Boldness with balance—that’s how I see the front apron
of a classic Federal card table. I love the way it curves, adding
drama to those vibrant veneers and bandings. For a woodworker,
building up those patterns
on a flat piece of wood is difficult
enough, but how do you do it on a
That’s the question I struggled
with trying to figure out how to
teach a class on building this table.
Traditionally, veneers, inlay and
banding would have been directly
applied to the curved apron,
one piece at a time. Experience
tells me that this method is too
difficult and exacting for many
students to master during one
class. My alternative: Perform all
the intricate veneering on a fl at
piece of wood first, then resaw the
board and glue the new, thicker
piece of veneer, pattern and all,
directly onto the curved apron.
Experimenting with this “flatboard-
first” technique, I found that it worked perfectly. My students
really like it! I’m sure it will become the standard way for
individual craftsmen to make these aprons from now on.
About the apron and veneer
Let’s start by talking about how to make a curved apron. You
can laminate it or build it up in the traditional way, as I did
here. Th is apron is constructed like a masonry wall, with staggered
wooden “bricks.” Aft er the bricks are stacked and glued,
their sharp, jutting corners are cut to a smooth curve on the
bandsaw. If there are any voids, they are filled or patched.
You may have to prepare the veneer about the same time
that you’re milling the bricks. If you’ve ever handled highly figured
veneer, you know that it can be stiff , brittle and prone to
cracking, much like a potato chip. In fact, it can be shaped like
a potato chip! You can’t work with it this way.
In order to cut a sheet of veneer into smaller pieces and
fit the pieces into a precise pattern, the veneer has to be rendered
flat and pliable. Fortunately, that’s easy to do. First, you
soak the veneer in a mixture of water, glycerine, alcohol and
glue. Then you clamp it in a makeshift press for a day or so.
I’ll post the details of this process, with pictures, at American
Lay out the veneer
Begin by making the “staging board.” You’ll glue the veneer
on this board first, so it should be made from a wood that’s
stable, bends easily and is nice to resaw. I use yellow poplar.
I rip the staging board from the edge of a wide poplar board
that is straight-grained and free of defects. Th is edge piece,
which will be quartersawn or rift sawn, will move less and is
less prone to warping than the plainsawn wood in the middle
of that wide board. I can’t emphasize this too much: Th e staging
board must stay absolutely fl at until you resaw it.
Mill the staging board at least 3/4" thick, about 1/16"
wider than the table’s apron and a few inches longer than the
veneered pattern you’ll be creating.
Draw the pattern on the staging board (Photo 1). I’ll be
using fiddleback mahogany for the mitered field and verticalgrain
crotch mahogany for the flanking sections. We’ll cut and
inlay the center oval later on.
Start with the four mitered pieces of the center section. As
you cut each piece of veneer, pin it to the board (Photo 2). When
all of the pieces of the center section fit well, bind them together
with veneer tape. Finally, add the side pieces (Photo 3).
Glue the veneer to the staging board (Photo 4). I use liquid
hide glue (see Sources, below). Spread the glue with an old
credit card that has notches cut into it. Use a melamine caul to
spread the clamping pressure; glue squeeze-out won’t stick to it.
Add the banding
Next, cut a rabbet for the checkered banding that goes along
the bottom of the apron. Scribe a line 3/8" from the bottom
of the board, then use a shoulder plane or router to cut the rabbet
(Photo 5). Th e depth of the rabbet should be about 1/64"
less than the thickness of the banding.
Cut grooves for the narrow banding that separates the
mitered field from the side sections (Photo 6). First, outline
the groove by scribing two parallel lines with a marking knife.
Then pare away the center waste with a 1/16" chisel.
Glue the bandings in place (Photo 7). Rather than use
cauls, hold the banding in place with binding tape (see
Sources). Th is tape is used in acoustic guitar making for gluing
purfling around the instrument’s body; it’s slightly elastic
but has plenty of holding power.
After the glue is dry, plane all of the bandings flush (Photo 8).
My favorite tool for this delicate work is a Lie-Nielsen #102
low-angle block plane (see Sources).
Inlay the oval medallion
I use solid wood to make the center oval. Veneer won’t work.
Most veneer is too thin to survive planing and leveling in the
steps ahead—you might cut right through it.
You’ll be using an inlay kit for your router to cut both the
recess for the inlay and the inlay itself (see Sources). To use the
kit, you’ll need an oval template made from 1/4" plywood or
MDF. While it’s not difficult to make the template yourself, I
hired a local woodworker to make one with his CNC machine.
(It took him less than 10 minutes!)
The template’s oval has to be a bit oversize, however. Here’s
why: Th e kit consists of a 5/16" Porter-Cable-style guide bushing,
a 9/16" dia. donut that snaps onto the bushing and a 1/8"
solid-carbide up-cut spiral bit. To cut the recess, you place the
donut on the bushing and rout around the inside of the template
about 1/16" deep (Photo 9). Th e groove you rout will be
7/32" away from the edge of the template. This means that the
template should be 7/16" larger in length and width than the
oval you want to make.
After you’ve routed the groove, remove the template and
install a 1/4" or larger bit in a second router. (Th e 1/8" bit is
fragile; don’t use it for hogging out large areas.) Set the bit to the
same depth as the groove and remove the waste inside the oval.
Next, cut out the medallion that will fit into the recess
(Photo 10). I made the medallion from a 3/8" thick piece of
bird’s eye maple (a thicker piece would be OK, too). Place the
template on the wood and remove the donut from the router’s bushing. Set the depth of cut to a little bit less than 1/16" and
rout around the template. Be careful to keep the router’s bushing
tight against the template. Any deviation from the template
will result in a fl awed inlay.
Reset the depth of cut two more times. On the last pass,
the groove should be about 1/8" deep. Resaw the board on the
bandsaw to release the medallion; it should be about 1/8" thick.
If all has gone well, it will fit perfectly into the recess.
Make a caul 1/16" smaller in length and width than the
medallion (Photo 11). Put tape around the sides of the caul—
and on its bottom, as well—to prevent glue from sticking to it.
Use the caul to glue the medallion into the recess. Plane the
medallion flush with the surrounding veneer.
Use narrow black-and-white purfling to outline the medallion;
it gives the design punch and distinction (see Sources).
The purfling must precisely follow the border of the medallion.
This requires a second template exactly like the one you
used before, only 5/32" smaller all the way around. You’ll also
need a Dremel and a special base for the Dremel from Stewart-
MacDonald (see Sources).
Make the new template by tracing around the old template
with a 3/8" straight bit outfitted with an 11/16" bearing and a
bearing lock collar (see Sources). (The bearing and bearing lock
collar go on the bit’s 1/4" shank, above the cutters.) Th en install
the Stew-Mac base on your Dremel and insert a 3/64" end mill
into the Dremel’s collet (see Sources.) Th e shank of this bit will
ride directly against the template, much like a router bit with a
solid pilot. Carefully position the new template on the medallion
and rout a groove slightly less than 1/16" deep (Photo 12).
Installing the stringing requires some fi nesse. Th e ends
of the medallion are curved too tight to accept the stringing
as it is, but you can pre-bend the stringing by heating it up. (I
used the same process to bend the stringing for the table’s legs.)
Mark the sections of the stringing that will have to bend the
most, then gently bend these parts over a hot curved iron (see
Sources). Heat makes the stringing more pliable; when it cools,
it will remain bent.
Lay a small bead of glue in the groove with a syringe (see
Sources), then fit the stringing into the groove (Photo 13).
Aft er the glue is dry, level the stringing with a block plane using
gentle, circular strokes. Finally, sand the entire center section
with 180 grit paper.
Cut the veneer free
Now comes the critical part of the whole operation—resawing
the staging board. Install a sharp, fine-toothed blade that’s at least 1/2" wide in your bandsaw and carefully adjust the saw’s
guides and bearings. Set up a fence 3/32" away from the blade
and make a test cut in a piece of poplar that’s approximately
the same width as the staging board. If all goes well, the surfaces
of your cut should be smooth and straight. If the cut
wanders, or if the surface is uneven, replace the blade or give
your saw a tune-up.
Re-saw the staging board (Photo 14). At 3/32" thick, the
resulting piece should keep the veneer work, banding and
inlay intact and provide a generous poplar backing. Th e piece
should also bend easily enough to match the curve of the
table’s apron (Photo 15).
Glue the veneer on the apron
To prepare the apron for gluing, sand its surface and cut mortises
for the table’s front legs. Cut the piece you’ve resawed to
length—it should extend about 1/8" over the mortises. You’ll
trim off the excess later, before fitting the legs.
Make a clamping belt by gluing blocks every 3" or so on a
piece of 3/8" thick bending plywood. Apply glue to the apron,
then use purfling tape to register the resawn piece in position.
Th e bottom of the piece should be 1/32" or so higher than the
bottom of the apron. (You don’t want the banding to end up
below the apron!) Situate the belt and add clamps (Photo 16).
Aft er the glue dries, plane off any overhanging veneer on the
top of the apron. Round off or bevel the bottom of the apron
so it’s flush with the banding.
Click any image to view a larger version.
The Portsmouth Card Table. This article is the fourth in a series on
making a masterpiece of American
design from the Federal period (1790-
1830). In this series, I’ve shown you how
to make stringing and banding, shade
veneer with hot sand and make bellfl
owers. Th is article deals with veneering
the curved apron.
I’ll give you the plans for the entire
table in the next issue, which will end
the series. I also teach a master class on
making the table at Philadelphia Furniture
Workshop.com). Join me!
1. My technique of veneering a built-up pattern on a curved apron
starts with a flat 3/4" thick “staging board.” Draw the outline of the
pattern on the board.
2. Cut the pieces of the pattern and pin them to the board, so they
don’t shift. When the pieces fit well, bind them together with
3. Build out the pattern by adding more pieces to the staging
board. The center pieces of this pattern are made from fiddleback
mahogany; the side pieces are crotch mahogany.
4. Glue the veneer to the staging board. After the glue dries,
trim off any excess along the sides.
5. Scribe and plane a shallow rabbet along the bottom edge of
the board to receive a strip of checkerboard banding.
6. Pare away a narrow strip of veneer between the fiddleback and
crotch sections using a 1/16" wide chisel. Score the sides of this
groove with a marking knife before you pare.
7. Glue a narrow piece of banding into the groove. Next, glue the
checkerboard banding in the rabbet on the bottom of the board.
8. Plane all of the banding flush with the veneer.
9. Rout an oval recess in the middle of the pattern. First rout a border
using a 1/8" bit and a special two-part guide bushing for making
inlay. Remove the rest of the waste with a larger straight bit.
10. Rout a medallion from a piece of solid bird’s eye maple, using
the same template and a smaller guide bushing. Resaw the piece
to release the inlay. This piece will fit perfectly into the recess.
11. Glue the medallion into the recess. Make a caul slightly smaller
than the medallion to spread clamping pressure. After gluing,
plane the medallion flush with the veneer.
12. Rout a narrow groove around the border of the medallion.
This requires making a slightly smaller template and using a
small end mill whose shank acts as a pilot.
13. Glue black and white stringing into the groove. You’ll probably
have to bend the stringing first over a hot curved iron so it will fit
this tight radius without breaking.
14. Resaw the staging board, releasing a piece that’s only about
15. Flex the piece to make sure it will take the curve of the table’s
apron. The apron is composed of short pieces laid up like bricks,
then sawn and sanded into a curved shape.
16. Glue the strip onto the apron. To apply even pressure, use a length
of bending plywood with blocks glued on at regular intervals.