An American Trestle Table (guest post)

Editor’s note: In America, we celebrate Thanksgiving today and as we gather around tables with those we love I could think of no better way to mark this day than with a story about a table and its family. Just a few posts ago I mentioned a table that had inspired me while doing an image search on the internet and within a week I found out that the person responsible for bringing that table into being was a regular reader of The Daily Skep. I couldn’t resist asking him to offer his thoughts on building the table and using it over the past year. That’s enough from me. I’ll turn it over to Eric.


An American Trestle Table

by Eric Stefl

I knew I wanted to build this table as soon as I saw it on the cover of Woodworking Magazine number 6. This was in late 2006, and I had just one problem – I didn’t need a table. We had just purchased a table not too long before, and I couldn’t justify replacing it. The idea of that table never left my mind, however, and I knew that one day I would have to build it.

Four years later, when Chris Schwarz released the Anarchist Tool Chest, that table returned to the front of my mind. I was enthralled with his tale of of three tables, and my resolve to one day build this table hardened. My problems were multiplying, though. My wife had just given birth to our first son, and I had just finished up a 3-n-1 crib and a dresser for him. My woodworking time was going to be severely limited for the next… forever. 16 months later my second son was born, and I of course had to build him a crib and a dresser as well.

My problems grew –  pretty much all woodworking had to cease. My shop was in the basement, and my sons slept right above the shop. The only time I was free to do woodworking was when they were sleeping – which meant I couldn’t do woodworking, lest I face the wrath of an awakened baby.

We were planning on having a 3rd child, and wanting some more space, so in 2013 we moved to a larger house… with a finished basement, precluding its use as a shop. I had to set up shop in the garage. This was… a process. I had to insulate, patch the floor, install heat, and (hardest of all) convince the wife that the garage was no place for cars! The good news, though, was we had a dining room and an eat in kitchen – and only one table! At last, my needs aligned with my desires.

In 2014 our third son was born (alas, I did not build him a crib or a dresser), and I was well on the way to transforming the garage into a shop.

This table would really become the tale of two tables – it fought me tooth and nail while being built, but turned into a docile kitten afterwards.

My grandparents had gifted me some excess 2 x 12’s that were leftover from construction of their house in 1978. I had used the majority of them for a bench top, but had just enough leftover for the base of the trestle table. I very carefully marked the pieces out of all the. Sure enough, I would have just enough. This was perfect! The first step was to make the legs, which required a through mortise and a notch on top perpendicular to the mortise. The key word being perpendicular. I ended up cutting the notch parallel to the mortise – on both legs – and not being able to figure out how the hell this thing was supposed to go together! I of course realized what I’d done. After much cursing, I realized that I did not in fact have enough of the 2 x 12 left to remake the legs. I did have some 8/4 poplar on hand, and I was planning on painting the base anyway, and I didn’t really have much of a choice. I was very disappointed, though, as I really wanted the base to be made entirely of the wood from the year I was born.

I completed the base without much further drama. I had sourced two beautiful walnut boards for the top. They were sequentially cut, 19” wide, and totally clear. No sap, no knots. Perfect. These boards were of course too big for any of my machines, so I got to work flattening one of them with hand planes. A #5 with a curved iron made quick work of flattening, and a #7 finished it off nicely. Things were going very well, and my excitement was growing. I set aside the now flat board and  put the second board on my bench. Disaster struck. Dismayed, I found that the board was bowed so badly that I could stick two fingers under it. All 215 lbs of me couldn’t make the board flat. I was crushed. I desperately called my wood supplier back, hoping he had some more of these boards (there were several more in the stack when I bought them). He said he thought he did, and I should come take a look.

When I got there, I realized that the remaining 3 boards had the same bow in them. Further, he said he didn’t stock many wide, defect free pieces, because his customers didn’t think they had enough character. They wanted knots, sapwood, wild grain, etc. Definitely not the look I was after. After confirming he had nothing else that would work (I wanted sequentially cut clear boards at least 10” wide, and was open to white oak, cherry, walnut, rift-sawn red oak, just about anything) I went back home, dejected. Time for plan B.

I visited a different local sawmill, looking for another option. After browsing for almost an hour, I came across three cherry boards that I thought would work. One side looked a bit rough, but the other side was completely clear. They weren’t sequentially cut, but I thought they were close enough that I could make it work. I bought three ~12” wide cherry boards and got to work.

At least I could fit these boards through my planer, I thought to myself. I’d still have to flatten each board by hand, but being able to use the planer to thickness them made the process go much more quickly. After I got the table glued up and flattened (again with my trust #5 and #7), it was time to breadboard the ends. I had just enough stock leftover to add breadboards to both ends (are you sensing a theme here?). I very carefully cut the tenon on one end of the top. I made three tenons with a continuous stub tenon. Beautiful! I went about chopping the mortises in the breadboards ends. I began by making a shallow mortise across the width to receive the stub. I then needed to deepen it in several areas to receive the tenons of the top. I carefully marked the locations I would need to deepen, and got out the brace and bit. I measured my depth, and marked it off on the bit with some blue tape. I got the first mortise drilled, and squared it with my chisel. Things were going well. I got to work on the second mortise. I heard a sickening sound – I had drilled too deep! I had ruined the work! And I had no more wood. Clearly, this table did not want breadboard ends.

I cut off the tenon, sanded the top, and applied my finish. My wife painted the base. It was time for finish and final assembly.

The anticipation was killing me – I had been dreaming of this table for 9 years, and here I was, about to set it up and put it to use. Would I like it? More importantly, would my wife? I admit, it had been a struggle to convince her about the form, and I think she was still skeptical. She’s a visual person, and I couldn’t find anything that looked exactly like how I wanted this table to look.

I completed assembly the table just a few days before it would receive its first workout – my family was coming over for Christmas. I don’t know what family gatherings are like in your house – but in mine, they are loud, boisterous, and much table pounding would ensue. The table would get a workout.

I am proud to say  it passed with flying colors. Even my 250 lbs uncle mercilessly beating the table like a red headed stepchild didn’t faze it. My wife ended up loving how it turned out, as did the rest of the guests.

We’ve been living with the table for a little less than a year now, and I absolutely love it. We’ve shared hundreds of meals at the table, had rousing games of Go fish, Tenzi, and Crazy Eights. Its been pounded on, stood on, jumped off of, it’s had silver wear slammed into it repeatedly, and it has become more beautiful every day. At 32” x 76” I think its just about the perfect size. It can fit 6 people comfortably, and 8 if you don’t mind getting cozy. I can reach across the entire table to clean it from one side, and I can easily lift it and move it to pick up to clean up all of the rice, noodles, spilled milk, peas, and whatever else finds its way underneath.

The top has begun to oxidize and darken. It has some dings and scratches, but honestly less than I thought it would. They don’t bother me. On the contrary, I think it makes the table look authentic. Used. Loved. If the ever gets too bad, it will be a simple matter to sand the top down and refinish. The base has gotten a bit dinged up, as well. My wife wasn’t a fan of this look, but 15 minutes with a paintbrush has made it look as good as new.

Thinking back to how much I was looking forward to building this table, and how much the table fought me during construction is all part of the appeal. I had to drag it kicking and screaming into existence – but once it got here, it’s been a dream. I think all of the trouble I had (granted, all of it self-inflicted) with it, and realize that is part of what endears me to the final process. I wouldn’t change a thing about how this table came to be.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve been eyeing that table since I read Chris’ article a few years ago. A dining room table is next on my list but I’ve had similar conversations with my wife about the look. She’s not a fan. I’m going for something slightly different but this table will always be the genesis. Thanks for sharing Eric.


    1. The first time my wife saw this table she didn’t like it. After showing her several dozen more I came back to this one and she appreciated it more. Perhaps I wore her down.


      1. She has actually worn me down a bit. We scored some choice walnut and I’m excited to see where it goes from here.


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