Building an oval table

After having so much fun working with the folks at Sam Bass Community Theatre, I volunteered to help out with their next show: a production of James Lapine’s Table Settings. Rather than acting this time, I’ll be running the lights and sound, and I’m also helping out with set construction.

The primary set piece is a table, and the director wanted something specific: a 4 foot by 8 foot oval table covered with a tablecloth and strong enough that a 200 pound man can stand on it. Feeling adventurous, I volunteered to build the table.

Understand, I’d never really built anything before. Oh, sure, I’ve assembled Ikea furniture, knocked together a few rickety work benches and some barely functional garage shelves, and even trimmed a door or three, but that’s a far cry from creating a large table starting with a plan and a bunch of lumber. But what the heck: you learn by doing, right?

It was cold (35 degrees) this weekend and there’s no heat in my garage, so I elected to construct the table in our master bedroom, which is currently under renovation. That is, it’s torn apart and we haven’t started putting it back together. That’s my next project. I picked up the required materials at Home Depot on Friday evening and Debra helped me carry it through the house to the bedroom. The only thing I really needed help with was a 4×8 sheet of 3/4 inch plywood. The rest of the lumber was a bunch of 2×4’s and one wooden dowel.

I chose to get plain old plywood rather than cabinet grade. No use spending the extra money when it’s going to be covered with a tablecloth. And the tablecloth (somebody else is making that) will reach all the way to the ground, so I didn’t have to spend any effort making the legs look good.

There’s nothing particularly difficult about cutting an oval. I remembered learning how to draw one in geometry class nearly 40 years ago, but I didn’t remember the specifics. YouTube to the rescue. There are about a zillion videos showing how to draw an ellipse using nothing more than a few pins or nails, some string, and pencil. Here’s one that I found to be particularly clear and easy to follow.

It took a couple of tries to get it right because the knot in my string kept slipping. But I managed to get a reasonably accurate ellipse on the plywood. Then it was time to break out the jigsaw.

The bite there on the left corner was a test cut. I’ve used a jigsaw maybe twice in my life before this project, and I wanted to make sure I could follow a line. You can see that I goofed on entry to ellipse line (overshot it). I knew that I wouldn’t cut it perfect, and I had already planned to take a belt sander to the edge once I was done with the rough cutout. I just had to do a little more smoothing than I’d originally planned.

Making a smooth cut with the jigsaw requires a fine blade, and patience. Take it slow. Don’t force the saw through the wood. Rather, just guide the saw. Let the blade do the cutting. Also, don’t try to go all the way around in a single cut. Take off smaller segments. Otherwise you risk having the plywood break off and ruin your pretty shape.

Even taking a few breaks for pictures and to stretch out my back (leaning over to guide that saw is uncomfortable), it took less than 30 minutes to complete the cutout.

The completed cutout is 91 inches long and 46 inches wide. Not bad starting from 96×48, although I can’t give a good reason why I didn’t get 94 inches. Oh, well. It’s close enough.

With the top cut out, it was time for the hard part: constructing the base. I chose to modify the base for this simple table because … well, it’s simple. The base is functional, sturdy, and looks easy enough to build with simple tools.

The only modification I made was to the dimensions. My base is 49 inches long and 32 inches wide. That leaves almost two feet of table hanging off each end, but it’s still plenty sturdy. I wouldn’t recommend trying to sit or stand on one of the ends, though. I was a little worried that the center span would be too large and would sag under the weight of 200 pounds standing on it, but The Sagulator says that it’s acceptable.

I won’t detail construction of the base. I followed the directions in the linked article and everything worked out just fine. It just took a long time because I was checking everything multiple times to be sure I wasn’t making a mistake. When I got it all put together, I was a little surprised that the base was level with no wobbles. I guess all that double- and triple-checking paid off.

Attaching the top turned out to be a chore. For some reason I couldn’t get the screws to hold in one corner of the plywood. I futzed with the thing for a while and finally got it to work. I still don’t know what the problem was. I suspect that there was a soft spot in the plywood that kept the screws from biting. Moving the screws a few inches solved the problem. And, as you can see, the table passed the fat guy standing test. I’m smart enough not to try the fat guy bouncing up and down test.

The last thing I did was sand the top to remove any splinters and the manufacturer’s printing (including that silly notice telling me that plywood contains chemicals that the State of California has determined to cause cancer; is there any product in existence that doesn’t have one of those warnings on it?), and run a router around the edge. I’ve always disliked how a tablecloth looks hanging over a hard edge. A nice rounded edge makes the cloth drape a lot nicer. Here you can see the difference between the straight edge and the rounded edge.

The completed table should work well for the play, and if they don’t want to keep it afterwards I’ll probably take the base back and attach a rectangular top to use as a workbench. Not sure what I’ll do with the elliptical top.

This was a fun project. Better, I was able to complete it with tools I already had. As the author of the Simple Table article points out, this project can be completed with a minimum of tools. The only tools I added were the jigsaw, belt sander, and router, and those were for constructing the top. I did use my compound miter saw to cut the legs because my electric circle saw grew legs a few years ago and the battery powered saw couldn’t make it through more than two cuts before crapping out on me. I even had to cut one of the rabbets with a chisel because the battery died and I didn’t want to wait for it to recharge.

If you ever thought of making your own work table, you should give that Simple Table a try. It’s not hard to build, and it’s not like you’d be out a huge investment if you screw it up. 2×4’s are three or four dollars each. For me, it was a great first project and now I’m looking forward to building other things.