Side Table

Monday 9 July 2018

I have made various designs of side tables, usually for galleries or exhibitions where they generally sell quite well, and their small footprint and portability make them practical – trying out ideas on this scale is economical and if they work, can be scaled up for use in larger pieces.

This one was developed from a piece featured in Makers' Gallery (F&C109, page 4). It has lighter sections and curves, as well as a vertical handle, otherwise the design is similar. I have used ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and light oak (Quercus spp) in a number of pieces now and like the subtle contrast, which gives a gentle contemporary feel. Although the frequently asked question “What is it for?” has various possible answers, the side table is a largely decorative piece and could stand on a landing, in a hallway, alcove or any space lacking interest.

The photograph in slide number 8 shows a variation in olive ash and sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) with wider legs and no drawer. As a project it is manageable in terms of time and size, and lends itself to using exotic timbers that could be expensive or overwhelming if used on a larger scale.


The two pairs of legs are joined by biscuit jointed panels at the top, and mortise and tenoned stretcher rails lower down. These end assemblies are joined at the back by another biscuit jointed panel, and at the front by a mortise and tenoned rail. The top is structural, being biscuit jointed and glued to the front half of the ends, and screwed to the back panel with stretcher plates, thus allowing for movement. In such a small piece, biscuits are strong enough to substitute for mortise and tenons.

The drawer runners are glued to the underside of the ends before assembly and project by 2mm (5/64in) on the outside and 12mm (1/2in) on the inside. This gives added strength and depth to the ends as well as visually framing them. A similar rail is glued to the back panel.

The drawer is conventional and has a cedar bottom. Drawer guides are fitted to the underside of the top, and walnut dowels are fitted into these to prevent people pulling the drawer out and dropping it on the floor. The stretcher rail is curved and fitted with through mortise and tenon joints, and an overlapping bridle joint above the end rails.


Small pieces like this can be designed around the wood to some extent and for them to work well, the wood does need to be of a very high quality. A nicely curved bit of figure in the oak was used for the drawer front and this was my starting point, while straight grained oak was used for the sides and back. The top has a bit more figure. Drawer linings are in ash and the handle is black walnut (Juglans spp).

As no jointing up is required, the cutting list can be prepared fairly quickly. The curves in the legs are formed at an early stage because the waste removed can release stress in the wood, causing the inside faces to bow slightly, and this needs to be planed straight before marking out the joints. I used a spindle moulder to shape the legs but the section is narrow enough to use a router inverted in a router table. In either case, the shape will need to be bandsawn slightly oversize and the piece fitted to a template which will follow a bearing guided cutter. Alternatively, they could be accurately bandsawn and finished by hand.

End & back panels

The drawer runners and back rail are glued to the prepared panels before cutting them to length. These could be fitted with No.10 biscuits but I just glued and clamped them. The panels were sanded and sealed before gluing.

When dry, the excess glue on the panels can be carefully peeled off and the components cut to length on a bench saw. An MDF packing piece under the panel prevents breakout.

Biscuit slots are machined into the ends of the panels and backs. Again, packing pieces were used to overcome the step formed by the drawer runners and back rail.


Everything is dry assembled at this stage to check the fits before shaping the rails. The lower rail curves are marked from a batten sprung between two panel pins – note that the top curve is shallower than the lower one. These can be bandsawn and finished with a spokeshave.

The top rail is a very shallow curve and this was formed by screwing the rail to a heavy batten through the tenons with a 4mm (5/32in) block in the centre, which forced the rail to bow. This bow was planed flat with a bench plane and when released, a consistent and finished curve had been produced.


The legs are lightly chamfered on the outside corners, and everything fine sanded and sealed in preparation for assembly. As I said earlier, I like the subtle contrast between ash and oak and was happy for the colouration caused by my usual finish of 1/3 polyurethane varnish, 1/3 Danish Oil and 1/3 white spirit.

The olive ash and sycamore table was different and I wanted to accentuate the contrast there so I opted to use a diferent finish with neutral Liberon finishing wax on the sycamore and thinned Danish Oil on the ash.


The ends are assembled first – end panels and stretcher rails. These are cleaned up with the legs and panels flush on the inside. Before gluing up the rails and back panel, machine the biscuit slots for the top – these are at the front of the end assemblies.

When the frame and panels have been cleaned up and given a second coat of sanding sealer, the top can be fitted. I used washers to prevent the screws going through the holes in the galvanised steel stretcher plates used to fix the top to the back panel. I do not generally use these in fine furniture, but space was very limited and there was no room for nicely worked slotted wooden blocks. With the top fitted dry, the drawer guides are positioned and screwed to the underside of the top and pre-bored to take the retaining dowels. After these are in place, the top can be glued on, but remember to apply glue only to the front half of the ends.


The drawer front and sides are carefully fitted to the opening in the cabinet, and the thickness of the sides scribed onto the inside face of the front. The back is marked off to the distance between the sides and cut to length. As the solid wood bottom runs under the back, it is fitted higher than the sides by 10mm (3/8in) at the bottom and also lower at the top by 5mm (3/16in) to allow for the stretcher plates that fix the top. 6mm (1/4in) grooves are routed into the sides and front for the base and, if a divider is desired, into the front and back to accommodate it.

Lap dovetails are used for the front joints while the back was screwed and plugged. It would of course be more traditional to dovetail front and back, but the front joints are the ones that do most of the work and so I concentrate the effort there. The dovetails are cut by hand and the pins scribed off them onto the drawer front. Again, the joints are cut with a dovetail

saw – some of the waste was removed with a router, but mostly this is a job for hand tools. All the inside faces are waxed prior to assembly.

The drawer is cleaned up and fitted, and a slot routed in the front to take the handle. It is easier to fit the handle to the slot than the other way around. The handle is shaped after a satisfactory fit has been made. Both drawer front and handle need to be sealed before gluing the handle in place. The bottom is planed to 6mm (1/4in) thickness and dimensioned. To allow for movement, two short chamfered slots are routed into the bottom to take screws into the back. Once the drawer bottom has been waxed, the front edge can be glued into the drawer front and the screws fitted.

Fitting the walnut retaining dowels is the last job, though for your own use, you may well decide not to bother as it proved to be rather fiddly. I glued them with Araldite, but access to their holes was awkward. The top is given further coats of Danish Oil and the whole piece was waxed.