Making a Mid-Century Coffee Table a Little more Contemporary:
Liam Thomas uses the Festool Domino to seamlessly reduce the height of a rare mid-century coffee table
A good client of mine recently purchased a 1960s rosewood (Dalbergia spp.) coffee table and contacted me to help with its restoration. During the conversation about the restoration, the height of the coffee table was broached. They wanted to make it shorter to fit in with their existing, more contemporary living room furniture. This proved to be somewhat of a quandary as the table itself is considered to be on the rarer side of things, at least for mid-century furniture that is. At 460mm tall it is about 60mm taller than a standard sized coffee table, taller still than more contemporary ones.
Aluminium in the detail
This particular coffee table, designed by Rud Thygesen is a beautiful, understated piece and a classic example of minimal mid-century style. Rosewood, veneered with unique aluminium mitred splines, was used throughout for both construction and decorative detail. Ordinarily the easiest way to achieve a reduction in height is to take off the required amount from the bottom of each leg, however the mitred sleigh base legs with aluminium keys make this an unsuitable option. A solution was needed to take some length out of the legs without dramatically affecting the unique look of the table.
How to proceed
We decided the least intrusive option would be to take out the desired 60mm from near the top of each leg with the section removed cut at 45° and rejoined using a loose tenon between the two parts. This is done firstly to lessen the visual impact when compared to a cut directly across the grain and secondly, it is fairly simple to cut on the saw. The joint was drawn in SketchUp, but we also thought it prudent to do a trial run before any rare furniture was cut into. This is a useful process for any new ideas as many of the problems encountered can be resolved prior to working on the real piece. An important motto for me in the workshop and when teaching students is ‘the slow way is the fast way’.
The SketchUp drawing proved useful in that it allowed me to work out where the mortises should be placed. A Festool Domino would be used to cut the mortises and the centre points used to make
the Domino mortise were taken from the SketchUp drawing and transferred to the practice piece. Two mortises were then cut, one either side of the piece, on the inside of each mitre and within the section to be removed. The rear, rounded edge created by the domino was squared up using a chisel; this will help accomodate a square loose tenon. The fence on the tablesaw was set to 45° and two cuts were made, cutting out the 60mm of waste, leaving two pieces each with half a mortise. With the loose tenon in place the two halves were successfully joined together. Now onto the real thing.
Clamp it real good
With the marking out complete, mortising done and mitres cut, each leg was now 60mm shorter than before. They were ready to be glued back together. Even with good fitting loose splines the reassembly of the legs require careful and considered clamping. Pressure down the length of the leg, as well as across all four faces of the mitre is required to ensure correct alignment especially as the legs are rosewood veneer on solid beech (Fagus sylvatica). Each leg would need to be glued up as a pair due to the sleigh leg design of the table and glue-ups like these tend to be less stressful when all the clamping requirements are worked out in advance.
The short and tall of it
Trends change, fashions come and go and we now live in an interesting time where we can pick and choose from a plethora of design eras to decorate our homes. Continuous arm rocking chairs can live harmoniously alongside a wool upholstered contemporary looking sofa. No matter what the style and era of our living room furniture is, they all inevitably sit in front of a coffee table and flat-screen television.
The way we use our living areas has slowly changed over time, the home theatre really is just that and the age of box sets, Netflix and staying in for the night are here. Our sofas have become more than a place to sit around a coffee table to chat with friends, they are places of comfort after a long day where tired bodies can stretch out fully and relax.
There are, of course, contemporary tables suited to such seating, but often they are too big in surface area, and are cold both visually and to touch compared to the warmth of a fabric upholstered sofa. The mid-century coffee table seems to fill the design void here, they take up less space and being made from veneered teak (Tectona grandis), oak (Quercus robur) and sometimes rosewood they are lovely to look at while maintaining almost timeless lines associated with post-war modernism. They seem to fit the bill for our modern lives except for one small point, they’re too tall. It’s a common question asked by my clients in the world of mid-century furniture restoration: ‘we love this coffee table but can you make it shorter?’
The heights of these mid-century coffee tables are usually around 460–500mm tall, sometimes up to 530mm, which is only 200mm off from a standard dining table. So before you decide to acquire one for your living room, check the height and make sure it’s not so rare that taking off 60mm doesn’t cause too much stress.
If you didn’t know it…
Once out of clamps it was clear that the preparation work had paid off. All of the joints were flat on all faces and each leg only required some minor surface preparation in order to be refinished similar to the rest of the rosewood veneer. The top outside edge of each mitre, the most noticeable part with the cut across the grain, sat almost in line with the lower edge of the long rails helping to minimise the overall appearance of the modification. With the restoration and modification complete the table, was delivered to a very happy client.
As accurate as your marking out
The Festool Domino is indeed a very useful machine, however it really is only as accurate as your marking out. Over many years of using the Festool, I’ve developed a habit of marking each Domino centre point with a small arrow pointing towards the edge needing the mortise. It only takes a moment to do and is a small fail-safe process to ensure that a mortise is placed where needed.