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Shaker Table


Shaker Table

A perfect blend of classic lines and modern joinery.

By Tom Caspar

When I first saw a drawing of this table 20 years ago in a book by Thomas Moser, I knew I had to make it (see Sources, below). It perfectly captures the essence of classic Shaker design. Taut, lean and elegant, Moser’s reproduction has become an American icon.

Here’s an up-to-date version that retains the Shaker spirit. They used mortise-andtenon joinery, but I’ve substituted biscuits. For this table, the biscuits are just as strong and can be made much faster. The Shakers planed their wood by hand. For my version, you can machine all the parts and then give them a few licks with a hand plane. The Shakers also hand-dovetailed their drawers. You can make machine-cut dovetails if you wish, but I prefer the look of handmade joints. Don’t be intimidated by handmade dovetails, though. I’ve worked out a new dovetailing system that puts a handmade drawer within reach of anybody, including a first-time woodworker, who has a sharp chisel. (See "Precise Hand-Cut Dovetails".)

If you’ve never planed wood or cut dovetails by hand before, this project is a great way to get started. I built this table in walnut, a wood that is easy to work with hand tools. Cherry, mahogany, red oak or other woods of equal density would also be good choices. The pieces are small and easy to handle. I used a No. 4 smooth plane, a No. 5 jack plane and a No. 6 fore plane, but all three aren’t necessary. A single No. 4 or No. 5 is OK.

Make the legs and rails

1. Select straight-grained wood for the legs (B, Figure A, below). Mill the wood into square blanks (see Cutting List, below). Lay out the tapers and cut them on the bandsaw. (See "Bandsawn Tapered Legs".) Note that the legs only taper on the two inside faces. Joint or hand-plane the sawn surfaces.

2. Mill the side rails (C), back rail (D) and front rails (E). Cut all these pieces the same length. Mark reference lines for biscuit slots in the legs and rails (Fig. B, below). Note that the front legs only have one set of slots.

3. Cut No. 20 biscuit slots in the legs and rails with their face sides down. Use the bottom of the plate joiner, not the fence, as a reference surface. Place a 1/8-in. piece of hardboard under the plate joiner when you cut leg slots (Photo 1). This automatically creates an 1/8-in. offset between the legs and rails.

4. Plane or sand the outside faces of all the rails (Photo 2). Sand with 180- or 220-grit paper to remove any small ridges left by the plane iron. Plane the outside faces of the legs.

Build the case

5. Glue the side legs and rails together. Be careful to align the top of the legs with the top of the rails. Make sure the legs are square to the rails. Check this is with a straightedge placed across both legs. The leg’s faces must be in the same plane.

6. Make the top and bottom spacers (F, G). Glue them to the sides. Plane them exactly even with the legs (Photo 3).

7. Mark biscuit centerlines on the front rails (Fig. C). Mark corresponding centerlines on the sides. Note that the front rails are set back 1/8 in., like the side rails. Mark the top face of the upper front rail and the bottom face of the lower front rail. Cut biscuit slots in the rails, referencing from the bottom of the plate joiner, with the marked faces down.

8. Stand each side assembly upside down and cut biscuit slots for the top front rail. Cut slots for the bottom front rail (Photo 4).

9. Plane and sand the front edges of the front rails.

10. Glue the case together. Check the 1/8-in. setback of the front rails with a combination square, or temporarily tape a piece of 1/8-in. hardboard to the front of each rail. The setback is correct when the hardboard is flush to the legs.

11. Mill the kickers (H) and drawer supports (J). The kickers prevent the drawer from tipping when opened. Glue these parts to the case (Photo 5).

Build the drawer

12. Mill the drawer front (L). Crosscut it to exactly fit the opening from end to end. For successful dovetailing, all the drawer parts must be perfectly flat and straight. Machine these parts 1/8 in. larger than final thickness and let them sit for a few days, in case they bend or twist. Then rejoint the face sides and take the pieces down to their final thickness. Mill the drawer sides (M) and back (N). Rip the front, sides and back 1/32-in. narrower than the drawer opening. For now, cut the back to the same width and length as the sides.

13. Dovetail the sides to the front (Fig. E). Cut a groove in the front for the drawer bottom (Fig. D). Cut dados across the sides to receive the back. Assemble the sides and front without glue; then measure, crosscut and rip the back to fit. Cut rabbets in the back to fit the sides’ dados. Drill the drawer front for the knob’s tenon and screw (see Sources, below).

14. Glue the drawer. Strengthen the rear joints with glue blocks (S).

15. Install the drawer slips (P) (Photo 6; Fig. D, Det. 1). Make them from a wide blank (see Cutting List). Groove the sides of the blank for the drawer bottom. In addition, cut a groove of the same width in a scrap of wood to use as a test piece for fitting the drawer bottom. Plane a chamfer above each groove. Rip the slips from the blank. Notch the back of each slip to fit under the drawer’s back; then glue the slips to the drawer.

16. Glue up the drawer bottom (Q) and cut it to fit. Use a hand plane to chamfer the underside to fit the drawer’s grooves. As you’re planing, test the chamfer’s fit in the extra grooved piece. Stop planing when the bottom slides freely. Slide the bottom into the drawer and fasten it to the back.

17. Plane or sand the sides flush with the drawer’s front. Install the knob (R) and test-fit the drawer in the case. It should be tight from side to side. Plane the sides so the drawer’s rear fits loosely in the opening (Photo 7). Continue planing until the drawer’s front is only a paper thickness narrower from side to side than the opening. Glue stops (K) to the back rail so the drawer front is flush with the rails.

Make the top

18. Glue up the top (A) and cut it to final size. Mark the bevels under the top (Fig. A) and use a hand plane or tablesaw to trim to the lines (Photo 8).

19. Cut slots in the kickers and back rail for tabletop fasteners (Fig. A) using a plate joiner. Clamp the base to the top and drill angled holes in the top front rail (Photo 9).

Apply a finish

20. Remove the top from the case and the bottom and knob from the drawer. Finish the top, the case and the drawer separately. On the drawer, only the front needs finish.

21. Assemble the table. Rub a few strokes of paraffin wax on the drawer sides to make the drawer slide easily.


Cambium Books,, Thos. Moser’s Measured Shop Drawings for American Furniture, Thos. Moser, 2001, $22.95.

Smith Woodworks & Design,, 908-832-2723, Walnut knob, 7/8" dia., #TK78, $1.27 each.

Project Requirements at a Glance

Cutting List

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker January 2006, issue #119.

January 2006, issue #119

Purchase this back issue.

Click on any of the images to view a larger version

1. All the joints in this table are made with biscuits. They’re plenty strong for this job and can be made very fast. Cut the joints while each piece is still perfectly flat and square.

2. Plane or sand the side rails to remove machining marks. Planing is quicker, quieter and a lot more fun than sanding. This small project, though primarily built with power tools, is a good opportunity to put your planes to work.

3. Plane two strips flush with the legs. They’re glued to the completed side assembly. These strips provide level surfaces for the front rails’ biscuit joints. Planing these pieces by hand is more precise than milling them with a planer.

4. Cut a biscuit slot to receive the lower front rail. Clamp a notched board under the side rail for support. This rig guarantees that the slot is square to the leg and the same height as the corresponding slot in the lower front rail.

5. Glue drawer supports to the sides. Both supports have to be parallel so the drawer doesn’t rock. Clamp a board to the front rail to make sure both supports are in the same plane.

6. Add slips to widen and strengthen the drawer sides. The drawer sides are basswood, a soft wood that’s easy to cut and pare for dovetailing. The slips, made from a hard wood, prevent the soft sides from wearing prematurely.

7. Plane the drawer to perfectly fit the case. The drawer should be about 1/32 in. narrower across the back than across the front, to make it easier to slide. Support the drawer with a board and a spacer.

8. Bevel the top’s underside by hand or on the tablesaw. Planing goes quickly—about as fast as setting up a tablesaw—if you use a slightly curved iron set for a heavy cut. With a plane, you’ll have no saw marks to remove.

9. Attach the top with angled screws. Drill the pilot holes with an extender and a bit with a built-in countersink (see inset photo). Use the plate joiner to cut slots inside the table for tabletop fasteners. The fasteners allow the top to shrink and swell without cracking.

Fig. A: Exploded View

Fig. B: Side Rail Assembly

Fig. C: Front Rail Assembly

Fig. D: Drawer Exploded View

Fig. E: Dovetail Layout

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