Learn How to Build a Prairie Table
Jamie Russell shares some know-how that went into this prairie table. The many techniques used to complete the joinery and create this table are advanced, but each can be used on their own to create unique pieces of furniture.
The techniques I use to make this table are not simple, but don’t let that stop you from focusing on one or two of them and using them in your next piece.
A full-scale drawing is a necessary first step to figuring out the geometry of the table. Russell takes information directly from the drawing to create templates.
First Russell cuts the tapered tenons that make up the skull’s snout. You can see here he has cut tapered tenons in both the X and the Y directions. At this point, the platform for the horns has been cut and the eye holes have been drilled.
Rout a Dovetail
To cut the base portion of the base-to-skull “reverse dovetail” joint, Russell uses a router and jig with a tapered cut-out.
Russell attaches a simple plywood surface to his lathe to position and drill the holes in the ends of the horns. Notice the angled face the hole will be drilled in; it helps start boring the hole.
Wedges are used to support the parts while being drilled on the drill-press table.
Flat jigs, with stops, are clamped to the tilted drill press table in order to obtain the correct angles for drilling holes in the skull, and other pieces.
A Nail Marks the Spot
Russell dry-assembles the parts, inserts finishing nails into the center of the leg ends then marks where the holes in the base should be bored (Above). The holes are then drilled on the drill press (Below).
An assortment of hand-held power-carving machines are used to sculpt the parts to their general shape. Great care has to be taken when working with power-carving machinery.
Dremel on Steroids
Pneumatic die grinders with carbide rotary burrs are used to fine-tune the details that make this table so intricate.
When smoothing wood in tighter areas, rifflers are the answer. There are many sizes and shapes available.
A selection of small and medium-sized sanding drums make quick work of most of the curved areas in need of smoothing.
To fit the snake to the legs, Russell dry-assembles the rest of the table first. At this point, holes can be drilled in the snake and they can then be carefully fit to the ends of the horns, finishing at the proper height.
At this stage Russell needs to figure out how high the supporting surface in the tops of the legs needs to be in order to support the glass top. Once the table is dry-assembled he uses a piece of scrap sheet stock, some large tension bands and a simple jig to mark the location directly onto the legs.
The Right Height
The final ‘flower’ must hold the glass table-top level. Here Russell double-checks that everything lines up.
A word on materials
One of my biggest challenges is finding blocks of wood big enough to create the image in a solid piece. I’ve joined pieces at times but because I use natural finishes I always find the joint breaks the visual flow of my lines. I have found sawyers who cut big leaf maple bowl blanks for turners are the one source of billets thicker than 4”. I’ve also gone to tree removal crews and firewood suppliers for large diameter logs that I’ve sawn billets from. In both cases I frequently have to deal with checks. Since most of the found skulls in my collection have cracks and flaws I consider cracks in the wood to be an appropriate part of the piece’s story. Where I can, I stop the checking and fill the cracks with either cyano acrylate glue or West epoxy since its dries to an amber colour that blends into the light woods I use. If the crack is wider than 1/16″ I mix black acrylic paint into the epoxy. This gives the crack the appearance of spalting.
I always start by drawing my projects full scale in three views. Most of us are used to working with square, straight stock and joining it at right angles, or at worst, single-angle joints. Nature doesn’t work that way. I use compound angle, round tenon joinery to come up with natural appearing forms and stance. I work on a large plywood drawing board with a 48″ drywall square. This allows me to transfer information from one view to the other. For instance, with a round top I start with the premise that a three-point stance is the minimum I need for stability. This means 120° of separation between any two support points on the top. I lay this out on the top views and drop the contact points to the front and side views. I draw the horns and skull as the complete rectangles I’ll carve them from, and draw the actual shapes freehand within these established forms. This gives me straight surfaces to calculate the angles from. My working drawing shows the center lines for all the essential joints in red. I transfer the lines from the drawing onto a thin plywood template for the side views, then transfer them from the sides to the front and backs of the billets. Notice I left the corners square on the template so I could align it properly on the block.
I’m not a naturally precise worker so I allow for a bit of “fudge” in my joinery. My drill press is, frankly, a piece of junk incapable of precise work. To compensate for this, the legs are thin and flexible, and if needed I can relax their fit through the holes in the skull enough to move them a degree or so while staying within the gap filling abilities of epoxy. In fact, minor misalignments actually bring the structure under tension adding to its rigidity.
This is a backwards dovetail in that, unlike a dovetail, it doesn’t self-tighten. The tapered sides of the joint slide together for a fit that gets tighter as they are brought together. The first step is to transpose the angles defined in the drawing to the billet with the table-saw. In this case, it worked out that the front angle was at 90° to the beveled end of the block. I cut it and the 15° back angle by standing the block on end and running it against the table-saw fence. The router jig used to cut the tapered mortises in the base is a trough of plywood the exact width of the base member with the angles cut with the table-saw. I make repeated passes with the router to slowly but surely remove wood and form the joint. I use an off-cut from the billet to fine tune the fit making it a bit too small so I can sand and scrape the skull section of the joint to a perfect fit.
The horns are joined to the skull with a floating, round tenon. A round hole, or mortise, is drilled into the end of the horn and into the skill. This joint allows the horns to pivot to the exact position needed. I rely heavily on my tilting-table drill press for compound angle joinery like this. I use a set of surfaces, with stops on their ends, and position and clamp them to the table of my drill press. In addition to the surfaces and stops, I often use wedges to tilt the workpiece to the correct angle. Once the piece is clamped in place, I can drill the required hole.
I tilt the table to the angle at which the centerline intersects it in the side view, and insert a wedge under the block to tilt it to the angle shown in the front view. With everything lined up and secured, I drill a 1/2″ hole in the skull to accept the round tenon.
It’s simpler to drill the mortise in the horn with the lathe than the drill press. I use a Jacobs chuck in my live end. I bevel the end of the blank to give me a flat surface for the bit to drill into, then mount the blank on a plywood platform on the lathe bed to get the off-center alignment required.
The skull-to-leg joint is similar, but because my drill press couldn’t quite accommodate the block vertically I captured the block in a plywood cradle, centered on a pivot point. With the table tilted to the correct angle I pivoted the cradle to make the angle of leg splay and slid and shimmed the block on the cradle to align the holes.
Notice in the image of me drilling this hole that the spur of the spade bit is aligned with a screw on which the cradle pivots. I calculated where I want the hole to begin and end, then set the table-tilt angles and cradle slope by trial and error. If you look beside the clamp holding the block to the table you’ll see the trial holes I drilled in the waste to check them. I use spade bits for the holes in slanted surfaces like this because the long spur is easy to align with the marked centers and keeps the bit centered in the hole.
To make sure things are going to work (in spite of me and my drill press’s lack of precision) I dry-fit the skull, base and turn the legs close to their finished size. I set a finishing nail in the base end of the leg to mark where its center will intersect with the base. I use a compromise between the two actual locations to locate the holes in the base. I went back to the tilt-and-wedge system to drill these holes using a piece of plywood tapered across its width to get the secondary angle.
This joint can be done in many ways, a half-lap being one fairly straight-forward option. I went another route and used my drill press and lathe to machine this joint. I first used a large diameter bit in my drill press to create the rounded portion of the joint on the underside of the front-to-back base piece. I then used my lathe to turn a smooth area at the middle of the other base piece so it would mate with the first piece. Remove too much material from the ide-to-side base piece and you have to start again.
Now we’re at the fun part; shaping the wood. My most aggressive gross wasting tools are discs in angle grinders. The carbide toothed Arbortech is hands down the most aggressive tool in this class. It’s also a monster to control so I save it for areas where I’m least likely to get kick-back.
I own and love the Mini Arbortech with a Typhoon coarse 2″ disc. This tool melts the wood like its big sisters and can get into tighter spaces.
For the really tight spaces, and for laying in the details, I go to rotary tools. People’s first reaction is often, “You mean a Dremel or a Foredom?” In my opinion these tools are not powerful enough for this task. For serious wood removal I use “Dremels on steroids” – pneumatic die grinders. Not only are they far more powerful, they’re just as easy to hold. The flexible shaft hand piece and the hose is easier to manipulate than the flexible shaft. Princess Auto has a mini die grinder that’s frequently on sale for around $10. At this price I have one for each burr I commonly use. I have about 20 of them in my tool kit and have worn out very few of them over the years. When the bearings start to go, and the shaft gets a bit of play, I relegate them to sanding duties where I want slower speeds with less torque.
Few of us have compressors that can keep up with these air-hungry grinders. I stretch the compressor’s efficiency by matching the pressure to the tool’s needs. For instance, I find that most sanding tools work best at about 30 psi. The sanding drums I use remove wood better at this speed, and if they’re running too fast the paper gets stretched into an eccentric form, putting less paper in contact with the wood. This makes them less effective for shaping smooth, fair curves and crisp lines. Small diameter burrs work all right at this pressure but better with a bit more – about 40 psi. Larger diameter burrs work best around 80 psi. Rather than constantly adjusting my regulator I have two air hoses with independent regulators. One I keep at 30 psi and the other at 80.
There are two basic styles of burrs. One is a solid piece of carbide or high-speed steel with flutes cut into it. The other has carbide chips or teeth welded on to it. I get the first style from machine shop suppliers. The larger diameter cutters work best in the single-cut, deep-flute format and the little guys are best in double-cut. For the second style, the Foredom Typhoon line available from Chipping Away and Razertip Industries are the best. If you stumble across some old stock of the discontinued Kutzall Extremes, they’re as good as the Typhoons, but I find the regular Kutzall, with the random chips of carbide clog too easily to be useful. Burrs up to 3/8″ diameter are about the same price for either format. Once you get to the larger diameters, the Typhoons are much less pricey than the solid carbides.
Some Basic Rotary Tool Facts
Rotary tools leave rippled, uneven surfaces. I use rasps and rifflers to fair the curves. Larger, gentle curves I do with the good old-fashioned Stanley Surform tools. You may have to scrounge to find them, but they’re head and shoulders above anything else around. Next in line is the Nicholson 49, the standard against which we measure other rasps. The Auriou line is a bit better, but you pay dearly for the quality. I have both the Swiss Grobet and the Italian Corradi sets of square handles rasps. They’re both work-horses and good value.
Things get complicated when we get into rifflers; essentially rasps with short, curved cutting surfaces in various profiles. I have Auriou rifflers a friend brought me from France and they’re definitely the Cadillacs of rifflers. Lee Valley carries a limited range of them, but I found they didn’t match the grain size [coarseness] to the tool size.
A few years ago I bought some Corradi rifflers from Woodcraft Supply. I found the teeth to be precisely made and the cut to be excellent. I recently decided to fill out that set and found the new ones had irregularly and poorly formed teeth and gave a disappointing cut. At $20 each, it’s less of a disappointment. On small details I smooth the curves and define the creases with needle files and mini metal rifflers from Princess Auto.
It’s a lot of work sanding out the rasp marks. Wherever I can, I start the finishing process with scrapers. I use rectangular, goose-neck, curved and spoon scrapers, all from Lee Valley. Next, I work through the appropriate grits of sandpaper starting with 80 or 120 depending on whether I could get at the spot with my scrapers and ending with 320. I work the open areas with sleeveless drum sanders with roll abrasive, both from Lee Valley. The trick is to install the abrasive a bit proud of the end of the drum, effectively turning it into a ball sander. This works well for places like the inside of the eye socket and is way cheaper than the real ball nose drum. Split arbor burrs, available from carving specialists like Razertip Industries, are great for under-cutting rims like the little raised detail I have at the base of the horns. This brings up a fundamental rotary tool fact that’s especially true with sanding tools like drums and split arbor. If your rotation is on the upcut at the edge, rotating towards the center of the workpiece, it will give you a nice crisp edge. If it’s on the downcut, rotating away from the center of the workpiece, it will want to climb the edge in the case of burrs, and will wrap the paper around it with the sanding tools. Either will give you a mushy edge.
It’s now time to fit the structural snake. I dry-assemble all the parts so the tips of the horns will be more or less in place. After some planning I rough it out and gradually open the holes in the snake up until they fit tightly around the horn at the desired height. At this point I can shape the snake to its finished look in the same fashion as the other parts.
Assembly and fine-tuning
Once I have the parts final shaped and sanded (except the tops of the legs), I do the assembly. This is another point where a bit of play can be a good thing. Notice in the photo I have pushed one leg back using a screw, then I shimmed in the top of the leg against the OSB disc I used for a trial top. The other leg is pulled in using surgical rubber tubing. Since I’m assembling with epoxy, I essentially cast the dowel and the skull tenon in their mortises once they’re positioned correctly. Then I cut a piece of scrap to the height I want the top to finish at, and use it to mark the legs to length.
A compass positioned at the top’s pivot point on the structural snake makes sure the horns and legs are correctly positioned. The compass can mark the leg at the point it can support the top properly. A compound angle cut with the table-saw establishes the horizontal side of the notch in the leg and the die grinders cut the vertical edge. I then shape the sculptural part of the leg, checking that it finishes up at the length needed to keep the top level.
Finally, I check the table for glue squeeze-out and scratches and give it a few coats of my “house dressing” of Watco oil mixed with about 15 percent gloss varnish and a dash of Japan drier. With the dyed black horns, it’s necessary to oil them before assembly so the dye doesn’t run onto the natural finished surfaces.