Skill Level: Intermediate
Time: One Day
This simple side table employs three smart jigs and a number of handy techniques you can use on countless other woodworking projects. Try these three jigs and you’ll soon develop your own, and take your work to new levels.
The carved lip on this table turns a standard piece into a showstopper. Harking back to the candle stands and pie crust tables of the past, a raised edge adds both elegance and functionality. This modern adaption trades laborious carving for a few simple router jigs. This table will wow your friends and family — just don’t tell them how easy it was to make.
The turned, tapered legs are splayed for a midcentury feel and improved stability. I mortise them directly into the tabletop for two reasons: I like the aesthetics of the exposed joinery, and the tabletop is lighter and less tippy without a rail system under it. To keep larger tabletops flat, like that family dining table you’ve been meaning to build, mortise the legs into thick battens first, and screw those to the top (see Use Leg Battens for Larger Tables). By the way, an elliptical top will look just as good as this round one does. I went with walnut here, which machines beautifully, but lots of other woods will work.
Start With the Dished Top
This tabletop begins as a 1″-thick panel. Dishing it with the router jigs removes 1/4″ of material from the topside without removing any from the back, which can be a recipe for warping if the wood isn’t stable. For that reason, I recommend quarter- or rift-sawn lumber, which also yields a quiet grain pattern that fits the simple aesthetics of the piece. Using narrower boards also helps, though I would avoid using any piece narrower than 5″.
Mill the pieces slowly and in stages, allowing them to move and acclimate for a few days before final milling.
I dish the top in a series of steps, using two jigs: a circle-cutting jig and a leveling jig. First, I use the circle jig to dish a broad swath at the perimeter, which creates a nice buffer when I clean up the center with my leveling jig. I also use the circle jig to cut the round perimeter of the tabletop cleanly and accurately.
Circle-Cutting Jig is Simple & Effective
I make the circle-cutting jig from 1/4″-thick acrylic with a plunge router mounted at one end and a series of 5/64″-dia. holes as pivot points, which fit tightly around a common finish nail. The jig needs to be at least 20″ long for this build, but make it longer and it’ll come in handy for jobs in the future.
Plastic is best for this jig because continued use will wear out the pivot holes in plywood or MDF and introduce slope. I drill and countersink the holes for mounting the router first. Then, to establish the hole for the bit, I simply plunge it through the plastic.
The circle-cutting jig works like a compass, pivoting around a nail driven through one of the holes and into the workpiece, and if possible, into the back.
In this instance, the pivot point has to go on top, so I attach a small 3/4″-thick piece of plywood to the center of the top with double-stick tape to hold the nail. I like SpecTape for this purpose, as it releases with torque and leaves no residue behind. I actually stand on the plywood block for this task, to be sure it won’t move while working the top. I level the router jig by sticking two or three blocks of the same plywood to the bottom of the jig at the other end, below the router.
Dish the Outer Circle
I dish most of the top with the circle- cutting jig before using it to cut out the round perimeter. This leaves extra stock around the outside to stabilize the router. I rout this broad band around the outside in two steps, first dishing a broad circle with a series of overlapping passes, using a big straight bit, and then returning to the edge of the dished area with a bullnose bit to rout a smooth cove.
Pick a pivot hole that places the outside of the bit about 3/4″ from the perimeter of the finished table, set the depth stop for a 1/4″ cut, and rout a full circle. Now move the nail to a new pivot hole in the jig to cut a slightly smaller circle that just overlaps the previous one. Repeat this process to establish a 3″- to 4″-wide dished circle.
Last, I go back and use a 1/4″-radius bullnose bit and a new pivot hole to rout a smooth transition from the dished area to the rim. Set the depth to match the already-dished area.
Cut the Tabletop Free
Before removing the plywood block in the center, I use the circle jig to cut the outside of the tabletop, separating it from the big square panel. I like a spiral bit for this task, as it cuts cleanly through face and end grain alike. Make several light passes to cut a clean edge.
Clean Up the Center
With the tabletop cut out and the perimeter of the dish established, it’ time to remove the remaining material in the center. For this I use my leveling jig. It consists of another clear strip of 1/4″-thick acrylic, so I can see the material I’m removing, with strips of plywood on either side to add stiffness so the jig doesn’t sag under the weight of the router. This assembly rides the edge of the lip, and works well.
I screw the base of the router to the leveling jig, insert the same large, straight bit I used before, and set the depth in the area that I already dished. Just to be safe, start a little high with your first cut and make small adjustments as needed to fine-tune the depth.
Hold the router firmly as you begin to remove the raised section from the middle of the dish. Work in overlapping sections like you would mow a lawn and be sure you’re moving against the rotation of the bit; climb-cutting will cause the router to jerk forward and be harder to control. Make light cuts until you feel comfortable with the routing action, and clear away the chips when the dished area becomes too cluttered.
Sand to Finish the Dish
The router bit leaves a rough surface but a random-orbit sander smooths it quickly. I start with 80-grit paper and work the entire tabletop to maintain flatness. Keep the sanding disk at least 1/4″ away from the outer lip or you’ll ruin the smooth cove.
I smooth the cove by hand-sanding, and take the entire top up to 150 grit at this point.
Complete the Look
Echoing the shape of the cove at the inside edge of the rim, the underside of the tabletop is rounded, too. So once the center is cleared out and the dished area is flat, use a bearing- guided 3/4″-radius roundover bit on the bottom edge. I find it easiest to do this in a router table, but this step can be done freehand as well, with the tabletop upside down.
Next, drill angled holes in the top to accept the leg tenons. To get a clean look and a strong joint where the angled legs meet the underside, I use a stepped hole, drilled at an angle on the drill press. A larger, shallow counterbore (11/4″ dia.) houses the top of the leg, hiding the shoulder inside it, while a smaller hole (7/8″) passes all the way through the top for the tenon. This lets me turn normal, square-shouldered tenons on the legs.
Since the top will move a bit with seasonal moisture changes, I place the legs in a layout that’s square to the grain direction, so the legs will move in tandem if the top warps a little, keeping the overall table level and all four legs on the floor.
To mark the holes, turn the table upside down and mark the center point first. Draw a line through the center point, parallel with the overall grain direction of the top boards. Then mark center points for the mortises.
I use a drill press to drill the stepped mortises, using Forstner bits for both holes. The drill press lets me maintain a consistent angle and clamp the table so I can hit the same center point with both bits.
Because of the size of the top, the direction of the splay, and the distance from the post of the drill press to the chuck, I can’t simply tilt the drill press table sideways to establish the splay angle; it has to be angled front to back. So I make a very basic jig to hold the top at the 15° angle I want; nothing more than two wedges sandwiched between two pieces of plywood. You can make accurate wedges with a tapering jig on the table saw, or a pair of cuts on the miter saw; first an angled cut and then one at 90° to form the wedge.
Place the top on the jig, dish down, with a plywood square cut to fit inside the dish. That square will prevent blowout at the back of the holes. Line up the hole layout diagonally to the angle to the jig, to reflect the way the legs splay outward. Line up the bit with your mark, clamp the top in place, and drill both parts of the stepped hole. Start with the larger Forstner bit and drill until the full circle of the bit appears on the tabletop. Then change to the tenon bit and drill through the tabletop. Repeat this process for the other three leg locations. Each time you drill a new mortise make sure the plywood under the hole location is fresh, to prevent chipout.
Turn Legs & Tenons
There are a variety of curves in the top, so I added some dynamism to the legs, too, by having them bulge 1/3 of the way from the top and then taper to the foot. The legs are 1 3/4″ at their largest diameter, which works for this side table. Larger tables would, of course, require larger legs with the joinery scaled up accordingly.
You make the legs out of solid stock or laminate them from two thinner boards. After roughing the whole leg to 1 3/4″, I mark out the key dimensions: the tenon shoulder, the transition from the straight shoulder area to the curve, the high point of the curve, and the far end of the leg.
To turn the tenon to a perfect 7/8″ diameter, I use a 7/8″ wrench to measure the tenon as I turn it. I find wrenches to be more precise than calipers, and they let you measure on the fly, slipping over the spinning tenon when it’s just the right size. To turn the straight tenons and the straight shoulders, I use a square-tipped gouge that I made myself, though it’s similar to a bedan tool that you can buy.
After turning an accurate tenon, I turn the straight shoulder section. It’s 1 1/4″ wide, with a small groove at the end, to help me make a smooth transition to the curved section. I work with calipers here, setting them about 1/32″ larger than the finished diameter. Once the calipers slide over the shoulder, I sand to the finished dimension with a square of 120-grit sandpaper folded in half and held in my hand.
I turn the curved section with a standard gouge, and then use a block plane to smooth it as it spins. It’s an unconventional method but it works wonderfully to create a consistent line and a smooth finish (see Tips for Turning Midcentury Legs).
Assemble the Table
With the top dished, mortises drilled, and legs turned, we’re ready to glue up the table. Yellow glue will work, though I prefer System Three T-88, a two-part epoxy that’s more forgiving. With a longer open time, it allows much more working time, and maintains its strength even if there are small gaps in joints. To fill any potential gaps, I usually add Mohawk Blendal powders to tint the epoxy to the color of the finished project. This makes imperfections nearly undetectable.
To further strengthen the joints and add visual interest to the top, I also wedge the tenons. To prevent the wedge from splitting the leg, I drill a 3/16 “- dia. hole near the base of the tenon, perpendicular to the grain of the leg, before cutting a kerf down the center of the tenon to the top of the drilled hole. This prevents the wedged tenons from splitting perpendicular to the grain in the tabletop.
Dry-fit the legs to ensure all the tenons and shoulders fit properly. If everything fits, glue up the table one leg at a time. I put epoxy only in the stepped hole, but if I were using yellow glue I would apply it to both mortise and tenon. As you push the leg through the mortise, make sure the shoulder is engaged fully on the underside.
Put adhesive only on the tips of the wedges, and tap them home until the tone becomes a dull thud and the tenons are tight in their mortises (see Assembly Tips).
Finishing the Project
Once the glue is set up you can cut the tenons flush with the top and trim the legs to sit flush on the ground. I use a Japanese crosscut saw for both of these steps. To trim the tenons and wedges close to the top without damaging it, place some posterboard or a few playing cards between the top and saw.
Afterward, use whatever tools you are comfortable with — sanding block, block plane or both — to bring the tenons and wedges perfectly flush with the top.
There are a number of ways to trim table and chair feet level with each other. In this case, to be sure each of these splayed legs ends up the same length, I suspend the table level in midair over a at surface, using sawhorses, and rest a small stack of blocks on the benchtop to guide my saw. A good all-round height for a side table is 24″—a little lower for a more modern look and a little higher for a sofa with high armrests.
When I’m done, if any leg is slightly longer than the others, I place a flat sheet of sandpaper on the surface and drag the bottom of the leg over it. After a few passes recheck the table and repeat as necessary. Now sand and finish the table using your favorite methods, and hold on to those handy jigs for your next project.
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