Coopered Leg Table

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This article is from Issue 53 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Turn a curve with straight stock, one stave at a time.

Read the story, watch the show, build the table. 

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, what’s a half-hour video worth? To find out, go to and watch the complete Coopered Leg Table episode from Rough Cut Woodworking with Tommy Mac, Season 3.

This dining table was inspired by a Rough Cut Road Trip to Napa Valley, California. The top, with its cask-shaped profile, only hints at the source of my design. However, the legs–made by beveling the edges of narrow stock and then assembling them edge to edge to create a curve–are an obvious tip of the hat (or glass) to the wine barrels of this celebrated wine region. Barrel making, or coopering, is a craft from which I borrowed to make the legs for this table. To try your hand at stave work, all you need are some thick strips of stock, a full-scale layout, and a custom clamping jig. Once you understand the procedure, you can create stave-built arcs in a variety of shapes and sizes.

I chose ambrosia maple because the dark streaks on the light wood make for striking patterns on the legs and top. Straight-grained oak, cherry, beech, or clear maple would make an equally handsome looking table. (Of course, the availability of thick stock in your area might ultimately influence your decision.)

Wide slab tops often have a few cracks or checks. You could trim off blemishes, but I think they add to the character of the piece, provided that they are kept under control. To learn how to stop cracks in their tracks, check out “Butterfly Basics” on page 56.

Select your stock

1 Starting with 8⁄4 (2"-thick) stock, select your best-looking boards to make the 42"-wide top (A). (I made my top from two 12'-long × 16"-wide boards. You may need to use a few more boards to achieve the necessary width.) Put those boards aside for now.

2 Rip the remaining stock to fit your jointer, and then thickness the boards to 13⁄4"-thick to make the staves (B) and stretcher (C). Using the Cut List and Figure 1 as a guide, cut these pieces a few inches longer and 1⁄2" wider than the final dimensions. (Note: Make a few extra staves for bevel angle setups. The extra pieces may also prove useful when composing the grain pattern on the leg assemblies.)

Cooper the legs

1 Using a trammel, lay out a 28"-radius arc on a piece of rosin paper or scrap plywood, as shown in Figure 2. To determine the width of the arc needed to make the ribs for the coopering jig, adjust a compass to 27⁄8", straddle the centerline, and then “walk” it along the arc five steps in one direction, and six steps in the other, making tick marks as you go. Add another 3⁄4ʺ to both ends to allow space for clamping wedges.

2 Cut along the outside edge of your paper pattern, and use it to lay out a master rib on a piece of 3⁄4" plywood. Use a jigsaw to cut the curve, and then use this master rib as a pattern to make three more. Cut the remaining parts, and assemble the Coopering Jig.

3 Using your paper full-scale layout, draw a line connecting two adjacent tick marks and a second line connecting a tick mark to the arc’s centerpoint. Using a bevel gauge, set the body against the short line, and align the blade to the long line to obtain the stave bevel, as shown in Photo A. The exact degree isn’t critical, but the angle should be approximately 87°. (Note: Keep your pattern, as you’ll use it again later to lay out the curves on the bottom ends of the leg assemblies.)

4 Using your previously set bevel gauge, angle the tablesaw blade, as shown in Photo B. Locate the rip fence the proper distance from the blade, with the blade leaning away from it. (On a right-tilt saw, the fence would be to the left of the blade.) Rip the bevel on one edge, rotate the stock end for end, and then rip the opposite edge (Photo C).

5 To check your angle, crosscut your test stave into a few 3"-long slices, position them on a rib, and check for gaps (Photo D). If necessary, adjust the bevel angle and rip another test stave before ripping the remaining staves.

Set your bevel gauge on the full-scale layout to obtain the exact stave angle. 
Place the gauge between the saw teeth, and adjust the bevel angle until both blades touch.

With the blade tilted away from the fence, bevel both edges of the test stave.

Position the test slices on the jig to check the stave angle. Adjust your saw as needed for a seamless fit.

Squeezing pairs of opposing wedges together with wooden handscrews directs clamping pressure across the curve of the jig.

6 Working one leg at a time, arrange the pieces for best color and grain composition. When you’re happy, record the stave positions numerically on the ends. Next, rehearse your glue-up procedures, inserting opposing wedges between the jig’s rib shoulder and the edge of the outermost stave, as shown in Photo E. Check the edge joints for intimate contact, noting any gaps. Disassemble the staves and use a hand plane to correct any ill-fitting joints or to remove any residual mill marks on the faces of the staves.

7 Apply glue to the inside edges of the three staves nearest the wedges. Align the ends of the staves, and clamp them together by sandwiching them between the wedges and the still-unglued staves. (If a stave starts to slip, tap the face into alignment using a hammer and wood block.) Allow time for the glue to set, and then continue the gluing and wedging process, adding two or three staves at a time until you have completed the entire leg assembly. Repeat with the second leg assembly.

Use the coopering jig to steady the leg assemblies when trimming the ends. Remember to provide support for the jig at the end of the cut.

8 Square off one end of each leg assembly. Trim the end, as shown in Photo F, and then lay out a second line and cut the legs to final length.

9 Using the paper pattern you made earlier, trace the curve on the bottom end of both leg assemblies, as shown in Figure 1. Make the cut with a jigsaw. Then smooth the curve using files, rasps, and sandpaper.

10 Using your glue lines as a guide, lay out and cut the tenons on the top end of the legs, where shown in Figure 1. You can use your bandsaw and coopering jig, or a jigsaw, to remove the waste.

Pinching the blade affords more control than holding the chisel by its handle.

11 Lay out the mortises for the stretcher (C), where shown in Figure 1. Using a handheld drill and 1" Forstner bit, drill overlapping holes to excavate the bulk of the mortise, and then use a chisel to pare the sides (Photo G). Alternatively, you could rout out the mortise.

12 Cut the stretcher (C) to the size shown in the Cut List. Using a marking gauge and combination square, lay out the 1 × 55⁄8 × 1" tenon on both ends. Outfit your tablesaw with a dado head, and cut the tenon. (If your tenon’s fat, trim the cheeks to fit with a shoulder plane.)

Apply even pressure along the sides and ends of the leg assembly. A gap along one shoulder indicates that one clamp is tighter than the other.

13 Apply glue to the stretcher tenons and leg mortises. With help, fit the stretcher into its mortises, and draw the base assembly together, as shown in Photo H.

Make the tabletop

1 Glue up your top (A). When dry, remove the clamps, and establish a centerline on the bottom face.

2 Using a piece of 1⁄2 × 22 × 72" MDF or plywood, create a half pattern/template for your top. (To establish the curve, I flexed a metal rule and traced its edge.) Using a bandsaw or jigsaw, cut the pattern just outside of your line, and then use a file or sanding block to establish a fair curve that’s free of humps or divots.

3 Trace the outside edges on your top. Using a jigsaw with a fresh blade, cut about 1⁄8" outside of your line. Repeat the process with the remaining corners.

Use a template to tackle the curves. Increase your feed rate if your bit leaves burn marks.

4 Using your pattern as a template, align its inside edge with the centerline, secure it with a few short screws, and flip the tabletop over. Outfit a handheld router with a 2"-long bottom bearing bit, and rout the edge, as shown in Photo I. Reposition and reattach the pattern as needed to finish shaping the remaining corners.

Center the base on the inverted tabletop, and mark the mortise locations. Make the mortises 1⁄8" deeper than the tenon’s length to ensure contact with the top of each leg.

5 With the tabletop upside down on your bench, center the inverted base on top of it. Using a pencil or marking knife, scribe around the tenons, as shown in Photo J. Remove the base, and then excavate the mortises. (I hogged out most of the waste using a handheld drill and 15⁄8" Forstner bit, and then used a chisel to pare to my layout lines.)

6 Fasten the leg assembly to the tabletop using 2" angle brackets and 11⁄2"-long screws, where shown in Figure 1.

Two Bits Are Almost As Good As One

If you don’t have a router bit that’s long enough to rout the full thickness of the tabletop edge in one pass, you can do the job with two shorter bits. Using the pattern as a guide, rout half the thickness with a top-bearing (pattern) bit. Then, flip it over and use a bottom bearing (flush trim) bit to complete the cut. Adjust the bit depth so that the bearing rides against the freshly cut section.

Finishing touches

1 To flatten the tabletop, I used a jointer plane, first working perpendicular or diagonally across the grain to level any high spots. Then, I worked from end to end along the grain using a smoothing plane. (Note: There’s a difference between “reasonably” and “perfectly” flat. Stop when it looks good. If you aren’t comfortable with the hand tool approach, you can flatten the top with a belt sander.) Use a scraper to remove plane tracks and/or machine marks.

2 Inspect the slab for cracks or checks. To fill minor defects such as tight cracks and knots, I use five-minute epoxy. To do this, mix the resin and hardener, overfill the crack slightly, and then scrape it flush when cured. (Larger cracks require additional reinforcement, such as the butterfly keys shown on page 56.)

3 Detach the tabletop from the base. Finish-sand all surfaces through 220-grit, then apply your finish. (I sprayed on five coats of lacquer, sanding between coats with 320-grit sandpaper.)

4 Reassemble your table in its new home.

For more information, see “Flattening Boards by Hand,” at

About Our Designer/Builder

Tommy MacDonald is a furnituremaker and host of Rough Cut Woodworking with Tommy Mac on public television (check local listings). He lives and works near Boston.


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