In Colonial America, prior to Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride, colonists adopted many of the lifestyles of English citizens. One such behavior was afternoon tea. Of course, you couldn’t be of a wealthy class and partake in tea without having the necessary serving implements – including a tea table.
Tea tables came into vogue in the early 1700s and were built in many designs such as tray-topped, round-topped and porringer-topped tables with either carved cabriole legs or turned cabriole legs. A tray-topped design with carved legs was by far the most high-end table one could possess.
After the tea party in Boston, the idea of afternoon tea all but disappeared in the American colonies, but the furniture design survives to this day.
Cabrioles Without a Lathe
Queen Anne-style furniture makers focus on curves and achieving a light, graceful look. Cabriole legs are all about curves, and to give a lighter look to the design, slipper feet were the choice for many tea tables.
Forget the lathe. A slipper foot is shaped by hand. To begin work on the legs, copy the pattern from the drawings below. Next, transfer the shape to a piece of hardboard or thin plywood. Each leg requires you to trace the pattern onto two adjacent sides of each leg blank. Transferring from paper would be tedious. Mill the leg stock to size and trace the pattern to the stock.
At the band saw you’ll need to cut to the lines. Freehand cutting is the only option, but there are a few tips to make the task easier. Starting with one face, begin cutting on a straight section of the leg. Cut halfway, then carefully back the blade out of the cut. Cut the balance of that profile entering from the opposite direction, but stop prior to reaching the previous cut. That creates a bridge that holds the waste material in place so the leg pattern remains on the second face. If the blade shows signs of being pinched as you back out of that cut, squeeze the leg at the straight cut to allow ample room for extraction.
Complete the band saw work on the remaining lines for the first face of the leg. On the second face there’s no need for a bridge, so saw away until the parts fall free.
Then it’s back to the first face to break down the bridge. When the cuts are all completed, you have a square-shaped leg that is in need of shaping.
From Round to Square
Shaping the legs looks more intimidating than it is. Start at the ankle and make that area completely round. To guide me, I use a pattern that’s made with a 1″ drill bit. Drill a hole in a plywood or hardboard scrap then split the hole down the center. The resulting half-circle is used as a template for rounding the ankle.
Next, shape each leg from round at the ankle to square at the knee. Work one leg at a time shaping each edge from bottom to top. The transition is gradual. Use your hands to feel the shape. A Shinto rasp is my tool of choice for shaping legs. I like the aggressiveness of the tool when roughing out the profile.
Smooth the leg with the second side of the Shinto or other rasp but save the finish sanding until the foot area and above the knee is shaped.
Shaping the leg is a rather quick task. But, the work on the individual feet is where the majority of shaping time is spent. Begin shaping the foot by drawing an “X” on each foot’s bottom. Next, make a pattern of the foot from the drawings just as you did for the leg. Center the pattern on the foot bottom with the point matching the front corner of the leg. Trace the pattern onto each foot.
Use a combination square to draw 45º-angle lines across the foot, parallel to the pattern. Extend those lines up the sides of each foot then saw away the waste material. The lines on the sides guide your sawing to keep from wasting needed material. It’s easy to cut too close to the ankles.
Shape the foot to the pattern making sure you keep the sides of the foot perpendicular to the foot’s bottom. Pay particular attention to the rear of the foot. The heel has to roll down and blend in with the foot’s shape.
Finish shaping the foot by drawing a matching profile 1⁄8″ inside the foot bottom. Each side of the foot is then beveled slightly to that profile. The heel continues to roll to the inside line.
Shaping the top of the foot is the next task. Using hand tools for this is real work. The simplest method I’ve found is to use a spindle sander. Install a 3″ drum with a coarse-grit sleeve on the sander, then slowly sculpt the top of the foot. The idea is to level the foot’s top and make a gradual transition to the ankle. Check your progress often. As you get near the ankle, begin to slowly rotate the leg and form the beginnings of the roundness that transitions to the full-round ankle.
Once the shaping of the leg and foot is completed, move to the band saw to remove the waste material from the top block. There is a certain order in which to make this cut. The first cut is with the knee positioned facing the saw’s table. To make the second cut simply rotate the leg 90º so one face of the knee is facing up. Following this procedure allows the leg to be fully supported as you cut.
Shape the knee, as well as the area above the knee, then sand the entire leg with #150-grit sanding discs. At this time stand the legs side by side and look for any variations in shape. This is the time to fine-tune the legs so they match. But, don’t get carried away with this task. Remember – the legs stand 17″ apart at minimum. Slight variations will be imperceptible in the finished table.
Profile and Fit the Aprons
Aprons join the legs with mortise-and-tenon joints. Positioning the legs to cut a mortise in the correct location is a bit tricky. Place a support under the top block of the leg to keep the knee off the surface. As you can see in the photo below left, I cut the 1⁄4″ x 43⁄4″ x 1″ mortises with the back of the leg block against the fence of a dedicated mortise machine.
Aprons are cut to size according to the cut list below and tenons are formed on both ends of each apron to fit the mortises. Before assembly takes place, slot openings for the candle slides have to be cut into the end aprons.Locate the slot, then use a plunge router with a 5⁄8″ straight bit to create the opening. A straight fence attached to the router makes this quick work. Chisel the corners square, then begin work on the inside face of the apron.
On the inside of each end apron there are two 3⁄4″ x 21⁄8″ x 1⁄4″-deep dados that capture the candle-slide supports. The supports are held down from the top edge of the aprons 3⁄8″ to accommodate the recessed top and are press-fit into the candle-slide openings. A straight fence and 3⁄4″ pattern bit work great to make the dados. Again, square the corners with your chisel.
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Sand the aprons through #150 grit then fit one apron to a mating leg. Hold the apron flush with the top edge of the leg, then draw a pattern on the lower apron edge so the rounded profile of the knee bracket area continues onto the apron. (A 5″ sanding disc makes a perfect pattern.)
Blend the radius of the pattern up 11⁄16″ on the apron. Repeat the pattern on both ends of each apron then make the cuts at the band saw. Smooth the edges with light sanding at a spindle sander.
Now it’s time to assemble the base of the table. It’s best to assemble the base in two steps. First, glue the side aprons to the legs. After the glue is set, assemble the end aprons to the legs. Add glue to both the mortises and tenons, then slip the joints together, making sure to keep the top edges flush. Allow the glue to dry, then sand the entire workpiece to #180 grit. You’ll have to touch up the sanding later during the project, but this is the best time to do the majority of the work.
Next, you’ll need to create small slots for the wooden clips used to secure the top. A couple options for cutting the slots are a router or router table with a 1⁄4″ slot-cutting router bit (the tea table is light and compact enough to hoist onto your router table), or use a biscuit joiner and complete the slot in two overlapping cuts.
Position the slots from 1⁄2″ to 3⁄4″ down from the top edge of the aprons. With the slots located in this position, the tongue of each wooden clip is set toward the middle. If you slide any further down the apron, you’ll likely cut into the candle-slide opening in the end aprons.
Shaped Knee-return Brackets
Another feature that adds interest to the design of this tea table is the shaped knee-return brackets. On most carved cabriole-legged furniture, the knee returns extend to or slightly over the aprons or other rails. However, on some tea tables the brackets extend from leg to leg, adding shape and shadow lines.
Begin with blanks that fit snug between the knees of the legs. Draw pencil lines along the leg curvature to transfer the shape to the returns. Also, transfer the design from the bottom edge of the aprons onto the returns.
Angle the table saw blade then position the fence to remove as much waste as possible.
The flat surface on the face of the returns is enough to hold the pieces flat at the band saw to cut the apron-matching design. But, if you make a continuous cut, the flat area is removed and the piece becomes unsteady. It’s best to make the cut in sections to leave short portions of flat area intact. This allows you to maintain control throughout the cut.
Use a spindle sander or drum sander at the drill press to smooth to the lines. Again, the flat areas help maintain control. Once the edges are smooth flip the piece and, using a pencil or marking knife, connect the straight portions to provide a line to remove the balance of the waste material. Return to the band saw to remove the final waste material then sand those areas; the return brackets are now ready for final shaping to the leg profile.
Final shaping is done with a small handplane. Work the profile to match the leg area, then finish smoothing with rasps and by sanding. Finish sand the returns to #180 grit.
The brackets are glued to the lower edge of the aprons – no fasteners are needed. To keep the glue from squeezing out above the bracket where it would be difficult to remove, make a shallow table saw cut just below the top edge of the bracket on the back face. That cut acts as a reservoir for excess glue. Add a thin bead of glue to the bracket below the cut then position the brackets to the apron. Add a few spring clamps until the glue is set.
Adding the Candle Slides
While the glue sets, cut and fit the candle-slide supports. Fit the pieces to the base then mark the exact location of the slide opening. Cut a 5⁄8″ x 1⁄4″ x 10″ groove at each opening.
A straight bit and a router table are your best bet for this task. Align the layout marks with the router bit, set the fence and create the groove. Setting a stop for the length of cut allows easy removal of the support after the groove is cut. The supports are held in place with a small amount of glue where the bottom of the slide fits the dado in the end aprons.
Next, make the candle slides so they fit the opening. Mill the material, making sure to orient the grain across the opening. Then create the front piece for each slide with all edges profiled with a 1⁄4″ roundover router bit.
Mill this profile on wide stock, then slice the fronts at the table saw. This eliminates working with small pieces. Run the four edges to create a 1⁄16″ shadow line on the profile (as you would when profiling drawer fronts), then rip the fronts off. A zero-clearance insert keeps the moulded piece from dropping into the saw.
Finish sand the candle-slide parts to #180 grit and prepare to attach the fronts to the slides. Align the fronts with a 1⁄4″ above the slide and equal distance to each side. Again, a small amount of glue does the job. Add a thin bead of glue, position the fronts to the slides then use tape to hold the connection until the glue has dried. Use small brass screws as stops to keep the slides from being pulled from the base. Those stops are applied after finishing is complete.
Beginning the Tray Mouldings
In order to properly size the top, you’ll need to build the first layer of tray moulding, which is the beaded frame. The overhang of the completed frame is 1⁄2″ all around. Prepare the four pieces of stock then rout the edge profile with a 3⁄8″ bead-forming router bit.
The beaded frame is joined at the corners with half-lapped joinery. Make the necessary cuts at the table saw and keep in mind the orientation of the profiled edge. It’s easy to remove the incorrect portion of the joint.
I found it best to create the bead then round the corners at the joints after assembly versus joining the frame and moulding it afterward. This allows you more control working with thin stock.
Assemble the frame with glue. Small F-style clamps apply pressure to hold the corners tight. You need to check the assembly for square as you walk through the glue-up. Once the glue is dry, make sure the overhang is correct, then use a thin bead of glue and 23-gauge pins to attach the frame to the table base.
Free-floating Table Top
Because this table has mouldings in a crossgrain relationship to the top, I elected to attach the tray mouldings to the top edge of the base and allow the top itself to float. With the bead frame in place, fit and install the top.
Mill the top to size and thickness, then fit the top inside the bead frame. Because wood moves across the grain, you’ll need to take into consideration what season of the year you’re building the piece. Allow 1⁄8″ if you’re in low-humidity times to almost no gap if you’re building with humidity on the high side. As for the length of the top, wood doesn’t move much with the grain, so I fit that area snug.
The top is rabbeted along all sides to fit flush with the bead frame. I use a two-step rabbeting method at the table saw, but there are many ways to cut rabbets. Select the method that works best for you.
Whatever method you choose, there is one additional step necessary before the top is attached to the base. You need to remove material at the corners of the top that correspond with the leg posts. Use a straightedge and flush-cut router bit to remove the waste.
With the milling of the top complete, sand the piece to #180 grit, add a drop of glue to the exact center of the end aprons, then position the top to the base. The glue adds extra hold to the top, forcing any movement outward to the sides and divides overall wood movement in half. Each half acts independently.
Add the wooden clips to the base and installation of the top is complete. The clips are made at the table saw, counterbored for screws, then installed with #8 x 11⁄4″ woodscrews. The clips allow the top to move, but keep it tight to the base.
Creating the Tray’s Cove Moulding
The tray’s cove mouldings begin as two pieces of flat stock milled to 3⁄4″ thick. Next you’ll need to produce a cove cut centered on the stock that results in the correct end measurements for the cove once the stock is ripped into two matching pieces.
At the table saw, with the blade height adjusted to 1⁄2″, position an auxiliary fence for the cut. Twisting the fence manipulates the cut, so it’s necessary to find the exact setup position. I take two pieces of stock and draw my cove profile on opposing ends. Position the drawn profile toward the blade and maneuver the auxiliary fence until the infeed and outfeed of the blade align with the layout marks. Once found, lock the position of the fence.
I like my auxiliary fence on the outfeed side of the blade, and I’ve secured the stock in position with a magnetic fence to keep the moulding from moving.
Lower the blade then make successive cuts, each time raising the blade incrementally to produce a cove profile matching the desired design. Take the last pass very slowly in order to remove as many mill marks as possible, which will reduce the amount of sanding.
Finish sand the tray cove mouldings to #180 grit then use a table saw to split the stock in half, forming two identical strips per piece. Each piece is routed with a 3⁄8″ roundover bit on the bottom edge to reflect the edge treatment of the profile of the bead frame below. Finish sand any rough areas before fitting the moulding to the table.
Those mouldings are attached to the table with brads located so the top is free to move. The brads extend through the cove moulding and the bead frame into the aprons. Fit each piece of moulding in place, then temporarily attach it to the table with one 23-gauge pin at each end. When the task is complete, the mouldings and pins are easily removed.
Clean up any pencil lines. Add a thin bead of glue to the cove, position the mouldings to the table and attach them with brads – the square holes left from the brad gun mimic antique, square-head nails.
To secure the coved corners, peg each miter with a short length of 1⁄8″ dowel.
Race to the Finish
For the finish I elected to stain the piece with water-base aniline dye stain (a 50-50 mixture of golden amber maple and brown walnut), add a single coat of boiled linseed oil to highlight the stripes, then topcoat with a few layers of shellac.
Normally I would rub out the shellac to achieve a dull sheen. To save time and effort, I elected to spray a single coat of dull-rubbed effect lacquer to achieve that sheen. If you don’t spray your finish, try wiping on a coat of satin polyurethane or wiping varnish.
Add the brass knobs and brass screw stops to the candle slides and you’re ready to sit down for an enjoyable afternoon of tea – or coffee, if you just haven’t been able to get over that entire taxation-without-representation mess.
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