What I Learned Making 4 Identical Tables at Once

By Matt Kenney

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Mostly, it’s that I love my Festool Domino and hate my random orbital sander.

I’ve found myself in a situation that I never intended or desired: making 4 tables for a local small custom furniture shop. The shop has 3 (or maybe 4) great furniture makers but still can’t keep up with demand. It’s been a slow year for me (it’s crazy what nearly cutting off your finger in a non-woodworking accident can do to your professional life), so I took on some work for them. I’m happy for the work and have learned quite a bit already.

Here’s the most important lesson so far: If I do not work fast, I do not make good money. Of course, part of working fast is not making mistakes because correcting them slows you down. One thing I did to avoid spending a lot of time recovering from mistakes was to make extra parts. Instead of making 16 legs (4 per table), I made 19. I used one of the extra legs to help set up for joinery and tapering. The other two were reserves that could be called off the bench. And I needed them. Well, I needed one. I misplaced a mortise on one leg. Because I had an extra one already milled to the final dimensions, I was not slowed down at all. I just grabbed the extra leg. If the extra leg wasn’t sitting there, I would have had to go back, mill up stock, cut the leg to final dimensions, etc. That would have been roughly 30 minutes of time. Making the extra legs initially added no time to the process.

Another way I sped up the process without adding any unnecessary risk was to forego traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery in favor of loose tenons. Specifically, I used my Festool Domino, which is probably the most significant new tool for furniture makers in the last 70 years (at least). Loose tenons are very strong and more than adequate for a side table.

Each table has 18 joints (not counting the drawers). If I had used traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery, cutting 72 (18 x 4) mortises in the legs would have taken more than an hour with a hollow chisel mortiser, hours with a router, and forever with a drill press and chisel. Then, I would have spent hours cutting and fitting tenons. With the Festool Domino, I cut those 72 mortises, plus the mating 72 mortises in the aprons and stretchers in less than 1 hour. Think about that. In less time than it would have taken to cut just the mortises in the legs using other methods, I had all the joinery done with the Domino. It saved me at least 4 hours of work, perhaps as much as 8 hours.

The Domino is such a fast tool because it’s perfectly designed and easy to use. I spent a little time making a fixture to hold the legs and laid out the location of every mortise on the fixture. I did not need any layout on the legs themselves. And I could transfer the joinery locations from the fixture directly to the apron. I also made fixtures to hold the stretchers. Making these fixtures added about 30 minutes of work but cut down on the chance that I’d make a mistake laying out joinery on each leg.

The Domino also saved me a ton of time with the table tops and shelves. I have a 12 in. jointer and 13 in. planer. The top is 18 in. wide, and the shelf is 17 in. wide. So, I was not able to glue them up, joint them, and then plane them. Instead, I milled each half of the top/shelf to just a bit over final thickness and then glued them together. However, I used the Domino’s loose tenons to keep the two halves in alignment during glue up. They came out of the clamps perfectly flush with one another. It took very little time to sand them from 100-grit up through 180-grit (that’s the grit the finishers requested). Thank goodness I didn’t have to flatten them with a No. 5 jack plane first!

And that brings me to something else I learned making these 4 tables. I need a new sander if I am going to keep doing side jobs for this shop. I’ll spend at least 8 hours sanding to get the 4 tables ready for the finishers. My 5 in. ROS just sucks for that. Not only is it slow, it vibrates like mad, and that’s really, really bad for my hands and arms. One of the furniture makers in the shop is a great friend of mine. After speaking with him, I know what I need to do: Buy Festool’s 6 in. ROS. It doesn’t vibrate and sands insanely fast because of its pad size and oscillation area.

I know that many of you will never find yourselves freelancing 4 side tables at once, but I do think there are two lessons here for everyone, regardless of whether or not you are a professional. First, before you make a piece of furniture, think carefully about the techniques and processes you’ll use. You can speed up the build and lessen the chance of mistakes by choosing them thoughtfully. Second, tools do matter. Sure, I could make these same tables without the Domino, but with it, I am able to work more efficiently, and that matters whether I’m making them for money or for fun.

Anyway, I drop off the tables early next week and then get to work on a few of my own commissions. I’ve been writing down many things to discuss here and will get back in the groove. Please share this post, ask questions, etc.

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