Joel on Making a Table

I… am a wood nerd. A furniture geek. A table dork. There aren’t many of us around anymore, so I should explain what I mean. I find myself inspecting (my wife would call it “geeking out”), quite inadvertently, every table, chest of drawers, chair and bench made of wood in almost all the places I go. I scrutinize the grain pattern of the wood, its texture, its feel. I want to know what kind of wood it is, what tree produces the particular kind of lumber I’m looking at. Then, comes the construction. I’m fascinated by how craftsmanship, artistry and technique combine to deliver a functional object intended for everyday use. I can’t help it. My wife rolls her eyes when she see me enter “wood nerd mode”. Heaven forbid I have to go to an actual furniture store!

I’m fortunate that I get to indulge my nerdiness in my work at Harp – with fellow wood nerds. I have the opportunity, every day, to put to use some of the woodworking techniques I come across in my “geek-out” sessions around town. So, when a particular ten-foot table came across our build schedule in the shop, I eagerly commenced the building process. This particular build calls for walnut!

For the uninitiated, walnut is the gold standard for many furniture makers. Its color can range from cream, to very dark brown and even purple all in the same board. Walnut is just hard enough to avoid the always-annoying tear out and splitting, yet just soft enough not dull your sharp saw blades too quickly. Even the smell of fresh cut walnut boards is wonderful.

At Harp Design Co., we get our walnut in a very rough form. The boards are usually a few inches thick, about a foot wide and sometimes as long as 12 feet. It is usually at this point, when I’m pulling rough boards for a new project, that I get every woodworker’s most irritating occurrence – splinters!

I am asked all the time if I get splinters woodworking every day. The answer is, yes! I usually get a good splinter once in every project. I’ve learned to wear gloves when I can, but gloves can actually be dangerous in some cases!

After pulling enough walnut for the project from our pole barn – our wood storage building – I have to run the boards through the jointer to make sure I remove any twists, cupping or warping. For perfectly straight boards, I need at least one face and one edge nice and square. Then I plane the boards to the thickness I need for each part of the table – top, apron/skirt and stretchers. It is not until the boards are planed can I stop worrying about splinters! I then cut the boards to the widths and lengths I need for each part.

The next step I like to do is make the tabletop. Usually, the wood glue used in a tabletop takes most of the day to dry before I can work with it again, so if I glue and clamp the top first thing in the morning, I can come back to it later in the day. In this case, the tabletop is joined together using wood glue and dominoes – small pieces of wood that fit into matching holes drilled into the edges of each board.

After gluing and clamping the tabletop, I move on to building the table base. In this case, I’ll inset the table apron on each leg. This technique gives the table base a little more character. To attach the legs, I use the same domino technique as the tabletop. (Now, before any of my fellow wood nerds reading this blog begin to scream – I know that mortise and tenon joinery is traditionally used to join legs and aprons! However, the domino joint replicates mortise and tenon joinery a little bit quicker – which is great when you have dozens of tables waiting to be built! And we use traditional mortise and tenon joints on some of our tables.) This table is so long our clamps won’t fit, so we doubled them up to clamp the legs and aprons until they dry.

After clamping the legs and aprons, I can add the stretcher in the center of the base for added support for the tabletop. This table is so long I had to add two stretchers!

Once the table base is finished, I can usually move on to sanding the tabletop. At Harp Design Co., we not only hand-make our furniture, but we hand-sand everything as well. Hand–sanding takes a whole lot of practice to achieve a smooth top. It’s really easy to sand a divot or round over edges and corners if the sander runs away on you. Fixing these mistakes is almost impossible. Fortunately, all the craftsman at Harp have plenty of practice sanding tabletops!

When the tabletop is perfectly smooth, I cut it to the length and the width called for. In this case, 10 feet long and 38 inches wide. After cutting to final dimensions, it’s time to attach the base to the top. We use z-clips to join the top to the apron. Z-clips are what they sound like – small z-shaped metal brackets that firmly hold the top to the apron – yet allow for the natural expansion and contraction wooden boards undergo.

After I’ve joined the top and base, the table needs a quick sanding with fine sandpaper to make it extremely smooth, and then it gets its final finish. Since this table is walnut, and I want to highlight all those walnut-y qualities, we used a clear matte finish. Most tables we make only need two coats before they reach the perfect finish, and this table wasn’t an exception.

I love building furniture! And one of the best parts of the process is putting the furniture in its new home and seeing it do what it was created to do. This table is spending a little time in the Harp Design Co. store, but I doubt it will be there long.

Thanks for indulging me with this little journey into wood nerdery! I hope you are inspired to build something that will bring joy and beauty to your life, or the lives around you.

Joel Nelson


Harp Design Co.

Comments (2)

  • Sabra

    Why don’t you make table with leafs? Why don’t you make jewelry cabinet? Love your stuff thank you

  • Joe

    Awesome project Joel! And, I totally get the “work nerd” admission. I am just getting started on woodworking and love examining and taking quick photos of how tables and furniture are constructed. Is there any one book or website you would recommend for a beginner that wants to build tables? Thanks for sharing.

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