On Making a Folding Table

My “On Making…” series is a growing body of instructions for Beginning level to Intermediate level woodworking projects aimed at enhancing encampments.

Folding tables for outdoor use and be economical, easy to transport and store, and add to the ambience of an encampment.  This design, although not genuinely medieval, is a good project for anyone with a little more than Beginner’s level woodworking skills.  The resulting table is suitable for a meal for two, doing on-site illumination, or keeping any number of smaller items off of the ground.

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The Shop List

For this design you will need:

  • 12″ x 24″ sheet of 1/4″ medium density fiberboard (mdf) (for the tabletop template);
  • 2″ x 24″ sheet of 1/4″ mdf (for the leg template);
  • 12″ x 48″ x 1″ board (for the tabletop);
  • 10″ x 24″ x 1 1/2″ board (for the legs);
  • 1″ x 1/4″ x 30″ board (for the stretchers);
  • 3/8″ x 30″ hardwood dowel.

The tools required are:

  • A saw (a table saw is ideal, but a handsaw will suffice);
  • A drill and bits;
  • A plane;
  • Sandpaper or a card-scraper;
  • Wood glue rated for outdoor use (I recommend Titebond III);
  • 1 1/2″ – 2″ wood screws;
  • Measuring tape or yardstick;
  • Combination square (if you don’t have one, a square piece of paper folded diagonally can be used to scribe a 45° angle);
  • Pencil;
  • C-clamps.

 

The Templates

For my first folding table (which the following photographs document) I stuck as close as possible to the model I was given.  The size and shape of the tabletop, as well as the length of the legs and the width of the leg assembly, can all be modified to suit your needs.  However, for your first folding table I encourage you to not experiment and stick with this design.

Lay out a template for half of the tabletop (each half is identical, so you only need a half-template) on a 12″ x 24″ sheet of mdf.  The template pictured below results in a roughly hexagonal tabletop.  Measure 8″ in from each short edge and clearly mark where the dowels/dowel holes are to go.

2-Template_1
Templates for the tabletop (top) and six leg assembly pieces (bottom).

Lay out another template for the six leg assembly pieces.  Start by making a rectangle 24″ long by 1 3/8″ wide.  Find the center point of each short edge and trim off the corners at a 45° angle.  Set the leg assembly template aside.

The Tabletop

Select boards of a wood suitable for outdoor use.  You can use fir or pine if you are also going to seal the table with a urethane or exterior paint.  I used white oak in the table seen in these photographs.  Although this tabletop will be only 24″ long, I recommend sawing the boards a bit oversize (24 1/4″ – 24 1/2″) just in case the dowels don’t line up with their corresponding holes later on (see below).

Flatten the boards as needed.  Joint one long edge of each board to ensure that those two edges will abut without any gaps.  These edges will form the “seam” running up the middle of the tabletop.  Lay your template atop each board in turn (with the seam edge of the template lined up with the seam edge of the board) and mark out your pattern.

3-Table_top_002
Laying out the pattern using a template (and, yes, that 45 degree angle is really 135 degrees)

From where you indicated the  dowels are to go, drop a line across the edge of each board and mark the center point of these lines.  Set the boards on edge in a vise and, using a 3/8″ bit, drill a 1″ deep hole at the center points just marked.

Cut two 2″ segments of 3/8″ dowel.  Bevel the edges of the dowel segments.  Drop a little wood-glue into the two freshly-bored holes in one of the tabletop halves.  Insert the two dowels, so that 1″ of each stands proud of the board.  Allow the glue to dry overnight.

Set the boards on a flat surface, line up the dowels with the corresponding holes in the other board, and gently push them together.  If the holes do not line up, re-bore one hole and try again.  If the holes are too snug (remember, you want the dowels to slide in and out with gentle pressure), you can widen them: using the same drill bit as before, gently “swirl” the bit against the side of the hole.  Avoid widening the hole more than 1/32″.  Once the dowels are lined up and can slide into -and out of- the holes, you can finish scribing and sawing the perimeter of the tabletop.  Set the tabletop aside.

Legs

Turning back to the leg template, it is time to mark where two holes are to be drilled: one in the exact center of the template (i.e. 12″ from either short side and 7/8″ from either long side); and the other at one end, right between the two angles which form the point.  Using the same 3/8″ drill bit as before, drill a hole through each of these two marks.

The legs should be made of straight-grained, stable wood.  You can use a softwood such as pine or fir, but know that the expected lifespan of your table will be less than had you used a hardwood such as oak, maple, or ash.  The legs are fairly thick, so find a 6/4 or nominal 2″ thick board from which to cut them.  Using a hand-plane or tabletop thickness planer, reduce the thickness down to 1 3/8″.  Rip saw six 24″ long, 1 3/8″ wide, 1 3/8″ thick pieces from this board.

4-Legs_1
Five of six leg assembly pieces.

Use the template to scribe both angled ends onto each piece.  Do not scribe the two holes yet; not every piece will get drilled the same way.  If using a tablesaw, set your miter gauge for a 45° angle.

Once all the ends are cut, set the six pieces into three pairs.  Mark them as ‘under’, ‘inside’, and ‘outside’ pieces.

first work with the ‘under’ pair.  Use the template again and scribe the drill hole at just one end of each piece.  Do not scribe a drill hole in the center.

Using your 3/8″ drill bit, line up with the circle you just scribed and bore a hole all the way through the leg piece.  Do the same for the scribed drill hole on the second ‘under’ piece.  Note that these two holes are the only times in this project when you will drill a hole all the way through a board.  The remaining holes will only be 1/2″ deep.  Also, because these two holes need to allow for movement, you will want to bore them a little oversize: using the same drill bit as before, gently “swirl” the bit against the side of the hole.  Do not widen these holes by more than 1/32″.

Using a ruler and masking tape or a marker, indicate the first 1/2″ of your drill bit.  This is your depth-stop.

Left: Masking tape being used as a depth-stop.  Right: A 1/2″ ‘blind’ hole and a ‘through’ hole for comparison.

Return to the template and scribe drill holes for the other end of each of the ‘under’ pair.  Bore these holes only to a depth of 1/2″.  These non-through holes we shall call ‘blind’ holes.

Lay the two ‘under’ pieces next to each other on a flat surface: one with the ‘blind’ hole facing upwards and the other facing downwards.  Measure half the length of each piece, then half the width; you have now found the exact center of each of the ‘under’ pair.  Make a mark.  Through this mark scribe a line at 45° and run it from long-edge to long-edge.  Saw each piece in half along the line you just scribed.

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You now have four ‘under’ pieces: two with through holes; one with a blind hole to the left of the bevel; and one with the blind hole to the right of the bevel.

Set the four pieces on a flat surface, beveled side up.  You are now going to drill the pilot holes through which you will later screw these pieces to the underside of the tabletop.  Measure in from the beveled end and mark at 2″ and at 3 1/2″.

Measuring from the beveled end (left) and finding the center point (right).

Find and indicate the center point of these marks.  Using the 3/8″ drill bit, bore a 1/2″ deep blind hole at each of these points.  Switch to a smaller diameter drill bit, one just thinner than the thickness of your wood-screws, and drill pilot holes through the center of these blind holes.  During the final stages of production you will be setting screws through these pilot holes and hiding them with dowel plugs.

Set the four ‘under’ pieces aside.  Pick up the ‘inside’ pair of legs.

Using the template, mark a drill hole at one end of each of the ‘inside’ legs.  Now flip the legs completely over and mark a drill hole at the center of each ‘inside’ leg.  To be clear: the marks you just made are on opposite faces of each leg.  Now bore a blind hole with your 3/8″ drill bit to a depth of 1/2″ at each of the four marks (two on each leg) just scribed.  Repeat these instructions on the ‘outside’ pair of legs.

Marking and boring holes in the ends of leg pieces.

Leg Assembly

Cut five segments of 3/8″ dowel: four at 1″ long and one at 9 1/4″ long.  Bevel the edges on all of them.  Take the two ‘under’ pieces which have through-holes bored in them and slide the long dowel through the holes, making sure that the beveled ends of the ‘under’ pieces are facing the same direction.  These pieces should move freely on the dowel.  If the through-holes are too snug, widen them ever-so-slightly.

Pick up the two ‘inner’ legs.  Drop a little wood-glue into the blind hole bored at one end of each leg.  Insert the ends of the long dowel into the end holes of the ‘inner’ legs.  Set the assembly onto a flat surface and make sure that the ‘inner’ legs are even with each other.  They should both lie flat on the surface.

The ‘under’ pieces should move freely on the long dowel, whereas the ‘inner’ legs are glued firmly to it.

Pick up the two ‘outer’ legs.  Drop a little wood-glue into the end holes and the center holes.  Insert a short dowel into each hole.  Let the glue dry overnight before continuing to the next step.

Insert the center dowels standing proud of the ‘outer’ legs into the center holes of the ‘inner’ legs.  The legs should pivot freely; if the center hole is too snug, widen it slightly.  Insert the end dowels of the ‘outer’ legs into the end holes of the two remaining ‘under’ pieces.  Again, the pieces should pivot freely.  Note: the beveled ends of the two pairs of ‘under’ pieces should face in opposite directions.  If the beveled ends of the pair attached to the long dowel are facing downwards (as seen in the photo above, left) then the pair attached to the ‘outer’ legs should face upwards.

With the assembly laying on a flat surface, measure: from outside of outer leg to outside of other outer leg; and, from outside of inner leg to the outside of the other inner leg.  Cut two boards to these lengths using 1″ x 1/4″ stock.  These are going to be stretchers.  Near the bottom of the assembly, glue the shorter stretcher to each of the inner legs.  Clamp the stretcher to the legs.  Now flip the assembly over and glue the longer stretcher to each of the outside legs and clamp.  Allow glue to dry overnight.   Remove the clamps.

Set the tabletop halves upside down on on a flat surface and set the leg assembly on top of them, with the legs running perpendicular to the seam of the tabletop.   Center the assembly.  Gently left the ends of the legs and scissors them open.

6-Attaching_legs_7

If the joints move too easily, you may find it necessary to have a friend help keep the assembly upright.  I found that a few strategically-placed weights (a hardcover book and three c-clamps) kept the assembly from sliding around.  Position the assembly so that it is centered side-to-side and end-to-end, and so that the beveled ends of the ‘under’ pieces are 4 1/2″ from the seam.

6-Attaching_legs_9
Positioning the beveled end of an ‘under’ piece to be 4 1/2″ from the seam.

Around each of the ‘under’ pieces scribe a line running from the seam, to the beveled end, across the end, and back to the seam.  Do not cross the seam, as you will be very disappointed if you accidentally glue an ‘under’ piece to both halves of the tabletop!

Lift the assembly off of the tabletop (don’t fret: the scribed lines you just made will make it very easy to set it back again).  Spread wood-glue evenly within each of the scribed areas.  Set the assembly back on the tabletop, aligning the ‘under’ pieces within their corresponding scribed lines (and atop the glue you just spread).  Screw the ‘under’ pieces to the underside of the tabletop through the previously-drilled pilot holes.

6-Attaching_legs_8a

Cut eight 1/2″ plugs out of dowel. drop a little wood-glue into the previously-drilled plug holes, and cover with a plug (gently tap with a mallet or block of wood if the plug is stubborn).  Allow the glue to dry overnight.

7-Finished_2

Your folding table opens by gently pulling the two halves of the tabletop apart.  Fold the tabletop halves down and scissors the legs together.  Enjoy!

 

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