Troubleshoot DIY Wood Table Construction
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 ranged from 7-foot-long fullsized dining tables in exotic rosewood to simple 2-foot-square 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 fine lumber. If you're planning to build your own DIY wood table, use these handy tips to make it stand the test of time.
Basic Components of a DIY Wood Table
In its simplest form, a table comprises a flat surface resting on some legs. Both components can be constructed from a wide variety of materials. I've used thick glass tops that merely rest on a free-standing wooden base, as well as more complex table designs where mortise and tenon joinery is married to hidden floating fasteners, pegged bridle joints, or dovetails. In many cases the legs are all joined together using “aprons” and or “skirts” and some designs provide additional leg bracing with “stretchers.” You can build in a simple way or try more challenging techniques based on your available tools and skill set.
Plan for Wood Movement
Changes in climate can wreak havoc with some furniture. Wood is a hygroscopic material; 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 that a client acquired some time ago in Panama. As you can guess, the dry climate of Colorado is different from the humid tropics of Central America, which meant this piece had suffered. It was also poorly designed -- the top was “bound” by legs that were firmly attached with screws and cross blocking.
Wood tends to expand and contract in a line perpendicular to its grain. As the tabletop’s wood shrank in our dry climate, a large crack and gap (close to ¾” wide in some places) formed down the center ... not very attractive. To correct this problem, I completely disassembled the legs and then rejoined the top with the help of a few “figure 8” brackets that allow the top to move more freely.
Table “clips” set in slots are another fine method to connect the legs to the top.
TIP: To reduce wood movement, finish both sides of the table’s top. This reduces the differential of moisture absorption between the upper and lower surfaces, preventing "cupping" or "crowning."
Build Sturdy Legs and Joints on Your DIY Table
One of my more popular styles is elegant long legged tables without stretchers. However, this type of table leg is 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 add support. Limiting the length of unsupported legs (as found in coffee tables or small end tables) can also keep them from being damaged.
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.
Kevin Stevens writes for Networx.
Updated February 27, 2018.
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