My brother Nick died this last November after over three years of battling lymphoma. Besides leaving behind his many loved ones and friends, he left behind a rather large, wooden cross.
In August my wife and I decided to move our family out to Colorado with the hopes of spending some quality time with my brother, however long he might have. About that time, he and his fiancé Victoria decided to set an earlier wedding date, realizing that time might be short. And on September 28th, 2014, they got married.
It ended up that the ceremony would not be in a church (surprisingly the church they scheduled had canceled on them a few weeks before the wedding), and so they asked me to build a wooden cross that they could be married in front of. I, of course, obliged.
There were a couple of interesting challenges I faced in this project:
- Not in my environment: All of my tools and other resources were back in California. I would have to creatively make do with less.
- Short time: It would need to be done in about a week but outside of my business work hours, which meant early mornings, late evenings and full weekends.
Additionally, they had a few specific requests:
- Not look like pine: Victoria preferred a richer color.
- No adornment: They wanted it simple (no flowers, drapery, etc.).
Garage of the father of the bride: Bob generously let me make use of his garage. Although it was set up for automotive work and he doesn’t do any woodworking, it was invaluable. He also became quite a buddy in the process. Here are some of the things he had:
- Small circular saw (~3″)
- Medium size miter saw (~7″)
- Pneumatic tools (including a hand orbital sander)
- Cordless drill and standard bits
- Socket wrenches
- Ear muffs, gloves, safety glasses
- Tape measure
My car: Just a sedan with car seats in the back. Bob also had a truck, which came in handy later.
The rest I either bought or improvised.
I think Nick and Victoria figured I would make a cross about as high as your chest, but I had a vision of what I could do: a tall, substantial cross that everyone in the audience could see. Later, I searched images on the web to see what others had done, but mostly saw things that were too small (less than 5 feet high) or without much depth (using 2×6). Those images and this site, however, gave me a good sense of the importance of the cross’s proportions.
The Problem of Proportion
Thinking through the various standard sizes of available lumber, I realized a certain thickness of wood would be required if I wanted the cross to be tall and look substantial. For example, a 10 foot tall cross using 4×4 would look really thin, but buying long pieces of thick lumber seemed too heavy and cost prohibitive. I considered building a hollowed out cross, but quickly dismissed it since I did not have tools for cutting, joining, gluing/clamping, etc. I decided to research lumber yards that carried large pieces of lumber.
Identifying the Wood Source
I investigated reclaimed lumber, which ended up being even more expensive. But then I happened upon a simple, old-fashioned lumber yard that was close by: Olde Tyme Lumber. They were exactly what I wanted. I believe much of their wood comes from beetle-killed trees, and they cut rough lumber to whatever size you want, carrying stock of true 6 inch square beams.
Seeing the 4×4 confirmed that it was just to small for this project. I liked the 8×8, but it was huge and heavy and there was no way I was going to get that home in my car. The 6×6 looked good, and somehow, surprisingly, fit in my car though a hole in backseat that is just slightly larger than 6 inches square. I think I paid $25 for that 14 foot beam, and I tipped the guy $5 just for helping me get it in my car. This is about a third of what a smaller beam would have cost at a home improvement store.
I didn’t do much sketching, but I did think through what I wanted people’s visceral response to the cross to be.
- The look
- Tall, above us so everyone there can see it
- The cross beam should come out slightly (i.e. not be flush)
- Stain with deep, warm color
- Low gloss finish
- The feel
- Smooth but rustic with distressed edges
- Feel big and substantial
- Solid and sturdy
- The construction
- Ideally from a single piece of wood
- This comes from family joke I knew would come into play regarding the hopa scene from Meet the Parents
- Mounted on a pedestal for stability
- Ability to assemble on-site so it does not get damaged in transport
- Ideally from a single piece of wood
I spent an unbelievable amount of time sanding the rough wood down to a clean, smooth surface (more than the entire weekend). Bob must of thought I was crazy, but I knew the look and feel I was after.
I started out using his 5″ pneumatic orbital sander (shown in the picture). Ultimately it was too weak, slow and jittery, and since there were no holes in the disk for the dust to be removed through, the pads kept falling off as soon as the dust crept into the sticky backing of the sanding pad.
I eventually gave up on it and went to Harbor Freight and bought a portable belt sander. I went through several belts and more than once had to resurrect the motor from burning out. In the end though, it was a trusty tool that got the job done. And the best part about that milestone was not getting anymore splinters; Bob and I must have gotten a hundred of them in our hands just from moving the wood back and forth.
Next I needed to cut the notches of the halved joint. For this I bought some chisels and used Bob’s small circular saw to cut lines as deep as I could. They were easy to chip out, but after assembling the beams together, I saw I needed to go much deeper. I ended up just chiseling out some more and iteratively testing the assembled cross until it looked right to me.
Attaching the Crossbeam
I bought some beefy hex bolts for attaching the crossbeam; they were much bigger than I needed, but I liked the very substantial look of them.
To figure out the right bit to drill with, I usually line up the screw and the bit and choose the bit that most closely matches the width of the body of the screw (minus the threads).
The holes would go through the back of the crossbeam and partway into the back of the main post. I drilled some pilot holes first with a smaller bit, and then gradually worked my way up to the large bit. The bolts were then screwed in with a socket wrench.
Attaching the Base Brackets
Before drilling these holes, I needed to make sure the cross was level. I sanded the bottom and then stood it up, and then repeated that several times until I got it right. I also sanded the other end faces to make sure they were square, as well as the edges to give a slightly uneven, distressed look.
I bought some construction brackets, which were the biggest I could find at the time. I lined them up, used a pencil to fill in the holes, and then used the succession of drill bits to drill in to the appropriate depth. I screwed the bolts in with washers to distribute the load.
For a quick countersinking, I put the drill into full reverse and press the bit into the wood.
Originally I hoped that the brackets would be enough to keep the cross standing securely, but the brackets I got were far to weak for that. So I went back to the store and found massive, thick brackets, but it was too late–my holes were already drilled and would not line up with these brackets. So I built a simple base stand out of 2×4 using a halved joint again. I felt okay doing this because I really wanted to make sure it would not fall if someone bumped into it.
I cut the sides of the notch out with the circular saw, and then snapped it out with the chisel, giving me a nice little cube. After doing the same to the other piece of 2×4, putting the pieces together and making sure they were flush, I set the cross on the stand (with the brackets already on the cross), lined things up and drilled in the first set of screws. I then fastened smaller brackets in the joint of the base. Not sure if the base would be covered or not, I decided to sand it down and give it a rounded edge on the ends.
Stain & Finishing
At this point I needed to hurry and seal the wood, as the fairly green wood was drying out quickly. I chose Minwax’s Gunstock color because of its richness and warmth (as opposed to walnut, for example).
The initial effect was great, and I applied a couple of coats, which was actually a little challenging due to the size of the wood. I did this while laying the pieces flat to prevent any overlooked dripping. But if I did this again, I would have stood the beams upright because I left fingerprint whenever I moved or adjusted the pieces. I also went in with a fine paintbrush and made sure the stain went deep into the cracks.
After that had dried, I put on a few coats of paste wax, but polished it only to a low shine. For the base, I just used paste wax without any stain.
The assembly was straightforward.
- Attach cross-beam and screw in hex bolts
- Screw in the brackets on three sides
- Lift entire cross upright and set it onto the assembled base
- Screw in remaining bracket and screws
I didn’t like how distracting the metal brackets were against the red wood, so I mixed up some red and black modeling paint Bob had to blend it in.
When fully assembled, the wedding cross was 5 feet wide and just under 10 feet tall.
I had thoroughly considered carving something into the cross, as woodcarving is much more my strength than woodworking. However, I felt that nothing additional was needed, nor would enhance the wedding (and I wasn’t entirely sure carving something into a cross is religiously appropriate). Had I carved something, it would have been the Hebrew word חֶסֶד (‘hesed’), which has no English equivalent, but is closest in meaning to ‘loving-kindness’ and ‘steadfast-love’. I liked its dual meaning from the perspective of the cross and of the wedding.
Prior to the wedding, I disassembled everything but the base for transport, thinking it would be the only way to safely get it there. However, a failed to mark exactly which bracket lined up with which leg of the base.
At the wedding, in our rush to get ready, we screwed in three brackets only to realize the fourth did not line up well. Because we were running late, I went against my better judgment and tried to force the last two screws in. They didn’t go in all the way because the drill bit we had was too large (and was striping out the head of the screws). Borrowing a small screwdriver from the bar staff, I did my best to finish it by hand and then run upstairs to get my tux on.
Despite a slight forward lean due to the poor re-assembly, it looked great and exceeded Nick and Victoria’s expectations.
Needless to say, there was no disassembly. After the reception, we carried the wedding cross out to the back of Bob’s truck and drove it back to his garage. I came by the next day to fully tighten in those last screws because the project just didn’t feel done until it was done.
A month and a half later, we took that cross out and stood it up at Nick’s memorial service. To this day, I think it still resides in Bob’s garage…
If I were to do this project again, here are a few things I would have done differently:
- I would use gloves the whole time until sanding was complete. I had so many tiny splinters.
- I would use massively strong brackets for the base. The ones I used were very strong, but not strong enough to prevent a small wobble when you pushed the cross.
- No use disassembling it for transport. It fit fine in Bob’s truck and would have saved us a lot of stress right before the ceremony.
- If there is any assembly required, I would make it fool-proof. For example, I should used a pencil and marked one bracket and base leg to ensure everything lined up properly.
- Obviously, with the right tools, this project could have been completed fairly quickly.
Make time to be with the most important people in your life, to build great things for them out of your loving-kindness and steadfast-love.