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Building a Farmhouse Table in the Parsons Style

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Note: This Farmhouse Table post was originally posted on Mick’s blog in August 2011.

We just moved into a new house with a nice sized back yard, and our tiny little patio furniture was not going to cut it. I’d already been infected with the building bug that gets many people when they get their first real house, so I was more that happy to take on the task of building a table.

Since I had very little experience of woodworking (except for an O-Level, about 30 years ago), I started out making a few smaller pieces, a framed gate, some planters and then a large workbench for the garage. Along the way I acquired several tools (and built a small table for one of them), and eventually felt ready to build the table.

Designing a Farmhouse Table

I’m a big believer in function over form. I’m also tall, so I don’t like trestles getting in the way of my legs, so I decided (in collaboration with Holly), to make a table with legs at the corners. I also wanted it to be eight feet long, and very sturdy. This is how it ended up:

It’s kind of a blend of two styles, “Farmhouse” and “Parsons.” Farmhouse table are basically any big sturdy rustic looking table, like these:

Parsons tables are tables which have very rectangular lines, the legs are straight, rectangular, and right at the corners. The legs and table top in a classic Parsons table should flow together as if the entire table is carved out of one piece of wood, and the legs should be the same thickness as the table top. Like these:

Parsons tables have nothing to do with religious parsons, they were simply a design from the Parsons Paris School of Art and Design.

So, blend the two styles and we get the Parsons Farmhouse Table.

Wood

The table is made of Douglas Fir, which is about the cheapest wood available at Home Depot. I used mostly standard dimensions, so very little cutting was required. Pick pieces that are as dry as possible, as straight as possible, and as knot and damage free as possible.

The top of the table is five 8′ 2×8 planks of Douglas Fir. Since a 2×8 is 1.5×7.5 inches, and there’s small gaps between the planks, that means the table is about 36″ wide.

The legs of the table are 4x4s (so 3.5×3.5). They are very sturdy bits of wood.

The frame of the table is made up of 2x4s (1.5″ x 3.5″), there’s four pieces between the legs, then a center support, and three corner braces.

Size

The dimensions of the table are a function of the size of the longest piece of wood I could fit in my car, which is why it’s 8′ long. The width is up to you, but it’s going to be a multiple of the width of the planks you use, sothatlimits you a bit (unless you mix widths, you could toss in one or two 2x4s to get the size you want.)

The height is important. There are two things to consider. Firstly there’s the height at which the table top will be. Look at some existing tables to have to see what feels right for you. Consider that outdoor chairs are often a bit lower than indoor chairs, and patio tables are also often lower. You have to fit the chair as well as the person. I originally settled on 28.5″ from the ground to the top of the table.

Then there’s the height from the ground to the underneath of the table top frame. In this design the thickness of the table top plus the thickness of the frame takes off 5″. This is something I did not fully account for, and it meant that none of our chairs would fit under the table when I’d finished it. It was also a bit uncomfortable to sit at for me. So I fixed it by adding 1.5″ high slightly taperd feet to the bottom of the legs. This slightly spoiled the clean lines, and I wish I’d got it right the first time.

Sanding and Staining

The raw lumber is pretty rough. I sanded it all smooth with a DeWalt random orbit sander. first with 60 grit, then 200. I actually started the sanding with a little Black and Decker sander with no dust collector. This amount of rough sanding produces a LOT of dust, and after doing just one plank my lungs felt terrible. I bought a face mask, but the ultimate salvation was the the Dewalt D26453K random orbit sander in conjunction with the Dewalt D27905 10 Gallon Dust Extractor Vacuum
(which is essentially just a shop vac, with a good filter). It’s practically dust free. An incredible difference. A good dust collector is essential to any woodworking.

Here’s a before and after of the sanded wood.

That just with 60 grit. A huge difference, and would also take forever to do by hand. Of course you could save yourself the time by buying more expensive wood that comes with a smoother surface already.

Then you’ve got to stain it (optional) and seal it (not optional, really). Staining was just one coat of Minwax Wood Finish, “Early American”, #230. Sealing was three or four coats of Varathane Diamond Spar Urethane, Water Based, Clear Satin. Outdoor, #2503. We did the staining before assembly, and two coats of the sealant. Two more coats were added after assembly.

Construction

Construction is the fun part. First I cut the legs, which you can see in the above image. You just need to remove enough wood so that the frame can rest on the shelf created, and be just below level with to the top of the leg (you’ll sand down the leg later). Since you are removing 1.5″ on two side you are left with a 2″x2″ stub of the leg. This is a type of lap joint, but the only thing that needs cutting is the legs. I started the cuts using my table saw, and then completed then using my Japanese pull saw.

I then assembled the ends of the table with glue (Titebond III) and clamps. The long 2x4s go the full length of the table, so the short end 2x4s only go 2″ onto the leg. Take care here (and at all times), to ensure that everything is as square as possible. Once the glue is set, it’s fixed forever. You could theoretically do it without glue so you could disassemble it later. But I wanted the extra shear strength.

Once the glue was set I added two more forms of reinforcement. Firstly I countersunk 3/4″ holes with a forstner bit in the 2×4 above the leg, then drilled a 6″ long 1/4″ hole down into the leg (you need an extra long bit for this). Then I screwed in a 6″ x 5/16″ lag screw (also called a lag bolt) with a washer. The hole was then liberally doused in sealant, as it’s potentially a place water could collect.

I also added a right angled bracket on the inside corner. There’s two of these for each leg, and they give more strength to the joint in the directions that are weak to the bolt alone. The wood is soft, so has a bit of give to it. If I JUST had the bolts, then I think the legs would quickly become loose as pressures on the bolts would compress the wood around them. But the combination of the glue, blots and brackets makes for a very strong joint. But we’ve not even finished there.

The process was them repeated for the long sides of the table frame:

This is where it’s very important to get things square. Check and check again as you clamp things together for gluing. Go round and round the table several times ensuring the frame is square both with the legs, and with itself. Do this before, during and after gluing. Use a rubber mallet to nudge it back square. Don’t neglect making sure the legs are vertical either (check they are square to the ground, or use a level).

The long stretchers in the frame are secured to the legs with two lag screws after the glue is set. Another angle bracket was added, and then I added a diagonal brace across each corner. This is just a 2×4, cut at 45 degrees, and secured with four wood screws, deeply countersunk. Just make sure you measure how deep the screw is going to go, so it does not come out the other side.

The blue lines show where the screws go. Note the angled brackets are fairly substantial. They are going to be entirely hidden away, so I felt fine using fairly clunky brackets for strength.

You then sand the assembly flat. Notice I’ve had to sand down the stretchers (the 2x4s), and not so much the top of the leg. This is not a good thing, as ideally you want the stretchers unaltered, and just sanding down the top of the leg. That’s why you make the leg cuts just a little deeper than the height of the stretchers.

Repeat on all four corners, and then add a central stretcher in the middle of the table. This is very import, as you need to fix the table top planks to this to prevent them from bowing. It also provides additional strength to the frame, stopping and potential bowing of the sides. You could also add another four diagonal braces, but providing the table top is firmly attached all around the frame it’s not really needed. You might consider it if you are using more floating-type fasteners for the top

To attach the center brace I used pocket hole screw, making the holes with a Kreg Jig. Since it’s under the table you could just do it manually. You could also use angled brackets like were used in the corners. Be very careful to make sure the top of the center brace is level with the surrounding 2×4 stretchers.

That’s it for the frame. The next step is to add the planks to for the table top. They should have one or two coats of sealant before this. Just lay the planks on top. They will have a slight bowing, so lay them so they bow up in the middle. Gravity will flatten them over time, but we can hurry this along by screwing them down. I just used little angled brackets to attach the table top. There are several methods of attaching a table top, but this is quick and easy. It’s also easy to re-do if the table top shrinks. You don’t want anything too permanent, otherwise you’ll end up with a warped table.

First attach them to the center. To do this place a large weight on them, enough so that any bowed plank will be flush against the center brace. The easiest way is to have someone sit on the table in the right place. Then screw all the brackets for the center brace, then repeat for the sides and ends.

Then add another two coats of sealant. Sand lightly between coats (I used a 200 grit sanding sponge, which is ideal). Add some friends, and enjoy.

Cost

The total cost was $143. This breaks down to about $48 for wood, $40 for hardware, and $55 for the stain and sealer.  You could do it cheaper if you used proper joins instead of screws, but that increases the construction time, and makes it more likely you’ll mess it up, and end up with wonky table. You could also skimp a bit on the sealer, but this has worked out pretty well so far.

4×4-8′ Green Douglas Fir 7.31 2 $14.62
2×4-8′ Green Douglas Fir 2.55 3 $7.65
2×8-8′ 5.1 5 $25.50 $47.77
1.5″ large corner brace, 2pk 3.27 4 $13.08  
  8×1.5″ Screws 5.96 1 $5.96  
  Screws 5.58 1 $5.58  
  6″ Lag Screws 0.87 12 $10.44  
  4″ Screws, 2pk 1.18 4 $4.72 $39.78
Minwax Stain 7.56 1 $7.56
Minwax Varathane 15.98 3 $47.94 $55.50
Total $143.05

Missing from the cost above is the “hidden cost” of any project like this – the tools you buy, the biggest here being the Dewalt random orbit sander, and the dust collector. But there were also some clamps, and some drill bits. Of course I’ve used them many times since, and the money saved over buying a comparable table pretty much paid for them from the start. At least that’s what I tell Holly.

[UPDATE] Eight months later it now January, the middle of winter. It’s rained several times. The table is still in good shape, but the raw wood has leaked spots of sap in several places, so I’m going to have to re-finish the top surface. This is pretty much due to me getting cheap wood. The boards have also shrunk a bit in width, leaving slightly large gaps in the table top.

[UPDATE #2 July 2012] We noticed that one of the boards has risen a bit on the surface of the table. A brief inspection showed we’d installed it so that the wood grain faces up (it’s kind of a u-shape) while the other boards were installed with the wood grain facing down.

Spot the difference. The second plank from the right is upside down, so it has curved up at the edges.

It’s not a huge difference, but noticeable. So if you ever build a table yourself, make sure the wood grain on cut ends are all facing the same way. Oh, and we still haven’t refinished it. We’ll do that at the end of the summer before the rainy season.

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