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Router inlay makes a basic table stand out.
Sometimes a small project with a quick turnaround time is just the thing to get us back in the shop. The proportions of this dinette table are petite, and would be useful in a loft or condo. If space is at a premium, this small table might just fit the bill. The table was designed using stock no longer than 30″, and can easily be assembled in a long weekend.
I chose walnut lumber for its clean grain lines and good workability. If you don’t have enough hardwood to make the base out of walnut, consider paint-grade legs and aprons.
A Leg to Stand On
The leg blanks start out at 2 5/8” square, and are milled to 2 1/2” square. If 12/4 walnut stock isn’t readily available in your area, just laminate thinner boards together to achieve the required thickness. Mill some stock to 7/8” thick, and rip it into strips 25/8” wide. Arrange the strips for the best grain match possible, and glue three strips together to make a leg blank. Once the glue cures, these rough leg blanks can be jointed and planed to finished dimensions.
Now is the time to square one end of the legs and cut them to finished length. Next, we’ll want to take care of all the joinery before introducing any tapers or curves, so choose a method to make your mortises and get to work. I used a hollow chisel mortiser to make the 1/2” wide and 1 1/4” deep mortises. I like to keep the mortises 1/2” away from the top of the legs to preserve structural integrity and make sure the joints will last for years to come. The mortises are all the same size, and conveniently centered on the thickness of the legs.
Traditional Table Joinery
Take a moment to mill up the remaining parts of the table. You’ll need two long aprons, two short aprons, and enough boards to make the top panel. With the eight mortises complete, try your hand at forming the tenons on the aprons. Using a fine-toothed dado blade and quality miter gauge makes the job easier. Check your tenon shoulders for square as you go, and creep up on a snug fit. Use the mortise itself as your ultimate gauge as you size the tenons. The top shoulder on each tenon is 1/2” tall, while the bottom shoulder is only 1/4“. Since all the tenons are the same size, this work proceeds quickly.
With all the joinery complete, we can tackle the more interesting aspects of this project, like shaping the aprons and tapering the legs. The subtle shape on the underside of the aprons lightens the overall look of the table, and adds some grace to an otherwise simple form.
To shape the aprons, I find it easiest to use a jig at the router table. The jig is a simple matter to construct, and only requires a couple scraps of plywood. Start with a 3/4” plywood base, and mark the curved profile before cutting it out at the bandsaw. Sand the curve to your line, and add a 1/2” plywood fence. A small stop registers the shoulder of the aprons in the correct position, and a pair of toggle clamps hold it in place.
Taper the Legs
To lighten the look of the 2 1/2” square legs, they’re tapered on two inner edges. I used a commercial tapering jig and a push pad to make the taper cuts at the tablesaw.
Then any saw marks can be sanded smooth, and the edges of the legs and aprons are softened with a roundover bit at the router table. Just a couple steps remain before you’re all clear to glue up the table frame.
Miter the tenons where they intersect and test fit the aprons with a complete dry assembly. Once you’re convinced the joint fitment is good, proceed with finish sanding. I sanded with a random orbital sander at #120 and #150 grits, and gave the parts a good hand sanding, with the grain, using #150 grit.
Make the Tabletop
I like to minimize the sanding work required to achieve a smooth, flat tabletop. To that end, I start by gluing two pairs of boards together as an initial assembly. Once the glue has hardened, I scrape the glue and send the planks through the planer.
For the final step of building the tabletop, glue the planks together with another board in the middle. This way there are only two glue lines to sand clean, as opposed to four.
To give the table a decorative element, I came up with a floral motif inlay. I wanted a simple form for the inlay, so it could be completed with a router and inlay bushing kit.
To accomplish this I made two templates from MDF; one handles the three squares while the other handles the curved stem design. The openings in the templates are slightly oversized to account for the spacer on the inlay bushing kit.
To make the inlay templates, draw out the designs on 12″ x 12″ squares of 1/4” MDF. Remove the bulk of the waste with a drill bit or mortiser, and sand or file the openings to size.
To start the inlay process, carefully center the guide bushing on a plunge router (some inlay bushing kits come with a helpful centering pin). Then install the removable spacer ring onto the guide bushing, and clamp the “three squares” template flush with a corner of the tabletop.
Rout the perimeter of the template, and then gradually carve out the center of the recess with your router. Since the design is fairly small, it only takes a couple passes with the router to clean out the recess.
Now switch to the “curved stem” template, and rout the shape in a similar fashion. Repeat the process on all four corners, and then remove the spacer ring from the guide bushing to make some maple pieces for the inlay. Use the same templates to cut the maple stock, but only make one clockwise pass, keeping the router bushing tight to the template.
Number the squares to match the template, and pay attention to grain orientation. Remember, this is a hand-cut template, so the size of the three squares may vary slightly. By numbering the squares and template, you’ll ensure each part fits like a glove.
Round the corners of the tabletop if desired, and ease the edges with a roundover bit. I tested some stains on a sample inlay to get an idea of what the finished product would look like.
I found an oil-based stain that subtly darkened the walnut, but maintained good contrast with the maple inlay. My topcoat of choice was two coats of pre-catalyzed lacquer in a satin sheen. Once the topcoat cured, I wet-sanded with a #1500-grit soft sanding sponge and some tap water.
The last detail that remains is attaching the top with figure-8 fasteners. I used 3 fasteners on each apron, for a total of 12. Recess the figure-8 fasteners with a Forstner bit on the inboard side of the aprons for a concealed look. Reinstall the recessed leg levelers, and put your new table on display.
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