d-i-y: cracking the code of a donald judd table

donald-judd-table

Recently, 2 or 3 Things I Know posted a picture of this table by the artist Donald Judd; it is miraculous in its simplicity and harmony. I put my face close to the screen to contemplate the structure. It looked to me to be made of big sheets of plywood with an ash or birch veneer: a surface on a base.

Could it be that the base is made of notched sheets of plywood similar to those House of Cards games I remember from my childhood? 

Looking for an image to illustrate the notion of notched sheets of plywood as a table base, I googled “notched cards” and found a photo of a compelling structure of notched, gray-scale cards created as an art installation by Samuel Dowd and Florian Roithmayr.

house-of-cards

(The inspiration for it was, curiously, a colorful design game created by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950’s: a deck of notched cards…

house-of-cardseames

… You can join the cards to make any number of structures, with endless possible combinations patterns and colors.)

Nina Saltman, ‘the improvised life’s project advisor confirmed that the table base is made of notched plywood. She also gave me some info about plywood and other materials that you could use to create a table using the basic idea (at the end of this post).

The table carries on the theme of the utterly, stunningly straightforward that Judd started in 1973 when he designed his first furniture pieces – beds for his children. He couldn’t find what he needed in Marfa, the small town in Texas to which he’d recently moved, so he set about to make them himself out of simple pine planks that he had had cut at the local lumberyard. He designed around the constraints:

“I figured it out so I could tell the lumberyard what I wanted – four pieces, five feet long, three pieces, two feet long – and they would cut them for me. They wouldn’t do too many and they wouldn’t do anything fancy. They would just chop it up. For a long time the basic module was the width of the wood: 1x12s, 2x12s.”

Judd gradually refined his designs, making them out of different types of woods and plywood, and sheets of metal like aluminum and copper. (Click here to read about Judd’s thinking and see more examples of his furniture, or visit the Judd Foundation site.)

The amazing thing about his table is that it is made with materials you can get anywhere, with methods just about anybody can do; you don’t even need nails.

Judd Foundation

Judd Foundation

If you DO want to think about forging a Judd-inspired table, or another piece of furniture, here is some information about plywood and other materials from Nina:

Plywood, available in most lumber yards, is sold with unfinished edges showing the actual plies; there are often gaps or “voids” between them. Some plywoods, like Baltic Birch, have very uniform edges with few, very discreet gaps, though it is more expensive. You could buy 3/4 -inch or 1-inch birch, or oak plywood for instance and use a table saw or Skilsaw to cut the notches (which you would cut rather tight,for instance no more than a 1/32 of an inch larger than the plywood you are fitting into the notch, so it wouldn’t wobble, and would sit at 90 degrees to the piece into which it is fit).

If you don’t like the raw edges, you would need to “edgeband”, that is, finish the edges of the plywood with a piece of wood so that the raw edges are not exposed. Edgeband material is usually sold as a “roll” of tape. Sometimes it is sold with an adhesive affixed on one side, otherwise you need to use an applied adhesive ( I like 3M spray adhesive called M90). Edge band tapes are economical and easy to use, but will often come loose or have edges that get loose after a couple years. The other option is to nail or glue a piece of matching 1-inch strip of solid wood to the edges. These pieces can be glued with contact cement or the same M90, or nailed to the plywood edge with “wire brads”, finish nails, or screws that could be either left exposed, or filled in with putty to match, then finished like the plywood.

Cabinet grade plywood can be finished in numerous ways: stain and varnish, stain and wax, paint, varnish only…stain only etc.

It is also possible to get a veneer wood on 3/4-inch, 5/8-inch or 1/2-inch MDF (medium density fiberboard) which is a very dense solid material used for cabinets a lot these days.The ends are totally solid and would look great. MDF is stainable, paintable, varnishable etc. It is a great alternative to veneer plywood, as it would not need edge banding or wood to cover the plies.

MDF comes in 4 x 8-foot sheets. However, most lumberyards will cut pieces to whatever size you want …sometimes for free, sometimes there is a cutting fee, but if you dont have a table saw, it can be worth the small charge.

As far as how it holds up, MDF is better than the IKEA melamine type materials, which is usually a not-so-dense fiberboard. MDF is prone to swelling if it gets super wet, and may not be the best for use in a bathroom or near the kitchen sink, close to the water source or on the floor. It can be finished with a sealer and varnish so it will not react so poorly with water.

Health check: if cutting vast quantities of either plywood or MDF, it is always a good idea to wear a good dust mask and wear eye protection..

No comments yet.

Leave A Comment

Feeling Inspired?

If the Improvised Life is a source of creativity, inspiration, ideas and change in your daily life, please consider becoming a Friend with Benefits. A little bit goes a long way towards helping us publish fresh AD-FREE content each day.