For most of my childhood, we lived in a small house in Wanamassa, an unincorporated neighborhood just across the lake from Asbury Park, N.J. To my mom, at least, the smallest room in that house was the one in which she spent the most time – the kitchen. How she wished it were a little larger!
Around 1960, when I was in high school, my dad’s business – the Danelectro Corporation, which manufactured electric guitars and musical instrument amplifiers of his own design – had become successful enough to allow him to give Mom a new kitchen. (This was around the same time that Dad built a new factory in Neptune City, N.J., Danelectro having outgrown its previous building in Red Bank.)
The roomy new kitchen came along with a bigger house, built on an empty lot a few miles away, whose basic design Dad drew up. That further stirred his creative juices, since the larger rooms needed to be furnished. So in addition to the house, Dad also designed a couple of things for our new, larger living room – a rug incorporating a Greek key motif and a coffee table.
Dad was a pretty handy guy, but while he couldn’t weave the new rug himself (he found a rug maker who brought the design to life), he could certainly make a table. For this he enlisted my help.
Here’s what we did. Dad had a large supply of poplar wood, which he used to make guitar necks. The wood came in long planks not quite two inches (5 cm) thick. So one Sunday morning, while the new factory was closed, we drove to Neptune City to make the table. For me, it was not just a chance to help Dad, but also to get a hands-on geometry lesson. Dad showed me how to draw an ellipse, a curved line forming a closed loop, where the sum of the distances from two focal points (foci) to every point on the line is constant.
First, we selected a flawless eight-foot (2.4 meters) plank, 16 inches (40 cm) in width. Dad shortened it to seven and a quarter feet. Then, he drove two nails partway into the plank, each just an inch or two from the end of the plank and halfway across its width. These were to be the two focal points of the ellipse. We tied a length of string into a loop, which, when doubled on itself and stretched tight, was a bit shorter than the plank but a little longer than the distance between the nails.
We looped the string loosely around the nails and then, stretching the string tight with a pencil, we marked a curved path all around the plank, always keeping the string taut. When the pencil had gone all the way around the plank and again reached the starting point, we had drawn a perfect ellipse.
We then carried the plank to the factory’s wood shop, turned on a band saw and cut all the way around the plank, closely following the pencil line. Dad carefully guided the plank on the band saw; I supported the other end, keeping it level. That created the table top. The two ends of the plank fell away, and we trimmed them to created the table’s upside-down legs, as can be seen in the photo above.
After sanding, staining and finishing the wood, we then had a one-of-a-kind coffee table. Sandra and I feel lucky to now have it in our living room.