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Walnut Nest of Tables

Wednesday 11 July 2018

On a shopping trip in September last year, we passed a site where the local annual agricultural show was being set up. I found out that the show did cater for local crafts people and might be suitable for my work.

I booked my pitch – and it was a good move. In one day, I sold three major display pieces and got several orders, at a cost for the pitch of £50. This nest of tables wass one of the orders.


The customers wanted to replace an existing nest of tables. I invited them to my workshop and showed them a nest of three tables in our cottage that I had made in elm some time ago. They liked the general design, but wanted different measurements.

The top of the smallest table was to be smaller than the space available, so I included a stop under the middle table to keep the small table flush at the front.

To prevent marking and annoying clacking sounds when closing the tables, I decided to glue a piece of thick leather to the back rail of the largest table and another piece onto the stop under the middle table. The design was approved, the deposit paid and the job started.

Timber selection

At the show I had a small chest of drawers in highly figured burr walnut. This was from a log I had spotted some time ago in a timber yard, when purchasing timber for another project. I bought the log and had it planked, seasoned, and kiln dried.

Having seen that piece, my clients really wanted their tables to be in that timber.

It was fortunate that I had a finished piece to show them, as it would be impossible to describe the range of figure and colour of the oiled wood. It is very unusual – which is why I bought it and as such, must be seen to be appreciated, or indeed rejected. Being so highly decorative, it would not be to some tastes, or suitable for some projects or decors.

Cutting out & preparation

Step 1

From 25mm stock, the larger pieces for the tops were marked out and then cut slightly over length and width. The smaller pieces for the rails and bearers were then cut from the remainder. The legs were cut from some 38mm stock, again slightly over size. All the pieces were faced and thicknessed, and the revealed faces checked for faults, colour and general suitability.

Step 2

Any replacements necessary were made and once I was happy, all the component pieces were sticked and stacked in the workshop to condition during the making.

Batch production

Step 3

Though there were only three tables, the project lent itself to batch production in a similar way to a set of six or eight dining chairs. The essence of batch production is care and organisation – accurate cutting lists and careful sequencing of tasks, so that machines once set up are used for all the actions required before being reset.


Step 4

Each top was made up from two pieces butt jointed together with biscuits to reinforce the joint.

Step 5

Such a wild grain meant the joint might be weakened by short grain – the biscuits would help counter that while helping prevent slippage during clamping up.

Step 6

After curing in the clamps, the tops were cut to exact size and the edges belt sanded using a fence on the sander. The edges were rounded over using a radius cutter on the router and finished with a palm sander. The faces were belt and random orbital sanded down to 240 grit.


Step 7

Rails were cut to exact size and the edges belt sanded on an inverted sander with a fence fitted to keep the edge square. The long edges of the bottom rails and the long bottom edges of the top rails were rounded over with the radius cutter.

Step 8

Double Domino slots were cut in the top rails and single slots in the bottom rails for the leg joints.

Step 9

These slots were covered with masking tape to avoid contamination when oiling.

Step 10

I would normally use expansion plates or buttons to fit a top to a frame and legs to allow for movement. In this case, those methods would complicate the sliding of the tables, so I decided to keep it simple and fit the tops to the rails with double countersunk screws deep set in the rails and plugged after fitting. A pilot hole was drilled right through the rail as a guide, the deep holes cut on the pillar drill, and the countersink cut from the other side.


Step 11

The legs were faced and thicknessed to size, cut to exact length, and the edges of the bottom of the legs rounded over using the same radius cutter on the router – still set up for the tops and rails.

The corresponding Domino slots for the top and bottom rails were cut and the faces of the legs orbital sanded – four at a time to avoid losing squareness.

Step 12

An extended fence was made for the router table and stops clamped into place. Using a 45° cutter, the stop chamfers were cut on the first set of legs, and the stops were moved for each of the next sets.

Steps 13-14

The chamfers were finished with hand sanding blocks, and the ends with an abrasive sheet glued to a dowel.

Step 15

A final sanding of the faces was given with the orbital sander down to 250 grit, and the Domino slots masked.

Finishing prior to assembly

It seems odd to talk of finishing at the beginning of a project but again, like chairs, these tables would be fiddly to finish once assembled. I decided to completely finish all the individual component parts and then assemble them – with great care!

Preparation for finish

A wild grain and burr timber like this often tends to have some faults in it. Fortunately, this had very few but I examined it carefully and filled any pin knots and cracks with two-part epoxy resin, coloured as required with earth pigments. I prefer the two-part filler as it cures quickly and does not shrink.

After filling, all the pieces were sanded with belt and random orbital sanders down to 240 grit. A final examination and hand sanding was carried out before applying the finish.

Step 16

The choice of finish was oil but the clients wanted a worry-free finish on the top face of the tabletops. We decided on an oil finish on the legs and rails, and matt polyurethane on the tops.

The prepared legs and rails were given a first coat of boiled linseed oil, diluted by 1/3 white spirit, applied with a pad. I chose boiled linseed oil as it cures faster than the raw version, and diluted it to help penetration deep into the wood.

Step 17

After 24 hours curing time, the components were lightly rubbed with fine wire wool and a further two coats of undiluted oil were given, again with 24 hours and a wire wooling between coats. After a week, a coat of finishing oil was applied – this contains driers and hardening agents which cure it in eight hours, and helps to complete the cure on the linseed oil as well.

I checked the colour of the matt varnish on the underside of one of the tops and found that it was not quite as dark as the oiled legs and rails.

The tops were wetted with clean water to raise the grain and, when dry, hand sanded them down to 240 grit. Then

I made up a water based stain from Van Dyke brown earth pigment. After a bit of trial and error on the underside of one of the tops, I got the colour right and gave the tops a coat. When it was dry, they were very lightly sanded and given three coats of matt polyurethane varnish with a light sanding to de-nib between coats.


The fully finished components were hardened off for a week in the warm dry workshop, and the masking tape removed from the Domino slots.

Step 18

I have magnetic protection pads for my sash clamps. These are made from MDF with a rare earth magnet glued into a recess in the back, and pieces of carpet glued to the front with double-sided carpet tape.

Steps 19-21

I renewed the carpet pieces and used the pads on the jaws and the clamp bar to protect the finish on the legs.

I had checked the fit of the joints by dry fitting and found that where Dominos were at right angles in one leg, they needed to be mitred to give adequate clearance, but this could be a potentially tricky task.

This was done on the bandsaw. To keep my fingers away from the blade, I cut a Domino slot in the end of an offcut and, using the mitre fence and the side fence, mitred the ends of the relevant Dominos.


Step 22

All the components for the sides were laid out, the clamps set to size, and the magnetic pads fixed on.

Step 23

Glue was applied to the Domino slots, the Dominos were inserted, taking care to get those with mitred ends in the right place, and the clamps carefully tightened up.

The diagonals were checked for square, any necessary adjustments made, and the sides left to cure.


Step 24

Pairs of sides were joined together by the back rails in

a similar way to the sides to form the sub frame. As there were no front rails on the two larger tables, I cut false rails from scrap, taped over the ends with masking tape to stop them marking the legs, and dry clamped them in place to hold the sub frame square.

Step 25

All the clamps were tightened and the internal diagonals were checked with an internal telescopic squaring rod, adjusted as required. The sub frame was left on a flat true surface – ensuring it was not in wind and all the legs touched the ground – to cure. The smallest table had rails at the front as well as the back so did not require the false rails. This was clamped up in a similar way.

Step 26

The bearers to allow the tables to slide in and out were cut from scrap and rebated on the router. They were then screwed to the inside of the sides of the two larger tables.


Step 27

Once the frames had cured, each top was laid face down on a carpet offcut on the bench and each frame centred on it. Screws – measured to ensure no possibility of them going through the top – were driven through the prepared countersunk holes. Walnut plugs were used to fill the holes and were trimmed with a flush cut saw.

A light sanding and a drop of oil on the underside of the rails finished it off.

Final finishing

The tables were inspected and rubbed over with a Scotchbrite grey pad to remove any marks or nibs, and then buffed with a soft cloth to a nice sheen.


My clients came to collect the tables and were very pleased with the end result, and particularly with individuality of the timber. I thoroughly enjoyed my very profitable day at the show, and am now having great fun making display pieces out of stock timber to show at the next one. I find this sort of work liberating, being freed from the constraints of the clients' requirements and able to just go where the timber takes me. Hopefully you will see some of these pieces soon.