Introduction: How to Make a French Inspired Trestle Table

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Words and photos: Troy McDonald

Diagrams: Graham Sands

Good luck can never substitute for meticulous planning, however every now and then chance seemingly trumps everything else. Within a few weeks of conceiving this project, good fortune conspired to deliver two gifted parcels of timber that made it all possible.

The first was some lovely recycled spotted gum boards that showed potential for reincarnation as a dining table top, and the second was an offer of some large billets of maple. The maple had been rediscovered within a retired stairbuilder’s shed where they had gathered dust since the 1960s. For this project, the wood had seemingly chosen itself, but what about the design?

The table was for a traditional home with the need to comfortably seat 8 to 10. A length of more than two metres was needed, longer than the spotted gum boards, so I was forced to incorporate breadboard ends intothe top to provide the additional length. For the base, a design reminiscent of the traditional French farmhouse trestle table seemed appropriate, complete with turned balusters and scroll carved feet.

Step 1: Construction

In keeping with the design, traditional construction methods were chosen. For strength, each turned baluster would require twin tenons into the large scroll shaped foot with bridle joints at the top of the baluster for the cross rails. The trestle ends are connected by tenons cut into the lower stretcher, with twin side rails completing the framing to support what was to be a very heavy top. The protruding ends of the top and side rails were worked to match the ogee shape of the feet. Because of the limitation I had with the lengths of recycled spotted gum for the top, this is where I decided to start the construction. With the top complete, the trestle ends and framing could be built to match.

Step 2: Table Top

The top is simply made up of edge-jointed boards dressed to a finished thickness of 35mm. Prepare the boards for the breadboard ends at the same time to ensure a perfect match in thickness. The individual boards were arranged for the most pleasing grain match and then biscuited to ensure alignment during glue up. Due to the density of the spotted gum, the glued-up top weighs in at close to 80kg so plan ahead for how an item of this size and weight is to be manoeuvred around the workshop.

Once glued, the top was laid out on sawhorses to allow the tenons to be cut for the breadboard ends. This was simply completed with a router and straightedge to create a tenon of 100mm depth and 12mm thickness as shown in fig.3. To make this easier, some of the waste for the tenon can be removed from each board prior to edge jointing to form the top. A final pass with the router after glue up will be required though to ensure a nice neat shoulder and consistent thickness of the tenon.

The corresponding mortises on the breadboard ends are trenched out on the tablesaw before being squared up witha chisel and mallet. Once completed, the mortise and tenon can be pegged in three places with 10mm dowels. To allow for seasonal movement of the top, the outside dowels should be driven through elongated holes in the tenon with the centre dowel being driven in tight. Glue should only be used in the centre area of the tenon. Of course the breadboard ends could be avoided if you have material of adequate length, however, they do add visual appeal whilst reducing the risk of the table top cupping over time.

With the main top complete some simple cove moulding can be made on the tablesaw and screwed to the underside of the table prior to nailing a mitred bead to the underside of the cove, again shown in fig.3. The bead and cove moulding increases the visual mass of the top and also houses the shaped rails that will support the top.

Step 3: Turned Balusters

The square ends of the turned balusters are of smaller section than the maximum turning diameter. To allow for this, the blanks are best reduced in dimension at each end prior to turning. The waste can be removed on the bandsaw after crosscutting the shoulders to an appropriate depth on the tablesaw. A router with 19mm flat bit can be used to clean up the bandsaw cuts right up to the shoulder prior to turning. A pair of guide boards are clamped level with the side of the blank to support the router during this operation.

Once prepared, the blank is turned in the typical manner being careful as usual to keep the details crisp and clean.If you don’t own a lathe, or like me you don’t have access to a lathe of adequate capacity to turn blanks of this size, you can approach your local woodturning club or guild for advice on who may assist you with the turning. At this point I need to acknowledge Robert McKee, president of the Woodturners Society Qld who produced the crisply turned balusters on this project.

With the turning complete, the joints on each end of the baluster can be marked out and prepared. Proceed with cutting the housings that join to the top rail, however, for simplicity, hold off cutting the twin tenons at the base of the baluster until the matching mortises have been completed in the carved foot.

Step 4: Scroll Carved Feet

The shaped and carved feet are an important feature of this design and may look daunting, however the carving is relatively simple and can be completed with a small number of gouges. Prepare material for the feet to dimension and use a full sized paper template to transfer the curved outline to both sides of each foot with carbon paper.

The twin mortises for the baluster and adjoining mortise for the bottom stretcher should be cut next whilst the blank is still rectangular in section (fig 5). The mortises can be drilled out on the drill press prior to squaring them up. Once the mortises are complete corresponding tenons can be cut on the turned balusters. These are best cut on the tablesaw as shown in the photo above.

Begin the shaping of the foot by cutting the outline on the bandsaw fitted with a 1/2” 3tpi blade. (Check the tuning of your bandsaw first with some trial cuts before risking your precious material.) With the waste removed, the shape can be worked smooth with a cabinet scraper prior to machine sanding the more open sections and hand sanding the tighter curves. Shaping a sanding block to match the outside radius of the roll at the end of the foot will make the hand sanding quicker and more accurate. You’ll be surprised at how quickly this shaping will proceed if care is taken.

With the feet cut to shape the carving can begin. One of the tricks to carving scroll designs like this is to match the scroll curves to the sweep of the gouges you have in your kit. This can be done quite simply by using the outline of the carving provided as a starting point and customising the shape by walking your gouge along the curve of the scroll on the paper plan. If the gouge you have is slightly quicker in sweep you can tighten the curve to match. With this done, the carving will progress much more accurately when it comes to setting in the scroll. Once the design is customised to your tools, use the carbon paper once again to transfer the outline of the carving to your blank.

Carving the scroll is a three step process. A good carving mallet will help you control the cuts for the first two steps but I prefer to guide the gouge by hand for the final smoothing cuts.

Before starting any carving take a few minutes to review the design as it is marked out on your blank. The easiest way to destroy a carved scroll is to set in the vertical cuts on the incorrect side of the scroll. Notice how the two scrolls are joined by a long stretch of hollowed section. Carving this long run can be made easier by removing some of the waste with a router prior to working with the gouge. If you do this, be very careful to limit the routing to the centre section only. The photo above shows the routed section prior to carving and also shows the gouge beginning the first step of the carving process, the setting in.

Setting in is performed with vertical cuts along the red line of the scroll with the gouges you used to customise the sweep of the scroll design. Don’t try and go too deep with your early cuts until you get a feel for the depth of the carving. With a small section set in, remove the waste by working around the scroll with cuts from the outside in as shown above. You can repeat these two steps until the carving arrives at a visually pleasing depth. Typically a carved scroll is relieved along the inside, however, I chose to leave this scroll flat on the face with a vertical inside edge as the overall look of the piece is more rustic than refined. This has the benefit of simplifying the carving as well.

With the waste removed, the final cuts should be made around the scroll, to smooth the individual gouge cuts that were made in the second phase of the carving. These cuts should be very light, working in 90° quadrants to ensure that you are working with the grain at all times. With the two scrolls cut, the long adjoining section can be hollowed using long smoothing cuts from a suitable gouge.

It’s important with carved work to learn how to leave the work crisp off the chisel to avoid the need for sandpaper. Sanding the long stretch adjoining the two scrolls is fine but be careful to avoid breaking the crisp edges of the carving. A sample of the finished carving is shown above.

Step 5: Framing and Assembly

To construct the under framing of the table, there are two top rails, two side rails and a single bottom stretcher to complete. The layout of the support rails is shown in fig.2, however, the length dimension of the rails should be taken directly from the underside of the table between cove mouldings after making an allowance for expansion and contraction of the table top as shown in fig.3. With the rail dimensions set correctly, the top will drop in over the rails which will locate the table top in a fixed position as shown above.

Once cut to length, the ogee shape to the rail ends can be worked on the bandsaw. For the long rails, I chose to use thinner material for the main length, gluing and screwing full section pieces to each end to accommodate the halving joints and the ogee shaped ends. This reduces the quantity of larger section timber required without detracting from the visual appeal of the piece. All the rails are joined with large halving joints roughed out on the tablesaw and then cleaned up at the bench.

I glued the cross rails to the balusters but elected to screw the side rails to the cross rails to allow for disassembly if required for transport. The completed assembly is shown in the photo below. The last item to complete is the lower stretcher. This has a moulding worked on both top edges and a stub tenon to match the mortise located on the inside face of each foot. The tenons are assembled dry and screwed from beneath, again to allow for disassembly.

Step 6: Finishing

Polishing prior to assembly is much easier to manage so all joints were taped off prior to spraying a coat of walnut stain on base components to match the darker spotted gum top, and add an antique look. I choose to finish all my pieces with shellac, and for this piece the first three bodying coats were sprayed before finishing in the traditional manner with a rubber. I’m sure there are many woodworkers who would advise against the use of shellac for table tops but I wonder how many have actually given it a go.

I find it a very forgiving finish that is incredibly resilient to all forms of abuse other than extreme heat and alcohol. The secret of course is to ensure that only dewaxed varieties of shellac are used. An almost identical table to this has now withstood daily use by a young family of five for several years and the top shows no sign of wear despite almost nightly incidents involving some sort of spillage. After finishing, assembly can be performed followed by a final coat of finish and a protective coat of wax.

This table is a rewarding project that presents an opportunity to combine a number of facets of the woodworker’s craft. Now if I could only find a way to guarantee the timely arrival of gifted timber as I was fortunate enough to receive for this project.

Reprinted from Australian Wood Review issue 84.