An Oak Side Table.

George II Oak side table, standing on club legs. circa 1740

The desire to make a copy of this table was one of the compelling reasons I took up my tools again after seven years of retirement. There are a great many pieces of furniture that I always said I was going to make and never got around to when I was fit, able and had a fully equipped workshop. The table is a present for one of my children who has a milestone birthday this year and my children are of an age now to appreciate good furniture and not give it away when they move house!

The original circa 1740 table is typical of a form commonly made in the early to mid eighteenth-century. The lower portions of the legs are round and tapered, terminating in pad feet. Together the tapered legs and pad feet are referred to as ‘club legs’.

There is a single long drawer in the front of the table above a shaped apron. The perimeter moulding on the drawer may be a later addition, but in any event, I will not be copying it. I’m also undecided about incorporating the narrow cleated ends on the table top as by this date, they were not archetypal.

The frame is usually flush with the legs at this date and the rails are secured with roughly square to octagonal tapered pegs using the draw-boring technique whereby the peg holes in the tenons are off-set towards the shoulders so as the pegs are driven into the legs, they strain the shoulders of the tenons ever tighter into the faces of the mortices. The sharp corners of the pegs bite into the legs, deforming both pegs and legs, which affords unparalleled grip and prevents the pegs from working loose.

Oak was still the timber employed for the majority of furniture during this period, although in less fashionable towns and rural centres, any of the staple English furniture timbers (ash, elm, chestnut – and to a lesser extent, cherry, pear and other fruitwoods) were employed.

I sourced some English oak locally and after cleaning it up, the stuff for the legs turned out to be the loveliest brown oak and it all exhibits wonderful medullary rays.

Some fine cabinetmakers may raise an eyebrow at my selection of timber grade and cabinet making skills, so I’ll justify my choice and actions. Until just prior to the industrial revolution, sawn timber was very hard won (and even in rural areas well into the nineteenth-century), as anyone who has seen pictures or film of a pit saw in action can imagine. Little timber was wasted and all but the highest paid city joyners could afford the prime cuts. To seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century joyners, a sound knot (one that is tight and unlikely to fall out) was immaterial as far as the integrity of the piece of furniture was concerned, but nonetheless, when second grade timber was used, it was normally for backboards in pieces of furniture whose common place was against a wall. To that end, I purposely used a board with a knot in it for the backboard of my copy.

As to my ability as a cabinetmaker; my skills have been sought after by the English trade for many years and I have won numerous prizes in competitions, so any appearance of sloppy joints in this copy is deliberate and calculated. As already mentioned, the rails of this table are flush with the legs, but timber is constantly on the move with the climate and ‘flush’ therefore becomes a relative term. I have made some of the tenons fractionally looser than others so as to allow the tension created by the draw boring process to slightly misalign the rails with the legs in a natural looking, moved-over-time manner. This creates very minor steps which will eventually show up as slight shadows when the table is ultimately antiqued and finished.

All surfaces will be hand planed, but not scraped or sanded as these were processes not widely practiced on early eighteenth-century provincial furniture. I’ve noticed that the freshly honed blade I used developed a miniscule nick within a few moments of planing the legs. This is good! If I need to resharpen the blade, then I will, but not specifically because of the nick.

The legs were turned using off-set centres to blend the taper to the pad foot.

The mortices were chopped out by hand.

Even using a brute 3/8″ pig sticker chisel, freshly honed to a steep 35 degrees, chopping the mortices in the brown oak was tough going.

I marked and cut the tenons on the rails and fitted them to their respective mortices and then began setting out the hole centres for the pegs which hold the whole table together.

The tenons matched to the mortices.

The midway point of each mortice was marked on the mortice faces of the legs and a square set at 3/8″ was used to transfer the hole centre marks to the adjacent outer faces of the legs. The holes were carefully drilled with a 1/4″ shell bit.

Each rail was then refitted to its individual mortice(s) and a 1/4″ brad point drill bit was inserted into the peg holes and pressed into the tenons, leaving feint but visible marks.

The hole centres were marked onto the tenons…

… which were then withdrawn again and new centre marks were made 3/64″ closer to the tenon shoulders.

The off-set holes were then drilled through with the 1/4″ bit.

I have read on the internet of much larger off-sets being used in contemporary furniture, but I fail to see the purpose. It’s quite a struggle for a peg to draw even 3/64″ – not that the actual tenon shoulder moves that amount! Anything more than 3/64″ – using components of these dimensions (workbenches and roof frames are an entirely different matter) – will invariably lead to damage. Either the peg will break when hammered home due to the unforgiving resistance caused by the large off-set, or the end of the tenon (to the outside of the peg hole), will break free and the drawing effect will be lost – not to mention the sheared bit of tenon will likely jam against the bottom of the mortice, thwarting all efforts to drive the tenons home.

A tenon shoulder need only be drawn slightly to effect the tightening mechanism and it appears, both historically and through my own implementation, that 3/64″ is realistically the minimum amount the holes can be successfully off-set in hardwoods such as oak when drilling by hand – as would have been done several hundred years ago. Of course, with a drill press and modern tooling, finer tolerances are possible, but that’s not the objective, nor the point here.

The pegs are riven from straight grained oak.

One end of the peg is pared to an octagon using a chisel and then a lead is chiselled on the end to allow the peg to engage the off-set hole in the tenon. Without this lead, the peg would snag on the edge of the tenon’s hole and damage would ensue.

The relative size of peg point to hole diameter.

I knocked the table frame together and hammered in the draw-pegs. The pegs compress and roughly conform to the roundness of the holes in the legs.

The peg excesses are sawn off and trimmed almost flush.

Can you spot the mistake?

The rear right leg is 90 degrees out of kilter! I always identify the top of each leg yet I still managed to cock it up!

The rogue leg annoys me because I made a mistake, but it’s tempered by my having seen the same mistake on antique furniture. While it’s no excuse, I may actually leave it! On the other hand, I may rectify it. There’s no more stock for an entirely new leg, so that rules that option out. I’ll leave it until closer to the finishing stage before I make a decision on what action to take.

I prepared the drawer stuff and cut the front blind dovetails and the rear through dovetails.

The finished dovetails.

A groove was cut in the inside of the drawer front to accept the drawer bottom and rebates were cut into the bottoms of the drawer sides for the same purpose. The drawer was then glued together. I also rubbed the edges of the drawer bottom boards together and when the bottom board was dry, I squared it up.

The drawer bottom is 1/4″ thick.

The boards for the table top were rubbed together with glue and the thumbnail moulding planed around three edges.

The drawer bottom was slid into the drawer rebates/groove and secured with a couple of small cut nails partially driven through it and into the underside of the drawer back. The drawer runners were then glued in place.

The runners are slightly proud of the rest of the drawer to allow for final fitting.

The drawer guides were rubbed together and then rubbed into the table. Drawer guides were often done this way with no actual joints to locate them in the table frame.

Sometimes rubbed drawer guides were nailed with a single hand cut nail at each end for security. I didn’t notice the dog’s derrière in the frame until I uploaded the pictures, but at least her tail’s down!

The drawer stops at this date were simple wooden blocks.

I aligned the table top with the frame and drilled the holes for the pegs that attach the top to the table in line with the rail. The pegs achieve immense grip on their own, though the slight inclination virtually guarantees the table top will never lift off. If the pegs are inclined, then the angle should alternate with each peg.

Inclining the pegs achieves tremendous holding power.

The pegs are accurately sized to the holes, but just the material in the corners of the pegs can make them quite stubborn to drive home. They can sometimes stop short of their desired depth due to friction, so I usually put the pointed end of each peg into my mouth to wet it immediately before hammering it in.

This peg, though wet, still hung up, but there’s sufficient length extending into the rail to be of little concern. You may notice that this peg has made the round hole perfectly square. The peg is made from heart wood, but this area of the table top is immature wood and therefore the harder peg has determined the shape of the hole.

By comparison, the same heartwood pegs that were used to draw-bore the rails to the legs were no match for the extremely dense brown oak of the legs and the resultant shape of the pegs there are virtually round where they protrude.

A square peg in a round hole.

An aside: My first workshop in England was shared with another furniture restorer who at one time was working on a large circa 1680 Charles II oak table. The top necessitated removal for some reason or other and I recall this chap, with the table laying on its side, belting the living suitcase out of the underside of the inch-thick top with a large, hastily made beech maul in an effort to release it from the frame. He eventually tortured it sufficiently to enable him to slide a keyhole saw blade between the top and the frame and sever the reluctant pegs.

I lightly planed the drawer runners to make the drawer slide smoothly yet ensure the drawer front didn’t catch on the apron rail, nor rub on the underside of the table top.

The brass handle castings were cleaned up, the bevelled edges filed and subsequently buffed. I was careful to leave the faintest hint of file marks in areas where, on an antique, they wouldn’t have received much wear even from the most ardent housekeeper.

The handles filed and buffed.

The handles, pins and staples were mounted on a piece of MDF in preparation for chemical colouring. The brasses were aged in stages to simulate the balance between natural oxidization and highlights created by numerous hands wearing the oxidation away. The result is a convincing layered greenish colour, due to the use of authentic (for the eighteenth-century) brass alloy.

The handles following the ageing process.

The highlights aren’t easily visible in this state, but once the surface of the brass has been clarified in the next process, all will be apparent.

While I was waiting for the brasses to do their thing, I made up some ‘iron’ nails to help secure the drawer guides. Wrought iron is much easier to fashion, but alas, it’s no longer readily available, so I had some mild steel sheet guillotined into the appropriate square section and chopped it into random short lengths with a cold chisel. I roughly tapered the shanks and with a few more hammer blows, pounded the heads into shape. The nails too were subjected to heat treatment and chemical ageing to impart an authentic looking rusted surface. They’re not as convincing as genuine iron nails, because the modern mild steel composition has more cohesion than old, flaky wrought iron, but they’re adequate.

Pre and post-rusted nails.

One of the nails securing the right drawer guide to the front right leg (table upside-down).

I attached the handles and then waxed the drawer front…

…and then the whole table was waxed.

It seems…

… the rogue back leg righted itself.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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