Building a Dining Table, Part 1: Shavings and Shaping

Our current dining table was built a long time ago by one of my wife’s relatives. (We’re still not sure exactly who built it.  Family lore was ambiguous, but after some genealogical research, my wife narrowed down to two guys, a great-uncle and a great-great uncle, both of whom were professional craftsmen.)  The table is something of a family heirloom, but it’s seen better days. It shakes every time one of the kids bumps it, and the top is nothing like flat. The removable leaves are all warped and don’t stay together anymore, and I can’t remember the last time we needed to remove the leaves to shrink the table down anyway.  Even fully extended, the table is still a little too small for us, especially when we have company.  And my youngest kids hate the table’s apron, which bumps their legs when they sit in their youth chairs.

I’ve wanted to build a replacement for several years.  So after some deliberation with the rest of the family, we came up with my directives:

1. Trestle-style legs.
2. Solid, hardwood top with no apron.
3. Big enough to seat 10 people comfortably (our family is now at 7).

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the project to a guy I know who owns a portable sawmill, and he offered me some cherry boards.  I gladly accepted, though neither of us were sure that he could provide me with enough for the whole table.  When I went to load up the boards, we found that they had been exposed to a little too much weather.  But the price was right, so I took all I could get.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

This is what most of the boards looked like when I brought them home–rotted edges, bug holes, and other defects.  It was a little dispiriting at first, but the more I looked at the boards, the more I saw some potential in each one.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

The damage on most of the boards was confined to ends and edges, so using a chalkline, I was able to mark out some pretty wide boards. I used Borax to treat it all for bugs, and I used the bandsaw to cut off the damaged edges.  Even using the bandsaw to do the hardest work, I still managed to bring myself to the brink of heat-exhaustion in the July heat.

One of the boards I had picked up–a short, thick beam–turned out to be cedar, not cherry.  It had a big wane edge and a lot of sapwood, but it was enough that I was able to rip it in half and edge-glue the pieces to make my central beam, which will connect the two leg assemblies that support the table top.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

I wish I could share the scent with you as well as the image. My whole dining room smelled like cedar shavings for hours!

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

Once the two pieces were glued up, it was time to play my favorite game: Find the Glue Line!  You can see it only if you look carefully at the grain.

Well, in the interests of full disclosure, there were a couple little gaps in the joint further down the board, but nothing too detrimental to overall stability. And it’s not like anybody will see it under the table anyway, right? Right.

Next I spent a good bit of time shaping the feet and stretchers for the trestles. This was the fun part, though I had to get a little creative in order to work around a couple big defects in the boards I had. I just managed to do it without sacrificing the shape I had in mind.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

First I made the inside radius with a big drill bit. I was silly enough to try this by hand with a bit and brace the first time around. My 1 1/2″ bit is NOT made for hardwoods. I gave up after one hole and used the drill press for the rest, and my elbows thank me.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

After the drill press and the band saw, it was hand work. I used rasps and files for the convex work. Then I used a spokeshave and a file for the bullnose work getting into the radius.  On surfaces that would show, such as the tops of the legs, I removed file marks with a card scraper and sandpaper, but on the undersides of pieces that would never be seen, I left the tool marks visible, not only to save time but also to give future generations clues about how the work was done.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

This is one of the feet.  I used a spokeshave for the chamfers, except on those tight, convex curves where a half-round file was called for.  I again cleaned up show surfaces with card scrapers and sandpaper.

Dining Table Build 7-2016 sm

The result is two top stretchers and two feet, which will be joined to each other by a central post.  The posts will, in turn, be connected by the cedar beam.

The table top, however, will require several glue-ups to get to the desired width, so next I will begin planing down boards and gluing them up.  While I wait for the glue to dry, I will continue to work on the leg assemblies in order to minimize waiting-time.

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