Build a Gorgeous Hall Table
Photos by Steve Neil; Illustration by Len Churchill
A good friend of mine recently got married and I wanted to give her something handmade for a wedding present. I had been saving a beautiful plank of claro walnut for something special and this seemed like a good time to use it. This article shows how I made “Tricia’s Table”.Sketches & Mock-Up
|INFO:||DIFFICULTY – 3/5, LENGTH/TIME – 4/5, COST – 3/5|
I started by sketching my ideas on paper, then making a full-size mock-up. Making a mock-up has a lot of advantages. You can see the object in three dimensions and play around with the proportions until it looks right. You can take it into your house and see how it looks with all of your other furniture, or show it to your friends and see how they like it. A mock-up also allows you to experiment with the joinery using inexpensive throw-away wood and to make any jigs that you might need. For this mock-up, I used some scrap poplar for the legs and other parts of the base, and a piece of 3/4" plywood for the top. Inexpensive construction grade lumber also works well for making mock-ups. The legs on this table are tapered, so I made a taper jig and played around with the proportions of the legs until I had something that looked pleasing. The legs connect to the aprons using T-bridal joints, so I also made a router jig to assist in making those joints and fine-tuned the process using the poplar legs in my mock-up. Doing all this with the mock-up meant that I didn’t make any mistakes once I started working with the more expensive walnut.
Mock-Up the Design – Not only is it cheaper to use inexpensive materials to make design mistakes on, but you will end up with a more pleasing design if you do a mock-up.
The dimensions of the table were limited by the size of the plank of claro walnut. The plank was not big enough to make all the parts of the table, so I decided to just make the tabletop using the claro walnut. Everything else was made from a single plank of black walnut. Claro walnut has a beautiful grain with swirls of different colours in it, so using it for the top of the table made a lot of sense. The more uniform colours and straighter grain of the black walnut suited the base of the table better.
The plank of claro walnut had been sawn from the center of the tree, which meant that there was a large amount of waste in the middle of the plank where the pith was. There were also some other defects in the plank, so I used a white pencil to mark the waste areas on the plank. Only one side of the plank was straight enough and defect-free enough to make the tabletop. I cut out a section approximately 9" wide by 6' long. The plank was 2" thick, so I flattened one face and straightened one edge on the jointer and then re-sawed it on the bandsaw to yield two pieces that would eventually be glued together to make a book-matched tabletop.
Next, I had to get the two halves of the tabletop to match each other. I wanted the grain to run more or less parallel to the edges of the tabletop and the two halves to be as symmetric as possible. Use blue masking tape to hide the parts you’re going to cut off so that you can see what they will look like when glued together. Cut off the excess wood, and then joint the edges that will get glued. Using hand pressure only, butt the two halves together and look for gaps. Mark where the gaps are and use a hand plane to remove the high spots. Continue doing this until the gaps disappear. Once the two halves are ready to be glued together, use a biscuit joiner to insert biscuits about 12" apart into the joint. This allows clamping the two boards without worrying about the boards slipping and creating a ridge down the middle of the tabletop. Once the glue is dry, cut the top to final width, ensuring the glue joint is in the center of the finished tabletop. The ends of the tabletop are curved for visual interest. Make a template and trace the curve onto both ends of the top. Cut off the waste and clean up the edges using a block plane. I also put a bevel onto the bottom edge of the tabletop using a block plane. This was done primarily to make the top look thinner and lighter, but it adds some visual interest and is something that people notice when they touch the edges of the table.
Tape Off the Waste – Before removing wood from the boards, and not being about to turn back the clock, use tape to cover up the portion of the wood you’re thinking of removing. This will allow you to clearly see the wood that will remain and figure out if the grain will align after trimming.
Mark the Cuts – With a straight edge and some chalk mark the parts from your blank. Notice how the white lines are not necessarily parallel to the edge of the board, as Neil was careful to keep the grain lines parallel with the sides of the individual parts.
I milled all of the parts for the base of the table from a single plank of black walnut. Using chalk or a white pencil, mark out all of the parts on the plank. It’s important at this stage to look at the grain direction and ensure that the grain is parallel to the parts. Also, the legs should be marked in a section of the plank where the grain is rift-sawn (that is, at a diagonal when viewed from the end). All of the other parts should be marked in a section of the plank that is either rift- or quarter-sawn. I avoid sections that are flat-sawn or where the grain is really swirly. This results in some waste, but the end result is more visually appealing. Once all the parts are marked out, cut them apart using a jigsaw and a bandsaw. The parts should be cut oversize at this point in time. Sticker them and allow them to settle for a few days. This allows the wood to relax and reach its final shape as internal tension in the wood is released and moisture levels equalize. Then, mill all the parts to their final dimensions, with the exception of the legs, which get milled to a square shape now and tapered later on.
Bridle Joint – Once it’s clamped to the apron, this simple jig will help guide a straight bit in a router to produce the tenon portion of the bridle joint. As long as the jig is fastened to the same part on the opposite side of the apron, the resulting tenon portion of the joint will be ready to accept the mortise.
The legs on this table are attached to the aprons using T-bridal joints. This joint is similar to a mortise and tenon joint, except in this case the “tenon” is in the middle of the apron, and the “mortise” is on the end of the leg. Cutting dados on each side of the apron forms the tenon. I used a jig to guide a plunge router to cut the dados, but you could also use a dado blade on your table saw. The apron was clamped under the jig, and guides on the jig allowed the router to move from side to side and cut the dado.
Next, cut the mortise on the ends of each of the legs. First, use a bandsaw to make two cuts and define the cheeks of the mortise and then use a chisel to chop out the waste. Note that this could also be done using a tenoning jig on a table saw. Final fitting of each of the joints was done using the bandsaw to trim the cheeks of the ‘mortises’ on the ends of the legs till they fit snugly over the “tenons” in the aprons. This is backwards to the way that you would fit a normal mortise and tenon joint, but it works in this case.
All of the rest of the joinery in this table is done using mortises and floating tenons. Each joint has one, two, or three tenons to maximize the amount of glue surface, and hence the strength of the joint. I use a horizontal mortising machine to cut the mortises but these could also be cut using a plunge router and some jigs or by hand using mortising chisels. Note that the mortises in the legs that attach to the side stretchers are cut before the legs are tapered, as it is easier to cut mortises on square parts.
Chop the Mortise – Once the cheeks of the mortise are cut into the top of the legs Neil chops out the waste with a chisel.
Tapering the Legs
The inside two surfaces of each leg are tapered from 1 1/4" square at the top to 3/4" square at the bottom. This gets done after all the mortises have been cut on the legs. I used a simple shop-made tapering jig to do the tapering on a bandsaw, but you could also taper these legs on your table saw or with a jointer. Clamp each leg into the jig and then cut a wedge-shaped piece off one of the inside faces of the leg using a bandsaw. Rotate the leg 90°, and then cut the other inside face. Care needs to be taken when doing this to ensure that you taper the two inside faces of the leg and not the outside faces.
Once the tapers are cut, clean up the bandsawn surfaces using a hand plane. Note that the taper on the inside surfaces of the legs starts below the portion of the leg where it joins the apron in the bridal joint. This makes it easier to cut the dados in the aprons to form the T-bridal joint.
Time to Taper – Neil used a jig to cut the leg tapers on his bandsaw, but a table saw could also be used. Either way, ensure the workpiece can’t shift during the cut.
Fitting the Tenons
I made the floating tenons from leftover pieces of the black walnut. Cut and plane strips to the appropriate thickness and width to match all of the mortises. Use a round-over bit in a router table to round over all of the edges. For each joint, measure the depth of the two mortises and cut a tenon about 1/16" or so shorter. This ensures that the tenons don’t bottom out when they are being glued, and also provides some space for extra glue to accumulate. Test fit all of the tenons and where necessary sand the tenons to ensure a good fit. Lastly, mark each tenon with a pencil so that you can remember which joint they’re intended for.
Surface Prep and Pre-Finishing
Once all the joints are cut and the legs are tapered, it’s time to prepare all of the surfaces for applying finish. I use hand planes to smooth all of the flat surfaces and remove power tool marks. I also use hand planes and, where necessary, files, to round over all of the edges. After hand planning all of the surfaces, it just takes a little bit of sanding with 320- grit sandpaper to produce a silky smooth surface.
Once all of the parts have been surface-prepped, use blue masking tape to cover up all the mortises and other joinery. Any surface that is going to receive glue should be covered to prevent the finish from getting onto, and weakening, the joint. Apply your favourite finish. On this table, I used several coats of a wipe-on OSMO Polyx-Oil and sanded between coats with 320-grit sandpaper.
Pre-finish the Parts – Finishing the individual parts before assembling them is often easier, and leaves a smoother finish. Neil applies blue tape over the joints so they don’t get any finish on them, which would reduce the strength of the joint.
Sub-Assembly #1 – The initial glue-up involves the two aprons and three crossbraces. Note the two L-shaped plywood braces being clamped in place. They hold the assembly square while the glue dries.
Sub-Assembly #2 – With the apron assembly dry, Neil adds the four legs and two side stretchers. He uses small cauls during clamping so as to not mar the finished wood surface.
Sub-Assembly #3 – The center stretcher is the last piece to be fixed to the base. Loose tenons are slid in from the outside and trimmed to length afterwards.
Once all of the parts are pre-finished, it’s time to glue everything together.
First, do a dry-fit and ensure that all the joints fit nicely and nothing is wonky.
While it’s dry-fit, rub some Clapham’s beeswax onto the wood around all of the joints. This helps prevent glue that squeezes out from sticking to the finished surfaces.
This glue-up gets done in several steps:
Glue the two aprons and the three cross-braces together. Use a flat work surface to do the glue-up on, and when necessary use some plywood L-shaped brackets to ensure the joints are perfectly square while the glue sets.
Place the apron subassembly upside-down on a flat surface. Glue a pair of legs and the matching side stretcher together and then glue the legs to the aprons (that is, the bridal joints). Clamp and let the glue set. Repeat with the other pair of legs.
The last step is to glue the center stretcher to the side stretchers. This is done with a pair of floating through-tenons at each end of the center stretcher to simplify the glue-up and to add an interesting detail to the joint. Using through tenons allows the center stretcher to be held in place and the tenons inserted from the outside of the side stretchers. I round over the exposed end of the tenons before gluing them in place to add a little bit of interest to the joint.
Once the glue has set, it’s necessary to clean up any squeezeout. Pre-finishing and waxing all of the parts prior to glue-up helps make this step easy, as white glue will not stick to a wood surface that has been finished and waxed. To remove squeezeout, it is simply a matter of using a blade from a hand plane or using a knife to pop the glue off. It’s better to wait until all the glue is dry before doing this so that the glue doesn’t smear. Rubbing the surfaces with a cotton rag and some Clapham’s beeswax afterward will also assist in removing any residual squeeze-out.
Attaching the Tabletop
The tabletop is attached to the base using six stainless steel screws (two in each cross-brace). In order to accommodate seasonal wood movement in the top, the holes in the cross-braces that support the tabletop are elongated so that the screws can move from side to side as the width of the tabletop expands and contracts. This is very important. Wood will expand and contract perpendicular to the grain lines, but not length-wise, as humidity changes from summer to winter. If your joinery or tabletop-mounting methods do not allow this seasonal movement to happen, cracks and/or glue joint failures may occur.
Buffing and Waxing
Once the tabletop is attached to the base, the last step is to apply another coat of Clapham’s beeswax, and buff it using a soft cotton cloth. Scraps of denim fabric work well for this.