21st century writing desk: transform simple, straight lines into an elegant flowing form
Although the design of this table may appear complicated, the construction is remarkably straightforward.
Although the design of this table may appear complicated, the construction is remarkably straightforward. Simple and reliable techniques make it easy to taper the legs and flow them into the side stretchers.
The table can be broken into three sets of components: the top; side assemblies (each consisting of two legs and two side stretchers); and two long stretchers. Let’s revisit the build to see how I did it.
Texturing the Top
With a sharp carving gouge Wong evenly covers the top’s surface with shallow hollows. It’s slow going, but is very rewarding, and is what defines the piece when it’s complete.
To ensure strong joints Wong spaced the mortises out so the distance between mortises was about equal to the thickness of the mortises themselves.
How Wide Are the Shims?
The shims need to span the distance from the lower face of the leg assembly to just above the location of the router bit bearing – in this case 7/8" wide.
An Even Taper
With a board longer than required Wong adds a pencil mark at the 17" point. As the jointer is on, and set to cut 3/8" deep, he lowers the pencil mark over the blade and proceeds to cut a taper into the side of the board.
Cut the Shim Off
Fresh from the jointer, Wong adjusts his table saw to remove an evenly tapered shim from the board.
Shims in Place
Double-sided tape secures the shim to the inside of the leg, and a straight spacer to the upper face of the lower stretcher so the rabbeting bit can work its magic (top). sanding pad after two coats. The carved top wasn’t susceptible to raised grain, so it didn’t need this treatment.
Just Deep Enough
Once the shims are removed ensure the routed radius is continuous. If it’s not, the spacer and/or shim must be made thinner.
Straight Bit is Next
To smooth the inside edges of the parts Wong uses a straight bit with a bearing. Its height must be set so the bearing runs against the rabbeted surface. Wong removed most of the waste with a jigsaw before performing this step.
Secure the Top
Friction fit mortises in the tops of the legs, and underside of the top, housed loose tenons and keep the top in place.
An inspiring top
Making the top was the most enjoyable part of the build. It was also the starting point, and I later designed the base to complement it. I started by milling two mahogany boards 3/4″ thick and gluing them together to make a 13″ × 26″ surface.
Using a #7/12 gouge across the grain, I took small scoops out of the surface, creating a random pattern across the entire surface from corner to corner. Working across the grain eliminated any tendency for the wood to want to tear out, and the sharp gouge cut cleanly with little force required.
To prevent the workpiece from sliding backwards as I carved, I clamped a scrap of wood to my bench directly behind it. I used a scrap the same thickness as the top to provide support while carving near the front edge.
It was a slow but enjoyable process, and I took frequent breaks to mitigate fatigue and strop my gouge. When the textured top was complete, I cut it to final size with my table saw.
The base complements the top
To complement the top I wanted to create a delicate-looking base. It also had to be well built to avoid racking and stable enough to avoid being tippy. One of my preferred ways to make table bases that are strong and rack-resistant is to use sturdy legs and stretchers attached with mortises and tenons. To make them delicate, I minimize the width and thickness of the components and remove material where possible with tapered or concave cuts. The trick is to do this while maintaining the structural integrity of the parts. It’s a balancing game, and knowledge of the physical properties of the materials being used is key.
I based the design and dimensions of the base on the size of the top. The top was small to begin with and making the base much smaller could make it too tight to put one’s knees under comfortably, or potentially make it tippy.
Start with strong joinery
After milling the base parts to size I looked at joinery options. Since the size of the structural components was limited, strong joinery was especially important. I opted for double tenons at each joint, which provided solid registration and a substantial amount of long-grain glue surface.
I chose to use my Festool Domino Joiner and floating tenons. I selected the appropriate tenon thickness by stacking five of them next to my material and comparing the height of each – the closer they were, the more strength the joint would have. The 6 mm thick tenons looked like a good choice.
Using the Domino Joiner, I prepared a sample set of mortises in an off-cut from a stretcher to check their exact placement. This not only served as a test to ensure adequate spacing between the tenons, but as a reference for future shaping operations. One of the downsides of floating tenons was that the likelihood of exposing the joint while shaping was more likely than with traditional mortises and tenons, as there were twice as many mortises.
When I was satisfied with the set-up, I cut all the joinery required to assemble the two side assemblies and glued them up one at a time. Anticipating further shaping around the joints, it was important to keep the mating components flat (don’t undercut them) and to apply glue to all the mating surfaces – not just the tenon faces and mortise walls.
Smart, simple shaping
While the glue dried, I began to get things ready to taper the legs and create the curves that made the side stretchers appear to flow right out of the legs. This process relied on a set of specially- cut shims, a rabbeting bit, and a bearing-guided straight bit (either a flush trim bit, with bearing on the tip,
For this table, I used a 1-3/8″ diameter rabbeting bit with a 3/8″ offset. The design called for the legs to taper from full width just below the top stretcher to 3/8″ less where it meets the top of the lower stretcher. The leg, from the bottom up to the lower stretcher, was to be reduced in width by 3/8″.
Since my rabbeting bit automatically cut to a width of 3/8″, I needed to create shims to control the cut, which gets wider towards the bottom. With the router bit set at a depth to take a moderate cut into a leg assembly, I calculated that a 7/8″ wide shim provided the best registration for the bearing. I took a piece of wood about 6″ wide with parallel edges and 24″ long (for manageability) and planed it down to 7/8″ thick for shim material.
Make the shim
To taper the legs, I needed shims tapering from 3/8″ thick to nothing over
17″. I set the infeed table of my jointer to 3/8″. With the machine running, I positioned the tail of the board over the infeed table 17″ away of the cutter head, tipped the tail end of the board down onto the infeed table and made a single pass to create a 3/8″ x 17″ taper. To finish the shim, I carefully set my rip fence then cut the shim from the board at the table saw.
The bit needed to only cut into the lower stretcher as much as was required to allow the complete radius to be shaped where it met the leg; any deeper would have decreased the stretcher’s strength and could have exposed the joinery. To keep the router from cutting excessively deep, I made a non-tapered shim 5/16″ wide and 7-1/2″ long to fit above the lower rail while I routed the rabbets.
Using thin, double-sided tape, I secured the tapered shim to the inside of the leg with the thickest part towards the top, and the flat shim to the adjacent side of the lower stretcher. Having only one tapered shim meant that I had to interrupt the routing process to reposition the shim, but I could have prevented this by making a second shim. I was confident that I could start and stop the router without touching the top stretchers, so I didn’t make a shim to limit movement in that direction.
I set up a router for the rabbeting, but a router table could have easily been used as well, as it would guarantee no tilting of the cutter would have taken place. With the rabbeting bit’s bearing registering off of the shims, I was able to easily create an even ledge with nice radii around the inside of the leg assemblies. I moved the 5/16″ flat shim to the underside of the lower stretcher and profiled the lower sections of the leg assemblies too. I didn’t use the tapered shim on the leg below the stretcher.
The rabbet created a template, of sorts, for a piloted straight bit to follow. I used a jigsaw to remove the bulk of the waste, trying to stay about 1/8″ away from the edge of the rabbet. I then trimmed the rest of the waste off with a router in my router table. I chose the largest diameter bit I had for the smoothest cut.
With the shaping of the side assemblies complete, it was time to join them with the pair of long stretchers. One went into the legs between the top two stretchers, and the other was positioned between the lower stretchers, slightly towards the back to allow for some extra leg room. When I was happy with their placement, I cut double mortises at each intersection just as I had before. You might consider placing the lower stretcher towards the back of the side stretcher, or even joining the back legs, if you want a little more leg room. A little glue, a couple of clamps, some sanding and the base was complete.
Attaching the top to the base
I was aware of many ways to attach a table top to a base, but most methods required aprons immediately below the table top. Since this table’s top was supported by the ends of the legs only, my options were limited. My solution was to cut and glue Domino tenons in mortises cut into the underside of the table top and have them friction-fit into extra-wide mortises in the tops of the legs. The friction fit, as well as gravity, allowed the top to stay connected to the base, and the extra-wide mortises allowed for seasonal movement. Had I not achieved a friction fit, I was prepared to pin the tenons into the legs with 1/8″ dowels.
To cut the mortises, I started by turning the table top upside down on a piece of cork to protect the carved surface. Then I centered the base on the top using one combination square for the left-right positioning and one for the front-back positioning. I traced the position of each leg onto the table top and separated the two. From there, it was all about accurate layout and cutting of mortises. Fortunately, the Domino Joiner makes it easy with alignment marks on all surfaces.
No Domino Joiner?
If I didn’t have a Domino Joiner, dowels would have worked for positioning. I would have elongated the holes in the back legs to allow for wood movement. Another solution would have been to use store-bought metal hardware such as Figure-8 connectors, screwed into the tops of the legs and bottom of the top. If you know of another way to attach the top and allow for seasonal movement, share it on the Canadian Woodworking forum or in the comments section of the online version of this article.
The carved table top left many of the pores open, so I wanted to use a film finish to make the surface appear more sealed. I brushed on three coats of water-based semi-gloss polyurethane. The finish raised the grain of the sanded surfaces, so I sanded them smooth with a foam-backed 800-grit
I enjoy making interesting and original designs, and I am very happy with the result. The table is lightweight, weighing less than 10 pounds, but still very stable. The top looks and feels great, and I expect it to wear well over time. I might just have to spend some more time with my laptop computer here at my 21st Century Writing Desk.