The design of these nesting end tables is rooted in the Mission style, which emphasizes simple lines and panels that accentuate the grain of the wood, usually oak. I already have a few Mission pieces adorned with corbels, so I naturally wanted to use them in this design as well.
In this case, I added them to the top of the legs. They add visual interest and decorative detail as they support the wide, solid tabletops. They did, however, affect the width of each table. Adding corbels on the sides meant that I either needed to push in the legs or make the tabletop wider. This affects the table that nests inside the larger one, and so on. I had originally planned to make these as a set of three, as they are commonly found. To do so, I either needed to start with a very large table or end up with a ridiculously skinny third one; therefore, it made more sense to make this a two-table project.
Selecting Stock and Getting Started
I started with 5/4 red oak boards. This meant I could easily end up with 7/8” thick finished parts, some of which could even be a full 1” thick. If possible, I like to work with stock that isn’t 3/4” thick simply because it’s so common. I laid out all my boards and selected the ones for the tops and the legs first.
I selected two pieces large enough to make each top entirely from one board to ensure color consistency. I cut each board into three pieces, jointed and planed to 7/8” thickness and glued and clamped them together. Some people like to use dowels or biscuits to help with alignment when gluing up tops, which I’ve also done. This time, however, I just glued and clamped while being careful during the gluing process to keep the pieces flush.
Laying out the boards for the tops.
I needed a lot of pieces for the legs since they were glued up to achieve a finished size of 1-1/2” square. Also, I decided to make an extra one (nine in total) as a spare. The challenge with the legs was to build them so that they had a pleasing look from all sides. I chose long straight-grained boards so that two faces have the edge grain showing. The other two sides have the less-pleasing face grain showing.
I jointed and planed the boards just enough to ensure the pieces were straight and square and then glued and clamped two pieces together to make up a leg. Once the glue was dry, I removed any squeeze-out and jointed and planed the blank again so that it was 1-1/4” wide and 1-1/2” thick.
Image Left) Choosing edge-grained stock for the legs.
Image Right) The leg details – direction of growth rings.
Since I laminated two pieces together to achieve the desired thickness, I had to come up with a way of hiding the glue line. I ripped and planed some of the wood down to 1/8” thick strips and glued these onto the sides of the legs. To avoid gaps and bubbles on such thin pieces, I used lots of clamps to ensure the clamping pressure was spread evenly over the entire piece of wood. After the pieces were dry, I removed any squeeze-out and used a flush-trimming bit in the router table to trim the edges of the 1/8” strips flush to the sides of the legs. (If necessary, you can run the blanks through the planer one last time to bring the legs down to the final 1-1/2” square dimensions.)
Note: 1/8” thick stock can easily shatter when fed through the planer. Prevent this by using double-sided tape to attach your strips to a piece of plywood and feed the entire structure through the planer.
Image left) Ripping 1/8” strips for the sides of the legs.
Image right) For planing, the strips are fastened to plywood with double-sided tape.
Finally, I chamfered the legs on the router table using a 45° bit and taking off a fairly aggressive 1/8". This chamfer, since it is the same thickness as the side lamination, completely hides the glue line. I also chamfered the bottom of each leg to protect against splitting. That chamfer is easier and safer to make using a block plane.
Chamfering a leg; note how the 1/8” strips are attached to the leg blank.
Crosspieces and Slats
Before cutting the crosspieces and vertical slats, I had to decide how I would assemble my project. If I used mortise-and-tenon joinery, I would need to make allowances for the tenons when cutting these pieces to length. If I decided to use dowels, pocket holes or floating tenons, I could simply cut the pieces to fit between the legs. In the end I decided to use dowels. (Remember that the dimensions on my cutting list assume you’ll be using dowels too.) My crosspieces were all 1” thick, which I could achieve because of my 5/4 rough stock. You could, however, just as easily make them 3/4” thick.
After cutting the crosspieces, I sorted them and marked each with where it would be installed. To allow for seasonal wood movement, I used table-mounting clips to attach the tops to the bases. I set the tablesaw fence to 1/2” and ripped a slot approximately 1/4” deep along the inside top edge of each of the four top crosspieces. The thickness of one saw kerf was sufficient - 1/8".
I cut a small arched curve into the bottom of each of the lower rails. It’s a subtle detail that, along with the corbels, softens the lines. The arch is 1/2” tall at the center of the rail. I drew it out on a piece of scrap plywood first, transferred it to the rails and cut it out using the bandsaw. It was sanded smooth to the line of the curve.
The slats are all 1/2” thick by 2” wide. (I would not recommend going much thinner than this.) I rounded over the edges of all the slats using a 3/16" radius round-over bit in the router table. All of the pieces were sanded before starting the assembly process. My planer leaves a fairly nice surface, so I started with 150 grit in a random orbit sander and progressed up to 220 grit.
Testing the Joinery
When making the slats and crosspieces, I milled a few extra pieces to use as practice joints. These weren't wasted, since I also used them to test my stain and finish. I realized the slots that I cut for the table clips would be uncomfortably close to the dowel holes that I would be drilling. To solve this, I ripped a few thin strips of oak the exact thickness of my saw kerf and glued in a 1-1/2" piece at each end of the dados. Once these dried, I sawed them off using a flush-cutting saw and planed the area smooth. These are on the inside of the rails so they'll never be seen.
Practice joints let you determine if your joinery method will work well.
Lay Out the Pieces
Before assembly, I laid out all pieces and determined where each would go. I took note of how I wanted the tops oriented and marked this directly on the workpiece.
I did the same careful evaluation of my leg blanks, sorting and deciding which ones looked best together. I grouped them in two sets of four and marked each set so that they didn’t get mixed up. A simple way to mark them so that you know the orientation they should be in is to stand up all four legs in their desired arrangement and draw a square on the top that overlaps all four pieces.
When laying out the slats, I considered the color variation of the oak boards. There are three slats on either side of each table and I didn’t want to end up with, for instance, three pale slats on one side and three dark ones on the other. At the same time, I considered the flow of the grain and looked for ways the eye could be fooled into thinking the grain flows from one slat to another in a pleasing pattern.
Finally, I laid out the different crosspieces. I did this sorting before cutting the crosspieces to final length!
Marking the legs with a square.
This will vary depending on what joinery method you use. The basic steps are to attach the slats to the top and bottom rails for each side. Next attach the side assemblies to the front and back legs. Finally, attach the two side assemblies to each other with the front and back rails. Do not attach the top until after the finish has been applied.
As I said earlier, I used dowel joinery. Using a dowel jig, I drilled 1/4" dowel holes in the top and bottom of each slat and matching holes in the side rails. I then drilled 3/8" dowel holes in the ends of the rails. After dry fitting to verify the joints, I applied glue to the inside of each dowel hole, inserted compressed dowels and clamped the side assemblies together. Each time, I took care to ensure the assemblies were square.
Image left) Drilling dowel holes in the rails.
Image right) The side assemblies glued and clamped; note the color variation in the wood.
Once these had dried, I drilled matching dowel holes in the side legs and glued them to the side assemblies.
Image left) Drilling dowel holes in the legs.
Image right) The legs clamped to the side assemblies.
Finally, I drilled holes in the front and rear crosspieces, test fitted once more and glued the side assemblies of each table together. (Again, I was careful to check for square.) In hindsight, I should have drilled the dowel holes for the front and back crosspieces into the legs before I glued the legs into the side assemblies. Live and learn!
Image left) Drilling dowel holes in the side assemblies for the front and back rails.
Image right) The small table glued and clamped.
I drew a plan for the corbels on some 1/8" hardboard and cut out the shape using a bandsaw. (A scrollsaw would also work). I sanded the pattern carefully to get a nice regular curve along the piece. I then used pattern routing to produce eight identical pieces. In brief, I traced each piece on some wood and cut it out with a bandsaw, staying outside the lines. The pattern was attached to the piece with double-stick tape. I used a pattern-routing bit in the router table to finish trimming it flush. This step was repeated for all eight pieces.
After sanding the corbels, I glued one onto the outside top of each leg. To prevent them from slipping around, tap a small finishing nail into the back of the piece and clip off the head so that only 1/16” to 1/8" sticks out. I cheated and used a 23-gauge pinner, set to leave the pins sticking out, and tacked a pair of pins into the back of each corbel before gluing.
Image left) Corbels glued and clamped in position.
Image right) A shot of the finished corbels.
Before proceeding with the finish, I checked over the entire project for any missed squeeze-out. I also sanded any rough spots to 220 grit. Finally, I slightly rounded over the edges of the two top pieces, as finish does not stick very well to sharp corners.
I generally prefer to leave wood as natural as possible; however, Mission-style furniture is traditionally dark. I first applied a coat of Varathane Golden Mahogany (#233) stain to all the pieces and wiped off the excess. Next I brushed on two coats of Zinsser SealCoat dewaxed shellac. After each coat, I hand sanded with 400-grit sandpaper. This seals the stain, adds just a hint of amber color and helps with filling the wood pores so that a smooth finish is achieved. If you want your finish very smooth, apply several more coats of shellac, sanding after each coat and wiping off the dust.
The final step was to apply three or four coats of Varathane Diamond Wood Finish, a clear water-based polyurethane. After each coat had dried, I lightly sanded with 400-grit sandpaper. The tops received four coats for extra protection, while the leg assemblies each received three. Polyurethane provides a hard, clear surface with excellent moisture resistance.
After the final coat dried thoroughly, I dribbled on a few drops of water for lubrication and buffed with a 3M Scotch-Brite sanding pad. These are the equivalent of #0000 steel wool, but of course you should never use steel wool on a water-based finish. Dry the piece thoroughly after this.
In the process of applying finish to the larger of the table tops.
Wrapping It Up
Once I was satisfied with the finish, the final step was to attach the tops to the bottoms. I laid the first top upside down on a drop cloth on my bench and positioned the base upside down on the top, double checking to ensure it was oriented correctly. (With the piece upside down and turned around, it is far too easy to get mixed up.) I laid out the table clips and pre-drilled a small hole for each one before inserting a 1/2" screw in each. I let my tables sit for three or four days in the shop to allow the finish to reach full hardness.
Image left) Attaching the top with table clips.
Image right) Close up of the table clips.
Text and photos by Art Mulder
Art Mulder has been messing around in the shop since he was a kid, as his father was a carpenter with a garage full of tools. Most of his projects are inspired by different needs that arise at home. Art loves the design process, particularly working through several plans to ensure a project fits the goal as well as the location. He favors both Mission- and Shaker-style furniture and likes to work with contrasting woods, such as maple and cherry.