How to Attach a Table Top with Traditional Wooden Buttons - Popular Woodworking Magazine

How to Attach a Table Top with Traditional Wooden Buttons

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attaching a table top with traditional wooden buttons

The table I’m working on, upside down. The top will be attached with traditional wooden buttons.

There’s more than one way to attach a solid wood table top. The most important requirements of any method are (1) to keep the top firmly in contact with the undercarriage, preventing it from warping more than minimally, and (2) to allow the top to move across its grain as the wood expands and contracts with changes in humidity.

Table top fasteners are one attachment method. They’re roughly Z-shaped, with one leg going in a slot in the table’s apron and the other, which has a hole, screwed to the underside of the table top. Figure 8 fasteners offer another option: One half is let into the apron, the other screwed to the table top’s underside; the round shape allows the top to move while keeping it firmly pulled down onto its base.

A third means of attaching a table top is by using wooden buttons. This technique has been in use for centuries. It’s easy, all wood (well, apart from a screw), and requires no special materials. Here’s how it works.

The material: Choose a dense species for the buttons. The table I’m building is made of sassafras – a hardwood, yes, but relatively soft on the hardwood spectrum. I wanted my buttons to be made of stouter stuff that would resist being literally bent out of shape. I had some ash left over from a recent job, so I used that. White oak would have been another good choice for this table; although the buttons won’t be visible in everyday use, I still like them to harmonize with their surroundings.

Location, location: It’s best to chop the mortises for buttons before you assemble the table. Buttons go near the top edge of the apron. You can cut the mortises using a router, a chisel and mallet, or on a mortiser.

To keep your table top as flat as possible, be sure to put mortises near the far reaches of the table top — in this case, near each corner formed by the intersection of apron rails and legs – in addition to spacing them regularly throughout the length and width of the table. Avoid putting them too close to legs or intermediate top support rails, because in some cases this can make it awkward to insert the screw.

To ensure adequate tension to hold the top firmly down on the apron, factor in a gap between the table top and the apron’s upper edge. I like to make this gap about 1/16″. Keep this in mind when figuring the thickness of the buttons and laying out the mortises. Before you start chopping, read the rest of this article to make sure your buttons are beefy enough.

attaching a table top with traditional wooden buttons

Here I have the table upside down on my bench. This view shows a small section of the underside. Note the wedge-shaped gap between the face of the button and the table top. This gap helps pull the top down firmly against the table’s apron.

Anatomy of a button: Buttons are shaped like an elongated L, with the tongue fitting into a mortise or slot. The grain runs lengthwise, i.e. into the mortise. (Think about it: If the grain ran sideways, the button would be prone to splitting as soon as the table top started to move.)

Size matters: Buttons should be big enough to withstand the tension that’s likely to assail them. For most of the tables I’ve made over the years, about 1-3/8″ square by 3/4″ or more thick has worked well for the body of the button, excluding the tongue.

The mortises should be a bit wider than the buttons to allow for movement as the table top expands. This is, of course, more important at the ends of the table (in cases such as the table I’m building, the top of which has the grain running lengthwise), where the top will move from side to side. Determine the depth of the mortise based on the length of the button’s tongue, which must be long enough so that it doesn’t pull out of the mortise when the table top shrinks, in addition to countering the force of wood that may want to cup. I like to make tongues at least 3/8″ long.

Attaching the buttons: It’s a good idea to leave a bit of space between the button’s shoulder and the inside face of the apron. This is less important for buttons that will move from side to side, but it’s obviously critical for those that will move in and out of their mortise. Before screwing the button in place, calculate the amount of movement it’s likely to undergo. (A useful resource in calculating wood movement is Christian Becksvoort’s A Craftsman’s Guide to Understanding Wood.)

Making buttons: Now that we’ve run through the basic principles and you’ve chosen your species and planned your buttons’ width and length, making the buttons is simple.

1. Cut the tongues

I leave my stock long and cut the tongues on the table saw using a miter gauge and dado cutter (or, as in this case, a regular table saw blade, kerfing three or four times, to make the tongue).

attaching a table top with traditional wooden buttons

To make the buttons, leave your stock long and cut the tongues on the table saw using a miter gauge.

2. Cut to length

attaching a table top with traditional wooden buttons

I cut these buttons to length using a radial arm saw. You can also use a table saw with a sliding miter fence or do it by hand. The buttons don’t need to be perfectly uniform in size. (That said, the pack of three at right here ended up as rejects because they were too short for my purposes.)

3. Clean up

Ease the edges by dragging the button at a 45-degree angle across a piece of 120-grit paper.

attaching a table top with traditional wooden buttons

4. Drill

Drill the screw hole freehand or on a drill press.

attaching a table top with traditional wooden buttons

5. Attach

Use a wood screw and make sure it’s long enough to provide firm attachment (but not so long that it goes through the table top, hello). Remember to center the button in the mortise’s width to allow for sideways movement across the table’s top and leave enough of a gap between the button’s shoulder and the apron rail’s inside face to allow for movement into the mortise.

attaching a table top with traditional wooden buttons

– Nancy Hiller 

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Showing 10 comments
  • Ralf

    Would this be practical for Queen Anne low/high boys for the tops

    • Nancy Hiller

      Ralf, my apologies for getting back to you after such a long time. I hadn’t seen your question. I can’t speak to the construction of Queen Anne low- or highboys, as that’s not a form in my repertoire. Even if buttons made sense, they might not be the traditional method for attachment. I suggest you look at articles about that form of construction (and I imagine you have done that by now).

  • degennarod


    Beautiful, well illustrated article.

    Why don’t the buttons on the table sides bow the rails out when the top expands? I could see leaving a 1/4″ gap between the button and the side rail. Also, I’m a California woodworker and have never used sassafras; what are its qualities? Does it have a scent when you cut it?

    • Nancy Hiller

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad to hear you found the article useful.

      You’ve obviously understood the principle at work here: When attaching a table top by ANY method, we have to allow for wood movement. This is why I mentioned the importance of leaving some space in both directions: across the width of the mortises in the table’s apron (on the ends, in the case of my table, which has the grain running lengthwise) and in figuring out the depth of the tenon/tongue intrusion along with how much space to leave between the button’s shoulder and the inside face of the apron rail (on the sides of the table, where movement will be in and out of the mortises; this is the specific issue to which your question relates).

      My engineer friends who love to calculate stuff to the nth degree would urge me to mention the following factors, which should ideally be considered any time you are planning for wood movement:

      *The current moisture content of the lumber you’re using
      *The relative humidity in the building at the time when you are making the table and attaching the top
      *The typical relative humidity at the most extreme other time of the year. For example, I’m building the table in a wet Indiana summer, when relative humidity is high (my shop has AC, but it’s not enough to get the relative humidity down where I would like it to be), but in winter we heat our house with a woodstove, which means the house gets very dry. As a result, my top is not likely to expand (even so, I will set the buttons so they have about 3/32″ between their shoulder and the apron, just in case), but it will definitely contract this winter.
      *Also factor in the typical movement for the species and sawing of your top. Boards sawn tangentially will move much more across their width than those sawn radially. Consult a chart that shows the expected rate of movement by species and sawing. (Bruce Hoadley’s book has an excellent section on this.) That will allow you to plug all the above figures into an equation to calculate how much your top is likely to move.

      And finally, sassafras: It’s a lightweight ring-porous hardwood that resembles chestnut, or more distantly, some varieties of oak. Most sassafras smells like root beer; some smells more peppery. (My shop smells divine right now.) I chose it for this table because it works well in illustrating some points in the book about English Arts and Crafts furniture that I’m writing for Popular Woodworking. (That book is due to be published in May 2018.)

  • Gaijin Daiku

    Good gig.

  • 7-Thumbs

    You seem to have made a lot of cuts in order to create your button tongues. Why not cut your crosscut stock, rabbit one edge for your tongues and then just chop off as many as you need?

    • Jeremy

      I’ve never done this, but I would imagine it’s due to grain direction. If the grain was parallel to the sides, the button tongues would be weak and just snap off.

      • Nancy Hiller

        Jeremy, you’re absolutely right about what would happen if you oriented the grain parallel to the mortises. However, when I read 7-Thumbs’ comment, I gave him or her the benefit of the doubt and factored in the grain direction. In other words, I imagined that he or she was suggesting the following:

        You’d start with a section of a wide board milled to the necessary thickness–say, a board 11″ wide x your thickness x about 12″ long, so you can work with it safely. You would saw the rabbet on one end to create a long tongue, then cross-cut the board to give you the button length (about 1-1/2″ in my case). Then you would cut that strip into individual buttons at whatever width they need to be. So the grain would still be running lengthwise, i.e. into the mortise, for strength. That method would work fine, though as I explained in my other reply, it could take longer than cutting rabbets the way I did, depending on your existing table saw set up.

        • Jeremy

          Nancy, thanks for the reply. Actually realized this after I posted my comment as well.

    • Nancy Hiller

      7-Thumbs, thanks for your comment. You could certainly make buttons the way you suggest, or use a dado stack instead of the 1/8″ blade that I was using. (Of course, you could just as well saw the tenon on each button by hand if you were so inclined.) Cutting the strip of tongues for this table’s buttons took about three minutes, even with all the cuts. Changing to a dado set or milling up other stock to cut the buttons as you suggest would have taken me longer because it would have meant changing the table saw’s set up. All of these methods work great; it just comes down to what makes sense in your own circumstances.

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