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Building a Sleigh Bed

Building a Sleigh Bed

Flowing tambours and intricate detailing enhance a classic design


This sleigh bed is loosely based on an Empire period design by Charles-Honore Lannier, a 19th-century French cabinet-maker. The bed’s stately curves and fine detailing combine to create a striking interplay of both movement and stability. The piece is large and bold. Fully assembled with box spring and mattress, it weighs more than 500 lbs.


Besides bring critical to the success of the design, the long, sweeping curves in the headboard and footboard offered the greatest challenge in constructing the bed. I’ll discuss the techniques I used and suggest more alternative approaches that could net major savings of both time and effort.


Whatever techniques you choose, the overall construction of the sleigh bed is the same. It consists of three separate elements: the headboard and footboard, which are each made of two curves posts, a crest rail and an internal frame upon which the exterior curved surfaces are mounted; the four rails, which bolt together at their corners; and two foot assemblies that complete the bed. These units are all joined together with threaded rods and anchor bolts, as shown in figure 1 on pp.24-25, to allow the bed to be dis-assembled for moving. By separating the headboard and footboard from the feet, I was able to avoid major stress points at the critical rail joints common on more traditional bed assemblies. It also made the bed much more rigid.


Working with treasured rosewood and precious design freedom

The bed, shown in the photo at left, turned out to be one of the most interesting and challenging jobs in my 15 years of building custom furniture. By delivery time, I had logged over 1,200 hours in the design and construction of the piece, and I’d spent more than$3000 for materials and custom tooling. The keen interest of my clients, Mrs. James Totten, daughter of Gen.George Patton added greatly to my enjoyment of the project. An instant camaraderie, born of shared interests, developed from our first meeting. Early on, Mrs. Totten revealed a stack of milled rosewood boards,8 in. to 10 in. wide and averaging 8ft. long, that her late husband had brought back from Brazil some 40 years before. She wanted me to use this wood in the construction of her bed. I felt as if I had stumbled upon a buried treasure and was being offered the job of excavating it. From these early meetings, the job developed its own momentum, and I soon began to appreciate what a long and involved project I was in for.


After receiving preliminary design approval based on quarter-scale drawings, I worked up the full-scale drawings, with details of the construction, joinery and carving, as well as the various edge and surfaces treatments. Although I make most of my design decisions at that point, I try to keep my options open so that I can make changes as the project progresses. I’ve found that trying to come up with a firm estimate at this stage rally dampens creativity by locking me into my original design ideas. I believe that my best work comes when I’m free to make midcourse corrections, allowing the piece to grow and develop just as the trees from which it is built grow.


Veneering and bolting the four rails together

The rail assembly, to which all other components are bolted, consists of head and foot rails, two side rails and three angle-iron slats. The solid-mahogany rails are veneered on the outside with fiddleback mahogany. A large cove molding on top and a continuous band of rosewood along the bottom edge visually connect the bed’s headboard and footboard. Oak ledgers screwed to the inside of the rails hold three angle-iron slats. The ledgers and the slats support the box spring and mattress, and the foot assemblies bolt to these ledgers. The four rails are joined by haunched miters and threaded rods.


My sleigh bed was design around a standard queen-size mattress- and –box-spring set; if you’re going to make this bed, size components according to the spring-and-mattress set you’ll be using. To begin, I cut the solid-mahogany rail stock to length for the side and end rails. Next, I veneered the outside faces of the rails with fiddleback mahogany and the outside faces with plain mahogany to stabilize the construction. The cove molding, which is mortised and glued to the top of the rails, was milled from 2-in.-sq. stock for the side rails and 2-in.-thick by 2 1/2in.-wide stock for the end rails to accommodate haunched miters, which provide a much stronger joint than standard miter joints, I glued and screwed the 2-in.-sq. oak ledgers to the rails, as shown in figure 2. Then I joined the rails with shopmade fasterners consisting of 5/16-in/-dia.by 3-in.-long threaded brass rods secured with washers and cap nuts. To hide the screws that secure the ledgers, I glued a 1 ¼-in.-wide band of rose wood into a 1/8-in.-deep rabbet in the outside bottom edge of all the rails. After thoroughly cleaning the rosewood with acetone, I glued it into the rabbets with epoxy. The wood’s natural oiliness tends to yield unpredictable results with aliphatic resin(yellow glue).




Carved foot assemblies that carry the load

The feet, with carved scrolls on both the inside and outside surfaces, were dovetailed in pairs to oak stretchers, these foot- and-stretcher units were then bolted through the oak ledgers to the underside of the rail assembly at the head and foot of the bed. I added filler blocks at the ends of the oak ledgers to provide extra width where the bolt holes for the foot assemblies are close to the edge of the ledgers.


Because the bed is so heavy, I was careful to avoid short grain in the curved section when laying out the feet. Also, a carved offset heel on the back edge of each foot moves the floor contact point more directly beneath the load. I cut five 10 3/8-in.-long blanks from 4-in.-thick by 10-in.-wide stock for feet; the extra blank was fir working out the carving technique. After laying out the shape of the foot and the spirals for the carved volutes on both sides of each blank, the foot’s J-shape was roughed out on the bandsaw. The side of the leg was also bandsaw to provide relief for the scroll ends, which rise as they approach the center of the volute. Since time was pressing me, I had good friend and fellow North Bennet Street School graduate Scot Schmidt, of Portsmouth, N.H.,carve the feet and the scroll brackets. After gluing the feet to the stretchers that join them together, I drilled and installed anchor bolts,

Shaping and detailing the curved headboard and footboard posts


I believe that the upright posts that form the headboard and footboard are the most dramatic and important design elements of the sleigh bed. Their shape and angle define the overall piece-too much rake and the bed begins to resemble a brontosaurus, too little and the sleeping space becomes claustrophobic. Given the importance of these elements, the shaping and detailing of the posts became of the most time-consuming aspect of the entire project. Since the only differences between the headboard and footboard are the overall size and shape, I’ll limit my discussion to the construction of the headboard.


The framework for the headboard consists of two upright posts connected at the top with a solid, turned crest rail that is tenoned and screwed to the posts. The screws are concealed by the carved sunflowers that cap the rails at the top of the posts. The screws are concealed by the carved sunflowers that cap the rails at the top of the posts. A series of five internal plywood frames support both the laminated, veneered panel on the outside of the headboard and footboard units bolt onto the side rails with threaded rods and captured nuts. Tongue-and-groove joints, as well as brass alignment pins and bushings, ensure the proper positioning of the units on the rails.


Using 1/8-in.-thick plywood patterns made from my full-scale drawings, I marked and cut the ¾-in.-thick lumbercore plywood for the post core. I epoxied two layers of plywood to form a 1 ½-in.-thick core and covered the edges with prebent three-plylamination of 3/8-in.-thick by 1 ½-in.-wide mahogany to provide stability for the surface veneer. Next, I covered all the showing surfaces and edges with a highly figured makore veneer. I had found this veneer in New York City many years prior and had been sawing it for a special occasion.


In spite of the richy figured makore, the bedposts still lacked definition. For this reason, I added the guitar-like engrain mahogany edge trim that follows each curved edge. This detail terminates in a 360 turn, outlining the endgrain sunflower carving  I cut and inlaid the 1/8-in.-thick pieces of endgrain mahogany into rabbets. I routed along the edges of the post. using endgrain mahogany to outline the posts also offered the structural advantage of easing the hard corners and protecting an otherwise vulnerable veneer joint.

The endgrain edging also creates a visual flow to other key elements of the headboard: the carved transitional scroll brackets at the base of the upright posts. The outside faces of these 8/4 malogany brackets were carved in dual, reversing spiral patterns, which provide visual relief from the posts’ flat surfaces. To make the spiral design stand out, I veneered the field of the bracked with makore acrylate(PVA) to the post core with a pair of 1/8-in.-thick Baltic-birch-plywood splines, as shown in figure 2 on the following page. Shopmade fastener, similar to the miltered rail bolts, secure the headboard to the rails, and a tongue on the bottom of the brackets ensures proper alignment with the rails.

Slowing-turning the large crest rail and assembling the internal framework

After the upright posts were completed and bolted into position, I turned the 6-in.-dia.solid-mahogany crest rail.(the footboard crest rail I s4 in.in diameter.) the size of the crest rail proved too taxing for my lathe, even running at its slowest speed, so u used a variable-speed portable drill to turn the crest-rail blank in the lathe at about 60RPM. Then I built a jig to support and guide my router parallel to the axis of the lathe and used a ¾-in.-dia.fluting bit to do the cutting work. I turned the basic profile for the sunflower carvings before parting off these endgrain blanks. Next, I turned tenons on the ends of the crest rail that fit mortise drilled into the inside faces of the upright posts. The crest rail was then fit to the posts, and four, 3-in.-long sheet-metal screws were fastened through them and into the endgrain of the crest rail, as shown in figure 1 at left.( I didn’t glue this joint in case the headboard ever needs to be disassembled.) to prepare the crest rail to accept the rosewood tambours, I routed flats and a groove in the rail, as shown in the detail in figure 1, to serve as a inset for the tambours and to provide a smooth and flowing transition from one surface to the other. I also routed a slot for the veneered outer panel.