Making a mortise and tenon table with hardwood was one of the most rewarding experiences Ive had with woodworking. The steps are challenging and the end result is a functional piece of furniture! While I am not an expert, the following steps can be used as a guide on your quest to make your own table from hardwood.
Some things to keep in mind, in order to complete this project you need access to a wood shop that has a planer, jointer, table saw, plunge router or multi-router, biscuit jointer, radial arm saw and chop saw, and basic tools like chisels, hammers, sand paper, glue, and varnish. Remember to wear safety equipment including eye, ear, and breathing protection when ever possible. Lets begin!
Step 1: Planer and Jointer
In this example, I chose to use maple. Maple is a great hardwood to work with, it is stable and relatively forgiving. It also has a beautiful grain pattern that can be brought out with different finishes.
Buying lumber from the lumber yard usually comes in rough sawn planks. These planks need to be resurfaced in order to create square dimensions, which are critical for a tenon and mortise connection. Find some wood that will give you enough room to remove material, plus a little extra for some breathing room.
At this point you should have a rough idea for what you want the final dimensions of your table legs and apron to be, which are the lower parts of the table. In this case, the aprons are 22" and 14", and the legs are all 18". The apron face will be shorter because mortise hides part of the apron which becomes the tenon. For the apron, these pieces started from a 8' Four Quarter piece of rough sawn maple, which is roughly 13/16" thick. This was sawn down to roughly 24" for the long sides and 16" for the short sides.
Each of these boards then went through the jointer on two adjacent faces of the long dimension. Picking a top and side, which will make both of these faces straight to each other. Very important, each piece needs to be jointed and planed at the same time, otherwise the thickness will be off!
After the all the aprons are through the jointer, the boards need to go through the planer. This machine will allow a third side of the boards to be flat, so if the bottom is still rough sawn, put this face through the planer. A few passes is usually necessary, with each board going through each pass before the thickness is changed.
Repeating these steps for the table legs, using an Eight Quarter piece of wood which is roughly 1 13/16" thick, you should end up with three long sides flat and straight, and the end faces roughly sawn. These last sides can be cut off with a table saw using a fence, and the end faces can be removed with a crosscut sled to end up with all six sides of the aprons and legs flat and straight! When done remember to sticker your pieces to allow for even drying and avoid warping. These pieces can be rough assembled to begin to represent what the lower part of the table will look like.
Step 2: Test and Sketch Out the Motise
The mortise is the part that is notched in the legs to receive the tenon, to be constructed on the apron. The important thing to remember in this layout is that each leg will two mortises in a mirrored orientation, so that the apron will actually fit to each leg. The depth of the apron can be designed, arguably it can be placed in the center of the leg to avoid any mirroring confusion, but letting the table extend beyond the apron and leg is an aesthetic choice, just give yourself enough room to work with a chisel.
In this example a multi-router is used. It is an incredible machine to use, in that the dimensions for the mortise need to be set once and one side of all 4 table legs cut. Then set one more time to make the mortise for the adjacent face on each leg. A router will also work with a jig, but more time and attention must be taken because a little bit off and the apron will not connect each leg properly and the mortise will have to be reworked.
Once off the multi router or router, a chisel must be used to square out the corners for the tenon to fit. To help with this the mortise can be cut out a little bit beyond the bottom mark, but should be fairly close to the top mark. The apron will be hammered while the table is upside down to create the surface for the table top to sit on once it is connected to the table leg.
Step 3: Test and Sketch Out the Tenon
The tenon is based on the mortise that was just cut. The length, width and depth of the mortise determines the length,width and depth of the tenon, so all the dimensions for the tenon come from the mortise. The tenon will be glued into the mortise. Since this glue up will be long grain to long grain the wood will become very strong, so the joint can be a little loose. Again, these pieces will be batch processed, meaning each step will be completed on each piece before moving to the next step. This is to ensure each cut is the same on each piece, because they should all end up being the same size tenon to fit the same size mortise.
Start by sketching the width of the mortise on each side of the apron and desired depth. This will act as a guide. Always cut to fit, so cut down the tenon and then test to see if it fits. This only needs to be done on the first tenon, once the setting is dialed in on the saw then it just needs to be repeated for each piece. A good tight fit is best, too loose is bad, but too tight can still be lightly sanded.
Next measure and sketch the length of a mortise and again cut to fit until the correct fitting is found. The shoulder of the apron should allow the pieces to be flat when fit tested upside down, which can be measured first and then fit tested. Once this happy spot is found the rest of the pieces can be cut and dry assembled to check for tolerance issues. It is a good idea to number or code the matching corners in someway to help speed up the gluing process in the next step.
Step 4: Glue Up
This is the last chance to easily add any flair to the legs. In this case a small taper was included using a jig on the table saw. When ready to glue, start with two matching sides at the same time. This will prevent any tail chasing if there is a lopsided leg or apron, and is much easier than gluing up all the pieces at once. A hammer helps to pound the aprons down on a flat surface moving the tenon to the top of the mortise to ensure a flat tabletop. Use blocks and clamps and let the glue dry.
Once the pieces dry add the remaining two aprons. Matching the correct sides together, glue the remaining tenons and use blocks and clamps again to help the glue set properly. Once this is done you should have a pretty strong and sturdy table base!
Extra glue can be removed by chisel or scraper, and should be done before sanding and definitely before the finish is applied. Any glue left exposed will be very easy to notice and could ruin a good piece of furniture. This part of the table is now ready to be sanded, moving from rough, 60 grit, to smoother, 220 grid and even higher, go over each exposed part of the table with each grit change.
Step 5: The Table Top
Here we start back at the beginning with the jointer and planer. Using rough sawn board, measure enough wood to cover your table top, in this case three boards that equal 18" and are 26" long. This gives a 2" overhang on each side, which can be changed based on your needs. Moving through the jointer and planer and table saw should lead you to equal thickness and equal length boards, that are ready to be glued together. Use a biscuit or dowel saw or similar tool to create a notch in each board for a biscuit or dowel. This will strengthen the connection between the boards with glue.
Again, using the glue up steps, take blocks and clamps and glue the boards and biscuits together all at once. Be careful not to over tighten the clamps with can cause a board to warp or even pop out of place. After the glue up remove the excess glue with a scraper before sanding. If a timesaver is available, which is basically a giant sander, it might be possible to run the tabletop through before most of the glue is removed. Either way the tabletop should be sanded flat on both sides.
Step 6: Apply Finish and Assemble
In this case two types of finishes were used, a stain with india ink, and a sealer with Good Stuff. As each coat of india ink is applied the wood needs to be sanded flat again. The ink is water based and raises the grain of the wood. After the stain set, it was also covered with the sealer to help protect the wood. Two coats of india ink were used for the base, with 2 coats of sealer, and 5 coats of sealer for the tabletop. Maple is known for its grain and this can be highlighted with the right finish. In this case it really pops!
Once the piece has been thoroughly sealed on all faces, the tabletop and base can be attached together with the chosen hardware. In this case a figure 8 steel piece was used to attach the base and top, with the aprons milled to receive the piece, and the piece itself milled to receive the beveled screw head, which sits flat. With the table now connected, it is ready to be used. I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, good luck on your next project!