Introduction: Machine Quilting Table Leaf

When machine quilting, you need a large surface around the sewing machine bed to make the job easier. The bigger the table, the better! So what if the table could be as big as, say, the kitchen table? Or the dining room table! Yeah -- that's the ticket!

But not everyone has a sewing room that can accommodate a table so large. The solution? To convert the kitchen or dining room table into a quilting table - and back again. The trick is to make use of a feature the table likely already has - a removable leaf. By building a new leaf with a cutout for the sewing machine, a large table can be converted into a giant quilting table, ready to tackle king-size quilts with ease.

I've documented the quilting table leaf I built for my mother in law for Christmas. She loves it! If you or someone you know is into machine quilting, then something like this should be at the top of your list of things to make.

Step 1: Table Suitability

Not any table will do.  The key requirement is that the table has a removable center leaf.  When fully opened, the space between the two table halves should be wide enough to not only accommodate the sewing machine, but also the supporting rails and the alignment pins.  In general, calculate the needed opening according to this formula:

opening >= machine width + (rail width x 2) + (alignment pin length x 2)

There must also be enough space between the support beams (see the pictures) and table edge.  If the rails are close to the edge, then maybe the machine will fit behind the rail, closer to the center of the table.

I mentioned alignment pins before.  These pins ensure that the two halves of the table (and the leaf, when installed) line up properly.  They will do the same for the quilting table leaf, and support the weight of the machine as well.  So, make sure the table you're considering also has these pins.

Finally, make sure that the table surface and edges are smooth.  The fabric of the quilt should not catch on anything!  The table may need refinishing if it's not up to par.

Step 2: Materials and Tools

Chances are, the table (and leaf) are made of wood.  So it makes sense to make the leaf out of wood, too.  You may choose to match the wood to that of the table, or you can make it totally different!  The table I built this leaf for is oak, so I used oak veneer particle board, with solid oak trim.  The table top was 3/4" thick.


  • 3/4" thick oak veneer particle board, as required - I bought a 4x4' sheet
  • 5x1 oak boards, as required - I used a single 6' long board
  • oak edging; to match the edging of the table (optional)
  • 1/4" and 3/8" wood dowel
  • 3/4" (or 2cm) square aluminum or steel rails
  • 3/16" steel or brass rod (or whatever diameter matches the alignment pins on the table)
  • stain to match (or not match!) the finish of the table

  • Table saw or band saw
  • Drill press
  • Hand drill
  • orbital sander
  • Dremel tool with metal cutoff wheel (or some other way of cutting metal)
  • regular and step bit drill bits
  • center punch (optional)
  • paint brush

Step 3: Measure Thrice...

It's time to take some measurements. The most important measurements are of the sewing machine itself. Very carefully note the length and depth of the base of the sewing machine, at its widest points. Also measure the height of the machine table.

Next, measure the table. This is easy to do if you've got the original leaf from the table - Measure the length of the leaf and the width, but remember that the width of the quilting table leaf may be different.

Finally, measure the space between the edge of the table and the support beams. In my case, the sewing machine needed to fit inside this space. If the table you're using has these beams close to the edges of the table, then maybe the machine can fit between them somehow. That's up to you to figure out...

Step 4: How It's Built

The goal of the quilting table leaf is to set the sewing machine into the table surface - this is what it makes it so useful.  It's as if the sewing machine has a table that is 8 square feet (or more!).  Large quilts are kept flat and level, so that the edges don't fall off the edge and tug on the part you're working on.  A box needs to be built into the leaf, sized perfectly for the sewing machine.

My mother in law's machine is quite heavy - at least 20 pounds.  I wasn't sure if a few alignment pins and one board edge could reliably support that weight, so I decided to run two metal rails down the entire length of the leaf to support the box that the machine sits in.  Overkill?  Probably.  But at least I know the leaf could support a machine made of solid gold.

So yeah, two square metal rails (in my case, steel) run the length of the leaf on either side.  Between them is the wooden table surface, and the box that the sewing machine can be set into.  The surface and box are fastened to the rails using dowel joints and gorilla glue.  The box is fastened to the edge of the flat table surface with glue and dowel joints.  The leaf edging is made of solid oak, and is fastened to the table edge and box edge using carpenter's glue.  Alignment pins (on one side of the leaf) and alignment holes (on the other side) line up with the existing alignment pins in the table.  These pins ensure the surfaces are at the same level, and that the leaf doesn't shift.

Step 5: Cut the Rails and Table Surface

Start by cutting the metal rails.  These two rails run the length of the leaf, but do not reach all the way to the edge of the table.  They are cut short by about 1/2" on each end, and capped with wood trim.

The rails I used were scraps being recycled by my workplace.  They are steel with pre-drilled holes along the length.  You may be able to find something similar at a hardware store.  If not, any square metal tubing that is 3/4" on each side should work fine.

At first I tried cutting the steel rails using a hacksaw, but this proved to be quite a lot of work and the resulting cut was less than square.  So, I switched to using a Dremel with a fiberglass cutoff wheel.  I scribed a line around the tube, then cut around the circumference.  The cut was cleaned up using a vertical belt sander.

The main table surface is particle board with an oak veneer.  You could of course use solid wood for the table if you like.  The main table width stretches from rail to rail, but is shorter than the rails due to the box that holds the sewing machine.  Based on your measurements of the table, sewing machine, and wood used to build the box, you should be able to calculate the length that the main table surface needs to be.  If you're worried your calculations are wrong, you can cut the table surface a bit longer and trim it later.

I cut the particle board using my band saw (and a helper), since I don't have a table saw.  If you do have a table saw, that's definitely the proper tool to use!

Step 6: Build the Box

The box should be made to fit the base of the sewing machine. If you or the recipient has more than one machine, then consider building the box to fit the largest machine - that way, they will all fit (though perhaps with a few magazines to fill the extra space).

I built the box out of solid oak, though any wood will do. I used dowel joints because they're easy to do with basic tools, and are pretty strong.

The rails and table surface already cut, it should be easy to tell where the box should go. But there's a bit of a trick - it's not just a plain old box - the ends need notches cut out, where the rails can attach. Remember, the surface of the quilting table should be flat and free of corners that the quilt fabric could catch on.

The length of the box should be the distance between the outside edges of the rails. Or, the total width of the quilting table leaf. The width of the box is determined by the width of the sewing machine. The depth of the box is the height of the sewing machine at the machine bed.

With those figures in mind, the box may be designed. Cut the front and back faces of the box first. Using a piece of scrap rail as a guide, mark out where the notch should go in the top left and top right corners. Cut out the notches on a band saw or scroll saw. The rail should fit perfectly in the notch, so that it is flush with the top and sides of the wood.

Next the sides of the box may be marked and cut. The sides will be shorter than the front and back pieces, since you need to subtract the diameter of the rails.

Finally, cut the bottom of the box. The bottom piece dimensions are simply the inside dimensions formed by the front, back and sides.

Note that all of these cuts depend on the type of joinery you intend to use. I used simple dowel joints, since they're easy to do. But if you want to get fancy with box joints, biscuits or dovetails then you'll need to modify my instructions accordingly!

I used a combination of 1/4" and 3/8" wood dowels. Around the bottom, I used 3/8" for strength. I used 1/4" to attach the front and back to the sides. I highly recommend using hole transfer pegs to get the alignment perfect. These little pointed metal pegs slip into a set of holes that have already been drilled, allowing you to transfer the exact positions of the holes to a mating board.

Drill all of the holes with a suitably high quality drill bit. I love using brad-point bits for this, since they cut through wood like butter and allow for pin-point accuracy. The holes should be drilled deep enough to accommodate the dowel pegs as well as a bit of glue.

Once all the holes are drilled, try dry-fitting the box to make sure everything fits together. If possible, slip in the sewing machine to see if it fits, too - better to check now than when everything is glued together! If everything seems OK, go ahead and glue all the pieces together. I like to use Titebond III for gluing wood to wood, though any carpenter's glue will be fine.

Step 7: Attach the Box to the Table Top

The box that holds the sewing machine attaches to the table top using dowel joints.  Start by drilling three or four holes along the edge of the table top using a hand drill.  Using the hole transfer pins, transfer the positions of the holes onto the edge of the box.  It helps to lay the table top and box upside down on a flat surface to do the transfer.  With the positions marked on the box, move it to a drill press and drill the holes.

Insert dowels into the holes, and test-fit the joint between the box and table top.  If everything is square and properly aligned, glue the joint with carpenter's glue.  While the glue is drying, set the table upside down again on a flat surface so that it dries flat.

Step 8: Attach the Rails

The rails attach to either side of the table and box, to support the weight of the box. However, glue alone isn't enough. The rails I used came pre-drilled with 3/8" holes along the entire length, at regular intervals. I decided to use these to my advantage. If the rails you're using don't have holes, you'll need to drill them yourself.

For extra support, dowels will be inserted through the holes and into the table edge. The rails may be used as a drilling template, for drilling the holes in the table edge. Clamp the rail to the table edge, and drill every second hole using a hand drill. Use a plain split-point drill bit for this (since you don't want to risk damaging a brad-point bit!) Drill holes in both table edges, and remember to mark which rail goes on which side of the table leaf.

Now it's time to insert the dowels. Start by cutting some 3/8" dowel into two inch lengths. Each of these dowels will be pressed through a hole on the rail. If you like, you can also add a slight bevel to one end of each dowel, which will make them easier to insert. I used my drill press to push in the dowels. I first chucked in a large bolt, then used it to push the dowels into the rail. the fit is tight enough that glue is not required.

Test-fit the rails to make sure the dowels will line up with the holes drilled into the table edge. If everything fits, then it's time to glue on the rails! I used Gorilla Glue for this, since I wanted it to really expand into the particle board for the best grip. Lay down a thick bead of Gorilla Glue along the length of the rail and over the exposed dowels, wherever the rail will be touching wood. Then spray the edge of the table with water. Remember, Gorilla Glue needs moisture to really activate! Line up the dowels to their holes, then work them into the holes until the rail meets the edge of the wood. You may need a rubber mallet to help pound all those dowels into their holes. Once both rails are in place, clamp the rails up against the wood edge. Leave the clamps in place until the glue is dry.

Remember that Gorilla Glue expands, so check back for the next hour or two and wipe off any glue that expands out.

Step 9: Add Trim

Some additional trim will be needed to complete the table insert.  The primary reason is aesthetic; the insert will certainly look incomplete if the edges don't match the rest of the table!  But there's also a chance that the square edges of the wood and metal will hook the fabric, which could lead to major problems.

I purposefully cut the rails shorter than the table top, so that I could cover the cut ends with wood.  I constructed edges for my table by stacking together three levels of wood; two 1/4" x 3/4" strips of oak, and one 1/2" oak quarter-round.  The three pieces together form an edge that closely matches that of the original table.  But note the edge is now curved as well - it is far less likely to catch fabric now.

Glue and clamp the trim pieces together, and make sure that the pieces of wood don't "drift apart" when clamping. 
Carpenter's glue is fine for this step. When the glue is dry, they can be glued onto the table edge.  Again, since the trim is being glued to particle board it's better to use an expanding glue like gorilla glue.  Moisten the table edge and apply a bead of glue to the trim pieces.  Line them up, and clamp in place.  In this case, with such an awkward profile, I used masking tape to hold the trim in place while the glue dried.

The last bit of trim to add is entirely optional and completely aesthetic.  The original leaf insert has a bit of a wood skirt below the table surface, that basically hides the support structure under the table.  I simply cut a piece of oak 1x4, and glued it in place to match the original leaf insert.  I also added some triangles in behind for added strength.

Step 10: Add Pins

The second-last step is to add the alignment pins.  The positioning of these pins is critical - if they're off by just a millimeter then the table will not be able to close together properly, and the machine may not be properly supported.

I found the best way to mark the pin positions was to use the pins on the original leaf as "stamps."  Apply a bit of paint to the tips of the pins on the original leaf, and line up the two leaves (the original and the quilting leaf) exactly.  Then stamp the paint onto the rail of the quilting leaf.  Do this for both sides of the quilting leaf.

Mark the exact centers of each stamped hole with a center punch.  It may help to use a machinists' square to get the hole centered on the rail.  With the hole positions punched, drill them all with a step-bit.  A step bit is less prone to wandering than a regular bit.  Drill the holes to the correct diameter for your table - in my case, 5/32".  Only drill through the outer edge of the rail with the step bit.

Now, with an ordinary drill bit, drill through the hole you just made through to the inside edge of the rail (the edge facing the wood).  Pay close attention to the angle at which you drill this hole - it should be perfectly perpendicular to the rail in all directions to ensure the alignment pins line up properly.  It's only necessary to do this on one side of the table; whichever end will eventually have pins inserted.  Deburr all of the holes.

The pins themselves may be steel or brass.  With a dremel, cut off as many pins as you need to fill the holes along one side of the table.  The pins should be at least as long as the width of the rail, plus about 3/8".  Deburr both ends, and add a bevel to one end of each pin.

Drop some glue into each hole, and drop in a pin.  You may use whatever glue will bond metal to metal.  I used JB Weld.

Step 11: Add the Cord Access Hole

A cord access hole is a great way to keep the power cord and foot pedal cords out of the way.  In the pictures I added the hole after the finish was applied, but it should really be done beforehand.

You can buy purpose-made cord access hole inserts, but they tend to be expensive for what they are.  I used an ABS plumbing fitting that I had lying around.  I think this one was a reduction coupling; 1.5" to 1.25" or something.  The only thing to check here is that the cord is able to pass through the hole.

With the appropriate size hole saw, cut a hole through the table surface close to the machine, at whatever end the cord plugs into the machine. 

Now, go and sand and paint the table leaf.

Once the paint or stain is dry, glue the plumbing fitting into place in the hole.  I used two-part epoxy for this.

Step 12: Finishing

The quilting table insert may now be sanded, stained, and coated with a few layers of polyurethane finish.

Start by sanding all of the flat surfaces by hand or with a palm sander.  All the surfaces must be very smooth, since you don't want anything to catch on the quilt fabric.  Sand the edges and hard-to-reach areas by hand with the appropriate grade of sandpaper.  When all the surfaces have been sanded, vacuum off any sawdust.  To ensure all the dust is gone, wipe down the surfaces with tack cloth as well.

I tried and failed to match the colour of the stain on the table.  Perhaps you'll have better luck!  There are dozens of shades of stain available at most home improvement stores.  If possible, bring the original leaf from your table and try to match the colour right in the store.  If an exact match is important to you, have lots of strap wood on hand to test the colour of the stain before it's applied to the workpiece.

I applied two coats of stain and three coats of high-gloss polyurethane finish to my leaf insert, using an ordinary bristle brush.  After the first and second coats of poly were dry, I used a "cabinet scraper" to scrape off any bumps and bits of dust that got caught in the finish.  I find a scraper does a better job than sandpaper, since it only removes the bumps and not the stain, too.

Once the polyurethane is fully dry (it may take several days at least!) the quilting table insert is ready to use!  Drop it in place into the table, and set the sewing machine into the box.  Run the power cords through the access hole.  Now go and quilt something epic!

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