Another project has been completed in the FCL workshop, and this time it was a mission style coffee table. We made this coffee table to match Jessica’s dinette set she made in 2019.
The first thing I had to figure out was the style and design. I knew I wanted it to match my dinette set, so I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. So, I took to SketchUp and started designing. I had a few basic measurements in mind, though.
The first thing I thought of was the size of the top. This usually is where I start because most of the other measurements are relative to the top. I did a quick Google search for standard-sized coffee tables, and settled on 18” x 48”. While I was at it, I found that a standard height is 30” from the floor to the top of the tabletop. From here, it was pretty free-range, but I did keep most of the components pretty similar in width between the coffee table and the chairs from my dinette set. The rails on my chairs where 13/16” x 2 ½”. So I used the same for the rails and stretcher on the coffee table. I made the legs 1 ¾” x 1 5/8” and the spindles 5/8” x 5/8”, which was the same as the chair legs and spindles.
I played around for all other measurements until I got something visually appealing. Initially, I targeted a 3” overhang and adjusted where needed. The only thing this didn’t cover was the length of the legs. I wanted to follow the standard 30” overall height. So I subtracted the thickness of the top and the thickness of the braces to attach the top to the base from 30”. This left me with the length of 28 3/8”.
The last word of caution is to not forget about joinery. Don’t move on to manufacturing the project until you know what joinery you’re going to use. If you are using dowels or dominos, you won’t need any extra length. But if you are doing mortise and tenon (like I did), add this extra length to the pieces. I always design the mortises and tenons into the Sketchup model. That way, I can quickly get my dimensions from the components.
I think the designing aspect of woodworking is frequently overlooked. If you walk into the shop with good blueprints and plans in hand, you tend to make fewer errors. This means you waste less lumber from mistakes. These blueprints and plans don’t need to be made on design software like Sketchup. I’ve come up with plenty of plans with paper and a pencil. There is a bit more measuring and math involved, but it gets the job done. My advice is to have a well thought out plan before you start cutting any wood.
Making the Components
With the plans in hand, I headed to the shop to start machining. I grabbed some SLR1E 13/16” cherry and started ripping. I didn’t want any sapwood in my parts, so I made sure to remove as much as possible while I was getting the components to size. First, I ripped cherry to 2 1/2” for the rails and the bottom stretcher. I like to start with the wider components early; that way, I could use the narrow strips for the legs (if possible). Then I chopped the rails and the bottom stretcher to length with the crosscut sled. While I was at it, I figured I would finish up the rails and bottom stretcher, so I cut the tenons. The tenons were 3/8” thick and 1/2” long on the stretcher and ¾” long on the rails. Now, I could put these pieces aside and work on the legs.
I planned to glue two 13/16” pieces of cherry together to get my thickness of 1 5/8”. I ripped the cherry to 2” that way I knew I had enough material to clean the legs up to 1 ¾” after it was glued. I chopped the rips to rough length and color, and grain matched the pieces together for the legs. After everything was matched, I quickly hit the surfaces to be glued with 80 grit sandpaper to make sure the surfaces were clean from any dirt and to remove the oxidized surface. This can help create a better bond. I let the glue cure for about 1 ½ hours in clamps and didn’t start machining them for about another 2 hours.
As the legs were drying in the clamps, I started working on the curly maple spindles. Figured wood is much more prone to chip out and tear out. I had a few different ideas on approaching these without getting a massive amount of chip out. When I made my dinette set, I cut all the spindles oversized and sanded them to width and thickness with a wide belt sander. This leaves virtually no chip out on the curly maple.
I could have done the same thing with the spindles for the coffee table, but I wanted to see if there was a viable option for people who don’t have access to a wide belt sander. Plus, for this project, there were only ten small spindles, so if there was a quicker way to get this job done with exceptional quality, I was game.
When we got our jointer and planer, we specifically ordered spiral cutter heads with carbide inserts. This costs more upfront but saves a ton of time and hassle in the long run. With these cutter heads, I was super impressed with the finish I got with merely using the jointer and planner. The planer left a little less chip-out than the jointer, but since I was machining them to 5/8” x 5/8”, I was able to remove all the chip out from the jointer at the planer. There were still a few spindles that had some chip out, but I made extras for this exact reason. Also, the extra spindles are convenient for setting up machinery for joinery. The other thing to remember is the tenons on the spindles can easily blow out while machining because of the figured grain, so having extra spindles are always a good plan.
I planed the curly maple stock to 5/8” thick. Then, I took this stock to the table saw and ripped pieces to 5/8” wide. Once again, there was little to no chip out from the table saw blade. All I needed to do was sand the saw marks off the surface.
The spindles are small and narrow. So, make sure you are using safe table saw practices when machining these parts. You most likely won’t be able to use the guard, and you’ll need to use a push stick. Make sure to keep your fingers a safe distance away from the blade. Always make sure you feel comfortable with what you’re machining.
After a few hours of work, I removed the legs from the clamps. At this point, I started focusing on the tabletop. I grabbed some cherry that was similar in color and grain and started arranging the pieces for the top. I began by identifying what face will be the top. I didn’t want any sapwood visible, so I put the faces with sapwood on the bottom. I also put any knots or other defects on the bottom. Then, I started to color and grain matching the boards so the top would look like a uniform piece. My suggestion is, don’t rush this. Keep flipping, moving, and arranging the boards until you’re happy with it. I also like to look at the arrangement from different angles. Once I came up with the orientation I wanted, I numbered the boards in order and dressed the edges for glue-up. After the edges were jointed, I glued the boards together.
Then, I turned my focus back to the spindles and cut them to length with the crosscut sled on the table saw. After they were chopped to length, I put the dado stack back in the table saw and cut the tenons to 3/8” x 3/8” x ½” long.
Next, I moved to machine the legs. I jointed one of the glued edges square, ripped them to 1 ¾” wide, and cut them to length with the crosscut sled. At this point, all of the pieces for the base were cut to the final size. The only thing left to do was cut the mortises.
I gathered the components for the base so I could layout the placement for the mortises. The first mortise I wanted tackle was the mortise for the stretcher. I knew this mortise was going to be the biggest challenged because of our equipment. So, I set up a stop block and marked an end of the rail next to the stop block. I did my first pass at the top of the mortise on one rail and switched to the other rail to keep the measurements the same. The next pass was the bottom of the mortise. After the top and the bottom of the mortise were cut, I removed the rest of the material. With the toughest mortise complete, I moved to cut the mortises for the spindles.
I wanted to cut the mortises for the spindles first. This way, I could use the spindle and rail assembly to mark the mortises on the legs. First, I marked the outside face of the rail and the edge that mortises would be on. Then, I started laying out the placement for the mortises on the edge by marking the center. From the center point, I marked 3/16” on either side, leaving an area of 3/8” for the center spindle. I wanted the gap between the spindles to be the same as the size of the spindle itself, 5/8”. So, from here, I figured out what the distance would be from the end of each tenon. The spindle was 5/8” square, and the tenon was 3/8” square, which means there is an overhang of 1/8”. So I added the gap size 5/8” and the overhang 1/8”. Remember, you have to account for the overhang twice; for the overhang from the current spindle and the overhang for the next spindle in the sequence. So, I marked 7/8” between the tenons and then another 3/8” to mark the placement for the next spindle. I continued this until the placement for all the spindles were marked.
Now it was time to machine the mortise. I centered the chisel bit by eye on the rail. This doesn’t matter too much as long as the rails are always oriented in the same direction. That’s why I marked the outside of the rail. So, the face of the rail that I marked was always placed against the fence. With everything set up, I started machining the mortises.
Once all the mortises for the spindles were cut, I could dry-fit the spindles into the rails. Don’t forget to mark which spindles go where and what direction they face. Next, I looked at the legs and marked the two outside faces. From here, I could identify where the mortises for the rails would be placed, and I orientated them face up. Then, I took the spindle and rail assembly and positioned it on the legs. Once it was where I wanted it, I marked the tenons, therefore, marking the position of the mortises. I went back to the mortiser, eyeballed the center, made sure to always place the two outside faces against the fence and the bed, and machined the mortises.
The last thing I needed to finish was the top. I ran the top through our wide belt sander to get both faces flat again. Then, I ripped it to final width and cut it to final length with the crosscut sled.
At this point, 98% of the manufacturing was complete, and it was time to move forward to the next step of the process.
Fitting and Sanding
With most of the machining complete, the next thing I needed to do was fit everything together. I grabbed a file and a sanding block and started fitting the tenons to the corresponding mortise. This takes time, and you don’t want to rush the fit. If the fit is too loose, the glue will not hold the joint together.
One thing to note, I did have to make a small notch in the tenon on the bottom stretcher. I had to do this because the center spindle intruded into the mortise for the stretcher. To make the notch, I quickly ran over to the bandsaw and just made a big enough notch for the pieces to fit together.
Once all the joints were fit together, I machined the two braces that would secure the top to the base. These were just two strips of cherry 13/16” thick ripped and chopped to fit on top of the legs. Then I took those braces over to the drill press and drilled one center hole and two slotted holes on either side of the center hole. The slotted holes will allow the top to expand or contract over the seasons. (These slotted holes can also be machined with a router.)
Then, I moved onto the sanding. I sanded all the pieces up to 400 grit (the bottom of the top was only sanded to 220 grit.) If you wanted, you could sand the curly maple to a higher grit, which would pull out more figure in the wood. Always keep in mind what kind of finish you are going to use. For finishes that sit on the surface of the wood, like polyurethane, lacquer, or varnish, you can only sand to 220 grit. But if you are using an oil finish, you can sand to as high as you want.
I chose to sand this high because of the finish I was using. I personally think that with the finish I used, the higher you sand, the better. If you only sand to 220, I think the surface looks dull and flat. So, know the finish that you will be using and what you can expect from it.
After everything was sanded, I started the assembly. I did this in a few different steps, so I wasn’t rushing during the glue-up. First, I glued the leg, spindle, and rail sections. Just some notes on this step, there is no glue holding the spindles in place. Because the rails are glued to the legs, there is no way for the spindles to be removed. This means you don’t need to glue them. And just like with any assembly glue up, don’t use too much glue. You need less glue than you realize. It’s tough to clean up any squeeze out from the joints, so by being cautious, it will save you a ton of time.
Once those sections were dried, I glued the bottom stretcher into place. I had to get a little more creative with this one. While I was prepping for the glue-up, I realized I didn’t have a long enough clamp. So, I found a ratchet strap that I could use as a “clamp.” I threw some glue on the mortises and tenons and strapped the piece together. I left the base of the table in the “clamp” for a few hours to dry.
The last pieces I needed to attach were the top braces. This was pretty simple. I positioned the pieces, drilled a few pilot holes, countersank the holes, and screwed the braces to the legs. It was finally time to finish the project.
I used a Sam Maloof finish that is 1/3 raw tung oil, 1/3 oil-based polyurethane, and 1/3 boiled linseed oil. Never use water-based ploy when mixing finishes. As everyone knows, oil and water don’t mix, and the same thing applies to finishes. The water-based finish will not mix with oil-based finishes. This finish is straightforward to apply. You simply apply a generous amount of finish, let it soak in for 15-20 minutes, then wipe it dry. The wood will soak up a lot of finish on the first coat. I like to keep reapplying the finish to keep the surface wet. The only tricky thing with this finish is the wiping it dry. When I say, “Wipe it dry,” I mean, “Wipe it dry.” If any finish is missed or isn’t wiped off, after the finish cures, the surface can be rough and even tacky. I like to wipe it dry multiple times. I want to hold the pieces at different angles to expose any places I might have missed. I know what it’s like to screw up the finish on a project, so make sure to take your time.
Wrapping it Up
The only thing left to do was attach the top to the base. I positioned the top where I wanted it and secured it with screws. For the slotted holes, I placed the screws in the center of the slot so the top can expand or contract. Remember, you don’t need to crank the screws down. You just want the screws tight enough to hold the top in place. The top won’t be able to expand or contract if the screws are too tight.
And with that, the coffee table was finally complete.
I really the way this project turned out. Not only does it look great, but it was a pretty quick project as well. It only took about 20 hours from start to finish. Overall, I was really impressed with how well the spindles turned out, considering I didn’t use a wide belt sander. The cherry seamlessly matched between all the pieces making for a uniform and beautiful piece.