Restoring a family table

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Above: The owners of this vintage Tas oak table wanted it restored, but with its ‘original spirit’ left intact. 

Words and photos: Raf Nathan

People often love their family table and it is not an uncommon restoration job for a maker to receive. In this case a work friend wanted their heirloom restored. It wasn’t until work progressed that I realised I am the third person to build this table.

And so it begins

The table was first made possibly around 70 years ago. The wood appears to be what is loosely called Tasmanian oak, the commercial name for a group of eucalypt species such as messmate and mountain or alpine ash. Clear, straight quartersawn wood like this was commonly available then.


The table arrived at my workshop in terrible condition. The original polish had fully degraded and every joint of the top boards was open, possibly from being left out in the weather. All the leg to rail joints had broken some years ago and were held together with metal angle straps screwed in place. There were also a number of angled screws holding some of the top boards in place, plus the odd screw from the top of the legs into the rails.


To me this is not fine woodwork – rather it is practical woodwork. As a restoration, the aim was to clean it up but still retain its original ‘spirit’ – the owners weren’t wanting a new table.

New versus old

Unfortunately, rebuilding a piece like this is as much or more work than making a new table from new wood. The original wood was only in fair condition on the surface, with numerous cracks and splits.


The table has large 90 x 90mm legs with tapered inner faces and heavily rounded outer corners. With large and quite heavy legs there is always going to be an issue with the leg to rail joints giving way because of the leverage if the piece is roughly dragged around over any surface offering resistance.

From the top down

I numbered the top boards so they could go back into their original sequence after being removed. The boards were all bowed and impossible to straighten as I normally would do. After carefully checking for embedded metal, I planed the upper surfaces by running them through the thicknesser.


With a fresh clean face the board edges were all jointed on the planer and glued together in two stages. I glued the middle three boards together first, and later did a second glue-up, adding on the outer boards. This made it easier to align the edges as flush as possible.

Re-jointing each top board meant that about 10mm was removed in overall width. To maintain the original top overhang on the sides I had to remember that the end rails would need to be shortened by a corresponding 10mm to allow for this.


Metal and rust

While the top was in clamps with glue drying and curing for a couple of days I went to work on the frame. The joys of removing old, cheap and rusted slot-head screws and metal brackets! WD40 was sprayed on some of the more difficult screws, which were eventually removed. In fact the cordless drill did not help and all the screws needed hand unscrewing. One errant screw left behind can really damage your machinery – hit a hidden screw with a planer blade and chip the cutter, and you’re never going to be happy about that.


Joint replacement surgery

The original leg to rail joints used long 1/2" hardwood dowels, but nearly all of these were broken. My plan was to remove as much as possible of the old dowels, fill the holes with new dowels and then rejoint everything with large twin floating mortise and shopmade tenon joints.


It is a bit of a compromise with this sort of work, as there are limits to how strong you can make the joint, given the amount of previous drilling had been done for the original dowels. Filling the dowel holes with new dowel resulted in a mix of long and short grain but I made the decision to make a strong joint with sub-standard existing material.


Broken and loose dowels on the legs were removed and matching sized new dowel was glued in the original holes whilst torn wood was repaired with small pieces of similar wood glued in place.


I left the repairs to dry for a day or so and then planed the faces to a fresh clean surface on the jointer, keeping the inner faces square. The rails were fed through the thicknesser to clean up the outer show face only. With the wood cleaned up I could see that interestingly there were smaller dowels that had been added next to the large dowels, presumably by someone else who had come before me to repair the table once before. Like I said, I am the third person to build this table.


The domino was used to cut twin 30mm wide mortises as deep as possible, which is 28mm. The mortises in the legs need to be deepened for strength to accept a long tenon of at least 40mm or more. You can use a drill to remove most of the waste followed by a chisel to deepen the mortise. You could also make one large mortise and tenon, say 50mm wide and 50mm deep.

As shown above I used Victorian ash for the floating tenons and spent a lot of time doing test fits on all the joints to ensure everything lined up and the joint was neat and tight.


Frame adjustments


The ends of the short rails were sawn 5mm shorter at each end to compensate for the now narrower top. The long rails had a millimetre or so sawn off their ends to show a clean fresh edge. After first sanding all surfaces, the long rails and legs were glued up. These were left for a day or so for the glue to cure, and the frame was then completed by gluing in the end rails.



Short battens were clamped on the legs to give the clamps something to grip on; without these there is nothing for the clamp to pull against. Again these were left for two days for the glue to cure (I used a yellow glue). With the frame now complete it was detailed, meaning glue-squeeze out was removed, surfaces levelled and everything checked.

I also added in a centre rail to give the top a little more support in the middle. Given the state of the original wood, the new centre rail was cut to length and simply glued and nailed in place.


For any table I always add in mitred corner blocks to strengthen the leg to rail joint. In this case large hardwood blocks were made up and individually fitted to each corner. These are glued and screwed in place, note the grain direction on these (shown above). I scraped away old polish on the rails to create a good bed for the glue. A liberal amount of glue was used as the mitre endgrain would absorb a lot more glue compared to the rail.

With the top glued together and removed from the clamps it was time to fit it to the frame. The original top was held in place with metal table clips, which are a good choice as they allow the top to expand and shrink in width. I re-used the metal clips, although there weren’t enough of these so new wood table clips (or buttons) were made and fitted. In the middle of the new centre rail I drilled two angled holes to accept screws to fix the top for rigidity.

Finishing the job off

Now I set to work to plane flush any raised sections and then sanded the whole top flat as possible. The original top had a 1/2" radius rounded edge with a small bead. The bead was removed in parts when I thicknessed the top boards down to clean up the original polish. I did not have a matching router bit with a profile to match the existing edge so I used various planes to re-form this profile. Prior to polishing, all surfaces were checked for splits and cracks, and given the state of the original wood, potential splinters.

Polish of choice for this table was four coats of hardwax oil followed by a soft wax, all hand applied and buffed. To see the old wood come alive again is satisfying work, and the clients were thrilled with the result.


Endnote: I was also very happy with my side of the arrangement. My ‘client’ is a good friend and an expert automotive restorer. My ute now has two-pack black wheels, side mirrors and no dents!


Raf Nathan @treeman777 is a Queensland based woodworker who write regularly for Wood Review magazine.

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