Three legged table poses more than a few challenges

Three little legs - lotsa carving - lotsa angles

 Wallace Nutting,”godfather” of American Colonial furniture authorities, mentions that three-legged tables are fairly rare in the U.S.   According to Mr. Nutting the explanation for this is reasonably straightforward, a table with three legs is considerably more difficult to build, especially when the legs are also raked. 

Well, I decided to build a small decorative piece, just to see how difficult it really was.  Just to add to the degree of difficulty, I thought I’d throw in a little carving, as well.  Can anyone say “masochism”? 


Okay, an equilateral triangle has three sides coming together at three sixty degree corners, right?  How tough can it be?  You set your bevel, you make your guidelines, build the table.  Simple enough.  So…let’s up the ante a little, let’s rake the legs 4 or 5 degrees, just for fun.  Get out your old plane geometry book and figure it out.  When that doesn’t work, build a little mock-up of the base from cardboard, it’s a big help. 


So, in laying out the legs you’ve got to have two surfaces where mortises can be placed for the aprons and stretchers.  Theoretically, the section of the leg blank could be a parallelogram, but that would be an unnecessary waste of material.  A six-sided section is the most efficient.  I rough cut the leg blanks on my table saw (yes, I do occasionally use tools that require electricity), then constructed a planing jig to insure that the surfaces were true to one another.  Go to Roy Underhill’s Woodwright Shop and check out the episodes on the Barley Twist table (2006-2007 Season) and watch them online.  Lay out of the legs is well explained.  You can also reference one of Roy’s books that discusses that particular project. 


Never content to do anything the easy way, I decided that I’d use this little table to practice my low relief carving.  The legs are carved in a twist pattern and, once again, Underhill provides excellent instruction in the Barley Twist episode.  

I decided that the aprons should have a little decoration and chose a pattern from Frederick Wilbur’s “Carving Classical Styles in Wood”.  The stretchers are decorated with a panel of fish scales.  The scales should have been a little larger so they would have been more defined, but the overall effect is acceptable. 


Once all the mortises and tenons were cut, the base was assembled.  As I had thought, some trimming was required to get all the joints to seat properly.  “Kerfing In” is a method of using a saw to re-establish the shoulder of a tenon in relationship to the stile into which it is being fitted.  Kerfing a barn timber doesn’t require that you be concerned about marring up the surface of the post.  However, after you spend hours turning and carving the legs of your table, you prefer not to scratch them with a saw.  So, I used a metal rule to provide a constant offset dimension, in lieu of the saw itself.  After taking the base apart, I recut the shoulders in order to “true” them to their reference surfaces.  Upon re-assembling the base, I found that this method worked very well. 


My first thought about the top was to make it circular.  But when I laid the top on, it became apparent that from certain viewing angles, it made the table look very asymmetrical.  So I opted for a triangular top.  I decided to make the top from three triangular sections.  It required some patient joining, but the visual effect is very pleasing.  However, I am more than a little concerning that seasonal movement may become an issue as the fibres on the long side of each triangular piece have greater potential for shrinkage than their shorter brethren in the middle of the top.  I’m keeping fingers crossed that the use of well seasoned walnut and many, many coats of tung oil varnish will minimize movement. 

All in all, this little Renaissance inspired occasional table proved to be a challenge.  But, I’m pleased with the outcome and glad that it forced me to get back to the blogging after my nearly sixty day hiatus.

Explore posts in the same categories: handtools, woodcarving, woodturning

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