Occasional Table Class (Hand Tool Build) #15: Designing a table.

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Blog entry by RGtools posted 10-27-2011 03:47 AM 10354 reads 1 time favorited 11 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 14: Mortise and Tenon Part 15 of Occasional Table Class (Hand Tool Build) series Part 16: Stock Prep Part One: Starting On The Base. »

Just a short entry today.

Since we are about ready to start with our build, I thinks it’s well past time I let you know something important about the class. There will not be a measured drawing coming from me. Building by hand is very different than working with machines and as a result our approach to design must be different as well. I would rather encourage you to get a table out of your head than to copy one from paper.

The goal of this class is to build an occasional table. An occasional table is just a name for a table that is an accessory to something else (usually a bed or a couch). The side table next to the couch and the coffee table in front of it would both qualify as an occasional(or accessory) table.

The whole idea is that the piece of furniture is usually designed with another piece of furniture in mind. A coffee table needs to at a good height to rest your feet (even if your wife says that’s not ok, it a comfortable height for your coffee to rest too). A side table for a couch should be comfortable to grasp for a book, drink, alarm clock or lamp. When you design around the human form and the other furniture in a room it’s hard to fail. Think about your needs, and fill one.

In my case I really need a simple desk.

You might think that’s pushing the occasional table theme a bit (it is), but my table is still an accessory to my computer chair as well as the armoire next to it. I prefer to design by feel more than numbers, a brief rough sketch, and a written outline of the requirements of the piece and I am on well on my way. I am not saying you can’t draw a scale drawing or even a full scale one, if it helps you, do it. It just works better for me if I get a general idea and build on it piece by piece.

As you can see the table is very simple, a top, 4 legs joined by 4 stretchers (or rails).

When figuring out the dimensions of a project I prefer to use a story stick to capture anything critical. Just take a straight board (do I hear another excuse for planing practice) that is a bit longer than your project will be and take it to the area that you intend your furniture to go. Mark one end of the board as your reference end and make sure all your marks come from that end (this avoids mistakes when transferring these measurements later on). Any marks I make are in the corner of the stick with a knife.

Here I figure out the length of the table by going from the side of the armoire (minus an inch or so) to the edge of the current desk. I like the depth of the current desk so I copy that to the story stick as well. The height is usually the most important part of the table. I need it to be low enough to work a keyboard but still have room for my legs to go.

Sitting in my chair with my legs crossed I tick these marks off (my current desk is a bit high so I lower it a touch) and these distances give me the maximum “thickness” of the combined rail and top. The rest can be figured out in the shop.

For aesthetics the legs of the table should be inset a bit from the top (about 3” for my table, I might draw one side of the table full size to get this right), I will use dividers on my story stick to locate this setback. Take care to label the marks on your story stick carefully as you would not want to mistake what measurement is what. Next I will give the legs some thickness. I will be working with 8/4 stock for the legs so I go with a leg thickness that will work well for this…depending on the size of your table you may want to use 6/4 stock (the rest of the table can be made with 4/4 stock). I would not recommend laminating thinner stock for the legs since it tedious work by hand for a visually inferior product. Mark the thickness of the legs on the story stick in their locations from the set back. If you subtract 3/8-1/4 of an inch (use dividers not math) from both outside edges of the leg you should get the length of your long rails with the length of the joinery (the tenors) included. The short rails and setbacks can be figured in a similar way but should not be too large as making the table too narrow will make it unstable. You can then measure your story stick to obtain a cutting list for your parts (I only do this if I have to buy wood for a project so I know how much I am going to spend).

I strongly feel that you should design furniture with a certain sense of permanence. Part of making sound furniture is making it visually appealing enough to be kept around through the ages. Combine that with bombproof joinery and you really have got something. Make your legs from thick parts, and wide parts for the top, this speeds up construction and looks better. I usually try to have enough wood on hand that I can start a project without having to go to the lumberyard. This approach does not work for everyone (or even me all the time), so I think it’s prudent to cover how to buy enough wood for an order.

To figure out the board feet you need for a project in take your components and use this formula, the inputs are thickness, width and length in inches: (TxWxL)/144 then add about 20 percent for waste. Seem complicated? Try rounding up to the nearest foot for the length and skip the division step, this is not as exact but a heck of a lot easier to do in your head at the lumberyard.

Now start drawing, and start figuring out your table. We are going to build it soon.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

11 comments so far

View Brit's profile


8334 posts in 4005 days

#1 posted 10-27-2011 06:28 AM

Great post Ryan and just what I needed before getting ready to go to work. Story sticks are great, although I have to admit that my main reason for using them is because I don’t trust myself with a tape measure (if I can find it ).

-- Andy - Old Chinese proverb says: "If you think something can't be done, don't interrupt man who is doing it."

View Don W's profile

Don W

20121 posts in 3729 days

#2 posted 10-27-2011 01:03 PM

Coming from a carpentry background, I tend to use a tape measure more often. I will often draw out the design with incremental measurements, so if a shelf is 7” from the bottom, the first measurement will be 6 1/4, then 7 etc. That way you will loose the “creep” from measuring individual sections. (yes a story pole may be better, but we learn how we learn)

I always try to buy to much lumber as well. Its wood, it NEVER goes to waste and there is nothing worse than wanting to finish a project and being a 1/2 board short.

Once again, great post.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View RGtools's profile


3372 posts in 3816 days

#3 posted 10-27-2011 03:02 PM

Don, I still use a tape measure when I am in carpentry mode, but it does not see use in my shop during a furniture build…more or less of the same reason Andy said. I just hate dealing with the numbers. On my last project (which one day I will post here) I recorded a certain measurement as from the “tip of my finger to that mole”, you use whatever method works and stick with it.

I can attest to how much it stinks to have that 1/2 board missing from your shop. It’s worse when you think you have enough wood but some massive checks screw up your day)

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View Mauricio's profile


7166 posts in 4313 days

#4 posted 10-27-2011 04:51 PM

Great post, I’ll try the story stick next time, I hate the numbers to and this seems more enjoyable.

-- Mauricio - Woodstock, GA - "Confusion is the Womb of Learning, with utter conviction being it's Tomb" Prof. T.O. Nitsch

View Chips's profile


199 posts in 4874 days

#5 posted 10-28-2011 03:07 AM

I think you changed the way I work. Thanks

-- Make every day the best day of your life. Chips, Mississippi

View RGtools's profile


3372 posts in 3816 days

#6 posted 10-28-2011 03:24 AM

Thanks guys, that made me smile. I forgot to mention as a convenience you can make different story sticks for vertical, horizontal and depth measurements. This is really a boon on more complex projects. For this one I might just recommend doing your measurements for the vertical, and long horizontal on one side of the stick and then doing the short horizontal later (that way you don’t trip yourself up on the leg positions since the setback is different but the width of the leg with be the same)

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View Don W's profile

Don W

20121 posts in 3729 days

#7 posted 10-28-2011 01:42 PM

Story sticks are also great if you are making multiple copies of the same piece. ex: two bedside stands, 4 chairs, etc.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View mainwoodworks's profile


112 posts in 3810 days

#8 posted 11-23-2011 05:40 PM

Don’t forget the golden dimension. Length is approximately 1.618 X Width. This is the most pleasing proportion.
It does not have to be exact but the closer the better. As far as buying lumber I also multiply the board feet by from 1.1 to 1.3 times what is needed from the drawing. The exact figure is dependent on the type of lumber I am buying. If there are a lot of knots or blemishes in the lumber use the higher figure, if it is clear use the lower figure.

-- Measure twice, cut once, and hope for the best.

View RGtools's profile


3372 posts in 3816 days

#9 posted 11-23-2011 06:00 PM

Great tips Mainwoodworks.

As far as the golden dimension is concerned when designing by eye you will most likely find the dimension in your projects without having to do the math. If it looks good it is good, but knowing the math behind the visual qualities you are working with can serve to enhance your understanding of design.

I tend to add more waste than that (between 1.3 and 1.8) but that is based on working with reclaimed stock and being very persnickety when it comes to getting grain I want out of boards.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

View a1Jim's profile


118163 posts in 4739 days

#10 posted 11-23-2011 06:14 PM

I agree with the concept of using story poles .A book by Jim Tolpin I read years ago was where I learned how valuable story poles can be. It really helps to prevent transposing numbers or other mistakes like forgetting about the inch you burned on your measuring tape. I also design by eye ,it may turn out or may not to be the same as the golden mean but if it looks good an is functional it is good.


View RGtools's profile


3372 posts in 3816 days

#11 posted 11-23-2011 06:18 PM

Well put Jim.

I have burned enough inches to have made the switch.

-- Make furniture that lasts as long as the tree - Ryan

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