A Little Nostalgia

I was over my mother’s house recently and decided to finally snap some pictures of this table. I apologize for the poor picture quality as I only had the camera on my iPhone with me. This table is one of my favorite pieces of furniture. It’s not special because it’s such a great design, or because it was flawlessly built (it wasn’t), but because it is the first large piece of furniture that I ever designed and built completely on my own. Why it has taken me 20 years to take some photos of it I have no idea. Perhaps in another 20 years I’ll take some better ones with a real camera :). For now, these will have to do.

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The table was built during my senior year in high school wood shop…back when they still had high school wood shop. I was trying to think of what to make for my senior project that wouldn’t be the same old, same old that all of the other seniors had done for years and years. At the time, my mother had been looking for a new coffee table for her living room, but had not been able to find exactly what she wanted in the furniture stores in several years of looking. So I took on the task of designing and building exactly what she wanted, with her input on the design, of course, since she was the customer.

Now before I go any further, let me be clear that this was not a hand tool only project. In fact, the only hand tool I really remember using was a chisel and a hand sanding block. This was back in my early introductory days, before my leap to the dark side, so the piece was built primarily with the commercial table saw, router and lathe that my high school shop was equipped with. It would be many years before I would see the light and give up the electrons.

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My first task was to design and build the legs since they were needed before anything else could be done. My mom wanted a “country” style table with fat, turned legs. So I sat down with my shop teacher to come up with a design. He suggested that we turn them on the shop’s computer controlled lathe, sort of an early CNC I suppose (I don’t think he was a very adept turner). It was a large lathe with a “V” shaped cutter mounted on a large head unit that could move in X and Y axial directions. You’ll notice the wide, cove like transitions between the large beads; a result of the “V” shaped cutter, which could not make sharp transitions like a skew chisel can. The leg design was simply programmed into the computer, the leg blanks mounted and the start button pressed. The computer program controlled the rest, ensuring 4 absolutely identical legs. Because our high school shop did not stock lumber in thicknesses greater than 6/4, however, we had to glue up the near 3″ square leg blanks from three 4/4 thick pieces. You can imagine how things look after turning through the glue lines. The grain runs all over, with no match at all, of course.

After turning, we made the mortises for the aprons. This was router work. No marking gauges (I don’t think I even knew what they were at the time), and no mortise chisels. We routed the mortises using a guide fence on a hand held plunge router and squared up the ends of each mortise with a bench chisel. After mortising, I also decided to lop the corners off of the top and bottom blocks of the legs…a design element. I don’t think I would do the same today.

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The aprons were next. We had to make eight of them since mom wanted a shelf on the bottom. She wanted a square table, so all the aprons were cut to the same length. Tenons were cut on the table saw: the shoulders were crosscut with the miter gauge and the cheeks were cut off with a commercial tenoning jig. After a dry fit, I didn’t like how plain the aprons looked, so I decided to add two table saw kerfs to the bottom edge of the aprons. Of course today this would be a nice bead done with a molding plane (which could have been done then with the router), but in those days, the table saw kerfs were just right to break up the plain look of the apron. Once the aprons were done, we assembled with yellow glue, clamped, and got to work on the table top and bottom shelf.

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The top on this table was a big, heavy beast. I don’t remember what thickness we left it, but it’s a full 36″ square. It was glued up from multiple boards, six or seven if memory serves. There were a few small knot holes in one of the boards (seen in the picture) and some really gnarly inclusions along one of the edges of another (not shown). Not wanting to waste wood, my shop teacher suggested we leave the imperfections, calling them “character”. I do think the imperfections actually help to distinguish the piece from factory made stuff and give it a hand crafted feel. Today I’d probably not keep them in a piece of this style though. Maybe for a more contemporary studio type piece.

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The bottom was sized a bit smaller than the top. We didn’t want the bottom shelf overhanging past the outside edges of the legs. More importantly though, we had to be able to get the bottom shelf into the assembled legs and aprons. So its dimension couldn’t be any larger than the diagonal of the space between the top and bottom apron. The edges of both the top and bottom were softened and decorated with a large thumbnail profile, cut with the router. My shop teacher actually ordered the bit specifically for this project. After the edges were detailed, the bottom was notched around the legs with a saber saw. Then it was a week’s worth of sanding before the finish could be applied.

While I would do a lot of things differently today were I to build this table again, I’m still very proud of this piece. Not only was it my first large piece of furniture designed and built on my own, but I won a first place award for it at my high school’s annual art & craft show held at the end of each school year. The table actually earned me a $200 check. More importantly though, the customer is still very pleased with it. After 20 years, it still sits prominently in her living room even after all of the other furniture in the room has been replaced at least 2 times. The table also looks just as good today as it did the day it was finished. In my mind, this table is a living testament to the timelessness, quality and longevity of craftsman made furniture.

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4 thoughts on “A Little Nostalgia

  1. Very cool! The older I get, the more I really wish I had spent some time in High School in the industrial arts classes. It’s such a shame that these programs are loosing funding all over the country.

  2. That’s a great looking coffee table Bob. I would love to be able to build such a thing. Like the previous poster, I also wished I had pursued woodworking in high school, but a negative experience with 7th & 8th grade woodworking classes turned me off to the idea. Do you do much turning these days, or is that waiting for the completion of your pole lathe? I just remembered that you said somewhere, that you had problems with the original treadle, but haven’t heard anything since then.

    • I do turn on the pole lathe on occasion. I did have problems with the treadle before, but now I typically just use any old stick as a treadle. I made a few adjustments to how I treadle instead of making a new treadle.

  3. Bob very nice looking project, I think it looks great and you have the right to be proud and I am sure your Mother is very happy to have it sit in her Living Room. Those were the day’s, I think it was called Industrial Arts back then 1/2 the year was drafting the other 1/2 wood and metal shop.

    I still have my first wood project a book case I made for my parents ( 1965 ), when my Mother passed away a 1 1/2 years ago I got it back where it now house’s my Wood Working Books and Magazines.

    Steve

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