Although my specialism is fitted furniture and interiors, I really enjoy making single pieces of bespoke furniture. One project which was deceptively challenging was a solid oak kitchen table which included an extending leaf. There are lots of small details which need to be considered in a piece like this and, although it’s look is quite simple, there are days of work under the table top which ensure the piece will last for decades to come.
The design incorporated chunky 90mm square legs and a heavy 30mm thick table top. This was partly because this was the aesthetic the clients were keen on, but it was also important that the body of the table was heavy enough to support the leaf which extends an extra 500mm. Basically, if someone leans on the end of the leaf, it shouldn’t be felt at the other end of the table.
Table leafs are often stored under the table, for convenience and to save space. The compromise is that the frame is weakened as the table top is not able to be fixed to it, and so can not offer any structural bracing. In this project, due to the weight of this table top in particular, the decision was taken to store the leaf elsewhere when not in use and maintain the structural integrity of the piece.
On the drawing above, you might be able to make out pieces of timber which span the corners from rail to rail at 45 degrees. I call these pieces ‘stretcher plates’, although I don’t know if this is the recognised term. They perform a really crucial function of locking the tenon into the mortise, so that it can’t work loose. Legs are put under lots of strain when they are accidentally kicked, or the table is dragged into a different position. Over time this can loosen the joint, and as soon as the shoulder is loose, the leg will eventually buckle. The stretch plates don’t allow the tenon to work loose, and so vastly increase the tables life.
(For a different method of ensuring tenons remain tight, check out my post on ‘Wedged Tenons’ here…)
The first joints cut were the tenons at the end of each rail ( the horizontal frame pieces). These are placed as close to the outside of the leg as possible, as this means they can be longer before fouling on the tenon of the adjacent rail. If the tenon was placed close to the inside face of the leg, it might only be 20mm long before it came into contact with the other tenon, where as I was able to get 70mm by placing it close to the outer face. The longer the tenon, the less inclined it is to rack (parallelogram), so it’s worth planning out where you can best place a joint.
As with many of my projects, the edges of the components were rounded to a 10mm radius in order to add a softness and tactility. When using larger section timber for furniture, it’s easy for it to appear clunky, so a bit of time spent on the edges pays off on the finished piece.
In order to ensure the legs are square and straight during the glue-up, I use a right angled piece of MDF to clamp to. As long as there’s no daylight visible, I can be sure it’s perfectly square. I also used the rail from the opposite side of the table to ensure the legs were absolutely parallel.
The photo above shows the final assembly stage, where the long rails and a central brace were added. Loads of clamps are needed to make sure everything is tight, and the fact I often run out is another reason why I try to assemble in stages.
The table top and leaf were prepared as a single panel and then cross-cut into the main top and smaller leaf. This ensured that the grain would flow perfectly between the two. To make the panel, 30mm thick stock was edge jointed with loose tenons, then smoothed with planes, cabinet scrappers and sand paper. I use cabinet scrappers for larger panels because they give a lovely sheen to the surface of the timber. Scrappers are 1mm thick sheets of tool steel, about 150mm long, which you hold taught in your hands and scrap the surface of the oak with. It produces really distinctive shavings like in the photo above.
A bit of work was needed to adjust the leaf and table top so they sat perfectly level with each other. The photo above was taken after about 3 or 4 coats of oil, and it’s starting to get that nice sheen. My makers mark was placed at the top of a leg.
Because the table was so heavy, it was delivered in 3 pieces – frame, top, and leaf. However, I fully assembled the piece in the workshop before hand in order to make sure the leaf would slide in and out properly and that there wouldn’t be any other issues during installation. The table can sit 10 easily, and 12 at a pinch.
If you would like to know more about the handmade furniture and bespoke interiors Hugh makes, check out the HM HandMade website at www.hmhandmade.co.uk, or contact Hugh on 07789 768 302 or firstname.lastname@example.org.