Teaching Table

A "furniture making fundamentals" course built into a popular project

At the JD Lohr School of Woodworking, we use this hall table project as a vehicle to teach fundamental approaches to furniture making. By building this piece, you’ll learn a slew of great techniques that will give you a jump start in your woodworking education.

For example, when making the top, you’ll learn how to glue up a strong panel with attractively composed grain. Same thing for the legs; whether you’re cutting them from 8/4 stock, or laminating them to thickness, I’ll show you how to achieve visual harmony on all the faces. The technique for tapering the legs will also serve you when making many future tables. As for the aprons, you’ll discover a simple, time-honored trick for laying out their curves, and a neat planing trick for fairing their edges after cutting.

For the best in structural integrity and longevity, you won’t find this piece constructed with screws, but with venerable mortise-and-tenon joinery. I’ll show you how to make these joints to ensure that your work stays together for generations. And the glue-up process will teach you an approach you’ll use on many similar tables and other pieces.

So welcome to class! And, hey, even if you already know all this stuff, you still end up with a fine looking table that will sit pretty in any room of the house.

Strong style

This table derives its strength primarily from the rock-solid mortise-and-tenon joinery that connects the aprons to the legs. The solid wood top attaches to the aprons with L-shaped wooden “buttons” that allow the panel to expand and contract seasonally across the grain. The tapered legs and arched side aprons provide style to accompany solidity. 

Order of Work

  • Make the legs.
  • Rout the leg mortises.
  • Cut the tenons.
  • Taper the legs.
  • Shape the aprons.
  • Glue up the table.

onlineEXTRAS

  • Mortising Jig
  • Tapering Jig
  • Batch-cut Buttons

Laminating table legs

Making table legs by laminating stock requires a thoughtful approach to prevent an unsightly collision of grain at the seams. Here’s a great technique for creating four 1-3/4"-square legs from one 4/4-thick board. Three of the legs will have book-matched grain on one face, and one leg will have custom-matched grain. (That is, lay them out the best you can.) Use the most straight-grained sections of the board to create attractive legs. 

Pretty legs require thought

Begin by making the legs, as this is where the joinery layout starts. If you make your legs from 8/4 stock, prefer rift-sawn sections, which will display relatively straight grain on all faces. Avoid sections with wide cathedral grain. Unfortunately, 8/4 stock isn’t always available, in which case you’ll need to glue up each leg from two pieces of 4/4 stock. The figure (facing page) shows you a great way to create four matching legs that don’t call loud attention to their seams. The photos below demonstrate a quick, accurate method for crosscutting the legs to length.

Quick, safe crosscutting. To cut each leg to length, I first square up one end (left), and then register that end against a 2" spacer block sitting against my rip fence to make the second cut (right). Employing a spacer like this allows use of the fence’s scale (adding 2"), but creates clearance between the workpiece and the fence for a safe crosscut that won’t jam and kick back.

Joinery begins with the mortises

Determine the best orientation of the legs, and mark them as shown to indicate their relative positions. Then lay out the mortises where shown in the drawing on page 37. If you use a good mortising jig, you need only lay out two mortises as shown below, center.

Alternatively, you could do the cutting simply with a router outfitted with an edge guide, in which case you’ll need to lay out one mortise in full, and then just the end lines for the rest. Jig or not, rout to a 7/8" depth (1/8" more than the tenon length) in a series of passes no more than about 3/8" deep to prevent stressing the bit. 

Pretty, good order. Arrange the dimensioned legs so that the straightest grain will be on the most prominent faces. Then number them 1 & 2 at the front, and 3 & 4 at the rear for easy re-orientation later.

Jig-ready. If you use a good mortising jig, you need lay out only two mortises, as the jig will then automatically register the others. Still, make sure to mark the other mortise faces with chalk to avoid set-up confusion. 

A good mortising jig. The mortising jig we use in our class (See onlineEXTRAS) automatically registers the position of the legs in the jig for quick, accurate routing of the mortises. 

Precise tenons visit the saw, then a hand plane

I cut the tenons at the table saw using a 3/4" stack dado, setting up the cut with a test piece milled to the precise thickness of my apron material. I register the tenon length using the fence and my 2" spacer block. Creep up on the thickness by raising the blade a bit at a time and then checking the results against the mortise. Aim for a slightly fat fit at the saw so that you can trim to a precise thickness afterward using a shoulder plane.

Next, saw the tenon edges. Make sure to cut them slightly shy as shown, which saves you the trouble of having to round the tenon edges or square the mortise ends. It also allows some adjustment for flushing the aprons to the top ends of the legs.

All that’s left to complete your mortise-and-tenon joints is to fine-tune the tenon thickness, using a rabbet block plane (as shown) or a shoulder plane. Take just a few swipes, then test the fit. Repeat as necessary until the tenon inserts with slight to moderate hand pressure. You should be able to pick the leg up by the apron without the joint being so tight that you have to grunt and contort your face to seat it. Glue can quickly swell a too-tight joint and make assembly a sweaty nightmare. Don’t worry if you overcompensate and plane the tenon too thin, as you can always build it back up with veneer to take another stab at it.

Cheeks first. Set up the cut using scrap and a stack dado. Register the length of the tenon against a fence-backed spacer block, saw one cheek, then flip the piece to saw the other. 
Edges next. After sawing all the tenon cheeks, raise the dado head to cut the tenon edges, again registering the piece against the fence spacer before feeding the work across the blade.
Slightly shy. After sawing the edges, the tenon width should extend only across the flat faces of the mortise, not into the rounded ends. This does not compromise the joint strength.
Final fitting. Registering an apron piece against a bench hook, use a finely set rabbet block plane (shown) or shoulder plane to trim the tenon to final thickness. 

Tapers shape the legs

I taper just the inside faces of the legs, starting at 7" down from the top, as shown in the drawing on p. 36.

You could lay out the tapers, cut them at the bandsaw, and then clean up to your cut lines with a jointer or hand plane. However, a table saw tapering jig does the job much more efficiently and consistently. Plus, when using a jig, you need only lay out the tapers on one leg, which you’ll then use to set up the fence and stop on the jig.

A jig for the job. A table saw tapering jig provides the best way to shape the legs. This version (see onlineExtras) was designed by woodworker and teacher Steve Latta. 

Fair curves for a shapely apron

To shape the long aprons, begin by laying out the curve using a batten. (If the apron includes curved grain, orient the batten to complement it, as shown.) Note that the curve begins 2" in from each tenon shoulder. Trace a nice, bold line that you won’t lose at the bandsaw, and cut just outside it. Next, fair and smooth the curve. Don’t give in to a temptation to do this with a spindle sander or the nose of a belt sander, as it’s likely to go badly using a small drum on such a large curve.

Fairing a curve like this is best done with a cutting tool like a spokeshave. A block plane will also work as long as you skew it. Whatever tool you use, fair back some of the wood where the ends of the curve meet the flats. The goal is to create an easy sloping transition. Follow up by smoothing the entire bottom edge of the apron with sandpaper.

Finally, rout the button mortises, which will provide purchase for the button hold-downs that secure the top to the table base.

Spring the curve. To lay out the apron curve, trace against a thin wooden batten held in place with a finishing nail at the center and a 2"-wide block at each end to automatically locate the curve’s ends.

Just plane fair. A block plane does a great job of fairing the apron curve, as long as you skew it, which effectively shortens the sole enough for the blade to contact the concave edge. 

Mortising for buttons. A router outfitted with an edge guide and 1⁄2"-dia. plunge bit makes easy work of cutting the button mortises. Here, a simple holding jig secures the workpieces for the job.

Glue up in stages

In preparation for glue-up, do a dry clamping to ensure the joints close well and the top edges of the aprons align with the tops of the legs. This is also a good time to prepare your clamping cauls and rehearse your procedures before reaching for the glue. 

When you’re ready to glue up, begin with a side assembly. Apply glue to the long mortise walls, and then to the tenon cheeks. These face-grain to face-grain contact surfaces are all that matter. Definitely avoid the tenon shoulders to prevent a big squeezeout mess. Immediately pull the joints together with clamps, and check that the top edges of the apron align with the tops of the legs. If the apron sits lower than the leg, work quickly to correct the alignment as shown below. If the leg sits lower, place a caul atop the uprighted apron and leg, and spread a pipe clamp’s jaws between the caul and the underside of your workbench to pull the parts into alignment.

Scrutinize for glue squeezeout and remove it immediately. I scrub it away with a tooth brush and clean water. Afterward, I feather the water outward to randomize any remaining traces. When you have completed both end assemblies, wait about an hour for the glue to set, then clamp both assemblies to the long aprons, and check the base for square by comparing its diagonal measurements.

Side assemblies first.
Taping 3⁄4"-wide cauls to the legs in line with the apron directs the clamping pressure across the apron to prevent the legs from cocking. If the apron sits shy of the top of the leg, invert the assembly, and tap or clamp it into alignment as shown here.
Then connect the aprons. After the glue sets on the end assemblies, glue them to the aprons. Use strong clamps, again making sure to align the aprons’ top edges with the tops of the legs before the glue tacks up.

Tips to make the top 

The table top is really the star of the show, so spend some time selecting just the right board. You want some 4/4 stock that excites you, but that is also flat enough to yield 7/8" in thickness after milling, which is no small feat. For a visually cohesive laminated top, cut all the pieces from the same board. Ideally, you want straight grained sections on edges to obscure the seams. Remove any end checks, then cut the pieces at least an inch over their finished length. When you’re happy with the composition of your boards, mark their orientation with a triangle. I run each mating edge over the jointer to ensure perfect closure. Once you confirm everything pulls tight, glue up the panel.

After glue-up, level and smooth the top with hand planes, and then scrape and sand it. Saw it to final dimensions, rout a 1/4"-radius roundover on all edges, and finish-sand. (See page 30 for tips on making great table tops.) 

Composition for triangle. When laminating a top from multiple boards, note your final composition with a triangle to ensure that you glue the boards back up in the same order.

Crosscutting to length. After ripping an assembled top to final width, cut it to length using a crosscut sled.

Finishing up

All that’s left is to apply a finish and attach the top. The usual approach we teach begins by slathering on boiled linseed oil, letting it soak in, and then wiping off the excess, which really “pops” the wood’s natural color and figure. After the oil dries for at least 5 days, apply four or five coats of a wipe-on poly, sanding between coats with 400 grit sandpaper and rubbing with 0000 steel wool. After the final coat is applied, allow the piece to cure for a week, then do a final rub-out with 0000 steel wool lubricated with mineral oil. Alternatively, if you make your base of oak or ash, consider treating it with a flame finish, as shown at right.

The last step is to make the wooden buttons (See onlineExtras), and use them to attach the top. Make sure to set them back 1/8" or so from the long aprons to allow for seasonal expansion. Okay, class over. Nice work!  

Black base, tawny top. The flame finish (see p. 54) on this red oak base beautifully complements the natural tones of the figured oak top. 

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