Helpful Information

Farmhouse tables: Function invites beauty to dance. She accepts. They get married and live happily ever after.

When you are thinking about ordering a farmhouse table, or any other dining table, it helps to consider all these issues that I’m going to talk about below. I walk through all these points with my clients to help them decide.

The table, and the room and home it’s placed in:

What are the dimensions of the room and how does traffic flow? What activities happen in there besides dining? Is it in a kitchen, a nook, a formal dining space? What dining-related traffic will there be; in other words how will people move through space as they are filling their plates and cleaning up? How many eaters do you have for everyday or on special occasions? If you have no table yet and want to figure out the right size and shape, place dining chairs in your room at the imaginary edge of the table, all around, and walk around the perimeter to see what feels right, and measure the space you’ll need for getting around the table. I like about 24 inches minimum walking room at sides and ends — consider how this will feel with chairs pushed in, and chairs pulled out when people are eating. A chair pulled out for eating will consume another 24 inches of space, so that will take up a total of 48 inches of space from any wall or any furniture along the walls. A very long refectory style table can be pushed up against one wall and stick out in the room like a peninsula. You can measure your room and draw out a simple, to-scale plan, if you like to work that way. Or just take note of your traffic patterns and mark your table out on the floor with tape. Allow about 22 inches side to side as a general rule for each chair, but measure your chairs and mock it up to see how crowded this feels. Certain chairs these days are larger. You can tape off the area for your dining surface onto the floor, and set some plates and glasses down to see how crowded it will feel, and find the ideal placement of each diner. If you want to really see clearly, make a tabletop to the right size and shape with big cardboard.

Farmhouse tables and authentic looking dimensions:

Generally a traditional looking farmhouse table with four legs looks best at a certain width to length ratio. Old style tables look nice longer and narrower. Carol Burks at Justin and Burks in Portland believes that the ideal size for beauty and function is 35 w X 96 l. This picture shows a very narrow refectory style table at 30.5 w X 92 l. We designed and made this one. As such, it looks graceful and sexy. But there’s not a lot of room for dishes in the middle. Here it is shown at Carol and Justin Burk’s beautiful shop in Portland Oregon:
Here are other images of nice antique farmhouse tables.

Peoples’ dining habits nowadays are different. Are you the family who fills plates at the stove or the ones who put the serving dishes in the middle of the table? Fill-it-at-the-stove people might carry trays to the dining room and back, making cleanup efficient. Refectory style – long and narrow – was built for cafeteria style eating. You have less room in the middle for food, but you are closer and more intimate with your family members on the other side of the table. You can play a game across it – it’s the perfect size for chess or sharing newspaper stories. If you opt for this style, people will be getting up for seconds. You must be sure traffic flows around the table nicely with chairs pulled out. Or, spreading out your chairs and putting more space between each chair on the sides would allow more serving dish area on the top and make getting in and out of chairs less of a hassle.

Pile-it-in-the-middle people generally favor 38 to 46 inch widths. At a length of 9 or 10 feet, a 42 inch width will still look terrific. But a 40 X 80 inch table will look funny. Going with a trestle style end, or at least an end where there is a stretcher between the legs, will make more visual sense, however, keep in mind that an end stretcher will limit how far you can scoot in your end chairs. Some end stretchers are curved inward toward the center of the table to help solve this issue.

The farmhouse table and apron widths:

A farmhouse table will look best with a generously sized apron but this will limit knee room. Measure from the floor to the bottom edge of the apron – 24 inches is about the bare minimum comfortable measurement for proper knee room. 25 inches feels better for moderate sized people, and tall people will possibly need more. 30 inches is typical overall height, to the top of the table; 31 is about the very maximum tolerable height. There is often a problem with an antique piece: the floor to apron distance is crucial and is often too low for today’s diners. People are taller these days. Many farmhouse tables were built when people were shorter and chair seats were lower. You can’t always correct this by simply adding something to the feet, because this will raise the overall height, possibly to an uncomfortable level. This one shown above has a lovely wide apron, and with the floor to apron measurement at 25.5 inches it would sit comfortably with plenty of knee room. However, the overall height is 32 which would make our diners feel like kindergarteners. This is all the more important if people bring laptops to the table. You will want a lower overall height for shoulder comfort. This is a crucial issue, and one that gets worked out individually. A too-small apron will look inauthentic while a too-wide apron will limit knee room.
Here are some pictures of farmhouse tables with very wide aprons.

If you are having us build something for you we will talk about the floor to apron measurement. I will ask you to mock this up. Get your tallest man and have him sit in his favorite dining chair, cross his legs, and measure to the top of his knee. He will thank you profusely.

Here is a table being built right now in which we have chosen a trestle end with an end stretcher and a center stretcher. Here is our mockup of the end, and we recruited one of our tall friends to sit and feel this out.

As you see, with his feet on the stretcher, his knees completely bypassed the end apron, which is what we wanted. Due to the large end overhang, the setup is comfortable. This one is going in a small dining room in which the owners like the pile-it-in-the-middle style of eating. We are providing a generous overhang for arm chairs and this one will expand with leaves. It’s going to be very rustic and will go to a client in New Jersey. We are very excited about this style.

The farmhouse extension table with leaves:

Tables with straight tapered legs look great with the end overhang rather large. The ideal dimension depends on the overall dimensions of the table and thickness of the top, but allow at least 6 inches. Cabriole leg tables need a shorter end overhang.
If you will have leaves, the situation with a farmhouse table is usually that the leaves go at each end of the table. There are so-called company board leaves in which the supporting arms are attached to the leaf, and these will fit into holes in the end apron. For stability and strength, these supporting arms will bear weight, and should be quite long. Consider where you might store these, and that you will need to have extra room in your dining room at each end of the table, to swing those long arms around and put them in place. We don’t favor this type of construction because of this issue. We only build them this way if our customer threatens to bite us.
Here is what I mean by company board leaf:

We prefer that leaf arms remain inside the table and use a pullout breadboard end.
Here’s a pullout breadboard example: In this case, on one end there is a drawer too. We made this one and have used it as a dining table for a couple years.

You will be adding people at each end of the table, and keep in mind that your end occupants will not want to straddle a leg. If you can, include a generous length beyond the outer edge of the table leg for two diners, one on each side, and then another diner at the end. On a narrow table, the leaf will have to be longer to accommodate three extra diners, because the closer the plates of the side-sitting diners are, the more the end-sitting diner gets pushed outward. Again, mock it up, set plates and glasses out — you can use your floor for this, tape out your size and set your plates and glasses on the floor.

How we serve you successfully:

Our product is:

  • MADE IN OREGON: We do not mass produce or import our furniture. Our products are custom made locally, one or two at a time in our Portland, Oregon shop using local wood when possible, and paying local people fair American wages.
  • DESIGNED BY ARTISTS:  You may come to us with a complete vision of your endpoint.  In this case we listen to you until we understand your vision and will then deliver it without compromising the design.  Or, you may not have a design bone in your body, but you know what you want when you see it.  (Only you are not seeing it.)  We can design a unique piece for you, and it is easier and more pleasurable than you might think.  You have a unique style and we’ll help you discover it.  We’ll guide you through and handle all the details of line and proportion so that your piece will “sing” no matter what the style.  It will also be practical for your life.  We use sketches, drawings, samples and mockups along the way, and we welcome you for visits to the studio during all stages of the project and will adjust our technique to the needs at hand.  We also sell a growing line of versatile classics.
  • BUILT BY AN EXPERT:  Built by someone who’s an expert in wood movement.  Wood fibers are a most efficient water-transport vehicle; better than any machine.  Wood never stops exchanging moisture with its environment and will do so over its entire life.  Furniture MUST be built such that seasonal expansion and contraction happen naturally.  Wood will always win.  And it’s the water in the wood that wreaks havoc.  Water is stronger than steel, and mother nature will merely laugh while one by one she shatters each of your contrivances to bind her.  If you’ve had a piece of furniture crack, split or warp, those problems happened because the builder misunderstood or ignored wood mechanics.  If you have a cabinet whose doors bind or twist it’s because it’s sitting on or was built on an inadequate or twisted base.  All these errors can be easily prevented, yet we see multitudinous examples  in the real world, and even in the fine woodworking magazines that the right principles are not being applied.
  • AUTHENTICALLY AGED:  We are both in love with antiques, and the ones we most enjoy are not the fancy ones with multiple coats of perfect shellac but rather the simple, old country pieces built and used by real humans who worked hard, lived off the land, and ate butter.  As a result, our clients often ask us to build things that look as if they’ve been around for a long time, and these are the projects that we most enjoy.  We have a passion for good patina and form, and we study closely the pieces that we love.  As a result, we believe that our antiqued products are the best on the market and have stood by and watched many people mistake our pieces for antiques.  We do things one at a time, great colors are complex, and these finishes take a lot of elbow grease.  Art cannot be mass produced.
  • FINISHED FOR THE REAL WORLD:  Most importantly, our pieces, (even some of the more contemporary ones) are designed and finished so that everyday use improves the character and appearance rather than detracts.  For this reason we are often asked to build dining tables, as these are at the heart of the home and most often exposed to staining and damaging activities and substances.  You’ll want to enjoy your food and friendships, not worry about your tabletop.  You do not need to prevent your toddler from learning physics lessons at the expense of the furniture.  Time tested in our home lab (kitchen, with young sons) and battle-tested in a commercial restaurant setting: Le Pigeon on Burnside and Little Bird downtown — these finishes really work.

More on furniture finishes. Eternal youth: the holy grail – or not?

IMG_2637ed What is it about “patina” that is earned the old-fashioned way? Why is it so moving?

Technically I know that I am using this word wrong – but I don’t know what other word applies to the magical effect that age and love can do for a wooden thing.

You see, a tree is a story teller.

When a tree is rooted in the earth, it listens to the earth and tells the story of the earth to the sky. When a tree is cut down, milled, and put to use as furniture, it still desires to tell a story. It is no longer rooted in the earth, but now it is rooted in our lives as a member of our household. It still yearns to tell a story – the story of our lives; it tells our history. We write our story on it day-in and day-out, penetrating it with our knives, soaking it with the juices of our foods, scrubbing crayon and chalk and paint into its pores, banging it with cookware, scraping it with crockery and gravel from the occasional re-potted plant, spilling candle wax , scrubbing it with Ajax and polishing it with lemon oil.


Note:  In this picture, the main part of the table is shown to the right; a genuine antique irish table.  The leaf, to the left, was built new and distressed to match the old.

We as a culture don’t have many kind words for this messy text, this kind of story. It’s a story of age and time. In this culture, such wear and tear is not very Ok. We want to “protect” the wood. The wood is expected to carry a youthful face throughout its life, despite all the “experiences” that it has lived through. There is no being alive that can keep a youthful face except that it be completely shielded from life itself. This is an impossibility, yet we keep inventing tougher and more sophisticated finishes that are supposedly better and better at resisting scratches and damage and water. But guess what. Now, the protective coating itself is the surface that absorbs the wear of life. The story of life looks a lot different when its told by a dead petrochemical crust. Such finishes look great at first, but become ugly over time, and even the very toughest ones get marred. It brings to mind a job that we are being called upon to handle which involves a large conference table with a very very scratch resistant conversion varnish finish. It has a really unsightly medium sized scratch zigzagging across the surface – and it’s going to be a BIG EXPENSIVE deal to do anything about it. It’s very scratch resistance means that a re-dissolve and rubbing with steel wool is completely out of the question. It will require complete stripping, and that’s a problem, especially since it cannot be moved from its location. Conversely – on many of the antique pieces, we find similar scratches frequent, and charming among all the other dings and blotches – so numerous, and so old and blended together that the whole was a pleasure to behold – and yet on the conference table, the scratch, in a sea of otherwise fairly presentable yet plasticky smooth surface, is like an ugly scar.

Seven Furniture Finishing Mistakes and how to cleverly sidestep them

1. Buck would say the number one finishing mistake is applying any finish in the first place. He’s one of these people who swoons over old antiques, and some of the best antiques are those “primitive” pieces, particularly tables, that have seen centuries of daily use! He said the other day “the more abuse a piece of furniture is to take, the less finish should be applied to it” and always points to our butcher block in order to back up this point. This is a rather radical statement, but I guess that the decades of applying and repairing uber-touchy perfect sprayed finishes, he has gotten just plain disgusted with them all and has “gone back to nature” with totally renewable penetrating oils, waxes, and absolutely-bombproof milk paint.

2. Not considering how a finish will look over the full life of the piece of furniture (after daily use takes its toll).

2. Not realizing that NOTHING sticks to polyurethane. (I mean subsequent coats of anything else).

3. Not finishing both sides of a piece of wood equally. This can cause warping. A piece of wood is in constant exchange with the moisture in the atmosphere, breathing in and out. When a finish is applied to the wood, it will slow the rate of moisture exchange. Different finishes will affect this moisture exchange differently. When there is a different kind of finish on the top side of a table than the bottom side – or heaven forbid if somebody left the bottom side raw, the wood on the bottom side will soak up water faster on humid days and lose water faster in dry days, than the top side. This will cause the one side to shrink or expand more rapidly compared to the other side, and you will get severe warping. One essential way to avoid this is to apply the same finish and the same number of coats to each side, and at the same time. Be also careful about placing heaters underneath tables — and conversely, be aware that strong, hot sunlight from a picture window will create a radically different moisture exchange environment on the top of the piece compared to the bottom. If you’re storing flat, solid-wood shelving – take care to place little sticks between each so that air can circulate all around.

4. Not considering the ease or difficulty of repairing the finish WHEN it gets marred. A crust finish is always more difficult to repair and looks worse when marred. You can re-melt some crusts – like lacquers and shellacs, and re-amalgamate the finish. If you are extremely lucky, you can achieve decent results without the whole thing turning into a messy glop. But for other finishes, complete re-stripping and re-spraying is necessary, and that’s neither fun nor green nor cheap.

5. Not realizing that even the toughest, most high-tech, scratch resistant finishes WILL get scratched. When a big woops happens, you have a nice pristine surface showing one rather blatant gouge (there is no finish on the planet that is scratch-PROOF).

6. Not building the underlying structure in the right manner (Everything telegraphs – sanding scratches, micro-bumps in veneer core materials, etctera).

7. Putting on a finish that allows water in – but not out. Certain finishes are notorious for giving white rings – this happens when water can go into the wood (especially under heat, it is forced into the wood through the finish layer) and then the water will cool, condense, and not come back out again. A crust finish like catalyzed lacquer is an excellent barrier to water, wine, and hot fluids. However, keep in mind that WHEN a knife or a piece of gravel or anything sharp penetrates through this finish into the underlying wood, creating a nasty scratch, fluids can find their way into the wood and then be trapped inside by the surrounding finish.

Furniture Repairs — you may be surprised at what’s possible


238 vintage midcentury modern furniture repair restoration specialist Portland Oregon broken chair 238 vintage midcentury modern furniture repair restoration specialist Portland Oregon broken chair

When we mention what we do (custom furniture), most people ask right away “and do you do furniture repairs?” Yes we do, and we specialize in re-making broken parts.
See examples / pictures of successful repair projects here.

If you have a favorite piece of furniture that has been damaged, you may be surprised at what is possible.  I believe that keeping a damaged piece can really bring down your energy and attract clutter and stagnation.  Each time you look at it — especially if it has great sentimental value to you, or it has been in your family a long time — your energy dips a notch.

Getting a quality repair done, in contrast, can revive you!  Sometimes the cost is minimal and often the fix can be done while you wait and chat with us.  Other times, the repair is much more time-consuming, and the cost of our work may exceed the price of a new piece.  This is because we must often re-make by hand certain pieces that had been made en-masse in a factory, or hand-shape one part to fit another. Then we must carefully match the color and sheen of the new work to the old.  But for certain pieces – like an heirloom, something of sentimental value, or a single dining chair that would complete a set — the price may be well worth it.  Shown below is a mid century teak coffee table whose top was damaged too severely for a refinish.  We replaced the teak veneer and the hardwood border around it and matched the color to the legs.

140 vintage midcentury modern furniture repair restoration specialist veneer replacement Portland Oregon

How much will your particular repair cost?

One way to help us nail down a price is to email us some digital pictures.  Shoot for both  a general view, and various close-up views of the damaged parts.  If the pictures show sufficient detail, it is often possible to give a price by phone.

If you don’t have access to a digital camera, you could simply bring the piece to our shop – or if it’s too big, arrange for us to visit.  Call for an appointment:  503-816-5316

We price our work by estimating the time we think it would take and multiplying this by Buck’s hourly shop rate  – plus whatever materials are necessary.   Whenever possible we will try to give you an exact price that you can agree to up front.

In some cases, we do the work on a time-and-material basis.  This may be appropriate for either:  1) Quick jobs, requiring a minimum of shop time  — or 2)  Unusual or tricky situations in which there are a lot of “if-then’s” or too many unknowns.

What we don’t do:

We do not do upholstery, although we have been called upon to repair and apply decorative paint and gilding to pieces that will later be upholstered. It is always necessary to do the repair and finishing work first, and the upholstery afterword.

For quality upholstery work we highly recommend TRIO FURNITURE – located in the Sellwood district of Portland, Oregon.

What we do:

De-warping of cupped or twisted tops / doors (Buck cringes as I write this)

Preservation of damaged veneer, or if necessary, replacement

Fabrication of new parts (chair splats, rocking chair runners, moulding and trim, cabinet doors, etcetera)

Colormatching of the new part to look like the original – including subtle effects to mimic the patina earned by a piece of great age

We ourselves specialize in WOOD repairs, but we have gotten to know and work with some very talented local metalworking colleagues.

We predict that you will be pleasantly surprised at the possibilities for repair.  Call us for a diagnosis.   503-816-5316.  The prognosis is almost never “terminal”.

Are you tired of coasters and placemats, rings, stains, and generalized shabbiness??

I once owned a dining room table with a perfect, pristine finish. I had to be ultra-careful with it. One forgetful hour with a glass of iced tea on a hot day would cost me an ugly ring. I’m not the type who always remembers placemats and coasters, and I don’t feel good being militant with my guests. I tried to be careful, but things gradually happened. Over time, the perfect crust developed cracks which then powdered to reveal ugly, raw, grey wood underneath. I gave up. It looked worse and worse.

That’s what happens with many “crust” finishes, as we call them. Go to any restaurant or coffee house and observe the tabletops. Most are coated with some type of finish – polyurethane, lacquer, shellac, or whatnot – that is supposed to stick to the surface of the wood and protect the wood from water, wine, oily foods, and wear. I would encourage everyone to take a close look at every table you find, because many look pretty bad over a short period of time. In addition, many (especially the newer ones that are supposed to be waterborne substitutes for the toxic lacquers of the past) have a disturbing plastic look that obscures the beauty of the wood. Touch up or repair of a crust finish is always a problem and cannot usually be done by the homeowner in-house. If you are either extremely lucky or a skilled professional, it may be possible to dissolve and re-amalgamate the crust with an appropriate solvent. Most often a complete strip and re-application is actually less trouble than re-amalgamating in this way, and this is expensive and complicated. An oil finish can be a sure way to get a lovely look that enhances the color and texture of the wood, and it’s renewable — however, on a tabletop, unless it is dilligently re-applied, it can sometimes leave the wood hungry to absorb spills and develop ugly spots. We have refinished many mid-century oil-finished teak veneer tables that were protected by some coats of oil but have developed awful ugly rings and spots and marks.

I now have a kitchen table that we have used for more than two years. It looks just the same as it did when Buck built it. It has no crust, rather a penetrating finish, consisting of some regular dyes and pigments and oils that people usually use for finishing furniture, and some highly irregular substances that aren’t supposed to be finishes. Used in sequence and in combination these substances make the table nearly impervious to liquids and repellant to abuse.  Taken as a whole, the rustic, distressed nature of the piece (which was made to mimic the look of various antique farm tables), the complex and rich color process, and the penetrating finish which protects deeply yet leaves the top crust-free – all work together to prevent and/ or hide any stains and damage. This look is natural for a piece that’s made to look old. But I don’t imagine that owners of contemporary furniture have any more time for fussy maintenance than we do. We have also done this look on more contemporary styled pieces. On our own dining table, we have deliberately and repeatedly applied spots of wine, boiling water, gravy, beet juice, blueberries, soy sauce, and lots of other kitchen substances, left on overnight and then wiped off the following day. There are no signs of rings or other damage. We have scribbled on it with ball-point pens, in order to make dents in the surface. A protective crust does not prevent dents like these. The dent-ability of a surface depends on the hardness of the underlying wood, and the hardness of the crust is basically irrelevant. That’s why conference tables are made out of granite sometimes. Since our table has no crust, these ball-point impressions and other scratch marks can be burnished out by rubbing with the smooth back of a wooden spoon. For my lighter tables they do absorb red wine and a lake of wine left on overnight will leave a stain. It is possible to bleach this out with ordinary household bleach, and then the wood breathes out the moisture. We have experimented with making sharpie marks on the surface. Repair of these marks requires some solvent to dissolve and a paper towel to lift the ink. A light sanding might then be required, along with some touch up color and another coat of oil. Plates have been scraped across this table day in and day out. There are no ugly changes in sheen from the micro-abrasions that this causes. We have also had the unfortunate experience of noticing a slowly leaking metal flowerpot dribbling water on one of our round tables in a store. The wood was predictably bulging and whitish in the area of the leak. Our finish however was able to dry and breathe out most of the water, after which we burnished the ring (with the wooden spoon again) and applied a new coat of wax. Now it’s impossible to know what happened.

It is nice to have a table in our home that we can show to potential customers. We get many requests for a finish that will be durable and beautiful under hard daily wear, requiring little maintenance.