much pressure bring the block opposite the joint (block IV) against the oval. Check the stringing to make sure it is pressed against the oval all the way around up until the joint.
Cut one end of the stringing at a slight angle. Carefully cut the other end to match this angle and to the correct length. It should lie flat against the oval and meet exact.
A flat ⅜” paring chisel works well for this. After cutting the angle on the first end keep nipping and checking the other end until you’re satisfied with the fit. Make any adjustments now before gluing.
The photo below shows how this should look when it’s in the clamp. Can you spot the joint?
Remove the parts from the form and spread glue around the oval. Place a rectangle of wax paper on the backing board to prevent the oval from sticking to the form as the glue sets.
Just as when you were cutting the stringing, begin with the end blocks (I & III), add the far side block (IV) and last the joint block (II). After a quick inspection tighten each bolt just enough to apply even pressure all the way around.
Once the assembly has dried for a few hours remove the clamps. The stringing should be slightly proud of the oval. Use the flat side of a paring chisel to “plane” the stringing down to the oval. Use a card scraper and/or lightly sand to do any final cleanup. You’re done!
Practice makes perfect. Anticipate making some mistakes along the way and plan for it. I needed eight fans for my project, so I made ten. I’ll pick the best ones when it comes time to add these to the legs.
I found it best to work in stages and have about three in progress at any given moment. While one was drying I could be cutting fans for another. In this way each fan only took about 45 minutes of actual work time to complete.
Lastly, check out the Resources section at the end of this article. I list a few external sources of information that will help you complete your project.
My main source of information was from a SAPFM article by Mark Arnold, entitled “Making a Sand-Shaded Fan”. Mark does an excellent job of explaining the process and includes many pictures to guide the reader. Unfortunately, this no longer seems to be readily available on the internet -- at least I was not able to find a link. I printed a copy some years ago and had this printout as a reference.
Ellipses can be tricky to draw, especially at small scale. Likewise, dividing these into equal parts around the perimeter rather than equal angles is not easy. Fortunately, the internet as well as various computer software programs make this trivial. You just find a program, input the dimensions and the number of segments you want and voila, instant ellipse! I used the oval template maker from blocklayer.com.
Sand shading requires, well -- sand. It should be white, fine and clean. Common masonry sand is likely too coarse and if it’s the reddish variety may discolor the holly. You could buy a bag of play sand and sift it, or just do what I did. Buy a bag of white craft sand from Michael’s (or whatever craft store is in your area). It’s very fine and a small bag was plenty.
Written By: Jim Creasman (@Creasman in the forum)