Canadian Woodworking

Unique nesting tables

Author: Greg Sterenberg
Published: June July 2004

Nesting tables usually consist of various sized tables that fit or nest together. Typically, nesting tables are separated when extra table space is needed, and placed back together when it is not.


One of the drawbacks of nesting tables is that, almost by definition, each of the tables is a different size and height than the others.

For my purposes, I wanted to have 3 tables, each with the same height and same size tops. The design that I came up with does just that. It consists of an end table with 2 matching tables. The matching tables slide on their sides underneath the main end table.

For clarity, I refer to the end table as table 1, to the first to slide under as table 2, and to the last as table 3.

Joint jig

Cut tenon cheek with shop made jig

Cut tenon shoulders shallow

Drill and countersink screw holes before assembly

Clamp legs

Black walnut pegs strengthen joints and add detail

Square leg tops before attaching

Finger joint and peg in place

Build The Tops

The tops may be left plain, or they can be decorated. I used a router (with template guide and inlay bushing) to inlay 1″ dots of black walnut: one dot centred on the top of table 1, two dots on the top of table 2, and three dots on table 3. The overall effect is of a gigantic die. This added decoration also helps my young son figure out the order in which to take the tables apart and put them back together.

The table top for each table is 18″x18″. Glue up red oak in strips of about 3 inches wide to get this dimension. Flip every other strip to minimize cupping.

Rip the boards and joint the edges.

Glue up tops in 2 halves approximately 9 1/2″ wide. This will give you enough width to allow for surface planing.

Plane the 2 halves down to 3/4″, then glue the halves together. Use blocks and clamps across the joint to align the 2 halves as closely as possible.

A bit of work with a scraper and a sanding block will give you slabs that are ready for cutting to their final sizes.

Cut The Legs

Cut and plane oak boards down to 3/4″x1 1/2″ strips. Use this material to build 3 sets of rectangular legs. The vertical sections of all 3 sets are 18 1/4″ long. That ensures that the tops of tables 2 and 3 will fit (on edge) under table 1, and that all three tables are the same height.

Cut the horizontal sections of the legs for table 1 to 16 1/2″. These dimensions reflect the outside dimensions of the rectangles comprising the legs.

Make The Joints

To make the joints as strong as possible, use finger joints with tenons and mortises cut through the legs. Cut the tenons on the horizontal pieces. Cut the mortises on the vertical pieces using the same jig. The jig is made by screwing 2 pieces of plywood together at 90º.

One piece constitutes the base; the other is the face that supports the work piece. I used 2 more square pieces of plywood as blocks, which were glued and screwed perpendicular to the inside angle to make sure that angle stays at 90º. A piece of 1″x2″ stock attached vertically to the face keeps the work piece at 90º to the table saw. The work piece is then held to the jig by your preferred type of clamp.

Since they are open on the end and two sides this is a finger joint rather than a true mortise. I made a cut, just off-centre, and then simply turned the wood 180º to ensure that the mortise stays centred. Be careful doing this, since moving the fence causes the mortise to be widened by double the amount of that movement!

When cutting the tenon cheek with a shop-made jig, keep in mind that a strong joint needs a good fit, but it is nearly impossible to cut accurately enough with any jig. Instead, set up your cuts to make the joints too tight. Once all the ends are cut, use your table saw (on the cheek and shoulder of the tenon) to improve the fit. Cut tenon shoulders shallow, then clean with a chisel. Finally, use a scraper for fine adjustments.

By the time you get to the third set of legs, you’ll be pretty good at this, and able to do it quickly and easily! If you have a micro-adjustable tenon jig your life would undoubtedly be easier, although perhaps less challenging.

Before assembling the legs, pre-drill holes for screws. Countersink the holes so that the screws penetrate the underside of the top to a depth of 5/8″.

Clamp Legs

Bar clamp the assembled legs just inside the finger joints to guarantee that the pieces are tight against each other. Apply c-clamps to each corner.

Strengthen Joints And Add Detail

After the legs are glued up, you may want to add some detail. I chose to peg the corners with black walnut. To do this, measure in 3/4″ from each side and drill a 1/4″ hole. Square this off with a 1/4″ chisel. Insert a square peg of black walnut, trim the excess with a flush cutting saw, and sand the area smooth with a random orbit sander.

Square Leg Tops Before Attaching

Be sure to check the squareness of the top of the legs before attaching them to the tops. If not perfectly square, the legs will exhibit an obvious lean. (When smoothing the ends of the tenons, I managed to get the tops of the legs out of square. However, a quick pass over the jointer, which was set to remove minimal material, put things right)

Put It All Together

The tops of the rectangular leg assemblies act as straps on the bottom of the table tops. This strapping helps to keep the tops flat.

To maximize the benefit of the straps, install the legs across the grain, using both screws and glue.The table legs are glued and screwed to the undersides of the tops. The screws are countersunk so they penetrate the tops 5/8″.

The legs on table 1 are set in 3/4″ from both the end grain and from the sides. This setback allows the tops of tables 2 and 3 to fit flush, when slid into place.

The legs on table 2 are as wide as the top and set in 1/8″ for appearance. These legs act as slides, so they must be wide enough that the table top is perpendicular to the floor (when placed on its side to slide under table 1). These legs are placed 1 3/4″ from the ends so that they will fit between the legs of table 1.

The top of table 3 is slightly smaller than the other two, measuring 18″x17 1/4″. The missing 3/4″ allows for the thickness of the top of table 2 when the tables are nested. The legs for this table fit inside the legs of tables 2 and 3, so they are much narrower that the others. The legs are set in 2 1/2″ from the end grain and 2″ from the sides.

Final Touches

Sand before assembly. When sanding where two pieces are to be joined, take extra care to minimize any sanding marks on pieces sanded across the grain. Random orbital sanders are great for this. You can also make such marks all but invisible by sanding with progressively finer grits to 220.

For that perfect finish, you can do a final sand by hand. Use a block or a soft jawed clamp to stop the sanding block before it touches the cross grain.

I knew that my set of tables were going to get their share of pizza boxes placed on them, so I used a clear satin, rub-on polyurethane for an attractive and durable finish.

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