2017 March 5    Wood   Workbenches & Tables


Every do-it-yourselfer needs a good work surface. 

A solid table needs a good foundation, and it all starts with the table legs.

This basic table has the apron boards held on by lag bolts.  They're strong, but some type of rabbet joint would make it even stronger.  What is a rabbet joint, you might ask?  Basically it's when you cut back some of the wood so there's a ledge or shelf.  Keep reading and you'll see what I mean.

The idea is to transmit the weight directly to the uprights and straight down to the floor.  In other words, you don't want fasteners to be the weak link.  Sure, even drywall screws can support static weight, but things change when you pound on stuff or use a bench vise.

We're going to look at a basic carpentry method for making very strong table legs.  This may not be fine woodworking, but it's a great improvement over the most basic design.

(Oh yeah, and read the Disclaimer.)

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In This Article

1. Basic Design Rationale

2. Measure Twice

3. Different Cutting Methods

4. Even Better


Basic Design Rationale

An apron is a set of boards that keeps a table from racking.  (Explained in more detail here.) It also supports much of the tabletop's weight.

If you hold the apron up with nails or screws, that's a weak link.  Better that each upright should have a shoulder or ledge where the apron boards can rest.  Then the forces go directly to the uprights, not through some fasteners.

Let's say you're planning to use 4x4 or 6x6 timbers for the legs.  You could notch these to form ledges about 1 1/2" wide.  This would match the standard thickness of two-by lumber. 

See that picture up top, where the timber is marked?  This is how it begins. 

Measure Twice

Decide the length of the table legs.  This is also the time to choose the exact width you'll want the apron boards.  A standard 2x6 is 5 1/2 inches wide, but it has rounded edges.  Squared edges often look a bit nicer, so I'd take 2x6's and rip them down to 5 inches wide.  Or, rip 2x8's down to 7" wide.  Buy extra lumber, because (A.) you might mess up, and (B.) you may actually want to laminate a double-layer of these to make your apron boards.  We'll get to that later.

Get a good tape measure.  I have used a lot of tape measures and had most of them break.  Often they stop reeling back in when you most need them to work.  One of the only tape measures I really still like is the Stanley Powerlock.

Different Cutting Methods

There are at least nine or ten different ways to make the rabbet cuts, some safer than others (Disclaimer, again.):

1. Circular Saw.  Adjust the cut depth to 1 1/2 inches.  (If you want the apron boards to stick out a bit, you could make the cut depth 1" instead.)  If your apron boards are 5" wide, mark a line 5 inches from the end of the 4x4.  Next, make repeated parallel cuts so there are a bunch of thin wooden fins where there used to be solid wood.  Then knock out the fins with a hammer.  Clean up the rest with a wood chisel.

These are corner posts, so you're going to do this along two sides.  When you finish one row of cuts, rotate the post 90 degrees and do it again.

You could saw all four of the timbers at once by clamping them together with a couple of bar clamps.  The timbers have to be lined up carefully and clamped down securely for this to work well.

If you don't have a circular saw, get one;  it's one of the most essential carpentry tools.  They are not expensive, they are highly versatile, and they can do some of the same functions as table saws and miter saws at a fraction of the cost.  (Just be careful.) The circular saw I used here was given to me because it was old, heavy, and didn't work properly.  I rewired the cord and it works OK, but it weighs a ton because it's all-steel.  Newer circular saws are often lighter;  as of 3/2017 you can get a decent one for about $50 and a fantastic one for about $125.

2. Table Saw. Here again you would make parallel cross-cuts on the lumber near the end, then knock the fins out and chisel away the waste.  Or you could use a dado blade set, if your table saw can accommodate that.

The cuts are near the end of a timber, so I don't know that I'd use a table saw for this.  It might be a bit safer with a cross-cut sled, but I never seem to get around to building one.  Never make crosscuts on a table saw when the rip fence is installed. This is another reason to build a big cross-cut sled... there's no room for the rip fence, so you can't inadvertently leave it on there.

3. Radial Saw.  Many people today overlook this type of saw, because some of what they do has been replaced by portable miter & chop saws.  But the radial-arm saw is a great tool.  It can crosscut wide planks that a miter saw cannot handle.  If you're patient, you might pick up a used radial-arm saw for $75;  few people want to deal with the size and weight anymore. 

As with the circular and the table saw, you're basically doing a series of partial-depth crosscuts near the end of the timber.  Then, knock down the fins and trim the remnants with a chisel.

4. Reciprocating Saw  These are not ideal for a job such as this;  the blades aren't good at making perfectly square cuts. 

5. Jig Saw. this method can be slow, and again the blade tends to flex and go off-course.  You might be able to build guides to help keep everything straight, but I haven't tried this yet.  I don't like using a jigsaw to cut very thick lumber, but it can be done.

6. Band Saw. A skilled bandsaw operator can make almost anything.  It's also safer than a table saw, miter saw, or circular saw.  Problem is, end-cuts into long pieces of 4x4 can become unwieldy. 

7. Hand Saw. Many people like those Japanese pull saws.  But there's no reason why you can't use a traditional Disston-type saw, if that's what you prefer;  just make sure it's good and sharp.  Finer-toothed saws are better for precision wood sawing, although this isn't really precision wood sawing.

Basically you're crosscutting at the line to a depth of 1 1/2 inches, then you're rip cutting down the length of the 4x4 until you reach the cross cut.  OR, you make the crosscut and then use a wood chisel to remove material.

8. Router. If you do this right, it yields a very professional-looking result.  I have not tried a router for this use, though.

9. Axe, Draw Knife, Wood Chisel.  Labor-intensive, but it works.  A block plane can help even things out.  These tools are a lot better for this if you make the first partial-depth crosscut with a saw.  That way you don't remove material past that mark. 

Whichever method you choose, the result should look something like this:

I think one name for this is "corner full-half-lap joint".

The stretcher boards (where you rest your feet or put a shelf) don't really need to be rebated into the timbers.  There won't be as much weight on them.  With that said, if you want the table to look right, there are a couple options:

Option 1. Make rebate cuts where the stretcher boards will go.  Use basically the same methods we've just looked at.  Recessing the stretcher boards will make the table look more professional.  Then again, we're using pressure-treated 4x4's in a piece of furniture....

Option 2. Double-up the apron boards so the apron is twice as thick.  You don't have to make the rabbet cuts any differently;  you'll just have one of the apron boards rest on the shoulder, while the other layer will not be.  Then the table will look more "right" if you don't notch-cut for the stretcher boards.


This was a look at some ways to make rebate or "rabbet" cuts in the ends of a timber.  This allows you to rest apron boards on them, which makes for a very sturdy work table or workbench.  That means you won't have some cheesy drywall screws being the weak link that holds the weight of the table!!

A strong foundation for your work surface is one of the most important things in your workshop. 

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