Cherry side table progress, advice welcomed

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    My current project is a side table made from cherry. I’ll start with the progress on the project so far, which is now getting close to glue up, and then I have a couple of decisions to make for attaching the shelves that I would love some feedback on.

    I started with a full-size drawing on a big sheet of paper, but I later made a model in Sketchup as well so I could visually test a few different options for the lower shelf. The overall layout and joinery is similar to Paul’s bench stool, but with the lower rails supporting a shelf about a third of the way down. The top surface is just about 15 inches square, 25 inches from the floor, and the tips of the legs should also form a 15 inch square. The lower shelf’s upper surface is 10 inches below the top surface. The angle of the legs was determined by what looked right to me for the overall proportions, but I think it ended up pretty close to that of the bench stool.

    Stock Prep
    The wood is all from two ~8 foot lengths of 5/4 cherry I bought in late summer with this in mind. They were slightly different widths and thicknesses, but close enough and the grain patterns were a good match. I used a bit of it for a couple of random small projects before this, and ended up with just barely enough for this project! The second image is what was left for the project laid out on my bench after crosscutting. I like getting a picture of all the stock that goes into something so I can look back when it’s done and think about how it was just a stack of wood.

    Cleaning up the surfaces, crosscutting the boards for the shelves, and jointing the edges went really smoothly. I even remembered this time to mark the grain directions so that planing them after laminating wouldn’t be a pain. Lesson learned from those times I didn’t. 🙂

    Laminating the shelves went smoothly, too. I got myself some parallel-jaw clamps from Lee Valley for Christmas, and they definitely made this a lot easier to set up. I really like them so far. I haven’t used the Jet or Bessey equivalents, but these ones feel great in terms of build quality and ease of use.

    Next up, planing the shelves!



    Planing the first shelf was quick and painless because the boards were all from the same initial piece and very even in thickness, and things just lined up nicely when gluing them. I was pretty happy with it after a short time with my jack plane.

    I expected the second shelf to be more troublesome because one of the three sections came from the slightly thinner of the two long boards I started with. You can see the big step down in thickness the second image. This odd section was also a little longer than it needed to be, so I decided to nip off the extra after gluing for some reason I can’t recall. You can also see that the other two sections weren’t quite perfectly aligned, but I think everything was lined up better on the other side of the shelf, which was the top surface. Anyway, the step was a full 1/8″.

    Thankfully I’d just sharpened one of my planes and clearly did something right, because it just scythed through the wood beautifully. I made my way across the board with diagonal cuts from one side, then a pass from the other, and every few passes went straight across with the grain to level things off a bit. After a good 30-45 minute session I had a mountain of shavings on the bench and at my feet, and the surface was pretty level and smooth. It had a slight belly in the center, but I decided to let it sit for a while before addressing it in case it moved.

    With that, I put the shelves aside and started on the legs.


    I cut the legs from one piece of cherry about 5 1/2″ wide, 26 1/2″ long, and slightly over 1″ thick. My goal was to have the legs start at ~7/8″ square at the top, and taper to 3/4″ square at the bottom. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull off a rip cut this long without wandering all over, so I figured I’d cut 1″ wide down the length, square it up, and plane the taper later.

    For the first one I decided to experiment a bit. I carefully deepened the knife line and then sort of plowed my dovetail saw (14 tpi rip) along the line to start a kerf. Once the kerf seemed deep enough I switched to my big tenon saw (9 tpi rip) to go a bit faster. I found that working down at a shallow angle at either end and then bringing down the hump in the middle worked best. I had to pause every so often to clear the dust out. I was very please with the results and decided to cut all four legs in this way. Even with the bigger teeth on the tenon saw the surface it left was surprisingly smooth required minimal cleanup with the plane. I think it took about 30 minutes for each one and it was a bit of a workout, but I was super happy that the cut was straight!

    Next up, angled mortise and tenons!


    Legs, Part II

    After ripping the legs, a couple of pieces curved a bit along their length from the release of stresses in the wood. I let them sit for several days and thankfully it didn’t change after the initial movement. I was really glad I cut them a bit oversized, and the taper gave me some leeway in getting rid of the bend on the worst offender, so I ended up tapering them all before laying out the mortises.

    Mortise and Tenons

    Armed with this knowledge and a 3/16″ pig sticker mortise chisel I got from Jim Bode’s site, I set about mortising. I really liked using the mortising chisel, and it saved the edge of my bevel edge chisels from getting banged up. It went pretty well overall and a few of them are really crisp. I also picked up a little depth gauge from an antique store recently that has an angle adjustment as well. I set this to the angle of my bevel gauge used that to check angled ends in the mortises, and was quite pleased with results.

    The design I worked out has 12 angled mortise and tenon joints, 8 with mitered ends for the top rails, and 4 for the lower rails. I learned several valuable lessons from the bench stool project:
    a) the tenons would take me a lot longer to do than I might guess
    b) check the angles constantly (and verify your bevel gauge against the drawing!)
    c) don’t fiddle too much with the shoulder lines, it’s a slippery slope!
    d) whatever you take off the upper rails has to come off the lower rails

    Overall, cutting the tenons went about how I expected – it was fiddly and took a while, but I just did one or two each night after work for about a week. A few of them required corrections, and then corrections to those corrections to get them where I wanted them. One or two were just right with just a quick paring from a chisel after sawing. The second to last fit in its tenon so well it made a pop gun noise when I separated them. That was pretty satisfying.

    One issue I have is that my tenons tend to get bruised or compressed during all the test fitting and taking apart again, and aren’t quite as snug by the time I’m done. For my bench stool I added drawbore pins and that snugged everything right up, but the ones in this project are too small for that. I think I’ve read the moisture in glue can also cause the fibers to expand again, so maybe it will correct itself? Anyway, it felt reasonably solid when I had the whole leg frame together for the last test fit.


    Assembly Questions

    With all the mortise and tenon joints done, it’s time to tackle the thing I’m still not totally certain about – attaching the shelves to the leg frame.

    First, the top. For the bench stool project, Paul uses screws to attach some pieces of wood to the underside of the seat and then screws them to the top rails. I decided to try the same concept for my stool, but using walnut dowel pins glued in place instead of metal screws. It seems to be holding up just fine so far, so I think it will work for the side table. The top rails of the table are wide enough that I can safely put 1/4″ dowels through them, so I don’t think I even need the cleats or whatever they’re called. If anyone can think of a weakness or downside to this, please let me know!

    The lower shelf is the one I’m really not sure about. I settled on having two lower rails, left and right sides of the table, with the lower shelf spanning across them and the chamfered edge of the shelf overhanging a bit. The question is, how should I actually secure the shelf to the rails and/or legs while allowing for the wood to move and expand?

    The grain will be oriented left-to-right, so the movement should primarily be front-to-back.

    I suppose I could just put dowels up through the rails, as with the top.

    Another thought I had was maybe cutting dadoes in the bottom face of the shelf so it can nest onto the rails a bit, then doing one or two dowels at or near the center of the rails, so it would be free to move away from the center line. Then I’d just leave a 1/16″ gap between the front/back edges and legs so it won’t press against them and stress everything if it does expand a bit.

    Another, perhaps wilder thought was maybe putting dowels into the legs horizontally, then have corresponding holes in the shelf to fit over them and not glue them in place. That way the shelf’s weight would still rest on the rails, but it’s position left/right and up/down would be fixed by the dowels, and it could expand/contract as needed.

    I’m not sure if that description comes across well. Am I overthinking it? Should I worry much about wood movement on something about 13″ across that will live indoors? Would any of those ideas work? I feel like they probably would, but I haven’t been able to find good descriptions anywhere of someone doing something similar that didn’t involve pocket hole joinery or hidden bolts. I don’t want to use any metal fasteners. I’ve been mulling it over for a week or so and I feel kind of stuck. Please chime in if you have any thoughts or ideas to try out!


    Love the design, very good work.
    Keep it up should be very nice


    Thank you for the kind words. I’ve made more progress in fits and starts and it’s almost done.


    Okay, after lots of experimenting and fiddling around I finally worked out how to attach the shelves.

    For the lower shelf, I went with a sliding dovetail. After cutting the dovetail-shaped recess across the shelf, I made a stretcher for the leg frame with a corresponding sliding dovetail that spans the lower rails. For final attachment I can just slide the shelf on with a bit of glue.

    For the upper shelf, I tried out housed sliding dovetails. Since I had already made all the top rails before deciding, I ended up making a pair of short thingies with a dovetail along one edge and a tenon protruding from the end. The dovetail bit drops into an escapement chopped into the underside of the shelf, then slides into a short dovetail slot. As it slides into place, the tenon fits into a mortise in the rail. This holds the shelf flush against the top rails. For kicks I also drilled the rails and little tenons for drawbore pins. It’s hard to describe in words, and I can’t see or post pictures right now for some reason, but it’s a bit like a turn button mutated and sprouted a dovetail. If this sounds bonkers, it probably is, but I had fun with it and mostly like how it turned out. I’ll post pictures when that’s working again.

    Anyway, having convinced myself that I can securely attach both shelves now, I went ahead and glued up the leg frame. It went smoothly and things fitted well without much fuss. I even debated not clamping it because it all seemed snug, but thought that might be tempting fate.


    Here are the pictures. The first two show the underside of the bottom shelf and how it will slide onto the stretcher. The latter two show the underside of the upper shelf, and the dovetail/tenon/turnbutton thingies I attempted to describe above.


    Here’s a test fit of the whole thing. Still need to clean up a few little things, but I’m real close to doing final assembly and putting a finish on it. I’ve already done a coat of pure tung oil, will coat with shellac over the weekend.



    Ecky H

    That looks great. Well done!


    Veni, vidi, serravi.

    MĂĽnster, Germany




    very nice job!

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