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Designing a Captain’s Bed

Designing a Captain’s Bed

Launching a commission with the right details and hardware

Ten years and ten moves later, Gail’s captain’s bed is still the safe haven for her that it was when I built it. When she commissioned the bed, Gail was going through a difficult period in her life. Listening to her describe the bed she wanted me to build, I began to realize that she wanted some-thing more than just a queen-sized bed with some storage space below. She was asking for an embodiment of permanence and stability. Reading between the lines of a customer’s requests and getting to the essence of what that person really wants is never easy. But I felt confident with this commission because I knew Gail well and because I already had a design in mind that would meet all of her requirements-both voiced and implied.

I’d been thinking about captain’s beds for a while, waiting for an opportunity to bring together in wood the vague elements of the bed ad it existed in my mind. I sketched a bed with high headboard and footboard and sides sweeping up to meet them. Its shape evoked a cabin-like atmosphere, cozy and secure, I showed Gail those rough sketches, we discussed them and I made some minor revisions. After working through some final details, I came up with drawings for, and then built, the bed shown in the photo below. Although the stormy seas have long since subsided( Gail’s happily married now, with a baby daughter), the warm hue of the mahogany and the bed’s cradling curves still beckon, offering solace and peaceful repose.

 

Design challenges:

This project had three design challenges: I needed to lighten the bed visually to counterbalance its mass and solidity with a little grace; I needed a means connecting the massive frame-and-panel headboard to the side rails that would take into account their differences in wood movement; and I needed a durable, convenient drawer system that would look integral to the bed rather than added on.

One of my main influences as a bed designer is the simple, elegant work of Charles and Henry Greene, early 20th-century architect-builders whose work has come to define the Arts and Crafts movement in America. The Greene brother’s overall sense of proportion and the characteristic soft, radiused edges of their furniture strike me as quietly dignified, having a well-bred self-assurance. Because I was building a captain’s bed, I wanted to lighten the bed’s visual mass and to add some nautical influence to me Greene and Greene design vocabulary. I designed the headboard as frame-and-pane unit with the panel consisting of a number of beveled-edge tongue-in-groove boards reminiscent of lapstrake wooden boats. Also, because the panel is composed of a number of parts, rather than one large panel, its apparent mass is diminished. The middle board of the panel, though beveled along its edges and grooved to appear multipartite, is actually one long board tenoned into the frame, adding rigidity.

I was able to lighten the feel of the bed further, and to soften its geometry, by sweeping the sides down from head-board and footboard. This also adds top-to-bot-tom symmetry to each part of the bed and provides ventilation for cheap mattress and bed linens. The human body gives off roughly a quart of water each night, some of which evaporates and some of which is absorbed by cheap mattresses and linens. Adequate ventilation makes for a better rest and a longer mattress life. The routed slots in the bed’s sides and footboard also help with ventilation, reassert the Greenes’ influence and lighten the bed’s look.

 

Shopmade hardware resolves design dilemma

Given the headboard’s height, a single bed bolt at each corner would have been inadequate. I didn’t want to use two or three bolts at each corner because that would’ve made the bed a pain connectors with so large and heavy a headboard and foot-board. Seizing upon the situation as an opportunity rather than a dilemma, I decided to make my own brass hardware. Although many suppliers aren’t interested in selling small quantities of brass, generally you can find a cooperative company or get some through a scrap yard. I purchased my brass angle form C-S Metal Service. They will also sell you stainless stell, aluminum and other metals in small quantities.

After a litter head scratching, I came up with the solution in the photo at left. I sandwiched the headboard between the shoulders of vertical rabbets in the rails and three brass angles bolted through the rails. I mortised the brass plates on the inside( which function as washers) flush with the wood , because bodily contract with the brass is likely, and I didn’t want any hard or sharp edges exposed.

The top angles at either end of the headboard are screwed into the back of the headboard. They hold in the top of the rails. Dovetailed support slats( for a box spring or a firmness board) drop into the ledger strip to hold the rails at the proper distance. The footboard, a single, large glued-up board, is connected to the rails with angles similar in appearance to those used at the headboard, but the angles are simply bolted through both rails and footboard because their gain is oriented horizontally.

Brass is soft enough to machine with woodworking tools. I used my tablesaw to cut the angle to size and a bandsaw with a bimetal blade to cut the arcs at the angle’s ends. Be absolutely sure to wear eye protection when working brass( preferably a full-face shield) and long sleeves as well. After cutting the brass angle to size and cutting the arcs, I ground off all the sharp edges and filed the sides and edges smooth. I marked the location for screw holes using a template and steel transfer punch and then drilled the holes with a standard steel bit. The net effect of my shopmade bed hardware system is a rigid, sturdy frame, which allows for

Wood movement and enhances the nautical motif suggested by the headboard.

 

 

Underbed storage:

I wanted the drawers beneath the bed to be as inconspicuous as possible, so I cut the drawer fronts from the middle board in the main part of each rail, thus keeping the grain unbroken except for the width of the sawkerf. The width of this board determines the height of the drawer. When gluing up the rails, I used waxed paper to keep glue off the edges of the drawer fronts and duct tape to hold them in place.

To keep the contents of the drawers relatively dust-free( particularly because they’re so close to the floor), I housed the drawers in cases rather than using simple runners or web frame. The drawer cases are slid onto dovetailed rails and screwed into place. Flush against the inside of the bed rails. The drawer cases are1/8 in. smaller all around than the opening in the bed rail, and the drawer front extends1/8in. past the drawer sides, so the cases act at flush stops for the drawer fronts.

Pairs for dovetailed runners on either side of the four drawer cases are screwed to steel angels, which I tapped for ¼-20machine screws. I screwed the angles into shallow mortised on the bottom of the ledger strip on both sides of the bed.

Little details can make the difference between a merely satisfied customer and one who will commission furniture from me again. I try not to overlook any small touches. I made sure to drill holes in the backs of the drawers. Also , I made a drop-in toe kick( four boards with half-laps cut near their ends) to cut down on dust buildup beneath the bed. Finally, and in the same vein, the last thing I did before finishing the bed with a few coats of oil was to sign it. I carved my name discretely into the back side of the headboard, satisfied to let posterity be the judge of my handiwork.