Some of the best lessons in constructing cabinets actually come from building small tables.
In many ways, tables are like skeleton versions of complex casework pieces, which stymie beginning woodworkers with their many parts, complex joints and the way the two come together to make something that’s stable and beautiful.
When you build a small table, there is far less wood involved than with a case piece, there are fewer joints and the overall structure is less complex and easier to master. But the real lessons for casework are there. Here are a few examples:
• The mortise and tenon: This joint is the foundation of table construction – it joins the legs to the aprons and stretchers – and the joint is critical to master when building the frames necessary to make casework. Think: Doors, face frames, drawer dividers and dust panels. When you build one of the tables shown here, you’ll use the mortise-and-tenon joint to join the legs and the lower stretchers.
• The half-lap: Many small tables (such as these examples) have a half-lap joint where the stretchers overlap. Half-lap joinery requires a surprising amount of precision to do well. You are joining two surfaces that have 10 mating surfaces that must be in perfect alignment. If any of those surfaces is off, the joint will show a gap, be unacceptably loose or the parts won’t mate flush. Mastering the half-lap – by hand or machine – is a great basic lesson for developing your fine-fitting skills.
• The dovetail: Many tables great and small incorporate a dovetail where the stretchers meet the top of the legs. And while well-executed dovetails are the foundation of casework carcases and drawers, a table-style dovetail is remarkably forgiving and easy to make. It consists of one tail and one socket. Even poorly executed, this joint is remarkably strong. And here’s the nice thing: The joint will be hidden from view thanks to the tabletop. In this table, you’ll use a dovetail to join the upper stretchers to the legs.
• The tabletop: Gluing up an attractive and strong tabletop is key to learning to glue up the wide carcase sides and door panels that are the skin of a typical cabinet. Yet, when you glue up a tabletop, there is much less at stake because the way the top interacts with the base of the table is fairly simple when compared to the complexity of a cabinet’s side and its interior parts.
So building a couple small tables with traditional joints will definitely improve your casework skills – no matter what your abilities are at the moment. To prove it, we set out to build two different versions of the Gustav Stickley 603 tabouret – one using power tools and the other using hand tools. The idea was to show you the choices available so you could pick and choose the techniques right for you.
By Hand and By Power
Things, however, did not turn out as planned. I have built dozens of little tables during the last decade for the magazine and for sale. And during the last 11 years I have tried every method imaginable to cut these joints. Plus, with the help of the other woodworkers in our shop, I’ve refined these methods so they’re simple, accurate and don’t require complex tooling.
So when faced with the prospect of cutting a joint with a technique I’d set aside years ago, I balked in a few cases and simply refused. Sometimes this meant turning my back on my table saw, and sometimes it meant dismissing my chisels. At almost every step, I found myself forced to justify the tools and processes I employ in the shop. And that struggle to balance speed, simplicity and enjoyment is the heart of the following article.
Stock Selection and Preparation
People ask me all the time to show them how to process rough lumber into boards suitable for fine furniture with hand tools only. I’m happy to show them, and I’m fairly quick about it. It takes longer to explain than it does to actually do when you have the right tools.
But preparing rough lumber for furniture is something I do in the shop only when the boards are too wide for our power equipment. It’s not a difficult skill to master, but it requires stamina and physical strength to do well. So when faced with the prospect of preparing the lumber by hand or with a powered jointer and planer, it was no contest.
Stretchers of the Same Length
The four stretchers in the table might not be the most visible parts in the finished product, but they do some critical tasks. They join the legs and top together. And they decide if the base is square or out of kilter. So your first concern should be that each stretcher is the same thickness and width as its mate, and that the distance between the shoulders
of all the pieces is the same: 11 3/4″.
Note that I didn’t say that your stretchers all had to be the same length. They can be, but they don’t have to be. For the table with power-tool joints, I crosscut the stretchers to a consistent length with a table saw equipped with a crosscut fence and a stop. Then I marked the shoulders of all the tenons and dovetail joints with a marking gauge pushed along the end grain of the parts.
For the other table, I left the boards at their rough-cut length. Then I grouped all the stretchers together and marked out the shoulders in one fell stroke using a knife and a square. I found the location of the shoulder by measuring out from the center of the stretchers. After I cut the joinery, I trimmed up any ends that were a little long. The ends are buried in the legs, so their exact lengths are insignificant. Just make them sturdy and to fit.
Both layout approaches are valid ways to work in a modern shop. There are times when you cannot get a really long board on your table saw for an accurate crosscut, so marking out your joinery from a centerline will allow you to skip that machine process.
First Crisis: Cutting Mortises
For the power-tool table, I cut the mortises with a hollow-chisel mortiser using a 1/4″ mortising chisel. The mortises are about 1 1/8″ deep to house the 1″-long tenons on your stretchers.
Traditional joint design here would dictate a tenon that’s 1/4″ thick and 1 1/4″ long (tenon length is typically five times the tenon thickness). But a 1 1/4″-long tenon is risky in a 1 1/2″-square leg. You need to make the mortise a little deeper than necessary to accommodate glue and inevitable junk at the bottom of the mortise, and so there is a real risk of boring all the way through the leg when making the mortise.
So a 1″-long tenon allows you to reduce the risk and maintain most of the strength. Sometimes you have to bend the rules.
After rule-bending and mortise-boring, I picked up my mortising chisel and mallet to cut the mortises by hand for the other table. Now, I’m fairly good at mortising by hand and don’t think it’s any big deal. But with the mortising machine just sitting there – set up and ready to go as it always is – I put down the chisel.
Most of my hand mortising occurs when the mortiser won’t handle the task, such as angled or compound joints, or when the mortises are in a difficult spot, such as the middle of a case side or in a very thick part. But when it comes to straightforward mortising, I choose the machine.
Tenons Two Ways
When it comes to cutting tenons, however, I don’t have a dedicated setup on my table saw, so I’ll switch freely between hand and power methods. Setting the table saw to cut four tenons is as time-consuming as cutting four tenons by hand.
To cut the tenons by hand, mark out the face cheeks, edge cheeks and shoulders. Saw the cheeks with a tenon saw that is filed for rip cuts then saw the shoulders with a carcase saw that is filed crosscut. This technique is covered in detail in the “How to Saw” article on page 14.
When you cut tenons with power equipment, you have myriad choices. I use a dado stack in my table saw. Here’s why I avoid other common methods: I’ve found that routers don’t have the guts to make these cuts in one pass; you’re removing 1/4″ of waste on each cheek and that’s a big bite. So you end up making a few passes to make each tenon, and that’s a lot of work for the small prize of a perfectly smooth tenon cheek.
I also shy away from tenon jigs on a table saw. They are faster than a router table, but they require a shop-made or commercial jig and they also require two tooling setups for each cheek and shoulder: One setup for the cheek and one for the shoulder. Plus, it can be unwieldy to balance long pieces of work upright on your saw’s table.
A dado stack has the advantage of being able to make the cut in one pass (assuming your table saw isn’t one of those with a motor that should be measured in “puppy power” instead of horsepower). Plus, there is only one tooling setup for cutting a cheek and shoulder. No special jigs are required. And you can work with your parts flat on your saw’s table.
Cut the cheeks and shoulders of the lower stretchers. Then, using the same setting on your fence, cut a 1/4″-deep ( 3/8″-deep if by hand) notch on the underside of your upper stretchers. This notch relieves the underside of the upper stretcher a bit and makes the dovetail easier to cut and fit.
Making good half-lap joints is a challenge. Years ago I made a series of sitting benches that were based on the work of Nicolai Fechin, and each bench had about 40 half-laps. So I became pretty good at fitting this joint. Here’s how.
Begin with components that are the same size. And I mean exactly the same size, especially in thickness. The best way to do this is to handplane the pieces simultaneously on their thicknesses and on their widths. In fact, it’s best to do everything you can to get your components nearly ready to finish at this stage. It’s a common error to cut the joint and then plane or sand the components, making the joint loose and sloppy.
To lay out the joint, first mark one shoulder with a combination square and knife. Then lay the mating piece up against your combination square and mark the other shoulder of the joint by using this mating part as a ruler. Carry those shoulder lines down the edges and mark the floor of the half-lap, which is half the thickness of the work.
With the joint laid out, you can then decide if you want to cut it with hand tools or power tools. For the power tool-route, I chose a band saw and removed all the waste down to the floor of the joint. Then I cleaned up a little waste with a chisel. Unless I’m cutting 40 half-laps, I’ll use a band saw because it’s quicker than a dado stack and doesn’t require wasting any test pieces. If you have a lot to do, definitely fire up the table saw.
The hand-tool route is also good for doing just a couple joints. For the hand-tool table, I sawed out the shoulders, removed the waste with a chisel, then cleaned up the floor of the joint with a router plane.
With one side of the joint prepared you can try to press its mate into the lap. First trim up the shoulders if they are uneven. But if the shoulders are straight and nice, your better bet is to reduce the width of the mating piece with a handplane. It’s easier to plane face grain than end grain.
Then press the mating piece into the lap joint. Knock it home. Then use a knife to trace the shape of the mating joint on the workpiece. Take the stretchers apart and cut the other half-lap in the same fashion as you did the first part of the joint. Fit the two pieces until they are flush and tight.
Easy Dovetails In a Weekend (Really!)
The upper stretchers join the legs in a lapped dovetail joint that will be obscured by the tabletop in the completed project. The thickness of the dovetail is not the entire thickness of the stretcher – this makes the joint easier to fit into the leg (and it reduces the amount of brutal chopping).
You can cut the dovetail by hand or with a band saw – I find that a dovetail saw leaves behind a smoothr surface than my band saw (your tools may be different), and so the handsawn dovetails are easier for me to fit.
Mark out your dovetails on all your stretchers. The tails are 1″ wide at the top and are the same length as the tenons (1″). The slope of the dovetail isn’t critical as long as it’s not too severe. Saw out the edges of the dovetail.
If you are doing this by hand, you’ll need to notch out the underside of the dovetail (power-tool users already cut their notch on the dado stack while making the tenons on the stretchers). To make things simple, I cut the notch so it’s half the thickness of the work.
The Dovetail Socket: More Failure
With all your dovetails cut, you need to hog out the waste in the top of the leg to make the mating socket. And here again is where I could not do one table by hand and one with power tools.
Cutting one of these sockets is such easy work by hand: Saw out the edges, chisel out the waste and clean up the floor with a router plane. (Note: The router plane is the secret weapon. It ensures the floor is the same depth on all four legs.) Doing this operation with power tools is inefficient.
When I’ve done these with a trim router, the usual method is to make a quick platform around the top of the leg to support the trim router. (The quickest and dirtiest way to do this is to clamp the leg in your vise with the top of the leg flush to the top of your benchtop.) Then you mark out the joint and freehand the cut, getting as close as to your lines as you dare. Oh – and be sure to make a couple passes or your trimmer will flame out or your bit will snap.
Then you come back with a chisel and clean out the rounded corners. This entire process is difficult to do quickly. The visibility stinks while routing. And the clean-up work can be significant if you become a bit chicken while routing.
In the same time it takes to cut one joint with a trim router, I’ll have most of the joints done by hand. So let’s take a close look at that process.
Place your dovetail on top of its mating leg and scribe around it with your knife. I put the unbeveled part of the knife flat against the dovetail (as shown). Other woodworkers I respect turn the knife around and rub the knife’s bevel against the dovetail. Try both approaches; both work.
Mark your waste and chisel a notch for your saw to run in (this is a second-class saw cut – see “Learn to Saw”). Define the socket without crossing your layout lines. If you do, it’s not the end of the world. Then make a couple extra saw cuts in the waste to make it easy to pop it out.
Then put the leg down on your bench. Brace the foot of the leg against a bench dog and clamp the leg down with a holdfast. Chisel out the waste. Drive down until the chisel stops cutting. Then use the tool to pop out the waste by chiseling into the end grain of the leg.
Chisel out all four sockets. Then use a small router plane to clean up the floor of the dovetail socket. Use a chisel to get any waste in the corners and fit your dovetails in your sockets. Now fetch your lower stretchers and prepare to shape them and cut their half-laps.
A Nice Shape; Another Half-lap
You might have noticed that these two tables have lower stretchers with different shapes. Both the trumpet and corbel shape are historically correct and are taken from Gustav Stickley’s drawings. The staff (and my family) was split on which one looked better, so we decided to present both.
I made several extra stretchers to get the shape just right, and I made the shapes with both hand and power tools. For fun, I cut one of the stretchers with a bow saw. It certainly worked, but the band saw is easier (if easy is your thing).
You can refine these shapes using a variety of methods. Rasps, scrapers and sandpaper were a good combination. As was simply firing up the oscillating spindle sander. The real trick, no matterhow you do it, is to keep the stretchers adhered together with double-stick tape as you shape them. This makes their appearance consistent.
Now clean up the stretchers as best you can and try to get them to the same thickness. It’s time to cut the half-lap that joins the lower stretchers. Make this joint the same way you made the half-lap for the upper stretchers. Make one notch, then use that notch to mark out its mate.
Assemble the Base
There are a couple ways to assemble the base, some of which will turn your table base into an M.C. Escher piece of sculpture. To avoid confusion, assemble the legs first to the lower stretchers alone. Make two separate assemblies.
Then peg the tenons if you like. I used 3/8″-diameter pegs and drilled the hole 7/16″ from the edge of the legs. Then I drove the peg into the hole with a little glue. Always make a couple sample joints before you work on the real stuff. Your drill bits and dowels might not match in diameter. And the run-out on your drill (or your brace and bit) might make the fit even sloppier. Sometimes you need to use a drill bit that is 1?64″ smaller or you need to find some beefier dowels.
With the two leg assemblies complete, glue the two assemblies together at the lower stretcher and drive in the upper stretchers. Add a couple small clamps on the half-laps, check your angles with a square and walk away.
Around the Top
The top is a simple 18″-diameter disc with a small 1/8″ x 1/8″ chamfer on its underside. When gluing up these panels, I made one with edge joints using our power jointer. The other top was made with spring joints made with my jointer plane. Spring joints are edge joints that are a tiny bit hollow in the middle so the top is clamped in tension.
Both techniques worked equally well for me. How will the tops fare in the long haul? Call me in 20 years and I’ll let you know.
After cleaning up both panels, I marked out the circle with a pair of trammel points. Note that I did this from the underside of the top so that the hole from the trammel point was hidden.
I cut both tops to rough size on my band saw. There was little point in dulling the blade on my nice bow saw for this rough operation. Then I came to another fork in the road when deciding how to make the top perfectly round.
Making something round by hand is a challenge. I’ve made a couple tabourets with round tops by hand and spent a long time fairing the top so it looked round instead of blobby and Schmoo-ish. So when Senior Editor Robert W. Lang showed me his router compass, I decided to use that for both tops. The jig is featured in this issue on page 24 and works quite well.
I screwed the arm of the compass to the underside of the top and routed off the ragged waste left by the band saw. This can be a tough cut and your grain might blow out where it changes direction around the edge. My best advice is to take light cuts. I had great luck sneaking up on my final diameter with two light passes.
After routing the top to shape, I routed a small chamfer on the underside. This isn’t a historically correct detail. But I like chamfers and these tables look better when the tops look a little lighter.
Then it was time to clean up the edge to make it presentable. I’ve done this part with power tools (including an ill-fated circle-sanding jig on our disc sander), but I think there’s more chance to botch the edge with a power sander. So I turn to scrapers and a little hand-sanding.
The last step is to prepare the top for finishing. Grasping round work can be a trick. Even if you have a fancy dog-hole setup you risk marring the edges of your top. So I converted the offcuts from band sawing my top into clamping cauls that I fit over my bench dogs. This works brilliantly for sanding or for handplaning.
Attaching the Top; Applying a Finish
The top is attached with screws that pass through clearance holes in the upper stretchers. Be sure to ream out the screw holes in the stretchers that extend across the width of the top. This reaming allows the top to expand and contract.
The finish is simple. I ragged on a coat of boiled linseed oil and allowed the tables to sit in the sun for a day. This oil and tan accelerated the aging process in the cherry. After the oil had cured completely I sprayed on two coats of lacquer, though any film finish will do.
Though the experiment to build one table by hand and one by power was a bit of a failure, the resulting tables looked nice, and there was still a lesson buried in there for me about the importance of following your gut. It’s captured by a quote from chairmaker John Brown (a quote we published in our first issue in 2004):
“By all means read what the experts have to say,” he wrote. “Just don’t let it get in the way of your woodworking.”
That’s good advice – both for the readers and the editors of woodworking magazines. WMClick here to download the SketchUp file