I didn't want to spend a whole lot of money and I didn't have all the typical tools most people have when they build furniture. Here's what I came up with.
This table does contain nails (for an unusual purpose), but they're not used to adhere anything. The entire table is held together with adhesives.
Step 1: Make the Table Top
a solid piece of wood, or:
pieces of wood that will fit together to make the table top
boards to rest the table top on
wedges for the top of the table
We bought several poplar boards instead of a solid piece of wood. It was cheaper and fit in our car. This was years ago, and the glued tabletop has been sitting around for quite some time before I finally started this project on my own.
We didn't have anything large to clamp the boards together and hold them flat as they glued, so we used a different technique. Josh had seen joining jigs using rope and wedges in some luthiers forum he was poking around, and the technique worked fine for this.
Josh put wood glue on the edges of the boards and pressed them together, laying them over some 2x2 pieces of wood wrapped in waxed paper. The waxed paper kept the tabletop from being glued to the wood it was resting on as it was pressed together and a little wood glue was squashed out.
He then placed waxed paper wrapped wedges on top of the table, directly over the bottom pieces of wood. He wrapped some nylon cord tightly over the table and around the ends of the bottom pieces of wood in a figure eight pattern with the overlapping cords on top of the wedges as shown. We tapped at the short, flat ends of the wedges (not the pointy ends) with a hammer to shove them in more tightly. Some people use flat pieces of wood right under the wedges, but we didn't feel like it.
The wedges, held tightly by the rope, applied even downward pressure while the wood glue set up overnight.
Here is another example of this type of jig being used to join flat pieces of wood. We don't have more pictures because we did this years ago.
Step 2: Carve Coffee Table Side
the solid table top
gouge and hammer
writing utensil to trace around stones and draw ripples
vacuum or other device to get rid of sawdust
Draw the rough shape of the rings you'll carve. Lay out the stones where you want them and trace around them. Make sure you can put the stones back in the right spots later on.
I didn't have many tools; there's probably something out there that makes carving a coffee table a bit easier. I used a gouge and a dremel.
I began by carving the rings, tapping the gouge through the wood with Josh's fret hammer (it happened to be the first hammer I grabbed). This took a fair amount of time. I was careful not to try to dig the gouge too deep at once and split the wood.
After some time, I alternated using the dremel to carve the rings wider and deeper. I wanted the table to look a bit rough, so I didn't worry too much about little mistakes when the dremel spun out of the groove I was carving. Using the dremel created a lot of dust and I vacuumed it often.
I didn't have any power tool to sand the table, so I sanded it by hand, working my way through the grits from 60 to 220. I left some larger scratches in with the lower grits, smoothing the edges of the deep scratches with the much higher grits. I did this because I wanted it to look older and worn, but I didn't want it to feel rough or scratchy.
Step 3: Finish Coffee Table Side
jar with watertight lid
cloth pad for applying shellac
damp paper towels
I like shellac. I used garnet shellac for this.
I put some shellac flakes in a jar, then added denatured alcohol. I shook the jar every few minutes until the flakes were completely dissolved. I think this took a couple hours. Josh said it would take over night, but shaking sped it up. I was impatient.
The little pad we used to shellac wood rings was too small, so I wadded up one of my toddler's old t-shirts, secured it tightly with a rubber band, and used that to apply the shellac. It dries pretty quickly. I applied a few layers then added some olive oil to the pad. It helped keep the pad from sticking. I then applied the last layer and got out the paint for the next step.
I wanted dark rings for a lot of contrast. I also wanted the table to look a bit more aged, so I first made a paint wash to settle into the scratches I'd left while sanding. I mixed equal parts black acrylic paint and water. I wiped it over the whole table then wiped it off again with a damp paper towel.
After that was dry, I took a paintbrush and painted in the rings and the hollows where the stones would rest with undiluted black acrylic paint. I put the stones in the hollows after the paint was dry just to see how the finished table would look, but I didn't glue them in. I didn't want to glue them until I'd finished the other side of the table because I wanted the table top to lie flat while I was working on it.
Step 4: Make Frame for the Magnet Play
clear plastic for the top of the frame - use as a guide for making the wood part of the frame
strips of basswood
some type of saw
I bought a cheap picture frame from Ikea and decided the plastic would be great to use for a magnet activity table. I used the cardboard from the picture frame to lay out the wood frame for the activity table.
I bought eight pieces of 3/8" x 1/4" x 36" basswood at the craft store. I didn't want the plastic to be too far from the items in the table because the items were heavier than the iron filings in Noah's Wooly Willy table, so I didn't opt for 1/2" wide strips.
Lay out four pieces of the basswood on the cardboard to form five sections as shown in the picture, making sure the side measuring 3/8" is vertical. Tape the strips down so they don't move and mark them at the edges of the cardboard where they need to be cut. Untape the pieces and cut appropriately, then lay them back in place on the cardboard. Take the remaining four strips of wood, lay them around the perimeter, and mark where to cut them.
The long sides on this table were longer than the strips, so I used leftover cut pieces of wood on the perimeter of the frame that bordered a short section on a long side. I used a glue gun to join the pieces of wood together because it was easier than figuring out how to clamp them while wood glue or gorilla glue set. Superglue was too brittle.
Once the frame is assembled, glue it to the tabletop. Clean off the side of the tabletop opposite of the ripples and stones side, especially if pink medicine spilled on it, dripped down, and dried there months ago. Lay out the frame to determine where on the table you want it. Apply wood glue evenly to the bottom of the frame, spreading it with a cotton swab. Because this table will be turned over and will contain small particles of sand and iron filings, it's important to be thorough with the glue. It would not be good to have the sand or iron filings spill out of their compartments. Turn the frame over so the glued bottom is now on the wood table top. Place some books on the frame to press it into the table top. You can take off the books and clean up any excess glue if you remember. I forgot until two hours later... I started to wipe up excess but decided it was too much of a hassle because the drips had stiffened. Let the frame set up overnight before messing with it.
Step 5: Make the Sandbox / Zen Garden
nails with iron or some other bits of metal that's attracted to magnets
superglue or another brand of cyanoacrylate
wire that isn't attracted to magnets
wire clippers and flat pliers
Because this table was for my kids, I wanted the items in the sandbox to be colorful. If I were making this activity table for adults, I'd have stuck with zen garden implements made with wood or wood colors. Yes, adults can also enjoy an activity table!
For the wire rake: Take two lengths of wire about 5 inches long and fold them in half. Hold the two bent ends so the four cut ends are sticking up, then make a 90 degree bend (see picture). Make another 90 degree bend in the wires a little closer to the cut ends so that they once again stick up as shown, but make sure to bend one of the doubled strands of wire closer to the first bend than the other piece of wire. Separate the two pieces of wire and rotate the bent ends so they stick out on different sides when laid flat (sorry my explanation is awkward; look at the picture to see what I mean). Clip another piece of wire roughly as long as the two bent wires and hold it in the center of the other two wires. The goal is to have five tines of wire roughly evenly spaced when the unbent parts of the wire are held together in a line. Use the flat pliers to grasp all tines, holding them where you want them spaced. Twist the rest of the wires together. You'll end up with a pitchfork-like shape with five tines. Grasp the very ends of the tines with the pliers again and bend the rake 90 degrees so that if the rake lay flat on a surface, the tines would point up or down. The ends of the tines will probably be uneven. Clip them with the wire clippers to even them out. Roll out a log of polymer clay; you can marble together some colors if you want to imitate wood grain. Flatten the log slightly, lay the rake on it with the tines up, and add some nails to the end of the clay. Squish the clay around the rake and nails; you don't have to seal the seam if you don't want. It will be on the underside and won't show. Flip the rake over and rest it on something so the tines can hang off and not get bent. Add another small log of clay to the vertical bar of the rake. Bake as directed according to the instructions on your package of polymer clay; mine was at 275 degrees F for about half an hour. I think. I lost track of time and might've left the stuff in the oven for an hour too long; they were fine.
For the wooden rake: Clip some little pieces of a toothpick with the wire clippers. These will be the tines of the wooden rake. Flatten them with the flat pliers if the toothpicks are round. Sand the cut edges of the toothpicks; they'll be rough and uneven otherwise. Cut and flatten a section of toothpick as wide as you want the rake. Glue the tines to a flat side using superglue so the tines are vertical; the flat sides of the tines should be horizontal to the length of the section of toothpick they're being glued to. Clip the sharp ends of another toothpick and flatten it. This will be the handle of the rake. Glue a nail or several to the end of the handle. Glue the other end of the handle to the rest of the rake with the nail and tines facing up. I used a little clay to hold it in place while the glue set. If desired, squash and clip two more toothpicks and glue to the sides of the handle to hide the nail a little more.
I also made a shovel, a bucket, and a beach ball with nails in them using polymer clay. I kept testing the height of the implements with some scrap pieces of wood from the frame. I made the ball and bucket flat enough to fit under the plastic in the frame. It helped to have a mini frame with plastic that I'd made from the scrap pieces of wood so I could also test the implements with a stack of magnets, making sure they were easy to drag.
Paint the section where the zen garden will be. I used a brown color similar to the sand I was going to use. I stole about half a cup of sand from the kids' sandbox for this.
Step 6: Make the "wooly Willy" Section
white acrylic paint and paintbrush
images of bald people
clear covering for the faces so the iron filings don't leave trails - acetate is best but I didn't have any
My kids aren't bald. Josh helped me use Photoshop to make them look bald, though. I printed out pictures of their faces and cut them out.
Paint the section of your table white. It might take several coats, especially if you didn't finish the wood on that side yet. When the paint is dry, use a glue stick to glue the faces to the wood.
I added white glue to the tops of their faces, but this was probably unnecessary because I covered them with some clear film. I didn't have acetate and couldn't find the right size sheet in town, so I used the sticky part of a couple self laminating sheets.
Whatever you use, trim it to fit and stick it in place. You'll probably have to add silicone glue to the edges if you use acetate. It would be bad to get iron filings under the acetate.
It would be simplest to buy iron filings, but I forgot to order some and didn't find any in town (I don't have time to drive around looking for things). Fortunately, the soil in our yard seems to have high amounts of iron. I already had a bunch of fine sifted dirt Josh was using to make a dorodango. I put two bar magnets in a plastic bag and sprinkled dirt over it until a fair amount stuck to the magnet. I then put the plastic bag, magnet, and iron rich soil into a small plastic container with a lid. I held the plastic bag inside the container while pulling the magnet out of the bag. The iron rich soil dropped from the bag into the container. I pulled the bag out and repeated the process a couple times. I knew there was still a fair bit of dirt mixed in with the iron I collected, so I used the magnet to sift it. I pressed the magnet against the side of the container, put on the lid, and shook it. The particles with iron clung to the side of the container against the magnet while the bits without much iron fell to the bottom. I kept the magnet pressed tightly against the side of the container while carefully removing the lid and then pouring out the dirt that wasn't stuck to the magnet. I repeated the sifting a few times to make sure the iron was as pure as I could get.
You'll probably just buy the iron filings. They're quite cheap.
Step 7: Make the Tree Section
staples - make sure they're attracted to magnets
leaf shaped paper punch
glue stick if using two sheets of paper glued together
Find a paper punch in the shape of a leaf. Trust me; you do not want to cut out that many leaves by hand. If your leaf is less wide than the height of your frame, you'll want to make sure the leaves are double sided.
Find some paper with colors you like. If making double sided leaves and your paper is white on one side, use a gluestick to glue the paper together. You could also paint on paper with acrylic paint and use that for the leaves. Punch leaves out of the paper. Make lots of leaves. Staple each leaf in the middle where the vein would be. If desired, add some paint around the outside of the leaves to make the fall colors more realistic. I love when leaves are darker red/brown on the edges and lighter in the center, and it's not as time consuming as one might think to quickly flick a paintbrush over the edges of a leaf.
Paint the tree section.
I painted a blue background, making it darker blue at the top and lighter blue at the bottom; often the sky is lighter at the horizon.
Dab on some clouds.
Paint the ground green. Add some brush strokes of various shades of greenish brown for grass.
Paint an outline of a tree, fill in the branches and trunk, and mix up a darker shade of brown. Paint in wiggly lines with the dark brown for texture in the bark. Mix a lighter shade of brown and paint highlights on the bark. You can decide where a light source would be and paint the highlights where the light would hit the tree most directly, and darken shadows where the tree would be darkest. If you're not up for that, you can put highlights and shadows wherever the hell you feel like putting them and tell people the tree is stylized, not realistic.
Step 8: Make the Barnyard Section
nails or other small bits of metal attracted to magnets
staples for the smaller animal stickers
hot glue to attach the staples to the small animal stickers
Paint a blue sky, white clouds, and green hills. Add other touches if you like; a barn, a fence, and a duck pond can add interest.
I was tired and didn't want to cut out animal shapes, so I bought some animal stickers. They were sticky on the back, so I stuck them to some tissue paper I had and tore away the excess. I inserted little nails into the animals, making sure they weren't too visible from the top. The baby chicks were too small for the nails, so I bent some staples and glued them to the back of the chicks instead using a glue gun. Two staples was enough metal for the magnet to pull the chicks around under the plastic.
The foam animal stickers looked a bit plain to me, so I added some paint details to them.
Step 9: Make the Ball Maze Section
little metal balls that are attracted to magnets
metallic powder (optional)
non metallic round beads (optional)
I found a container of little metal balls on the mantle that were attracted to magnets. I have no idea where they came from or what Josh was going to use them for, but I figured he didn't need them all.
Paint the section a dark color and add in some streaks of other colors. Roll out some polymer clay in the color(s) of your choice and shape it into spirals and wiggles. Make sure they're less tall than the wood frame. I also added sloped corners out of clay, but you don't have to. Make some flattened balls of polymer clay to add a little more interest to the maze, if desired.
Brush the walls of the maze with metallic powder if desired, and bake on a pan according to package instructions.
Glue the sections down using a glue gun.
The metall balls pulled together really easily with the magnet wand, so I added some round plastic beads to break them up.
Step 10: Finish the Activity Side
all the little components from the previous sections
clear plastic sheet from the cheap picture frame
silicone glue - I used E-6000 because the tip was smaller than the tip for Goop
Make sure the wooden frame is painted as you want it. Add the items to the frame if you haven't already. Put the leaves face up if they're not double sided. Add the sand and tools. Add the metal balls and plastic beads. Add the barnyard animals. Add the iron filings.
If the clear plastic has a protective film on both sides, unpeel it from one side. Carefully, thoroughly apply the glue to the edges of the wood frame. Be especially sure to create a complete barrier on the sections that contain the sand and iron filings.
Line up the short side of the clear plastic with the short side of the frame. Keeping those edges aligned, lay the plastic down on the glued edges of the frame. You want to be precise with this. You'll smear glue and it'll look REALLY bad if you have to slide the plastic after it's touched the glue.
Press the plastic down and examine all the wood edges to make sure the glue forms a seal around each section. Place books over the plastic to hold everything in place. Leave overnight.
Pull off the books and check out your handiwork.
I made a short, small magnet wand for little hands using a stack of magnets and some Sugru. I stacked the magnets, wrapped them with Sugru, pushed the Sugru up a bit at the end so the magnet at the tip was slightly recessed (to keep it from scratching the plastic), and let it cure overnight on a piece of plastic wrap.
Apply a thin coat of shellac to this side if you haven't already done it. I left a plain surface on the activity side for other toys like blocks.
Step 11: Make the Legs
old plywood folding door
acrylic paint and paintbrush
I chose a simple design so I'd only have to worry about two legs. We removed a folding door from our dining room awhile ago, and I figured it would make decent legs for this table. I wanted to make sure we could simply set the tabletop on the legs and not worry about it sliding around.
I removed the hinges and propped a section of the door on two chairs so I could make some cuts with the circular saw Josh inherited from his grandpa. I'll try to explain the measurements of the pieces I cut in relation to the table.
two of Piece A - the outside end of each leg - as wide as the end of the table top plus two thicknesses of the door, as high as the width of a panel of the door (I used the width of the pieces of door as the height of the table to simplify things)
two of Piece B - the inside end of each leg - as wide as the end of the table, as high as the with of a panel of door minus the thickness of the tabletop
four of Piece C - the outside sides of each leg - as high as the width of the door, as wide as one quarter the length of the remaining panel of door from which I already cut the two of Piece B
four of Piece D - the inside sides of each leg - as high as the width of the door minus the thickness of the tabletop, as wide as one quarter the length of the remaining panel of door from which I already cut two of Piece A
The four D pieces are less wide than the four C pieces, which makes them fit well inside of them. The inch wide strips I cut from the B and D pieces were the only wasted wood from the door.
I pried up the decorative molding and pulled out the little nails. I sanded down all edges and some of the paint in order to glue the pieces together. I applied wood glue to a flat side of a Piece B, spread it thoroughly, and pressed it down against a flat side of Piece A, making sure the bottoms were aligned, the sides of Piece B were centered between the sides of the wider Piece A, and the top edge of Piece B was a tabletop's thickness below the top edge of Piece A. I stacked some heavy books on Piece B because it was easier than trying to clamp it and let sit for a few hours.
I took a Piece C and applied wood glue to one of the long edges, spreading it thoroughly. I pressed the glued side down onto Piece A, right where it bordered Piece B on one side. I carefully balanced some books on it while I spread glue on a flat side and a long edge of a Piece D. I pressed the glued flat side of Piece D against the inside flat side of Piece C, while the glued long edge was pressed down into Piece B. I made sure the top and bottom edge of Piece D lined up with the top and bottom edge of Piece B. In this picture, Piece C has some cracks in the plywood, so I added some wood glue before clamping Piece C and Piece D together. I angled the clamps so I could rest a bunch of books on top, pressing Pieces C and D into Pieces A and B.
I repeated this on the other side of the first leg, then did the whole thing again for the second leg.
After the glue had been allowed to sit for hours, I removed the books and clamps. I had some leftover plaster from a bathroom project and applied it thinly to seal the spaces in the cut ends of plywood and some imperfect seams in the legs. After I let the plaster dry overnight, I sanded it and painted both legs with black acrylic paint. It needed a couple coats in some areas.
Step 12: Set Up the Table and Glue the Stones
river stones used in step 2
After the acrylic paint is dry, set the two legs upright, making sure the indentation for the table top is in the top of each leg. Set the tabletop in the legs so that it rests on the inside edge of the legs and is bordered by the outside edge of the legs.
Find your river stones and make sure you know which holes they fit in before mixing the epoxy. Mix about a tablespoon of epoxy in a paper cup with a wooden skewer. Remove one stone at a time, add a small amount of epoxy to the indentation in the table, then push the stone into place. Let epoxy set up for 24 hours before letting your kids pound on the rocks with toys (if your kids do that sort of thing... mine sure do).
If you're up for letting them play with the magnet activity side, just lift the tabletop off the legs, flip it over, and set it back down.
Thanks for reading!