Contrasting Features Make Elegant Hall Table

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This article is from Issue 8 of Woodcraft Magazine.

An inlaid top, an introduction to traditional veneering techniques, a unique tripod support base, and the freedom to alter materials to match your décor all go together to make this one attractive hall table.

They say opposites attract. My wife loves yard sales and thrift shops; I try to avoid them at all costs. But I love her, so when she came home one day with a vase that was “just the best bargain ever,” I knew I should be supportive and build a display table for it. The piece that I designed has contrasting but not conflicting elements – light and dark woods, curved feet and posts, and a large flat top. Its overall look is contemporary, with a dash of Biedermeier – a 19th-century Germanic style of art and furniture design.

I like to create tables in pairs, as it makes better use of my facilities and time, as patterns and setups can be done once, but used twice. It also gives me the opportunity to put a slightly different spin on each. While the design of both tables I built for this project was identical, the veneers and solid stock I used for each were exactly the opposite – one was mostly light with dark accents, the other mostly dark with light accents – and you’ll see examples of both versions in the step-by-step photos. Again, opposites attract.

Getting started

In the first part of this project, we’ll concentrate our efforts on the tabletop. My reasons for building the top first are almost totally psychological – it’s the most difficult and time consuming, and contains several of the most distinguishing details of the entire piece. 

When the top is finished we’ll move on to the lower circle in part two, along with the three sculpted feet and support structures, and finally the three curved center support posts. 

Begin construction of the tabletop by cutting two 20" squares of ¾" MDF to size. Along each edge of one square, mark the halfway point (10" from either end). Now draw diagonal pencil lines across the board, joining its opposite corners. On each of these diagonal lines, make a mark 10" from the center of the board. Join these four points to the four marks at the halfway points along the edges, and you have a perfect octagon. Set your miter saw at 45 degrees and cut the octagon to size (Fig. 1). Use the resulting octagon to mark and cut the second MDF board, then face-glue and clamp them together.

Now turn your attention to the hardwood borders. These are 1¾" thick – the extra ¼" will eventually hide the tops of the legs, and I like to use either maple or walnut here. They are joined to the MDF with a 3/8" by ½" spline, which should be a contrasting species. Chuck a 3/8" straight bit in the router table to mill dadoes for the splines in both the MDF board and the borders (Fig. 2). Set the miter saw to 22½ degrees and dry-fit the borders. Temporarily clamp the pieces in place as you work around the top, and mark each with a number to retain the sequence (Fig. 3). Once the border pieces fit, use your router table setup to run a groove in each end to receive a short spline. 

It is tempting to glue the opposing border pieces in place at the same time because they require the same clamp positions, but it’s better to work your way around one piece at a time to ensure that each border section is clamped tightly to the next. The end splines can be cut a  bit long, as they’ll be trimmed in the next step.

Now, let’s change the octagon to the circular shape we need for the tabletop. From the center of the top, draw the biggest full circle you can and then bandsaw the top to this size. Scrape and sand the top and bottom faces of the tabletop to deliver flat surfaces for the veneer to adhere to (Fig. 4). Clean up the bandsawn edges using a circle-cutting jig for the router (Fig. 5), and a straight bit. Make several passes at low speed, lowering the bit slightly each time to avoid stress. If your bit isn’t long enough to trim the full 1¾" thickness of the top, go as far as you can and then flip the top over. Use a bearing-guided trim bit without the circle cutting jig to finish the job.

Veneer the top

The top of the table is a walnut starburst pattern with a mahogany fleur-de-lis in the center, which is surrounded by a maple circle. Maple diamonds will be inlaid later. The choices of light and dark woods can be reversed to your liking. The full-size pattern for the fleur-de-lis measures 3¾" x 5½", and can be found on page 42. It has quite a serpentine shape, which presents some inlay and veneering challenges.

Begin by creating a template to use as a cutting guide. Photocopy the pattern and affix it to a piece of ½" plywood with spray adhesive. Cut it on a bandsaw or scroll saw with the smallest blade you have (Fig. 6). After the pattern is cut, file and sand its edges. I like to seal the edges with glue to give it a smoother surface for tracing. Using a sharp utility knife, press the pattern onto the veneer you’ve selected for the fleur-de-lis and cut it free, as shown in Fig. 7. A task like this is when you find out how well you did in kindergarten – can you follow or stay inside the line? Pay close attention to grain – on tight turns it works well to make a series of small “pokes” with the tip of the knife, then go back and cut the small threads that are left between the holes.

Once the fleur-de-lis is cut, use it to trace the outline onto the maple veneer you will use for the small circle (Fig. 8). Use masking tape to hold the veneers together in three or four places – just enough to keep the piece flat and immobilized. Cut along the edge of the top (pattern) piece, using a slight angle to “back-cut” the piece below. These do not need to be the separating cuts, but they do need to outline the profile well. As you work your way around the profile and come to a taped section, remove the tape and place it over an already-cut section. Once the entire perimeter has been outlined, remove the tape and top piece, and finish cutting out the background veneer. I used an old cereal bowl as a template to trim the background circle, because it was the right size to cut the 6" background circle. The diameter’s not critical, so any can or bowl within 1/8" or so will do.

The starburst

There are 12 wedges of veneer in the starburst pattern on the tabletop. Try to get strips in sequence so the grain has similar patterns, then cut six strips diagonally at 30 degrees to create the 12 wedges. Make the wedges about 13" long to ensure they’ll completely cover the edge of the tabletop; we’ll trim them later. Number them so that you can tape them together in sequence. 

I use two kinds of tape to assemble the pattern (Fig. 9). The top side gets regular veneer tape which is activated by water, but I’ve discovered that it’s easier to first tape the pattern together on the bottom side with masking tape. You’ll remove it before glueup, but it allows you to turn the entire assembly over and to apply the standard veneer tape. Tape the fleur-de-lis into its circle, too (Fig. 10), then turn it over and tape it to the back side of the walnut starburst with masking tape (Fig. 11). Now follow the maple profile to mark and cut a matching circle from the walnut with a sharp utility knife (Fig. 12). Remove the taped fleur-de-lis and circle after making the cut (Fig. 13). Now, working from the backside of the walnut pattern, place the maple encompassed fleur-de-lis (with its back side up) in the center of the opening, and tape it in place with masking tape. Then turn the entire assembly over and tape the top side with water activated veneer tape.

When the veneer tape is dry and secure, remove all of the masking tape from the back side, and the assembly is ready for gluing.

Glue down the veneer

There are few woodworking moments that rival the excitement of peeling back the coverings of a veneered pattern which has nice, tight joints and an even, flat surface. 

The glue you use for veneering is an important choice. I used Titebond’s Cold Press veneer glue. Pour out a liberal amount of glue and use a glue roller – an old credit card or similar tool will work in a pinch – to spread it evenly over the surface. Center the veneer pattern over the substrate. Using a “J” roller or a veneer hammer, press the veneer down, working the glue from the center of the piece to the edges (Fig. 14).

Spread a sheet of plastic – a trash bag works great – over the surface and cover it with a plywood or MDF circle that will act as a clamping caul. Since I make my tables in pairs, I just use the top of the second table as the caul over the first one. The veneered top later becomes a clamping caul for the other top.

After the cauls are in position, begin placing your clamps. It’s important to have even, steady pressure from the middle to the edges of the assembly. I have two deep-throated clamps that I place in the middle of the assembly. Then around the edges I place as many C-clamps and other bar clamps as I can fit (Fig. 15).

Remove the bandages

Once the clamps, cauls and plastic are removed after the glue dries, the veneer tape needs to come off. Patiently work one section of tape at a time, wetting it with a brush and removing it slowly. A sharp chisel gets underneath the tape, and then you can usually just peel it back (Fig. 16). As you remove the tape peel it backward, not straight up. Scrape each line where the separate pieces of veneer meet, beginning with a sharp chisel and then moving to a regular cabinet scraper (Fig. 17). Be careful not to let the corners of the scraper dig in and cut into the veneer. 

Trim off any veneer overhang around the edges, then sand the entire top by hand through 220-grit. Don’t be too aggressive with the sandpaper; sand carefully to avoid cutting through the thin veneer. 

The last step with sanding a large veneered surface like this is to brush a light coat of mineral spirits across the entire surface (Fig. 18). This will reveal any problems with glue seepage or other discoloration.

Define the circumference of the tabletop with a 45-degree chamfering bit for the bottom edge, and a ¼" cove bit for the top. The cove provides something of a halo effect on the top (Fig. 19).

Complete the top

Give the top a single thin coat of tung oil varnish to seal the surface, and once it dries you’re ready to inlay four diamonds of contrasting veneer. Place one in the desired location, hold it firmly to the surface and then trace and cut its profile into the surface veneer (Fig. 20). After the profile is outlined, recut the lines until the tip of the knife is just below the thickness of the veneer. Use a veneer iron (or a household clothes iron) to heat and re-activate the glue under the outlined area (Fig. 21), and remove the veneer from within the outlined diamond with a sharp chisel (Fig. 22). Let the veneer lead this dance, and don’t force the separation. If the piece won’t separate, recut the outline or reheat the area with the iron and try again.

After you remove the outlined area, clean out the corners with the chisel and scrape the substrate clean and flat. Apply glue to the substrate and the back side of the diamond veneer inlay (Fig. 23), and press the inlay in place with the butt end of the veneer knife. Clamp a flat piece over the inlay, separated by a small piece of plastic trash bag, and let it set. Once the glue is dry, carefully scrape any glue and irregularities. Clean up with steel wool (Fig. 24), then apply finish in the inlaid areas.

With the inlaid tabletop completed, this wraps up the most difficult part of the hall table. In part two, we’ll make a similar, but smaller, base for the table, then put everything together with the tripod base. 

Alan Young

Alan Young is an engineering technician at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He’s rapidly making the leap from woodworking hobbyist to woodworking professional. See more of his work at He lives – and sometimes goes to yard sales – in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Bandsaw, fixed-base router in router table, plunge router, laminate trimmer, table saw, planer, jointer, sliding compound miter saw or radial arm saw, spindle sander, random orbit sander, veneer saw, utility knife, “J” roller or veneer hammer, household iron, clamps, scraper, chisel

Variety of sandpaper through 220-grit
Masking tape
Veneer tape
Veneer glue
Plastic sheet (trash bag)
Mineral spirits
Fine steel wool

Titebond Cold Press veneer glue,
#145718, $7.99 (qt.)
"J" veneer roller, #129841, $11.99

Woodcraft Supply
(800) 225-1153


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