Designing and Making a Red Top Table


Designing and Making a Red Top Table:
Stephen Hogbin makes a bright table for friends.

Stephen Hogbin makes a bright table for friends

A severe pain in the neck sent me to a good friend who is a massage therapist, Uwe. He suggested a short course of massage to help me, but how could I pay for it? Elaine, who was standing next to us, suggested that a small side table would really help and pay for several massage sessions, as the current table in the room had small surface areas and was too low. The ergonomics were all wrong for Uwe, who is blind and Elaine is physically challenged. After measuring the space between the chairs we agreed a volume of 559mm3 would give the appropriate surface, size and height. The rest was up to me.
We discussed further the table surface and was there a possibility of seeing anything if there was high contrast. Uwe, early in the morning, can see bright red and Elaine, a painter with a keen sense of colour, said a red/blue (rather than a red/yellow) would be best in the space and contrast the yellow/brown of the wood in the room. Painting the top bright red with a lamp casting a bright light, there would be occasions when Uwe would see the surface.
Refreshed from the massage, I drove to my studio workshop thinking about the possibilities. At home I have a side table that I pass on a regular basis but it often gets kicked in the leg. There was a solution I had been imagining, where the legs would tuck in under the top. For a blind person, walking through a room with projections is a nuisance and even dangerous. Uwe negotiates space in a flowing and elegant manner with a total sense of awareness unlike some sighted people. However, this flow is not without its mishaps. So this became another layer in the design process to keep the legs tucked away.

Drawings were made, investigating some earlier ideas for leg-to-top relationships. I have made several tables using a single turning separated into four to make the legs. The leg-to-table top attachment has changed depending if I want to see the leg come through the table top. Should the table have rounded corners or be quite square? Should the table be circular or square?  The first sketches were of tables with rounded corners. Less bruising if walked into. The sketch at the centre [Fig 1.] was added later and has a square corner. Uwe said square was preferable, even essential as with a square is easier to find the extent of the top whereas circular table the edge is always moving away. In this case the leg could be turned to have the curve of the leg on the inside or the outside. For a square corner I would need to retain the square blank to have the combination of square at the top and tapering to round. This configuration tucks the foot back under the table and is less likely to be kicked or tripped over.
Back to the sketch book and several square tables are drawn. The leg design with the rippling and flowing lines is typical of what I have done before. However, I did not think this particular line quality was appropriate for the client. This became a decision to be resolved with the wood on the lathe. Usually I would have shown the client a sketch on which they would sign off and agree that was the design with which to proceed.
Ideas expressed verbally will create very different notions in the mind and may lead to many misunderstandings. A sketch or model will help get every one on the same page to understand the expectations. Interestingly in this case a verbal agreement, in part, had to be relied upon. 

Fig 1.

Fig 2

Rummaging through my wood supply I came across a remnant of maple (Acer rubrum) at 610 x 457 x 70mm. Heavier than needed I still went with the board. To exaggerate the tuck of the legs was a better idea than going with a traditional straight vertical leg, although I was not sure how this would look. I decided to make a quick study that might also replace the table I often kick in the foot. A very wormy piece of American beech (Fagus grandifolia) became the material for the quick study. 

Turning the legs

1. Standing on the lathe bed are four blocks clamped together and partially turned. At the top and the bottom there are metal band clamps that tighten with a screw driver. First, I machine the blocks and finish the insides. A tiny bead of PVA glue inside and just on the ends will prevent the blocks from shifting if, or when, the chisel catches in the turning. The crescent shapes are taped on, making the square blocks into a circle at the end. Finally, band clamp hold everything together

2. When the glue has dried the assembly is placed on the lathe. The reason for standing the turning on the lathe bed is to look at the thicknesses, tapers and details. Usually my aesthetic will move towards simplicity of line, but on this occasion I was conscious of the way Uwe will perceive the leg. What would be of most interest? Another objective was to bring the foot back under the table as far as possible. With the large cross section of each leg the foot was 64mm in from the outside edge of the table. While still in a speculative stage the final table does not look pigeon-toed, rather the weight of the top appears poised. The form of the leg moved in steps towards a traditional looking leg. I seldom work with eclectic objects where styles are combined, but that is what the piece seemed to demand. With four legs in one the thickness of a single leg is deceptive. It is really difficult to see as the leg appears too heavy and it’s easy to end up tapering until the leg is too slim when separated. This is where prototyping comes in useful

3. I then unscrew and remove the band clamp and crescent-shaped wood. Using a broad chisel and mallet I split apart the four legs. This is when I wished less PVA glue had been used. Only a tiny bead 3mm will spread out and give 6mm glued surface. Sometimes the wood will splinter and stick to the wrong side
so some waste is expected

Playing with the leg design
Time to play and see what other shapes might come from the four legs when put together in different combinations. They are just shapes but some of them suggest possibilities for a pedestal table, balusters for a stairs or a partially open screen. At any point in the process I am looking for other new ideas for me to take forward in another project.


1. I leave the ends of the table legs square for as long as possible. If the inside was not finished there is a chance to belt sand the surface. A quarter round is difficult to hold for any operation but with the square end it is a pleasure to work on all surfaces. Sometimes the edge of the blank may chip when turning, scratches from the sanding may show up in a different light, whatever the problem the remedy is made so much easier with the square end

2. The table top is made from maple (Acer saccharum) faced plywood. Two pieces are needed and I had in stock 19mm (although thinner could have been used). The plywood is edged with a contrasting darker solid wood. I was expecting to paint the edge the same colour as the top. Later it occured to me that with partial vision seeing the edge and top could give the illusion of a wider top. On reflection it should have been a light wood, but it’s not an aesthetic tragedy and does offer a contrast to the leg. The second sheet needs to be smaller than the top, but more on this later. Standing the legs on the top I mark out where the legs will pass through the table top

3. The legs will pass through the top projecting up and not be flush with the table top. When Uwe feels for the edge of the table he wants to know where the corner is. The projection leaves an uneven surface but also signals the end of the top. The sample plywood shape offered up indicates clearly what will happen

4. I mark out the shape of the top. For this table leg the top is domed, retaining some of the sharp edges which are more interesting to touch. The shaping is done with a grinder and 80 grit paper, rasps, mill files and abrasive papers

5. The second sheet of plywood develops the joinery. The leg is slotted and the plywood slides in as the tenon. The slot is cut on the table saw using a V block. I mark out where the slot is to be cut, raise the saw blade to the right height and make successive cuts to the thickness of the plywood

6. The table can now be clamped and stood up to see how it will look. With the wood strips working as spacers, I am now ready to clamp with glue. The extra bar clamp is coaxing a joint closed as the band clamps were not placing the pressure in quite the right place. On the bench is the other ‘sample’ table that precedes, it is a much smaller table, simpler leg and the one on which I can afford to make mistakes

7. With sound advice I was taught to only glue two pieces of wood together at a time. In this situation I was clamping six pieces simultaneously. It can be a recipe for failure, so the dry clamping is absolutely essential. With modern glues it’s a bit easier when the glue does not set for an hour and takes 24 hours to cure. I used a polyurethane construction adhesive used in the building trades. Usually I use PVA or alternatively epoxy depending on the circumstances. I had run out of epoxy and PVA would set up too quickly. By all means use every clamp in the workshop but don’t over clamp and squeeze all the glue out. A firm pressure is all that’s needed. The joints properly cut will fit snugly. Over clamping bruises the wood. Wood will always win if abused. The other thing I was taught is that wood has a bigger ego than the maker!

8. The plywood is edged with solid wood. Basically, at this point the table is made, apart from the finishing. Flip the table over and there you have it. I called the client to see if they would like to check out the table in the space. I was confident all was well

The assessment
The table stood in the middle of the room. Uwe leant down and felt across the top and legs. His fingers searched out every detail. I observed the legs were heavy but the table stood lightly on the floor. Elaine commented that the shapes are feminine but really strong. Uwe enjoyed the shapes going over the legs again. Yes, he said feminine but strong.
Then, Elaine said a drawer would be really nice for the remote and a few other things. Normally I would not take the table to the client at this point. It’s asking for additions, changes, developments, alterations and so on. Uwe thought it was not necessary and the table was really finished. Such lovely people, it’s easier to see how to make it work. With some clients I would say we are finished at this point. We bantered back and forth about birthdays coming up and how many massages is a drawer worth. The table was placed between the chairs, edges touched, protruding legs rubbed and we agreed it worked well and the drawer would really complete the table.

Adding a drawer

1. Back in the studio I had a short board of sugar maple big enough to make the drawer.  A side rail would be fixed between the legs. The board was 25mm thick and I could make the rail from one piece. The board was notched around the leg using the bandsaw. The drawer runner cut out on the table saw. The back rail was mortised to fit the drawer runner. The drawer sides will be dovetailed into the drawer front, and…

2. … the drawer base will be 3mm plywood. I have drawn a black line showing the connection in the photograph. Black walnut (Juglans nigra) acts as a drawer guide which is held in place with a brass screw and can be replaced if the drawer develops a sloppy fit. The ash (Fraxinus spp.) drawer pull, in the shape of an egg, is a large, easily found and felt detail projecting from the underside of the drawer. It is fixed, glued and screwed from the inside with a brass screw

3. A feature that does not show is the divider 305mm back from the front. It creates a space right at the back of the drawer. It’s useful to hide things, like passports and cheque books. The total length of the drawer is 508mm. With 305mm hanging out, there is still 203mm left to take any weight that may fall on it. Another feature is the enlarged reveal surrounding the drawer. It’s a detail easily felt and leaves lots of space for any wood movement and air flow. The table top was primed with white paint. The colour ‘cherry tart’ I had in stock is a red blue, close to magenta

4. I brushed it on as a texture, thick and thin, light and dark with full saturation and brightness. Close to a quilted look which I thought Elaine the painter would enjoy. The contrasts were so dazzling I scumbled on another ‘bright red’ that unified the surface and gave the look greater depth. Earlier we had agreed that as liquids do get spilt the surface should be a hard wearing urethane.  In total seven coats of paint, some scumbling and others full thickness were applied. When the surface is scratched the quilted brushed design will help incorporate the marks. The red top table should mature well and last for a very long time

The final table

Alternative design
The smaller table turned out quite well – I love the colour. Not for every home but we live with lots of colour. The other point of the smaller table was to test the joinery. I had not made a table using the plywood to tenon into the leg. Prototypes, a sample table, the quick study, may well have qualities that are as good as the finished piece. It’s like the artist’s sketch – it has a vitality and immediacy that the finished piece may lose from excessive control from over thinking the idea. The sketch feels closer to the moment of imagining and creativity. Carrying that energy forward may look like sloppy workmanship so it takes a trained eye to see and understand those differences. With this small side table there were no revelations just a small detail change in the leg I want to explore further. It will be kept around for a while to help digest the experiences and evaluate where to go next with the idea.


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