Pembroke Table

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This article is from Issue 35 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Modern methods make the “period” details easy.

It’s easy to see why interest in period furniture spans centuries. Good proportions and carefully-crafted details never go out of style. This little table is a case in point. The original Pembroke table, built for the Countess of Pembroke in the 17th century, was designed for light uses such as serving tea, dining, or writing. The small, graceful design gained popularity in the 18th century. The classic compact table is well suited for modern living, especially apartments or smaller homes.

In the old days, woodworkers didn’t rely much on plans. This resulted in many variations on the basic design. Most Pembroke tables are fairly small for easy storage and portability. Their folding leaves provide ample space for serving or working. From there the similarities end. I’ve seen tables with rectangular and oval tops, with and without drawers, ranging from simple to ornate. My table’s design was inspired by one belonging to the Wilton House Museum in Richmond, Virginia. The original, built in the early 19th Century, is thought to have been the prototype for a table built for George Washington (a similar copy sits in Mt. Vernon).

While of museum-quality, this is not an exact reproduction. Like the woodworker who built the original, I make furniture in order to make a living. There’s no point in replicating period details by hand when I own a shop full of power tools. I reworked a few of the fussiest details to simplify the building process and ensure success. As you’ll discover, the trickiest parts can be finished quickly with help from a few power tool “apprentices.”

Make the top

1 Referring to Figure 1, use a thin strip of wood to lay out the curves for the top (A) and leaves (B) on two pieces of MDF. Carefully saw and sand up to your lines to create two master templates.

2 Glue up the boards for the top (A) and leaves (B). Leave the panels a few inches long, but rip the top to width and joint both edges. Joint the inside edges of both leaves.

3 Chuck a 1⁄2" round-over bit into a handheld router and rout the edges of the top (A) to the profile shown in the Rule Joint Detail. Switch to a 1⁄2" cove bit and rout the underside of both leaves (B) to fit the top. Adjust the depth of the cove bit in tiny increments until the profiles on the top and leaves match perfectly.

4 Arrange the top and leaves face down on your bench, clamp the parts together, and use the templates (Figure 1) to trace the shape of the finished top. Position the hinges 23⁄8" in from the outside edge of the oval and mark their locations with a pencil. Using a marking gauge, scribe a line to establish hinge barrel locations.

5 Next, separate the parts and rout the mortises for the hinge barrels using a 5⁄16" straight bit. Make sure that the mortise depth accommodates the combined thickness of the hinge barrel and metal leaf.

6 Butt the leaves against the top and clamp the parts together. Lay the hinges in their barrel mortises and scribe around the edges of each hinge with a utility knife. (Label the hinges so that they can be reinstalled in their respective mortises.) Use a router and hinge-mortising bit to remove the bulk of the waste wood. Switch to a chisel to pare to your lines and square up the corners.

7 With a Vix bit, drill one pilot hole into each hinge leaf and drive two screws into each hinge to hold them in place. Flip the assembly over and test the action of the leaf. Sand or plane down any spots that cause the joint to bind. When everything looks and feels right, drill and drive the remaining hinge screws.

8 Remove the hinges and then saw the top (A) and leaves (B) about 1⁄8" outside of the line. Use double-sided tape to attach the MDF patterns onto the rough-cut parts. Align the template’s edges with your layout lines and finish shaping the curved ends of the top and edges of the leaves with a router and template bit. Reassemble the top with the screws hinges and put it aside for now.

Build the base

1 Mill the leg stock (C) to 15⁄8" thick and crosscut to 30". Mark the legs’ inside corners on the bottom and top ends to avoid tapering or mortising the wrong face. On each face, draw a perpendicular line 5" down from the top to indicate the start of the taper. On the bottom end, lay out a 7⁄8" square on the outside corners. Lay out the 3⁄8" wide × 3⁄4" tall mortises for the lower rail (E) and 1⁄4" wide × 27⁄8" tall mortises for the aprons (F) where shown in the Leg Detail, Figure 3.

2 Referring to your layout lines, make the apron and rail mortises 3⁄4"-deep where shown in Figure 3, using a drill press, router, or benchtop mortiser. Use a chisel to square any rounded mortised ends.

3 Use a tablesaw and tapering jig (see “Tablesaw Tapering Jig” on page 21) to taper the legs as shown in Photo A. I like to set my taper line away from the blade and use a hand plane or sanding block to remove any saw marks or burns.

4 Prepare 3⁄4" stock to make the drawer rails (D, E) and aprons (F) to the dimensions in the Cut List. (Do not cut the curved fronts on the rails; you’ll do that after fitting them to the legs.) Referring to the Drawer Rail Detail, lay out the dovetails on both ends of the upper drawer rails (D). Lay out the tenons on the lower rail (E) and aprons (F). Check the layout lines with the mortises. (If needed, adjust the tenons for a perfect fit.)

5 Using a tablesaw and dado head, cut the tenons on the aprons (F). Adjust the cutter height to 3⁄8" and create a 3⁄4"-wide rabbet on the underside of the upper rail (D) ends. Now bandsaw the dovetails on the upper rails’ dovetailed ends and the double tenons on the lower rails as shown in Photo B.

Set the cam stops and use the jig to cut the tapers on the inside faces of all four legs.

Clamp on a stop and bandsaw the tenons to length. (INSET) Saw as close to your shoulder as you can and then use a chisel to pare up to the line.

6 Dry-fit a lower rail (E) into a pair of legs (C). Using your workbench vise and/or clamps, hold the assembly together and place an upper rail (D) on top of the legs so that its back edge is flush with the inside faces of the legs. Using a chisel, mark around the dovetail to lay out the sockets on the tops of the legs (C) (Photo C). Saw the sides of the sockets, and then chop out the waste. Use a skew chisel or knife to clean out the corners.

7 Trace the curved front ends of the drawer rails (D, E) using the Top Template. Saw shy of the line, and then use the template, router, and a template bit to finish the curve. Finish-sand the legs (C), drawer rails (D, E) and aprons (F) to 220 grit.

8 Apply glue to the tenons on the aprons (F) and lower rails (E), and then fit them into the legs (C). Apply light clamping pressure to hold the base together. Next, brush glue into the dovetailed sockets in the legs and tap the upper rail (D) home with a mallet. Flip the assembled base so that the top edge rests on a flat work surface (Photo D). Tighten the clamps and let the assembly sit overnight. Once the glue dries, drill and countersink holes through the centers of the dovetailed ends and insert 11⁄4" screws to eliminate the chance of a loose joint.

9 Mill 3⁄4" stock to make the top cleats (G) and drawer runners (H). Adjust the lengths as needed so that the parts fit snugly between the legs (C). Glue and clamp in place where shown in Figure 2, making sure that runner’s top edges are flush with the top face of the lower drawer rail (E).

Transfer the dovetail shape to the top of each leg by tapping a chisel aligned with the tail edges.

Clamp the base assembly top side down to make certain that the rails and aprons are flush with the tops of the legs.

Make a knuckle-jointed leaf support

1 Prepare two 3⁄4 × 43⁄8 × 28" boards to make the three leaf support pieces (I, J, and K). (The extra length is insurance in case you miscut a knuckle.) Measure down each board 14", mark a line across the face, and lay out five evenly-sized (mine measured 7⁄8") knuckles as shown in Figure 4. Crosscut through the centerline to get two perfect pairs of marked, matched boards. Draw a second set of perpendicular lines 3⁄4" away from the freshly cut ends to mark the knuckle length. Mark the waste with an “X.”

2 Build a simple dado sled (Photo E), or attach a scrap board to the face of your miter gauge, and remove the waste between the knuckles. Aim for a snug, but not tight fit; you should be able to slide the parts together without too much effort. Once the knuckles fit, label the three-knuckled piece as the fixed support (I), and the two-knuckled piece as the swinging (J) support and filler (K).

Use a dado to hold the leaf supports when cutting the knuckles. Shifting the stopblock a small amount can create a big difference in the joint’s fit.
Rounding over the outside corners turns a loose box joint into a working knuckle. Pin the joint with a dowel to maintain the 1⁄8" pivot gap while routing.

Clamp the support board to a backer board. Flip the entire assembly to finish drilling the hole. 

3 Fit the supports together so that there’s a 1⁄8" gap, and clamp the two pieces to a backer board. Mark out a centerpoint on both edges, and then drill a 5⁄16"-diameter hole through the knuckles, as shown in Photo F. Flip the workpiece end over end to complete the through hole.

4 Assemble the supports to make a 90˚ angle with a 5⁄16"-diameter dowel. Using a table-mounted router equipped with a 3⁄8" bit, round the outside corners of the knuckles.  Remove the dowel and reassemble the joint to round over the opposite corners of the knuckles (Photo G).

5 Measure out from the finished knuckle joint, and cut the supports (I, J) to length. From the offcut remaining from the swinging support (J), cut the filler (K) to fit. Trim 1⁄8" from the free end of the swinging support (J) to help it clear the filler (K).

6 Using a drum sander or carving gouge, relieve the back edge of the swinging support (J), as shown in Figure 4, to provide a finger hold. Finish-sand the parts to 220 grit, insert the hinge pin (L), and glue and clamp parts (I) and (K) to aprons (F).

Build the drawer

1 Mill the drawer sides (M) and fronts (N) and cut them to the exact length in the Cut List, but shave the width slightly so that the pieces fit between the rails. Adjust the lengths of the fronts so that they fit between the legs (C). Referring to Figure 5,

lay out and cut the tails and pins to make a drawer box.

2 From 11⁄2" (or thicker) stock, cut the false fronts (O) to fit the drawer box fronts (N). Laminate the false fronts to the drawer fronts using glue and plenty of clamps. Clean out any glue squeeze-out that finds its way between the pins.

3 Reassemble the drawer and slide it into the table. Position the drawer so that the false fronts stick out evenly at both ends, and mark a line across the top edges of the laminated fronts, as shown in Photo H.

4 Bandsaw the laminated fronts to shape, staying on the outside of your line. Reassemble the drawer, clamp it into the base, and sand the false front to remove the saw marks (Photo I).

5 To lay out the curve on the back face of the drawer, use the material sawn off from the front face and a 1" offset wheel gauge, as shown in Photo J. Referring to Figure 5, drill holes through the laminated fronts for the pulls. Bandsaw along the scribed line to finish the back face.

Tracing the rail onto the fronts ensures that the drawer’s curves and length match the base.

Clamp the drawer’s sides to the aprons, then sand the false fronts flush with the rails.

Shift the drawer front’s offcut up to provide a bearing edge for the offset wheel gauge.

6 Reassemble the sides (M) to the laminated fronts (N/O), again without glue. Chuck a 5⁄16" slot-cutting bit into a table- mounted router. Use a bearing on the bit that allows cutting a 3⁄8"-deep groove. Run the drawer interior against the bit to rout a groove for the drawer bottom where shown in Figure 5.

7 Make the drawer bottom (P) slightly oversized. Trace the interior of the drawer onto the bottom panel. Lay the cut lines 1⁄4" outside of the traced lines. Saw the bottom to shape, test the fit, and then glue and clamp the drawer.

Beading the drawer

1 Use a square to mark a line 1⁄2" in from the front on the two drawer sides (M). Using a straight scrap of wood, bridge across the curved fronts to connect the lines you made on the sides.

2 Chuck a pattern cutting bit into a handheld router and cut a 1⁄8"-deep rabbet along the top, bottom, and sides of the drawer as shown in Photo K.

3 Mill four pieces of stock to 3⁄4" thick, two for the top/bottom beading (Q), and two for the side beading (R). (Start with stock a few inches longer than the measurements in the Cut List.) Shape the curved beads for the top and bottom edges, as shown in Photo L.

4 Saw and sand up to your line. Next, outfit your table-mounted router with a 1⁄8" beading bit and rout the two front edges of your curved stock, as shown in Photo M. Rout the edge of a piece of straight stock to make the side beading (R).

5 Cut the side beading (R) to width, and rip the beading free of the thicker boards. Bandsaw the beading oversized and plane to final thickness. Referring to Figure 6, lay the beading in its rabbets, mark the inside corners and carefully miter the parts to fit. Focus on the top and bottom first, then fit in the sides (Photo N). When you get the miters to fit, attach the beading to the drawer fronts using glue and a few 23-gauge pin nails.

6 Use a sharp chisel, followed up with a sanding block, to make the inside edges of the top and bottom beading (Q) flush with the inside faces of the drawer fronts. To fine-tune the bead profile, use a concave scraper (Photo O).

Rout a wide rabbet for the beading with a template bit and a simple MDF fence.
Use a small washer when tracing around the front to establish a beading strip with a 1⁄8" offset.

Finishing up

I made my table from African mahogany for the grain and rich color and because I could get wide boards at a good price. But this open-grained wood needs a little work for a showroom finish. Here’s my finishing schedule.

Rout both faces of a board for a pair of perfectly matching beads. Then bandsaw to thickness.

Cut the beading long, then pare the pieces corner by corner to make the miters fit tightly together. 
Scrape to even out and smooth the beading. Finish the corners with a chisel and sandpaper. 

1 Add water-based wood filler to achieve the consistency of mayonnaise. Apply a glob to the surface and spread it with a squeegee, pressing it into the pores. Water-based fillers dry fast so you’ll need to work quickly.

2 After the filler has dried, sand it to 220 grit and then seal the surface with a 1-pound cut coat of shellac. When the shellac has dried, scuff-sand all surfaces with 600 grit.

3 Spray on a coat of General Finishes orange dye, sand again with 600 grit, and then apply rosewood stain.

4 Spray on at least three coats of polyurethane. Give the finish a few days to cure, and then wet-sand the surface. I started with 800 and finished with 1500 grit to achieve a satin sheen.

5 Attach the pulls to the front and the top to the base, and you can put your table to good use. 


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