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The Unsinkable Molly Brown's Parlor Table


The Unsinkable Molly Brown's Parlor Table

This little charmer folds flat, then sets up in seconds.

By Tim Johnson

This table is an accurate reproduction of one purchased by Molly Brown and her husband in the late 1880s, when they were starting their family in the rough mining town of Leadville, Colorado. It easily disassembles for transport so it could lend instant civility to a new home in unfamiliar surroundings. Simply but ingeniously built, it bears all the hope and exuberance of a young America during its age of westward expansion.

Apparently the Browns liked this table. They kept it with them even after they struck it rich, and moved from Leadville to a large house in Denver’s most prestigious neighborhood. It still resides there, in what is now the Molly Brown House Museum.

Rigid and durable, this table is built with the simplest joinery. You’ll only need about 15 bd. ft. of 3⁄4" thick walnut, and you can build it in a weekend using your tablesaw, bandsaw, router and drill.


Making the legs

Look for boards without sapwood that are 8-1/2" wide, otherwise you’ll have to glue pieces together. You can saw the legs individually, but it’s better to saw all of them at once. Stack the four leg blanks together, using pieces of double-stick tape (Photo 1). Keep the edges aligned. Then affix a full-size paper pattern on one side (Photo 2) and saw out the legs (Fig. B and Photo 3).

Sawing the ganged-together leg blank on the bandsaw is a simple combination of curved cuts, access cuts and relief cuts. To be successful, it’s important that your saw is in tune and the blade is sharp. A 3/16" 4-tpi skip-tooth blade (see Sources, below) will do a good job. To make accurate cuts with smooth curves, it’s also important for you to be in tune with the saw. Use a light touch so you can find the blade’s optimal feed rate and see how it tracks. Then advance the workpiece steadily— don’t try to cut too fast—and let the saw do the work. Make access cuts first. They allow the blade to escape from dead-end curved cuts easily.

After sawing, clamp the legs in a vise and sand the edges (Photo 4). Attach the hinges (Photo 5), then pry the legs apart. Use a putty knife with blunted edges and smooth faces—any burrs on the knife will scratch the wood. After the legs are loose, remove the paper pattern and any double-stick tape that remains. Then sand the faces.


Sanding end grain

Okay. Everybody looks for a way to avoid sanding end grain by hand, and I did too. After all, power tool manufacturers are happy to offer alternatives. But I was disappointed by all of the other approaches I tried. Progress with profile sanders was slow and the vibration made my hands tingle. Drum and spindle sanders worked fine for the wider curves, but they couldn’t get into any of the corners. And on these legs there are more corners than curves. Besides, sanding the wide curves is just as easy to do by hand. I even tried cutting the legs on a scrollsaw, one at a time. Scrollsaw blades cut very cleanly, but progress through 3/4" thick walnut was slow. And without a lot of practice, it’s hard to cut smooth sweeping curves with those tiny blades, which means you’re going to have to sand the profiles anyway.

Sanding end grain by hand can be surprisingly efficient if you have the right tools and use the right sandpaper. 3M 216U sandpaper (it’s gold) is worth its cost because it cuts fast and lasts. Start with 100 grit. You’ll be amazed how quickly this stuff removes saw marks and smoothes end grain. Work your way through 120 and 180 grits, then use 280 to finish. There’s no need to sand with the grain—the scratches are too small to see.


Attach the legs to the top

First, make the top, a rectangle with radiused corners (Photo 6). Rout the top edge with a 3⁄8" beading bit. Using a doweling jig, drill dowel holes in the legs, transfer their location to the top (Photos 7 and 8), and drill these holes. Then glue dowels into the legs. Make the lock block (Fig. C and Photo 9) and install it. Then fit the legs to the top, and test the locking operation.


A notched shelf stiffens the legs

Use the top as a template to make the notched shelf (Photo 10). For the notches to slip around the legs without being too loose, saw on the insides of the lines you’ve drawn on the shelf. Test the fit on the assembled table. If the fit is too tight, widen the notches slightly with sandpaper or a file. If it’s too loose, just make another shelf. (That’s what I had to do!)


A canned finish

This project begs for a spray finish. Brushing the legs would be a drippy nightmare and oil would make the end grain too dark. I used shellac, sprayed from an aerosol can as a seal coat. First I folded the legs together and sprayed all the end grain edges at once. Then I opened them up and sprayed the faces. It took only 10 minutes. The next day, after a light sanding, I sprayed on a topcoat of aerosol polyurethane.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Young Margaret Tobin traveled west to Leadville, Colorado in 1886 to seek her fortune. Within a year she met and married J.J. Brown (13 years her senior), an engineer for the Ibex Mining Company. In 1893, thanks to a process J.J. devised, a played-out silver mine, called the Little Johnny, was found to have one of the largest veins of gold and copper ore in the country. The Browns became millionaires overnight.

In 1894 they moved to Denver, where Molly immersed herself in Denver society.

In 1912, she gained national recognition for her heroism the night of the Titanic disaster. Mrs. Brown found herself, with other horrified survivors, adrift on a lifeboat. Taking command from the panicked sailor in charge, she began rowing and instructed others to do the same, safely piloting the boat through the icy darkness. Later she raised $10,000 for families of victims.

She was an excellent fund-raiser for charitable causes in Denver, where she was a champion for miners and orphans. Fiercely independent and outspoken, she ran for the Senate before women had the right to vote. She was named to the French Legion of Honor for her work entertaining soldiers in WW I.

Not even the largest ocean liner disaster the world had ever known could stop the Unsinkable Molly Brown!


(Note: Product availability and costs are subject to change since original publication date.)

3M,, 800-362-3550, Scotch 666 double-stick (coated) tape, 3/4".

Woodcraft,, 800-225-1153, 3/16" 4 tpi bandsaw blade.

Home center, Brass butt hinges, satin finish, 1-1/2" x 2"; Dowel centers.

Klingspor’s Woodworking Shop,, 800-228-0000, Flexible sanding pads (complete set of 18 profiles), #KL50000; Teardrop hand sander, #KL05245; Flat rubber sanding block, #KL05215.

Body supply stores, 3M 216U Production RN Fre-Cut sandpaper.

Art supply stores, Chalk marking pencils.

Cutting List

Parlor Table Exploded View

Pattern and Plan for Cutting the Leg

The Lock Block

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker April 2000, issue #79.

April 2000, issue #79

Purchase this back issue.

Click any image to view a larger version.

Unfold the legs.

Install the notched shelf.

Put the top in place.

Lock the legs and top together.

1. Hold the leg blanks together with double-stick tape (see Sources, page 48). Using the paper pattern at right, outline the leg on each blank. This keeps the blanks properly oriented and shows you where to put the tape. Press the blanks together, one pair at a time. Keep the back edges of the blanks aligned by standing them on a flat surface. Align the end-grain edges with your fingers and then press the blanks together. Glue the paper pattern on the completed stack, aligning it with the edges (Photo 2).

2. Transfer the line for the dowels onto all four blanks at once, using the reference line on the paper pattern. Before making these marks, true up the ends of the stack on the tablesaw, using the miter gauge, if necessary.

3. Saw the detail shapes at the front of the legs in three steps: 1) Saw the edges of the flat-topped details (Fig. B, #28). 2) Make a relief cut, sawing into one corner of each half-round detail, creating a notch for the saw blade (#29). 3) Saw the half-round profile, starting at the newly created notch and working in the opposite direction (#30).

4. You'll be amazed how quickly and accurately you can smooth and level all four legs at once, using rubber sanding pads and 3M 216U Production RN Fre-Cut sandpaper (see Sources). This teardrop sander is perfect for the job because it acts like a flexible sanding block, conforming to all sorts of contours.

Flexible Rubber Sanding Pads (see Sources) come in a variety of shapes and contours, don’t cost much and make the job of hand sanding much easier.

5. Mount the hinges while the legs are still fastened together. Center the barrel of each hinge over its joint. Pre-drill holes for screws with a #5 self-centering hinge bit. Use the same mounting pattern on both parts of the legs.

6. Saw away the corners of the top. Be sure to draw diagonal reference lines for locating the base before you cut the corners off. Lines drawn with colored chalk pencils (see Sources) show up great on dark woods like walnut.

7. Insert dowel centers (see Sources) in the holes drilled in the tops of the legs. Dowel centers are designed to transfer the location of dowel holes from one piece to another.

8. Position the base on the top by centering it on a 5-3/4" dia. circle. Then center each leg on its diagonal. Press or tap the base onto the top to set the points of the dowel centers. Mark both the top and one leg for reference. Remove the base and drill holes in the top for the dowels.

9. Ease the edges of the lock block tongues so they’ll engage the legs smoothly.

10. Use the top as a template for the notched shelf that stiffens the legs. First, draw a second circle on the top that’s the same diameter as the shelf. Then, with the table assembled, mark where the legs intersect this circle.

11. Locate the notches in the shelf by centering the shelf in the circle drawn on the top and transferring the leg lines. Then draw another 6-1/2" dia. circle to mark the bottom of each notch.


Windriverww wrote re: Molly Brown's Parlor Table
on 03-03-2009 3:15 PM

I built this for my wife who saw it in issue 79 of AWW dated April 2000.  We surprised her with it on Mothers Day 2008.  It was a great project to do and the end result turned out to be of heirloom quality. I have two commets or suggestions regarding the plans.  One is to use a threaded insert mounted on the bottom of the table top to screw the Lock Block too.  I used a brass 1/4" bolt with a knurled head to secure the block.  The second would be to use the double backed tape very sparingly.  I used tape that I purchased from a wood turning supplier, and about as much show in the plan, and it took forever to break the finished legs loose.  A little of this stuff seems to go a long way.  

It was a great project and my wife reminds me offten as to how much she has enjoyed it.


Salvador L Stabila wrote re: Molly Brown's Parlor Table
on 03-04-2009 10:05 AM

Where can I get the plans for this table? I have searched all over and to no avail. Any help will be deeply appreciated.

SpankeyB wrote re: Molly Brown's Parlor Table
on 03-21-2009 5:04 PM

Please include the template drawings with this article.

miguel suarez wrote re: Molly Brown's Parlor Table
on 04-01-2009 6:23 PM

beautifull, and yet not to dificult to built

bricofleur wrote re: Molly Brown's Parlor Table
on 06-17-2009 10:12 AM

Nice project. Lots of good ideas here. I don't like the profile of the legs, but I can easily draw my own classic design. I had in mind to build a demilune table, and I think I will add this kind of table on my todo list.



les722 wrote re: Molly Brown's Parlor Table
on 11-14-2010 6:34 PM

There is a point where the article tells you to make the top. Where it says to attach the legs, just above figure-C. It says the top has a radiused corner, but does not tell the radius. measure in 3 inches from the corner on each edge and use that for your radius. To see a video go to diynetwork and search on Molly Brown.