Canadian Woodworking

Make a bistro table

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: September 2023
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The centre of a kitchen is the table. This bistro table provides your guests with a relaxed place to sit and chat while you do a bit of prep work in the kitchen.

  • DIFFICULTY
    4/5
  • LENGTH/TIME
    4/5
  • COST
    4/5

A bistro table brings a less formal look and feel to a kitchen, as everyone in the room is able to converse at similar eye levels. It allows people who are seated to feel a bit more connected to those who are standing, working in the kitchen. Although there are no definitive standards, bistro tables are usually between 40″ and 46″ tall. Bistro stools also vary in height, but their seats are generally between 28″ and 36″ high. The important thing is to ensure the relationship between the two is appropriate; don’t make a 40″ high table and expect your favourite 36″ high stools will work with them.

Mock-Up
A mock-up always helps with proportions, but in this case it’s the overall dimensions that will be the most help when making this table. Brown adjusted the shape and splay of the legs, as well as the overall width of the table, after putting this mock-up in the place where the finished table would eventually reside.

Mock-Up

Don’t Aim for Perfection
Though there’s a time for it, Brown opted to ignore perfection when making these four legs. If he had more than four to make it might have been a different story, but in this case he felt he could make them quickly, and they would be similar enough to each other so that perfection wasn’t needed.

Don’t Aim for Perfection

Simple Layout
Brown opted for two 14mm x 100mm Dominos in each joint. Layout involved aligning the parts then marking them. Just be sure the Dominos won’t be too close to the edge of the joint and protrude in any way. At this point marking the joints is critical.

Simple Layout

Finished Mortises
Spacing out the Dominos increases their strength and resists any movement from the final joint.

Finished Mortises

Perpendicular Clamping
Clamping force should always be perpendicular to the glue line. This sub-assembly was tricky because the outer edges of the legs are curved. Brown made two simple clamping aids that hooked over the end of each leg so they wouldn’t slide during assembly, yet provided two perpendicular faces to clamp against.

Perpendicular Clamping


Perpendicular Clamping

Routing a Sliding Dovetail
Because of the clockwise rotation of the router bit, the straightedge must be on the left side of the router when it moves. Brown clamped a plywood L-guide to the apron, then added a plywood stop to limit the travel of the router during the cut. This setup is fairly straightforward when routing the sliding dovetail groove in this side of the two leg sub-assemblies.

Routing a Sliding Dovetail


Routing a Sliding Dovetail

Notched Plywood Guide
Brown cut a large notch into a piece of plywood, then positioned it on the leg sub-assembly before clamping it in place. This setup has the guide on the left side of the moving router, which is much safer. The short edge of the notch stops the router travel and determines the length of the sliding dovetail groove.

Notched Plywood Guide

Sliding Dovetail Tenon
After the height of the bit is set to produce a dovetail tenon that’s slightly shorter than the dovetail groove, Brown makes passes with the workpieces until he sneaks up on the correct width of tenon. If he goes even 1/128" too far the joint will be sloppy. Notice the 90° 2×6 block supporting the back edge of the workpiece during machining.

Sliding Dovetail Tenon

Pare to Perfection
By removing a bit of waste from the underside of the dovetail tenons on the long aprons you can fit the joint. Remove waste with a sharp chisel until the top of the apron is flush with the top of the leg. If you go too far you can always just not press the apron down until it bottoms out during assembly.

Pare to Perfection

A Gap Is Good
While a gap isn’t what he wants in most situations, Brown aims to have a slight gap between the end of the dovetail tenon and the bottom of the dovetail groove. This reduces the chance of having a visible gap between the apron and the leg.

A Gap Is Good

Remove Some Material
To shape the edge Brown passed the top over his table saw blade while it was angled to about 20°. His right tilt saw, coupled with a slightly raised plywood fence clamped to his rip fence, removed the bulk of the material for the profile.

Remove Some Material

Fair the Edge
A block plane takes care of easing the high spots and giving the tabletop edge a gentle curve. A random orbital sander was the next step, and provided an evenly rounded curve on the lower edge of the table.

Fair the Edge

Secure the Top
Before a finish is added Brown likes to ensure the top gets attached to the base. This reduces the chance of surprises down the road.

Secure the Top

Design

As always, the design phase of a project is critical. This was especially true for me during this build as I’d never built a bis­tro table, and I had only sat at one or two briefly. A scaled model would help me with visual proportions, but I still wanted to get a good feel for what the table felt like to sit at. There was only one option: a full-sized mock-up.

I used 2× material to mock up the legs and apron, and a piece of plywood for the top. I also grabbed a piece of 2×6, planed it to 1-1/4″ thickness and added an edge on the two ends and one long side. This last piece allowed me to get a better sense of what top thickness and edge profile looked good. The legs I mocked up were far too curvy, so I played around with them a bit before proceeding. I also narrowed the table by about 6″, as when I placed the mock-up in position it was just too wide. This is why I love full-sized mock-ups.

With its long legs and relatively short apron-to-leg joints, I was worried about how stable or shaky the table might be. After two years of use I’m pleased to say it isn’t at all shaky.

Breakout

After a few adjustments to my design’s overall size and shape I bought a piece of 8/4 black walnut for the legs and short aprons, and some 6/4 for the top.  I used 4/4 for the long aprons. There’s a fair bit of waste with the curved legs, so I had to be sure I could get the parts from the pieces of wood I bought.

I marked the outline of each leg onto the rough lumber, then used the bandsaw to cut them out, leaving some waste to work with. I also left all the legs an inch or so long. I jointed and planed the legs and two short aprons to rough size. With the legs and short aprons dressed to thickness I used a template to mark the legs, trim­ming very close to the line with a bandsaw, then used hand tools to smooth the outer edges. If I had been making more than four of these legs I probably would have taken the time to build a router template to create equal legs precisely.

I used a block plane and spokeshave to smooth all the band­saw marks from the edges of the legs. A block plane removes high spots from a slightly concave surface, especially if it’s angled, which decreases its functional bed length.

One straight edge

The only part of the legs that need to be machined precisely is the inner edge that mates with the ends of the short aprons. Not only does that edge need to be straight and perpendicular to the face of the legs, it needs to be angled correctly so the legs are at a pleasing and appropriate angle.

I chose to use a piece of 1/2″ thick plywood, with a runner on its bottom (to travel in the mitre gauge slot of my table saw), to position the legs and run them past the blade. The fact that the legs were all slightly different in overall shape posed a small chal­lenge, but by using screws in blocks attached to the plywood base I could make minor adjustments to the position of each leg before making the cut.

Using the same sled, I adjusted it to accurately cut the tops of the legs to size and at the right angle. The main goal was to end up with a 90° angle between the face that was to join with the apron ends and the tops of the legs.

Leg-to-short apron joinery

With the legs done (though still cut about 1″ long) I cut the two short aprons to size and laid out Domino joinery. I used the Domino XL 700 and opted for 14mm thick tenons, including two per joint. With the Domino machine adjusted, I added all the mortises. There are other options for this joint, from routed loose mortise and tenons to a lap joint. Even a series of 3/8″ diameter dowels would be strong enough. None are quite as quick and easy as the Domino, though.

Assembly No.1

After sanding the four legs and two short aprons, and ensur­ing the joinery worked perfectly, I was ready to assemble the four joints. You could assemble one joint at a time, but I opted for doing both joints on each short apron at once, as they weren’t overly complex. I still had to work smoothly and quickly to avoid any problems.

When using clamps to bring joints together one of the rules of thumb is to apply force perpendicular to the joint. Because the top outer edges of the legs had a curve sawn into them, I made a simple jig for either leg. One end hooked over the end of the leg so the jig wouldn’t move during assem­bly. The other end sat against the curved face of the leg and resulted in two perpen­dicular faces on which I could position the clamp heads. This simple jig worked great, and was easy to build.

With the glue dry I set up the rip fence on my table saw and carefully cut the legs to finished length.

Sliding dovetail grooves

I really like a sliding dovetail, and this was the perfect situation to use four of them. Well, let me re-phrase that. If the outer edges of these sub-assemblies were parallel to each other, this would be the perfect situation for sliding dovetail joints. The groove for a sliding dovetail joint is created while a router runs along a straight edge. As I didn’t have any straight edges to work with, I had to clamp a straightedge to the leg assemblies after it was positioned accurately.

Because of the rotation of the router bit, when you’re pushing a router forward the straightedge needs to be on the left side of the router so the rotation of the bit pushes the router into the straightedge, not away from the straightedge.

Positioning a straightedge on the proper side of one leg in each sub-assembly was easy, as I could clamp a straight piece of wood directly to the sub-assembly to guide the router. I also clamped a second piece of wood to the sub-assembly to stop the travel of the router at the end of the sliding dovetail groove.

The other side of each sub-assembly was more difficult. I cut a large notch into 3/4″ thick plywood and positioned it the proper distance away from the required location of the sliding dovetail groove. This gave me the correct location of the groove.

Although a second piece of wood could have been clamped in place and used to act as a stop for my router, I made sure to clamp the plywood jig in position with the other edge of the large notch positioned carefully. The router would run up one side of the large notch in the plywood, then stop when it came into contact with the other edge of the large notch.

This joint needed to be strong, so using a small dovetail bit was out of the question. I used a 3/4″ diameter bit. The bit removes a lot of material so I cut on the slower side. It’s also possible to use a smaller straight bit in a second router to remove much of the waste before using the dovetail bit to create the finished joint. If the two router bases are the same size, and are set up the same way, you can use both of the routers on the same guide setup.

Sliding dovetail tenons

After moving the same dovetail bit into my router table, I carefully set up the height. I find if I aim for a sliding dovetail tenon that’s the exact same length as the groove is deep I always end up with a slight gap between the visible faces of the joint. I set up the height of the bit so the sliding dove­tail tenon would be close to 1/16″ shorter than the groove was deep.

Dialing in the right setup for the width of the joint requires patience. And to con­fuse this process a little bit, you can’t cut the aprons to final length until the bit height is set up. Once the bit height is set you have to add double that distance to the distance between the two leg assemblies to determine how long to cut the long aprons.

With the height dialed in, and the long aprons cut to length, set up the depth so only the outer faces of the aprons are scored. This creates a clean joint with no chipping. After passing the parts across the bit to score the joints, I started the process of moving the router table fence away from the front edge of the bit, causing a narrower tenon to be machined. With each pass I tested the fit and adjusted as needed. A scrap piece, the exact same thickness of the aprons, was great to have on hand. Best to make one while you’re dressing the aprons to final thickness, as even a difference of 1/64″ is unacceptable. Now you’re ready to machine all the sliding dovetail tenons.

Fit the sliding dovetails

To allow the four sliding dovetail joints to seat properly (their upper edges flush with the upper edge of the legs) I used a saw and chisel to fine-tune the lower edge of the joint. It’s best to mark the mating joints at this time so you know each fits properly.

Sand and assemble

Sand the apron faces and all the faces of the leg sub-assembly, and break their edges to ready them for final assembly. I chose to use my Festool Domino to create the small mortises to accept the wooden cleats that help keep the table fixed to the base. If you would rather run a groove on the inner face of the apron and use standard tabletop clips, you should machine that groove now.

I lined up the two leg sub-assemblies, readied one of the aprons and applied glue on the sliding dovetail tenons on that one apron. Moving quickly, I applied glue to the two mating sliding dovetail grooves and taped the apron into position. I also added the other apron now, but didn’t include any glue. This ensured the angle of the legs were in the proper position. I also made sure the table was on level ground, and that it was square.

Once the glue was dry, I added the final apron, then followed up with some 5/8″ x 5/8″ x 3″ long glue blocks for added strength. Flip the table over, mark the centre of each leg bottom and drill for the adjustable feet. I started with a 7/8″ diameter hole, drilled 1/4″ deep. This recess allows the adjustable feet to fit up into the leg. Next, I drilled a 5/16″ hole to accept the centre post of the T-nut and the thread on the foot, and hammered in the T-nut.

Tabletop

I designed the table so the width of the top was equal to the width of the legs towards the bottom. I decided on the same over­hang for both ends of the table. With this info I broke out all of the boards for the top, dressed them to within about 3/32″ of their final thickness and organized them for a pleasing grain and colour match. After labelling them I jointed their edges.

My planer is 12″ wide, so I glued up panels that would fit through it. Once they were dry I dressed them to final thickness and glued them together. I had only three panels, so gluing them all at once wasn’t difficult. If I had four panels I would have glued only one joint at a time. Dowels, biscuits or Domino tenons help with align­ment during glue-up.

When completely dry I used a finely set hand plane to even the surface, then my belt sander was used to further smooth the surface. I used a track saw to crosscut the ends to size, then my table saw to rip it to final width.

An edge that had a gentle curve on the underside was my goal. I didn’t have a router bit large enough for the task, so I set up my table saw to remove the bulk of the material before fine-tuning the shape with a block plane. A random orbital sander with 80 grit sandpaper was used to further fair the edge. I then added a small chamfer on the upper edge of the table on all four sides.

Though some choose to do this step after finishing, I like the peace of mind knowing the tabletop will join to the base with­out problems before applying a finish. I turned the tabletop upside down, placed the base upside down on the tabletop and fixed it in place. I made the wooden cleats to hold the table in place, yet still allow it to move with seasonal changes. I also used 3/4″ x 3/4″ L-brackets towards the middle of the short aprons, as little to no seasonal movement would take place there.

With everything apart again, a random orbital sander, followed by some hand sanding, and I was ready for a finish.

Apply a finish

Kitchen tables will go through a torture test over their lives, and a finish is its first defense. Having said that, if you want a distressed, much less formal look there’s no need to consider durability when selecting a finish. You can choose a finish according to how it looks on the wood and how easy it is to apply.

I almost always test a finish on the same wood before finishing a project. The size and prominence of this table made that even more important.

I opted for three coats of polyurethane, as it stands up to water, chemicals and wear very well. Sanding with 220 grit between coats smoothed the finish and gave a more even look to the finished piece. I also left each coat to dry a bit longer than the manufacturer’s speci­fications, as temperature, humidity, airflow, etc. affect how quickly each coat dries. I’d rather err on the safe side. I also take extra care to ensure the end grain of the tabletop is saturated with finish after each coat is applied, and that a layer of finish is completely covering it.

At this stage it was just a matter of buffing the finish with a bit of wax and #0000 steel wool, putting the base in place, attach­ing the top and inviting a few friends over. If you want to try your hand at the decorative feature I added to one corner of this tabletop, check out “Make a Solid Wood Bird Inlay” on page 42. It’s a lot of work for such a small detail, but I think it was worth it. It helps create a unique table, and one with a strong focal point.

Materials List

bistro table materials list

Illustration

Bistro table illo


Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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