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

London plane nesting tables

Nesting tables - dovetail detail

Pair of nesting tables in London plane with sycamore drawer

The clients for this project needed two little bedside tables for the guest bedroom in their period house which would be able to 'nest', or slot into each other, when they weren't in use. The project brief was quite specific: the dimensions had to exactly fit the limited width and height available, the sides had to be solid and the tables would have to be easy to move.

A shelf and drawer would also be useful - they'd help to make the pieces more rigid and could house their visitors' keys, books, phones and iPads. The finish had to be durable enough to withstand spills from mugs or water jugs, and the timber had to match the mid-brown tones of the existing pieces in the room.

Presented with various wood samples. the clients quickly chose the London plane (Platanus x acerifolia) that I milled and air-dried back in 2010. The timber is in great condition, and an oven test confirmed that after three years on the stacks it's come down to a moisture level of 10.9%, just right for interior use.

The insides of the drawers will be in English sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), a pale timber traditionally chosen for drawer sides, backs and bottoms.

You can see pictures of the completed pieces here.

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Scroll down for progress on the project

Nesting tables - preliminary sketchAfter a first meeting in their house we agree on a rough outline design, with a simple half-moon cutout for the drawer instead of knobs or handles. The exceptional grain of quarter-sawn London plane will be striking enough without any added ornamentation.



 

Panelled door - Douglas fir logI make a full-size mock-up in plywood to test on site, checking the size and shape to make sure it clears the skirting boards, electrical sockets and bedroom door and won't impede guests getting into or out of bed. That helps us settle on the final height and width.



 

Nesting tables - front elevationThe first technical drawings set out the precise dimensions and construction details, including exposed joints throughout - a keynote of Arts and Crafts design. The shelf and the rails supporting the drawers will be fixed with through tenons, visible on the outside.



 

Panelled door - Douglas fir logMeanwhile the corner joints on both tables will be made up with a row of eight big through dovetails, with the dark end grain of the tails and the 'pins' - the narrow keys between each tail - contrasting vividly with the lighter long grain of the carcase faces.



 

Nesting tables - London plane timber Even a relatively small commission like this uses a lot of timber - around 4 cubic feet of plane, each board chalked up with its intended use. But before I can start cutting them up I need to 'skim' off the weathered surface to take a good look at the figure beneath.



 

Nesting tables - skimming boards by handMost of the boards I'm using are too long and heavy to put on the planer/thicknesser so I use an old Stanley plane with a blade made by Ron Hock in cryogenically treated A2 tool steel. I put a shallow camber on the blade so it cuts through the rough timber beautifully.



 

Nesting tables - close-up of lacewood figureWithin minutes you can see the grain revealed, the highly desirable 'lacewood' found in quarter-sawn London plane. These dark-coloured flecks and bars come from cutting through the medullary rays, long tubes of cells that transport nutrients outwards from the heart.



 

Nesting tables - deeping board on bandsawThe plane boards are thicker than I need, so rather than plane off and waste the surplus I 'deep' the skimmed timber in the bandsaw, cutting one thick and one thin strip off each plank. I can use the thinner stock on a later project, perhaps for making laminated rails.



 

Nesting tables - sawn componentsNow I can square up the boards in the planer/thicknesser and match them to make up the wide panels I need. Quarter-sawn wood - cut so that the annual growth rings run perpendicular to the face - is very stable and I'd expect the panels to hardly move at all in use.



 

Nesting tables - cramping up carcase componentsI plane a shallow hollow on the edge of each board, lengthwise and widthwise, to provide the best possible mating surface for gluing and cramping them together. The longest panel will become the bigger table, the next longest the smaller one, and the shortest the shelf.



 

Nesting tables - marking up panelsThere's more hand-plane smoothing to do before I can cut the panels into sections. I use a low-angle plane by Veritas and a high-angle wooden coffin smoother from planemaker Phil Edwards. Both produce these thin, almost transparent, curly shavings.



 

Nesting tables - marking up panelsAfter flattening a reference edge on each panel I can go ahead with marking up the lines where I'll cross-cut each longer panel into two sides and a top. I use an F grade pencil, chiselled to a point. That's finer than HB but not so hard that it will cut into the wood surface.



 

Nesting tables - cramping up  Nesting tables - cross-cutting panelsI'll rip any excess width off the panels on the table saw and switch to this cross-cut blade for sawing the individual sections. The electric saw is pretty accurate, but I still use mitre planes with an old-style shooting board to square the ends and edges to exactly 90 degrees.



 

Nesting tables - shooting ends squareThe wooden skew mitre plane - with the blade tilted at 20 degrees - takes a lot of material off the hard London plane end-grain; the low-angle smoother does a finer trim. I check the angles repeatedly with a digital gauge which can measure them to 0.1 degree.



 

Nesting tables - marking up tenonsThe joinery begins with the twin tenons for the drawer rails. Precision is vital: these tenons will have to slide smoothly into matching mortices and will be exposed. I can't afford any gaps so I set up the marking tool using a depth gauge accurate to 0.02mm.



 

Nesting tables - sawing twin tenonsIt takes years to learn how to saw with pinpoint accuracy. I find it helps to use the reflection in the polished metal blade to keep the saw exactly vertical as you work down the gauged line. You can immediately see if you've started to wobble away from the line.



 

Once the cheeks and shoulders of the joint are cut I need to remove the material between the twin tenons. With tiny joints like these I use a very fine jeweller's piercing saw to take away most of the waste, then a narrow chisel to pare away whatever's left.



 

Nesting tables - routing stopped grooveThe drawer in the larger table will be closed off at the back with a rebated panel. I use a plough plane to cut the grooves required in the rail and the tabletop, but a hand router (pictured) for the short vertical groove in the carcase sides, which has to be "stopped".



 

Nesting tables - chisels for morticingWith the twin tenons cut and the grooves for the back panel in place, I can start chopping mortices. It takes a wide range of chisels to do the job: bevel-edged chisels, registered chisels and sash mortice chisels. They all need regrinding and honing before work can begin.



 

Nesting tables - chopping twin mortices for drawer railsThe 6mm sash mortice chisel pictured here does most of the heavy work chopping out the mortices to house the twin tenons. It takes a lot of pounding with a solid wooden mallet to make a deep, narrow cavity like this, and a lot of concentration to keep it straight.



 

Nesting tables - completed twin mortices for drawer railThese joints will be exposed on the outside so a tight fit is critical. I pare the edges of each mortice back to the line with fine bevel-edged chisels and clean up the inside so the tenons can slide in without sticking. They should never need to be hammered home.



 

Nesting tables - boring through mortices for shelfNow I can get going on the joints for attaching the shelf to the carcase. These mortices - four in a row - are seriously big so I bore out a lot of the waste first with a brace and bit. The brace is early 20th century English but the bits are early 21st century Japanese.



 

Nesting tables - completed through mortices for shelfThe through mortices are strong and practical, but they also make a pleasing visual feature. There's no traditional ornamentation on most of the the pieces I make; all the decoration comes from the colour and figure of the wood and the engineering of the joints.



 

Nesting tables - chNesting tables - sawing out waste between through tenonsI saw the matching tenons with a large fine ripsaw, then cut away the waste with the piercing saw and a coping saw. I use the hand router to make sure all the shoulders are cut to exactly the same depth so the tenons accurately mate with the mortices.



 

Nesting tables - bevelled end to through tenonI use a cabinetmaker's rasp to cut a 2mm chamfer around the tip of each tenon, which will reduce friction and ease it through the mortice. The tenons are deliberately cut too long so I can plane the chamfer flush later. That's going to give the joint a nice crisp finish.



 

Nesting tables - bevelled tenons visible through carcaseI 'dry-cramp' the shelf into the sides of the table (without using any glue) to test the fit of the mortices and tenons. These are difficult joints to make, but worthwhile. You can see the exposed through tenons sticking out here between the heads of the sash cramps.



 

Nesting tables - dovetail saw linesNow it's time to start sawing the four rows of dovetails. Cutting any joint so you can see it from the outside is inevitably harder than the conventional equivalent. 'Lapped' dovetails, like you find on high-quality drawers, are easier to make than these through dovetails.



 

Nesting tables - protecting surface while sawing dovetailsSawing dovetails is slow going and the little saw sometimes binds as the tensions are released in the wood. As you try to force the saw through it can suddenly jump out of the cut and dent the surface. I try to protect the face of the piece with an offcut of plywood or MDF.



 

Nesting tables - cutting first dovetailsThe first dovetails to emerge from the saw are the ones at the end of each row. All it takes is a little horizontal cut in from the edge, which quickly takes out a wedge of waste wood and reveals the familiar dovetail shape, like the fanned tail feathers of a dove.



 

Nesting tables - sawing waste from dovetailsGetting rid of the waste from between the tails takes a bit longer. At its narrowest, the gap (or 'socket') is only a couple of millimetres across, but once you've sawn carefully across from one tail to the next you can simply tap the waste piece out through the slot.



 

Nesting tables - completed dovetailsHere's what the two sides of the little table look like when the dovetails are completed. This is the easy bit: from now on it gets tougher. I have to transfer the exact measurements from these tails to the table top, to make the 'pins' that will slot between them.



 

Nesting tables - marking up dovetail pinsI carefully lay each side in turn against the matching edge of the table top and score between the tails with a home-made marking tool. It's just a piece of thin steel from an old sawblade, bevelled and sharpened so it can mark accurately right into the farthest corner.



 

Nesting tables - sawing waste from dovetail pinsOnce the outlines of the pins are scribed into the wood I saw down them with the dovetail saw and gradually cut out the waste from between them. I like the pattern this makes when the waste is half removed: it looks to me like the waves from a Japanese woodblock.



 

Nesting tables - completed dovetail pinsWhat you end up with is essentially the negative image of a dovetail, with each pin located precisely where it can slide into the opposite socket and an empty space where the tail will sit. The pins are very narrow, but they'll make an exceptionally strong and rigid joint.



 

Nesting tables - test-fitting dovetails into pinsIf the tails and pins are marked and cut correctly, they'll slide into one another without too much pressure, but there's usually a little paring needed to smooth out the fitting. Big, heavy dovetails like these should never be pushed further than halfway at this stage.



 

Nesting tables - gluing upGluing-up is always a bit stressful. A lot can go wrong, especially when you're trying to close up so many joints simultaneously before the glue dries. I end up using one sash cramp per dovetail, and leaving one in place for a little longer on one particularly tight joint.



 

Nesting tables - mortice damaged by through tenonThings don't always go according to plan. As I'm planing the through tenons flush to the surface of the carcase, I notice that one of them has broken the edge of its mortice as it was being cramped in tight. The damage is only minor but if I do nothing it will be very noticeable.



 

Nesting tables - repairing damaged morticeThe glue has penetrated beneath the break and hardened, so the little flake is now held firm a couple of millimetres proud of the surface. I use a cranked chisel to carefully lever it up, then a 1.5mm chisel to remove the glue and excavate a little chamber beneath it.



 

Nesting tables - gluing up repaired morticeI dab a spot of PVA adhesive into the cavity and another on to the underside of the flake. With some judicious cramping I can get the damaged section to lie totally flat. After it's been cleaned up with the smoothing plane, the repair should be virtually invisible.



 

Nesting tables - rebates cut with plough planesBefore cutting dovetails for the bigger table I need a rebated panel for the back of the drawer section. I rebate it using a pair of Veritas plough planes. Ploughing works best if you plane with the grain, so you need left- and right-handed models to match the grain direction.



 

Nesting tables - handhold shaped with spokeshaveThe back panel has a half-moon-shaped handhold, matching the drawer front, which will help the owners grasp the table to move it around. I shape it by hand, starting with a coping saw, then a fine rasp, and finally this 'compassed' (round-bottomed) spokeshave.



 

Nesting tables - dry-cramping drawer railsYou can see the back panel here slotted into the rear drawer rail and the carcase sides as I test the fit. You can also spot the two 'runners' fitted loosely into grooves between the front and rear rails. These provide the support that the drawer will run on.



 

Nesting tables - completed dovetails for large tableCutting the dovetails for the larger table follows the same process as for its smaller sibling. Butted together, the dovetails for the left- and right-hand sides make a pleasing pattern against the stopped grooves for the rear panel and the twin mortices for the drawer rails.



 

The final piece is the drawer for the bigger table. The two sides, the longer, narrower back and the solid-wood drawer bottom (not shown here) are all made from creamy sycamore, while the darker front, with its half-moon handhold, is from quartersawn plane.



 

Nesting tables - completed drawer dovetail socketsThe big difference from the carcase dovetails is that the joints for the drawer front are what's known as lapped dovetails. They don't go all the way through, so they're not exposed from outside. Here you can see the sockets I've cut in the drawer front and the pins in between.



 

Nesting tables - ploughing groove for drawer bottomThe groove in the drawer front, and the matching grooves in the sides, are all cut with plough planes. Once you get the hang of ploughing grooves it's just as fast and accurate as using an electric router. You do have to pay close attention to grain direction, though.



 

Nesting tables - moulding drawer backI also use a traditional handplane for curving the top edge of the drawer back: a half-inch moulding plane, one of five made for me by Phil Edwards at Philly Planes in Dorset. Backs are conventionally lower than sides to cut resistance when the drawer is closing.



 

Nesting tables - planing lapped dovetails flushThe beauty of the lapped dovetail lies in the contrast between the tails and the pins and sockets - the dark wood of the London plane end-grain against the pale, rippled figure of the sycamore. I always leave my pins and sockets proud and smooth them for a clean finish.



 

Nesting tables - completed drawerThe lapped dovetails make a pleasing feature when you open the completed drawer. High-quality English cabinetmakers' dovetails are known for their fine pins. It takes a lot of skill to leave barely 2mm between the tips of each tail, although top makers can better that.



 

Nesting tables - drawer stopsThe very last joinery job is to make the drawer stops - the little bits of wood on the rails that make sure the drawer comes to rest in precisely the right place. I've found the most accurate method is to make tiny blocks to the exact height and depth needed.



 

Nesting tables - drawer stops from underneathYou can see the two drawer stops from underneath in this picture. Each has a groove cut into it which allows the stop to fit into the same groove that's used for the adjacent drawer runners. If they're a fraction too big you can trim them with a small shoulder plane.



 

Nesting tables - construction completedFinally the two tables and the drawer are complete. They nest well together - a simple, functional unit, with no applied ornamentation. The exposed joints and the striking grain of the London plane are more than enough decoration for small pieces like these.



 

Nesting tables - interior masked for finishingNow I can take them over to the spray shop. Duncan Strong at Strong Finishing in east London is applying two-part polyurethance for a durable finish, but first I mask the drawer area with masking tape and cartridge paper to make sure that doesn't get sprayed.