This hall table posed a challenge, because it was built for a fundraiser. I wanted it to stand out, but I also wanted to limit the amount of time I invested in it. So I started with a tapered leg base—stylish, elegant … and easy to build. I planned to cover the top with figured veneer (an excellent way to make a top look special). Adding inlay—another sure-fire attention-getter—seemed out of the question until I came up with a simple method to complete the job. With its fiddleback mahogany top and contrasting curly maple inlay stringing, the finished table turned heads all night and drew substantial bids.
Build the base
Mill stock for the aprons and legs (see Fig. A and Cutting List, at left). Feel free to change the joinery. I used a mortiser to chop square mortises and then cut loose tenons to fit, but dowels, biscuits or even pocket screws would also work. Leave the legs (A) as square blanks until the mortises have been cut; then taper both inside faces on each leg. Cut the aprons (B and C) to final dimensions; then cut the mortises and drill the pocket holes. Make the loose tenons (D). Glue the legs and end aprons. Then glue the side aprons between the two assembled ends.
Veneer the top
Cut the top (E) to final size, making sure the dimensions are correct and the ends are square. Any variation will mess up the inlay pattern. MDF makes the best substrate for veneering, but hardwood-veneer plywood and solid wood can also be used.
I use traditional methods to lay up veneer. But instead of using cauls and clamps to glue the veneer to the substrate, I use a vacuum bag press. Here’s how to do it.
Cut a piece of 3/4" MDF slightly larger than the top to use as a pressure board inside the press. Cover this piece with rosin paper to keep the veneered top from sticking to it.
Use a small paint roller to apply even coats of yellow glue on both the top substrate and the veneer. Position the veneer on the substrate, using centering marks for reference, and tape it in position. Then place the top veneered-face down on the rosin paper-covered pressure board inside the bag. Close the bag, start the pump and maintain the vacuum pressure until the glue has dried.
Remove the substrate from the press and then remove any rosin paper that has adhered to the veneer—dampening the paper softens the glue and makes it easy to remove. (Note: sand the surface as little as possible to maintain the veneer’s thickness.) Trim the veneer flush with the substrate on all four sides.
Stabilize the top by applying veneer to the bottom side, following the same procedure. The veneer used for this side doesn’t have to be pretty, because it won’t show.
Lay out the inlay pattern
The veneered top’s inlay pattern
consists of diagonals running from
corner to corner and a diamond
created by connecting the centerpoints
on each side (Fig. B). The
border is created by inlaid edging
pieces (F-J) that surround the top.
Laying out the inlay pattern requires accurate measurements and
precisely drawn lines. Mark the diagonals
and the diamond on the veneered
top. Then draw registration
lines on both sides of each diagonal
pattern line, spaced exactly 3/16"
away (Photo 1).
Install the stringing
Use a plunge router equipped with
a 1/2" o.d. guide bushing and a
1/8" down-cut spiral bit to rout the
grooves for the inlay (six 1/8" wide
x 3/32" deep grooves altogether,
three in each direction). Use a
48" long template made of 3/4"
plywood or MDF and cut exactly
6-1/16" wide to guide the router.
(Note: Using a different size guide
bushing changes two things: the
spacing of the registration lines and
the width of the template.)
Clamp the template on the first
registration line and check the bit’s
location at both ends of the top to
make sure the template is properly
located (Photo 2). In fact, you
must make sure the bit bisects the
pattern line before you rout each
groove—and reposition the template,
Rout the first two grooves from
the same setup, using both sides of
the template (Photo 3). If everything
is correctly sized, you won’t have to
reposition the template. To rout the
third groove, move the template to
the second registration line (Photo
4). Again, make sure the bit is properly
centered on the pattern line before
Cut the 1/8" square inlay stringing
(K) on the tablesaw, using a 48"
long piece of maple (Photo 5). Set
the fence 1/8" from the blade and
make four passes with the board on
edge. Then reset the fence and make
four more passes to cut four 48"
lengths of stringing.
Install the first three pieces of
stringing (Photo 6). Apply a thin
bead of glue to the bottom of each
groove. Press in the stringing and
tape each piece to hold it in place. After
the glue has dried, flush the stringing
with the surface, using either a
card scraper or a sanding block with 80 grit paper. Then follow the same procedure to rout the three grooves that run in the opposite direction and install the stringing in them.
Attach the edging
Cut three 3/4" x 1-3/8" x 46" blanks of mahogany for the edging (one blank for each side and one for the two ends), along with three 45" lengths of 3/8" square maple stringing. Cut or rout a 3/8" x 3/8" rabbet in the top face of each mahogany blank. Then glue in the stringing (Photo 7). After the glue has dried, rip the edging blanks to their final 1-1/4" width—position each blank so the cut cleans the joint on the inside edge. Then scrape or sand the top inlaid surfaces flush.
Install a slot-cutting bit in the router table and rout grooves in the edging blanks and the top for the spline. Orient the pieces top-face down for routing and install a featherboard on the fence to keep the pieces firmly pressed against the table. Mill lengths of spline (L) to mount the edging. The spline should fit the grooves without binding or wobbling.
Mark the edging blanks and cut and fit the miters. Then glue on the edging pieces (Photo 8).
Apply a finish
Level the joints between the edging and the top with a card scraper or a sanding block. Then finish-sand the top and base to 320 grit. Apply a finish (Photo 9). I start by wiping on several coats of tung oil. Then, for added durability, I wipe on several coats of polyurethane.
Fig. A: Exploded View
Fig. B: Diamond Inlay Layout and Registration Lines
Click any image to view a larger version.
1. Lay out the inlay pattern on the top by marking a centered diamond and two end-to-end diagonals. Then precisely mark registration lines on both sides of each diagonal pattern line.
2. Center the bit on the pattern line. Clamp the template on the first registration line. Then position the router’s guide bushing against the template. The bit should automatically bisect the pattern line.
3. Rout a groove from end to end. Then move the router to the other side of the template and rout a second, shorter groove. You’ll have to reposition the end clamp before routing.
4. Move the template to the opposite side of the pattern line,
align it with the second registration line and clamp it. Then rout
a third groove.
5. Cut lengths of inlay stringing on the tablesaw.
6. Glue in the first three pieces of stringing. Scrape them flush after
the glue has dried. Then rout the three grooves that run in the
opposite direction and install the last three pieces of stringing.
7. Create the decorative edging by gluing a large piece of stringing into a rabbet cut on the inside edge.
8. Install the edging, using splines to level the pieces with the surface of the veneered top.
9. Apply a finish. I prefer to wipe on tung oil, followed by polyurethane.