There’s something I love about a clean, simple design. I think that’s why I’ve fallen in love with the Shaker style, and why my house is filling up with Shaker furniture. When contemplating what design elements I wanted to incorporate into this table, I knew I wanted to use basic, traditional joinery. But when sketching out a simple Shaker table, I wanted something… more. The Shaker design isn’t really what demanded more. In fact, the Shaker soul is the opposite of that mentality; less is more. Instead, I wanted more simply from a woodworking stand point. My more ended up coming in at 2°. A 2° splay to the legs to be precise. It’s enough that it drastically changes the look of the table, and it adds just enough complexity that you’ll have to pay attention, so you don’t cut a part wrong (ask me how I know that). Of course, I needed to make a pile of plane shaving during this build, but don’t let my processes here bind you. Read our Splay-Leg Table.
By Logan Wittmer
Creating the Top
I’m going to admit something before we get started. And it’s a little embarrassing. I’ve run out of air-dried walnut. There, it’s out in the open. I never thought that day would come. Luckily, I just had a big load of ’nut come out of the kiln. However, I will tell you that kiln-dried just simply does not work as easily as air-dried. If you’re planning on tackling this build (or any others for that matter) with hand tools, do yourself a favor and get air-dried stock. The kiln crystallizes the lignin within the wood fibers, and the result is slightly more… crunchy… material.
The top for this side table clocks in at a nice and thick ⅞”. Starting with thicker, 8/4 stock, I took it to the bandsaw and resawed it down to about 1¼”-thick. Getting a good tight glue joint is probably more important on the top of a project than anywhere else. So here, I spent several minutes using my jack plane to joint the mating edges of the stock I was using for the top.
As I’m doing this, I constantly check the edges with a square to confirm that I’m not accidentally creating an edge out of square. After jointing the edges, I like to check the fit by mating the parts together and holding them up to a light. If I see a little light in the center of the joint, that’s okay. A small, 1/32″ gap will squeeze out with a clamp and is technically called a “spring joint.” Theoretically, you can apply one clamp across the center of the joint and that’s it—no need for other clamps near the ends of the boards. I, however, have trust issues, so I almost always over clamp.
Once I’m happy with the fit, I glue the panels together. Here, I’m gluing two panels up. However, I ended up gluing one more panel that was a little wider—I decided at the end of the build that the top needed to be a little larger for aesthetics. Once the glue has skimmed over, I come back with a scraper and remove any squeeze-out.
Spindly Chicken Legs
I always prefer Shaker legs that have a really delicate look to them … a long taper so the table almost looks spindly. However, before any thoughts are given to shaping (in this project or others), it’s best to knock out as much of the joinery as possible while the legs are square. So after cutting the stock to size and planing it to thickness, it’s time to cut some joinery.
The joints between the legs and aprons will be mortise and tenons. Instead of fussing about with a standard mortise (either chopping, routing, or using the mortising machine), I figured why not just rout through the top of the leg. This simplifies the entire mortising process, so why the heck not?
At the router table, I use a spiral up-cut bit to rout the mortise. You can gauge the length of the mortise by making a couple of pencil marks on the fence as stop and start points. After routing one mortise, from right to left (Photo 3), you can make the second mortise by dropping the leg over the running bit and routing out the top of the leg (Photo 4). The result is a leg with perpendicular mortises, as seen in the inset photo.
To form the taper on the legs, you have a few options. You could simply make a line, blast some Stevie Nicks, and plane until you hit your line. Otherwise, you could use a taper sled at the bandsaw or table saw to cut the taper in. Here, I marked out the line with a pencil (a white pencil is easier to see on a dark wood like this walnut), and I rough cut it at the bandsaw. Just leave a little bit of the pencil line as you’re cutting. You can do some final smoothing on the taper with either the jointer (joint from the big end to the small end for proper grain direction) or you can clean it up with a plane (Photo 5).
Because these legs will be splayed, I decided to cut the bevel on the bottom of the legs—simply register the still square outside of the leg against the miter saw fence, angle the blade 2° and also tilt the blade 2°. This will put you in the ballpark of the final leg splay, at least close enough you can sand or plane the bottom of the feet flat.
Aprons Set the Angle
With the legs cut, shaped, and joinery complete, you can set them aside. Now, let’s concentrate on the aprons. The aprons set the splay of the legs. This means, whatever angle you cut the end of the aprons at will be the final splay of the legs. Here, that’s 2°.
Most stock miter gauges aren’t terribly accurate, at least with the pre-marked angles (technically, the angles just need to be consistent, not exact). To accurately set the miter gauge to 2°, I use a Miter-Set gauge. With the gauge set, I installed an auxiliary fence and cut the aprons to length. A stop block attached to the fence dials in the final length and keeps it consistent across all four aprons. Now, we can form the tenons to fit into our mortises. This is easily done by loading up a dado blade in the table saw and making a pass along each face.
The key while cutting these tenons is to make sure to angle the miter gauge so that the end of the apron is riding flat against the fence. This keeps the shoulders of the apron even and will give a good, tight joint. A note while doing this, you will have to flip the miter gauge for cutting the different angles.
When cutting tenons, I always leave them just a hair fat. I find it much easier to fine-tune the fit of the tenon into the mortise back at the bench. A few swipes of a rabbet plane (either a block or shoulder plane) will help you bring the tenon down to the proper size. It will also pointlessly get rid of those annoying little ridges left by the dado blade, and it makes me feel good when they’re good!
At the bench, you’ll need to notch the bottom of the tenon on the apron. This will allow clearance for the angle of the leg (which causes the mortise to be angled in relation to the tenon), and it also allows us to ignore the fact we’re putting a squared off tenon in a rounded mortise (left from the router bit). It’s a win-win. Just zip it with a hand saw.
The Drawbore Joint
Here’s something that puts a smile on my face every time I use it. That’s a drawbore joint. The draw bore joint is simple a mortise and tenon, like we’ve created, but with a couple of pegs driven through the joint. The trick here, though, is that the peg hole that’s drilled in the tenon is slightly offset. This causes the peg to pull the mortises and tenon extra tight and holds while the glue cures without clamps. It’s a wonderful technique of yesteryears.
The first step of the drawbore is to drill the peg holes. Start by laying out the peg locations on each leg and drill the holes. You’ll want to go deep enough that you go through the leg and about ½” into the opposite face of the mortise. You can see this in Photo 10 (it doesn’t work better if you use a brace and bit, but you gain style points). Drill all of the peg locations this way.
Next, we assemble our pieces. The goal here is to hold the pieces as tight together as you can and use the drill bit to poke through and mark the center point of the peg hole on the tenon (Photo 11). This works best with a drill bit that has a sharp lead screw. Brad points work very well here. Mark each and every peg location, and make sure to also mark which tenon goes into which mortise. If you’re slighting off on any of the holes, you want to make sure the matching tenon-hole is also off.
Now comes the magic. Disassemble the joint and use an awl to move the center location toward the shoulder of the tenon. You only want to move it about 1/16″ at the most. The goal is to offset this hole just enough that, when you drive a peg into the hole, it has to bend to get into the tenon hole and back into the mortise hole. This spring pressure will hold the joint together with extra force.
After you’re transferred the holes, you can drill the holes in the tenon using the same drill bit that you used in the legs.
Now, grab the dowel material of your choice and lop off a bunch of pegs. I’ve found that I really like the subtle contrast of cherry pegs with walnut, but as always, it’s your choice. Quickly sharpen one end of each peg. I do this with my Sloyd knife, but a chisel works as well. Heck, if your pegs are long enough, you could probably use a pencil sharper as well. Just try and not go into a sharp point—the long taper and point might stop the peg from fully seating into the hole. Instead, simply try to chamfer the leading end so that it will slip past the offset holes.
Now it’s time to assemble the table base. Make sure that you’ve finished the aprons to whatever final finish you want (I just smoothed them with my number 4). The offset surfaces of the legs and aprons will be tough to touch up later. Here, it’s business as usual. Spread glue on the tenons and slip the apron into the mortise. Now comes the satisfying part. Start each peg in their holes and start tapping them in. You’ll feel resistance, but it will eventually go through the tenon and you’ll see the joint just suck together. It’s satisfying. Some people are fans of putting a dab of glue on the pegs, but I’ve never bothered and haven’t had one fall out.
At this point, go ahead and put together two assemblies, consisting of an apron and a pair of legs. Before adding the final two aprons, drill a pair of pocket screw holes for attaching the top. I know—settle down. Pocket holes are a completely traditional way of attaching the top. Simple, and no fuss. A pair of screws in opposing aprons will be plenty for what we’re doing here.
Once you’ve given the glue time to tack up, trim the pegs down. Most people will probably cut them flush. However, I like to trim them proud and sand them to slightly dome them over. This makes the pegs appear as though they’re old pegs starting to pop.
Also needed are eight ¼” x 1¼” dowels for table construction.
Top & Finish
At this point, let’s wrap this little table up. The top can be planed down to the final thickness and cut to its final size. The dainty look of this table doesn’t play well with a thick, heavy top. So, we’re going to add a wide bevel around the lower edge of the top. To do this, I make a mark around the entire perimeter of the top. This gives me two gauge lines to shoot for—one for the bevel width and one for the bevel height.
I love cutting bevels with my hand plane. The important thing here is to start with the end grain bevels first and skew the plane. The shearing cut makes it remove material more efficiently and cleanly. And, by starting with the end grain cuts, any tear-out on the long grain will be removed when you cut those bevels. Just keep an eye on your two target lines and make adjustments as you go. It’s kind of like an airplane landing—lots of little movements as you’re getting closer to those two lines, making sure you hit them both at the same time. It’s a lot of planing, but you can just as easily cut the bevels at the table saw.
After positioning the base on the top, you can install it with screws through the pocket holes. Take a look at the feet and if any adjustments are necessary, make those with a block plane or sanding block.
For a piece like his table, I always try and do a traditional type of finish. I’ve talked in the past about how Danish oil is one of my favorites, however, on walnut Shaker-inspired furniture, I rarely do anything but a hot linseed oil bath. Simply dump boiled linseed oil into a jar in a double boiler, and let it get smoking hot. Then, liberally apply it. The hot oil soaks in nicely and can be wiped off after half an hour. Once the linseed oil is cured, I usually come back with paste wax for a little, teeny tiny bit of water protection. Now, that’s what I call a great project to knock out in a weekend. —Logan Wittmer