Every dining space is unique – learn to make a dining table that fits your space.
This dining room table will stand up to daily use, but also look elegant enough to host holiday gatherings and evening get-togethers. An important feature to consider is the material for the top. There are lots of options when it comes to choosing material for a solid wood top. Some wood features mineral streaks, sapwood/heartwood combinations, or natural figure that looks great highlighted as part of a table’s surface. Some lumber is soft, like Douglas fir or pine, and will change quite a bit over the years as it picks up character. While other lumber is much more durable, like white ash or hard maple, and will stay crisp for a long time. Whatever wood you select don’t be afraid to use material with interesting, natural features to make a truly one-of-a-kind table.
Using a guide bushing is a simple and effective way to get accurately placed mortises.
Drawing the arc
This low-tech method of marking arcs is perfect for this application.
Hand planing a curve
A flat-soled small plane can be skewed to work a gentle inside curve. However, the first choice would be a compass plane.
Clamping the bead
Don't be afraid to bring out all your clamping power when gluing on a curve – in this case, more is better.
Laying out boards
It's important to strike a balance between esthetics and wood movement – choose the position of the boards carefully.
Routing the table top arc
Take small bites with the router to ensure a clean and burn-free cut.
Attaching the top
Choose your screw length carefully to avoid breaking through or telegraphing the screw tip.
Dimensions for a Dining Table
When building a table there are a few dimensions you should keep in mind for function and comfort’s sake. The most important one is the overall height of the table. A dimension between 29″ and 30″ is standard. This height will not only be very comfortable and familiar for the vast majority of people, but it will also work well with the standard chair height.
Another dimension to keep in mind is the distance from the floor to the underside of the apron. If this dimension is too small there will not be enough space for people to put their legs underneath the table. If it’s too large you may have trouble making the table strong and stable. A height of 24 ½” to 25 ½” is standard.
The final measurement that you should consider before making any sawdust is the overall dimensions of the top. If the table is going to go into a small room you don’t want people to have difficulty sitting down and getting up from the table because a wall is interfering with a chair. A comfortable minimum space between the table and a wall is 36″. This will allow everyone to have access to the table easily and whoever is serving can have full access to the table. If space is really tight you can reduce this distance to no less than 24″, but realize that it will not be as comfortable and welcoming for everyone. Dining tables are usually between 36″ and 45″ in depth, while the length can vary to suit the room or the number of guests you expect to host.
Begin with the Legs
Although I always try to avoid gluing up a blank for each leg, finding a piece of wood thick enough isn’t always possible. If you have to glue up legs, take great care in matching wood for grain and colour so any glue joints don’t stand out. Before I broke out the legs I glued a few 2 x 4s together and came up with a leg design that looked right for the table. Using such designs and models help me make decisions about how to construct the table. Questions like “Where do I cut the mortises in the leg?” “How much of a reveal looks good between the leg and the apron?” and “How do I know what curve looks good on the leg?” will be answered with this model leg.
Now you can begin to mill the material for the four legs. When doing so, keep the end grain in mind. If the legs are to have curves cut into their outer faces the annual growth rings should be oriented so they travel on a 45° angle from the inside corner of the leg to the outside corner. When the curves are cut into the legs the grain lines will mimic the curve and produce a balanced, beautiful leg. For now, machine the legs to final width and thickness while leaving them 1″ long in their length. This extra inch will make it easier to machine the mortises.
Cut the Mortises
The mortise and tenon joints that will secure the apron to the legs need to be strong to keep this table together. The mortise in this case, should be 3″ in length and needs to stop at least ½” from the top of the leg (don’t forget about the extra 1″ we left on the top of each leg when planning to cut this joint). Each tenon should have a shoulder of at least ⅛” so when assembled it can seat itself against the side of the leg. This is where the model leg comes into play. By using it, and a model apron, you can get a better idea of where the mortises need to be. Start by drawing the top view of one of the legs, with both mortises.
I use a plunge router equipped with a spiral bit and a brass template guide. The template guide runs in a groove I machine into a piece of ¼” plywood. I attach a couple of cleats to the plywood so the groove will be positioned directly over the mortise location and I clamp the plywood to the leg. The template guide fits the groove with absolutely no sideways movement, so the router can move back and forth to create a perfectly straight mortise. The mortise depth is limited to the length of the bit. That’s the reason I use thin plywood. Anything thicker would just take away from the depth, and therefore strength, of the mortise.
When you’re confident about location and depth, machine the eight mortises on the inside top faces of the legs. Now you can cut the legs to their final length of 28″.
Cutting the Tenons
Determine the overall length of the aprons. Add double the depth of the mortises to the between shoulders measurement of the aprons, then subtract ⅛”. You subtract the ⅛” to make sure the tenons don’t bottom out in the mortise during assembly (1/16″ per mortise). Machine the aprons to overall size.
I machine the tenon on the ends of each apron with a dado blade in my table saw, but there are many ways to cut them. Start with the outer face of the apron face down on the table saw. Adjust the dado blade to cut the first cheek of the tenon and adjust the fence so the tenon will be 1/16″ less than the depth of the mortise. The depth of the first tenon cheek will determine the location of the apron in relation to the leg, so make sure the face of the apron finishes where it’s supposed to. Cut the first cheek on all of the tenons. Now carefully adjust the height of the dado blade to cut the other side of the tenon cheek. It doesn’t have to be a perfect fit right away – you can always use a shoulder plane to shave the tenon down to a perfect fit later. After all the cheeks are cut, use a handsaw to notch the top portion of the tenon so it will fit each mortise. With a file, round the corners of the tenon and test fit the joint. If it doesn’t fit, use a shoulder plane, chisel or file to make some minor adjustments. You are looking for a fit that doesn’t require a mallet to force it together, but it also doesn’t just fall together without any force at all.
Graceful Curves Add Beauty
The arc on the underside of each of the four aprons can now be drawn onto the aprons with the help of a flexible straightedge, three blocks and clamps. The arc is 1″ narrower in the center of the apron than it is at the edges. Cut the arc with a bandsaw or jigsaw, but leave about 1/16″ of material on the apron to work with. Because there are only two aprons of each size, (two long aprons and two short aprons) I don’t go to the trouble of making a pattern for my router table. I find it easier and quicker to use an assortment of planes (depending on how tight the radius is) to take the high spots down and fair the curve by hand. The ideal tool here would be a compass plane but, by skewing a flat-soled hand plane, you can plane to a slightly tighter curve.
Joint and plane a blank to obtain the four ⅜” thick beads. The blank should be at least 3″ longer than required. Rip slightly oversize strips from the blank, then send them through a planer to bring them to ⅜” in thickness. To create the bead, use a 3/16″ round-over bit in the router table and cut a quarter round in two adjoining edges. Always use feather boards and push sticks to protect your hands from the bit when machining smaller pieces on a router table. It takes a bit of time to set up but it’s much better than nicking one of your fingers.
Before gluing the beads, sand the front underside corner of the aprons to break the edge. You will need a caul long enough to cover the entire length of the apron and all the clamps you have…maybe more. Apply glue judiciously to the underside of the apron – any excess glue will squeeze out and may cause problems down the road. You can use a finishing nail to tack the bead in place, then, with the caul, start applying the clamps. I routed a quarter round in the back of the apron. This cove will feel a bit better on the hand if someone reached under and grasped the underside of the apron. Remove any glue squeeze-out with a sharp paint scraper. Cut the overhanging bead to length using a fine handsaw so it’s flush with the shoulders of the tenons.
Refer to your leg model before you cut the curves of the legs. Trace lines directly onto the legs and use a bandsaw to cut them out. The first cut in each leg will be simple, but the second one will require you to tape the off-cut back onto the leg in order to bandsaw the second curve. The off-cut will hold the leg parallel with the bandsaw’s surface. Use a hand plane to even out the surfaces and then sand the surfaces smooth.
Wooden Blocks Allow Movement to Occur
Using hardwood, machine a blank about 5″ wide and 1 ¼” thick. The blank should be fairly long – at least 20″ is good – so you have a lot of material to hold on to during machining. Cut a rabbet along the end of the blank with dado blades in the table saw. This leaves a ⅜” thick x ½” long tenon. With a mitre saw, crosscut the blocks (including the tenon you just machined) to about 2 ½” long. This piece can be cut on the bandsaw to final size. Repeat this process until you have enough blocks, or continue to make blocks for your next project. Drill two holes in each block so they can be secured to the underside of the table.
The grooves in the aprons that will accept each tabletop clamp block are machined with a router. The groove has to be larger than the tenon on the clamp blocks, so choose an appropriate router bit. When the tenon on the clamp block is secured against the upper portion of the groove, the upper surface of the clamp block should be flush with the top of the apron. You can’t have the clamp block protrude above the top edge of the apron because then the tabletop will not be fastened securely to the base. With an edge guide attached to the router, make a test cut in a piece of scrap. When the location is perfect, cut all the grooves on the insides of the aprons. I used ten clamp blocks in total, to go along with a solid wood cleat glued to the center of each short apron.
Assembling the Base in Stages
Now it’s time to assemble the base. Dry fit everything, because you don’t want any surprises after you apply glue to the mortises and tenons. Rather than assemble the entire base at once, break it into three different subassemblies. First, glue one short apron to its two mating legs while the rest of the base is dry assembled around the first subassembly. Make sure everything is square while the glue dries. Next, glue the other short apron to its mating legs and lastly, glue the two long aprons to the two subassemblies.
You should apply glue blocks in the corners for some additional apron-to-leg strength. Glue blocks go a long way to adding strength to an integral joint.
Gluing Up the Solid Top
Before you start to glue up the top make sure the wood you’re using is at the proper moisture content. There are a number of problems that come with using wood that is too wet, but glue failure and excessive warping are the main ones.
Cut the boards to rough length then joint and plane them to within ⅛” of their final thickness. Lay the boards flat so you can see what grain and colour you’re dealing with. You will want to orient each board so it looks good beside its neighbor. You also want to keep growth ring orientation in mind. With a large solid wood top it’s important to alternate the growth rings to help keep warping to a minimum and to ensure that your top stays together for years to come.
Once you’re happy with how the boards look and the growth rings are oriented properly it’s time to glue them together. If you have a 36″ planer, you’re in luck. Glue the boards together and send them through the planer to flush the surfaces. If you don’t have a 36″ planer, don’t feel bad…there’s still hope. After jointing the edges to get a straight, even glue joint, glue boards together to form blanks that will still fit through the planer you have. I glued everything into 13″ widths, and then sent them through my planer to bring them to final thickness. These 13″ wide blanks were jointed then glued together to form the top. During this final step use a lot of care to align edges and keep the panel as flat as possible. I find people tend to under clamp during this sort of operation. I use as many clamps as possible, alternating them below and above the panel to keep the panel flat. It’s also easier to keep everything straight and aligned if you clamp just two blanks together at a time. Once the glue is dry, rip the top to final width.
A 9′ radius needs to be cut at both ends of the top. To do this, attach a board to the underside, middle of the table top. Attach a long circle cutting router jig to this board. The jig can be made of a couple of pieces of ¾” plywood that are attached together. Simply secure a router to one end with the bit protruding through the jig. Make sure you attach the jig to the first board so the center of the arc is aligned with the center line of the table. Also make sure that there is 9′ between the inside of the bit and the center point of the arc. With small passes rout the arc into the end of the top. Repeat the same process to cut the arc on the other end.
Feel free to use your own imagination to come up with an edge profile. I used a large round-over bit (about 1½” radius) with a bearing to rout the underside of the top and a small round-over bit (3/16″radius) to rout the top edge.
After some hand planing and lots of sanding with a belt sander and sanding block you are ready to attach the top to the base. Flip the top upside down on a workbench. Make sure something soft – some carpet works great – is between the top and the bench so you don’t scratch the top surface. Center the base over the top. Secure the base to the top by inserting some #10 screws through the solid cleats. You will have to drill a pilot hole in the top to avoid splitting the top. When driving screws into the top make sure the screws are the right length. You don’t want a screw to poke through the top, ruining a beautiful surface. You also don’t want to use a screw that’s too short, as it will not provide enough holding power. Aim to have the end of the screw stop between ¼” and ⅜” away from the top surface. Last, but not least, install an adjustable leveler foot centered on the bottom of each leg.
Applying an Appropriate Finish
This table will be subject to a lot of use so I wanted a finish that will stand up to everything from liquid and heat to stains and scratches. There are pros and cons associated with every finish. There’s no such thing as The Best finish. The best you can aim for is the best finish for this piece. Varnish, although it dries slowly and is harder to apply, is a great choice for all around protection, cost and availability. With a brush, apply the first coat thinned 25% with paint thinner. When dry, give it a light sand with some 320 grit paper. Apply additional coats full strength – two coats are fine for the base, while three will protect the top – sanding between coats to get rid of any roughness. Often I will wipe on the last coat with a rag to get a nice, smooth finish. If you are having troubles applying that last smooth coat, thin it 25% to allow it to flow out a bit better. While finishing, make sure that the area you are working in is as dust-free as possible. A few days after you apply the final coat, rub the surface with #0000 steel wool and wax. You will be rewarded with a beautiful smooth surface that repels liquids – perfect for a dining table.
This dining table is sturdy, elegant, and built to take the punishment that will be thrown its way for years to come. I’m sure it will earn many scratches and dents, during boisterous family gatherings, weekend craft sessions, or spirited dinners with friends that roll late into the night. After years of use, the patina will become a big part of its character, and memories of those events will be the highlights.
June/July ’09, Issue #60
Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.