A Sculpted Side Table | Popular Woodworking Magazine

A Sculpted Side Table | Popular Woodworking Magazine

sculpted side table

Lathe and handwork yield a seamless transition from turned legs to a flush apron.

Skill Level: Advanced
Time: 1 Week
Cost: $300

There used to be a store near my shop that sold vintage clothing and (honestly, pretty junky) furniture. But there was a coffee table in the window that always caught my eye. It wasn’t a particularly nice-looking table, but something about the flush surfaces and heavy roundovers between the legs and aprons always got my brain whirling: What happens when you turn a spindle leg but set it flush to an apron? Do you have to have a big clunky block like a Shaker table? Could you continue the turned section all the way up the leg? For the life of me, I couldn’t figure it out. Or at least I couldn’t wrap my head around what it would look like.

My friend Roger Deatherage says he builds furniture to see what it’ll look like, and that was certainly the case with this table. I built it as a way to see what would happen if I joined a turned spindle leg to a flush-set apron.

As it turns out, it takes a bit of fussing to get everything to go together, but I think the results are well worth it: a simple (looking, at least) table with a few nice details that lead to versatility. The design lends itself to plenty of variation— I could see this table working as a desk, a large dining table or maybe as the base for a small cabinet. And although the table shown here is made out of Kwila (a dark, opengrained wood sometimes used as a substitute for mahogany), almost any relatively straight-grained wood would work well.

sculpted side table detail

Sculpted side table detail.

Although this table utilizes a number of different techniques in its construction (floating tenons, angled joinery, turning, carving, shaping with handplanes), almost any of the methods shown here can be swapped out for something that works better for you in your own shop. The important thing is to be methodical: take your time and work each set of parts all the way through a process before moving on to the next step. The point, as always, is to make something nice; how you get there is up to you.

One more quick note before we get going—you may notice that all of the dimensions are listed in millimeters. Not to worry! Although you can always convert the measurements back to Imperial, I highly recommend picking up a 150mm ruler (or even better, a 150mm/6″ combination rule) and trying it out. You may like it! It’s whole numbers! No more adding and subtracting fractions until you need to take a nap under your bench. It’s easy.

All of that being said, general measurements are still listed in inches, because that’s how most of my tooling is set up at the shop, and what my brain still defaults to.

First thing’s first: milling up all the stock. I tend to rough-cut all my parts 3-4″ overlength before letting them settle for a few weeks (or, sometimes, hours, depending on the deadline, but I’d surely never admit such a thing in public.) The legs wind up at 48mm square finished, so it’s best to start with material milled to a generous 8/4- or even 10/4-thick.

Angled joinery can seem daunting at first, but again, not to worry: it isn’t fundamentally any different from joining something “square.” (90˚ is still an angle, after all.) All it takes is a good bevel gauge and a little more care in getting things set up and marked out.

Mill the legs and aprons to final thickness (48mm and 44mm, respectively), but don’t mill the aprons to final width just yet. (I mill them to be about 75mm before this step.) Mark which faces of each component will face outwards. I usually try to use rift- or quartersawn stock, since the “wash” pattern of flat-sawn material can detract from the lines of the piece.

Mill your lumber to rough length and allow it to acclimate to your shop.

Determine the orientation of your legs and mark them out. Rift-sawn lumber will have nice, straight grain.

Next, set the blade of your table saw to cut a 2˚ bevel, and using a miter gauge or sliding table, cut the aprons to length, positioning the stock so that the top face of each blank is slightly shorter than the bottom face. (Remember, you want the legs to splay out!) You should now have two short and two long trapezoidal “chunks.”

Find an orientation for the aprons that harmonizes with the legs.

Set the blade of your table saw to 2° and crosscut your aprons to length.

Without resetting the blade, set your miter gauge to the exact same 2˚ bevel as the blade. This will allow you to cut the compound 2˚ bevel (meaning an angle running in both planes relative to the face of the stock) for the tops and bottoms of the legs (and thus insuring that the top and bottom planes of the base itself stay parallel.) Cut each leg to length, cutting each end on the compound 2˚ bevel, being careful to keep the angled ends parallel. I’d make a few test cuts on some scrap pieces first, and make note of which way the leg blank needs to rotate when you flip it end-for-end on the miter gauge. This will all make more sense once you set things up.

Don’t reset your angle yet. Rip the apron at 2° on the bottom.

At this point, you should have four aprons and four legs that, if clamped together, will resemble the basic outline of the table: splayed legs, heavy aprons, flat top. Double-check that your leg faces are square, and that the apron joints are square across their thickness. Take a few passes with a plane to square things up if necessary. If everything has gone according to plan, you should be ready to move on to laying out the joinery.

Be careful to orient the compound 2° bevels on the legs so that the top and bottom are parallel.

Mark your orientations as much as possible to ensure that every cut is exactly where you want it.

With all of the angles cut, you should be able to rough assemble the table with clamps.

Make sure all faces are square before moving on—especially the legs. A handplane will make quick work of anything out of square.

I generally use a JDS Multirouter for big mortising jobs, or whenever I need to set up to cut a boatload of the exact same mortise. This table pretty well falls into the second category: each leg receives 4 floating tenons, meaning the entire table requires 32 identical mortises.

I would like to emphasize that this is by no means the only way to join these legs to their respective aprons; it’s just the way that makes the most sense for me. If you’re more comfortable using sawn tenons with angled shoulders, wonderful! If you’d prefer to just screw the things together and be done with it, more power to you. The point is that the joinery itself is not the main event here.

I try to arrange my joinery with as few different setups as I can get away with, without sacrificing strength or the piece’s overall design. To that end, I prefer to work off of centerlines while I’m cutting mortises for floating tenons. I find it a little easier to lay out my centerlines on the aprons first, then transfer them over to the legs. Set up a small fence on the mortiser, set up your stops for a 1/4″ end mill bit, and you’re ready to go.

Careful layout is key to making precise mortises.

Carry your centerline to the face of the apron and then transfer it to the legs.

Careful layout guarantees precise mortises.

Traditionally, the problem of two aprons joining into a leg is solved by some combination of hunched, shouldered tenons and doubled, shortened tenons. These work fine, except that even with straight/90˚ joinery, it requires a significant amount of setup. Add in the compound angles, and now you have at least twice that many setups.

The nice things about using identical “overlapping” mortises is that you can cut everything—leg and apron motives alike–in one setup. And, while traditional woodworking knowledge will tell you that you should never, ever run mortises perpendicular to the grain (glue surfaces on end grain and all that), I have found these joints to be more than strong enough for what’s required of this little table.

So with your work piece referenced on the outside face and your centerlines aligned with the fence, rout the mortises vertically. The face of the joint should be pressed against the fence—don’t worry about the angle of the joint itself, since referencing directly off the fence will always insure that the mortises are perpendicular to the joint face. If you don’t have a Multirouter, this procedure could be replicated with a spindle mortiser, a hollow-chisel mortiser, or, with some ingenuity, a mortising box and handheld router.

The multirouter cuts mortises with a spiral bit, registering the parts against a fence.

I’ve found mortises like these, perpendicular to the grain, perfectly adequate for a table like this.

Once the mortises are cut, mill up some tenon stock. I like to make mine out of offcuts from the piece itself. Mill two or three lengths of scrap to the exact dimensions of your mortises (dial calipers reading in thousandths helps for this), then run everything over a 1/4″ roundover bit in a router table. (Or use a few heavy passes with a block plane.) Finally, cut the tenons to length, making sure to cut them a few millimeters short of the total depth of the two combined mortises. At this point I like to dry-fit everything up, and if necessary, I’ll “tune” some of the joint faces with a few light passes with a low-angle plane.

Further Reading: Routers Beyond Roundovers

I cut tenon stock with a 1/4″ roundover bit in the router table. You could also use a block plane to rough out the shape.

On to the fun part—shaping! But first, more layout. Use a combination square and circle template (or compass) to draw centerlines and circles at the top and bottom of each leg. Note that the circles (46mm in diameter up top, 32mm in diameter at the foot) run tangent to the two outside faces of the leg. They aren’t centered! Use a long straightedge to connect the two “crosshair” lines along the length of the leg—you’ll use those lines as references while you’re turning.

Next, scribe a line around the bottom edge of the leg-apron joint face, and wrap a couple of pieces of masking tape around it. The tape is a warning: you don’t want to turn down your joinery! Finally, before heading to the lathe I like to remove as much material as I can with a drawknife. I find a few minutes spent on the shave horse can save a lot of time (and frustration) on the lathe. Just don’t get too carried away—you don’t want to remove any of the actual spindle inside the leg blank.

Further Reading: Shaving Horse and Drawknife Basics

The center of your leg is offset—the final top and bottom diameters of the leg are tangent to the two outside faces. Carry the centerline down both of the outside faces.

Remove as much waste from the leg as you can before putting it on the lathe. A drawknife makes quick work of it.

Set up the leg on the lathe between centers, with the top of the leg at the headstock. Be sure to center the blank on the center points of the circles you drew—not the center points of the blank. The blank will seem offset and wobbly at first, but that’s by design: Any cylinder you turn will “automatically” become a perfectly tapered spindle.

I like to start with the cove-cuts just underneath the joinery block, so I know I’m working away from the section I know I don’t want to cut into. Use a fingernail gouge with the cannel facing down the length of the leg. Then, starting just below the joint line, cut into the blank, then quickly roll the tool 90˚ toward the ceiling. (Think of a snowboarder landing inside a halfpipe.) This should create a small cove on the inside corner of the leg. Work down until the reference lines are just about gone.

Start with the cove cuts near the top of the leg.

Use a fingernail gouge with the cannel facing down the length of the leg.

Work down until the reference lines are just about gone.

Next, switch to a roughing gouge, and, working in 10″ sections, turn the blank down until the long reference lines from earlier are just barely visible, just as you did with the cove. (The “rings” left from the roughing gouge should just about touch them.) If you have laid out your center points correctly, you should end up with a gently tapering cylinder. Don’t worry about making the leg smooth at this point, or even altogether straight. At this stage, the idea is just to get the leg into a rough spindle shape.

I know all of this sounds fussy, but it’s worth taking the time to be methodical here, and getting fairly close to the finished shape of the leg before taking it off the lathe. You’ll have a much easier time shaping things down the road, and the piece as a whole will end up looking much crisper as a result.

Rough out the rest of the leg, getting as close as you can to the final shape of the leg before taking it off the lathe.

You know you’re getting close when your roughing cuts start to get close to your centerlines.

With all four legs roughed out, it’s time to head back to the bench. Knock down the outside corner at the top of the leg with a block plane, then, with a No.7 jointer plane, “joint” the outward-facing quadrant of the leg. You’ll end up planing in a slight “fan” pattern. (Imagine planing a section of an inverted cone: The base widens toward the top, but the lines running along the surface are actually straight.)

Pay attention to your layout circles, and gradually fair the outside corner into a quarter- round section, which should then in turn “flow” into the two adjacent, flat faces. With the outside corner finished, work your way around the inside of the leg, using a combination of small bench planes and spokeshaves. You won’t be able to shape closer than an inch or so to the inside cove; don’t worry about that part for now.

Use a jointer plane to fair the outside corner into the adjacent flat faces, paying close attention to the top layout circle.

Refine the inside corner with small planes and a spokeshave.

Once the shaping is finished, take the legs back to the lathe, and sand everything down to #400 grit. You may need to make a few trips back to the bench to scrape or spokeshave down any troublesome grain or extra-large facets from planing.

With the shaping finished, head back to the lathe and sand the tapers to #400 grit.

It’s always worth doing one final dry-fit before glue-up. Double-check that your joint faces are still good, and make sure you didn’t undercut the apron by turning the leg down too far. If necessary, plane down any surfaces that aren’t quite flush with an adjoining face. It’s much easier to do all of this stuff now, instead once everything is glued together.

Do a dry t and rehearsal of the glue up. Make sure all faces are flush. Plane down any trouble spots before glue up.

I use slow-set West Systems epoxy for long, complicated glue-ups like this one. Don’t drive yourself crazy with elaborate clamping cauls: you should still have just enough of a flat on each leg to apply pressure directly through the joint face. Clean up any squeeze out with denatured alcohol and let everything cure overnight.

There’s enough flat on the leg that no cauls are needed. Just be mindful of the tightness of your joints.

The last phase of shaping the table base is done largely with carving gouges and rasps. Clamp the base upside down to the bench, and, working one corner at a time, carve the remaining material on the leg until the “spindle” portion comes just about flush with the undersides of the aprons. Use a #7 or #8 x 10mm gouge to take a series of passes around the underside of the leg. Take care not to remove material from the bottom face of the apron, or from the “spindle” itself—you should end up with a nice transition cove between the apron and the leg.

The final shaping at the top of the legs is done with rasps and gouges.

Go slowly and methodically to blend the leg into the apron.

Fine-tune the cove with rasps (I use a Auriou 7″/13-grain, followed by a 6″/15-grain) and #150-grit paper. (Anything coarser makes it just about impossible to get the scratches out.) Carefully fair the cove into the turned-and-planed segment: imagine the spindle “growing” out of the top section of the leg. Avoid lumps, or rounding everything into mush. Remember that all of the transition takes shape on the leg itself, not the apron. Any little bumps between the apron and the cove can usually be faired out with a #1 or #2 shortbend gouge.

With the underside cove completed, use a rasp to shape the two coves on the outside faces of the legs. Although they aren’t “true” quarter- rounds, they should extend from the corner of the joinery block to roughly tangent to the long reference lines from earlier. Sand out any scratches with a small piece of folded sandpaper. Finally, plane and sand the aprons flush to the legs, and break any hard edges with one or two swipes of #320-grit paper.

For all the work that has gone into the base, the top is relatively straightforward. It’s comprised of three 150mm-wide slip-matched planks, milled to 20mm thick. Once the top is glued up, bandsaw the corners into 40mm-radius quarter-rounds. (I used a masonite template to trace the curve, but a compass would work just as well—just be sure not to poke any holes in the top!) Spokeshave or plane a matching 2˚ bevel into the edge of the top. I find this is best done by eye—you’re mostly looking for a profile that responds to the splay of the legs, and a square profile tends to look a little lifeless on a piece like this.

With the top glued up, saw the corners into a 40 mm round. A template helps with layout.

Add the 2° bevel to the top’s edge with a spokeshave or plane. Trust your eye – look for a profile that responds to the splay of the leg.

Once the table is completely finished, attach the top and enjoy!

Plane or sand the top up to #400- grit, then break the edges as before. Finally, finish everything with a couple coats of oil. (I particularly like Liberon Finishing Oil, which is a relatively thin tung oil-based product.) Once the finish is cured, attach the top with tabs or buttons, and declare victory. Enjoy!

This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine (#243).

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