Like most woodworkers, I learn a lot about the craft while building projects. What’s surprising is how much I learn about the craft after the project is completed and put to use.
Most of the projects I build for Woodworking Magazine and Popular Woodworking end up in the hands of friends, family and the employees of the publishing company I work for. (The employees have to pay only for the cost of materials – a sweet benefit.)
But I have quite a few of the prototypes in our house, including our dining room table, which was a project featured on the cover of the Autumn 2006 issue. I’d built the prototype in December 2005, so it has now seen at least 1,000 meals. And it has taught me at least five important lessons.
1. Trust antique designs. This table’s proportions, lines and joinery were all taken from antique Shaker and early American forms featured in Wallace Nutting’s “Furniture of the Pilgrim Century, 1620-1720” (Download the entire book for free here.) The table weighs very little; my 7-year-old daughter can lift one end of the 8’-long table with one hand. Yet it is unbelievably sturdy; my 7-year-old routinely vaults herself off the breadboard ends. My wife soils herself every time. I just smile.
2. Leave appropriate toolmarks. I flattened the underside of the tabletop by traversing it with a fore plane. It has deep, regularly spaced scallops across it. I left them there, and I’m so glad I did. Every evening my fingers ride the scallops on the underside, and it’s my favorite aspect of the table.
3. Thin breadboards are good. Because I was worried about my kids vaulting off the ends of this table (a well-founded fear apparently), I decided to make the breadboard tongues 3/8” thick instead of 1/4” or 5/16” thick (the top itself is about 7/8”). That was a mistake. Not only did it make construction more difficult because the mortise walls were so thin, it also made the ends of the breadboards more fragile. One of the corners chipped out during a pre-teen dance party.
4. The finish is never finished. The tabletop has taken a beating. Even though I thought I’d applied enough coats of lacquer, it probably would look better today if I’d applied a couple more. Oh well. If the tabletop gets so beat up that it looks like crap, I’ll refinish it. Refinishing is part of the life of many pieces of furniture.
5. Wedged tenons are as incredible as dovetails. I am stunned at how tight the joinery is everywhere on the base thanks to the wedged tenons. My kids have done everything in their power to tear this table apart.
I can see that the light is failing outside my window. That means it’s time to go downstairs and start making dinner and see if I get another lesson in woodworking from the thing that holds the plates.
— Christopher Schwarz