Top Secret Table

A lesson in hidden compartments built into a sweet little table 

It’s not often “U.S. Government” appears on our shop phone caller-ID. And I was certainly surprised when the voice inquired if we could design a custom course in concealment furniture making for a group of Navy Seals. As an instructor at the Lohr School of Woodworking, I know firsthand that we are not a reputed hub of covert operations, but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to change that!

This table, born of that request, provided a fun design challenge. It combines traditional furniture making techniques with commonly available hardware to create surreptitious storage in a finely built, but inconspicuous piece of furniture. The four hideaways include a compartment under the hinged top, a cavity behind each of the two side aprons, and a false back in the drawer. The top is secured with an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) lock that requires passing an electronic key-card over it to release it. The child-proof lock on the left-hand side compartment disengages with the use of a dowel-encased magnet, while the push-latches in the right-hand compartment require only finger pressure. Pushing the drawer stop up from underneath releases the drawer to expose its hidden back space.

My hope is that building this piece teaches and inspires you to incorporate similar secrets into your own furniture. Just remember—and this is important—never under any circumstances should you peek under redacted information!

Typical table construction with a few twists

With its tapered legs and mortise-and-tenon joinery, the construction of this table is fairly typical. The main difference is the use of inner side aprons to connect the front and back assemblies, which allows hinging false aprons at the sides to create hidden cavities behind them. A panel set level with the top rail creates a compartment that’s accessible by lifting the table top. The drawer’s false back (p. 43) also hides a section at the rear. 

Order of Work

  • Mill, mortise, and taper legs
  • Make rear apron and rails
  • Make side aprons
  • Configure the top compartment
  • Attach the false aprons
  • Make top and drawer


Want a closer look at this table’s secrets? Go online and watch our secret agent video…before the tape self-destructs.

There, you’ll also find links to table-making content, including plans for the tapering jig used in this story.

Mill, mortise, and taper the legs

Mill the leg blanks to squared size, cutting them from rift-sawn stock (with diagonally oriented annular rings) to ensure relatively straight-grain on all faces. If you don’t have thick stock, legs can be attractively laminated. (Visit onlineEXTRAS.) Mark them for desired orientation, and then lay out and cut the mortises before sawing the tapers. 

Mortise for the rails and rear apron. When using a hollow chisel mortiser, I start with the ends, and then make a series of cuts separated by a distance a bit less than the chisel’s width. This approach prevents the workpiece from shifting, keeping the cuts straight and true. 

Taper the legs. Sawing the tapers on the table saw is fast and accurate, and requires only a pass on the jointer to clean up the saw marks. See onlineEXTRAS for plans on making this versatile, competent tapering jig. 

Make the rear apron and rails

Mill the rear apron and front rails to size, then cut their tenons. I do this at the tablesaw as shown. Next, plane each tenon for a perfect fit in its mortise.

The parts should slip together without undue force, and should stay together simply as the result of the friction fit.

Cut the cheeks. Using a dado head and a sacrificial fence, saw the cheeks a bit fat, flipping the stock over to make each cut in turn. Afterward, raise the cutter to saw the narrow shoulders. The resulting tenon width should be about 1⁄8" less than the mortise length.

Fine fitting. Having cut all the tenons a bit fat, use a rabbet plane to trim the cheeks as necessary to create a snug fit in each mortise. Number each tenon to match its mating leg. Here, a bench hook holds the stock for quick, secure trimming.

Make the side aprons

Make the false aprons to width, but oversized in length for now, glue on the unbeveled (for easier clamping) cleats, and set them aside. Make the inner side aprons, groove them to accept the top compartment panel, and face the front end of each with a strip of veneer. Then notch the inner face of the left-hand apron as shown. Dry-clamp the legs to the rear apron and front rails, mark for the screw clearance holes in the side aprons, and then drill the holes and counterbores at the drill press. With the side aprons clamped in place, use an awl to locate the pilot hole locations in the legs. 

Disassemble the parts, and use a template to mark for the hinge pin locations. Then drill the hinge pin holes and the pilot holes in the legs to attach the inner aprons. 

Notch for the left-hand lock. After laying out the 1 × 7⁄8" recess for the child-proof lock on the left-hand inner apron, rout it out to a depth of 7⁄16". No need to get fussy with this cut; it just needs to provide clearance for the head of the catch without cutting through to the opposing groove.

Marking hinge pin locations. For precision, locate the false apron hinge pin holes in the legs using a template. Tapping an awl slipped into the template hole does the job. Then drill the stepped holes for the receiver cups at the drill press. A 15⁄32" countersink drilled with a standard twist drill should fit the flange perfectly, and a 3⁄8"-diameter hole should suit the barrel. But test the fits in scrap first. 

Make a jig to set the Soss hinges

Build the hinge-mortise routing jig, and then rout out the hinge mortises as shown. The jig guides a router for cutting T-shaped mortises for a pair of Soss “invisible” hinges. The fences are screwed in place when mortising the table rail, and are removed later when routing the mating mortises on the underside of the table top. After routing the rail mortises, sand the legs, rear apron, false aprons, and rails, and then glue up the front and back assemblies. Screw the inner aprons to the legs using washer-head screws and a hand driver. Then fit the top compartment panel, and notch it for the RFID lock. 

Set up for routing Soss hinge mortises. Mount the table’s top rail between the jig fences with the centerlines of each aligned. Then clamp the jig in a bench vise. 

Rout for the Soss hinges. Outfit your router with a 5⁄8"-O.D bushing and a 1⁄2"-diameter up-cut spiral bit, then rout the deep section of each mortise with the stop-strips in place. Remove them to rout the longer, shallow section of each mortise. 

Front assembly glue-up. When gluing up the legs to the front rails, carefully align the top rail with the tops of the legs, and use a pair of 4"-long spacers to ensure that the bottom rail is perfectly parallel to the top rail. 

Attach the false aprons

Now you’re ready to fit and attach the false aprons. With the inner aprons attached to the legs, begin by crosscutting your previously glued-up false apron-and-cleat assemblies for a snug fit between the legs. Bevel the cleats as shown in the detail drawing on page 37, and make and attach the battens. Also attach the hinges and catches. Then attach each false apron in turn as shown.

Attach the false aprons. With the front end of an inner apron detached from its leg, slip the rear end of a false apron in place, inserting its hinge pin into its hole. Then pull the front leg away as shown in order to insert the opposite hinge pin. Reattach the inner apron to the leg, and repeat the process for the remaining false apron.

Make the top and drawer

Because this top is not secured to the aprons all around like a typical table top, I made it with breadboard construction to keep it flat. Referring to the dimensions shown in the drawing on page 37, build the top following the instructions beginning on page 46. Then rout the hinge mortises as shown. Make the drawer using sliding dovetails to attach the front. I rout the socket using a jig, and then saw the dovetail, but you could use a router table instead. Make the drawer stop also, gluing only one end for now. 

Rout the hinge mortises in the top. Detach the fences from your hinge mortising jig, and clamp it to the underside of the table top, centering it along the width of the top, and offsetting the center of the jig 1" from the table’s front edge (inset). As before, remove the stop strips when cutting the long, shallow section of each mortise.

Rout the dovetail slot in the drawer front. Rout the dovetail sockets in the drawer front using a simple shop-made bushing-guided jig and a router outfitted with a 5⁄8"-dia. bushing and a 1⁄2", 14° dovetail bit. Clamp and tape the template to the workpiece. 

Sawing a Sliding Dovetail

Although many woodworkers cut sliding dovetails on a router table, I find the table saw to be just as effective. All you need is a tenoning jig and a miter gauge to hold the work. 

Edge layout. Using your dovetail socket as a reference, lay out the dovetail on the edge of scrap that’s the same thickness as your project stock.

Saw the cheeks. With the blade tilted 14° and the scrap clamped securely to a tenon jig, adjust for a cut just outside your dovetail cheek and shoulder layout lines. Cut one cheek, then flip the work over on the jig, and cut the opposite cheek. 

Saw the shoulders. Saw the shoulders, registering the cut against a rip fence stand-off block. Set the blade height just shy of scoring the cheek. After sawing both shoulders, chisel away the waste that remains at the cut intersections. Now check the fit in the dovetail socket. It should be slightly fat. Repeat the cheek cuts, removing tiny amounts at a time until the joint fits snugly. Then cut all your workpiece cheeks with that setting, followed by all the shoulder cuts.

Final assembly and finishing touches

Make the drawer runners, pre-drill them, and attach them to the inner aprons. Use a block plane to cut a 45° chamfer with a 3/16"-wide flat on the foremost top edge of each front leg to allow swing clearance for the top. Make the parts for the table top prop, but don’t attach it yet. Remove all the hardware, scuff-sand all surfaces, and apply finish to all the parts. Reattach the false aprons and their hardware, and attach the RFID hook to the rear apron as shown. Then screw on the prop, connect the top with the Soss hinges, and attach the RFID box to the underside of the top. Finally, attach the drawer stop, inserting it in its hole in the drawer bottom, and then gluing the remaining disc to the dowel.

Attach the drawer runners. With the table on its side, and the drawer front shimmed evenly in place, locate each pre-drilled drawer runner against the underside of the drawer. Double-faced tape will keep the runner in place as you use a combination square to adjust the runner parallel to the underside of the inner apron. Then drill pilot holes in the apron, and screw the runners to the inner aprons.

Attach the RFID lock. The RFID lock consists of a battery-operated box that attaches to the underside of the table top, and a catch plate on the rear apron (top). To locate the lock, connect the two parts, and push the box against the compartment panel (left), which properly locates the catch plate underneath the panel (right). Install a screw in the slot, test the lock operation, and make any necessary adjustments before locking the unit in place with a screw in the hole. 

Connect the top. After screwing the Soss hinges to the front rail, attach them to the table top. Because the top won’t fully open 90°, you’ll need to prop the lid on a board, and use a right-angle screwdriver to do the work.

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