The Shakers were part of a larger 19th-century cultural cycle that became known as the Utopian Movement. By separating themselves from the world and basing their behavior on societal norms of their own determination, the Shakers and other groups attempted to create a better world — one small group at a time. Other groups, like the Millerites and the Amana Society, were similar in their separation, but the Shakers were unique in the degree to which their beliefs permeated nearly every aspect of their lives. Their spiritual beliefs affected everything from the way they preserved food to the clothing they wore, behavior regarding procreation and even the furniture they built. And that’s where this project finds its origins.
The table that these replicas are based on was built in the 1850s. I found an image of the table, along with some measured drawings, in an old book. Never having attempted an historic reproduction before, I approached the project with an increased level of curiosity and a degree of caution. The Shakers designed their furniture to be ultra-functional and soundly built but with an eye to being efficient with the wood (a concept common to woodworking today). They regularly used solid material that was resawn to 1/2″ to 5/8″ thickness, rather than our default 3/4″ thickness. Simplicity was a key element of beauty in their philosophy. Although lightly built, the fact that many of their pieces remain functional over a hundred years from their construction speaks to the strength of the joinery. And all of this was intentional. Once, when I was talking to woodworker Norm Abram about finding inspiration from projects of the past, he observed how folks who build Shaker projects these days often substitute thicker stock for the original dimensions and how negatively that small change affects the look of the pieces.
As I was getting started, I remembered that conversation and decided to be as true to the original piece as I could regarding the various component sizes. But when it came to the material I used, I decided to veer about as far from the original as I could and still remain on the planet.
It was impossible to determine from the black and white photo what species or combination of woods the original was built from. No doubt it was locally harvested and cured (another concept that is coming back into vogue). What I could see was that it was painted, and so for that reason the type of wood was not aesthetically important. For my tables, I decided to find some exceptionally beautiful wood and incorporate it into the simple Shaker design. I used highly figured flame maple for the legs, aprons and drawer fronts and, after a good deal of calling around, found some stunning maple in a clouded (or “bubble”) pattern for the tops.
Building from the Ground Up
I began by creating a Material List from the old measured drawings. Even though these drawings were exceedingly helpful, they left a couple of details out. First, how was the top attached to the underframe, and second, how was the drawer supported and guided? These two details ended up being interconnected, but I was unaware of that until later.
As I indicated earlier, I extended a significant amount of effort locating maple with very dramatic grain patterns. I also brought the stock into my shop and let it adjust to the environment for several days. I had decided in advance that I would use the tables on either side of my bed, so I selected sufficient wood to make two of them.
I started by making the legs (pieces 1) from flame maple stock. Although the final squared-up dimension of each leg is 13⁄16″, the heavy lumber I located was almost 13⁄4″ thick as I began. After carefully inspecting the material to get the best looking grain from the stock at hand, I rough cut pieces to about 30″ long and about 3″ wide. To create turning blanks for the legs, I started out on the jointer. I face-jointed the stock to get a perfectly flat plane on the wide face, then I jointed an adjacent edge so that it was straight and a perfect 90° to the first face. (Be sure you mark each piece so that you don’t confuse which two faces are trued up to one another.)
With the table saw blade set accurately to 90° to the table, I adjusted the fence to a distance of 13⁄16″ plus a bit — less than a 32nd of an inch strong — this extra dimension would be removed while I was sanding the legs later. I made the first cut on my roughed-out blank with the flat face down and the squared edge on the fence and then made the next cut in the remaining blank in the same fashion. Then I lowered the blade a bit and, with the squared faces once again on the table and against the fence, finished cutting out my leg turning blanks. While you could choose to mark out your mortises and chop them out now, I proceeded to the lathe first. My thought was if I messed something up while turning, or the leg decided it wanted to distort in some way after I removed material, I could discard it without having invested the time and effort of chopping the mortises.
I must confess to being more of an enthusiastic turner than an expert one. And what skill I have is as a result of the bowls that I turn. So, with a bit of research and some practice, I learned a few things about spindle turning while making these tables.
The legs have a 6″ long rectilinear section at their top but are cylindrical for most of their length with a gentle taper that starts 4″ from the bottom. They are not at all tricky to make, but if you are not experienced in spindle turning, I recommend turning a test leg from scrap stock to get things started. As I completed each leg, I sanded the turned section right up through 400-grit sandpaper. It was my plan from the get-go to put a silky smooth finish on the table, and surface preparation is key to that aim.
When I was done with the turned portion of the legs, I grabbed the lot of them and moved to my mortising machine. I laid out the mortise locations and set up the machine to chop out the material. The tenons will be 3/4″ long, so the mortises must be that, plus 1/16″. Don’t be surprised that the apron mortises intersect a bit on the back legs, it is just fine.
Once the mortises were done, it was time to sand the rectilinear sections of the leg up through the grits (once again I conclude with 400-grit, but I only machine sanded through 220-grit and finish sanded by hand later, after the underframe subassembly was put together).
To keep the parts square while doing all the machine sanding, I clamped them together in quadruples. Once I completed the machine sanding, I cut them to length and set them aside. I was ready to move on to the aprons and stretcher.