Jeff Segal Cabinetmaker - Handmade furniture in the Arts and Crafts tradition

Elm coffee table

Elm coffee table - isometric view

Display coffee table in solid Scottish elm with two sycamore drawers and glass panels

This project grew out of the clients' requirements for a practical coffee table that would also display their treasured collectibles under a glass top. The design is totally functional: the three-tiered frame and the six legs are just a skeleton, with no conventional rails to hold them together. Instead, the sides, fronts and backs of the two drawers act as the 'infill' between the uprights and horizontals, like the lath and plaster of a half-timbered house.

The drawer pulls mimic the shape of the middle rails, and when the drawers are slid out, you can see right through the structure. The whole piece has a classic modernist feel, echoing the clients' favourite furniture, while the curved outline of the rails matches the bullnose mouldings on their Edwardian windowsills.

The frame and legs are made in wych elm (Ulmus glabra) from Scotland and jointed with big exposed dovetails. The drawers, built in contrasting English sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), are subdivided into compartments to house little decorative objects.

You can see pictures of the completed piece here.

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Elm coffee table - elm stack at woodyardThe elm for this project comes from W. L. West, a sawmill and timber merchant near Petworth in West Sussex, and was grown in Dumfries and Galloway, southwest Scotland. It's worth spending a few hours in the sheds selecting the best material from among the stacks.


Elm coffee table - sycamore stack at woodyardI also buy a few boards of English sycamore at W. L. West for the drawer components. Sycamore - our naturalised version of the maple - is traditionally favoured for drawer sides for its whiteness. Here I'm using it throughout the drawers for its contrast with the darker elm.


Elm coffee table - measuring boards at woodyardSome of the smaller boards have to be measured and priced on the spot in the sheds. Staff use a traditional gauge to quickly measure volume in 'board feet' (or nowadays the metric equivalent). A board foot is one foot (or 12 inches) long, one foot wide and one inch thick.


Frame components loosely assembledTimber from certified sustainable sources can be identified by the barcode tags hammered into each board when it’s first sawn. These barcodes record details of the forestry 'chain of custody' and prove the timber was sourced from reputable forests and suppliers.


Elm coffee table - elm boards at workshopOnce the wood is in my workshop it's possible to begin to appreciate its size and quality. I always buy my timber waney-edged - with the bark removed but the outline of the tree still intact. The heart of the tree can often be rotten or shattered and it has to be sawn out.


Elm coffee table - elm bark beetle galleriesBeneath the bark you can see galleries where elm bark beetles have fed and laid their eggs. They carry the fungus that causes Dutch elm disease. English elms were ravaged in the 1970s but Scottish trees are more resistant and can live to 50 years or so before succumbing.


Elm coffee table - skimmed timberThe timber has to be conditioned to the workshop humidity before it can be cut to the required size. That means 'skimming' off the outer surface on the planer and letting the wood acclimatise for two or three weeks. That way you can minimise movement at a later stage.


Elm coffee table - green stripe in timberSkimming exposes the grain, with its strong contrast between the light 'earlywood' (or spring growth) and the denser 'latewood'. But it also shows up these green stripes, which are characteristic of wych elm and help distinguish it from the English elm (Ulmus procera).


Elm coffee table - green stripe in timberAfter a few weeks the wood is ready to be machined to rough dimensions, then accurately squared and smoothed with hand planes. Elm can be unpredictabe, so you need different sized planes and irons (blades) with varying pitches to cope with difficult grain.


Elm coffee table - green stripe in timberApart from oiling when the table is finished, I won't do anything more to the surface beyond this initial planing. Sanding just scratches, clogs and dulls the grain, while a well-tuned smoother can bring out the lustre of the wood and highlight features like this colourful wave.


Elm coffee table - green stripe in timberNext I match the six pieces for the legs, choosing a position for each one - front, back, middle or corner - that shows off each face to its best advantage. The end grain of the legs is going to be visible on the tabletop , so it's worth paying a lot of attention to that too.


Elm coffee table - replacement piece for damaged areaOccasionally the timber gets damaged in preparation and there's no alternative but to repair it. Here's I've come across serious 'tear-out', where the surface deteriorates the more you plane. The answer is to cut round the damage and carefully insert a closely matching piece.


Elm coffee table - completed repair to damaged areaMaking the insert triangular - preferably dart-shaped - helps makes it unobtrusive, and once it's been planed level it begins to blend into the surrounding wood. It's located right at the foot of one leg and only about 40mm long, and it'll become practically invisible with age.


Elm coffee table - components loosely assembledOnce the legs are completed you can begin to see how the completed table will look by balancing the top rails in position. They'll be dovetailed into the end grain of the six legs, with the joints exposed. Beneath them will be another two levels of matching rails.


Elm coffee table - asymmetrical dovetailsEach top rail has two hand-cut dovetails at either end. The central ones are equal-sized, but on the corner legs they have to be asymmetrical - one big and one small - to avoid clashing with their neighbours. It's an unusual configuration, but an attractive one.


Elm coffee table - ripping tenon with ryoba sawThe joints in the two lower levels are mostly mortices and tenons and halving joints. Some of the elm is pretty dense and my Western-style rip-tooth backsaws don't make much of an impression on the tenons. The only saw that gets through easily is this Japanese ryoba.


Elm coffee table - ploughing rebateThe top rails have to accommodate two panels of 10mm thick tempered glass dropped into a rebate. When the dovetails are finished I plough the rebates with my old Stanley 45 combination plane. As long as the grain is in the right direction it's a breeze.


Elm coffee table - green stripe in timberThe outside face of each rail is gently curved. I shape the mouldings by hand, starting with my vintage Stanley no.7 jointer plane, moving through a chrome Clifton concave spokeshave and then a wooden-handled Woodjoy shave, and finishing with a curved cabinet scraper.


Elm coffee table - leg and rail connected with halving joint Once all the dovetails, tenons, rebates and mouldings are done I cut notches, or cross-halvings, in the centre of the lower rails and matching halvings in the legs. As I gently ease the bottom rail into the rear leg you can start to see the whole frame fitting together.


Elm coffee table - cutting dovetail sockets and pinsThen it's time to start working on the legs. First I chop the mortices, then I cut the sockets for the dovetails to fit into. That means carefully marking them up, sawing along the knife line, taking two of three rough cuts into the waste and chiselling the waste away.


Elm coffee table - corner and centre dovetail socketsIt's hard and heavy work, cutting into 70mm thick elm. Each corner leg takes two pairs of twin dovetails - one large, one small - and it takes about three hours to make each complete pair. The two central legs have a pair of equal-sized dovetails slotting into a bridle joint.


Elm coffee table - multiple jointsTesting out the central joints shows how many variations you need in a piece like this. At the top there's the bridle and twin dovetail; below that a stub tenon for the middle rib; then a cross-halving for the lower rail. The rail itself is double-morticed to take the bottom rib.


Elm coffee table - cutting mitresBefore the whole carcase can go together I have to cut 45-degree mitres into the rebates for the glass top and the drawer runners built into the bottom rails. These can only be done by hand, using an old sliding bevel to mark the angle and a sharp chisel to cut them.


Elm coffee table - cramping carcaseGlueing up is a problem. It's a complex job, demanding an adhesive that can stay flexible for several hours. I use urea formaldehyde, but the overnight temperatures in the workshop are too low for the glue to set. That means bringing all the components and cramps home.


Elm coffee table - completed carcaseYou have to plan the glue-up months in advance, when you're designing the joints, otherwise it can prove impossible. It takes three days to do this one, with sash cramps fixed lengthways, back to front and top to bottom (to pull in the dovetails and bridle joints).


Elm coffee table -  chopping lap dovetailsWith the frame mostly done, I can start on the drawers. I'm using a lovely creamy sycamore, which smooths beautifully under the hand plane. The drawer fronts use traditional lapped dovetails, with the waste carefully chopped out so the joint is only visible from the side.


Elm coffee table -fitting lap dovetailsIf your dovetails are accurate, fitting them into their sockets is easy. I gently push them in only halfway to test the fit - anything more can damage the joint, especially if you knock them in repeatedly. The groove is to house the hand-made solid sycamore drawer bottoms.


Elm coffee table - drawer clamped for glueingAccurate clamping is vital to make the drawers square and the sides parallel. I cut MDF templates to fit each row of joints so the side-to-side clamping pressure is the same for each tail. Then I switch the cramps to pull the lapped dovetails tight against the drawer front.


Elm coffee table - drawer fitted into frameThe sides and fronts need a tiny bit of trimming before the drawers glide in and out smoothly. It's often necessary to plane off a few more shavings once the finished piece is delivered, since humidity levels are usually higher in domestic interiors than in the workshop.



The glass arrives from the glaziers and I test it out for accuracy and fit with a mug of tea and a plate of ginger cake. I've specified 10mm thick toughened glass for safety and durability, with a one-millimetre bevel all round. That ensures there are no sharp edges or corners.


Elm coffee table - drawer dividersThe drawer dividers are made from sycamore 'deeped' to 5mm thick. Deeping means passing a thick board slowly through the bandsaw to make several thinner pieces. I cut 'halvings' across each one - slots reaching half the width - and push them together into a grid.


Elm coffee table - carving fingerholds for drawer handlesThe drawer handles mimic the central rails on the sides and back of the carcase, so when the drawers are closed there will be a consistent look throughout. I use a carver's spoon gouge to dig out two half moon-shaped fingerholds on the underside of each handle.


Elm coffee table - handle attached to drawer frontFinally I glue and screw in the handles (with the only screws used in the whole construction), mould the front edges into a curve with a spokeshave and cut a bevel at each end to match the profile of the other rails. The only job remaining is to finish the table with oil.