Beautiful and Sturdy Coffee Table WITH STORAGE! (Part 1)

This is one of my favorite projects so far, and by FAR the hardest I’ve finished. My brother-in-law asked me to build this coffee table based of of a couple pictures that he had seen and liked. The design was up to me, but he asked that it look something like the pictures. We decided on using hickory for the table, because it has a somewhat understated grain pattern but is still pretty and very strong. He described to me that this table would be used a lot, needed to have storage space in it, and needed to be on wheels. Armed with that knowledge and the pictures of possible design ideas, I set off!

The Plan

The first thing I did was try to decide based on the measurements he had given me the best way to work in the design elements he liked from the pictures. The pictures here are my drawings and sketches of plans so you can see some iterations of the final product I worked through. Eventually I had a concrete plan in my head and the measurements for each board. I made a cut list, which I’ll also post here in case you want to make this on our own. A note about sketches and drawings: I know a lot of people use CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) software such as Sketchup to create plans that they can print and manipulate digitally. I think that’s a great idea and I’ve played with Sketchup myself but I’m not good at using it yet so for me good old fashioned paper and pencil works better for me right now.

The Wood

My first step was obviously to get the wood from the lumber yard. I live close to Lexington, Kentucky so the lumber yard I’ve come to use is called Hardwood Specialties. They do not have a website, or else I would direct you there but quick Google search will get you to their address if you’re local. Their prices were good and they have a good selection of lumber. No matter what lumber yard you use, there are few important things to keep in mind:

  • Find a place where you can take your time. Don’t feel rushed to get the first boards you see.
  • Bring a tape measure.
  • Bring a piece of chalk. This is helpful to mark which pieces you like. It seems simple but it’s often hard to remember which is which once you get several piles of wood around you.
  • Wear gloves! The wood in lumber yards is often (but not always) milled to a certain dimension but that does NOT mean it’s going to be smooth. Splinters are definitely a possibility.
  • Lastly, bring a friend if you can! My wife went with me to pick out the wood and was really helpful for a few reasons. First of all, it’s physically tiring to move a bunch of wood around and having help helps. Secondly, she has a good eye for color and shapes of grain so she was able to help me find really interesting pieces.

Measure Twice, Cut a Whole Bunch of Times

I have learned through my wood working journey so far that hard work is important and there are often times when doing something physically demanding is just what you have to do to get the job done. However, there are also many times when it’s much easier to set yourself up for success. One way I’ve found to do that is to use repetitive cuts for similar pieces. For example, if you know you have a side of a box with two 3″ x 18″ pieces, two 3″ x 7″ pieces, and a 3″ x 40 inch piece, cut all of the 3″ widths at the same time instead of cutting individually for each piece. And while you’re at it, look at the rest of your project to see if you have any other 3″ pieces and cut all of those too! This means that you’ll only have to set up that saw to that width once instead of changing the width over and over for each new piece. There may be times when this doesn’t work out, like if you’re trying to fit certain sized boards out of one large board and you have to make weird cuts to get the maximum bang for your buck. But in general, set the saws up once and make all the cuts you can before changing the fences. It makes things go faster and it’s much more accurate than trying to match widths later on.

When each of the boards are cut, it’s helpful to mark what size they are with a piece of chalk. If you know which side of the board you want to use and which direction is “up”, this is also a good time to mark that. Chalk is good to use because it comes off easily before the finishing stage. It’s also nice to know the dimensions of pieces without having to measure they each time, especially if it’s a project like this with a lot of pieces. I cut every piece I would need before I started to do anything else with the project. They were all marked and stacked with like pieces and even grouped further into which part of the table they would be used in (front, back, top left lid, etc.). When everything is pre-cut and separated it’s just like building with Legos and instructions.

You’re Putting What…Where?

I do not have a ton of clamps. Because of this, I had to do the glue-ups in chunks. It took a little longer but it was actually pretty easy to do. This is where it’s very helpful to have the pieces marked with the chalk. Set out all of the pieces you need for that section of the project, then number them in the order that you need to glue them together. Don’t be hasty with the glue, try a dry fit first to make sure that the order you’ve arranged them in will actually work. For me, the easiest thing was to glue the long middle section first and then add the boards on top and bottom. There are a few keys to good glue-ups.

  • Use enough glue, but don’t drown it. Squeeze-out is fine and can be easily cleaned up a little later, but you don’t want to waste glue. It’s better to have too much than too little but you shouldn’t go through a gallon every project.
  • Use a straw cut at an angle to get in corners and clean up squeeze-out. I’ve also used a flexible guitar pick, since I’m a guitarist, and that’s worked great. Just let the glue dry for about 20 minutes and scrape off any clumps before they get really hard.
  • Use just enough clamping pressure to hold it together. Yes, we know you can clamp tighter than anyone else, but that’s not a good thing. It can damage the wood and actually squeeze out too much glue. As long as the pieces are held snugly together you’re good.
  • For seams between pieces on flat panels, like the side of a box, use a flat piece of plywood with painters tape. Because of the way it’s made, plywood tends to stay pretty flat. Also because of the way it’s made, painters tape repels wood really well (on the non-sticky side). Cover some plywood in painters tape and put it tape down over the seam between boards. Clamp either side of the seam so that the boards are clamped against the plywood. When it’s dry, the plywood with tape should come right off and the boards should be flat and together.

This same process is basically used for all of the sides, top, and bottom. You may have to change the order of gluing as you work, just always dry fit them first to make sure it makes sense. If you find you’re getting big gaps between pieces that should fit snugly together you can either use a jointer or hand plane, or carefully trim just the edge off with a table saw. If you do either of these, check to make sure that your boards are still the right size afterward. Don’t take off too much at once or else you’ll be stuck remaking boards.

“Annnnd in THIS corner…”

There are many ways to put corners of boxes together. Some of them are very stable but don’t look great. Some of them look great but aren’t very stable. I chose to use miter joints, which are traditionally not very stable in a box this size. There is a lot of gluing area since both angles are 45 degrees and flat against each other. However, with sides as big as the one in this coffee table it would be fairly easy to break that joint apart. I knew this going in but it was the look I wanted on the outside of the box. If done correctly miters can make a seamless corner that looks great. I used a kind of cheating technique to help myself out structurally, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

To make the mitered corners, I used my new DeWalt miter saw. I have a full review of this saw here. It was not quite wide enough to cut all the way across my board so I went as far as it would go and then used a hand saw to finish the rest of the cut. I could have used a table saw blade slanted to 45 degrees, but my table saw is less accurate at angled cuts so I went with the more accurate method for me. If you follow this plan, do NOT throw away the cutoffs from those miter cuts. Since the cut is 45 degree and the outside corner of the cutoff is 90 degrees, they make a great aid to shoring up the insides of miter joints. Just flip them so that the 90 degree corner is inside of the corner of the box and then cut them to length. This is easy when you already have the bottom of the box in place, because you can just slide the cutoffs to the bottom of the box and mark the length off the top. All of this can be dry-fitted with the help of clamps (I used a strap clamp with corner brackets to help keep everything in place) before you glue it.

I also made some special corner clamp jigs before I tried to glue the four sides together. It was just a piece of pine that is flat on one side and has a 90 degree angle cut in the other side to fit on the outside of the box corner. One side of the clamp goes on the flat side of the pine jig, the other goes on the flat side of the cutoff that is now in place on the inside of the corner. Check out the pictures to see exactly what I’m talking about.

Next Time…

In the interest of not making this a HUGE read, I’ll post the rest of the project in the next post. In the mean time, check out any of my other posts by clicking on the links to the right. Until next time, thanks for reading!

-S.A.

Author: Sam Adams

I am a musician, educator, and composer based out of Kentucky. I also dabble in wood working.

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