Restoration Four 100+ Year Old Oak Refectory Tables

  • Advertise with us
Project by Eric M. Saperstein posted 09-15-2012 04:18 AM 3165 views 1 time favorited 14 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Four oak refectory tables out of Princeton University’s historic eating clubs … all having seen what’s that equal four generations of use in a college world? Tables are around 48”x120” and 54”x144”

EVERY joint was simply done, over, broken, snapped, split, separated, sorta kinda maybe glued back together, reinforced with 15 finishing nails, a couple oddly placed screws, and lots of L brackets. The pile of nails and thumb tacks and staples holding on the old table clothes was at least 5lbs per table.

So two of them are now fully restored (first two photos and the last photo) and we’re working on the second set. A cool photo shoot is probably pending when we get the whole project done and perhaps properly reinitialize them into duty by inspiring a good old fashion party.

Every leg was split on every joint – reassembled and we inserted a new piece in to fill the hollow core. They are now fully solid legs. The reglued legs were obviously warped, twisted, and slightly off on alignment. That meant putting 24 heavy, dry, out of balance legs back onto the lathe and spinning these suckers. The game of trying not to get hit w/ a flying chunk or kicking a 500lb lathe into a dance trying to get everything balanced was fun.

We had to keep a careful pressure (or lack of) on the tools and sharpen them constantly. The idea was to clean the legs up but not totally round them again. We also had to plain down the faces to realign them and semi resquare them. The art of this whole thing is to actually NOT totally square the whole piece up. The frames are slightly off, we didn’t want a NEW table we wanted it to look like it was there 100 years and very well maintained.

Turning old oak generates splinters, not shavings. Constantly having to sharpen tools, and we once again I think got the award from Forrest for sending them some seriously damaged and dull blades. Several chipped teeth on the hidden nails and general grime and dirt took out so far two table saw blades and two radial arm blades and a chop saw blade.

A new Lee Valley router bit matched the original edge perfectly – and that huge bit was a good excuse to buy ourselves another router. This time a Dewalt 3hp variable speed w/ soft start – a MUST for running oversize bits by hand.

Rebuilding and reassembling every section fixing all the blown out joints. We added a center truss system with four vertical posts and a new top beam out of old reclaimed barn wood. Got the match of patina perfect! We also added corner blocks on every inside corner on the top sections to reinforce the tables. There is now absolutely NO movement in the frames!

Three of the four tops were split entirely, repaired and laminated to 3/4” plywood for strength. We had to run them through our planer to take out a significant cup. One of the tables was solid 6/4” oak – and it remained stable so we left it be!

Stain was Minwax Dark Walnut – oil is the only way to go with this dry of wood, two coats of stain soaked in nicely. The finish of choice here remains Waterlox, but this time we soaked in marine sealer and went with the marine high gloss. There are at least 5-6 coats of sealer and 3-4 coats of gloss on each table. It’s flexible and durable – if it will survive a boat deck at sea it will survive university life! Renewable finishes are the best choice when abuse is a definite; we can come back every summer and sand them down lightly and put a fresh coat on if need be.

Net result – well worth the effort. These will last another 100 years!

AND – we’ll have some cool pens to show from this too. We saved all the scrap wood, the tables were actually 31” originally and now dropped down to 30” we have 24 7/8” cross cuts and a bunch of misc pieces to turn into pens and other fund raiser collectable objects.

-- Eric M. Saperstein, Master Craftsman

14 comments so far

View hunter71's profile


3255 posts in 3336 days

#1 posted 09-15-2012 10:04 AM

Great project that should be around for many hundreds of years to come.

-- A childs smile is payment enough.

View AngieO's profile


1267 posts in 2296 days

#2 posted 09-15-2012 01:24 PM


View GrandpaLen's profile


1651 posts in 2421 days

#3 posted 09-15-2012 03:23 PM


What a Major undertaking and with amazing results.

Well done. – Len

-- Mother Nature should be proud of what you've done with her tree. - Len ...just north of a stone's throw from the oHIo, river that is, in So. Indiana.

View jeepturner's profile


939 posts in 2941 days

#4 posted 09-15-2012 03:53 PM

Nice project.

-- Mel,

View DocSavage45's profile


8703 posts in 2992 days

#5 posted 09-15-2012 04:09 PM

Thanks for sharing the ride with the 800 pound gorilla…LOL! Old and New together…wabi-sabi.

As usual very nice work! And functional. :-)

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View davidroberts's profile


1027 posts in 3635 days

#6 posted 09-15-2012 06:15 PM

Refinishing project of a life time? Maybe not. No telling what projects Princeton has in store for you, now that they have seen your work. Thanks so much for sharing.

-- Better woodworking through old hand tools.

View StephenSchaad's profile


201 posts in 2327 days

#7 posted 09-15-2012 07:18 PM

Wow! Those are awesome and the fact that your refinishing work will be seen and used by thousands is pretty cool too!

View Chris McDowell's profile

Chris McDowell

644 posts in 2302 days

#8 posted 09-16-2012 02:09 AM

Wow, impressive.

-- Chris, , FACEBOOK: , Proverbs 16:9

#9 posted 09-16-2012 05:17 AM

View Eric M. Saperstein's profile

Eric M. Saperstein

766 posts in 3397 days

#10 posted 09-16-2012 05:51 AM

These are the great restoration projects – they come in obviously and without any doubt a falling part pile of wood barely holding together. We cut zip ties on the legs and they completely broke apart. A few taps with a splitting knife and some chisels and everything just came right apart.

We cleaned up all the surfaces on the jointer – MOST cleaned up pretty well with one or two passes at 1/32nd or less of slice off. I love how you somehow can find things like gum INSIDE the legs!

Today I was splitting beams, along some stubborn and already cracking lines. best to break apart everything in every way you can see it may break now before we even think of reassembling the piece.

There were a lot of chunks out of the tabletop – we fixed those today. We also cut the strips off around the table edges today. Tomorrow all the planks go through the plainer and we prep to reassemble.

We’ll be laminating 3/4” solid wood around the perimeter, and plywood in the center. It’ll create a great stable tabletop with solid wood appearance on all edges.

These are heavy – the big pain is moving the tops around when we’re often short of help. The rest isn’t so bad just time consuming.

I most enjoyed the first of the deliveries when the alumni sponsoring the project got to see the first results. Tables from his time as a student now restored brought him great joy and memories of his youth. I’m glad he is an architect and understood our plans for structure improvements.

Also – it was fun when the clients cringed as we took the first tables out effectively smashing them apart to get them into the trailer. Everyone was kinda looking weird going wow I guess we don’t know what really will happen to these. We just laugh – and enforce that!

We must destroy before we can rebuild. If a joint is gonna fail, lets make it fail NOW on our terms. We can replace parts and pieces and save as much as possible. Sometimes a larger piece is cut down to be a smaller one and so on until we replace minimal with new wood.

Fortunately we have the NJ Barn Company nearby to work with us on supplies for reclaimed oak. I have some ideas in mind for more projects with reclaimed beams. The green factor of reusing and re-purposing wood, the patina is amazing, just great old lumber. We’re looking forward to working with them quite a bit in the future!

That’s your comments!

-- Eric M. Saperstein, Master Craftsman

View DocSavage45's profile


8703 posts in 2992 days

#11 posted 09-16-2012 06:15 PM


Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw? Sometimes it’s because of who we are/ Sometimes it’s both? LOL! Thanks for the build story to go with the pictures.

I wanted to build big nice pieces…LOL didn’t realize how damned heavy all that hardwood can be when put together. LOL! Gettin older and more woosie! LOL!

-- Cau Haus Designs, Thomas J. Tieffenbacher

View Sodabowski's profile


2375 posts in 2982 days

#12 posted 09-16-2012 09:32 PM

Mighty impressive work. Thanks for sharing the detailed story and all the pictures :)

-- Thomas - Pondering the inclusion of woodworking into physics and chemistry classes...

View BlueStingrayBoots's profile


856 posts in 4151 days

#13 posted 09-17-2012 04:06 PM

Fantastic job you did there! Hopefully 100 or more years from now, it will fall in the hands of another talented crafter for restoration again. A piece like that can only take so much metal bandages.

View Eric M. Saperstein's profile

Eric M. Saperstein

766 posts in 3397 days

#14 posted 04-08-2013 11:53 PM

He he he he … yeah given we kinda have a think for polyurethane construction adheasive when we handle projects like this I feel sorry for anyone who EVER has to get these apart again!

We did put corner braces on EVER corner at the bottom – two little L braces on every joint. The upper section obviously has 45 degree fit in braces in wood on EVERY corner … unlikely it’ll ever come apart!

-- Eric M. Saperstein, Master Craftsman

Have your say...

You must be signed in to post the comments.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics