As usual, click any photo to bring up a larger version.
PLEASE NOTE: This project was built in 2012. I originally wrote a build article for a Lee Valley tools newsletter at that time, and as such never published it here on my website. I recently was reminded of it, and so decided to publish it now (June 2020).
This project is a pair of custom designed, solid wood, nesting end tables. They are hand crafted out of red oak hardwood lumber. The tables are designed to nest, one inside the other. The one table is normally hidden away underneath the other. But when you have a special event like a birthday party or the like and need some extra table space, you can just slide out the small table and put it into service.
The design of these tables is rooted in the Mission style. This style of furniture originated in the late 19th century in North America. The design emphasizes simple horizontal and vertical lines and panels that accentuate the grain of the wood, usually oak.
I had been pondering the idea of a set of nesting tables for a considerable time. As I looked around at various designs, or in furniture catalogs, I noticed that they always seemed to come in sets of three. I therefore expected to also make a set of three. However when the time came to actually tackle this project, and I sat down to work on my design, I just could not seem to come up with a three-table design that matched my goals.
I wanted to build in the mission style. I already have a few mission projects in my house which are adorned with corbels, a little curved arch located up under the top on the outside edge. The corbel adds visual interest and decorative detail as it supports the wide solid top.
I naturally wanted to use this design element in my nesting tables; I like the look of them, I think they really speak to the mission styling, and of course they match my existing furniture. However they do affect the width of each table; by adding corbels on the sides of the tables you either need to push in the legs or make the tabletop wider. This then affects the table that nests inside the larger table, and so on. In order to have three nesting tables, I would either need to start with a very large table, or I would end up with a ridiculously skinny third table. The end result was that it made more sense to make this a two-table project.
I had a number of 5/4 red oak boards in my lumber stash that I thought would be a good choice for this project. By starting with 5/4 stock, I could easily end up with 7/8” thick finished parts, and some parts could even be a full 1” thick. If possible I like to work with stock that is NOT 3/4” thick, simply because 3/4” stock is so prevalent. It is one way to add a touch that speaks to a project being custom made.
I start by laying out all my boards and selecting where I will make my cuts for the various pieces. I choose the most prominent pieces first: the top and the legs. These will be the most visible parts of the project. The legs in particular I wanted to be made of straight-grained stock. I also needed a lot of pieces for the legs, since they needed to be glued up to achieve a finished size of 1-1/2” square.
The tops are where I like to put wilder grain, to be displayed and enjoyed. As always, there are some compromises to be made. I was able to select two boards which were large enough to be able to make each top entirely from one board. There can be considerable colour variation among oak, so by cutting the whole top from one board I can ensure colour consistency for each top. I built the tops first – cut each board into 3 pieces, jointed and planed to 7/8” thickness, and glued and clamped them together to make the two tops. Some people like to use dowels or biscuits to help with alignment when gluing up tops. I've done it both ways, but this time I just glued and clamped, being careful during the glueing process to keep the pieces flush.
Once the tops were complete I could turn my attention to the legs. I needed eight legs, so I wanted to glue up enough stock for nine, so as to have one spare as insurance against mistakes. The challenge with the legs is to build them such that they have a pleasing look from all sides. By choosing long straight-grained pieces, I have boards that have two faces with nice straight grain showing. However their other two sides would then have the less pleasing face grain showing. In addition to that, since I needed to laminate two pieces together to achieve the desired thickness, I also have a chance of a glue line showing, or just a clear evidence that it is two pieces.
I chose a fairly simple way to avoid that. Each leg is first made up of two pieces glued together. Then two very thin 1/8” thick pieces are laminated onto the sides of the leg blank. The corners are chamfered, which nicely camouflages the glue joint. All four faces of the leg now show a nice long grain face. I have included a sketch to illustrate what I have explained, as well as a photograph showing the end of a glued up leg.
This method does mean that making the legs is time consuming. First choose the wood, then joint and plane them, just enough to ensure the pieces are straight and square. Then glue and clamp two pieces together to make up a leg. Once the glue is dry, clean up any glue squeeze out, and joint and plane the blank again such that it is 1-1/4” wide, and 1-1/2” thick. While the glue was drying, you would have been ripping and planing some of your wood down to 1/8” thick strips. These are then glued onto the sides of the legs. You will want to use cauls, or lots of clamps, to ensure that the clamping pressure is spread over the entire piece of wood, so as to avoid any gaps and bubbles. These can pop up easily when gluing such thin pieces.
Once that is dry, clean up any glue squeeze out. Use a flush-trimming bit in the router table to trim the edges of the 1/8” strips flush to the sides of the legs. If necessary, you can run the blanks through the planer one last time to bring the legs down to the final 1-1/2” square dimensions. Finally, the legs are chamfered on the router table with a 45 degree bit, taking off a fairly aggressive 1/8". (shown here) This chamfer, since it is the same thickness as the side lamination, will completely hide the glue line from gluing on those side pieces.
(This end view also shows how the pieces of the wood are glued together to make up the leg, in case the description provided above was a bit confusing.)
Note that planing stock to 1/8” thick can be challenging. The wood is so thin that it will easily shatter when fed through a planer. You can prevent this by using double-sided tape to attach your strips to a piece of plywood, as shown in this photo. You then feed the entire structure through your planer.
The next step is to cut out the crosspieces and vertical slats. Here you need to pause and make decisions about how you are assembling your project. If you are using mortise and tenon joinery, then you need to make allowances for the tenons when cutting these pieces to length. If you are using dowels, as I did, or pocket holes or floating tenons, then you can simply cut them to fit between the legs. My crosspieces are all 1” thick, which I could do because of my 5/4” rough stock. You could just as easily make them 3/4” thick.
(This photo is a test piece, not part of the actual project)
After cutting out the crosspieces, sort them out and mark on each one where it will be installed. All the top pieces then need a dado for table clips. One thing we all need to remember about woodworking is that Wood Moves! If you don't make allowances for the tabletop to move with seasonal changes in humidity, you will likely have problems later on. I am using table mounting clips to attach the tops to the base. These clips will allow the table to move with the seasons. Set the tablesaw fence to 1/2” and rip a slot approximately 1/4” deep along the inside top edge of each of the four top crosspieces. The thickness of one saw kerf is sufficient – 1/8".
A small arched curve was cut into the bottom of each of the lower rails. (This can be seen in some of the later photos, as well as the plans drawings above.) It is a subtle detail that, along with the corbels, softens the rectilinear lines of this piece. The arch is 1/2” tall at the centre of the rail. Draw out the arch on a piece of scrap plywood first. Once you are satisfied with the look, transfer that to the rails, and cut it out with the bandsaw, and then sand it smooth to the line of the curve.
The slats are all 1/2” thick, by 2” wide. I would not recommend slats much thinner than this, due to reduced strength of the end result. (Maybe I'm just used to having a house full of rough boys?!) I rounded over the edges of all the slats using a 3/16" radius round-over bit in the router table.
Take the time now to sand all the pieces before starting the assembly process. It is far easier to sand individual pieces. My planer leaves a fairly nice surface, so I start with 150 grit in a Random Orbit Sander, and progress up to 220 grit.
It is also a good idea to make a practise joint or two, to confirm that your joinery method will work out well. I make sure and mill a few extra pieces when making the slats and crosspieces, which I now used. These aren't entirely wasted, since I then use then to test out my staining and finish before starting in on the actual project. But I'm getting ahead of myself. While making test joints I realized that the slots that I cut for the table clips would be uncomfortably close to the dowel holes that I would soon be drilling. This is fairly easily solved. Rip a few thin strip of oak the exact thickness of your saw kerf, and then glue in a 1-1/2" piece at each end of the dados. Once these have dried, they are sawn off with a flush-cutting saw and hand-planed smooth. These are on the inside of the rails, so they'll never be seen.
Before you start assembling anything, first lay out all your pieces and choose where each piece will go. This step is, I think, a crucial part of a project and is one of the things that distinguishes custom work. In fact, I typically work on this throughout my projects, but for the purposes of this article let me collect all these steps in one place.
Earlier, I wrote about how I laid out the boards that made up each top. You will also want to take note of how you want the tops oriented. Which face looks best? Make sure that is marked to be the top. Which side do you want facing the front? Take note of that also, directly on the workpiece, and make it a habit to always check on that before you assemble the piece.
Make the same careful examination of the leg blanks. I made up 9 pieces, so that I had one extra in case of an accident during the build process. Sort out the legs and decide which ones look best together and group them in two sets of four. Mark each set so that they do not get mixed up. Get in the habit of always laying them together in a group on the bench, to help in keeping them together. Stand up each set and choose how you want them oriented. Which end should be up? Which faces should face forward? Which faces should face inward? A simple way to mark them is to stand up all four legs in their desired arrangement, and then draw on the top a square that overlaps all four pieces, so you can then easily reorient them together, if they get mixed up. I have attached a photo that illustrates this.
Again, examine the slats and choose a pleasing layout and orientation. There is considerable colour variation in different boards of oak. I had some slats that were dark, and some that were pale. I did not want to end up with, for instance, three pale slats on one side of a table, and three dark ones on the other. At the same time, consider the flow of the grain. There are three slats on either side of each table, look for ways that the eye can be fooled into thinking that the grain flows from one slat to another in a pleasing pattern.
And finally, do the same layout with the different crosspieces -- I did this sorting before cutting the crosspieces to final length!
This next section of the instructions are concerned with assembly, and will vary depending on what joinery method you use. The basic steps are that the slats are first attached to the top and bottom rails for each side. The side assemblies are then attached to the front and back legs. Finally, the two side assemblies are attached to each other with the front and back rails. The top does not get attached at all until after the finish has been applied.
I used dowel joinery in my project. Using a dowel jig I drilled 1/4" dowel holes in the top and bottom of each slat, and matching holes in the side rails. I then drilled 3/8" dowel holes in the ends of the rails. After dry fitting to verify the joints, I proceeded to apply glue to the inside of each dowel hole, insert compressed dowels, and clamp together the side assemblies. Each time, taking care to insure that the assemblies were square. Once they had dried, I drilled matching dowel holes in the side legs and then glued them to the side assemblies.
The final step was to drill holes in the front and rear crosspieces, test fit once more, and then glue the side assemblies of each table together, again being very careful to check for square. In hindsight, I should have drilled the dowel holes for the front and back crosspieces into the legs before I glued the legs into the side assemblies. Live and learn!
NOTE: I normally use (and love) the Dowelmax dowel jig, and longtime readers will note that I am not using it in this project. I was testing the Jessem 8350 dowelling jig while building this project. It worked fine, but I kept my Dowelmax jig, which I was more familiar with, and passed on the Jessem Jig to a friend. Either one works great.)
The next step are those all-important corbels that I wanted to distinguish my project. Start with drawing a plan on some 1/8" hardboard or similar, and cut out the shape with a bandsaw or scrollsaw. Sand the pattern carefully to get a nice regular curve along the piece. Use pattern routing to produce eight identical pieces.
I'm sorry, but I did not document the making of the corbels in details with photos. In brief, trace out each piece on some wood, and cut it out with a bandsaw, staying outside the lines. Attach the pattern to the piece with double-stick tape, and use a pattern routing bit in the router table to finish trimming the piece flush. Repeat for all eight of the pieces.
After sanding the corbels, these are glued onto the top of each leg on the outside top. Small pieces like this can be tough to glue into place, since they can slip around when the glue is applied. One technique to help here is to tap a small finishing nail into the back of the piece, and clip off the head such that only 1/16-1/8" stick out. Then when it is glued onto the leg, the nail will stop it from slipping. I cheated and use a 23-gauge pinner, set to leave the pins sticking out, and tacked a pair of pins into the back of each corbel before gluing.
Before proceeding with finish, I checked over the entire project for any glue squeeze-out that had been missed, as well as any rough spots, which I sanded, or hand sanded if needed, to 220grit. As well I slightly rounded over the edges of the two top pieces. Finish does not stick to a sharp corner very well.
Throughout the course of the project, I used down time such as when waiting for glue to dry, to experiment with various finishes. By the time the project was ready for finish, I had made my selection. Generally I prefer to leave wood as natural as possible. However, Mission is traditionally a dark style of furniture, so I first applied a coat of Varathane Golden Mahogany (#233) stain to all the pieces, and wiped off the excess.
The next step was to brush on two coats of Zinsser sealcoat de-waxed shellac. After each coat I hand sanded with 400 grit sandpaper. This seals the stain, adds just a hint of amber colour, and also helps with filling the pores of the wood. Red oak is a very porous wood, and unless you take steps to fill the pores it is very tough to get a smooth finish. If you want it very smooth, you can apply several more coats of shellac, sanding after each coat and wiping off the dust.
The final step was to apply three or four coats of Varathane Diamond wood finish (A clear water-based polyurethane). Again, after each coat had dried I lightly sanded with 400 grit sandpaper. The tops received four coats for extra protection, while the leg assemblies each received three. Polyurethane provides a hard clear surface, with excellent moisture resistance, and given that an end table will sooner or later encounter a spill, I think it is a good choice for this sort of application. After the final coat has dried thoroughly, I dribble on a few drops of water, for lubrication, and then buff with a 3M scotchbrite sanding pad. These are the equivalent of #0000 steel wool, but you should never use steel wool on a water-based finish (as little pieces will break off, embed in the finish, and rust). Dry the piece thoroughly after this.
Once you are satisfied with the finish, the absolutely final step is to attach the tops to the bottoms. Lay the top upside down on a blanket or pad on your bench, to prevent scratches, and then position the base upside down on the top. Double check everything, to be sure you have it oriented correctly. With the piece upside down and turned around it is far too easy to get mixed up. Lay out the table clips, and pre-drill a small hole for each one, before inserting a 1/2" screw and fastening them securely.
Be sure to leave your tables in the shop for three or four days to allow the finish to reach full hardness before bringing them into your house.
Enjoy the rest of the photos of the piece!
Thanks for reading!