Making a Reading Table – Part Two

After much contemplation, head scratching, reviewing pretty pictures, and falling asleep in my chair, I’m quite optimistic I have settled on the details of this reading table – though minutiae may change before the wax goes on!

The table will be true, in materials and construction, to the decade 1750 to 1760. The main timber will be black walnut (Juglans nigra) which enjoyed great popularity in England from the second quarter of the eighteenth-century. European walnut (Juglans regia) had been the cabinet wood from roughly the mid seventeenth-century (and England had burgeoning supplies of home-grown walnut), but France, whence much of the valued timber was sourced, slapped a ban on its export in 1720. The reasons for the embargo were both economic and political, but the English cabinetmakers already had their eyes on supplies of new (and some would argue, superior) varieties of cabinet woods to take the place of France’s bois.

In the same year, the first imports of black walnut began arriving from Virginia and the following year, the Naval Stores act reduced the tariffs on all timbers from the Americas, making mahogany and Virginia walnut even more attractive to English cabinetmakers.

Formerly the English Walnut-tree was much, propagated for its wood; but since the importation of Mahogany and the Virginia Walnut, it has considerably decreased in reputation“.[1]

Mahogany piled into England from Central America, but Virginia walnut’s period of favourability came to a fairly abrupt end in 1776 with the American War of Independence.

There are no doubt many more extant mahogany pillar and claw tables from this period than walnut examples, but the typically rich, deep red of old Virginia walnut furniture (often called ‘red walnut’ and frequently mistaken for mahogany) is quite glorious. I can’t resist it, so I now have lengths of black walnut in the shed.

Of the three pillar forms common to this period, baluster, gun barrel and vasiform, the only example I don’t already have in the home is a gun barrel, so this table will have a gun barrel pillar reflecting the Ionic order. The telescoping column will be of oak.

Mahogany gun barrel pillar with Ionic base turning, c.1760.

One of the deciding factors concerning the period of this table was the current difficulty I have with making a steel spring catch as I no longer have the requisite equipment. A wooden locking screw and corresponding holes in the column are perfectly in keeping with a table of this date and I can easily accomplish threading the screw and pillar.

The block that supports the box carcase, and into which the column is mortised, will be made from either elm or oak, depending on which species migrates to the fore when I start scrounging through my store of wood. Both are historically appropriate, but my preference is for elm as it is particularly tough and resistant to splitting.

The box carcase will be made from deal and veneered with walnut and will contain two opposing cockbeaded and oak-lined drawers. The drawer fronts will be through-dovetailed, veneered oak and the linings will be made from thin oak stock and rebated to accept the oak bottom and drawer runners.

This afternoon I cut out the three legs and shaped them with a spokeshave. I had forgotten how enjoyable making these legs is. I cut and shaped the three of them in a tad under an hour. They’ll require about another fifteen minutes each to cut the sliding dovetails and then scribe and finish the tops where they meet the pillar.

One bandsawn leg and one shaved leg.

[1] Silva: or, A discourse of forest-trees, and the propagation of timber in His Majesty’s dominions, as it was delivered in The Royal society, on the 15th of October 1662, by John Evelyn, third edition, volume 1, York, 1801, p.149.


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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2 Responses to Making a Reading Table – Part Two

  1. Tico Vogt says:

    Please be sure to show how you make the sliding dovetails, as well as the scribing. Not all of us have experience with these techniques!


    • Jack Plane says:

      Tico, I will try and remember to snap some shots of the dovetail process, but if my past record is anything to go on, I usually get totally caught up in the moment and forget about my pledge to record my work for posterity. We’ll see.


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