With a new home to fit out, it came as no surprise to me to hear the words “Dad, will you make us a table?” Obviously the answer was yes. One advantage of this type of gratis job is that the deadlines can be a little bit more flexible than usual, the work generally being fitted in around other projects
Contemporary looks were called for here, and I felt that this could be a good time to try out one of my pet safety ideas – a table with no protruding corners for toddlers to bang their heads on. My design approved, it was time to head down to the timber recyclers to pick out some wood. Beech had been mentioned as a possibility – low-key appearance, goes with everything – and so I was pleased to see a few lengths among the rack of mainly joinery-shop offcuts and rejects.
Check the quality
Although you can get a bargain at this type of establishment (check your Yellow Pages), the quality can be variable to put it mildly, so make sure you buy more than you think you’ll need. If you are making just for the pleasure of it, you can afford the extra time on careful machining to avoid the defects, unlike the busy wood machinist who finds it cheaper just to throw the dodgy bits away.
Don’t spare the rod
The first step of any job like this should always be making a rod. A rod is nothing more than an accurate, full-size drawing of the piece. It’s both a way of confirming dimensions and proportions of the design and a permanent reference for checking components as they are fashioned throughout the job. I’ll usually make use of any old offcut of thin mdf, but if you really want to push the boat out, white faced hardboard will make a very nice job of it.
Planning the taper
Tapered legs always make a piece look that little bit lighter, especially if they are splayed out a touch too. That was the plan for this table, and I’ve found that an angle of as little as 2° past square (90º) is sufficient to lend a touch of elegance to a piece of furniture. While pleasing to the eye, this type of design does introduce a complication or two to the construction. No longer are the tenon shoulders square, but slanted, and not even at the angle of splay, as the taper increases this angle still further. All this becomes clear while drawing out the rod.
Calling up the Domino
It’s good to have the luxury of time on a job, and to craft every joint by hand in the ongoing search for something approaching perfection. With other work stacking up around me and family pressure slowly increasing, it soon became clear that this particular job didn’t quite belong in this category.
Although I’m proud of my handiwork, I’m a big fan of technology, and so it was with considerable pleasure that I reached for my Festool Domino jointer. This is a terrific tool, able to cut mortises for ready-made loose tenons (the dominos) in just about any situation a woodworker could imagine.
With my cutting list drawn up, it was time for a spot of machining, photo 1, and an opportunity to familiarise myself with the timber. This is when you get to spot the good pieces, the also-rans, the spares and the ‘only if desperate’ pieces, as the cutting list gets slowly ticked off.
Over the years I’ve made most of the mistakes in the woodworker’s manual of ‘things not to do’. So instead of steaming in and shaping the legs straight away, as I would once have done, this time I left them over-length and resisted the temptation to taper them until I had carefully inspecting and marked them as follows, photo 2:
- Outside faces – the best two out of four for each leg;
- Orientation – I like to group them together and draw a square on the tops to show at a glance which way round they go;
- Rail positions;
After a final check, it’s time for some mortising. Here I’m going to use the Domino. While the legs are still a uniform section, cutting the mortises for the loose tenons is straightforward. As long as each component is securely clamped down, the job is done in a surprisingly short time. Eagle-eyed readers will observe that the width setting on the Domino is on ‘medium’ for this part of the joint, photo 3, and has been selected so as to allow for the angled ends of the rails.
I always cut my tapers on the table saw, but there is no reason why a similar technique can’t be used on the bandsaw. First make the simplest of jigs – nothing more than an offcut with the leg profile cut out of it. To mark it out, simply measure out the desired thickness of the leg top, the overall length required, the thickness of the leg bottom, join the dots and there you are, photo 4.
Note that this jig will produce tapers on two adjacent faces of a leg. If you want to taper all four (something I have never felt the need to), then a different technique will be required. Do a spot of careful adjustment on the saw, set up the guards and the dust extraction, and away you go. As long as all your components are of the same overall dimension, you’ll have no trouble producing duplicate elegant tapers.
Accurate machining with a sharp blade should produce good clean results, but there will always be saw marks to remove, so now is the time to get that lovely freshly-sharpened plane off the shelf and to put it to good use. Check that it’s set up properly on a piece of scrap, as you don’t want to undo your good work by planing one of the legs out of square. In fact, just the bare minimum needs to be taken off here, photo 5, and only on the newly tapered inside faces at that.
Taking the rails
With the legs cleaned up and put to one side, it’s time to address the rails. Although the ends will be slightly angled, I found it was best to leave the rails ever so slightly over-length, with the ends cut square. This makes the domino mortising easy, photo 6, with standard-width mortises (Domino setting: small) being employed for this stage, giving a pleasingly snug fit. By referring to the hallowed rod, the correct angle can be measured – or simply ‘copied’ with a sliding bevel – and transferred to a chop saw.
A final check of the lengths required and the rail ends can now be cut to the final angle, photo 7. By trimming off just the bare minimum, the domino joint will go together cleanly.
Adding the chamfers
One of the key features of this design is the 2mm chamfer on every edge, and, while this is not a particularly taxing task with a hand plane, there’s something about the perfect regularity of a machined edge which led me to employ my nifty little Bosch palm router and a chamfer cutter, photo 8. It ensures rapid progress and a fairly low risk of a routing disaster.
With the legs and rails machined, jointed and cleaned up, it’s time for the assembly. I’ve learnt the hard way just how important it is to have a dry run at this. Take the time to put all the joints together and prepare all the cramps that will be required.
When you’re satisfied that everything is going to fit, go ahead and start the glue-up. Although there is a strong case for using polyurethane glue in this situation – for what is effectively a mortise-and-tenon joint – I much prefer the more sedate pace of work afforded by pva glues.
The combination of a WolfCraft band cramp and a variety of F and sash cramps enabled me to get the table frame together with little difficulty – something that’s not always possible with an angled or tapering workpiece, photo 9.
Before stepping back with satisfaction, it’s essential to check for square and winding, and to make any necessary adjustments while the glue is still soft. The next day it was time to trim the tops of the legs, photo 10, chamfer the newly created edges by hand, photo 11, and give the whole frame a general clean-up – something’s that much easier to do before the top has been fixed on.
Preparing the top
With the table top needing to be stable – any shrinkage would be immediately apparent with this design – I decided to lip some 25mm thick mdf and to get it veneered at my local veneer presser. It’s a fairly straightforward job, involving some accurate measurement and truing up the board edges, photo 12.
I always take the precaution of sealing the edges of raw mdf with diluted pva adhesive to ensure a better ‘take’ when gluing on the edging material, photo 13.
I mitred the lipping carefully, photo 14, then glued and taped it to the squared-up and still sharp edges of the board, photo 15. Once that was cleaned up, it was down to Steve’s place and his hot veneer press.
Bringing it all together
When the top was ready, I was at last able to offer it up to the base in a variety of ways to see how it would look best. With the orientation decided, some careful hand-planing matched the edges with the slope of the legs, photo 16. The top was fixed to the frame with screws driven up through some hand-cut pocket holes into the underside of the top.
The big finish
It was now time to apply the finish. The table was sanded to 240 grit on the frame and 320 grit on the top. When not left in its natural state, beech is rarely given much more than a factory-applied spray lacquer coat. With its uniform and fairly bland appearance, plus an irregular micro-grain structure designed to defy the French polisher’s skills, I knew I had my work cut out to get it looking half-way decent. I started with a coat of grain sealer (Behlen’s Pre-Stain), to give myself a better chance, then painstakingly applied sundry coats of colour and varnish until I was almost satisfied. With careful rubbing-down between coats, the end result was finally reached… I only had to re-do it twice!
All’s well that ends well, however, and the table was delivered in good shape and immediately pressed into active service. Another satisfied customer…