If we feel thirsty after a long day in the shop, our first choice is always the Railroad Street Bar & Grill in Linfield, PA. It’s a perfect gem, tucked away by the train tracks with a great staff and a delicious menu.
Sometime early in 2019 the owner, Mike McCloskey, approached us with a request to make a new bartop. The bar is filled with history, originally opened in 1850. You’ll find an exposed still in between the wall studs, left over from the Prohibition Era.
Their previous bar was designed as a standing bar. A little notch for your elbow, a step for your foot, and you “belly up to the bar” as was the custom. Times changed, stools moved in, and the old standing room bar provided more charm than comfort. It was our task to bring those two into balance.
This commission was an exciting one for us, as it’s our little clubhouse away from the shop. We know what makes the place great and we didn’t want to change the vibe with a bar top that didn’t fit the already established character. Soon after Mike asked us to do the job, we began our design work. We had two ideas, one inspired by the furniture we make and the other, a loose take on railroad inspired joinery. The railroad bar quickly became our favorite and where we put our energies. Below, you’ll see 1” scale models of our concepts. It’s one of our favorite things to make tiny versions of our ideas.
Railroad ties are made from oak. Hard, heavy, and durable. The perfect material for longevity. White oak is a wood used for many purposes. It’s what makes your whisky that beautiful brown color. The plan was to do large lap joints at the corners and pin them with hand forged nails. We were looking for a style that was rugged and robust, but refined with soft edges and hand shaped joinery. Something that would be at home in this dive (we say that in the fondest way possible) but lent a feeling of high end timelessness.
After we shared our proposal with Mike, we were all in agreement on the railroad concept. After searching throughout sawmills in Pennsylvania, we found some stunning quarter sawn white oak with the help of Lewis Lumber in Picture Rocks, PA. Quarter sawing is a process of cutting a log in a way to produce straight grain on the faces. This brings out a figure called “ray fleck” by slicing through the medulary rays of the tree. What results is wild figure laid atop the straight grain.
When the material arrived, we were blown away by the figure and began to sort according to color tone and density of the ray fleck. Each board was ripped to straighten it out, using a shop made jig for cutting the crook out of long boards.
We matched each component of the bar top and began glue ups. Much care was taken to keep these sections flat. We developed some robust clamping cauls to keep everything on the level. It took a solid two weeks to complete all of the glue ups to turn the raw materials into a bar top.
White oak is heavy. 2” thick white oak is heavier. We designed the bar with this in mind, which is why sections of the bar come together with smaller lap joints. This was much easier to manage during the process and we get to add a little more detail to boot.
We took all of the finished glue ups on a trip to the Boyertown Planing Mill to have them take a ride through their wide belt sander. Their lovely machine saved us days of sanding and we’re forever grateful.
With everything back in the shop, it was time to cut everything to it’s final length and begin the joinery. These large lap joints were a design concept, and I doubt any woodworker has ever found the need to cut lap joints so large. It was a labor intensive process, using techniques borrowed from the world of timber framing. Cross grain cuts were made with a circular saw at a fixed depth. A mallet and chisel follows the path of least resistance and the waste pieces pop off in every direction. It’s the kind of thing that makes woodworker’s like us giggle with excitement. We’ll be finding evidence of this task in our shop for years.
Once the majority of the waste was removed, a router with a shop made jig helped to flatten out the joints. Then it was time to bring everything together and fine tune the fit. It was plenty of fun having the bar set up in our shop for a few weeks. The joints are connected with a variety of fittings, meant to bring the sections together tightly, while still allowing for the wood to expand and contract as it needs to.
The joints are all held together on the underside, but we wanted to take the opportunity to add some detail to the surface. Each joint is pinned together with hand forged iron nails. The hand hammered finish gives a nod to the fasteners of old. Each nail is delicately hand carved to fit. A small RR logo was carved into the edge of the bar in one special place.
We moved into the finishing process after significant testing. We needed a finish that was highly durable, yet didn’t look as though the bar was dipped in plastic. The wood is finished in it’s natural color, with no stains or dyes added. The white oak has such a beautiful color tone on it’s own. As the bar was sprayed with a marine grade varnish, the cross pieces that support the bar from underneath were dyed black to match the brick wall they’d be set into.
After the finish was dry, each nail was set into it’s home with care.
As we approached installation day, the bar top was mocked up in our barn while classes rolled through the shop. We were excited and nervous about the one day turn around. The Railroad Street is closed on Mondays, so we needed to have the old bar removed and install the new one on the same day. Luckily, Mark Zasowski Contracting was there to handle the removal of the original bar. Mark was incredibly helpful in all respects. He cleared notches in the brick to allow us to set in the supports and stood by all day and night to help in whatever way he could. That bar is still on site and Mike’s got ideas for it.
We wrapped up the installation around 10:00 on Monday night and tested the bar with it’s first drinks. This was an incredible project for us and we couldn’t have done it without the help of many.
Many thanks to Mike McCloskey and the staff at the Railroad Street, our incredible staff at Lohr Woodworking, Jason Mormon and Eoin O’Neill, Mike Mamrak at Lewis Lumber, the Boyertown Planing Mill, Matthew Wyne of Wyne Enterprises for his graphic design work, and Mark Zasowski. Thanks also to our students and others that watched the process unfold in real life and on social media. It’s makes such a huge difference when folks are excited about the end result and encourage us along the way.
-Rob Spiece & Larissa Huff
Lohr Woodworking Studio