Mailbag: How to Dress a Tabletop


I am asked the following question a lot – that usually means I should answer it.

Question: I am building a trestle table based on the one you built. I have a dumb question. I was lucky enough to find 5/4-thick, 18″-wide walnut for $4/bf. I can most likely get a two-board top, but both boards are too wide for my planer. When gluing up the 32″-wide top, should I flatten the face of the boards then glue? Or should I first glue and then flatten?

Answer: There are many ways to do it. Here’s what I do.

1. I scrub/fore plane both faces of the boards so I can see the grain and select the best faces.

2. I select what will be the show face of the boards and decide on their arrangement. I try to get all the grain running in the same direction, but appearance is more important than grain direction.

3. I flatten the show faces, joint the faces and get them ready for smoothing. Then I joint the edges.

4. I glue up the top, taking every precaution to line up the seams on the show faces. I ignore seams on the still-rough underside (except to make sure the seams close up under clamp pressure).

5. After the glue is dry, I fore plane the underside so it is roughly flat — flat enough to sit flat on the table’s base. I leave the traverse marks from the fore. I consider it texture.

6. Then I dress the show face of the top so it looks good. Not flat — just pretty. If I did a good job of lining up my seams, I can start with the smooth plane. If I had a bad glue-up, I start with the jointer set rank, or (shudder) with the fore plane set for a small bite.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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24 Responses to Mailbag: How to Dress a Tabletop

  1. Sam I Am says:

    I do my table tops very similar.
    step 1: I too scrub um down to get a good look at the grain patterns, I really make an effort to get that grain running the same way on the boards. because of step 3.
    step 3: A little different here, I don’t really worry about flatness of the show face, I’m concentrating on a perfect glue joint here, and match plane the edges.
    step4: glue um up. Then I deal with the flattening and smoothing operations with the whole top on a pair of horses, then flip it and do the underside.

  2. John says:

    18″ wide walnut…… statements like that make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside thinking about my 18″ Crescent jointer and my 24″ planer; both had for less than the price of a lunch and full tank of diesel in my truck. Read all about it here:

    • Graham Burbank says:

      Ugh! Ugh! Heavy Iron! Now you’re talking my language! I love the smell of rust remover in the morning! It’s the smell of…(wait for it, boys) VICTORY!
      Of course, the hand plane method does save at least a parking space’s worth of shop real estate…

  3. Funny, my tops usually get a proper dinner jacket. Tuxedo if we aren’t being too “formal”.

  4. Marilyn says:

    Reblogged this on She Works Wood and commented:
    I’ve started thinking about the top to my desk and this post should come in handy.

  5. Tom Dugan says:

    My most memorable glue-ups are the ones where the grain did NOT line up. Yeah, memorable in a bad way. I’d go the extra mile to get good-looking boards with the grain oriented the same.

    The other reason you might consider matching the grain is how the top will look under a finish. Chatoyance becomes pretty obvious in some woods when the grain is mismatched.

  6. Patrick says:

    18″ wide walnut for $4 /bf …. wow.
    (When i first saw the title, I thought you might be continuing the previous blog post)

    • Kristian Faulkenberry says:

      That was the part I was stuck at. Chris gets asked this a lot? Where are these people buying boards? If it is in my hemisphere I think I will try to get there and buy all I can afford!

      • Tom Dugan says:

        Find an Amish or Mennonite sawmill or farmer with a firewood lot who mills on the side and pay $1-$2/BF for green boards. The kicker, of course, is having the place, time, and patience to dry it. If you can swing that, you can have your guy mill a log a year and always have something in the pipeline.

        Barring that, keep your eyes peeled for farm auctions that advertise lumber. It’s hit or miss, and it only takes one other bidder to bring prices close to retail, but you can score big this way as well – if you’re lucky.

      • Daniel Hartmann says:

        I’m the one who asked Chris this “dumb question”. I found a guy on Craigslist who had a tow behind mill. He had walnut, cherry and QSWO all $4/bf! And here is the best part, the price was the same for 12/4, 8/4, 4/4…And, the walnut was all air dried to 8% MC! I bought all the wood for a 6 ft long x 32″ wide trestle table and two benches for $150!

      • Patrick says:

        I respectfully change my “wow” to a “HOLY SH*T”!

  7. Phil Spencer says:

    I do what you do Chris, I also use some biscuits on the join not so much for strength but to help keep the boards aligned and flat, less planing that way. 🙂

    • I tongue and groove the edges with match planes for exactly the same reason Phil. If you’ve experienced slippage at the edges, you don’t mind the extra work to prevent it.

  8. billlattpa says:

    On a wide glue up I would generally hit the edges with the jointer plane, glue up the boards to 12″ wide, send each glue up through the surface planer if they were rough sawn, then glue up the whole piece. If already surfaced I usually joint them at first (as usual), if it’s real ocean like after the glue up I hit it with a belt sander, then the jointer plane and smooth plane the entire top. I did a couple of 30″ wide panels that way which turned out nicely.

  9. Chris P. says:

    Maybe a silly question but what are the ways to attach the table top to the base? Is it just screws? One of my goals is to build a trestle table for my living room . Most of the joinery seems pretty straight forward but the top to base attachment is a little bit of a mystery to me. What are my options? Thanks!

  10. Greg Miller says:

    Best thing with table tops, after the selection, initial planing/flattening, jointing and gluing is this: Clean off, plane and flatten the back. Then do the final perimeter dimensioning. Then seal the back, and fix to the underframe. Now it’s fixed to the underframe, plane flat and smooth the topside of the table. Especially good method with backsawn material which may be cupping slightly as it is planed. Get the top side sealed as soon as you can.

  11. Sam I Am says:

    Chris P:

    I attach the top to the legs with a L shaped clip, cut from the same wood as the table, hard to describe, the L is held firm in a groove, this way the top can expand and contract at will.

    Sorry that was a crappy answer, the point is attach it however, just make sure the wood can move, cause it will.


    • David Pickett says:

      Cabinetmaker’s buttons?

    • Chris P. says:

      Thanks for the input Sam, yeah I guess the right way would be anyway you can. I have some ideas to avoid screws, that would make it easy to take apart and move if I need to, this is kind of what I’m shooting for, I don’t want to be in a position where I can’t get the thing out my door once I decide to relocate.

  12. Adam P. says:

    So, is there a plan for this table? Perhaps in the furniture of necessity book?

    • Ches Spencer says:

      Adam, plans are in the Autum 2006 Woodworking Magazine. I built one for my daughter out of cherry per Chris’ article and splined the top boards together per Robert Lang. The table is holding up great except for the dog chew marks on the feet. Really enjoyed Johns planner and jointer find and hope he updates when he gets them fired up

  13. Samuel Cappo says:

    I was a bit nervous about this once as well… my thought process for this was practice on a smaller scale – aka build children’s furniture! It is fun and the scale is much smaller / manageable but all the principles are the same.

    My first trestle table was for a friend’s daughter – great project.

    I want to build a hayrake (sp?) table because the joinery looks like great fun, but I don’t want it in my house. When I get time I will build one for someone’s lucky child.

  14. bobjones2000 says:

    Another option is to leave the two boards separate and screw them to narrow boards below. I did that for my trestle table and it stays nice and flat.

    • billlattpa says:

      I’ve seen something similar done on a table that my mom owned. It was a trestle style kitchen table, the top was two boards joined by a spline but not glued, though the ends still had breadboards that were attached with dowels. The top was attached to the base with pan head screws. The table held up very nicely.

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