When Melanie's mother needed to be moved into an extensive care facility, we inherited the family's antique dining room table. According to marking burned into the frameworks, it was manufactured by the James Pleukharp company, located in Ohio. Similar models were made sometime in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The rounded end panels drop down and the center section expands to hold up to six leaf panels to a total of 105". With no leaves the table is nearly round with a 45" diameter. A very greenish poplar comprises the solid 3/4" tabletop and turned legs, with oak used for the sliding expansion mechanism. Surprisingly, a thick walnut plank ran across the frame to support the center leg.
Perhaps due to the average person being much shorter than we are today, the top of the table was only about 26" from the floor, even with the tiny wheels inserted into the leg bottoms. The six original chairs went to other relatives, so chairs made for modern tables were much too high. We sat the table legs on wooden blocks for a while, with plans to eventually extend them properly. However, the more the table was used, the more apparent it became that there were some unavoidable irritants that merely extending the legs would not correct. The first was that the very old wood had become very weak so that the top pieces would flex under normal use. Also, the expander frame components were very worn and sloppy fitting, which caused the table to wobble. Finally, the vertical panels of the frame were located very close to the edge of the tabletop so our knees were constantly banging into them. As can be seen in the photo of the original table configuration, the individual leaf panels did not include vertical frame pieces underneath, so a crude looking opening was left in view.
We decided that the annoyances were more than we were willing to endure, and that the table would need to either be replaced or re-worked. These Pleukharp tables have virtually no intrinsic value on the antique market, and we really did not want to dispose of the family heirloom, so the decision was made to rebuild it to conform to our needs. Our very small house (920 sq.ft.) does not have room for a large dining room table, so a size of about the now-standard 42 " x 60" was chosen, and it would be fixed without any leaf panels. In planning the new table, I made use of as much of the original material as possible.
Because all the top poplar wood panels were very curved and twisted, I needed to glue them to a stiff plywood substrate both to force them into as flat a shape as possible and to provide additional strength to the weakened-by-age poplar. Doing so required cutting saw kerfs along the lengths on the undersides to permit the boards to be reshaped without splitting. Plenty of Elmer's carpenter glue was used along with heavy clamping, but even so the top surface was very uneven both due to some remaining curvature and uneven thicknesses of the panels. A lot of elbow grease was used in first planing down the high spots and then belt sanding until reasonable flat. The extreme softness of the wood made the job a lot easier than it would have been with something like oak or maple. The 3/4", 7-layer plywood used for the substrate was unbelievably heavy and accounts for almost half the weight of the completed table! 1/4" thick strips of poplar were glued along the edges to hide the saw kerfs and to cover end grain. The photos below show the entire process.
The frame was built from the original oak sliding expander mechanism. The pieces were glued and screwed directly to the bottom of the table. I did not want the oak visible against the poplar tabletop and legs, so a facade was glued along the outside and bottom edges of the frame. There was not enough original wood for that, so I bought some poplar strips at Lowes that were an almost perfect match. The frame sits about 6" back from table edge so it does not interfere with people knees and legs.
Four of the five legs were reworked to bolt securely onto the outside corners of the frame. Fortunately, because of the thickness of the new tabletop and the way the frame was made, the legs were just tall enough to result in a table height of 28-1/4", which is plenty high since modern tables are typically in the 28" to 30" range. I wanted the legs to be removable and also be very sturdy, so they have a 90° notch cut to mesh firmly with the frame, and then two 5/16" lag bolts run through them and into the oak frame. The table turns out to be extremely sturdy. Since my chisel skills are not as refined as I would like them to be, rather than attempting to chisel out the notches I cut a pair of thin slits through the tops of the legs using a band saw and then used the chisel to crack out one quadrant. Thin strips of poplar were cut and glued into the slits of the other three quadrants and are nearly invisible in the finished work. I also needed to cut and glue large rectangular plugs into each leg where mortises used to accept tenons from the original frame. They are not as invisible, but it doesn't bother me because you will never see them unless you get under the table to look.
Posted April 5, 2016