Canadian Woodworking

Look towards the almighty leaf

Blog by Rob Brown
Long Time Coming

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how a decomposing leaf reminded me of one of my favourite woodworking techniques, pierced carving.

There’s usually something very organic about pierced carving, as often the designs are reminiscent of what you would find in nature.

I was looking through some of my older work the other day with my partner and she noticed a very small shelf I’d made probably 20 years ago. The shelf was in the shape of a maple leaf. She was immediately drawn to it and asked if she could have it. Absolutely, was my quick response. I told her I never really had a good spot for it since I completed it, so it just lay idle for the past few decades.

Finally, a good spot

We’re nearing the end of a drawn-out basement reno that we’ve been completing over the past 18 months. We’re now at the stage of hanging televisions, buying foot stools and (apparently) installing shelves. My partner has a chair in the corner of her new basement office, which she sits in while working on her phone and reading. For the past few weeks she’s been asking for a very small table to put a cup of coffee on while she sits in this chair. I no longer have to make that table, as this shelf is the perfect fit.

The shelf was inspired by one of nature’s most beautiful and common (at least in Canada) forms: the maple leaf. It’s so iconic to Canada, we use it as a symbol of our great country around the world. I’ve always enjoyed spending time outdoors cycling, hiking and camping so I’ve often thought of what could be done, from a woodworking design and construction standpoint, with the shape of a maple leaf. This shelf was my very first foray into building something with a strong shape of this leaf.

Thinking back

I remember working on this little project a few decades ago. Because I was just doing some quick experimentation and I didn’t want to commit to a large piece, I started with this small shelf. Ironically, I hate making things that sit around collecting dust, which is exactly what this shelf has done. I chose a shelf mainly because it could be functional and hopefully get used someday.

I cut out the basic shape of the leaf, but left the rear 1/3 off so the shelf could be positioned against a wall. Its original shape was almost two-dimensional. It was shaped in its width and depth, but was flat on its upper and lower faces. I glued on a couple of small pieces of scrap maple to allow me some material to shape the upper and lower faces ever so slightly. One tip had the piece of scrap on its lower surface, while another tip had it applied to its upper surface. When dry, I shaped each tip to look like it was curling up or down slightly, adding that third dimension. I chamfered the perimeter of the top, and the leaf aspect of this project was complete.

A simply shaped support leg offered more than enough strength for whatever would be placed on top of the shelf. I attached the leg to the underside of the top with a few dowels. I added one short and one long cleat under the top so the shelf could eventually be attached to the wall. A few coats of finish, a buff with some wax and steel wool, and this shelf was ready to sit patiently for a few decades until the perfect situation arose.

Other leaf shapes?

I remember enjoying making this shelf so much, my attention quickly turned to other leaf forms. Next, I made a coffee table out of 6/4 black cherry. At this time, I was experimenting with inlay so I added a few small black cherry leaves, branches and a few berries. The inlay was pearwood dyed black, which gave a silhouette look. The fairly large top was supported by a simple four-legged base that vaguely resembled the trunk of a large cherry tree, wider at the bottom and tapering inward as it rose to the forest canopy, in this case the tabletop.

Both the maple leaf and cherry leaf projects required limited shaping. It was essentially taking a bandsaw to shape the perimeter, then smoothing the edges with some hand tools or sanding machines, and adding a profile to the edge (I mentioned the chamfered upper edge on the maple shelf, while the cherry leaf table got a gentle bullnose edge). At this point, the leaf portion of the project was complete.

Level up: power carving

A few years later I got into power carving, and all the wonders it brought. The thought of shaping wood in three dimensions was fascinating to me. I had no idea how power carving worked. Was it just a chisel that was somehow powered so the user didn’t have to push it themselves? Did it include a lot of aggressive sanding burrs? I started doing some research and liked what I found.

With the ability to shape wood quickly and accurately in three dimensions, my thoughts turned back to the almighty leaf, and its general forms. That’s when I stumbled across a form I was familiar with, but now saw in a whole new light – the ginkgo leaf. I’ll leave that until next week, though.

Long Time Coming

This little maple leaf shelf sat in storage for about two decades before I knew what to do with it. A shelf for morning coffee and afternoon tea, as my partner sits in one of her home office chairs and works.

Long Time Coming

A Tiny Bit of Shape

Rather than make a top that was perfectly flat on both its upper and lower faces, I decided to glue on two small scraps, allowing me to add more shape to the piece.

A Tiny Bit of Shape

Black Cherry Table

This was the second piece I made that was inspired by a leaf. A black cherry leaf is simpler than a maple leaf, but still has grace and style.

Adding Details

Dyed black inlay provides a silhouette of the natural world.

Adding Details
Last modified: January 17, 2024

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches


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