Monday, November 8, 2010

Ming Inspiration (2)

In the first post of this series on the design and construction of a dining table which will take its cues from a Ming Dynasty corner leg table, I noted that Chinese tables can be separated into two basic categories of table: those with recessed legs (), and those with corner legs (/). Actually, there are many sub-types within this division into forms based upon where the legs attach to the top:
  1. low tables
  2. long, low, narrow tables
  3. stands and pedestals
  4. wine tables and small side tables
  5. square tables
  6. long, high, narrow tables
  7. broad, long, high tables (painting tables, writing tables)
  8. miscellaneous tables (half-moon tables, games tables, harp tables, altar tables...)
The Chinese had a high diversity of classical furniture types in the Ming period, and this is a tremendous source of design inspiration for me, as the pieces run the gamut from spare and clean to highly ornate.

In this case, for a dining table, a corner leg design seems quite ideal as the leg position affords maximum room for the diners to be seated, interfering with neither diner flanking a given leg corner. As mentioned in the previous post, however, the corner leg construction is structurally more vulnerable then the recessed leg type, so design needs to be most carefully considered. Let's first consider the range of options....

In the simplest case, the legs are attached to the table corners with a joint and no other supports, as in this example:

The leg-apron junction is strengthened by way of flaring both pieces where they connect, and this resulting in an vertically elongated miter at the joint. This is a very clean an spare table, which if the horse-hoof treatments at the lower ends of the legs were removed ,could easily be mistaken for a modern piece.

A similar looking long and high table, except this time the legs are reinforced using giant's arm braces, a serpentine brace which travels inward at an angle from the inside arris of the leg to the underside of the table:

An example of the same system employed with a square table, and here the apron gets a more elaborate edge treatment:

Notice, in the previous tow table examples, a difference in the sides of the tables? The first one, the long high table, has an apron which is flush with the top. In the second, the square table, the apron and top are separated by a band of material recessed in from both apron and top. That band of material is referred to as the waist. The waist may be non-existent ("un-waisted"), short, medium, or tall, and each treatment has repercussions in terms of in construction method details. Here's a high-waisted table:

In this table, the corner legs carry on right through to the table top, and resemble short posts in the waist.

Actually, one of the basic classification divisions for Chinese classic period tables is in fact upon the basis of whether they are waisted or not.

On high quality tables, or when there was adequate amounts of material to work with, the apron and waist were made of the same stick of wood (the Chinese term this (pronounce it at your own risk) jialiangshang, which translates as, "false twice attached"); in other cases the waist and apron were separate sticks and were fixed to one another with wooden pins or wedges. The superior method is to use the one-piece construction as this avoids recourse to glues, pegs, and other means of connecting the pieces, however as this requires larger sections of wood it is often the more costly approach.

Besides giant's arm braces, another method to reinforce the leg-table joints was by way of stretchers. These may be applied just to the narrow ends of a table, as in this example:

Here's another example with short end stretchers:

The stretchers may also of course be applied along all four sides of a table:

Notice how the stretchers in the above example jog up in the middle from their endpoints? The Chinese call that form a humpback stretcher (not a 'cloud lift' stretcher). The Chinese term for 'humpbacked stretcher' is luoguocheng (羅鍋). My Chinese is only slightly above zero, so I wouldn't dream of trying to pronounce that word, and locating the characters (not used in Japanese, you see) and getting them onto the page is a most arduous undertaking, let me assure you.

Here's a square table with humpbacked stretches and a medium-sized waist:

In this piece the legs are given a convex outer surface, as is the portion of the apron under the waist.

Stretchers can also be straight, as in this example:

A variation on the humpback stretcher is to create that form using a latticework:

Similar to the above, but with a more elaborate lattice and a table top frame meeting the legs right at the corners (no apron):

A final method of strengthening the connection between legs and top is by way of spandrels, which are small brackets in the corner junction areas. Often the spandrels are of one piece of wood, and carved (from Gustav Ecke's book):

Or are of two pieces meeting at a miter:

Or, similar to the case of the humpbacked stretchers, the form may be replicated by means of a latticework frame:

So, in summary, the three methods we have looked at today for connecting legs to apron and table top:
  1. joint alone with no reinforcement
  2. giant's arm brace
  3. stretchers
  4. spandrels
The strongest method is to use stretchers, and the lower down they are the better in most cases. However, the cleanest looking design is using the joint alone. The giant's arms braces are the most discrete from of reinforcement. The spandrels are somewhat more obvious. I will add one more point -- that these strengthening features can be applied in tandem: for example, giant's arms braces and spandrels (kind of like knee braces in this case):

Detail of the above- notice too how the apron has been shaped with a wavy edge:

I've no idea why the color of the piece in those two pictures is so different - they are the same table! You would think the wood is entirely different -oh well.

Giant's arm braces may be used together with spandrels which run along the underside of the table in place of the apron and form a continuous piece - here I draw an example for a table with recessed leg construction:
Another of that type:

Similar to the case of making the table side (apron waist, and table frame) from a one, two, or three piece assembly, in which the one-piece is to be preferred, though at increased cost (and, of course, in some materials will be a flat-out impossibility to achieve), the Chinese preferred table tops out of thicker slabs of wood. Thicker tops connote greater naturalism, simplicity and stoutness (like a simple plank atop a framework). Some Chinese tables have plank tops 3" thick for example. This is not so different to the phenomenon of people liking Nakashima-esque slab tables in today's Western culture.

In the next post I'll look at table tops and their construction more specifically and consider the relationship of the table top to the supporting framework. That will segue into the topic of the joinery employed in these corner tables, without a doubt among the most complex seen in furniture making.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way today. Comments most welcome. --> go to post 3


  1. how is a spandrel which runs full length across the length of the table top between the legs different from an apron? is it because the spandrel extends a bit down the leg as well, rather than a straight strip? does a spandrel ever become an apron?

  2. campyhawaii,

    thanks for your question. A spandrel, generally speaking, is found in the corner between the side of the leg and the underside of the table supporting member (the apron/rail). If it is extended right across the underside, it looks just like an apron, however it is a thinner section than an apron and not therefore as strong in that respect. The apron is a thicker section of wood than the spandrel.

    Also another point which differs between the apron and the extended spandrel is that the apron does not 'turn the corner' down the leg like the spandrel does - just as you surmised.

    On later Qing-era pieces, when the build quality began to decline, and larger sections of wood for these pieces became scarce, the section size of the apron, when made in 2- or 3-piece construction, slimmed down and began to look no different than the extended spandrel construction. At that point the use of the two terms becomes somewhat moot.

    I think in general it may be said that using spandrels along the underside of the table in place of a 'proper' apron makes for less stout construction and economy of material while keeping the apparent visual mass the same.



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