Tables are one of the most common woodworking projects attempted by a novice woodworker. Every home needs a few. One of the simplest, yet most enduring table design is the Shaker table. Let's take a look at what it takes to build this very simple, yet sturdy table.
The legs of the table are simple straight posts. The rails connect to the posts using mortise and tenon joints. The corners of the posts are rounded over to keep the edges from splitting under use.
The blanks for the legs are best made using the same stock used for the rails. A glue-up made from two pieces of rail creates a post twice as thick as the rails. This is often a good choice of dimensions for the post. Being twice as thick as the railsthe post is both sturdy, and its proportions are visually pleasing.
Alternating the grain direction on the posts helps with managing wood movement. A post built this way shows less deflection than post built with the wood grain facing in one direction.
The rails are straight pieces with a tenon at each end. The tenon connects to matching mortises in the posts. The height of the rails determines the table's deflection resistance in the downward direction. A larger table with wide spans needs higher rails. The width of the rails is less important than their height.
The tenons can be cut many ways. On the table saw, with a router, or by hand. The exact size of the tenonjoint will vary with the size of stock selected and the size of the table.
The inner, top edge of each rails has a groove for tabletop clips. The clips connect the tabletop to the bottom of the table in a way that lets the tabletop move without breaking. As the humidity in the room changes through the seasons the tabletop and table bottom must be able to move independently. Without these clips the tabletop could warp or even crack.
The groove needs to be large enough to accept the clips you intend to use. In most cases this means a 1/4" wide groove, 3/8" deep, 1/2" below the top edge of the rail. All four rails need such a groove.
The corners of the table are reinforced with corner blocks. These blocks keep the base of the table square when it is moved (often dragged) across the floor. Without these blocks the connections between the posts and the railsabsorb all lateral forces. The corner blocking greatly increases the designs durability.
The exact location and size of the corner blocks is not vital. While larger corner block add more strength, simply having corner blocks in the first place adds most of the required strength to the corners of the table.
The corner blocks are glued and screwed into place. If you choose to round over the bottom of the rails, the corner blocks should be smaller than the rails. Otherwise the round over needs to be extended to the bottom of the corner blocks. This is not a an easy operation to complete.
The tabletop is a glue-up of several pieces. The mating edges of all pieces should be jointed for a very strong glue joint. Alternating the grain direction between adjacent pieces can help with reducing warping of the tabletop.
Large overhangs are particularly vulnerable to warping. Consider adding a breadboard to the tabletop;a perpendicular piece at each end. This piece will stabilize the tabletop in the vertical direction. Since the tabletop expands laterally, the breadboard should only be glued to the end grain of the tabletop in the center of the tabletop. The ends of the top float freely.
The exact dimensions of the table can vary greatly. The design can be built as a small side table, or as a grand dining table 8ft+ long. The dimensions presented in this article are for a heavy, grand dining table.
When scaling a table design a few dimensions are vitally important. The table must be designed with human users in mind.
|Width per person||24-30"|
|Depth per person||12-18"|
|Leg room (below rail)||24-29"|
|Thigh to rail min||6"|
Since the legs are not connected with rails at the bottom, the table legs have to be sturdy. If the legs are smaller than 2x2" consider adding a bottom rail on the short dimension of the table. On very large tables add a single lower rail connected to the centers of the two end rails.
The basic Shaker design can be modified very easily; often times with dramatic effect. The basic pieces of the table are present in the design. Machining steps can be added to each component to create a different look.
For example, a taper can be added to the posts below the mortise and tenon joints. This taper does not interfere with the other components of the table. If you have a lathe, the posts can be turned.
At minimum the bottom edges of the rails should be rounded over. For a more flowing look the bottom of each rail can be cut at a radius.
The thickness and choice of material has probably the most dramatic effect. A dining table made from thick mahogany stock finished with a French polish is more of a statement than a simple table. The Shaker design often brings out the beauty contained in exotic wood.
As long as the basic components are maintained, any modification can be made. This is where the woodworker becomes an artist.
The Shaker style dinner table is a timeless design. With 4 rails, 4 posts, and only 8 mortises the table is relatively simple and fast to build. The design can be scaled to be a small side table, or a grand dinner table.
When built from a good quality hardwood a Shaker styletable with stand the test of time. This is one of the few woodworking projects you can do that could last a lifetime.