Making a Dining Room Table for a Friend
The week before Thanksgiving seems apropos for talking about table-making. It is sort of my trend, after all. This year's attempt, like the previous, was fueled by necessity and budgetary limitations (as well as an unbridled presumption that "Yeah, I could totally make that."). I'll try to limit the exasperating and self-deprecating disclaimers by unloading them all upfront. I don't really know what I'm doing. But I don't like sacrificing my design or letting my clients down. Basically, I'm naive enough to assume with a manageable plan I can figure it all out. Mostly, I google and troubleshoot unceasingly (and receive useful and patient help from your husband - Ed.)
This philosophy is how I found myself on my back steps one July afternoon, circular saw in hand, slicing down and notching out 4x4 posts and other framing lumber. This is also where I should mention I don't have an adequate woodworking station so essentially utilize any surface available. (I told you I don't really know what I'm doing).
I'd determined to make a table for Darby after searching endlessly, but not finding the right one for the space. Highly inspired by the discontinued Ikea Edefors table, I was after something with similarly simple and clean lines. After studying the shape it seemed totally doable. I came across this farmhouse table plan and with a few tweaks used it as my guide.
So with my left hand bracing a piece of lumber overhanging the stair tread, and my right carrying the full weight of the saw, I repeatedly sliced notch after notch after notch into those 4x4s (and two 2x4s). I followed this workout with a hammer and chisel routine in which I chipped and pounded away the remaining strips of clinging wood until I had six hollowed out grooves grimacing back at me. Later that evening I felt the afterglow of a hard day's work in the form of debilitating pain coursing up and down my arm – what I can only believe were gelatinous-like tendons now the strength and consistency of used dental floss.
Still, the progress was invigorating because in one day I had the table base built and ready for sanding.
After a few days spent idly admiring my handiwork (and regaining the use of my right arm) I partially dismantled it and lugged it back outside to sand. Post sanding, I again lugged it all back upstairs to begin the staining process (because, in my world, staining wood in an upstairs room across from my bedroom mostly makes sense).
I knew I wanted a light-toned table, but sometimes if not careful that can read super 90s. Instead, I was after something a little more natural – where you could still see the wood grain, and the stain neither looked too red or yellow. After some research I settled on Rustoleum in Wheat.
Any responsible woodworker would always test his stain on an inconspicuous area before committing fully. Not me. I slathered it on my unadulterated wood like Cool Whip on Pumpkin Pie – only to realize too late my hue was really dark and, just what I feared, a golden reddish yellow. After a few attempts to remove the color with some sanding I was left with this:
When sanding didn't remove as much as I'd hoped I just decided to keep barreling forward. I applied about three coats of polyurethane to the base and watched the color grow darker and darker. Grrr.
Despite my staining missteps I pressed on – which looked like hauling home a 4x8' hardwood plywood board and various other trim pieces strapped to the roof of my car. I wanted a clean lined, solid tabletop showcasing beautiful woodgrain. Fortunately, this time around I was able to get the plywood board and all of the poplar trim cut to my exact specifications while at the store (no more circular saw action needed!). And I purposefully chose not to miter the edges based on my inexperience. Then I just used wood glue and nails to attach the trim.
Once it was time to stain the top I wrestled with what color to use. The wood was so beautiful I didn't want to just slap on the same stain as I'd used on the base and be done with it. I had a can of Minwax Golden Oak on hand and decided to try it and Rustoleum Wheat on a sample piece of wood. Golden Oak was clearly the winner and the color I'd imagined the table being from the start. After I got over my self-loathing for not using it in the first place I applied a few coats and was instantly so happy with the results.
There's a lot of chatter on the internet about not over sanding a piece of hardwood plywood to avoid damaging the thin layer of veneer. I was so afraid of doing this that I didn't sand it much at all. Ooops. I just started applying coats of polyurethane, lightly hand-sanding in between. It took me five coats – each time thinking the next would make it smooth – before realizing it wasn't going to happen until I used the electric sander. After doing so I applied another four coats and then it was perfect.
It sat in my living room for just a little longer before finally moving into place at Darby's. Now that it's finished, yes, there are definitely things I would change. However, those imperfections seem negligible after witnessing and receiving Darby's excitement and gratitude as she gushed about the beauty and symbolism of having a table, handmade for her by her friend, in the heart of her home for all her favorite people to gather 'round.
* Photos at Darby's house taken by Bethany Gilbert