Make a bedside table with triangle inlay
A simple bedside table created from a stunning piece of wood.
Sometimes you have a piece of lumber that’s so beautiful and has so much raw potential that it calls to you, begging to be made into something nice. That was certainly the case with this stunning arbutus board. Despite its rough appearance in its raw form, I knew how incredible this wood was because I had already used a portion of it to make a small entry bench. The problem was that only a small amount remained (2″ × 8″ × 54″). I hoped that this would be enough to make a small bedside table.
Arbutus and Jarrah Harmony
Selecting a harmonious species of wood for the inlay was important to the outcome of this project.
After hogging away the majority of the waste with a router the delicate work begins.
UHMW plastic in a groove makes an excellent low-friction drawer slide. For the drawer front to fit Bartley had to chisel away the first inch of material flush with the case bottom. The runners are screwed in place and have a small notching in them, near the front, to allow the drawer front to sit inset into the case.
Tails cut at the table saw are then cleaned up with a sharp chisel.
After carefully transferring the tails to the pins the waste area becomes clear. Wherever there is blue tape must remain untouched.
Assembled Dovetail Joint
The satisfaction of a tight-fitting dovetail joint will put a smile on any woodworker’s face.
The Rejected Design
Bartley rejected this base design because it was far too busy.
The second version of the base involved making tapered legs the same width as the base. These could then be tapered and trimmed for a much cleaner overall look.
Once the parts were trimmed to size, Bartley rounded everything over with a trim router and then cleaned up the machine marks with a spokeshave and sandpaper.
A half-lap joint that doesn’t completely overlap the rails will offer strength for years to come.
Resawing and creating panels
After designing the bedside table with the piece of lumber I had, the next step was to square up the rough board and resaw it in two. As I began to mill the lumber, the first few passes on the jointer immediately began to reveal that this board was going to have some fairly serious cracks and voids in it. Sure enough, once I resawed it in two there was no getting around the fact that in order to make the table an appropriate size and achieve the bookmatched look I was after, I simply couldn’t avoid the blemishes. Instead, I would have to find a way to incorporate them into my design.
While the resawed lumber sat stickered while acclimatizing to my shop I played around with a few ideas in my head. Filling the voids with pigmented epoxy briefly crossed my mind. This, however, seemed like a band-aid approach and I felt it would take away from the rest of the piece. I knew that many people inlay bowties to deal with cracks and I love the way these can look when performing a structural role. In my case, though, I needed to cover up a void and not halt the spread of a crack. Ultimately, I decided to inlay geometric shapes over the blemished areas using a complementary accent wood. I loved the harmony between the arbutus and some Australian jarrah that I had on my “special wood” shelf.
With a plan of action decided upon, I glued the two boards together in a bookmatched panel and laid out the four parts that would make up the main case.
Onto the inlay
Once the glue dried I crosscut the panel into four pieces (top, bottom and two sides) and began laying out the inlay pieces. I decided to use a variety of isosceles and scalene triangular shapes and make this the theme for the overall piece.
After sketching out triangles on the panel that covered the voids and creating an interesting pattern, I cut the inlay pieces out of a piece of 3/8″ thick jarrah at the bandsaw. Using my beloved Veritas pocket plane, I cleaned up the bandsaw marks on the triangles. I then added a very slight under-bevel so that the inlay would wedge itself into the recessed areas, ensuring a tight fit.
With the inlay pieces made up, the next step was to carefully transfer the shape to the workpiece. Much like transferring tails to pins when cutting dovetails, it’s essential that this layout be done accurately. Any errors at this stage will certainly show up in the final product. Scoring a line around the inlay piece with a sharp, flat-backed marking knife was definitely the way to go here. A pencil line is not reliable enough nor will it help you position your chisel when chiselling away the final waste. It’s a good idea to secure the inlay to the workpiece using a few dabs of CA glue or double-sided tape.
Beginning with light pressure and taking multiple passes, score a line around the inlay. If the marking knife lines are hard to see, rub a small amount of pencil lead into them for contrast.
Rout most of it out
Excavating the recess for the inlay begins with a router. Choose a straight bit that can plunge in 5/16″ to the waste area and sneak up on your lines leaving only a small amount of material to clean up with a good sharp chisel. I made my life a bit more difficult with this project by choosing triangles with quite acute angles. The smallest straight router bit I own is 1/4″ which left a decent amount of material to remove in the corners. To make matters more challenging, the corners of the triangles were too tight for even my smallest chisel. To get around this problem I slowly and carefully cut away the waste with a small carving knife and scalpel.
Before tapping the inlay into place I added a small chamfer to the bottom edges. Not only did this help the pieces get started, but it also allowed a space for any extra glue to sit. After applying a small amount of glue to the hollowed-out areas I carefully tapped the pieces into place. In order to apply even pressure, I tapped the pieces in by hitting a scrap block of wood slightly larger than the inlay. The final step was to plane away the 1/16″ or so of material sitting proud of the surface. If any tiny gaps exist a small amount of glue and some light sanding would close those up.
Case joinery, construction and runners
There are many different approaches when selecting joints for the case, but I cut rabbets using a dado blade. The first step was to cut a rabbet the width of the case sides into the top and bottom panels. I then added a 1/4″ rabbet along the back of all four sides to accept a back. The sides of a bedside table will rarely, if ever, be seen and this method makes a square glue-up easy to achieve.
While I had the dado blade set up, I also added grooves for two UHMW plastic runners to sit in. I like using this low-friction plastic as it eliminates the need for any metal drawer hardware or unsightly grooves on the side of the drawer. This high molecular plastic is easy to work with and one or two passes of a hand plane creates a glass-smooth surface for the drawer to slide on.
Pre-finish the insides
The final step before glue-up was to pre-finish the inside of the case. I sanded to 150 grit and then added several coats of shellac. Once the finish had dried, the glue-up for this case is about as simple as they come, and if your table saw is in proper alignment everything should be 100% square.
After the glue dried, I planed the front edges of the case flush and glued on a mitered face frame of matching arbutus. In order to be able to add a stop for the drawer, the back panel will be screwed on in the final stage of the project.
I love the look of traditional half-blind dovetails, and with just a single small drawer to make, it was no big chore to use them for this project. After milling up stock for the sides and back I could get to work on the tails. We all know that there are many, many ways to cut dovetails.
My preferred technique involves cutting the tails at the table saw and the pins by hand. To cut the tails I attach a high fence to my crosscut sled and then tilt the blade to 9.5° (1:6 ratio). On a sacrificial test piece, I can then dial in the height of the blade up to my marking gauge line. Once I line up the first cut, I add a stop block to the sled. This allows me to make two identical cuts on each piece by flipping the drawer side around. I can then reposition the stop block for each subsequent cut. The number of tails will equal the number of times you have to set the stop. The small amount of waste remaining can easily be removed with a coping saw and a small amount of chisel work.
With the tails cut and cleaned up I then carefully align the tail board to the marking gauge line on the drawer front leaving about 3/16″ overhang on the top and bottom of the drawer front. Prior to alignment I add blue painters’ tape to the pin board. With the pieces lined up and held in place I can then cut along the tails with a sharp flat-backed marking knife. Once the tape is removed from the waste area I know exactly where not to cut.
After cutting diagonally along the pin shoulders with a Japanese dozuki saw, I turn to the drill press and a forstner bit. By drilling as close as possible to the inside shoulder line I can sever the end-grain fibres and make chiselling out the waste much quicker and easier.
Accurate final pairing along each pin, up to the edge of the blue tape, will yield a slightly too-tight fitting joint. To ease the fit, I like to use a popsicle stick with 120-grit sandpaper glued to it. This allows a nice flat surface to gently sand the side of each pin and remove just enough material to allow the joint to seat. If the layout is done with care and precision, the joint should slide home for a gapless friction fit.
Prior to glue-up I cut a groove into the drawer front and sides to accept a 1/4″ cherry plywood panel. The panel slides in and is screwed to the underside of the drawer back. As the back of the drawer will never be seen, I opted for a simple dado joint.
When it came time to design the legs for this table, I wanted something as simple and elegant as possible. The combination of the wild figure of the arbutus mixed with the triangle inlay definitely meant I was running the risk of a very busy final product. I decided to use black walnut for the base for a few reasons. For one, I thought the darker colour would blend into the shadow below the piece and not become the focal point. Our hardwood floors are also stained a dark walnut colour. Finally, it allowed this piece to be in harmony with a few other pieces throughout the house that have a darker base with lighter top.
My initial plan was to turn the legs at the lathe and have them insert into a base assembly with 5° tapers cut on each end. To achieve this, I first cut the tapers in each end using a miter gauge at the table saw. Next, I tilted my drillpress table to the same 5° angle and drilled out a 1″ mortise using a forstner bit.
To finish off the base assembly, I added two structural cross pieces to hold the front and back together. These were attached by making a short (non-through) half-lap joint. The cross-piece joinery was cut at the table saw and the mating end of the joints were cut using a router and some light chisel work.
Back to the drawing board
After making all the pieces, dry fitting them together and setting the case on top I wasn’t at all happy with the way it looked. The transition between the square case, the angled base and the round legs was all wrong. I headed back to the drawing board to figure out a better plan.
About the only thing I liked about my first base attempt was the splay of the legs. After some head scratching, I decided I could keep the base assembly largely as it was. I could then create more integrated legs that when glued up and shaped would appear much sleeker and unified with the base assembly and the case.
Because I already had a round mortise in the base from the turned legs, I stuck with this method of joinery for attaching the new legs. Starting with square stock, I turned round tenons on each leg at the lathe.
At the table saw, using a shop-made tapering jig, I could then cut the legs down closer to their final shape. With the piece dry fit together, I then transferred the line of each leg up along the base so that I could remove the “horns” on each side remaining from my initial design. I marked a level line at the base of each leg so the piece would sit flat on the floor. I also removed a small amount of material from the front and back of the base assembly for a smooth transition between leg and base.
Once I glued the base assembly and legs together, I rounded over the leg assemblies using a 3/4″ round over bit. I then cleaned up the machine marks using a spokeshave and sandpaper.
With the base finally looking good I could move on to final sanding and finishing. For this project I used several coats of Odie’s Oil. I like working with this hardwax oil as it is easy to apply, has a nice sheen and even smells fantastic. Once the finish had cured, I attached the base to the case with four counter-sunk screws. The only detail left to add was a drawer pull. Using the same jarrah as was used for the inlay, I first turned a 1/4″ round tenon on my lathe. Then, in keeping with the overall theme, I shaped the pull to look as if it was a triangle inserted into the drawer front.
This was a fun project to build and challenged both my technical and design skills. In the end I’m very happy with how it turned out and think it’s a great addition to our home.