Woodworking & Design

By day I run Foundry 376, a small engineering team building web applications for clients in the Bay Area and the southeast. On the weekends, my office shifts to Fort Houston, Nashville's 25,000 sqft. makerspace.

Recently I've been building a lot of furniture and I've found it to be a rewarding blend of creativity and craftsmanship. For years, I've been frustrated that well built software blends into the background—it's hard to share and celebrate, and is often replaced or dismantled when the next cool thing comes along. Furniture's beauty arises from both design and function, and well made pieces last.

Most of my work so far has been replicas of Scandinavian mid-century furniture I've seen on Pinterest and tried to copy.



Replica of a Noriyuki Ebina Desk
July 2020

In May I was looking for a desk to make working at home more bearable and stumbled across this $8,000 piece by contemporary Japanese designer Noriyuki Ebina. I fell in love with the design. It seemed like quite a challenge given the sweeping angles of the legs and curves on the drawer face, but unlike other furniture I'd been admiring the angles were limited to a single plane. In this design there aren't any surfaces that curve in three dimensions that might require advanced tools like a CNC (like the chair I struggled with.) I decided to replicate it as closely as possible and see how far I could get.

It took 8 weekends at Fort Houston to create a version of the desk, largely because I had to cut the curves by hand on the bandsaw and then cut the drawer face to match. I used a tabletop router to round over the surfaces with a 3/4" router and I'm pretty happy with the result.

The whole desk is walnut and is finished with danish oil sanded to 120, 220, 800 grit (so it is just slightly reflective). In the future, I think I'll invest in 2x the wood so that I can color-match the boards and have a wider set of choices. My biggest regret with this piece is that the left leg and crossbeam on the front face stained to very different tones.

Cherry Side Table
March 2020

This March I built a small cherry side table with a red cedar inlay (wood I found discarded at Fort Houston!) I'm hoping to make a bed frame to accompany this piece soon.

This was my first attempt at an inlay and I'm not sure the two woods were the best choice—as the cherry has aged, it has become more similar in color to the red cedar, making the stripes across the top fairly subtle.

Mid-century Cat Couch
Feb 2020

In early January I saw a picture of a small Japanese fouton maker that sold cat-sized versions of each of their beds. I immediately decided "cat couches" were an unrealized market on Instagram and created this prototype, based loosely on a design by Swedish mid-century designer Ib Kofod Larsen.

The prototype was a hit with my (star litigator) girlfriend's cat and I am still hoping to create more of them for the high-end Instagram cat market. This was also my first sewing machine project—it turns out you cannot buy cat-couch-sized cushions anywhere for a reasonable price. (I know, what a shock right?)

Hall Bench
January 2020

After struggling to build my first chair in October, I decided to practice mortise and tennon joinery by building a small bench (with 16 mortise and tennon joints). This turned out to be very time consuming because I didn't know that square mortise-and-tennon bits exist for drill presses and chiseled each mortise square by hand.

I let the project sit for a while before deciding to finish it by cutting down a bunch of scraps to the same width and gluing them up to create an intricate top surface. This worked, but I quickly discovered that the piece was not entirely the same depth along it's length and had to adjust the size of the square connecting pieces to accomodate the inconsistencies.

In retrospect I think this turned out beautifully but would have been easier if I had not used scraps for the top surface. At roughly 9" deep, it is also not quite big enough to be useful as a shoe rack which is unfortunate - it serves no practical purpose in my apartment.

Replica of Neva Bar Chair
October 2019

My apartment in Nashville has a long kitchen counter and I found these stunning Neva bar-height stools on Pinterest. I decided to try to replicate them, but struggled to determine how to build the legs, which swoop up and across (while maintaining a slight backward tilt) to create the seat back.

I created two back legs with as much of a built-in curve as I could, and then cut many vertical slices with angled faces to create a curved back. After gluing the slices together, I used an angle grinder to smooth the inner and outer surfaces.

In retrospect, this design was flawed in several ways. I didn't use dominos to strengthen the joints, and I should have used overlapping horizontal "bricks" of wood to strengthen the design. The glue-up angles and number of slices also dictated the chair's final width, and my first attempt created a curve that was too narrow to sit in—I had to cut the back in half on the table saw and insert an additional segment to make it wider.

At the end of the day, I think this piece had two critical mistakes. I installed the supporting cross beams at the bottom of the chair without cutting the legs to height—the chair is actually ~6" too tall for my counter, and cutting it shorter would leave the footrest bar nearly touching the floor! I also use an odd tounge and groove joinery style in which "notches" in the crossbeams fit into grooves cut perpendicular into the vertical legs. This was easy to do on the table saw but the walnut "teeth" turned out to be brittle and would likely break over time (mortise and tennon or half lap joints would have been better). I plan to revisit this project and apply all the lessons learned to a second iteration soon!

Coffee Table
July 2019

One of my first major woodworking projects, my coffee table was a copy of a design I found on Pinterest. The top is red oak with waterfall edges and the supporting beams are walnut. This project took longer than I expected because the angles were too odd for me to calculate the height of the inner compartment and I had to build the legs and measure the drop distance to the arms to size the top correctly.

This project was fun because it also taught me that the precise angles don't matter, only the relationships between them. I cut a few reference triangles and based the entire design off those rather than trying to measure the angle needed for each cut. The result was easier to reason about and fit together!

Voronoi Mesh Raybans
July 2018

Motivation

In 2018, living in San Francisco and realizing that everyone was an engineer with a rock climbing hobby left my feeling pretty basic. To add some creativity to my life beyond my cool socks, I decided to build custom side walls for a pair of ray-bans. Using a pair of calipers I precisely measured my existing pair and built them in Fusion360.

I ran an algorithm provided by a Fusion360 plugin to generate unique vornoii mesh patterns and selected two to boolean subtract from the solid side walls, creating cut-out regions that resemble patterns generated organically in nature.

This was my first project using Fusion360's "live history" feature—being able to reason about the design as a series of operations and being able to revise steps and re-run the subsequent operations allowed me to iterate on the vornoii pattern until I found one that looked structurally sound and printable (no large gaps, no places where a single bubble divides the frame).

Revisions

It turned out to be fairly challenging to 3D print these parts because the side walls need to be thick enough to stay on your face while flexing a bit for comfort. The ends also needed to curve in more than I expected for them to fit comfortably behind the ear and stay on while looking down. Finally, I needed to build mount points that the original Rayban screws would screw into, which required fabricating holes a bit too small and allowing the screws to tear into the plastic just a bit.

After several revisions from Shapeways I was able to wear the glasses and called it a day, but they still fall off a bit more easily than the original Ray-bans.

Final Product

Overall I'm pleased with the final result and I think it'd be fun to apply this approach to more things in the future. Another iteration might have left me with side walls that held to my face a bit better but I got impatient waiting for Shapeways delivery. I was also curious about making the parts out of Shapeway's new laser-fused Aluminum, but it would require that they fit preciesely since they would be unlikely to flex as much as the hard plastic.

Edit: Sadly I lost these sunglasses after about two years. This is why I can't have nice things.

Wedding Band
August 2016

Motivation

When I started looking for wedding bands, I had a hard time finding one that reflected how I felt. I believed that my marriage would always be a work-in-progress—a journey more than a destination. I wanted to create a wedding band that would look better as the years wore on, something that might grow weathered by travel and adventure alongside my hands. Something that might take on years of scuffs and dents as a mark of strength and not a mark of age.

The Shapeways finishing process smoothed the surface significantly, and the final product was a bit more rounded than I expected—but the two dozen flat faces still reflect the softness and organic feeling that I wanted.

Autodesk Maya | Ring Template for Shapeways
Shapeways Polished Brass $34
Shapeways Matte Gold Steel $14
Shapeways Yellow Versatile Plastic $3.50
Shapeways 18k Yellow Gold $771
Posted on GitHub: bengotow/wedding-band

Tools & Process

I designed this band in Autodesk Maya and had it cast in plastic by Shapeways. After a few iterations (and making sure that it fit), I ordered one in 14k gold. The Shapeways gold fabriation process involved making a wax 3D print, creating a ceramic mold from the wax, heating it and removing the wax, and then pouring in gold—and ended up costing $780.

Final Product

Bike Frame Lighting
February 2015

Motivation

I fell in love with biking when I moved to San Francisco, and I regularly commuted to work through the Mission and Noe Valley. SF is pretty far north and got dark early in the winter (seriously, at like 4:30pm) and I struggled to find affordable bike lights that could compete with city lights.

I bought red and white LED strips from Adafruit and mounted them to the bike frame and bolted a 15V power supply beneath the bike seat. It had to be charged every few days, but made the bike easy to spot and helped me feel safe commuting at night. The best part is it only cost ~$40, much cheaper than the expensive kits for sale on Valencia.