A Thousand Meals; Five Lessons

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

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Publisher of woodworking books and DVDs specializing in hand tool techniques.
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8 Responses to A Thousand Meals; Five Lessons

  1. David Cockey says:

    Is that furniture of the pre-Shakers. Mother Ann didn’t organize the Shakers until 1774, and there are only a couple of trestle tables in “Furniture of the Pilgrim Century, 1620-1720” on pp 342-344. Your table looks more like some Shaker tables to me than the ones in Nutting’s book.

  2. Christopher Schwarz says:

    David,

    Sorry that sentence isn’t clear. There are two sources. Shakers. And early stuff from that book.

    From the Shakers: The shape of the stretcher is from Hancock, as shown in Kassay, page 253.

    From Nutting: The shape of the end assemblies and (very important) the depth of the top at 25".

    Chris

  3. Chris says:

    Chris,

    I’ve been pondering building this table for a long time, but the 32 inch width will be too narrow for the space I have in mind. A width of 36 – 40 inches would be ideal. Do you think this design could accomodate a larger width top?

    Thanks,

    Chris

  4. Bjenk says:

    Hey Chris,

    I hope you had great Holidays! I really appreciate your insights. I was wondering, how did you get a Full view access through Google books for Nutting’s book. I have it in my google library but I never found a freely accessible digitized version.

    Thanks!

  5. When I looked at the PDF I downloaded of Nutting’s book, it did not have the photos. Is that the way you saw it, or did I do something wrong?

    Beautiful table. I’ll need to look back to the issue in which it appeared.
    –Algot

  6. Christopher Schwarz says:

    Chris,

    I think 36" to 42" will be fine. I like slightly narrower tops for intimacy.

    Really the max is about 48". After that, it will be like you are in a king’s dining hall.

    Chris

  7. Rob Parsons says:

    I built this table for a newly married daughter and I can second the comments about the design and joinery.

    This design is great. As I built it, I marveled at how much strength was achieved with so little material. Very light, extremely strong. Also, unlike many trestle tables, the trestle is up out of the way. No bruised shins.

    The joinery is rock solid and is the reason this design works. My daughter doesn’t have any yard monkeys yet to test for joint failure, but I’m sure it will pass any challenge.

    [IMG]http://i223.photobucket.com/albums/dd313/jp4_photos/Trestle%20table/DSCN0916.jpg[/IMG]

  8. Jeff Skiver says:

    Chris,

    I love the comment about leaving appropriate tool marks. "Rid(ing) the scallops on the underside" is a great visual line. (One of those… "Dang, I wish I had said that" lines.)

    This also reminds me that although my portfolio is about 1/10th of 1% the size of yours, I have a "secret" inside of each piece. And at this moment a lightning bolt just touched my brain telling me that "my secrets" may just be the next thing I submit to you. So, Chris, you have the distinction of being my Muse of the Day. Thank you.

    Please note I usually pay-off my muse with a non-monetary favor, so for you we will let it go with a beer. (I owe you one.)

    Jeff

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