Craft a set of Mission night tables
Like many woodworkers, I have always loved the clean lines of Mission-style furniture. After making a Mission bed for our guest room, I decided we needed a pair of matching night tables. Mission-style furniture involves a lot of clean horizontal and vertical lines, as well as simple, flat panels. Oak is the typical wood used in the construction of Mission furniture. It was usually quarter cut to reveal its large rays, which would be further accentuated by the finish.
Bookmatching Looks Great
A bookmatched panel has great symmetry, which is a big part of what Mission-style furniture is all about. All the panels are bookmatched.
Lots of Grooves
Because Gillard used floating tenons to join many of the workpieces, grooves must be machined in the edges and ends of the stiles and rails.
When making floating tenons it’s critical the grain is oriented correctly or the joints will be very weak. Notice how the grain of the tenon that’s inserted in the rail is running parallel with the grain of the rail.
A router table is a great way to accurately machine stopped grooves. The grooves in the legs start at the upper end but stop before exiting out their lower end.
With so many parts it would be impossible to assemble all of them at the same time. Creating gable sub-assemblies is the answer.
Simple, Yet Strong
Dowel joints are simple to machine, yet offer more than enough strength to keep the rail-to-leg joints tight for a long time. Jigs are great, though dowel centers could be used.
Check for Square
Once the main assembly has been completed, it’s important to check for square and make any adjustments. This makes hanging the drawer and door much easier.
A long tenon on the edge of the top panel is machined on the table saw. The ends of this tenon will be trimmed back a bit before it’s fit into a groove on the breadboard ends.
The breadboard ends have stopped grooves so the joint isn’t visible.
Temporary Filler Strip
When drilling the hole for the peg, insert a filler piece in the groove so the wood doesn’t blow out near the groove. Gillard used some extra floating tenon material he had.
Make Your Dowels
A 1/4" diameter hole in a piece of steel will allow you to pound some 1/4" wide strips through to create pegs in the same material as the rest of this project. Ease the end of the strip so it will be easier to start, and chamfer the edges so the hammering will be easier.
Two cleats, one on the inside of the lower front rail and one on the inside of the lower back rail, allow you to use tabletop mounting clamps to secure the bottom panel in place.
Drawer Hanging Jig
A piece of solid wood the same width as the drawer slides was attached flush with the edge of a piece of 1/4" plywood. The thickness of the solid wood combined with the plywood equals the finished thickness of the main drawer slide. The jigs are clamped to the inner face of the gables while the drawer is installed. The jig’s location can be adjusted to position the drawer properly, then a line can be marked on the lower edge of the jig. The real drawer slide is aligned with that line.
Notch the Bottom
Notch the bottom so it fits around the legs. Leaving a small gap will allow for changes in humidity.
Dovetails are aesthetically pleasing and strong, and once a dovetail jig is set up it’s easy and quick to machine the joints for the drawers.
Close Your Door
A small filler piece is attached to the gable so a magnetic catch can be used to keep the door closed.
Finish Before Assembly
Because Gillard wanted the drawer fronts to be a different colour than the drawer sides, he applied a finish to the fronts before assembly.
Secured loosely with a pan head screw, this flip-stop is usually in this position to stop the drawer from being pulled right out. If it’s rotated down the drawer can be removed.
Bring It All Together
Tabletop mounting clamps bring the final few parts into position. Here, Gillard attaches the bottom panel.
Final Finishing Coat
Though the panels are already finished, once the piece is complete the rest of it has to be finished to match. Removing the bottom panel, top panel and drawer makes applying a finish easier.
Using quarter cut material
This is an aspect of the project where you can get as serious as you’d like. If the rays of quarter cut material are important to you, you’ll have to either purchase quarter cut lumber or start with thicker material and break out the parts from the board at an angle so the workpiece’s faces are quarter cut.
There’s nothing wrong with using flat cut or rift sawn material for this project, although it won’t give you the traditional ray fleck look Mission furniture is known for. A third option is to meet somewhere in the middle and use or saw quarter cut material for the more visible parts, while using flat or rift sawn material for the rest. No approach is wrong.
As with all furniture, there are many ways to produce strong joinery that will keep the piece functioning for years to come. Much of this depends on tooling available and the joinery preferences of the maker.
I use basic frame and panel construction for the gables and back, while the tops of these night tables also use a similar approach, but there are other options when it comes to joining the frame members. Mortise and tenon joints are a common approach, for example. I opted to use a mix of dowels in some joints and floating tenons in other joints, depending on a few details. Feel free to substitute another joint if you feel more comfortable making it.
Layout is important
I start the build by laying out the parts on the rough boards. I try to make the top and bottom rails from the same board so the grain and colour flow naturally around the piece.
Once the layout of the pieces is marked, I rough cut the lumber to length. Leave an inch of extra length to account for final trimming. Next, dimension the pieces on the jointer, planer and table saw.
The legs are made by laminating two or three pieces together and adding a 1/16″ shop-sawn veneer on two of the faces to cover the glued edges. This allows the face grain to be displayed on all four sides. The corners will be slightly chamfered to hide the glue line between the veneer and the solid faces. If you don’t apply quarter cut veneers to the edges of the legs, I recommend using straight-grained wood for these faces to keep the strong vertical lines of the legs simple.
The panels for the door, sides and back are re-sawn on the bandsaw. The two halves are bookmatched to present a mirror image on either side of the center divider. Since the panels are made of solid wood, they must be allowed to float within the frames. This is to prevent cracking from movement caused by seasonal changes in humidity. Since the panels are free to move slightly within the frames, they must be pre-finished so unfinished portions of the panels aren’t seen near their edges as the panel moves.
Joinery, then sub-assemblies
Cut grooves for the panels, rails and stiles into the legs on the router table. Cut the grooves in the rear legs on two faces; one groove to accept the side rails and panels, and one groove to accept the parts that make up the back. These slots start from the top of the leg and are stopped 1-3/4″ from the bottom so they don’t extend below the bottom rails.
I used floating tenons to connect the rails to the legs. Therefore, a matching slot had to be routed into the ends of each rail. Make sure to orient the grain direction properly or the tenons will be very weak. Offcuts make good stock for creating the floating tenons.
A slot in each rail
A slot is also required in each rail to accept the panel. The top will be held on using tabletop mounting clamps to allow for seasonal movement. Cut a slot along the top of the rails to accommodate the tabletop mounting clamps. These are cut on the table saw 5/8″ from the top edge.
With all the pieces complete, the sides can be glued together to form the first sub-assemblies.
With the sides complete it’s time to start on the back. Once again, panels are re-sawn and bookmatched to provide a mirror effect across the center stile, and rails and stiles for the back panel are made, similar to how the sides were joined.
Before the back can be attached to the sides, cut the front top stretcher to size. The front bottom stretcher has a slight curve on the bottom edge. This is drawn with a marking bow, cut on the bandsaw, and can be smoothed out on the oscillating belt sander or with hand tools. Attach the front stretchers using 1/4″ dowels. Either a dowel jig or dowel centers can help with locating the dowels.
At this point a final dry fitting of the sub-assemblies and the remaining parts is in order. If nothing else, it will allow you to practice the order of operations for these night tables. We all know that as soon as glue is applied Murphy’s Law kicks in and throws us a curve ball, so being prepared is important. Collecting the necessary clamps, glue and any other little things like clamping cauls, glue brushes and the like is a great start. It’s critical to check for square at this point and adjust if necessary.
Now the doors
The door panel is made of a glue-up of two narrower panels, bookmatched at the center line. The doors follow similar construction as the sides with slots for the prefinished panels routed into the rails and stiles. One exception here is the use of dowels instead of tenons to connect the rails to the stiles. This avoids having the slot and tenons visible at the top of the door.
Top it off
The top comprises a center panel with breadboard ends. First, I glue up and flatten the center panel. Having a drum sander is a great luxury for this operation.
Next, a tenon is machined on each end of the panel on the table saw with a dado blade. This tenon will fit into a matching slot routed into the breadboard ends. The slot stops before the end of the board so it’s not visible once everything is assembled in keeping with a typical Mission look.
Once again, we need to account for seasonal movement across the grain, so the end caps cannot be glued to the tenons along its entire length. Instead, they are glued for the first 2″ at the front. At the back, it’s pulled tight by drilling offset holes for a dowel pin. The hole in the tenon is elongated to allow the center panel to expand and contract without introducing undue stresses and potential for cracking. The hole in the tenon is offset by approximately 1/32″ from the hole in the end cap. When drilling the holes in the end cap, insert some scrap in the slot to prevent blow-out inside the slot when the drill breaks through. When the dowel is hammered in, it draws the two pieces tightly together. When dry, the dowel is flush cut and sanded smooth.
I wanted to use dowels of the same material as the table, so I made my own. This is simply a piece of scrap steel with a 1/4″ hole drilled in it. I cut some scrap stock slightly bigger than the hole, tapered the end, chamfered all four corners and hammered it through the hole. The result was a round dowel and a perfect fit.
With the case dry-assembled, measure for the bottom panel which is a simple glue-up of several boards. The panel is notched at the corners to fit around the legs. I like to orient the grain front to back, especially on oak, as it makes it easier to slide things in and out of the cabinet without cross-grain friction.
To secure the bottom panel I used a pair of wood cleats attached to the lower front and back rails, and some tabletop mounting clamps. The cleats support the shelf, and a few tabletop mounting clamps fit into a table saw blade kerf in the cleats to keep the bottom panel in place. The top surface of the cleat is mounted 3/4″ below the top of the front and rear rails, so when it’s in place the bottom shelf is flush with the top of the rails. I found it easiest to fit the bottom panel, then remove it for finishing.
With the main cabinet parts together, it’s time to make some drawers. There are many ways to join and hang a drawer, but my approach was to machine a groove on the sides of the drawers and then install a wood drawer slide on the inner face of the side top rail that the drawer would run on. I came up with a way to position the drawer slides with a simple jig made up of 1/4″ plywood and a narrow strip of wood. Essentially, if you build the drawer at least 1/2″ narrower than the opening, then the jig will work. More about how the jig works later.
I milled the fronts, sides and backs to size and cut half-blind dovetail joints at the fronts. Less showy joints can be used at the back, though if you’ve already wrapped your mind around machine-cut dovetails to secure the fronts to the sides, it might be simple enough to use this same joint to secure the drawer back.
Because the drawer front is stained but not the sides, I must dry fit the drawer parts and sand everything perfectly flush. Then I stain the drawer front and apply a coat of polyurethane to all parts. Be careful not to get any poly in the sockets or on the back side of the tails. Doing so would compromise the glue joint. Once the finish has dried, I glue up the drawers.
Next, grooves are milled into the drawer sides to match up with the drawer slide that will be attached to the inside of the cabinet. These grooves are machined on the router table.
To hang the drawers square in the cabinet, I made a simple jig that positions a temporary slide within the drawer opening. Remember, I mentioned the fact that the drawer has to be at least 1/2″ narrower than the drawer opening. This is because two layers of 1/4″ thick plywood will need to temporarily fit between the drawer sides and the inside of the cabinet’s gable. Thankfully, 1/4″ plywood is slightly thinner than 1/4″, so that gives us a small gap.
A temporary slide about 1/4″ thinner than the real slides is attached to a piece of 1/4″ plywood, and the piece of plywood is clamped to the inner cabinet sides through the top opening. By loosening the clamps and shifting the slide jig while the drawer is in position, the slides can be positioned perfectly. Once placement is finalized, I scribe a line on the inside on the cabinet, flush with the lower edge of the jig, and install the final slides flush with this line.
The final slides are sanded to 220 grit, and both the slides and drawer grooves are coated with paste wax for a smooth sliding action.
Add some details
The door is held shut by a magnetic catch screwed to a block glued to the back side of the front leg.
I added a flip-stop to prevent the drawer from coming all the way out. It’s attached to the same block as the magnetic catch.
Adding an interior shelf, if that’s a feature you’d like to have, is similar to making the bottom panel. It’s held in place by the same type of clips. A small gap is left near the edges to allow for seasonal movement so the shelf doesn’t press on the leg.
After bringing everything together for a test fit, it’s time to finish staining and applying polyurethane. The finishing technique is quite basic but still produces a result that emulates the classic Mission look of fumed white oak. I used MinWax Early American oil-based stain and two coats of MinWax satin polyurethane applied with a foam brush. Sand the polyurethane lightly between coats to end up with a smooth finish, but just be careful after the first coat because you don’t want to sand through the topcoat and leave scratches on the stained wood.