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1950s Nesting Tables



PLEASE NOTE: There is a SECOND video at the bottom of this article!

My parents were married in 1955 and shortly after that my dad built this small table. He took a woodworking night class and this was one of the main projects. It was my dad's nightstand for as long as I can remember. We lost my dad a few years ago, and now recently my mum moved out of their house into a small apartment. As part of her downsizing efforts, I asked for this table as a memory of dad. I also knew that I wanted to build something inspired by this 65 year old table.

It is a small table, about 14" tall, 13" wide and 24" long. It has a flip-top with a storage compartment inside. There are dowels in the two end leg assemblies. These legs are tapered out the outside, coming to a narrower base. The lid is chamfered front and back, and the two handles(?) on the ends are heavily tapered, coming from about 3/4" thickness down to 1/4" at the ends. It appears to be made of pine, stained a dark reddish brown.

As I look at it, I can really see how this would be a woodworking class project, since it uses so many different types of woodworking: dowels, mortise and tenon, hinges, tapering, rabbets, and so on.

After some reflection, I hit on the idea of making a larger version of the small table, and thereby make the two of them into a set of nesting tables. The larger one would be sized to be a typical end-table/side-table that you might have in your living room, and the smaller one could be tucked under and pulled out as needed.

The first thing I did was take detailed measurements of the original table, and then reproduce it in Sketchup. I then worked around it to design my own larger version. I would make mine of cherry, using a thick cherry slab that I had been saving for a while as the table top. I would keep the dowel feature, but also have the table legs extend below the side dowel assembly. The legs would also still taper. One feature I dropped was the lidded compartment. I don't really care for flip-top furniture as I don't find it that useful, since you have to take everything off to access the storage compartment. This would also simplify my build.

I built the two leg assemblies first. I started by dimensioning lumber for the legs and crosspieces. But then I needed to make some 1/2" dowels. You can buy maple and pine dowels at the local big box stores, but finding dowels in other wood species is not common. I don't have a lathe, so I settled on using the router table to shape my dowels. I first cut some 1/2"x1/2" cherry and then put a 1/4" roundover bit into my router table. By running the stock through the bit four times, rotating 90-degrees each time, the result would be a pretty decent 1/2" diameter dowel.

If you just run the wood through the router, then after a while you would not have any flat wood left to bear on the fence. Instead I used plunge cuts. I would plunge piece onto the router bit about 1-1/2" past the end of the stick, run it through the router bit, and then pull it off about 1-1/2" before the end of the stick. The tape shown on the fence marks where I plunge in and pull out -- in the photo I am at the end and about to pull off the stock. (This is probably illustrated much better in the accompanying youtubve video linked above)

In all there were 8 cutting operations per dowel. The first four cuts would each take off 1/4" of the circle. I then ran each quadrant through a second time for a cleanup pass. The results were not 100% perfect, but pretty good, and more importantly they looked 100% good.

I still needed to spin the dowels on the sander to finessed each end to be able to fit into the mounting holes that were drilled for them.

The dowels fit into holes in the top and bottom rails of the side leg assemblies. I drilled 1/2" diameter holes into these rails to receive the dowels. The holes were each drilled 1/8" deeper than needed, to give wiggle room and room for glue.

The dowels need to be glued into the top/bottom rails before the rails are attached to the legs. This means I needed to find a way to make sure this center second remained perfectly squared while the dowels wer being glued.

I built this flat jig to help with the glue-up. It had a flat back, and two top and bottom lips that were parallel to eash other, and also perpendicular to the side. The dowels were first glued into their holes, then the assembly was laid on the jig. Here I am clamping the jig to the top lip. It was then also clamped to the bottom and to the sides. This held the top and bottom rail perfectly parallel to each other.

After it dries I could then glue the legs into place.

I also used dowels for assembling the piece, so I the legs are attached to the top/bottom rails with dowels. I then also drilled dowels into the face of the leg assembly, and matching dowels into the ends of the long front/back rails.

Recall that the side leg assemblies are tapered inward. The taper is one of the last things that is cut, as the legs need to be square up until this point to help with the build. Now that the leg assemblies have been constructed, AND the joinery to attach the leg assemblies to the front/back rails has all beein cut, I can finally cut the tapers on the legs.

I used the bandsaw to cut close to the line, and then finished it up by sanding it on my stationary belt sander. You could also cut it carefully with a jig saw and then use a hand-held sander to clean up the cut.

The leg assemblies were then glued to the front and back rails. With that, the lower structure of this table is complete.

I had a fairly large and thick slab of cherry that I wanted to use for the top. However, after dressing the lumber it was a bit narrower than I would prefer. I really like putting contrasting woods together, and I have frequently paired the pale white of maple with the rich dark red of cherry. At least, it WILL BECOME a rich dark red with time and UV exposure.

So I decided to add a stripe of hard maple down the center of my top. This gave me the full 16" width that I wanted, but it also makes the styling even more personal.

Here the table top has been cut to length and now is clamped in a sliding jig to cut the tapers on each end of the underside of the table top. I already had this jig, which I had used previously to cut raised panels for doors some years ago. The jig did not have the right angle that I needed for this cut. Rather than modify the jig, or make a new jig, I securely clamped the table top in place and then tilted the saw blade until I had the cut angle that I wanted.

This is a tricky operation. I had the top securely clamped. I made several dry-run passes with the saw turned off and the blade retracted, to make sure that the jig slid well. I also made some test cuts in some scrap. And finally I made a series of four cuts, to lighten the load on the saw.

For the first pass, the blade was raised about 1/4" in height. It was mostly a scoring cut, and a very light first cut to get a feel for how the jig would work. In this photo I am starting th second cut, where the blade is now extended up about half-way of the final height.

There was then a third cut with the blade extended full height. After that, the fence was unlocked and nudged over a tiny amount and a final clean-up cutting pass was made -- which is shown in this photo. Cherry tends to burn very easily, And such a deep cut as this only exacerbates that tendency

Here is the result after the final cut. All the preparation paid off and the cutting operation went off smoothly, with great results.

I was somewhat constrained by the piece of cherry slab that I had on hand to use as a top. If possible, I would have made the top a bit longer (perhaps 1 inch at either end?), so that I could have the taper extend even further than I did, and bring it down closer to 1/4” thickness at the ends. (Similar to the smaller table).

I then sanded off the saw marks, and then sanded the entire piece from 100-150-220 grit in sequence. Note that I had already sanded the inside faces of the leg pieces before they were assembled, as well as the dowels. I applied three coats of Minwax Oil-Modified Water-based polyurethane to the body of the table, and four coats to the top

I attached the base to the top using Table Mounting Clips. These fit into small slots cut into the inside face of the rails. I used a biscuit cutter to make these slots. You could also make those slots on the table saw by making a dado cut -- just the width of one saw kerf. I often do that, but you do have to remember to cut the kerf before you assembly the leg assemblies and the rest of the table structurer.... and I didn't remember. Luckily in woodworking there is usually more than one way to accomplish the same thing.

Here are some more photos of my table as well as my dad's table.

Note that these photos show the table when it is brand new. I am counting on the Cherry darkening with time and UV exposure to a much richer reddish brown.


Some of the Tools/Supplies Used In This Project: (Affiliate Links)

VIDEO #2 Seven months later I decided that the maple strip was just not working for us, and set about replacing it, and ran into a few issues. Those are detailed in this follow-up video.


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See Also:

Small Oak Bookcase

Exotic Red Nightstand

Tall Mission Dresser