Pushing the Envelope with a Herringbone Table Top

Small pieces of wood sliced 1/8 inch thick, laid into a herringbone pattern, and applied to an MDF substrate on both sides, have been known to work as a custom table top. March 26, 2007

A customer has asked me to replicate a dining room table that she found a picture of. The rectangular top has a herringbone pattern in the center with a +/- 4" band around the perimeter. Dimensions will be approximately 3 1/2' x 8' - thickness will be whatever makes it stable. Oak would be the preferred material. The picture appears to be solid wood as opposed to a veneer.

How would you construct such a table? Substrate with wood flooring nailed through the tongues, much like a traditional flooring installation? It would seem that this table would move in all directions.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor F:
I would use veneer or not do the job. It's not worth what could happen otherwise. If the client insists on hardwood and you still want to do it, explain the consequences. But the way I look at things like this is, when things go sideways, they're not going to remember they gave the go-ahead, and you are the bad guy or gal all of a sudden.

From contributor V:
Have them sign a job sheet that lists the work to be done and the problems that could be incurred using hardwood. That way, when they don't remember, you can refresh their memory.

From contributor T:
The questioner didn't say anything about client wanting solid. You say picture "appears to be solid wood," but you don't explain how that could be apparent from a picture.

Regarding "like a traditional flooring install," such installs allow space for expansion at the long-grain sides of the room. You can't build a solid wood table trapped in a solid wood border (frame). Solid wood panels will move with changes in humidity and any attempt to restrict that movement will result in failure of the structure.

From contributor D:
No problem. I have done it many times with no problems. The trick is to use solid wood for the face/herringbone at 1/8" thick. Bevel edges or whatever you want to make the planks stand out, but press them onto MDF core, while doing a similar (grain orientation-wise) thing on the underside. Once it's all laid up and pressed (vacuum is the way), then you can size the edges and add a solid border. If you miter or butt the border, add a 1" long grain spline - blind or exposed - to hold the joint. The MDF will remain stable, but since it has a hard time supporting even its own weight, you will need to make an apron that will give support to the top.

From contributor P:
If this has worked for you, then you have been damn lucky. What about the back of the MDF panel? Anything under there? Your method breaks every rule in the book and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

Safe way to do this is with veneer. The backer, ideally, would be identical to the face, but I have found that if the herringbone is on a 60 degree grid, then a simple straight grain backer works. A hardwood edge can be glued to the veneered panel using biscuits. As long as it's not too wide (4" or less), it should work fine.

From contributor D:
Well, you are right that veneer is the sure thing, long proven and reliable. But I have tables at 30 years old that are still looking good and tight, with no problems. While there is certainly nothing wrong with veneer, it is hard to get any texture into it.

When I made these tops, I did the same on the back of the MDF as on the front, but not as pretty. I used to make my own plywood for these tops - most at 30" x 45" or so - but started using MDF as I adopted it for the regular veneer work.

I actually started doing this (30 years ago) in red oak solids with 45 degree drops from my day job building curved stairs. Those tops moved in all directions and did come apart. Then I resawed the solids to about 1/8" and started gluing them up into herringbones and such, then cold-pressing onto a substrate. I knew that at some point between solid and veneer, the wood might still work like solid (edge join, saw, etc.) but could be laid up irregardless of grain direction (like veneer). Once I learned about balanced panels, I started adding a similar back and felt confident building bigger. As I said, never a problem. Some of these older tables have moved all over the US with the customer, and still look good. Heck, they have aged better than I have!

Yes, I guess it does break some rules. Or more accurately, approaches the threshold where the rule may or may not apply. I make cutting boards for all the kitchen type tables we make. Quartered hard maple, about 12" wide by 18" long, with glued breadboard ends t&g on, and mineral oil finish. Some of these are over 15 years old and have not self-destructed. They definitely break the rules, or the 12" quartered is near the point where the movement doesn't matter. We also make large pattern grade Honduras mahogany exterior doors with 11" wide bottom rails with 9" x 3" tenons, coped and stuck, clamped and glued to the stiles - cross grain construction. After 5-6 years we may notice at most a 1/16" projection of the rail beyond the stile, but don't see a paint or stain crack. This definitely breaks the rules, but the wood, the joint, the application all work together.

Perhaps I should amend my post to say that the method works, but the discussion should center on determining the threshold of the rule. This would include all the variables - species, M/C, width, quartered or flat sawn, thickness, etc. I'll leave that for someone else to work out.

From contributor T:
Contributor D clearly described his balanced layup in his first post. I'm glad you call your 1/8" surfacing stock solid, and I like your reasons for using it. I'm not surprised you have success as you're only bending the rules, not breaking them. I turned down bidding desks and tables for the Wi State Capitol because the architect spec'd as original. They were 3/16" oak laid on lumber core, circa 1910, and boards were cupped, separated and delaminated - looked like flooring after a flood. Recently had to refinish a large dining table that we re-veneered 5 years ago with 1/8" quarter-sawn oak stock over lumber core, no cross-banding, no balancing, as original circa 1930. Lots of core telegraphing but no failure. Did run it through a wide belt, reducing the face thickness. I wouldn't design it, don't recommend it, but with modern glue and 5 years history, I'm guessing it will outlast the original. You can be sure I told the client why I thought the original had a short half-life, but it was their choice to not go with a new top of proper construction. They're happy and the money paid the rent.

From contributor P:
My apologies. I did read the first posts in haste, and missed the backer. I still think it's dicey, but it's hard to argue with success.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your responses. I should have mentioned in my initial question that the picture shows a fair amount of hand scraping and distressing on the surface. Not possible with veneer, but contributor D may have the solution. With a balanced panel, I can see how this could be possible. What type of adhesive are you using in this application?

From contributor D:
Urethane glue is what we use now, yellow glue in the past. Then and now, we would edge glue up the faces then send through the wide belt, then press onto the core. Be sure to have a stable environment, and let things acclimatize and relieve stress.

As stated above, this may be treading the line between veneer and solid wood, so go carefully. I have seen these types of dining tables in catalogs/stores, and wondered if it is solid, veneer, or just plain MDF with lots of finish. My gut leans to solids, in that the country of origin doesn't have the tech or know-how to work with thin solid and MDF, and solids can be caulked and filled with finishes that crack and open, "revealing the character in the wood," as the catalogs say. A doctor friend/woodworker calls the cracks "bacteriological breeding grounds."

From contributor R:
Quarter sawn would be the cut of chose. I will expand vertically and not cause any problems with the banding.