Build a Side Table
Furniture Project: A table like this is at home in a living room, entry hall or even a bedroom. With lots of free-hand shaping, you will want to sharpen your hand tools before starting.
The design always comes first. Except this time. I stumbled upon a great plank of Newfoundland red birch, which I had never used before. To be honest, I didn’t think there was a large enough hardwood tree in this province to be used for furniture. Guess I was wrong. The plank had a soft pink colour, was 10′ long and was clear. It had been double-kilned to try and improve its steadiness; birch is notorious for warping.
I rarely get to keep any of my creations, so these tables may wind up in my own home. These tables were designed to fill a function in our front room, but all I had was a general shape in mind. I like the strength an arch denotes, so I played with that a bit. I wanted the design to be something I could sketch in under a minute, and be recognizable. The scale was decided mainly by the wood, but with the function obviously taken into account. A model was mocked up, and I altered the height of the second shelf until I was happy. With all the details figured out, a cut list was formulated.
Brake used a horizontal boring machine to create the mortises in his legs, but a router or hand tools could also be used.
Two Types of Rails
The lower rails (above) have larger tenons than the upper rails (below). Once the tenons are machined, both upper and lower rails are shaped similarly on the bandsaw.
Shaping the Rails
The rails all have to be fine-tuned, and the best approach is with some hand tools; mainly a spokeshave. Take care to ensure the rails are all very similar in their final profile.
Shape the Legs
Draw the pattern directly on the two sides of the legs and make your first cut. Tape the offcuts from the first side back in place to help support the leg while making cuts on the other side.
Red oak was laminated then bandsawn (above) to produce thin, strong and stable pieces of quarter-sawn material for the substrate. The parts were then glued back together to form the substrate (below).
White oak cross-banding was laminated to the substrate, helping to create a strong and stable surface.
The Focal Point
The Newfoundland pitcher plant was created in marquetry then adhered to the upper surface of the top. It’s a time-consuming process, but the results are well worth it.
Solid brackets were cut then attached to the inner surfaces of the upper and lower rails. Clearance holes were added, then screws were inserted to secure the top and shelf surfaces.
Texture was added to the tops of the legs with a carving gouge. It’s a touch that you will only find in custom furniture.
With all the parts shaped and finished it’s finally time to assemble everything. A dry run should help you decide whether to do it in one stage or break things into two stages in order to simplify things.
This is the time to be careful. This is where a good piece of furniture can be turned into a great piece … or vice versa. The legs must all be rift-sawn (end grain running from inside corner to outside corner), so the grain orientation accentuates the legs’ curves. The rails must all be quarter-sawn so as not to distract from their shape. Colours should be uniform, so no sapwood was used. Enough parts were needed for two tables, plus extra for setup and mistakes. I used the model to make negative templates, and marked where each piece should be taken from the plank. I then cut all the pieces from the birch board.
The next step is a hard one – wait. Wood needs time to settle, so the table parts are stickered and put out of the way. I use this time to prepare for the coming processes. I make templates for shaping. I know I will be needing veneers for the tops, so now is when I tune the bandsaw and cut those. I also need to make a substrate, and a mechanical press to put it all together, so I tackle that as well.
Stock preparation, layout and joinery
Once the wood is ready, I do final milling on the legs and they are cut to length. I now do a joinery drawing based on the finished thickness of the leg stock. All the joints are marked according to this drawing. The lower rails have 3/8″ thick x 1-1/2” wide x 1″ long tenons. The smaller tenons on the upper rails are 1/4″ thick x 1″ wide x 5/8″ long.
Now I set up the horizontal boring machine and cut the mortises for the larger, lower rails. Just be sure to orient the grain properly. A router or an assortment of hand tools could also be used. Once the mortises are cut, the inside mating surfaces should be hand-planed to a finished surface. Doing so after the joint is fit will yield a sloppy joint.
I do final milling for all the lower rails, then cut just one end square on each piece. These rails are left a few inches long in case a mistake is made cutting the first set of mortises. I use the router table to cut the tenon to thickness, until it fits snugly into the mortise, then adjust the fence for the proper depth of cut. I cut the set of tenons on the rails, matching each one to a specific mortise in a leg. Now is a good time to separate the parts for the two tables, if you are making a set, and mark all the parts, so you are fitting tenons into the exact mortise they will eventually mate with. Once the tenons for the lower rails are cut, it’s time to cut the lower rails to length, then cut tenons on the other ends of these pieces. When done, repeat the process for the upper rail to leg joints. Once all the tenons are machined, I shaped the rails and fine-tuned their profile with hand tools.
Shape one leg
With the joinery cut, I select a leg to start the shaping process. I pick the worst one in case it goes bad; I have extras. I shape until I’m happy. This is the easiest shaping to do, as you have nothing to match it to, and no real fear of a mistake. This initial shaping shows me that the wood is prone to tear-out, and the inside curve of the legs can be troublesome. I expected some of this, so I make a scraper shave to fit this curve and I’m set. With the first leg shaped I can now come up with a game plan to shape the other legs to match the first one as close as possible.
Shape the other legs
With all the pieces marked, I make a template and start shaping with the bandsaw. After making each cut, I use double-stick tape to re-attach the waste. This helps me make the subsequent shaping cuts on the adjacent sides by allowing the workpiece to sit flat on the bandsaw’s table. One thing the initial leg shaping showed me was that my bench vises did not hold the curved leg very well. When held on the square section, the work was low and bothered my back. I solved this with a luthier’s vise and adjustable stand, which allowed me to shape the legs standing upright at a comfortable height.
Tabletops and marquetry
With a soft hardwood, inside curves and alternating grain surface preparation was more troublesome than expected. Nothing scrapers couldn’t handle, but I had expected better surfaces from my spokeshaves. A few coats of thin ruby shellac were then applied to keep the tone muted, followed by a topcoat and waxed. All pieces were finished before the assembly was glued up and left to dry.
I initially wanted to use birch veneers for the tabletops, but it proved to be too soft for this application, so I chose some birds-eye maple instead. My goal was for a very thin tabletop (about 3/8″) to complement the lightness of the structure. This involved making a very thin plywood substrate. I laminated a block of red oak then sliced 1/8″ pieces off and ran them though my planer. I ended up with strips slightly thinner than 1/8″. I cross-banded this with white oak veneer (thin store bought stock) using Unibond 800 adhesive in my mechanical press. I then applied the shop-sawn veneers to this very rigid substrate.
The marquetry is of the Newfoundland pitcher plant. Creating a graphic I liked was a chore. I sawed plum and western maple to create the pieces of the flower. The veneers were sawn through in two layers, one section at a time, with a scrollsaw.
The marquetry is completed before the maple veneers are pressed to the substrate. Once the marquetry, back veneer and cross-bands were adhered to the substrate, I trimmed the panel, applied small solid wood headers to the four sides of the top and shelf and trimmed them flush with each panel’s surface. Then the shelf had to be notched to fit around the four legs.
The next step was to make 16 small brackets for each table. These brackets would be glued to the inner, upper edge of all the upper and lower rails, two per rail. Screws would be inserted through clearance holes in the brackets and were ever-so-carefully driven into the thin top and shelf to secure them in place. This is where you want to be sure about screw length, or even grind screws down so they don’t protrude through the surfaces of the top and shelf.
I enjoy texture in a piece, and decided to add some to the tops of the legs. I used a small gouge, and added an even layer to the end grain surface. With the texture added on the tops of the legs, and a finish on all surfaces, it was time for final assembly.
A note on craftsmanship
These tables are not perfect or symmetrical, but they are still beautiful to my eye. As a craftsperson, try to make something that feels handmade. Inconsequential variations are the fingerprints a craftsman leaves behind. If every surface is shaped with a router and sanded to exact tolerances, work loses its uniqueness and feels no different from the powdered-wood, production furniture that verges on being disposable.
I bent to the will of the wood for this design. The dimensions were dictated by the thickness of the lone plank I had. I seriously underestimated the difficulty I would have with the marquetry; that took days. I did have a rough spot with some bad glue when it came to applying the panel edges. I would not have used birds-eye maple for the tops if I had anything else worth using, but the results are quite pleasing. I don’t argue with results.