A Carpenter's Tips for Building a DIY Wood Table
In my 30 plus years as a woodworker and custom furniture builder in the Denver area, I have built a good number of tables. These projects have ranged from 7-foot-long full-sized dining room tables in exotic rosewood to simple 2-foot-square or less bedside tables in knotty pine or oak topped with tile. (I love installing tile.) Tables are one of my favorite projects as they can vary from simple slabs with legs to more involved pieces where fine hand-cut joinery is employed. A table is also one of the nicest ways to showcase some fine pieces of lumber.
Basic Components of a DIY Wood Table
In its simplest form a table can be comprised of a flat surface resting on some legs. The flat surface can be constructed from a variety of materials, as well as the legs. I have used thick glass tops that merely rested on a free-standing wooden base, to more complex table designs where mortise and tenon joinery is married to hidden floating fasteners, pegged bridle joints, or dovetails. You can build in a simple way or try more challenging techniques based on your available tools and skill set. Whichever building method you choose, most tables are comprised of a top, and some legs mounted below. In many cases the legs are all joined together using “aprons” and or “skirts” as well as some designs were “stretchers” are used to provide additional leg bracing.
Plan for Wood Movement
Changes in climate can wreck havoc with some furniture. Wood is a hygroscopic material. This means that it will absorb and release water in relationship to its environment. In the case of furniture, this means the wood can expand and contract as these moisture levels change.
I recently rebuilt a solid mahogany table for a client that was acquired some time ago in Panama. As you can guess, the dry climate conditions of Colorado is different from the humid tropics of Central America, and this piece had suffered due to the climate and poor design. The table was constructed using some basic nails and screws and was never built to allow the wood top to move freely.
Wood tends to expand and contract in a line perpendicular to its grain. In the case of this table, the top was “bound” by some legs that were firmly attached with screws and cross blocking. As the tabletop’s wood shrunk in our dry climate, a large crack and gap formed down the center (in some places this crack was close to ¾” wide) which is not very attractive considering the wide planks of Mahogany from which it was built. To correct this problem I completed disassembled the legs from the top and then rejoined the top and installed some “figure 8” brackets that allow the top to move more freely.
Table “clips” set in slots are another fine method to connect the table’s legs to the top. Another tip for reducing wood movement is to finish both sides of the table’s top. This reduces the differential of moisture absorption between the upper and lower surfaces, which can lead to cupping or crowning.
Build Sturdy Legs and Joints on Your DIY Table
Long legged tables without stretchers are very elegant and one of my more popular styles to build. But these types of table legs are more vulnerable to damage due to the high amount of leverage that can be exerted on a “free” leg. Sturdy mortise and tenon joinery and or diagonal cross blocking in the skirt corners can provide some added support. Limiting the length of unsupported legs can also keep them from being damaged. An example of this is to limit “free” legs to shorter sizes as might be found in lower coffee and sofa end tables.
With DIY wood table building, the range of possibilities is nearly endless. If you plan for wood movement in your construction details, and provide sturdy joints, you will have a much higher chance of building something that will stand the test of time.