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AW Extra 2//20/14 - Composing a Tabletop


Composing a Tabletop

Two ways to create a beautiful top.

By Ian Kirby

The top is the first thing people will see when they admire a table you’ve made. The selection and arrangement of the boards is a testament to your skills and sensitivity to the beauty of wood. If you take the time to study wood at the lumberyard and cut your boards with care, you will be able to compose them into an elegant arrangement.

The grain pattern of every board is unique. But its overall figure is a result of how the board was sawn from the tree (Fig. A). As you sit at the drawing board, thinking about your table and its top, consider these two basic choices of wood figure:

Cathedral Figure. In this top you emphasize the long arches of flatsawn wood. This cut is the most commonly available kind of lumber but also the most likely to distort unless it’s properly dried.

Straight figure. Here you see the long, straight lines and flashy rays of quartersawn or radially sawn wood, which expands and contracts the least and is the most stable. Quartersawn wood is not readily available in most species, but you can saw your own in your shop.

Before you leave the drawing board, make a bill of materials and a full-size drawing of the tabletop. You might simply chalk the outline on a 4x8 sheet of plywood. You’ll use this drawing as a guide throughout the process of harvesting your boards and composing them into a beautiful expanse of wood.

Fig. A: Study the end grain of a board to see where it was cut from the tree. The angle at which the saw intersected the tree’s annual rings and rays determines the type of figure you see on the face of a board. You can predict what the surface of a rough-sawn board will look like by reading the end grain.

Click any image to view a larger version.

At the Lumberyard

The lumber pile is where desire meets gritty reality—you probably won’t find the wood you’ve imagined, so you have to be flexible and make the most out of what you can get.

Go to the lumber pile with a tape measure and pad of paper, a 12-in. straightedge (to check for cupping), a crayon or chalk (to sketch a plan for harvesting your top right on the boards), and a knife or block plane. If you’ve got a moisture meter, take that too.

At a large lumberyard you’ll find boards stickered in piles or stored in bins. Most will be rough-sawn and hard to decipher. Is that light patch sapwood or not? Is there any quartersawn figure in the board? Answers to both of these questions will come from studying the end grain of the board to reconstruct how the board was sawn from the tree.

You might be able to choose the boards you want, but more likely you’ll have to buy from the top of the pile. At a specialty dealer, you’ll probably find the wood already planed on both sides so you can see and select the figure, but it will come at a higher price.

You’re looking primarily for color and figure in a stack of lumber. To see the color, plane a little patch. Wet it to see how it might finish up. If your boards don’t match in color, don’t lose heart. Take the long view—time and exposure to light evens out most color variations in heartwood. Look carefully for sapwood. It’s generally a distraction in a top made of dark-colored heartwood. Reject boards with lots of sapwood or plan to saw it off. White sapwood may not be a problem in light-colored species.

If the figure of a board you like doesn’t run parallel to the side of the board, don’t worry. You will be able to harvest the look you want back in the shop.


Moisture Content

Try to get wood that has been kiln dried to 6 to 8 percent moisture content and stored indoors since it left the kiln. This wood is likely to remain flat and stable.

You won’t have to worry about a top cupping if you use kiln-dried wood and finish both sides. Some woodworkers insist on placing all the bark sides or all the heart sides up. Others claim that you should alternate heart and bark sides. This disagreement is a holdover from the days of air-dried wood and uncertain moisture content. With dry wood, it doesn’t matter what arrangement you choose. You’re free to go for what looks best.

If you’re not sure about the moisture content of the wood at the lumberyard, go ahead and buy it, but don’t plan on making your top right away. Back in the shop, harvest the top boards and other parts you’ll need and cut them at least 1⁄4-in. oversize in length and width. Don’t thickness plane the boards. Pile the wood indoors on a flat surface with 3⁄4-in. wooden stickers separating each board. Let the wood acclimate for a couple of months. Then plane everything flat and square.

Building a Top with a Cathedral Figure

If you’ve got what rose to the top of a lumberyard pile, genuine run-of-the-mill boards, most of them will be flatsawn. Discard boards that bow or twist, then sort through the rest for the arches of cathedral figure that catch your eye.

Fig. B: Mark the defects with chalk, and isolate the figure you intend to harvest. You don’t want knots, splits, sapwood or short grain in your top. To see the color of a rough-sawn board, plane or pare a little patch.

Fig. C: Cut off short grain at the end of a board. Look at the edge for slanting short grain indicating the board came from the butt end of a tree. Short grain produces broad arches on the face of a board that don’t blend well with good cathedral figure.

Fig. D: Cut out ovals in the middle of a board. The grain changes direction here. You may want to arrange all the boards in a cathedral top so that the grain runs in one direction. This will make it easier to clean up with a hand plane.

Fig. E: Snap a chalk line down the center of the cathedral figure on a rough-sawn board. Draw parallel lines the same distance from either side of the centerline to lay out prime boards for the top. (Leave an extra inch in length so you have plenty of options in composing the top.) The offcuts may be used for rails or stretchers, but don’t crosscut the board until after you’ve marked all the wood. Then cut the board on the bandsaw or with a jigsaw.

Fig. F: Select and compose your cathedral top to create a balanced, harmonious arrangement. Begin from the center and work out to the sides. You may want a single board in the center, or a glue line separating a symmetrical pair of boards.

Add matched pairs of boards to either side. Slide them by each other until the cathedral figure balances out. Mark all the wood before you saw any of it to length. Take your time and number each board. Arrange the boards on your fullsize drawing as you work.

When you’ve arrived at a good arrangement, draw a pair of sweeping lines across the surface of the top. Use these lines to realign the boards when you glue them up.

Building a Top with a Straight Figure

Choose either quartersawn or riftsawn wood if your table design calls for a straight-figured top. Quartersawn wood is least likely to distort. It expands and contracts less than flatsawn wood.

Quartersawn wood can be quite striking in species with clearly visible rays, like oak, maple, cherry, or lacewood. You see a broad cross section of the rays as they exit the face of the board. The rays form a random pattern that contrasts with the board’s straight figure. The figure in riftsawn wood resembles quartersawn, except the rays are very small.

Quartersawn red and white oak should be relatively easy to find, but other species aren’t routinely cut on the quarter. You can harvest your own quartersawn wood from riftsawn boards or thick flatsawn lumber.

Fig. G: Read the end-grain of rough-sawn wood to find the quartersawn and riftsawn sections of a wide board. Straight figure is characteristic of both sections, but the figure of quartersawn wood can be tighter and can display prominent rays. Lightly plane the surface to confirm your prediction of quartersawn figure, then snap chalk lines so you can harvest the pieces you want.

Fig. H: Rip the flatsawn lumber into thin boards to create your own quartersawn lumber. The most dramatic ray figure is found in boards with rays that are nearly horizontal to the surface. You can tilt your tablesaw blade to follow the angle of the rays in search of the best figure. You will lose a bit in width after milling the boards. For most species, it’s worth the extra work.

Fig. J: Compose the quartersawn top symmetrically about its centerline for a harmonious result. Pay attention to the overall pattern of the ray figure. It can be quite prominent when the top is finished.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker August 1999, issue #74.

August 1999, issue #74

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