Introduction: Parsons Table

About: The official instructable for Popular Mechanics magazine, reporting on the DIY world since 1902.

This table, designed in the '20s, is generally attributed to Jean-Michel Frank, a French designer and decorator associated with Parsons School of Design in New York City. But the Parsons table, as we call it today, has become an American classic not because of a cultured lineage, but simply because its timeless charm fits just about anywhere. It is, in fact, the essence of tableness--a distillation of primary components rendered in seamless flat planes, parallel lines and right angles. Our version is scaled to serve as a coffee table, but the simple construction details make it easy to build one of any size. To accentuate the geometric nature of the piece, we applied a paint finish that covers the woodgrain and joint lines.

Step 1: Materials

Parsons tables have square, parallel-sided legs that support a thick top. We created the illusion of a heavy top by setting its edges flush with the 3/4-in.-thick rails. Poplar is a good choice for the legs and rails because it's easy to work and takes paint well. Solid wood on the top, though, would create problems as it shrank and expanded with humidity changes, so we switched to stable medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

Because the table is painted, you could build it entirely of medium-density fiberboard (MDF), but you'd get a table that's twice as heavy as the poplar version. A lighter panel choice is plywood, but its edges are not as uniform as MDF and it requires more filing and sanding.

A table saw is the fastest and most accurate tool for ripping the leg and rail pieces, but a portable circular saw with an edge guide will work. A power miter saw is the tool of choice for the rail miters, and you'll use a router to trim the top flush to the rails.

Other Essentials:
Portable drill
Random-orbit sander
Try square

Hardware and Supplies
1 1/4-in. finishing nails
1 1/2-in. finshing nails
Wood glue
Wood filler
120- and 220-grit sandpaper

Step 2: Legs

The legs are laminated with glue and nails. Before applying glue to adjoining pieces, rip and crosscut 3/4 in. poplar to size. Stack them so they're aligned and drive a nail at each end so the points just poke through the top piece. Then, apply a light coat of glue, use the nail points to align the pieces and drive the nails. Add additional nails to bring each joint tight. After making a three-piece core for each leg, add the shorter leg-face pieces that create the notches for the rails. Use the same techniques to add the two shorter pieces to the outside edges of the leg blanks, taking care that the bottom end of each piece is held perfectly flush to the leg core.

Step 3: Rails and Base

Rip stock to 2 1/4 in. wide for the rails. Miter the ends at a 45 degree angle and be sure that opposite rails are exactly the same length. If you don't have power equipment for cutting accurate miters, you can do it by hand, or simply cut the pieces squarely to length and use butt joints. Glue and nail each short rail to two legs, and use a framing square to double-check that the legs are square to the rails. When the glue has set, add the long rails. Compare opposite diagonal measurements across the table base to make sure that the assembly is square. If necessary, tack a diagonal strip across the top to keep things in place while the glue sets.

Step 4: Table Top

For the table top, we used a 3/4-in thick MDF stock. This material has the advantage of having a smooth panel face and uniformly dense core that accepts paint well. Cut the top about 1/4 in. longer and wider than the table frame, and glue and nail it in place so there's a uniform overhang at the edges. Because MDF is so hard, you'll have to bore pilot holes for the nails. Then, use a flush-trimming bit to rout the top edges flush with the rails. When the glue has dried, set all the nails and fill the nail holes and any other surface imperfections with wood filler. Sand the table with 120- and 220-grit paper, then prime and paint the table. The edges of the MDF panel are more porous than either the face of the panel of the poplar stock, but the extra coat of primer should provide a good base for the finish coat of paint.

Step 5: Tip: Check Your Cuts

Before cutting miters with a table saw or radial-arm saw, first check for an accurate 45-degree cut. Make a test cut on a flat piece of scrap stock, then hold the two pieces together and check the angle with a square. And remember: If your stock isn't straight, your saw will never produce consistent joints.