Selecting The Boards

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The first step in building anything is selecting the wood. While this is the first step in making a table top. it's also the first problem.

The building of a table top involves joining several boards. But the finished product should negate this process. . . the top should look like it's one homogeneous piece, not just a bunch of boards stuck together.

Of course, we're dealing with wood, not plastic or paint. Each board is going to be different, but matching the boards for grain pattern and color should be done with a degree of care and sensitivity. And though all the boards can't be identical twins, they should at least be kissing cousins.

Once the boards are selected, lay them out in the order they will be joined. Then, just to keep things straight, 1 draw a large triangle (called a carpenter's triangle)

I can't deny that alternating the ' grain of each board makes sense. f Problems do arise just because of the nature of wood ... it moves: shrinks, swells, warps, twists, and cups. This movement is caused by absorption or release of moisture. In the old days when almost all wood was air dried, wood continued to move for many years. But nowadays, almost all wood is kiln dried. And this reduces many of these problems.

Also, in the old days table tops were made of very wide boards. The wider the board, the greater chance of cupping. (Cupping is when a board 'curls', forming a U-shaped concave or convex arch across its width.) Most hardwood sold today is only available in relatively narrow widths. This is actually an advantage. In fact, even if wide boards are purchased, they should be ripped down to 4" or 5" in width.


To get the width necessary for a table top, several boards must be glued together, edge to edge. Spending a little extra time at this stage will save hours of work later.

So, what's the best way to join the boards? With dowels? With splines?

Many books describe the use of dowels or splines when joining boards edge to edge for a table top. It's usually said that dowels or splines strengthen the joint. I think that's a little misleading. The real purpose of dowels or splines is to get the boards flush across the top. If you're not extremely careful when aligning the dowel holes, or the grooves for the spliens, you're just defeating the whole purpose.

So how do you join the boards?

I just put some glue on the edges and clamp them together — a good old butt joint. This simple joint has received a lot of bad press. It's true that you can't join the end of one board (short grain) to the edge of another board (long grain) with glue only. But joining edge to edge (long grain to long grain) does produce a good glue joint, one that's quite strong.

However, whether you use dowels, splines or just a butt joint, there's no point in even applying the glue unless the edges of the boards are square with the top (face). Here we get into an area that's fraught with debate.

How do you square up the edges?

Here's what I do. I checkmy table saw to make sure the blade is perpendicular to the table. Then I rip a clean edge on the boards. If it's hardwood, 1 use a 40-tooth carbide tipped blade. If it's softwood. I use a hollow-ground planer blade. That's it. You can, if you have a jointer, clean the saw marks off the edges. If you don't have a jointer, you've just saved yourself the cost of another piece of equipment and one more step.

Now I'm ready to glue up the boards. Well, not quite yet. This is where patience is important. I place the boards on a flat surface (the top of the table saw) and push them together with hand pressure.

If the joint between the twro boards is tight, I'm half-way there. Next, I flip the boards over and check the joint on the bottom side. If this joint is tight, I'm all the way there. If not, it probably means that the saw blade is not really set at 90°.

It's not necessary to reset the blade and rip new edges. Just take one board and place it on the saw with the face side down this time. Now rip a new edge. What this does, in effect, is produce a bevel-rip joint. One board is beveled to the right, the other is beveled the same amount to the left. Thus, the two edges will be flush.

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