Build a Cherry Night Table - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Home Project: Honest, traditional joinery, coupled with a sleek design, sets this night table apart.


Build a Cherry Night Table

Lead Photo by Kelly Hollinshead;  Photos by Ryan Coyne


This bedside table is one of a pair that was commissioned for a client’s cottage. The tables were custom-built to fit into a rather large space beside the bed. They needed to be both wider and taller than most off the shelf products, while at the same time not feel bulky and oversized. In solid cherry, they have a simple and uncluttered appearance with smooth and subtle curves. Mortise and tenon joinery, and a web frame inner structure combine, which means that these tables will be around for a very long time.
I like to use thick material whenever possible. It allows me to re-saw boards to create perfectly matching panels, and I can usually cut thick parts such as legs out of a single piece, avoiding glue lines. A large band saw is a phenomenal tool in this respect and will make resawing a safer and more efficient task. 8/4 stock is the most common and easily handled of the thicker stuff, but 10/4, 12/4 and even 16/4 can be great if you can find it. For this project I used all 8/4 cherry. Keep track of resawn boards with cabinetmakers triangles. They take a lot of the guesswork out when matching up parts after machining.

The drawer front and drawer rails should all be cut from the same board. This gives a very nice appearance when the drawer is closed, as the grain matches.

While machining and cutting all your parts to size add a groove to the inside edges of the lower stretchers – around ¼" by ¼" is fine. The groove will hold the cabinetmakers buttons, which are used to hold the shelf in place while allowing it to expand and contract. Buttons can also be used for the top, as the web frames will already have a groove milled into them.
Web frames
While the mortise and tenon joints in the legs and rails are more than strong enough to carry the weight of the table and whatever might be placed on it, something is needed to add rigidity to the structure. Corner blocks are a simple way to deal with this, but when a drawer is involved they might just get in the way. I chose to use web frames as they can be glued to the side and back rails to prevent racking, and the bottom frame also acts as a drawer slide. A hard species of wood should be used for the frames as the lower one is also the drawer runner. It must stand up to some wear.

A simple stub tenon that fits into a groove is all that’s needed to join the four pieces of the web frame. Be absolutely certain to glue up the frames completely flat.

The drawer rails need to be glued to the web frames and can be attached in one of two ways. After the table has been glued up, they can be cut to fit and glued in place. Or, as I prefer, glued to the web frames ahead of time and cut when the web frames are notched around the legs. This ensures a tight and consistent fit. Pay attention to your triangles so the rails remain in the correct orientation with the drawer front.

With the web frames dry, notch the corners around the legs. A tight fit helps keep things rigid. Now is also a good time to run a rebate in the top and bottom edges of the side and back rails. This allows the table to be glued up, and the web frames dropped into place after, which greatly simplifies the gluing process. The depth of the top rebate is cut to the thickness of the web frame, while the bottom rebate must match the height of the drawer rail. This keeps the bottom edge of all the rails in one line.

Rebate the Rails – A rebate in the top and bottom edges of the side and back rails will accept the web frame when assembled.
The legs have a somewhat deceptive appearance. They are smoothly curved, but only on the outside faces. The two inside faces of each leg are perfectly flat making the joinery much more straightforward.

Make a template of the leg shape in ¼" material. This can be used to mark the leg blanks, and also to make a routing jig. The router jig needn’t be complicated. Cut a piece of three quarter ply to 8" x 36". Place the template flush along the long edge of the ply and clamp in place. Mark the profile on the jig and band saw close to the line. The stops used to hold the leg in place are ¾" ply cut to 1 ¾" wide to match the thickness of the legs. Three stops are needed: one the same length as the leg, and two end stops that trap the leg at both ends. Glue and screw the stops in place. Installing a screw in each of the end stops will keep the leg blank from shifting loose during routing. You can then use the template as a pattern to rout the exact shape into the jig. While you’re at it, use the other long edge of the jig to draw the curve for the table-top. This is why the jig is 36" long. It’s great to consolidate your jigs whenever you can to keep your shop from becoming lost under a pile of jigs.

Draw the outline on each leg blank and mark where the mortises are to be cut on the inside faces. Now here’s the important part: don’t do any shaping until the mortises are cut, as it’s much easier to rout the mortises while the legs are still flat and square. The next step – cutting the mortises – is much easier when you know what the leg orientation is.
Machine Some Mortises
Slip tenons are a perfect choice for this project. I chose to use a template guide jig to rout the mortises, but an edge guide and some careful layout is just as effective. Drawing the leg shape on the blanks is helpful when laying out the position of the mortises. There are no mortises on the inside face of the front legs where the drawer will go, so make sure you don’t machine any there. The side and back rails have a double mortise and tenon because of the width of the rail. Two narrower tenons are better than one very wide tenon. This joint is time consuming to cut when using a traditional mortise and tenon, but is a breeze when using slip tenons. The mortises should not be so deep that two adjacent mortises on the legs meet each other. This could cause problems during glue up, where one tenon prevents the other from seating fully. A ⅜" thick tenon is fine for the rails, while a ¼" tenon is probably better for the much smaller lower stretchers. When routing the ends of the rails, be sure to reference off the same face for both ends. You will thank yourself during assembly. Now is a good time to cut the curves in the legs.

Build a Simple Jig – A simple jig, and a collar on a router, makes short work of cutting mortises in the legs. The same jig can be use to cut the mating mortises in the rails. The jig ensures the mortises are all the same size and in the same location.


A Second Jig – The mortise jig can be used for the narrow rails as well, but a second jig has to be used with it. The second jig is made from two pieces; a flat piece of plywood with a strip of wood attached to it at a 90 degree angle. This piece is clamped to the workpiece, and keeps the initial jig square and stable.

Measure Twice, Cut Mortises – After some mathematics, lay out the mortises. Bu clamping the parts together you will ensure all the mortises are the same.

Time to Cut the Legs – Once the mortises in the legs are cut Coyne uses a pattern jig to cut the legs to final shape. This is done on the router table.
Back Slats
The placement of the slats is purely subjective, but should be balanced and in proportion with the rest of the table. I used 1 ¼" wide slats with a ½" gap between. The end gaps between the last slat and adjacent leg are a little wider than the rest; this is appealing to my eye, and helps set the slat/gap pattern apart from the rest of the table.

The layout of the slats is tricky, so take your time. The length of the back rail and stretcher is 28 ½", so we must come up with some combination of slats and gaps that fits nicely into this dimension. A slat (1 ¼") plus a gap (½") is 1 ¾". 1 ¾" goes into 28 ½" 16.28 times. The most we can use then is 16 slats with a very small leftover space between the legs and slats. I used 15 slats to allow the end gaps to be larger than the rest. So, 1 ¾" x 15 is 26 ¼", leaving 2 ¼" for the end gaps. We also have to subtract one gap width from our formula so that we end up with a slat at the end of the run, not a ½" gap, or else there would be a ½" gap plus the end gap making the whole thing unbalanced. So we take our slat/gap total of 26 ¼" and subtract ½", giving us 25 ¾". 28 ½" minus 25 ¾" is 2 ¾", divided by two is 1 ⅜"; this is the width of the two end gaps.

You may need to rest after that. I did. If it weren’t for the wider end gaps, the layout would be far simpler, but I think the look is worth it. Transfer these hard-earned dimensions onto the back rail and stretcher very carefully and mark out the mortises. I used the same method for mortising as I did while working on the legs and rails. Be sure to watch the orientation of the pieces and don’t flip anything the wrong way. The tenon can be quite thin, ⅛" or 3/16" as it just needs to keep the slats from twisting.

Another Jig – Although an edge guide could be used, Coyne prefers the accuracy of another jig. This one has to be moved after routing each mortise.
The Top and Shelf
Draw the curve onto the front edge of the top and rout it using the back edge of the leg jig. The total deflection on the top is one inch over the 36" length. I also use a hand plane to break the edge of the curve. The shelf needs to be notched much like the web frames, but not as close fitting. You must leave room across the grain for the shelf to expand without pushing apart the legs.

Make up enough buttons for both parts (they may not be the same size). A simple rebate in a length of stock is all that’s needed. The stock is then cut to 1" (or so) lengths for the buttons.

Tune the Edge – After cutting the curve on the top, Coyne uses a hand plane to perfect the edge.

Buttons – Attach the top and shelf with cabinetmakers buttons. These wooden cleats will hold the top and bottom on, and allow wood movement to occur at the same time.
Glue up
I like to plane or sand all the parts that I can before gluing, as it’s much easier with individual pieces and leads to a better finish. Some touching up is inevitable after gluing, but try not to mark the parts too much. This glue up, as with most, needs to be done in stages. I glued the back rail, stretcher and back slats together first, so they could be handled as one piece. I dry fit the legs to the subassembly while the assembly dried, to make sure everything fit. Next, glue the short rails/stretchers to the front and back legs. Then the two “short” sections are glued to the back section, and the front stretcher. Put the web frames in place (without glue) during this stage to keep the table square. The last step is to glue the web frames in place. Breaking the glue-up into stages almost always leads to better results, and a much less stressed out woodworker.

Plane and Sand Before Assembly – It is much easier to prepare the surface while all the parts are apart. 

Sub-Assembly – Because it is too involved to assemble everything at once, take the time to glue everything up in stages. The back rail, stretcher and back slats are first to get glued, and the legs are added without glue, to ensure everything fits together.
I build all my drawers with hand cut dovetails. If you can cut this joint neatly, use it. There is no substitute in fine furniture for this joint. I do like to use a sliding dovetail at the back of the drawer. This allows me to get just the right fit so that the drawer doesn’t just fall out when pulled on. Before making the drawer attach the top and shelf, using the cabinetmakers buttons. Attaching these two parts sometimes shifts the piece ever so slightly, and would throw off an otherwise perfect fitting drawer.

Effectively, the drawer is a touch (just a touch) wider at the back than the front. The drawer pulls out smoothly, but when nearing the end of its travel it tightens up ever so, and can be pulled completely out of the table if necessary. This takes a bit of practice, a lot of patience and more than a few extra scraps of wood to get the hang of, but in my mind is the finest way to fit a drawer. A piece of wood will have to be glued on the lower web frame in the gap that is created by the offset of the short rail and inside face of the legs. This keeps the drawer running straight.

Looks and Function – Hand-cut dovetail joints are Coyne’s choice for strength and class. When finished the drawer will be slightly wider at the back, and the drawer guides will be angled slightly as well. This causes the drawer to tighten up as it’s pulled out. (Photo by Kelly Hollinshead)

Large But Light – The open design makes the night table look lighter, even though it is larger than average. (Photo by Kelly Hollinshead)
Finishing Up
My favourite finish for furniture like this is a wiping varnish made up of one part varnish, one part tung oil, and one part mineral spirits. At least three coats are used, and finished off with a beeswax polish. The drawer is finished only with the beeswax polish, to prevent the inside of the drawer and its contents from smelling of wood finish. Attach the top and shelves, fit a nice drawer pull and you’re done.

Ryan Coyne

Ryan builds fine furniture and doesn't get out of the shop much. When he does, he loves hiking in the forest and playing music.