Friday, October 17, 2014

The Design and Construction of my Spitfire Table: Huw Edwards-Jones in His Own Words

Furniture maker extraordinaire, pilot and WW2 historian, Huw Edwards-Jones.

Just over two years ago I wrote a brief piece on Huw Edwards-Jones’ amazing Spitfire table. It’s one of the most incredible pieces of art/engineering/furniture I’ve ever seen. Since then the article has had the most hits of all the 650-odd posts I’ve written on this site since my entry into blogging more than 10 years ago.  It's also attracted a great deal of attention in the media including UK's Channel 4 production "Four Rooms". Given the level of interest in the table I thought a second, more detailed, article on its construction was warranted, so I interviewed Huw and here’s the story in his own words:

Conception to Completion
This is the story of my journey with the Spitfire table from its conception, to the excitement of putting the propeller blades into the hub and seeing the majesty and size of the assembled unit for the first time. 

The idea came to me about six years ago. I’ve always been interested in aviation (I’ve held a PPL since I was 18 years old) and WW2 military aircraft have held a particular fascination. I drafted up some technical drawings and used them to get some artist's impression sketches made by the renowned aviation artist, Geoff Nutkins (more about Geoff, below). Now, with the concept established, it was time to collect the necessary parts and start the build.

My original concept of the table and drawn up in collaboration with noted aviation artist, Geoff Nutkins.

The Propeller Hub
I couldn't have built the table without having the ability to support the blades and glass accurately and parallel to the floor. 

I realised this could not be achieved unless I could get my hands on an original Spitfire propeller hub. Yet in all my time searching various potential sources for rare Spitfire parts for years, I never saw a hub for sale in any condition at all.  For awhile I thought this would be the undoing of the project, however fate was on my side.

While I was buying some other parts from an outfit up in the north of England, somebody at the firm said that there was a individual, Martin Phillips, restoring a Spitfire Mk IX down in sunny Devon and that he had a large collection of parts.

I duly contacted Martin and he was kind enough to let me come down to his farm-workshop to take measurements of the cowlings on his 90% restored Spitfire. While I was there I casually asked him if by any chance he had a spare prop hub and incredibly he said,  "Actually, I have a damaged one over there under that pile of parts".  Then, lo-and-behold, he dragged out a Mk IX hub off a Supermarine Seafire which he told me had crashed in 1943 while coming in on an approach in fog, to Fleet Air Arm station at Yeovil. The pilot had sadly lost his life in the accident.

The incredible propeller hub. The table couldn't have been built without this part.

I looked at this incredible piece of aviation history and realized it was exactly what I needed to make a start on the project. The hub had received a heavy front end impact: initially it appeared true and the engineered propeller port holes looked straight enough but eventually I had to take it to an engineering firm in Sussex to recut the unusual threads as they were a few thousandths of an inch out.

I will be forever grateful to Martin as in addition to the prop hub, he let me have a set of original exhaust stubs (two starboard and two port) -all for a very reasonable price. Luckily for me he liked the idea of the Spitfire table and was very generous with his help.

The exhaust stubbs: I am indebted to Martin Phillips for providing me with these superb parts.

The Propeller Blades
Now I had the hub, the propeller blades were the next things to acquire. Like the hub, they were difficult to find and I spent a long time searching aviation websites without any success. Then suddenly I found and acquired  a blade on eBay. I got it for an great price although not having seen it 'in the flesh' I was quite anxious about its condition. When the package arrived I opened with trepidation and was delighted to find a fantastic blade with a lovely patina with no damage apart from some minor surface wear. The fellow who sold it to me told me his Grandfather had worked on Spitfires in WW2 and acquired it as a souvenir after the war. The blade had seen some operational service, so it had heritage. It had been in a shed in the garden for as many years as he could remember. I still consider this to be the finest of the four blades. 

I obtained the second blade from an eccentric engineer who had restored a Seafire and had it in his office. I think this is a rare Spitfire blade by the fact that it had "Experimental"  painted in a green circle near the base. It was in very good authentic condition and had many small dents on the leading edge deflector, so had been operational  -this was another fabulous and rare artifact.

Blade #2 has interesting provenance in that is marked "experimental". Dents on the leading edge deflector confirm that it  had been used operationally.

I purchased the third blade from an antique shop in Portsmouth's Historic Docklands. I believe it had been a display item in a Royal Air Force Association club: it had a faded piece of flat oak crudely screwed into the base allowing it to stand  upright. This blade was in A1 condition but did not have the metal leading edge deflector plate so I suspect have been excess to requirements and had remained in stores at the end of WW2.

Prop blade #3.  This one had originally been on display in a Royal Air Force Association club.

So now I had three blades and was looking for the forth. After leaving a want list at several Warbird restoration companies at Duxford, I got a phone call telling me that one of their clients had a couple of blades that they might consider selling and they would try to persuade the person to sell them to me. After some negotiations, I brought the prop blades for what I considered a high price only to find that both were in quite poor condition. I was only able to utilize one after considerable restoration. I kept the other as a spare. However I can't complain as the guy who sold them to me let me have another important part, namely the diaphragm. This is the steel pressed panel that the front cowls lock onto just behind the spinner cone -so in the end the deal turned out well.

The hub with diaphragm: the propeller assembly starts to come together, especially as the gentleman that sold me the diaphragm also supplied me with two prop blades.

Assembling the propeller blades and hub: the hub was from a crashed Supermarine  Seafire (an aircraft carrier-adapted version of the Spitfire): some damage is still visible on the top surface.

Another photo of the hub assembled with propeller blades -the size of the piece is now becoming apparent.

So now I had all the blades, the hub and diaphragm. I should mention that the project would have never been completed without the kindness and generosity of certain individuals who helped me along the way. One gentlemen (who prefers to remain anonymous) and director of an engineering company let me have a set of 12 castellated nuts for the hub. These are every distinctive, unique items and had to be machined specially for a Spitfire hub/propeller assembly at a cost £1500 each. This cost was prohibitive and I was beginning to think that the lack of them may stall the project so you can imagine my surprise when an envelope containing a dozen of these nuts arrived on my doorstep one day. I am absolutely indebted to this individual for this fantastic gift and a big "Thank you" goes out to him (you know who you are, Sir!).

The Cowling: Panel Making and Construction of the Nose
The next item to tackle was the nose cowlings. Obviously parts for the entire nose section of a Spitfire were not going to be available and I it was going to be necessary to fabricate these panels from scratch. Very few people were capable of performing this task but I was extremely lucky to have had them hand-made on an English Wheel by a lovely lady, Simone Cunningham. She and her husband Bob are probably the best known wheelers in the country and have made panels for many historic aircraft.  

For cost-containment reasons I did a lot of the rivet work and Fairey catches (see below) myself. I also did all the cutting-in and final fitting of the cowling panels. This was no mean feat as I had to  make the rail structures for the panels. I had to hand-bend and tap and screw the rails together to match up to the internal curvature of the cowlings. I made them from 1" aluminum extrusion rod and spent over a month with blow torches and pipe bending equipment to fashion them. This was a very demanding part of the build but as the saying goes "where there's a will there's a way" so I persisted and the challenge was eventually overcome.

As mentioned above, I'd acquired a set of exhaust stubs from Martin Phillips. They were original and in A1 condition but incorrect for the Mk IX variant that I was building. Fortunately I very lucky to swap them for the correct ones with welded flanks: they have a slightly different curvature and fitted my cowling perfectly.

The Fairey Catches
Fitting the cowls together had to be authentic. On Spifires (as well as many other aircraft of the era) was facilitated by special locking catches known as "Fairey catches". I was able to buy six originals from my contact Martin Phillips: they all had their original numbers stamped into them and although they had a little wear I fitted them to the cowlings anyway.  However I had a big shortfall, as in total I needed 34 catches to complete the project. I couldn't find any on the usual websites so I had a batch manufactured to the original specs by an engineering company in Shoreham, Sussex. They were turned from solid billets of aluminum and were completed with a spring loaded plunger and "tee" catch. When they were finished and polished you couldn't tell the difference between them and the originals.

The remanufactured "Fairey" catches. A total of 34 of them were needed to complete the project.

The original catches were dome riveted and fitted into a compressed rebated circle on the cowlings: in order to fit them I had to have a special compression tool made to emboss the rebate into the cowls.

Rotation of the Table Top
Now I had to make the decision as to keep the glass table top/propeller fixed or allow them to rotate. The work necessary to allow the blades to spin was complicated, time consuming and very expensive but in the end I decided I'd go the extra mile and design a bearing so that the whole propeller assembly could rotate along with the glass propeller blades and spinner. I felt this would make an incredible visual spectacle for anyone seeing the table for the first time.  

The combined weight of the glass, blades, hub and other bits and pieces was considerable so I knew it had to be a seriously substantial piece of engineering to allow it to rotate and work and of course to last and to be maintenance free. I then started searching for a large thrust bearing which would support the whole assembly and also allow it to rotate. on with a locking mechanism to, so it could be used as a large conference table to seat up to 12 people when locked into position.

I was then incredibly lucky, while browsing eBay, to find an advertisement offering a set of old bearing cages for sale. I phoned up the guy and asked if by any chance there were any rollers with the cages. He said "I'll have a look for you, mate" and shortly got back to me saying, "yes, I found a bag of old rollers in the shed". I couldn't believe my luck. These were original Hoffman phosphor-bronze bearings, probably of World War II vintage and probably off a German World War II aircraft  -maybe even a Messerschmit 109 or a Heinkel. I brought them and when they arrived they were still in there original grease proof paper wrapping in their original boxes with Hoffman written on the box. 

The Hoffman roller crankshaft bearing: it's ironic that the table rotates on a bearing that was probably originated from a German warbird.

I find it quite ironic that my Spitfire table now rotates on a set of crankshaft bearings manufactured for an enemy aircraft. Definitely  a strange twist of fate! Anyway now the whole piece is completed, the bearing is fantastic and the propeller assembly rotates silently and hardly slows down. A testament to excellent German engineering expertise. 

Core Construction:Assembling and Disassembling
Now I had to devise a way in which the table could be assembled and disassembled by one person and also the components could be moved through a standard door. I decided that the core would be built of 1" marine ply in sections over long steel rods that connected to the bearing plates thereby allowing the piece to rotate. So starting with the base panel, the table would be built up like a massive Meccano set. Disassembly is simply the same process in reverse. The assembly time is between 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

The aluminium panelling, turned on an English Wheel by Simone Cunningham, is built over a core comprising marine plywood and a steel ladder frame. The entire table can be disassembled in three hours.

Fine Details
I thought it might be a good idea to show you how I decided to support the glass on adjustable stainless steel and aluminium outriggers. This idea came to me in the middle of the night after weeks of trying to get my head around the problem of having the glass supported down the centreline of the blades. These outriggers were sleeved in brass cylinders, filed flush with the blade surface to allow for slight movement and the glass was fixed with bespoke flush countersunk locking screws, these were screwed into the outriggers with a special tool that I made up. I had to offload some of the weight of the glass on the outer fixings, so I distributed the weight towards the leading edges on the outer fixings by welding a brass plate to the inner surface on these outer fixings,and screwing the plates to the under surface. This definitely worked as there has been no movement or droop whatsoever in the completed propeller assembly.

Outriggers made of aluminum and stainless steel and sleeved in brass to support the glass table top sections.

It took weeks to think up the outrigger design: they allow the glass table top sections to be supported down the centre line of the prop blades.

It was a real thrill, when all the blades were fitted for the first time, into the Original Hub that I had re-machined, with all the authentic castle nuts holding in the 'fake' pitch bearings which I had machined  to the exact dimensions from an original bearing. They all fitted into the hub aperture, friction tight with just a little help from my trusty can of WD40. My final job was to polish the aluminum panels with Mother's polish which I obtained from the USA.  This is a superb product and enabled me to get rid of all the micro-scratches on the metal and left a fantastic gunmetal-like finish as well as provided protection against oxidation. Now, after a couple of years, the appearance of the panels is less bright silver and more of a polished pewter look with a nice patina -it's really lovely.

The completed table: it has an awesome, majestic, appearance. Perfect for a classy boardroom.

It was at this point that I realized the awesome size and dignity of the complete propeller unit, with each blade having arrived from an unknown place and hidden history; it fired up my imagination. Could I be touching a blade from an aircraft that had been in engaged in mortal combat with a Focke Wulf 190 over the Juno beach D Day landings in 1944? Anyway I was delighted with the way the project turned out and also very pleased to receive from the UK's Intellectual Property Office a Certificate of Registration of Design: my IP was (still is) now protected.

Accolades and People Encountered
I finished the table just in time to exhibit it at the Olympia Fine Art and Antiques exhibition in London in June 2012 where it was voted "favorite piece" in the show.

The Spitfire Table shown for the first time at the 2012 Olympia Fine Art and Antiques  Exhibition. It was voted "favorite piece" in the show.

Later that year it featured in Channel 4's "Four Rooms" TV programme where it was exhibited and pitched to four top antique dealers. They all loved it and agreed that it was priced about right. It appeared at the 150 year celebrations of the birth of Sir Henry Royce. Guest speaker, Quentin Willson, described the table as the most sensational piece of design work he had seen since the launch of the E type Jaguar back in 1961.  Praise indeed! The event also featured a superb journal which had a double spread on the table. I should also mention that I received a lovely letter of appreciation from David Spencer Evans, Chairman of The Spitfire Society (see below).

A letter of appreciation from David Evans, Chairman of The  Spitfire Society (click to enlarge).

During the course of building the table I have had the privilege of meeting some remarkable individuals including:

Jeff Nutkins. As mentioned earlier, Jeff is a brilliant aviation artist, who agreed to do the initial artist's impression of the table. He also has a World War II museum in his back garden with fantastic collections of artifacts and memorabilia from digs and donations. In the past he has done a lot of signings at his museum for Battle of Britain and Luftwaffe pilots. 

Bob Doe (that is to say WW2 ace fighter pilot, Wing Commander Bob Doe DFC,DSO & Bar). One day Jeff Nutkins phoned me to say that Bob would like to speak to me about the table. I was invited over to his house in Crowborough and spent the whole day chatting about his incredible experiences. He loved the table and wrote a note in my copy of his autobiography, "Fighter Pilot".  I felt both humbled and inspired at meeting one of the major aces of the Battle of Britain. 

Dr Gordon Mitchell. The other incredible contact was the Dr Gordon Mitchell, son of the Spitfire designer, RJ Mitchell. I sent him the artist's impression pictures of the table and a summary of my plans intentions, to his home address to which he replied with a two letters one of which I sent to you in the package. What he wrote was very touching and I will always treasure the correspondence I had with him. 

Sadly both Bob and Gordon have now passed away so I have these comments stretching back from another time: at some point soon I will engrave both their names on the propeller blades of the table. 

Flyer for the table incorporating highly appreciative comments from the late Wing Cmdr Bob Doe (former WW2  fighter ace) and the late Dr Gordon Mitchell (son of the Spitfire designer, RJ Mitchell). Click to enlarge.
And that's pretty much the story of the thing. I suppose in some ways it's my magnum opus. Certainly it's been very satisfying to build. I would love to keep it but after  taking three years off to do the building and spending a fortune on the parts, financial imperatives dictate that the table must be sold. So if anyone is interested and can offer it a good home please get in touch (my contact details are below)...

Huw Edwards-Jones
Seaford, Sussex, UK
October 2014

Mobile:07835 094508

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