Shaker Tables experiment

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Project by awlee posted 08-25-2016 01:57 PM 1109 views 7 times favorited 7 comments Add to Favorites Watch

My daughter asked me to build her a small table to fit in her dorm room and to make it “simple” but “nice.” “Now that’s a charge!” I thought, and got to work on a Shaker table. The “simple” part was easy, but the “nice” part was a problem. What makes one Shaker table nicer than another? Why do some tables appeal to my eye more than others?

I took my daughter’s charge as an opportunity to make several tables and to experiment with different combinations of woods, finishes, angles, and proportions to try to figure out why one might seem more interesting than others. The only proviso was that I had to use wood that I had on hand. Here’s what happened:

Picture #2 shows some of the stock. It was a gnarly, knotted, warped, and crooked mess, a combination of cherry, maple, mahogany, black walnut, and ambrosia maple boards and scraps. This meant that I had to make compromises from the beginning, as I had to limit the size of table tops and the height of legs and to limit how many different woods I could combine and where they would appear. But no matter, says I, let the experiment begin!

Picture #3 shows some of the choices. I reserved the maple, black walnut, and ambrosia maple for the table tops, and then the cherry, mahogany, and maple for the aprons and legs. I could alternate dark and light woods on each table, to see which combination might have a more pleasing effect. Would a dark top and light bottom make the table seem heavier? What is the effect of having different woods for the aprons and legs? I’d wanted to bookmatch the wood for the tabletops to create nice figures but, alas, could do that for some tables but not others. But this gave me an opportunity to think about different thicknesses for a table top and how that might be an important variable in the overall look.

Picture #4 shows the glue up of the legs and aprons. The joinery was mortise and tenon. More choices: how wide for the aprons? How much taper in the legs and where to begin the taper? How tall in proportion to the size of the table top?

Picture #5 shows two of the tables side-by-side, one finished, the other still bare, one with a larger top and sharper taper, the other smaller but slightly taller, with a thicker table top and less overhang. I experimented with different finishes: danish oil, wipe on poly, and General Finishes Arm-R-Seal oil and varnish.

Picture #6 shows the four tables I could make from the stock. I learned a lot, about how small differences in taper angles could have big effects, about how even a 1/4” difference in an overhang creates a different kind of profile and shadow line. I have a renewed appreciation for a well-designed Shaker table. For me, the “nicest” table is the one on the far left: taller, a bit more elegant with slightly more dramatic tapered legs, “lighter,” with a finish (General Finishes Arm-R-Seal) that didn’t create too much of the yellowing effect of some oils. My daughter chose what I had thought was the least appealing, the one with the walnut top. Hmm . . .

7 comments so far

View MilFlyer's profile


939 posts in 1845 days

#1 posted 08-25-2016 04:30 PM

Wow! You really took this project and ran with it! I’m saving this for future reference! I gotta tell you I love that first pic. I love the dark legs and the character in the table top. Fantastic work and I’m sure she’ll appreciate it!

-- VR, Richard "Fear is nothing more than a feeling. You feel hot. You feel hungry. You feel angry. You feel afraid. Fear can never kill you"--Remo Williams

View FLBert's profile


70 posts in 911 days

#2 posted 08-25-2016 05:53 PM

Great job! Love the way small differences mean a lot to the total project. I’m with you on choosing the one on the left. Never cared much for legs that were “too skinny” (beauty’s in the eyes of the beholder for sure) so the more dramatic taper gives it a little more weight without being bulky. The ambrosia top is also killer. Love that look. I also love mixing wood types when it makes sense so seeing the different combinations is great. I like the third one as well (with the dark legs with the ambrosia top) but the legs on the first on won me over.

I’m sure she’ll treasure it.

-- Bert, Lake City, FL

View cajfiddle's profile


24 posts in 1064 days

#3 posted 08-25-2016 07:03 PM

I love it! Especially love, and chuckled, at the fact that she asked you for one table and you ended up running with it and making four.

View JPJ's profile


819 posts in 2793 days

#4 posted 08-27-2016 01:40 AM

Nice job!

View WKrauthIV's profile


1 post in 811 days

#5 posted 08-28-2016 01:19 AM

Your Project made me finally make an account rather than just stalk the pages. Love this project. Beautiful work. curious what you thought about applying the different finishes?

View Tyler26's profile


13 posts in 813 days

#6 posted 08-28-2016 03:37 PM

This shaker table is a great peace of work I enjoy making tables. The wood grain is great as well.

View awlee's profile


23 posts in 2495 days

#7 posted 09-10-2016 02:13 PM

Thanks for all the comments. Cajfiddle, I completely understand your chuckling. When my wife saw the tables, she rolled her eyes and asked if I’d remembered that our daughter had asked for ONE table. And WKrauthIV, about the finishes, I wish I had a more scientific answer. I chose the finishes mostly because that’s what I had on hand. The easiest to apply is the Danish Oil; it’s mostly idiot-proof but also yellows the most. I very much like the General Finishes Arm-R-Seal because it tints the wood the least, but I’ve found that it can be finicky to apply. Unless you’re very careful with the brushstrokes or foam strokes, you can get streaks and some raised edges on the finish. Using a cotton cloth seems best but also not a guarantee of avoiding streaks.

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