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Table talk!

Posted by joeabbott on September 13, 2015

OK … time for an update on Project “Project-a-Month”! It looks like the last time I brought you up to speed I had summarized through June … the list looked like this:

  • January – laid in the hardscaping by the compost bin: wall, brick edging, crushed gravel; planter strip
  • February – built the storage unit for the chicken supplies; built the indoor brooder
  • March – built five little boxes; the outdoor temp brooder
  • April – quick one: the potato bin
  • May – rebuilt the south stairway to Chickenville; added rail to bridge
  • June – small temp coop

July’s project was an end table for a guest room upstairs and likely my most ambitious of the year so far. Potato bins and chicken accoutrements are all very fine, practical projects, but they fall more into the “construction” category than they do “woodworking”. Not that I’m opposed to construction … I tend to favor it … but part of the reason for Project-a-Month was to use my woodworking tools!

imageSo, the table.

I have a copy of “The Table Book” from Popular Woodworking that showcases 35 tables and I used it for inspiration. Suzy pretty much said, I need a table that fits into a cube 15”x20”x28” … where 28” would be the height. Easy enough.

Paging through The Table Book, I came across something called a Modern Occasional Table that I modified to the dimensions noted above and included a shelf about 6” from the floor. The thing I liked about that table was the simple design and the top could be removed to store small items for later … maybe that Gideon Bible for those used to staying in motels or a pad of paper and a pen for quick notes.

As usual, I jumped into SketchUp and make sure I “understood” how this would go together and then I started building. The only tricky part was attaching the shelf … and we’ll get to that in a sec.


I started building the legs first. They’re simple rectangular columns that I slightly tapered at the foot, starting just below the shelf. Where the apron/skirt meets the leg I needed to chop a mortise (a hole) that would accept a tenon … think “insert Tab A (tenon) into Slot B (mortise)” sort of construction.


With that done, I set them aside.


I’m never sure if the vertical parts below the top that hold the legs together are more commonly called aprons or skirts. Regardless, these were also very simple: 3” high and long enough to fit between the legs. I cut the tenon using my router table, although there are lots of ways you could cut this joint.

In the end, the shoulders weren’t perfectly square and I spent a lot of time fiddling with the fit and only achieved a tight appearance by getting out some clamps and tightening the bejeezus out of them. Not a great technique … you want these joints to be tight, but not over-stressed … but it’s what I had this time.

Along the bottom edge of the aprons I cut a groove that accepted a 1/4” poplar plywood bottom.

Top and Shelf

The top was another simple part: a rectangle of plywood. Granted, it was plywood that cost over $200 a 4’x8’ sheet, but it was left over from a previous project so it was “free”. I had to notch out each of the corners so it’d nestle in between the legs, and then I chamfered the side profile both to make it easier to pick up, and to give it the smallest of cosmetic improvements.


One additional change I had to make to the design was to thin the table top where it rested on the aprons/skirts. This wasn’t in the design, but I found that I had cut the mortises in the legs so the top of the leg was exactly 3/4” above the top of the apron/skirt. So, when I set the 3/4” top in place, the legs were exactly the same height as the table top … and it looked just a little less good than it did by trimming about 1/8” off the top’s bottom … allowing it to sink below the legs just a smidge. It looks surprisingly better.


The shelf used the same plywood as the top, but I added a 3/4” thick piece of maple edge banding to better define it. To install it, I left the corners on the shelf but chopped away a “divot” in the legs and ended up gluing the shelf in place … it worked pretty well!


I’ve used oil and wax for nearly all of my furniture so far, mainly because I’m afraid to ruin something by staining and/or shellacking or spraying a finish. So many things that could go wrong. But, I wanted to try something new … and yet, I procrastinated so long that I had to do a rush-job to get it completed.

I wanted to fall back on oil and wax, but I used tung oil. Now, this might not be a problem but I left it on a LONG time before trying to rub it in/out and I found that tung oil gets very tacky and create as shellac-like surface when it dries. And I definitely left a thick layer to dry.

Because I thought it was penetrating oil, I tried to rub it out between coats using 0000 steel wool … but that created a massive mess. The viscous tung oil just grabbed the steel wool and impregnated every nook, cranny and crevice with a thick gloppy blob that I couldn’t get out. It was miserable although, except for the poplar bottom (which is very light), you can’t tell without looking closely. In essence, I just “aged” the piece very slightly.

Other learnings

imageimageWhile it was a reasonably small project, I learned a bunch.

On the legs, I failed to check the grain closely enough and ended up with a few visible blemishes that, if I’d just turned the legs before cutting the mortises, the blemish would be on the inside … not facing someone looking at it.

On the aprons/skirts, I learned my router table isn’t high enough quality to get the cuts I wanted and that contributed to the shoulders of the tenon being off … which then required that I use strong clamps when gluing it together.

As for the poplar bottom … I had to make a second. I cut the notches for the legs a bit loose and found that, when you took the top off, you could see very big gaps within the compartment. And, unfortunately, I’d already glued it in place to I had to pound it out and clean up the mess before gluing in a new bottom.

The last place where things weren’t perfect it the overall squareness. While I made sure the diagonal dimensions across the top were the same (so it top is square), the sides aren’t planar. Meaning, if you lay it on its side, it will rock a little. So it’s a good thing we’ll never be laying it on its side!

While I do give a little space here on the minor imperfections, these are the stepping stones I’m taking to become better. As I do become more masterful of this craft, I’m sure I’ll see other, more subtle problems with my creations and work just as hard to avoid those issues in the future. So, while I do make a big deal about my mistakes, they’re with me for a lifetime and, to a degree, welcome.



I rushed to build this table because my mother was coming out to stay with us for a week and we wanted to give her a light next to the bed at the right height. We didn’t have a table of the proper dimensions so I built one. And I can’t tell you how tickled I am to type that.

Thanks for dropping in to see what’s up!


3 Responses to “Table talk!”

  1. francesjoanabbott said

    Oh no! Your table apparently looked so “professional” that I must not have investigated it properly! It looks very beautiful in the pictures above. Now that’s really tending to every possible need a mother might have – to build a table to the right scale for a reading lamp. I regret not giving it the admiration it deserved, Joe. Doggone it, now I’m going to have to plan another trip out there, to admire it properly! 🙂

  2. joeabbott said

    Haha! I’ll call that high praise … to have missed it because it just looked “normal”, well, that’s something! When you’re out next, you may notice the wood I used for the top looks very much like the large, built-in cabinets in the front room that I built! I had a little extra wood left over. 🙂

  3. Jay said

    Very nice work Joe. You should check out Norm Abram (used to be on a PBS show named the New Yankee Workshop) –


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