A Contemporary Walnut Coffee Table:
With more than a nod towards mid-century modern style, Charles Mak finds a simple way to incorporate sloped mortise and tenons into this coffee table.
When I received another order from my most loyal customer – my daughter – this time, for a dark-coloured coffee table, I felt eager as usual but also motivated because I knew I had some nice American black walnut tucked away that was just waiting for the right project to come along. But before I could begin we needed to work out the specific design for this omnipresent piece of household furniture. A coffee table will nearly always occupy a central location becoming something of a focal point. And unlike other pieces that are designed for a specific purpose, coffee tables are experts at multi-tasking; one minute a foot rest, the next a games table and if the construction permits, a convenient place to perch.
After leafing through some catalogues and magazines for inspiration, she ruled out the typical box or rectangular design. The final result was a more eye-appealing oval-shaped top, featuring tapered legs, sturdy enough to support a pair of feet – whether hers or a guest’s. Angled joinery sounds intimidating, but let me show you my approach, free from fiddling around with complex angles or formulas.
To check how the finished top was going to look relative to other pieces in the room, I gave my daughter a full-size cardboard pattern of the top to take home. After her feedback and some tweaking, the final template was cut, to be used to mark out the tabletop and base. This template could also be used to guide the panel’s glue-up, cutting and more.
Matching the boards
Walnut planks 80mm wide aren’t cheap and cutting a full-width plank to the oval shape would leave much wasteful scrap. However, narrow boards can often be joined together to produce more interesting patterns of grain. The first step for this coffee table was, therefore, to choose boards from the walnut pile that could be pieced together to form a nice looking top.
When arranging boards I try to have them run in the same grain direction. In an edge-to-edge glue-up, I care more about the matching of grain on the face side and do not necessarily alternate the growth rings of adjoining boards as some woodworkers do.
Glue up the parts
I moved the selected boards to the shop and let them sit for over a week to acclimate. After milling, I cut mortises on the mating edges with the Domino joiner and glued up all the parts. For legs, I usually reserve the straightest and most pleasant grain for the visible fronts and sides of the legs. For a more harmonious appearance you could try orienting the grain of the legs to angle downward as our eyes naturally follow the direction of a taper.
With the exception of hide glue, using a wet rag to remove glue squeeze-out is a hit-and-miss method. So, I chose to wait half an hour or so for the glue to develop a skin and remove the excess with a chisel.
Handplane the table flat
To remove the machine marks and any high spots, I marked the planing directions on the panel and used a low angle jack and a high angle smoother to prepare the surface. I then flipped the panel over and worked on the other side – usually that is the top or outer side so the visible face or side is the last surface to work on.
Shape with push and pull strokes
After tracing the oval-like shape on the top with the template, I cut out the top on the bandsaw and removed most of the waste on the edge with a bench plane first. The final edging and chamfering work was done with a spokeshave, using push or pull strokes depending on the grain direction.
Cut the legs
To figure out the cutting angles for the legs, I used a sliding bevel and protractor because it was a simpler approach (I no longer remember how to use the tan and cosine formulas that I once was so good at!). Rest one end of the leg on the bench on a corner edge and lower or raise the blank until you achieve the desired look. If you can hold a marker steady use the bench top to slide your hand across the bottom of the board and mark the angle. If you find this a little awkward, rest the marker on top of a flat piece of scrap to raise your hand and carry out the same procedure. Capture this measurement with your sliding bevel and transfer it to the rest of the legs. Cut only one end of each leg.
Next, find the desired height of the table, which is usually the same height as the cushions on your sofa or 25 to 50mm lower. Place a leg with its angled end on the bench and mark a cutline so it is the table’s desired height from the bench top. You can now cut the second angled ends.
Angle the mortises
I chose angled mortises for the leg joinery, but angled tenons will also work. After locating the mortises on the underneath side of the cardboard template, I transferred the ends of the legs onto the same piece of card. I then cut out the separate base template as well as the mortise windows.
Next, to lay out and chop the mortises, I followed these steps:
1) Guided by the mortise windows, apply painter’s tape to the bottom side of the base for each mortise.
2) Holding one leg at a time on the tape, knife through the tape to lay out the mortise.
3) Transfer the four corners of each mortise scribed on the painter’s tape to the top side, in a manner similar to squaring a line around a corner with a combination square.
4) After marking the four corners, connect them with a knife to mark out the mortise and drill out some of the waste.
5) Chop out the angled mortises from both faces of the base.
6) Cut the base to final shape and drill the screw holes.
Taper the legs on three sides
The legs are tapered on three faces: the sides and the inside face. The bandsaw and handplane were used; no one will notice any slight difference in the handplaned legs when they are so far apart. Here is how I tapered the legs:
1) Mark out the taper lines on the three faces.
2) Cut the two side faces first.
3) Tape the last offcut from the bottom to the second face to steady the blank.
4) Cut the inside face.
5) Remove the bandsaw marks with a plane down to the layout lines.
I placed the base (with its top side facing down and a sheet of wax paper underneath) on the bench. After brushing glue around the mortise walls and on the top edge of the legs, I pressed the legs
into the mortises until they were flush on the other end. After the glue-up cured, five coats of polyurethane were applied. In the last step after signing and dating the piece, I fastened the top with screws driven through the base and attached the felt pads to the bottoms of the legs. Flip the table over, stack a few books on it and feel free to rest your bare or slippered feet on it. You are now ready to entertain some guests and celebrate this stylish build.