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Rails and stretchers: strength, style, and intrigue

Synopsis: The reason furniture designers add rails and stretchers to their tables, desks, sideboards, and other pieces is for the strength they add, holding the leg parts snug and preventing the piece from racking. But that’s the boring part. Hank Gilpin takes a look at rails and stretchers from another viewpoint — how they can add pizzazz to a design.

No matter how we discuss the purpose of rails and stretchers, their primary reason for existing is to add strength. Rails and stretchers can be big and important, as on a trestle dining table, or small and delicate, as one might find on a small end table. The big ones, like those connecting leg structures, offer a much-needed anti-racking solution, with shouldered tenons that are often wedged to pull the leg parts snug. The small ones, curved, straight, and even crisscrossed, also ensure strength but add interest and vitality.

Yes, rails and stretchers are really about strength, except when you want to add a little pizzazz to a piece. I like the idea of including a little something extra with the rails and stretchers, one of those details that swims around in your head looking for a place to go. I know we’re making nice, usable furniture, but sometimes you just must go for it and include something just for the pleasure of doing so.

High stretchers and low rails

Both of these tables use long stretchers placed up high to provide lateral control, and side rails down low, adding front-to-back strength. The American elm table (top) is Gilpin’s solution to working with a thin (3⁄8 in.), potato-chip top. The rails are located close to the bottom of the legs where they splay out. The sea grape table (bottom) has subtly curved rails and stretchers that mirror the shapes of the top. The stretchers double as supports for the drawer box.

niche table

Add a stretcher

Sometimes side rails alone aren’t enough. When you need additional support, add a stretcher to lock those rails together.

Hank Gilpin makes furniture and wood sculpture in Lincoln, R.I.

The Designers Notebook Spread ImageFrom Fine Woodworking #294

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