This classic design is at home in settings both rustic and modern.
PROJECT #2007 • Skill Level: Intermediate • Time: 4 days • Cost: $500
My home is a 150-year-old farmhouse situated in the middle of Cincinnati, Ohio. When it came time to tackle the renovation of the dining room, we decided on a dining table that fit the period and aesthetic of our home. As I started to research mid-19th-century dining tables, I came across an auction site with a pine Swedish trestle table with a style that was almost exactly what I was searching for.
The table features two strong stretchers with tusk and tenon joinery. This enables the table to be knocked down for transportation and assembled again without tools. I also appreciated that the leg assemblies each have two legs that provide additional support for a huge tabletop (this stands in contrast to some trestle tables that use just one leg per assembly.) The original was made out of pine, which would be the traditional choice for a farmhouse table, but I wanted to use a domestic hardwood. Red oak is a favorite in our house because of its abundance (and low cost).
After designing my table in Sketchup, I headed to the lumberyard and picked up 130 bdft of 8/4 stock that had been surfaced on three sides (S3S) with a final thickness of 13/4“. I paid extra for S3S lumber because I wanted the tabletop to use solid boards across the entire 80“ length, and, in my one car shop, this would have been a huge task to mill everything down from rough. I overbought with plans to make a bench for one side of the table down the road.
Start with the top
The tabletop is 40“x80“, far wider than many antique trestle tables but a very comfortable size for seating 8-10 people, especially with the trestle style base which allows the entire length of the table to be used by guests.
While at the lumberyard, I spotted one board that was a full 17“ wide. It was gorgeous and I wanted that to be the centerpiece of the tabletop. With that board allocated for the center of the tabletop, I ripped four smaller boards to flank either side to arrive at the 40“ width. I used a combination of my jointer and a handplane to create my glue joints.
The leg assemblies have the advantage of being symmetrical in every direction. The feet of the leg assemblies are identical to the cleats at the top of the legs and the mortises for the stretchers are centered on the leg.
I played with this design quite a bit and decided upon this version because I enjoyed the matching arcs at the top and bottom of the assembly.
Throughout this project, I used as much quarter sawn material as possible so that the loud grain patterns of Red Oak would be minimized. The leg material, two pieces for each assembly, was planed down to 11/2“ thick so that there would be a nice 1/8“ reveal where the legs meet the feet and cleats.
Leave your leg stock long, the tenons at the top and bottom of the legs are 2“ each, so I rough cut my legs to 28“ and adjusted the length of the tenon after I finished dialing them in to fit the mortises. The tenons are to be cut after the mortises are created in the feet.
Feet and Cleats
Each set of feet and cleats were sourced from the same board so that they would have similar color and grain patterns. If you can, choose quatersawn parts of your stock so that the tops of the feet will feature long straight lines.
The feet are cut to their final dimension and the mortises are marked. I ganged the four parts together to layout the 2“ long mortises. I used a 5/8“ Forstner bit to hog out the bulk of the mortise material at the drill press before completing the mortise at the bench with a chisel.
I developed the shape of the feet and cleats in sketchup and translated the drawing to a hardboard template as best I could by eye. The apex of the arch is 1/4“ deep and the angles are about 10deg. This is your chance to play with angles and curves, enjoy!
Once the shape is translated to the feet and cleats, I cut the shape out on the bandsaw. The rough curve was then smoothed with a rasp and random orbit sander loaded with 80grit paper. Make sure you maintain a nice step at the top of the curve so that the arc has a termination point that is sharp.
With the feet shaped, they’re ready for the countersunk slots that will house the 1/4“-20 bolts that fasten the tabletop to the cleats. These slots will allow the bolts to slide laterally to accommodate seasonal movement.
Next, I started on the tenons of the legs. Because the mortises in the feet and cleats were brought to final size with a chisel, they vary in size just slightly, enough that I numbered each tenon to its respective mortise. The tenons were cut on the table saw with a dado stack.
The final mortising is in the center of the leg that will allow the stretcher tenon to pass through. The mortise here is unique in that it is not a glue joint and if you size it 1/32“ larger than it needs to be, it will make assembly of the table base easier. The real work in this joint is done by the key that sits on the outside of the leg. Like the mortises already made in the feet and cleats, I used a Forstner bit to hog out most of the material and then squared up the mortise on the bench.
With all of the joinery complete on the leg assembly, its time for glue-up. I elected to use epoxy for these joints. I felt that there was just enough roughness inside the joinery of the feet and cleats that the gap-filling nature of epoxy gave me a piece of mind for longevity. The temperature in my shop is maintained around 60°, so I used a 5:1 epoxy with fast hardener. Even with the fast hardener, I found that that the epoxy still took over 24 hours to cure to the touch in a couple of knotholes in my tabletop. Depending on the temperature where you’re working, you may choose to use a slower hardener.
The stretchers that connect the leg assemblies are one of the largest showpieces of this table. They are long, broad faces that will be seen regularly. I selected some of my nicest material with straight grain for these. First, I ripped them to 51/2“ wide and crosscut to 62“ long. Then I marked out 46“ representing the distance between the leg assemblies, just make sure you have at least an additional 7“ on either end to account for the tenons.
For the tenons, I wanted a really clean line produced by a full shoulder on all four sides of the stretcher where it meets the leg assemblies, so I took just an 1/8“ off the broad cheek to establish that line but left the tenon as thick as possible, something that will come in handy when cutting the mortise for the key. The tenon is 3“ tall for its entire length.
Once the tenon is brought to its rough form, you can assemble the entire base, step back and check out how the whole thing is looking at this point. Take a deep breath before diving in and finishing up the base assembly. Mark the tenon where it exits the legs so that you can layout the mortise that will accept the key for the stretcher joinery.
The mortise that will house the key for the tusk and tenon joinery is essential to the stability of the table, but actually kind of hard to mess up. I’ve found that all of the tweaking happens in the key that fits into the mortise. And unlike many other mortise and tenon situations, the tenon is not part of a larger part of the table. The key is a small, easily replicated part that can be easily tweaked until it’s perfect.
I chopped the mortises in the tenon by hand with a 3/8“ chisel. This was slow going through 3“ of red oak but there’s just no other way to do it. The end of the 2“ mortise that is towards the end of the stretcher receives a 5° angle cut through the full depth of the mortise.
With the mortise cut, I marked out the final shape of the tenon. I experimented with this shape a lot and derived a lot of inspiration from the antique I had found online. The top of the tenon receives a long curve and the bottom creates a unique radius that exposes the key in a fun way. I created a hardboard template to transfer the shape to all four of the tenons consistently.
The final piece is the key that fits the mortise. I selected some quartersawn material, planed it to 3/8“ thick and ripped it to fit the 2“ mortise. The 5° angle was created with a hand plane and the edges were chamfered by rasp. Once the key fit into the mortise, I marked the top of the tenon so that I could cut each key so that they’d all reveal the same amount above and below the mortise.
Finishing Red Oak
Over the years, I’ve developed a formula for finishing red oak that fits my family’s needs. In our farmhouse, we have very old pine floors that have been most recently finished with medium-red stain before polyurethane. We wanted to carry that red into this table to make it feel like it fit with the house. After a lot of experimentation with dye and off the shelf stain, I settled on a minwax oil-based stain called Red Chestnut.
I gave every part of the project two coats of shellac and then sanded it down to serve as a grain filler. The key is waiting until the shellac is fully cured. I was impatient with a couple of parts and had unsatisfactory results. But the areas that I waited a full day to cure turned out great.
After the shellac, I applied two coats of the stain and let it dry for a full day. Once I was confident everything was dry, I applied two coats of oil-based polyurethane to everything and then a third coat on the table top to ensure durability.
My hope is that over time, the oil-based finish will continue to amber. And in the midst of my growing family, this table will take a beating and add invaluable character that I will treasure long after the kids have flown the coop.
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