Parsons-inspired Table

Despite what many people think, a Parsons table has nothing to do with a parson or parsonage. Rather, the design was reportedly conceived as the result of a class challenge by French designer Jean-Michel Frank at the Parsons Paris school of art and design in the 1930s. Although the style does not have strict parameters, a Parsons table is generally defined as having legs that are square in cross-section with no tapers or other shaping, and a combined top/apron thickness that is visually the same thickness as the legs. Typically, the edges of the top are flush with the faces of the aprons and legs, keeping each side in one plane.

One ostensible benefit of a Parsons table is that its simplicity of form suits just about any décor. I appreciate this concept but find the look a bit too austere, so I took a few liberties. The first is that the top here overhangs the aprons by about 1-1/2", which I like better aesthetically. This also allows use of a solid wood top—the edges of which would not otherwise stay flush with the apron perimeter due to seasonal movement. Secondly, I recessed the aprons 1/2" back from the leg faces, strictly for aesthetics. Lastly, I made the aprons a little wider than tradition might demand in order to increase joint strength. I think this final design will stand nicely in just about any room.

Order of Work

  • Make the top
  • Make and mortise the legs
  • Make the aprons and fit the tenons
  • Glue up the base
  • Finish all and attach the top

Simple, solid structure for a timeless table

This project represents the fundamentals of rock-solid table construction. The base consists of four squared legs that connect to their aprons with beefy mortise-and-tenon joinery. Because very thick stock can be hard to come by, the 3 × 3" legs were built up from 8/4 stock. Corner braces further stiffen the structure. The solid-wood top attaches with metal tabletop clips to slots in the aprons, allowing for seasonal expansion and contraction. A screw block in the middle at each end keeps the top centered.

Note: All apron lengths include tenons.

Top demands the best stock

The tabletop is your main canvas here, so begin by laying it out using your best stock. (See onlineEXTRAS) Dress boards straight and square, then switch, flip, and slip them to get the composition you want. To minimize flattening work afterward, install #10 biscuits for alignment. For ease of assembly of big boards like this, I edge-glue only two or three at a time, using a slow-setting glue such as Titebond III. Then I use my table saw sled to crosscut these larger sections to final length before edge-gluing them together to make the complete top. Afterward, I rout the ends flush as shown. Let the top sit for at least a couple of days to make sure all the glue evaporates, then flatten it. (See sidebar, p. 36.)

Biscuit alignment. Biscuits help keep long boards like this aligned during glue-up. When cutting the biscuit slots, make sure to press the work down firmly against the bench to ensure that the slots mate properly.
Flush-rout. To flush up any slight misalignment at the ends of the assembled boards, outfit a router with a straight bit, and guide it against a straightedge clamped to the top. To support a large panel like this, screw long support beams to plywood I-beam risers that clamp to your bench.

Size to suit the seasons

The overhang of this top is minimal, so any drastic seasonal shrinkage may be very apparent. To avoid visual imbalance, size the width of the top to suit the season. If you’re building during the driest winter months, size the top as shown in the drawing so that it always maintains its minimum overhang. If you’re building during the humid season, I suggest adding 1⁄2" to the width.

Flattening panels with a belt sander

Flattening large glued-up panels is most easily done with a stationary wide-belt sander. Many commercial shops will do this for a fee. If you don’t have access to one, hand planes will do the job, but they risk tearing out unruly grain. Fortunately, a portable belt sander will do a good job if handled properly. For best results, use a large sander (mine takes a 4 × 24" belt), and begin with the finest grit that will do the job relatively quickly. I usually begin with 80 grit. To remove stock quickly while flattening humps, begin with diagonal strokes as shown in the drawing below. After the initial coarse-grit flattening, subsequent sanding with finer grits is done only in the direction of the grain.

Mark and start. Mark any high spots and target them first, sanding diagonally in one direction. Slowly lower the running sander onto a ridge and immediately start moving it back and forth in increasingly longer strokes until a straightedge indicates that the high spot is level with the adjacent area. After flattening all the high spots, sand the entire top diagonally in the same direction. Then sand diagonally opposite, and then with the grain.

Scratch detector. After completing the initial “with-the-grain” pass using the coarsest grit, inspect the surface under a strong raking light in a dimmed shop. It may reveal (as here) some diagonal scratches that need further sanding with the grain.

Paths to victory

When belt-sanding large panels, practice on the underside first. Lower the running sander onto the workpiece, keep the platen level, and immediately begin moving the tool upon contact. Don’t bear down; let the sander weight determine the pressure. Suspend half of the platen at a panel edge. Lap each pass slightly over the previous one, and move at a consistent pace both back and forth. Unless a panel is very flat to begin with, I generally start by sanding diagonally one direction, then diagonally in the other direction, followed by overlapping passes made with the grain.

Make and mortise legs

I built up each of these thick legs from two pieces of 8/4 stock. To ensure straight grain on all faces, lay out the parts from riftsawn sections of boards. Laminate the blanks oversized, and then mill them to final size. Select the show faces, mark all of the legs for orientation, then lay out and cut the mortises. Fully lay out one mortise for setting your tool fence, then lay out just the length extents for the others. 

Laminate oversized. Build up the leg blanks from thick riftsawn stock, identified by diagonal annular rings. Orient the parts to maximize flowing face grain and to understate glue lines, then mark their pairings. After laminating the blanks, mill them to final size, and mark them for orientation on the table.

Cutting mortises. A hollow chisel mortiser is a great tool for cutting deep mortises. For efficiency and accuracy, begin by fully plunging each end of the mortise, and then offset the cuts in between by less than the chisel width. Finally, plunge-cut each remaining section of waste.

Make the aprons

Mill the aprons to finished size, along with a length of extra stock for saw setups. Organize the parts to display nice grain, and then mark them for reorientation later. Lay out the tenons and saw them as shown, then trim them to thickness for a snug fit in their mortises. After fitting each individual joint, dry-fit the entire base to make sure everything pulls up tight and square.

Saw the tenons. Cut the tenons to thickness with a dado head, using the rip fence as a length stop. Saw one cheek, and then flip the workpiece over to saw the other. Aim for a tenon that’s just a bit too fat to slip in its mortise. Then cut each tenon to width by feeding the stock on edge (inset).

Trim to final fit. Use a shoulder plane to trim the tenons to final thickness. When sliding into their mortises, the tenons should encounter some friction, but not so much as to require pounding with a mallet to drive them home.

Assemble the base

Smooth the aprons and legs. Rout a 1/8" roundover on the bottom edges of the aprons, the edges of the legs, and around each foot. Next, I suggest applying a coat of finish to all the parts, avoiding the joint surfaces. This “prefinishing” step prevents glue squeeze-out from contaminating raw wood. After the finish dries, glue up the base in two stages as shown. Finally, make and attach the corner braces.

End assemblies first. Glue the legs to the short aprons. Parallel jaw clamps are best for assemblies like this where the apron is not centered on the leg faces. Whatever clamps you use, make sure that the inner faces of the legs remain square to the aprons under clamp pressure.

Connect with long aprons. It’s a long reach to connect the end assemblies to the long aprons. If you don’t have long enough clamps, you can daisy-chain a couple together, hooking them on the ends of stout dressed beams extending past the ends of the base.

Attach the corner braces. At the bench, lay out the screw hole locations on the corner braces, and make a notched block to fit around the outside corner of the leg for easy clamping. Then drill pilot holes and clearance holes, and drive in #8 × 21⁄2" screws.

Apply finish and attach the top

Attach this solid wood top with tabletop clips to allow it to expand and contract seasonally across its width. To keep it centered over time, I fix it with a single screw in the middle of each short apron. Make and attach the center screw blocks first, then slot for the tabletop clips as shown, using a slotting cutter. (See p. 62.) Next, complete your finish work. I applied four coats of wiping varnish to the base and underside of the top. The upper surface got six coats. Afterward, attach the top, setting the long apron clips back to suit the season of assembly.

Slotting setup. Test the extension of the slotting cutter on scrap. The slot offset should be just a hair more than the clip’s offset to ensure the apron will be pulled into full contact with the tabletop.

Rout the clip slots. When routing the slots for the tabletop clips, clamp a thick board to the apron to provide router support. Mark it with router-travel stop-lines to establish the 2"-long slots.

Clip it down. Snug the tabletop clips up against the short aprons. Locate the long apron clips to accommodate seasonal movement across the grain. This table was built during the dry winter months, so the clips are set back about 3⁄16" to allow for future expansion.

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