Design Critique May 2012

Robert Horton asked for some help with a design challenge he faces building an alter table  for a local church. He was thinking initially about re-purposing some lumber and elements from some no longer in use church furniture. I originally advised him to shy away from using the carved capitals on the gothic colunms and instead try to concieve a design that plays off some of the other elements in the interior. How would you aproach this? The following is Robert’s original request:

A local church has an old pair of stalls (referred to as “sedalia”?)
from its previous (pre-1890s) church building. They’re not being used,
are somewhat rickety and are currently taking up space in a side
aisle. Stained so dark that it’s impossible to tell what they are.
Pews elsewhere in the church are a mix of red oak, ash, and some other
ring-porous woods.  Here’s one of them:

They’re in the way (technically a fire hazard) but proposing their
outright removal would likely rouse some sentimental opposition.
Anyone who has kids knows that it’s best to temper every loss with a
perceived gain. So in order to sweeten the deal, I’m assembling a
proposal to salvage some of the carvings and lumber from these
monsters to create a new altar. Here’s the chancel as it is right now:

Ignore the large, marble altar in the background as it is no longer
used. (Liturgy geeks will recognize it as a rear-facing altar that
went out of style a generation ago.) Suffice it for now that the
church has been using the small table in the foreground as a temporary
altar. It’s draped in a fitted shroud because the table is too low and
is jacked up on…wait for it…four concrete cinder blocks.

My vision now is to salvage four of the six columns from these stalls
and chop the midsections down to form legs. So far, it’s just a 2d

I confess no knowledge of the classic order beyond what a quick Google
search will tell you.  This already told me enough, however, to see
that the capitals are quite big for a table this size.  I tried
shifting things around until the proportions didn’t look totally daft.
The height, width and depth of the top are fixed because the church
would like to be able to use the frontals and linens that they already
have fitted for those dimensions.  Proportioning the base is where I’m

The piece would be built out of the rest of the lumber salvaged from
the stalls, plus perhaps an old pew as well from the church
undercroft.  (i.e. Mystery meat ring-porous hardwoods)  The finish
would be quite dark to match the existing woodwork elsewhere in the
sanctuary…and I can’t imagine stripping all the nooks and crannies
in such intricate carvings all the way down completely clean.

About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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9 Responses to Design Critique May 2012

  1. Kevin Fitzsimos says:

    It would be a shame to cut down the stalls. They’re a nice piece of history that would be gone. I’d rather see them sold by an antique dealer and the money used to make a custom new alter.

    • millcrek says:

      It’s more than a shame it’s almost criminal. Start from scratch, don’t destroy another mans work and a piece of history because it’s out of style.

  2. Kevin Flanagan says:

    I think the overall idea has merit but the proportions are all off because the post diameters and capitals are proportional to the situation they are in already. Thinking a little out of the box you could attempt to position the table the golden mean distance up the post with the capitals soaring over the altar as,….I dunno candle stick holders for high ceremonies, Easter or Xmas? Its a bit like a four poster bed I guess and would need serious bracing below the table. You wouldn’t have the ubiquitous flat unardorned altar but it’s only a suggestion.

  3. bawrytr says:

    I’m definitely in the “don’t touch them” camp. Sell them on, put them somewhere else, leave them there. I’m not sentimental, I have an old cupboard out in the barn that is past saving, and was never nice, and is heading into the fire after I salvage a couple of bits. I have seen some actually quite nice chest/benches made from the head and foot boards of beds that were a non-standard width and for which nobody was ever going to have a custom mattress made. But I don’t think it is at all a good idea to cut up something like those seats to hash up something else.

  4. Dean says:

    As an alternative approach, I would consider using the lower portion of the columns, from the square feet at the bottom to just above the round ring portion (at seat height on top of the square section). Use as much of the round column above that, to give you the height you need before the tables top starts. You could put a panel between the square sections in front and between the two sides leaving the back open for storage. The panels could be mounted in grooves cut in the sides of the square sections. On the front and possibly the two sides a secondary panel could be mounted over the main panels, with carved letters with whatever quote or statement was desired. Just a rough idea but perhaps others may add to the idea.

    The only thing I’m puzzled about is your comment that they “…would like to be able to use the frontals and linens that they already have fitted for those dimensions.” If the “frontals and linens” are what is shown in the picture of the temporary alter, wouldn’t that cover up all of the structure? If so, all that handy work would be hidden and never seen. I can see them using the linens on the table top, but if the “frontals” are what is hanging down to the floor on the temporary alter, then you could build a plywood box and no one would know.

  5. P.A. says:

    Any chance you can repair the stalls and make them useable again? With some matching red cushions, they would fit nicely into the chancel replacing the chairs on either side. They would echo the gothic design of the alter in the back.

    Then you could start from scratch and design an altar table to use some of the gothic design elements already in place. Maybe three simple gothic arches supporting the table top?

    To my eyes, your 2d elevation shows a table that seems rather top heavy, with the legs too far apart.

  6. ejcampbell says:

    My first choice is the sell them and then make something propotioned for this site.
    Second choice if that won’t fly is a variant of P.A.’s suggestion. The 3 gothic arches could come from the old piece: The portions of each seat above the columns. But everything about those old pieces is sc aled up for a large environment and it will never look good scaled down. I think it is a no-win design problem. I’m not agisnt repurposing somoething that has outlived its original purpose; I do it all the time. But not here.

  7. Isaac G. says:

    I agree with those posters above who suggest not repurposing the stalls — using their existing proportions and material dimensions to create a new piece seems like painting yourself into a design corner. Reconsider the specific attributes that a new altar would need and design it new from that point, possibly picking up some of the design language from the stalls.

  8. Dennis Heyza says:

    I also agree with not repurposing the stalls, whether they get restored or sold. As for the design problem, the Church should go back to using the “rear-facing altar that went out of style a generation ago” IMHO (no offense to the gentle soul tasked with building this object).

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