The table is a basic piece of household furniture. It generally consists of a flat top that is supported by either a set of legs, pillars, or trestles. The top may be made of stone, metal, wood, or a synthetic material such as a plastic. Tables may be subdivided by any one of a number of criteria, the most basic of which is whether the table is a fixed table or a mechanical table. A fixed table has a top that does not move in any way to expand or reduce in size for storage. The tops on fixed tables can be quite sizable and may be supported by a single column or pedestal. Mechanical tables have tops or legs that move, fold, drop, or in some way may be reconfigured in order to save space or make them more flexible. Mechanical tables include drop leaf tables, tilting tables, or those with legs that fold up or collapse if a mechanism is unlocked.
Tables are more commonly subdivided by other criteria such as the material from which they are made, the purpose for which they are constructed, the form they take, and the style of any added decoration. Style is an extremely important part of a table. The look of the table may vary as a result of many factors. These include changing stylistic preferences, advances in technology that make available different materials for the table or methods for its construction, and new table forms that are the result of new human activities or needs.
Tables purchased in this country are most frequently mass-produced from wood and can be made with minimal cabinetmaking skill. American-made tables may be made from native hardwoods such as maple, oak, or alder, or soft woods such as pine. American tables may be manufactured unfinished meaning without any stain or sealer or may be purchased ready-to-use in standard or custom finishes. Some table manufacture takes place in the home; these are considered custom or specially made pieces of furniture that must be constructed by a cabinet maker.
Until about the sixteenth century, when decorative and stylistically distinctive furniture became very important, tables were less frequently found than either the chair or the chest (which held clothing as a chest of drawers does today). However, there were tables in the ancient world. Different cultures made them of different materials. Egyptian tables were of wood or stone and resembled pedestals. It is said the Assyrians made them of metal. Pompeii and Herculaneum populaces had tables made with supporting members of marble.
Cathedrals in the Middle Ages used communion tables that stood on masonry or on a base of stone. Castles often included large, rectangular plank tables with the master of the castle in the center and the less important inhabitants or guests at right angles to him. More ordinary medieval tables that survive include simple wooden tables supported by plain side members. Early seventeenth century American tables were generally of the trestle type, with a plank top and vertical planks on the side. Some could be dismantled if more room was needed; many were just moved against the wall to provide space when the table was not in use.
Decoration became very important to the wealthy about the sixteenth century as well. Stylish furniture was ornately carved and included turnings made on foot-pedal lathes. Until the mid-seventeenth century most furniture was constructed by joiners who made furniture much as they made houses, with pegs, mortise and tenon construction, and massive members for supporting the slab tops. In the later seventeenth and eighteenth century the cabinetmaker began making fine furniture, creating sculptural pieces that were veneered, carved, and expertly joined including the use of interlocked dovetailing for strength.
In the early nineteenth century the machine enabled manufacturers to provide attractive furniture far less expensively. Wood was cut by water, steam, or electrical saws, machine sanded, machine incised and decorated, turned on machine lathes, and so forth. By 1890, all but the very poorest Americans could afford to purchase an inexpensive table and chairs. In the early twentieth century the table changed again, this time because new, unconventional materials were used in its construction such as laminate, plastic, and chipboard, making tables truly affordable for all. As new activities were enjoyed and embraced, tables changed form, too. Table forms that were invented in the past 200 years include the card tables, gaming tables, tea tables, dressing tables, diapering tables, and computer tables.
Raw materials vary greatly according to the type of table under production. Unfinished pine table made in quantity in this country include pine planks that are called one-by-fours or one-by-sixes. (These are boards that were once truly 1 in [2.5 cm] thick by 4 in [10.1 cm] wide or 6 in [15 cm] wide but are now cut slightly smaller than that size today.) Other materials include water-resistant glue formulated from polyvinyl acetate. Hardware, including screws, vary according to the price point of the piece but are often steel. Most American table manufacturers are careful to obtain woods that are certified, meaning the manufacturer can prove that the trees were harvested legally from controlled forests grown specifically for the manufacture of furniture. Furthermore, furniture-grade wood is especially important in the construction of unfinished tables, in which the grain may not be covered with paint. Furniture-grade wood is virtually knot-free or clear; when there are small knots the company must be sure they can use the wood in a hidden area of the piece such as the back or inside a drawer. Drawer bottoms or sides may be of a plywood, engineered wood (pressed wood chips formed into sheet goods), or even masonite.
The decoration and configuration of tables are fairly important in the unfinished furniture industry. Additive or incised decoration may be found on the table apron (a board which goes across the front of the table running from leg to leg and may hold the drawer front), or on the legs themselves. Painted decoration may be seen at any place on the table. The shape or form of table top, table legs, or the apron determines style and may be created by specialized machinery
While the high-end manufacturers of ready-to-use furniture spend a great deal of time and money on the design of their furniture, the unfinished furniture generally provides basic forms to the consumer. The unfinished table manufacturer surely cares about selling an attractive table, but it is not likely of the most stylish or innovative table shown at the important furnishings markets. Most larger furniture firms have a design director on staff whose job is to ferret out new designs for their market and work with the production managers to create these styles economically. These larger firms haunt malls, study the shelter and fashion magazines, and perform some audience assessment of taste and style preferences.
However, smaller firms, such as those who produce medium to low-price products, point out that unfinished goods may spend less money on the development of styles and decoration, preferring to offer basic tables and forms to the consumer. Some smaller firms may assign the task of developing new products and styles to the production manager. This manager works with staff designers to craft tables that can be manufactured using the equipment used in-house. Interestingly, some prefer to design tables for which parts can easily be interchanged, resulting in a wide array of products with little re-design. For example, a console table may have the same front and back apron and drawers as the coffee table but have a narrower top, sides, and longer legs. A Queen Anne-style coffee table may have cabriole (curved) legs while a Shaker-style coffee table may be identical except the legs are rectilinear and slightly tapered.
Designers or production directors generally keep their eye on current styles, assessing what is leading the market and what trends are infiltrating the target market. Generally, when a new style or form is suggested for production, a team of directors, including the director of sales and marketing, the director of manufacturing, and in-house designers assess the viability of the new design. If the design is approved, the director of manufacturing and the designer works with an operator who uses a computer-based design and drafting system such as AutoCAD. This operator works with the design on a computer and then inputs that information into the computer in order to produce that product on computer-driven machines. All staff members work together to devise the best way to get the new table form through the system, especially vigilant that the costs of the new table will not exceed the price point of the intended market and that no new machinery or manufacturing expertise will be necessary to produce the new product.
The new table must be made in prototype in order to evaluate how the product will go through the established system. In addition, the staff must physically examine the proposed new table for aesthetics and durability. The prototype is made using templates made on machines. Any changes to the prototype are made, the AutoCAD operator changes computer settings for templates, and the piece is ready for production once approved.
- The pine boards come into the factory fairly rough but cut to predetermined lengths that are then cut to shorter lengths using a power saw. The wood must stay in a carefully temperature and humidity-controlled room or the wood may swell (too much humidity) or shrink (very dry) and the piece will have cracks when finished. Temperatures must stay in the range of 50-85°F (10-29°C).
- Workers gather up the pine lengths and spread water-resistant wood glue to the long edges of the planks where they join with other boards to make a table top. The planks are then clamped together with furniture clamps to ensure a tight bond and a sturdy top. Several dozens of the tops can be made at one time and must sit for at least one hour.
- The raw table tops are then sent to wide belt-driven sanders that sand the planks down to take away extreme roughness and splinters.
- Most tables have some sort of apron or vertical board just below the table top. The apron must be cut next. A computer numerically controlled (CNC) router cuts several aprons according to computer specifications. This router is especially suited to cutting sheet goods such as planks of wood. The shapes to be cut or routed are defined by the drawing programs such as AutoCAD. The information is transferred to a CAD/CAM program that allows the user to define the path of the router tool. When the tool path has been defined, the computer software allows a tap file to be made, which actually runs the tool over the wood or plank, cutting it into the desired shape. The router is able to create high quality routing and carving effects with uniform consistency and with very little wasted wood. The cut aprons are put into a cart and head to the assembly area.
- The board tops, now glued and sanded, are sent to the CNC router and cut to the desired shape as well as described above.
- The legs are shaped on a profiler. Before the legs are shaped an aluminum template must be cut on the CNC router. Once the template is cut, the metal template is put on the profiler, and a bearing guide follows the template in order to shape the table legs.
- Legs with special stylish feet such as a pad foot are put into a chucker which acts like a giant pencil sharpener, shaping the stylish feet. The table tops and legs are put into carts and are sent to the assembly area as well.
If the table is to receive a drawer, then the front, sides, and bottom
of the drawer are cut on the CNC router. The front is of
- Many unfinished furniture manufacturers do not ship their tables assembled as the shipping price increases wholesale costs significantly. Those that do not intend to assemble their products proceed to the final sanding before packaging. Companies that do assemble their products employ workers who examine a work order and pull the appropriate parts from the bins, then ready them for assembly. The assembly of the table is done by hand. This is the preferred method in many shops as a manufacturer may produce several tables with very similar parts, thus making it difficult for a machine to discern which parts were used on specific product numbers. Jigs or templates mark where the screws must go. They are laid on the table tops so the table may be screwed in place precisely.
- The tables are given a final sanding using a hand sander. While this is a fairly careful sanding it is not considered a fine sanding or finish sanding as the company presumes that the consumer will spend time sanding the surface to close the grain, remove hand oils that prevent it from taking a good stain, and further reduce any mill marks.
Quality control is monitored at every step of production. Most storage rooms for wood raw materials stay between 50-85°F (10-29°C) and moderate humidity. The moisture content, known as MC in the trade, is the weight of water contained in the wood compared to the wood's oven-dry weight. This moisture content should never exceed 25% and ideally should stay around 12%. Most factories try to find one temperature and humidity and keep these constant so that the wood comes to an equilibrium moisture content. Temperature and humidity must be moderate to ensure that a product does not bend, crack, or warp after manufacture. Excessive humidity can result in the loosening and weakening of joints and even failure at the joint. In fact, most of the problems associated with wood in the manufacture of furniture are associated with dimensional changes or movement of the wood due to variation in humidity.
Everyone who assists with production is constantly performing visual checks of the wood. Wood is checked for cracks, knots, or discoloration that are unsightly or may weaken the piece structurally when boards are first chosen for the tops in the gluing process. Hand gluing and stapling of the drawer and hand assembly of the entire table helps ensure a strong, sturdy table. The jig is carefully placed on the table top and apron in order for the screws to be placed in the correct positions, further ensuring stability. Even after the tops are glued and sanded, they are checked again for flaws in the wood. Hand assemblers and hand sanders who come in at the end of the process give the table a visual examination as well. Finally, in packaging, the entire table is looked over, then sent to the warehouse for storage.
Wood waste generated from the routing and profiling is gathered up and sent in quantity to the factory's "hog" which chops the waste into fine chips. A variety of companies, including remanufactured furniture factories, paper product producers and manufacturers who make particle board, chip board, and so forth may arrange to take away these small, processed chips.
Currently, the availability of North American woods for the production of unfinished tables is not a problem. Increasingly there is interest from the consumer that the pine used in such tables is certified, meaning it has been legally and carefully harvested and is not a foreign rain forest product. Labor costs for the production of such pieces is not prohibitive and the abandonment of furniture production in this country is not likely in the immediate future. However, stylish, inexpensive, already finished tables of imported wood such parawood are proving to be challenges for some of these manufacturers. As Americans become more concerned about using these foreign woods it may be that these tables, particularly computer tables, will not sell well. However, their price points may be so competitive that the use of certified woods may be deemed unimportant.
Where to Learn More
Krill, Rosemary Troy, and Pauline K. Eversmann. Early American Decorative Arts, 1620-1860. Walnut Creek, CA: 2000.
"Quality Control in Furniture Manufacture: Moisture Content." December 2001. < http://www.mtc.com.my/publication/library/quality/content.html >.
Oral interview with Roger Shinn, Director of Production for Westview Products. Dallas, Oregon. July 2001.
Nancy EV Bryk