Woodworking III: Portable Worktable

I frequently meet with others in the park or at events to collaborate on projects, or simply enjoy company while I work. I wanted a versatile small table to work on, preferably with removable legs. This post covers the construction of the table; a subsequent post will cover the construction of the legs.


I was inspired by medieval japanese tables. My previous construction of the atedai(当て台) informed me that I wanted to use sliding dovetails to secure the top boards. I had a leftover 2″x10″x8′ port orford cedar from constructing my woodworking table; originally, I had intended to make another woodworking table, but I acquired a large sycamore slab better suited for that project.

Here is a photo from a friend that I have no citations for, unfortunately. Judging by the woman’s kosode sleeves, it appears to be some sort of museum recreation of the Muromachi or Momoyama periods, perhaps even earlier. The table the man is using looks like a versatile and sturdy workbench; if the boards were a little thinner, it would be very portable. It may not use any joinery at all, if it does, it is hidden.

Another informative image, this time with an actual date. I was focused on the cutting board or table the gentleman in the striped tea color kimono was using to chop on, but the pot the other person in blue is carrying is also very interesting. 700 years later, one can still purchase almost identical pots in japan from Oigen and Iwachu.

Miraculous stories of the gods of Kasuga (Kasuga Gongen Genki-e) (detail)
Kamakura period 1309 Japan
ink and colours on silk
41.2 cm (width)
The Museum of the Imperial Collections, Tokyo

His posture is of interest to me; he seems to be leaning over the table quite dramatically. Recently I’ve notice that at a lower worktable, I can engage my core in actions more easily than a higher one, even on the floor. If it’s at chest or stomach height, you can only engage your arms and shoulders. Actually, it’s surprising how low many of the writing desks of early medieval japan were; some were as short as 11 cm.

14th to 15th centuries Korea, Goryeo-Korean dynasty
Wooden lacquer
L: 26.8cm W: 47.5cm H:13.2cm
Kyuushuu National Museum
Tsutasodo Makie Bunka
Momoyama period 16th century
Width: 54.7cm Depth: 34.4cm Height: 11.5cm
Miho Museum

I am led to understand that the curves at the end are to keep your brushes from running off the end. Many of these tables had their origins in original Chinese designs. The eight (or sixteen :P) legged table here is one such design, as is the study desk above.

Vermillion Lacquer Desk
Muromachi-Azuchi-Momoyama period, 16th century
Tokyo National Museum
The Monk-Prince Shinnyo
Kamakura period, 14th century
Tokyo National Museum

Take a look at Shinnyo’s posture there. How are his legs folded under that table? Are they made of paper? It looks anatomically impossible.

I drew up a few plans of my ideas.

We’ll call it a “working scholar’s desk”

Originally, I wanted the table to have detachable legs, as shown in the drawings I made, but after thinking it over, I decided to make the table and take it to a few practices before I made up my mind. I was interested in trying the posture depicted in the scrolls. More importantly, the posture used for eastern calligraphy brushes and most of my hand tools seemed to be better suited to a lower table, about 15 cm high, because you hold the tools further up. I already had a slightly higher (23 cm) Showa table. What I did not have was a traditionally low table that was suitably sturdy for my abuses.

I cut up the rough lumber and begin to plane it, taking care to joint the sides as carefully as possible. Planing is the traditional method, but I hit a soft spot in the cypress and I couldn’t get it to plane properly without chipping. So I pulled out my orbital sander and finished the soft spot with a power tool. There are several types of japanese planes that deal with difficult spots, including the tachikanna and a variety of exotic angles, but I only have three flat planes, so I had limited options.

Next, I measured and sawed the channels for the legs. I used the saw fence to hold the saw at an angle, which was challenging for the width of the board. It constantly had to be de-attached and reattached. However, the wood was soft so the sawing was easy.

I had two new tools I purchased to make this table. The first is a threshold plane, designed for smoothing out the bottom of sliding doors. It cuts a groove into the wood. The second is a kote-nomi (鏝鑿), or trowel chisel. It is used to clear out the bottom of the angled grooves.

My basic method was as follows:
1. knock out the sawed portions with regular bench chisels
2. flatten the bottom of the groove with a threshold plane
3. use the kote-nomi to clean out the angled sides of the bottom of the groove, with help from a slender bench chisel.

Overall this method was relatively successful. I regretted not having a push chisel without a crooked neck (something to save up for in the future), but I had fortuitously angled the neck of a cheap bench chisel by accident, so I used that instead. Halfway through this process I discovered the existence of a sliding dovetail plane and found a respectable one on yahoo auctions, but it did not arrive in time for me to use it.

I made one major mistake, which was not perfectly flattening the tabletop where I was cutting the grooves. As a result, when I went to insert the keys into them, I found I had gaps where the table bowed slightly. I wedged these gaps with some thin walnut shims, having seen this kind of repair before on old japanese tables.

One I got the leg beams in, I realized the table was really heavy, and I had no easy way to pick it up. I had a box from Japan with some really nice handgrooves on the side, so I copied their general shape with a french curve and started cutting. I really did not have good tools for this, and I ended up with a jagged mess. After consultation with some other woodworking friends, I went to the local woodcraft and picked up a scrollsaw, some finetooth blades, and a spokeshave. It was rough going through the almost 2″ thick cedar, but the tools were sharp and it was much easier than a chisel and a dozuki!

With the table now assembled, finish work began. I stabilized the knot on the top of the table with CA glue. It took several applications, but I felt assured that the table would hold up well when I was finished, and that the knot would not break apart even if I wrote on top of it.

Once the glue was dry, I set about finishing the table. I finished this table THREE times. What I learned is water based dyes are finicky. The first finish, I overapplied the dye and it gummed up with the walnut oil finish (Mahoney’s) even though I observed the appropriate waiting period. You can see the gummy results of that disaster below. On top of that, everywhere I applied the CA glue was lighter and weirdly shiny. Good thing I have an orbital sander.

I sanded down the failed walnut oil finish. This had the nice side effect of sanding down the raised grain, so the table was smooth when I went to apply another thin coat of odie’s oil.

This was. admittedly, beautiful. But it wasn’t at all durable, and it took huge scratches the first time I took it out, and was not as waterproof as Odie’s claimed. Yes, I applied it as directed. Yes, I think Odie’s is a rip off. I vastly prefer the hydrogenated danish oil from Tried and True. The price is reasonable, it works reliably, and they actually list their ingredients. As an added bonus, I don’t smell like patchouli and the entire scented candle store when I use linseed oil.

So back to the orbital sander. The only positive thing I can say about Odie’s is that it came off pretty easily.

This time, I applied two coats of a different color, so my final color combo was Empire Red under Merlot. I actually really like the depth layering the colors achieved. I finished this with General’s Water Based Polyurethane. I am not the best at applying poly, but it still looked beautiful and is very waterproof. This is important since it will be used for painting.

Unfortunately, when I went to use the table, it was too low for me. I don’t know if it was because I am tall, or because I don’t paint holding the brush like an eastern calligrapher, or because I’m not flexible. This would be a great height for chopping vegetables, or for using my portable stove, but it’s too low for scribal work. So on the next post, I will detail constructing a set of removable legs for the table, hopefully with my shiny new mortising chisels.

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