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Oval Side Table

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As an apprentice woodworker I first learned the use of machines to do rectilinear work quickly and efficiently. But I also found that rectilinear work was, well, boring to my taste, and I began to think about curves. Two of the most attractive curve forms I've found on furniture are the cabriole leg and the oval, or ellipse. Both of these curve forms spark the interest of the eye because the arcs of their curves are constantly changing through their shapes, unlike a circle which, by definition, has a regular radius.

Though you can use machines to help make these shapes, using hand tools to create and smooth the final form is still one of the most efficient ways to do it. You can use a stationary sander to shape the legs. But a spokeshave has the advantage that it tends to create a smooth line, like a handplane. Moving sandpaper cuts wherever you apply it, and can easily make depressions right where you don't want them. A spokeshave will tend to pass over gullies and cut high spots, thus making the contour regular.

Spokeshaves, drawknives and scrapers are the more skilled approach to this kind of work. But they don't require years of experience to learn how to use. They must, repeat must, be sharp, (see article on sharpening) but once you pass that simple hurdle they present a problem only on end grain. And, by following a progression of simple steps, it is not difficult to achieve beautiful, flowing lines. It is, however, time consuming to do this work. But what a pleasurable way to pass the time- no irritating dust to breath, or noisy machines to rattle your nerves; just you, a sharp iron, and wood.


The oval table top causes a complication with the stretcher rails that join the legs underneath. The stretchers must join the legs at an angle, rather than at 90o to the rear face of the legs. You could orient the legs so that the rear faces point toward the center, but if you did so the front face of the legs would not be parallel to the edge of the oval top where the legs join the top. This would look very odd. The solution is to cut angled tenons on the stretchers that fit into right-angled mortises on the legs. Study drawing #1 to understand how the parts are aligned.

Parts List- Side Table (inches) 4- 1-3/4 x 4 x 33 -legs
8- 1-3/4 x 4 x 12 -knee blocks
4- 3/4 x 3-1/4 x 13-1/2 -stretchers
4- 1-1/2 x 2 x 10 -rails
1- 1/2 x 29 x 37 -top

Resources for building an oval side table

Drill Presses |  Drill Bits |  Measuring and Layout Tools |  Chisels |  Clamps |  Band Saws |  Spokeshaves, Drawknives, Scrapers at Woodcraft |  Table Saws |  Lathes and Turning Tools |  Dado Sets |  Hand Saws |  Hand Drills


Let's start with the legs since they are the bulk of the job. Get out the four legs at 1-3/4 x 4 x 33-1/2 inches. The thickness is not critical, and you can use surfaced 2x lumber just as it comes from the hardwood store, but be sure the parts are fairly straight so you won't have problems gluing on the knee blocks. Make a paper template using the scale drawing given (drawing #2). Once you have sketched in the lines on paper for your template, check to see that the lines flow smoothly by sighting down your drawing with your eye close to the plane of the paper. That is, line your eye with the line of the drawing, or a section thereof. From this angle you can see easily how smooth the line is. Duplicating the drawing exactly is not as important as making smooth lines. Also be sure the leg tapers consistently.

Cut out your template and trace it onto one side of each leg blank. The leg blanks are 1/2" longer than the template, to give a horn on the top. The horn is an extension left on the end of a piece that will be mortised. Its purpose is to prevent the end from splitting while you hammer a chisel into the mortise while cutting its walls. Once the mortise is complete, cut the horn off. Locate the template with the horn at the top, since that is where the leg-rail mortise will be. Also- note the grain direction of each piece of wood and locate the template such that there is no short grain through the slender curves of the lower leg, where breaking might occur.

Delta 12" Drill Press

Brad Point Bits
Buy a set of 7 or individual bits.

Photo 1- Start the mortises in the legs by boring holes with a drill press or dowel jig.

If you need a drill press, click here.
If you need drill bits, click here.

Bore holes to start the mortises in the legs for the rails and stretchers as in photo 1. Bore two 1/2" holes at the top of each leg, directly adjacent to each other at 1" deep. Locate the upper end of the holes at 1" from the end of the leg. Thus when the horn is removed the mortise will be 1\2" from the leg top. Bore 3/8" holes, 1/2" deep for the stretcher rail mortises. Again make the holes adjacent, and locate their mutual center at 10" above the leg bottom.

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