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Colonial American Tavern Table

I've always had an appreciation for architecture and furniture from before the Industrial Revolution, when woodworkers turned out crisp details and fine proportions using hand tools alone. When I moved from the West Coast to northern Vermont in 1979, my goal was to set up a custom woodworking business in an environment that favored restoration work and traditional design.

Colonial American Tavern TableNew England is a wonderful classroom for anyone interested in traditional building methods. Visits to the Strawbery Banke Museum, in Portsmouth, NH, Vermont's Shelburne Museum, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts provided excellent examples of early American furniture. Historical associations like the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (141 Cambridge St., Boston, Ma 02114; 617-227-3956) also contributed to my education. And I discovered some indispensable reference books, most notably Asher Benjamin's The American Builder's Companion, Wallace Nutting's Furniture Treasury; and the series, The Architectural Treasures of Early America.

I found the antique version of this table in the home of Wade Treadway, a friend and fellow woodworker. Research revealed the well-worn piece to be a Colonial tavern table - a sturdy but elegant design that graced homes and inns during Colonial times. I liked the painted hardwood base, with its turned legs and well-proportioned aprons and stretchers.

LegsThe table's simple, three-board top, held flat with breadboard ends, rests on the base with distinctively broad overhangs at the ends. Its stance is sturdy but also graceful - yet another example of the well-resolved proportions used by Colonial furniture makers.

My version of the tavern table is faithful to the original in proportion and construction. The only change I've made is to raise the height slightly, recognizing that people are taller today than they were two centuries ago. My table has turned William-and-Mary-style legs, but you can substitute other leg styles without compromising the table's traditional appearance.

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Design Guidelines

While tavern table height (the distance from the floor to the top surface) tends to stay in the 29¾-in. vicinity, other dimensions can change. Let's think about the tabletop first.

I don't recommend making a rectangular top for a dining table more than 36 in. wide. Anything greater than 36 in. and you begin to lose the ease of conversation that's often an important part of any memorable meal. Diners seated across from each other have to speak overly loud. If you need more surface area for holding serving trays and bowls, don't compromise the proportions of your tabletop; make yourself a nice sideboard or server instead.

The version of the table shown here will seat six people with plenty of room between place settings. For an eight-place table, I increase the length of the top to 100 in. I also increase the length of the base to 72 in. to maintain the 14 in. overhangs at table ends.

Although I refer to table size in terms of six-person or eight-person capacity, the nice thing about this table is that it offers an unusual degree of seating flexibility - a quality probably appreciated by tavern owners. Along each side, the tabletop overhangs the side aprons about 5½ in. With the legs and aprons recessed to this degree, it's possible to pack quite a few diners along each side with little risk of bumping knees or chairs against the base. At each end of the table, the generous 14-in. overhang will accommodate the portliest of adults - or, in a pinch, two children.

When special occasions demand, it is possible to lengthen a tavern table by means of "company boards," temporary extensions supported by turn buttons and by struts that extend into the end aprons. (See Company Board Detail, below.) If you've ever noticed rectangular cutouts in a table's end apron, this is what they are for.

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Building the Base

Colonial Tavern TableAs shown in the plans (click the graphic to the right to see) the base is an assembly of four legs joined by aprons and stretchers. Pegged mortise-and-tenon joints hold everything together. The pattern for turning the legs is shown in Fig. 2, along with joinery layout details.

In my shop we use a mortising machine to mill the leg mortises, but you could also do this work by hand, or with a router and 5/16-in. straight bit. The mortise-and-tenon layout allows for a very slight reveal (about 1/16 in.) where the aprons and stretchers meet the legs. This eliminates the step of sanding joints flush after assembly.

After the aprons and stretchers have been cut to length and tenoned, I bead the edges of these parts. (See Fig. 2, Bead Detail.) The middle or medial stretcher is beaded along all four corners. The end stretchers are beaded only along the top and bottom corners that will face out in the finished piece. On the aprons, only the outside bottom corners receive beads.

JoineryAs shown in the Bead Detail, I like to use a bead copied from an 18th-century molding plane. This traditional bead is more elliptical than later examples, and it ends in a crisp fillet. I have a special-order shaper knife cut to the bead profile, but you can easily create this corner detail using shop-made scratch stock or a combination plane fitted with beading knife.

Once the tenons are cut on the apron pieces, I bring them over to the drill press and bore pocket holes for screwing the base to the top. The end aprons receive three holes apiece; the side aprons, four. For each #8 by 1½-in. flat-head screw, I drill oversized pilot and shank holes, using an adjustable counterbore bit. We purchase these from Norfield Tool & Supply (800-824-6242). The small diameter of the bit is 3/16 in.; the large diameter is ½ in. Most of the antique tables I've seen in this part of the country have utilized this screw and pocket-hole arrangement for holding the top in place.

I begin the assembly process by joining the medial stretcher to the end stretchers. The through tenons that hold these parts together should be glued and wedged in their mortises. I use a framing square to check for 90º joints; then I set the assembly aside.

Assembling the stretchers
tavern table base assembly
Assembling the stretchers. A wedge is installed in the medial stretcher tenon, which extends through the end stretcher.

Next, I glue and clamp together a pair of side assemblies. Each contains two legs that are joined together with a side apron. Again, it’s important to check each assembly for square as you clamp it up.

To complete the base, I place a side assembly on the bench with its open mortises facing up. I install the stretcher assembly and the two end aprons, then the second side assembly. Then I clamp, square up, and set the base aside until the glue dries.

Tapping the tenons home
tavern table assembly
Tapping the tenons home. With one base side assembly flat on the bench, Burak installs the end aprons and stretcher assembly. The remaining side assembly will go on last.

The base isn’t really finished until the mortise-and-tenon joints are pegged. Many Colonial woodworkers used square pegs instead of round ones, and so do I. Even when the base is painted, the square tops of the pegs remain visible - a nice authentic touch. The pegs need to be big enough to fill the round hole, but not so big as to split the wood. My peg stock is square in section, ¼ in. by ¼ in. I drill the holes with a 15/64 in.-dia. brad-point bit.

To start and drive each peg easily, you’ll first need to sharpen its end. In my shop, we keep a coffee can filled with pegs next to a crank-type pencil sharpener. Dipping the peg in water will also make it drive more easily. Glue isn't necessary. The apron-to-leg joints are already glued, and a square peg driven in a round hole rarely works loose. I orient each peg so its edges are aligned roughly parallel or perpendicular to the joint. On our tables, as on most antiques, the table's “apron” pegs are driven all the way through the legs and left protruding inside the base. On the outsides of the legs, I trim and plane the pegs flush.

toptable basetavern table
tavern table assembly

Making the Top

In keeping with historical examples, I make the top of each tavern table from just two or three boards that are between 11 in. and 20 in. wide. The joints are splined rather than glued, and they're held together with breadboard ends. The splined construction, combined with the simple pocket-hole arrangement for installing the top, has worked well. I haven't yet had problems with a top buckling or cracking from restricted movement.

I take extra care in selecting top boards; it's a critical signature of any table I build. The table shown here has a yellow birch top, but I also use cherry and tiger maple frequently.

table base joineryapron pegs
Company Boards
breadboard table ends
Company Board Details
This simple table extension consists of a pair of struts screwed to a board which fits flush with the tabletop. The struts extend into slots cut in the end apron. A pair of wooden turn buttons support the edge of the extension.
apron mortise
I start by thicknessing the boards, then I joint an edge on each board and rip them to width. After cutting the boards to rough length, I flip and switch them around to discover the best combination of grain patterns. Then I use a spline-cutting bit in my shaper to mill 1/8-in.-wide, ½-in.-deep grooves in edges to be joined. For this work I recommend using a router with a spline-cutting bit rather than a tablesaw. I insert 1/8-in. by ¾-in. wooden splines in the grooves, join the boards together and clamp the panel securely across its width.

To trim the ends of the panel perfectly flush, I clamp a straightedge guide parallel to each trim line. Then I run the router base against the straightedge, trimming each end flush with a ¾-in. dia., up-cut spiral bit.

The breadboard edge detail that I use calls for loose tenons, which fit in mortises milled in the top boards and in the two breadboard edges. (See Fig. 1.) Each of the top's 11 1/8-in.-wide boards gets two mortises per end. The 13¾-in.-wide center board receives three mortises per end. In my shop, we use a horizontal mortiser to do the mortising work for the breadboard edge. A good alternative method would be to use a plunge router and an up-cut spiral bit.

I glue the tenons in the ends of the boards, but I let the tenons “float” in the breadboard mortises, which are milled to allow at least a 1/8-in. of tenon movement in both directions. After fitting a breadboard edge over tenons glued in place, I drill peg holes in the breadboard - one hole for each tenon, drilled to a depth of 11/16 in.

I then remove the breadboard and use a round file to elongate all the holes except the one in the centermost tenon, which stays round. After refitting the breadboard, I tap in the pegs, and trim and plane them flush.

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Finishing Up

Take a look at an antique table and you’ll notice how paint and even wood have been worn away in certain places. For example, the medial stretcher on an old tavern table is bound to have its top edges worn down where feet have rested over the years. For customers who want their table to have the look of a real antique, we simulate these symptoms. I use the bandsaw to cut away some of the medial stretcher; then I smooth these “worn” areas with a spokeshave and sandpaper.

To finish the base, we rely on traditional milk paint. To create an antique appearance, I rub paint off to expose the bare wood at corners, along the medial stretcher, and at other points of wear. When the paint has dried, I apply one or more coats of stain to give the bare wood a convincing patina. Applications of stain also give the paint an aged look.

Reprinted with permission from American Woodworker Magazine, copyright 1995.

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