Southern-Style Huntboard

A simple take on a Southern classic

I think huntboards are as much a part of the South as grits and barbecue. First appearing in the late 18th Century, these tall serving tables were used indoors and out as counters for informal dining. Over the years, the simple slab-board tables became more sophisticated, gradually evolving into pieces better suited for formal dining rooms.

My design was directly inspired by an antique my brother and sister-in-law found near Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Although the simple construction suggested humble origins, the piece had elegant lines and proportions that I knew could complement a hardworking kitchen as well as a fine dining room.

As I’ve helped students build this huntboard (over 100 at last count), I’ve learned from them, too, and adjusted the techniques to make this project builder-friendly and forgiving. In addition to receiving an introduction to a host of woodworking skills, the students graduate with a piece of Southern history.

A box with legs

For a major case piece, construction is surprisingly easy and forgiving. Start with the legs and work your way in. Aside from the mortises in the legs and breadboards, most of the work can be accomplished at the tablesaw. The biscuit-jointed cleats and drawer runners do more than just save time; they also offer just enough wiggle room to correct gaps and facilitate drawer installation.

Construction Sequence

  • Mill your stock, and rough-cut the parts.
  • Make the aprons and rail assemblies, then complete the base glue-up, leaving the back rails dry-fit.
  • Make the drawers, install drawer runners, and glue the back assembly in place.
  • Make and attach the breadboard top, then finish up.

Start with the legs

The original huntboard had 21⁄4" square legs that tapered down to 11⁄4". I was able to replicate the look with less expensive 8⁄4 stock by adjusting the tapers on the legs’ inner adjacent edges.

Because the legs are similar, it’s easy to lose track of the mortises and tapers. Label the legs immediately after milling, and then lay out the mortises and a 11⁄4" square on the bottom outside corner of each leg. Double-check your layout lines, and then rout or drill the apron and rail mortises. Next, use your tablesaw to groove the back legs, as shown below.

Tapering is the last step. Rather than attempting to calculate the angle, I use my layout lines to set my jig. The lines also ensure that I’m tapering the correct face.

Saw to the stop. Raise the blade to 3⁄4", and then mark the front tooth’s location on your tablesaw. Set the stopblock so that the lines touch at the end of the cut.

Taper setting made simple. Using the layout lines as a guide, position the fence so that the waste extends over the edge of the base

Tackling the tapers. Set the fence so that the blade grazes the base’s outer edge, and rip the tapers as shown. Taper all four legs, and then reset the fence and taper the adjacent faces.

Tenon two-step

All the tenons on this piece start 1" long × 3⁄8" thick. For speed and convenience, I cut the wide cheeks at the tablesaw with my stack dado. (Apply downward pressure to prevent lifting, and test each tenon in a sample mortise.) To finish the split tenons on the side aprons and the narrow shoulders on the rails, I switch over to hand tools. Mark the mortise locations on the tenons, and then saw and chop out the waste. When chiseling, simply stay clear of the shoulder line. Undercutting the shoulder does not affect the strength of the joint.

Sawing out the shoulders. A kataba makes quick work of the short cheek cuts. Saw off the pencil lines to create a little wiggle room for assembly.

Chipping out the waste. For a seamless joint, the shoulders do not need to be smooth, but the outer corners must remain crisp. Hold the chisel just off vertical (tilted toward you), and undercut the joint; then take out the chip.

Continue chopping until you reach the middle, then flip it and continue chopping from the other side.

Assemble in stages

It’s important to assemble the base in the right order. Glue up the front assembly (top and bottom rails, 3 stiles) with the front legs dry-fit to the rail tenons, as shown at right. Using the legs like clamping cauls enables you to keep the side stiles perfectly aligned. Then glue each side apron to a front and back leg. The last step at this stage is to glue the side assemblies to the front assembly, but just dry-fit the rear rails. Maintaining some flexibility at the back of the base will pay off during the next part of the project, when you install runner assemblies to guide and align the drawers.

Now assemble the sides. Glue the side aprons into the legs first. Check that the ends of the legs are flush with the aprons’ top edges.

Glue the front, not the back. Glue the front apron between the two side assemblies. The back rail is slid into the grooves—without glue—to facilitate assembly, and to allow you to check that the base is square.

Now fill the case

Here’s where I tell students to put their tape measures down. First, fit the cleats to the rails, cut the biscuit slots, and screw the cleats to the rails, flush with the top edge. (Biscuits aren’t as tough as tenons, but the narrow wooden wafers allow the runners to pop in place, by simply sliding the back rail up.)

After cutting the drawer fronts, fit the other parts to your case and assemble your drawer. Hand-cut dovetails are nice, but out of practicality, my students use a jig. If you choose to make the drawer differently, note the oversized rear rabbet. In keeping with the original, this tab is used instead of a stop to adjust the fit.

After trimming the drawer sides, position the drawers in place, and adjust the back rail, as shown below. When the drawers are flush with the front, pin the rail to the back legs and then attach the guides to the runners. Finally, install the back panel and back top rail.

Lift the back to fix the front. Use the free-floating back rail to make the drawers flush with the front.

Guides go in last. Insert a few thin shims between the drawer and guides, and then screw them to the runners.

Build a breadboard top

Breadboard ends are one of woodworking’s slickest solutions for managing wood movement. The ends permit the top panel to expand and contract across the grain in response to seasonal changes while preventing it from cupping. This detail also adds a classy touch.

To start, dress the rails and panel to final thickness. Next, lay out a centerline on the rails, and cut the mortise.

This twin-fenced routing guide can ensure that your tenon shoulders line up. To make the jig, temporarily tack two strips together, rip the strips so that the edges are perfectly parallel, and then drill the bolt holes. The sacrificial base (attached after drilling the bolt holes) shows the exact location of the bit.

To use the jig, sandwich the top between the fences and, slide the base to the tenon shoulder line. Adjust the bit depth so that routing from both directions yields a tenon that’s a hair fat. To finish a 1" long tenon, place a 1⁄2" wide spacer against the pass and make a second pass.

After routing, fit the tenon and insert the pins.

Shop-Made Pins, Done Safely

Commercial dowels are convenient, but they don’t make great pins. The problem is that they swell too much to fit the hole or have grain runout issues that cause them to split as they’re tapped home. My solution is to make my own. To make a dowel from scratch, drill a hole (in this case, 1⁄4"-dia.) in a piece of steel or 1⁄8"-thick aluminum. Next, rip a strip of straight-grained wood slightly oversized, as shown below, left. Chamfer the end of strip, and drive it through the hole.

Tapped to perfection. After chamfering an end with a pencil sharpener, set the dowel on the sizing plate and drive it through the hole.

Tenoning the top. Set the edge of the sacrificial base against the tenon shoulder line, lock the jig to the top, and start routing. To complete the tenon, set a spacer against the fence and make a second pass. 

Trimming the tenon. I leave the top panel several inches long until the full length of the tenon has been routed. Then I use the waste piece to support my jigsaw as I cut the tenon to its finished length. 

Peg it together. Squeeze the breadboard tight to the top, and then drill the through holes for the pegs. 

Finishing and final assembly

Cherry doesn’t need much help; sunlight and oxygen do a better job of adding color than anything you can get from a can. After a quick final inspection and spot sanding, I brushed on four coats of General Finish’s Enduro-Var. I finished both sides of the top, but left the interior of the case and drawers unfinished. (Waterbased finishes don’t outgas as much as oil-based finishes, but I don’t want the drawers to smell or stick.)

Give the piece a few days to dry before attaching the pulls and top (see photo, right). As a crowning touch, apply a coat of wax to give the piece a little extra protection and extra pop.

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