top for the square table

I worked today on the top for the square table I’m making. I have only made this form 3 times now; once many years ago, and two this year. It’s rare to find them in New England with their original top in place. I studied one back in the 1990s, and its cleats were seemingly just attached with a tongue and groove. I was never quite sure; without taking them off it’s hard to tell. All I have is an old slide that I scanned years ago –

I made one like that once, and was never happy with the cleats. Too fragile. When I made a few large tables for clients recently, I delved into conjecture and made cleats that are mortised to house tenons cut on the ends of the tabletop. That’s what I did today on the square table in progress. This time, I included a tongue-and-groove as well, to seal up any gaps that might show up between the tabletop and cleats. Here’s how I did it:

The finished top, including the cleats will be 43 1/2″ square. I have glued up 6 radially-sawn oak boards. These are the best quartersawn boards I had; growth rings perfectly perpendicular to the boards’ faces. That way they’ll stay flat. Or mostly flat. Here I’m going over the top with a finely-set plane across the board to get things reasonable.

checking with a straightedge.

Then I laid out what amounts to a 43 1/2″ wide tenon!

Sawing its shoulders is the most cumbersome part of the whole operation. This is the back shoulder, that surface is not done yet; but it doesn’t matter.

Because it’s very straight grained oak, I chose to split the cheeks off the tenon.

I then cleaned up that whole surface front & back with a rabbet plane.

I chopped 3 mortises in each cleat, but between the three tenons, I’ll leave a tongue that fits a corresponding groove between the mortises. Here I’m using a turning saw to cut down from the sides of the tenons to the tongue. The length of the tongue is just less than 1/2″.

This is the only time I plow grooves the same width as the mortises. In frame & panel work, the grooves are about 3/16″ wide, with mortises 5/16″. These are both 5/16″.

Here’s a test-fit underway. Lots of testing, trimming and more testing. I want it to go on pretty easily, but not sloppy. Too much slop in this joint could make the cleat droop down away from the top surface.

Here’s the test-fit all ready for drawboring, pegging & trimming. First I need to plane the underside, then scrape the top.


11 thoughts on “top for the square table

  1. Extremely laborious, especially the long tenons. Surely this is the same procedure seen in Dutch cradles with board sides tenoned into corner posts, the ancestor of the corner posts on Queen Anne high chest lower cases?? Nobody ever asks how those came about.

  2. That reminds me, the loose top of the Connecticut Historical Society draw table, which is almost two inches think, has clamps pinned on from the ends. I think. I’ll have to stare at the picture in New England Begins.

  3. Do you need to be concerned with the fixed tenons and the variable expanison/contraction being different between the cross grain of the table and with grain of the clete?

    • MIchael – there shouldn’t be any considerable movement in the tabletop. that’s why I chose the best quartersawn stuff I had. Very stable. when I trim the ends of the cleat flush with the edges of the tabletop, there will be some seasonal variation – a slight shrinking of the boards versus the length of the cleat. But minimal.

    • I think that is a valid concern. I made a 25 1/2″ wide table top with three tenoned breadboard ends out of white pine 30+ years ago, and the top split between the middle and outboard tenons. It was one 5′ long board, without a knot, so the split really sticks in my craw. That was one of Life’s Lessons, and now I either only use one tenon, or elongate the outboard tenon’s pin holes to allow some movement.

    • Well, only in concept. This is the 2nd of these tables I’ve made this year, but both came after the joinery book was done being written & photographed. Thus no table in the book. Think of it as a giant joined stool, then just read that book.

  4. Such glorious oak! I wonder about terminology as I’ve been calling this arrangement a breadboard end? Normally I’d stay out of the fray, but then I reasoned that there’s a history of both terms and might be something learned by linking the two? Yes, joinery book.

    • Ken – I think there is no fray. We have no idea what 17th century joiners called such things. Technically the definition of cleat does not fit what I’m making here. Maybe batten is closer. I’ve heard them called “breadboard” ends too. Maybe we just shouldn’t talk of these things.

  5. I looked at the picture of the Windsor CT draw table, it has a four- or five-board oak op, almost 2″ thick, and the clamps on the ends were attached with two big pins driven in from the ends into each board. There does not appear to have been a continuous groove and tenon. The square table at he Wadsworth Atheneum has mitered ends to the clamps, a crazy arrangement regarding expansion and contraction. As Peter recalls from the exhibition at the Milwaukee Museum in 2001 or 2002, that top was brutally planed down later to remove rot, right down almost into the pins. The top of the Metropolitan table with maple legs is a two-board maple top but I’d have to consult Safford’s book to see how it’s treated. Peter’s arrangement is the best, we’ll see how the expansion and contraction goes in the damp house in Cutchogue .

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