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By: Kerry Pierce

An idea sketched on paper continues to evolve as it’s sketched with tools in the shop.

I envy those designers who can create new furniture idioms, building upon what is current in order to produce something never before seen. These men and women are doing what the great furniture designers of the past did to enrich the history of our craft. Not everyone can do that however. I know I’m more comfortable dipping into the past for design ideas, re-imagining classic period forms, mixing and matching details to produce pieces which are, I hope, fresh if not entirely original. For example, the two tables seen here are loosely based on a small photo I saw in a 30-year-old copy of The Magazine Antiques. They aren’t reproductions of that piece. There wasn’t enough detail in the photo to attempt such a thing, even if that was what I wanted to do. Instead I took what I liked about that 17th-century original, then worked in some details borrowed from other furniture periods, as well as my own history as a furniture maker.

Specifically, I narrowed the tables to increase their apparent verticality; I added a taper to the long mid-section of each leg, and I added a bandsawn border of scallops to the tops.

First Steps

Good stock preparation is always critical, particularly in the construction of pieces assembled from components relatively thin in cross section where stresses in the material can sometimes manifest themselves in any number of disheartening ways. In the case of these tables, I began by ripping out oversized leg and stretcher blanks from a 3″ thick plank of cherry which also yielded the quartersawn apron components. The parts from which the tops were assembled were cut from some 5/4 figured cherry, also cut thick.

On the first day, I worked the stock, flattening and straightening it on the jointer and doing a bit of thicknessing on the planer, then stickering it. Every few days, I would repeat the process of flattening and straightening, removing thickness and width a bit at a time, restickering the material at the end of each session to allow the stresses in the wood to express themselves. Doing this work in stages allows those stresses in the wood to be reconciled a little bit at a time so that when you do the final sizing of your stock, you have a reasonable expectation that the components will be stress free and remain flat and straight in the finished pieces.

Working the Lathe

Because I’m self-taught, I would never describe myself as a good turner, so if you’ve been trained in good lathe technique, please disregard the methods I’m going to describe here.

For this project, my turning kit was quite small. I use a 112” roughing gouge to round forms, a 12” skew to create beads, a 14” spindle gouge to make coves and vases, and a small paring chisel used bevel-side down to create filets. The only tricky aspect of turning the leg and stretcher components is the creation of clean shoulders where the square and turned sections come together. I do this with my 12” skew, first standing it on its edge with the point down, then spearing into the blank to establish the location of the bottom of that shoulder. Next, with my skew in that same point-down position, I tilt it at a 25 or 30 degree angle away from the cut I just made. Then starting a half inch north or south of the initial cut, I push the skew into the work and roll the point into the speared line from the north and then from the south, repeating this process until I’ve achieved shoulders of the correct size. This technique takes a bit of time to master, so you might practice on an extra turning blank.

For reasons I’m not knowledgeable enough to understand, the wider, more tapered edges of so many modern skews don’t do this work very well, at least not in my hands. They tend to skitter along the blank, leaving behind an unsightly cut that spirals around the turning blank. In fact years ago, when I was teaching a chairmaking class, I took a man’s wide skew to demonstrate this technique on a post he was turning and promptly ruined the post. Embarrassing.

If you find your skew has produced a less-than-optimally clean shoulder, don’t despair. A little work with some good, cloth-backed abrasive should correct any imperfections.

Start with a story. Before fabricating any turned component, I prepare a story stick for that component to make it easy to mark locations along its length. I also set calipers to the various diameters of the elements of that component. Those calipers hang above my lathe as seen here.

Square to round. I create the transition from square to turned elements using my 1⁄2″ skew as shown here. With the skew resting on edge with its tip down, I move the skew into the spinning work at the site of the point where the square and turned elements meet. Then I make several rolling passes of the skew moving from points 1⁄2″ north and south of that location.

Roll the skew. I then roll the skew into that incision from both sides to create the rounded bottoms of the two vases.

Mark the intersection. With my skew on edge, point down, I lay out the intersection of the vases.

On to the necks. I shape the necks of the vases (which are nothing but long coves) using my ¼” fingernail gouge. The fillets at the top of each vase are created by scraping with an exceedingly sharp paring chisel laid on the tool rest bevel side down.

Good results from a self-taught turner. Even for someone with my mediocre turning skills, it’s possible to create turned components requiring only modest sanding.

Tenons and Their Mortises

I like chopping mortises by hand. I don’t like sawing out tenons, so my tenons are created on the tablesaw using a stack of dado cutters and a sacrificial fence. This creates tenons with a rough surface, but I remove that roughness during fitting with a shoulder plane. Please remember that not all your tenons are going to have shoulders of the same depth, so if you use this method, you’ll need to use several different height settings on your dado blades.

If you’re using my method, once you’ve created your tenons, use that information to lay out slightly undersized mortises. Mark these with a knife to give you something in which to register your chisel tip. Then begin to remove the waste with a mortise chisel, keeping the sidewalls of each mortise clean with a paring chisel.

Then, when it’s time to do a dry- assemble, use a couple of shoulder planes to bring the dimensions of the tablesawn tenons down to a snug – but not tight – fit in the mortises.

My ruler fence. The wood fence is screwed to the metal ruler. I keep a bunch of these metal rulers on hand because the fenced rulers simplify the marking process.

Chop the mortises. I delineated the sides of the mortises with a marking knife. Then I chopped the mortises with a chisel ground to a width slightly less than the width of the mortises.

Building Sub-Assemblies

One of the most important decisions you’ll make in the creation of any relatively complicated piece of furniture is the sequence of necessary glue-ups. If you’re using hide glue, I suppose it would be possible to glue it the entire undercarriage in one session, but since I prefer modern yellow glues, I divide my work into several different sub-assemblies. In the case of these tables, I chose to glue up the sides – apron, stretcher, and two legs – in one session, then the next day bring two side sub-assemblies together in a second session, attaching the top on the third day.

Add an apron detail. I use an astragal plane near the bottom of the apron components to create a bead with a narrow fillet on each side.

Add tenons. I created the tenons on the ends of the stretchers and apron components on the tablesaw using a stack of dado cutters. Notice that material adjacent to the shoulders is wrapped in masking tape. This reduces the likelihood of splinters. (It’s important to note that ends of the tenons must be mitered in order to fit in their mortises.)

Assemble the base. I began the gluing process by assembling the sides of the table’s under-structure. Note the two clamps on the apron end. Two clamps ensure that the apron shoulders are tight against the legs at the top and bottom.

Stretcher mortises. I then cut the mortises for the stretchers that join the two sides. Notice the mitered ends on the stretchers on the right.

Two sides become one base. Join the two sides together, keeping things square.

Making the Top

While the legs and apron sections were all cut from the same 3″ thick plank, the tops on my tables are glued up from some figured cherry I had set aside for this purpose. I brought this material down to a bit less than 34” in stages as I described earlier, then glued up the panel. I know that I use a ridiculous number of clamps when I glue up a panel, but my impression is that doing so results in fewer post-glue-up problems.

My butt joints are formed in two stages. First I establish a 90° angle on my jointer. Then I clean up jointer ripples with a jointing plane equipped with a fence. This produces clean and accurately made surfaces ready for glue.

I’m a little profligate with glue. It’s inexpensive and wondrously strong, so – unlike many craftsmen – I glue both surfaces of the glue joint before bringing them together with clamps.

Plane the top. Because the table tops are assembled with figured cherry, I chose a low-angle jack as a fore plane, rather than a normal jack (Of course, if the panels had been larger, I would have used an actual fore plane.)

Two cuts to add the profile. The first cut – with the blade set at an angle – creates the bevels around the tops.

A second trip over the tablesaw cuts the shoulder beside the bevel.

Clean up saw marks with a shoulder plane. I repeated this process after I’d created the scallops, too. The second pass slightly crowned the bevels and allowed me to create the appearance of a miter at the intersections.

Pattern makes perfect. I traced my paper scallop patterns onto the beveled edges of the top.

Two-part cutout. I cut the all of the scallops first on one side about halfway, then repositioned to finish cutting the scallops.

Drawing with Tools

If you’re a furniture designer/maker, you must draw. At first that work is done with conventional drawing tools: a pencil, a pen, a bit of charcoal. But as the execution of your work continues, your drawing tools become saws, chisels, gouges, rasps, files, sandpaper – anything with which you can refine your lines. In the case of these little tables, their most important features – the scalloped borders surround each – were drawn first on paper patterns, then with a bandsaw, and finally with a rasp and sandpaper.

After surfacing the table tops with planes, scrapers and sandpaper, I ripped the panels to width and cut them to length. Then, after cleaning up the sawn edges with planes (a straight jack on the sides and bevel-up, low angle jack on the end grain), I cut the bevels on the tablesaw.

I then marked the scallops by tracing around paper patterns on those beveled edges. Next I moved to my bandsaw – set up with a 14” blade – and carefully cut out each scallop, after which I fixed one of the tops in a vise and began working the scallops with a rasp. This is the most important step in their fabrication, not only because you’re removing bandsaw marks but also – and primarily – you’re correcting the inevitable but slight errors that accompany any freehand sawing.

You are, in effect, using your eye to measure the accurate delineation of each half circle as well as making tiny adjustments of the size of the scallops so that each looks exactly like every other one, despite the fact that actual measurement will reveal tiny variations between one scallop and the next. This is a balancing act, requiring some flexibility. For example if there is a tiny glitch in the outside diameter of one scallop, in order to conceal that glitch, it may be necessary to adjust the outside diameter of adjacent scallops so that the overall effect is one of uniformity.

Drawing with a rasp. In this photo, I’m drawing scallop profiles with my rasp.

Attach the top. I fastened each attachment cleat to an end section of the apron with four 2″ #8 drywall screws. The top was then fastened to the attachment cleats using eight 15⁄8″ #8 drywall screws.

An entire day of sanding. Because I had started the refinement of line on the scallops with a rasp, my first abrasive was 100 grit, then 120, followed by normal progression to 400. I spent an entire day hand sanding these scallops which is why I wrapped my finger tips in masking tape. Without the tape, my fingers would leave a bloody record of their travel around the table top.


The secret to a good finish is that there is no secret; there is only hard work, and that hard work begins with more hand sanding than many woodworkers would believe. When you’re dealing with straight-grained material, like the wood in the aprons, legs, and stretchers of these tables, it’s possible to clean up plane tracks with a relatively fine-grained abrasive, perhaps 220 grit. With heavily figured material, like the tops on these tables, it’s often necessary to precede this grit with some scraper work and a coarser abrasive grit, perhaps 120. I use my abrasives – whenever possible – with a sanding block in order to keep the surfaces nice and flat.

My abrasive sequence is as follows: first 150 or 220, then 320, finishing up with 400, using each in the direction of the grain. To get a truly fine finish, you must work with each of these grits far longer than you might imagine. As you sand, constantly check your work in a strong side light (natural is best). Wherever you see a line or spot in which sanding dust is collecting, you must do additional work to level and clean. It’s only when the entire surface is flat and free from inclusions of sanding dust that you can move on to the next grit. I’ve never actually timed myself, but my guess is that I spend more time with a sanding block in my hand than I spend with all the other stages of a piece’s construction.

Then brush on two or three relatively heavy coats of the finish you’ve selected, as heavy as possible without the danger of drips. The goal with these preliminary coats is not create a finished surface but to build a foundation on which the finished surface can be constructed. I sand after each of these brushed-on coats using 400 grit paper. Then, on this base, I begin applying thinner coats of finish using a ball of white t-shirt material onto which I dribble a bit of finish. After each of these coats, I wet-sand with #600 grit dipped in mineral spirits, continuing this process until I get a film I like.

Drawing Complete

Good furniture has good lines, and those good lines are achieved not only with paper and pencil during the design phase, but also with lathe tools and bandsaws and rasps – with every tool that is applied to the work. In fact, all of furniture making can be thought of as a drawing process, beginning when the first tentative lines are put to paper, continuing until the last bit of sandpaper is set aside in the shop. It is a process consisting of the continuous refinement of line, creating shapes and profiles that flow one into another in ways that satisfy both the eye and the soul. PWM

Scallop Edge Table Cutlist

1 Top 23⁄32 131⁄2 193⁄4
4 Legs 13⁄16 13⁄16 231⁄4
2 Short aprons 3⁄4 21⁄2 89⁄16
2 Long aprons 3⁄4 21⁄2 143⁄4
2 Short stretchers 13⁄16 13⁄16 89⁄16
2 Long stretchers 13⁄16 13⁄16 143⁄4
2 Cleats 1 31⁄8 73⁄4

For more from Kerry, check out Pleasant Hill Shaker Furniture and check out a tour of his shop.

This article appeared in the August 2018 issue of Popular Woodworking.

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Ann Lee, founder of the Shaker movement, offered this guidance to her followers, “Hands to work and hearts to God.” The furniture of the Pleasant Hill community shows her philosophy brought to life in every piece. With its beauty and simplicity, Shaker furniture has inspired generations of furniture makers like no other style in the world. This book details the construction and design of some rare and never before seen Shaker furniture created in the village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky.

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