Sleigh Bed Construction Issues

Sleigh beds are traditionally made with veneers, but in this case a customer is asking for "solid wood." This brings up a discussion about wood movement and construction methods. November 26, 2006

A client has asked me to build a sleigh bed in solid mahogany, and he insists on solids throughout. The headboard and footboard will be some 60" wide by 40" high, grain running vertically, and curved. I am scratching my head on this one. How can I fabricate this curve, make it pretty consistent, and minimize hand tooling?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor T:
Think about a stave core door, only this core will have a curve to it. Draw side profile full scale showing the sleigh, use drawing as pattern and make flush trimming jig, rough out on bandsaw the profile/curve into core blocks, then flush trim, glue up into panel and veneer.

From contributor L:
I'd be concerned that sawn to shape would leave too many short grained sections. If I tried that job, my starting guess would be to resaw the stock and vacuum-press laminate it on a form. I'm not sure that I could stack and place 60" sheets, so I'd consider narrower panels joined after lamination. But that's a lot of additional material and time, and it is not clearly consistent with the demand for solid wood.

From contributor B:
A 60" wide solid wood panel is probably going to move close to an inch in width seasonally in a place like the Northeast. I am sure there has to be something to hold the mattress in place, which has to attach to the head/footboards, which may constrain this movement. I predict a self-destruct cycle of less than two years. Also, solid wood, when sawn into thin strips/sheets and glued back together, is not much different then annular rings on a tree held together with lignin.

From contributor H:
I too gave thought to wood movement when I read this post. However, he did say it was to be made of mahogany, which is one of the most stable woods. If he uses vertical grain mahogany, that would be even better. This is, of course, assuming it is SA mahogany rather than a substitute.

60" is substantial width, though, and I'm not sure just what movement he'll see with the mahogany over that distance. Also, given that it is to be curved, any wood movement could cause strange effects along that 60" width. Customers always want things that cannot be reasonably done with wood! Perhaps it's time for a wood movement lesson with the customer.

From contributor W:
I realize that vertical grain is nice and wood movement is the problem. For the solids, how about using 60" long strips glued up on a form to make the curved shape, ala coopering? Or brick lay up 20" and 30" pieces. Make sure you are using reasonably color-matched lumber. Are you going to stain the final piece? Talk with the customer about the problems.

From contributor D:
I'll go in a slightly different direction and mention that it is far better to have the customer put their faith in your ability to make the best product the best way. The worst experiences I have had is when a customer has told me how to do what it is I do. Today, I tell them I know what we are doing, and the best thing is to let us simply do it. The reference to solid wood is probably the result of a perception of veneer being cheap along with substrates somehow being cheating. Both views are easily supported by observation in today's big world of bad furniture.

Do a bit of research on sleigh beds (as you are here by posting), determine the best way to build the best bed, and confidently propose to your customer what you want to do and why.

More specifically, stack laminating wide bandsawn 12/4 boards, 40" long, of pattern grade Honduras to get to 60" wide will simply not yield a very attractive surface, considering all the material and labor. One reason sleigh beds were/are made is to show the maker's skill in laying fancy veneers on curved surfaces. To do otherwise would be to miss the point of the design.

From the original questioner:
When my customer first approached me with the request for "all solids," I started into my usual sermon about why veneer is good and the misconceptions that give it a bad rep. His argument was that he wanted to feel confident that he could work on it down the road, refinish it or whatever, and he was afraid of veneer. I had almost cooked up a method of bent laminations in a vac press, in, say, 10" widths, and then joining those. Reading these responses has me thinking, though. Maybe I can get him to agree to veneered panels if I can order heavier thickness veneers. I think Certainly Wood sells special thickness veneers. Thanks.

From contributor P:
I think that there is a way to do it using the bent laminations and vacuum press. We do this with chair slats all the time. We normally glue up a 6" wide x 24" long curved panel and then cut it into slats, but on some of the designs, we glue two of these panels together edge to edge to make a wider back splat. Works fine. We generally use (4) 1/8" laminations per slat. So you could make a whole bunch of these, bend them to the desired profile, and simply glue them edge to edge to make the 60" panel. The difficulty would be in putting any kind of top rail over this panel, but since the panel is curved, it would be quite strong. It could be glued directly to the side rails. 1" of movement in a bed is no big deal, as long as the slats and slat supports were sized to accommodate it. Mattresses are squishy and don't need to fit very precisely in a bed frame. It would also end up being a weird looking bed, very stripy - but it would certainly be all solid.

From contributor K:
If the customer is dead set on solid wood, then design around the material. How about curved solid slats, either sawn or laminated depending on the degree of curvature, separated by spaces or joined to make a closed panel with unglued splines? I believe Chris Becksvoort wrote an article in Fine Woodworking using this approach a few years ago.

From contributor L:
I'd have to agree with contributor B. You could resaw 1/8" thick solid wood to whatever height your bandsaw will cut and individually laminate them to your curved core. You could refinish it 10 times over the next 200 years and still have plenty of wood left. Or refer to Christian Becksvoort's sleigh bed in Fine Woodworking #124, June 1997.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the suggestions. I looked up the FW article by Becksvoort and it looks interesting. One big difference that I notice, though - Becksvoort's bed has horizontal grain in the head/foot board. The one my client wants has vertical grain. I'll have to study that article further.