I’ve made this table in several different dimensions, but this one, with a 34″ top, is one of my favourites. It’s a great design for trying different wood combinations, particularly with the top panel, which is the visual center for this piece. For this version I used a rather striking slab of yellow birch burl for the top, coupled with black cherry for the base. A slim table like this calls out for that special piece of wood that you’ve stashed away.
There are two parts to this table. The top consists of a mitred frame and floating panel the base is made up of 19 narrow pieces joined together by biscuits, dowels and half lap joints. You could substitute mortise and tenon joinery for the biscuits and dowels. However this table is very light, and isn’t designed to hold a lot of weight – perhaps a lamp or vase of flowers.
I find it easier to mill all the lumber to dimension before beginning any joinery. For all the 1″ thick pieces I begin with 1 ¼” rough stock, and for the ¾” pieces I start with 1″ stock. I mill the stock in three stages – first I mill the panel for the top (from lumber out of my special stash), then the frame (B, C), aprons (D, E) and legs (H) from the 1 ¼” stock, and finally the stretchers (F, G, I, J), cross pieces (K), and center piece (L) from the 1″ stock.
I always mill the stock oversized, sticker it, and let it sit for a couple of days to stabilize. Then I mill all the boards to final thickness and width, but leave them a few inches longer. I cut the pieces to final length during the joinery stage and then sand them to remove any milling marks. It is important that all the pieces be accurately machined – square and straight. At this stage I examine each piece and using chalk (you can also use a soft pencil or masking tape) mark the outside faces, as well as the orientation (up, right side and left side). This is especially important for the legs, where you want to ensure the grain orientation complements the overall look of the table. To help eliminate the very real possibility of placing biscuit slots or dowel holes on the wrong face of a leg it’s a good idea to mark each pair as “FR” front right, “FL” front left, “BR” back right and “BL” back left, with arrows indicating which sides face ‘out’.
Make sure you cut some spare lengths of the 1″ x 1 ¼” stock for setting up the dados and tongues. This is not a difficult project, but some precision is required to get the various parts to fit snugly together, so work carefully, measure accurately, and use test pieces.
The Panel Floats in a Frame
The trick to ensure panels don’t split is to give them room to move. While you can cut the tongue and groove on the frame and panel with a standard table saw blade (or on a router table), I find it goes pretty quickly with a dado blade set, on the table saw. Because the frame edges are only 1″ thick, I chose to play it on the safe side and install a zero clearance insert (see Resources). Set the dado blade to make a ¼” wide by ⅜” deep cut, position the fence ¼” from the blade, and cut the groove on all the inside edges of the frame pieces. A rabbet on the top and bottom of the panel will create a ¼” tongue to fit into the frame grooves. Again, I cut this on the table saw with a dado blade, set to about ½” wide, and a tall sacrificial board clamped to the table saw fence. The tall fence helps steady the panel as you cut the rabbets. Ensure you lower the dado blade fully and slide the sacrificial fence about ¼” over the blade. Secure the fence and slowly raise the dado blade into the sacrificial fence about ¼” high to create a zero clearance slot. I find it helpful to use a spare piece of ¾” stock to adjust the fence and dado blade height so that it cuts a 3⁄16″ wide, ¼” deep dado. Save yourself some grief and cut a rabbet on both sides of the scrap piece – the resulting tongue should be ¼” and fit snugly (slight hand pressure) into the groove on the frame. If all is good, cut the rabbets on both sides of the panel. Some of the panels I use have natural edges on them, often at the corners, and I’m careful not to cut into these edges.
Mitres Join Frame to Panel
Sharp square edges don’t belong on furniture. Use a ¼” radius round over bit mounted in a router table to shape the top and bottom inside edges of the frames pieces (B, C), and a ¼” radius cove bit to profile the top outer edges. Using the table saw or mitre saw, cut the frame pieces to final dimension, remembering that the ends have 45º mitres. Mill a single R3 biscuit slot centered on each mitre.
Dowels Join Aprons to Top
Trim the aprons (D, E) to length, and on the tops of the two long aprons lay out three ¼” dowel holes, ⅝” in from the front. Place one hole in the center (16″ from one end) and one hole 2″ from each end. Layout these holes with care as the top frame and panel will sit ‘suspended’ on these six dowels. Drill the holes ½” deep. At assembly time drill the corresponding holes on the bottom of the top assembly.
Biscuits Join Aprons to Legs
I join the aprons (D, E) flush to the outside of the legs (H) with double R3 mini biscuits. Some cringe at the use of biscuits for joinery on fine furniture. However, I often use double biscuits as they are sufficiently strong, easy to cut once you get the hang of it, and importantly to me, very fast to complete. Of course, if you don’t have a biscuit joiner, use dowels. Position the biscuit slot about ¼” from the top edge of the aprons to avoid cutting into the top edge. Mark ⅝” down from the top of the two outside faces of each leg and with the same setting, plunge the corresponding slots on the inside faces of the four legs. Since the legs and aprons are both 1″ thick, the pairs of slots should match each other and provide a flush, strong joint. But don’t tempt fate – make test cuts on scrap pieces before committing to your project stock.
Dowels Join Stretchers to Legs
I join the stretchers (F, G, J) to the legs with 5⁄16″ dowels. The holes on the top of the legs are 3″ down, centered on the two inside faces of each leg, and ⅜” deep. The bottom holes are 4″ up, and ⅝” deep. Drill these holes on a drill press, as you want them to be straight. Using a center punch or scribe, mark the exact center on the ends of the stretchers, and drill 5⁄16″ holes, ⅝” deep in the ends. Drilling the dowel hole in the end of the long stretcher can be problematic, even if you have a floor standing drill press. I use a sharp, 5⁄16″ brad bit with the long stretcher clamped in a bench vice, and drill the hole carefully by hand.
Half Lap Joinery for the Bottom Assembly
Half lap joints join the crosspieces (K) and centerpiece (L) to the long lower stretchers (I), and the stretchers (I) to stretchers (J). There are several options for cutting these joints, including table saw equipped with a dado blade, router, or by hand with chisel and hand saw. Aim for a snug fit, testing the fit and adjusting as necessary. An alternative design option is to dispense with the crosspieces and the centerpiece. Such a decision would simplify the construction and avoid any structural problems.
Finishing the Table
I felt that an unobtrusive embellishment on the bottom legs would add to the visual effect. Using a table saw set up with a ⅛” blade, I first cut a ⅛” deep dado 1 ⅛” up from the bottom of the legs, and a second 1 ⅜” from the bottom. Using a hand plane I cut a chamfer around the bottom of the legs, which helps eliminate chipping when the table is moved around. At this stage I dry fit all the parts, to ensure that everything fits together nicely.
Prior to gluing, do as much finish sanding as possible. Gently ease over all edges, and lightly sand the faces and coves. Pay special attention to the top, easing the edges of the panel and the frame. Typically I work up to 220 grit sandpaper. I apply a finish to the top panel before assembly. Remember to include the bottom side of the panel, being careful to avoid any areas which will receive glue. On a table like this I use a blend of spar varnish, tung oil and turpentine, which I rag on and off several times.
First glue up the sides – the two side pairs of legs and the top short aprons (E), the top short stretchers (G) and the bottom short stretchers (J). Make sure the half lap on the bottom stretcher is facing ‘up’, as when you’re moving quickly little things can be overlooked. Glue up the bottom assembly – crosspieces (K), centerpiece (L) and long stretchers (I) separately. You may have to plane or sand flush any half lap joints that might be slightly proud. It’s now a piece of cake to glue up the two end leg assemblies with the top long aprons (D) the top long stretchers (F) and the bottom assembly. If you find that doing three things at once is a bit hectic, hold off on gluing the bottom assembly in place until after the aprons and stretchers have cured.
The last thing to do is to fi t the top to the base with six ¼” x 1″ dowels. The easiest way to mate the holes already drilled in the top of the long aprons (D) to the underside of the top frames (B), is to use dowel centers (Lee Valley #66J45.01). Drop the dowel centers into the holes, gently lay the top in place, and then apply hand pressure so that the centers register on the bottom of the top.
Turn the top over and drill the dowel holes, being careful not to drill through. The trick to getting a consistent reveal under the top, so that it appears to be floating on the base, is to first glue the dowels into the apron holes, leaving ½” of dowel protruding. Place strips of 1⁄16″ thick cardboard or plastic close to each of the six protruding dowels, and then apply glue to the dowel holes in the top, and gently set the panel on the apron dowels. Hand pressure should be enough to seat the top to the aprons. Press down until the top just touches each of the spacer strips. Remove the strips and you have a mock floating top frame and panel slightly above the aprons and legs.
Once the glue has cured you’re as good as gold. A lovely hall table like this will look good almost anywhere you need a small narrow table, not just in the hall.
Same Table Different Look
On an elegant table like this most of the attention is focused on the top, particularly if the table is placed in a narrow hallway. You can easily transform the look of the table by changing the top panel. Generally you’ll see a table built entirely out of the same wood, like the black cherry table (top). Of course, to keep costs down you could also use a more moderately priced lumber, like red oak.
Combining different woods can add a lot of visual interest. In the second photo (2nd) is the top featured in this article – yellow birch. The third and fourth photos show the table with walnut legs and frame, and a curly yellow birch top (3rd) and a flamed yellow birch top (bottom). The plank of flamed birch had a natural defect which I retained in the top, as I felt that the visual disruption added an element of curiosity and serves to hold attention longer.