Have Fun with Transforming Tables

Put dowel joinery to work, and make a project that can serve as a stool, a bench, or a bookcase.

This Bauhaus-inspired, transforming table is my favorite example of elegant meets easy. It’s a nice weekend project for experienced woodworkers and a fun challenge for beginners, with a variety of skill-building lessons. A single table can also function as a stool or small workbench. But by stacking multiple units together, you can create an attractive set of shelves.

I designed the piece to match the width of the 1 × 12" pine boards available at home centers (actual width: 11-1/4"). Feel free to shorten the sides to make the table or stool a more comfortable height. And if you want to replace the dowel joints with dovetails or finger joints, or trade out the clear pine for hardwood, go for it. 

Flat boards, joined by dowels in 2 diameters

A 6 ft. 1 × 12" will yield the table’s sides and top, with a little left over. Take your time selecting your wood, because it’s important to start with stock that’s clear and flat. As shown in the drawing, table sides are secured to the top with 3/8"-dia., 1-1/2-long dowel pins. Three 1"-dia. dowels (spindles) strengthen the assembly, joining sides with round through-tenons that are glued and wedged in place. 

Order of Work

  • Cut sides and top to finished size.
  • Drill the large holes in the sides.
  • Make and slot the tenons on the spindles.
  • Make and use the drill guide for dowelling.
  • Make and insert the wedges.
  • Assemble, and apply the finish.

Round tenons on the router table

With the sides and top cut to size, it’s time to begin your joinery work. I carefully lay out the centers for 7/8"-dia. holes in the sides, so that the spindles that hold the sides apart will be parallel and secure. The technique I use for creating round tenons on the router table is not difficult, but make sure you have some extra 1"-dia. dowel stock to test your setup. Cut your 1" dowels to a length of 15-1/2", and position the fence so that your tenon length will be 1". You’ll trim the tenons flush after the table is fully assembled. 

Make a V-groove guide block. With the miter saw tilted for a 45° bevel, make a pair of cuts to create a V-groove in a 2 × 6" board. A groove depth of around 3⁄4" will give you plenty of leverage for routing your tenons. You can also create your V-groove guide block by making two bevel cuts on the table saw. 
Straight bit cuts a round tenon. Position the fence to act as a stop, 1" from the far edge of the bit. Clamp the guide block in place, and raise the bit to remove just shy of 1⁄16" from the spindle. Turn on the router, seat a test spindle in the V-groove, and slide it forward until it bottoms out against the fence. Rotate and repeat until the round tenon is complete. Test-fit your tenon in the holes you drilled, and fine-tune bit height until the fit is right.

8 dowels for strong corner joints

While the spindles stabilize the sides, I use smaller dowels to join the sides to the top. A good doweling jig is necessary for this step. You can use a store-bought version, or make your own on a drill press, as I’ve done here. To make my jig, I first cut a piece of 3/4"-thick plywood to the same width as the table parts, to use as a guide block. I laid out the outside dowel holes 11/16" from the edges, and spaced the rest 1-7/16" from each other.

Set up a fence on the drill press that is 3/8" away from the center of the bit. Use the same 3/8" brad-point bit you’ll use to drill the dowel holes. Place a backer board under the guide block for clean exit. Hold the guide block against the fence as you drill each hole. Then glue a fence to the guide board; it should be the same length as the guide strip and at least double its width. When drilling the table sides, register the jig’s fence on the outer face; for the top, set the guide block against the outside face, as shown at right.

Flag the depth. These holes should only be 1" deep, so make a mark on the workpiece and use it to attach a tape flag to the drill bit to act as a stop. To keep the drill bit aligned with the workpiece and guide, drop to one knee and sight along the bit. Stop when the tape flag reaches the jig.
Drill through the top. Note the different orientation of the guide here.
The holes in the top go all the way through, so clamp a scrap board underneath to prevent chipout on the bottom. The “A” registration mark on the top should meet its match when the side is attached, ensuring proper joint orientation.

Assembly: Install the big dowels first

It’s smart to have a dry “dress rehearsal” to make sure all parts fit together properly before you start spreading glue. If everything checks out, you can make wedges for all your through-tenons, and get started. Begin the assembly by gluing kerfed 7/8"-dia. through-tenons in their holes, clamping the sides together, and installing wedges to lock these joints together. Keep the sides aligned by inserting a couple of 3/8"-dia. dowels through the top and into the sides without glue.

Cut wedges at the bandsaw to the size shown in the drawing on page 22.

Whack the wedges. Orient the wedge kerfs perpendicular to the grain. Otherwise, the wedging action could split the boards. Brush glue onto the wedges and bang ’em in. A dull thud signals that the wedges are in place.

Glue on the top. Apply glue in the holes in the sides first. Then insert the dowels, twisting them to spread the glue, and then brush glue onto the ends of the dowels that are sticking up. Fit the top onto the tips of the dowels, and use a rubber mallet to knock it down into place. 

Pull it together. Place clamps as close to the dowels as possible without hitting them. Put clamps near the edges of the top, and then add a couple near the middle of the joints to be sure the top won’t bow upward. Wait overnight for the glue to fully dry.

Finishing touches

You’re in the home stretch. Unclamp the piece, and remove any exposed dried glue with a scraper. The dowels, tenons, and wedges are all sticking out at this point, and the corner joints might require some minor alterations. Trim everything flush, and prep for a perfect finish.

Sand for a smooth surface. Use a block plane to trim what’s left, and a sanding block to smooth it out. Flip the table on its back to saw off the excess dowels, and sand them flush and smooth. Now sand every surface through 220 grit and add a light chamfer on all the edges. 

Finish it up. I like the rustic feel of a simple wipe-on oil finish on pine. Apply each coat liberally, wipe off the excess, and let it dry. Then sand lightly with 320-grit paper and repeat. Stop when you like the look. A three-coat application is usually the ticket.

Asa Christiana is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, now living and working in Portland, Oregon. This article is adapted from his new book, Build Stuff with Wood (Taunton Press, fall 2017), which is packed with fun, easy projects like this one.

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