Introduction: My First Piece of Furniture: a Bar Cart
More background than you probably care for:
It had been nearly two decades since I had taken my first wood shop class back in middle school, so when I learned in 2019 that there were evening woodworking classes nearby, I signed up immediately. I am data scientist by day and spend a lot of time staring at a computer, so I was excited to find an activity that was hands on and took me away from the screen. I enrolled in Woodshop I and Woodshop II, only to have my last quarter cut short because of, you guessed it, the pandemic. Two unfinished projects and no access to tools or a backyard, my projects set and collected dust. Six months into the pandemic, going a little stir crazy, I decided I’d make the daily track to my parent's house, who lived nearby, and set up a temporary workstation where I could finish my projects.
Finally, onto the actual project:
After sitting in a corner of our apartment “assembled”, with the walls playing the supporting role, I decided that I wanted to finish the bar cart for my husband’s birthday, who had recently expressed more and more interest in cocktails and mixology (but who hadn’t, this is the pandemic after all). With a month to spare, I thought that I had plenty of time to finish it. Let’s just say on the day of his birthday our apartment smelled like polyurethane because seemingly 16 hours is not enough time for it to fully cure.
If there is one thing you takeaway:
Apparently I did not leave as much buffer for all the unforeseen obstacles such as the break in my caster's threaded insert, the shortage of sandpaper at my local hardware stores (because everyone during the pandemic took up woodworking), the unnecessary coat of oil, the tanning of the wood, the special pocket screws and a dozen trips, I counted, to the hardware store. Hopefully, after reading my instructions below, or at least the italicized tips at the bottom of the steps, you’ll be able to avoid my mistakes and save yourself at least two trips to the hardware store.
Materials - Main
- Lumber (I used Poplar)
- Wood Glue
- Pre-stain & Stains
- Boiled Linseed Oil (optional)
- Oil based Polyurethane
- Painters Tape
- Pocket Screws
Materials - Accessories
- Stem Casters with Inserts
- Brass pull
- Brass rods
- Spray Paint
Tools - Hand
- Measuring Tape
- Hammer Mallet (optional)
- Scratch Owl
- Screw Driver
- Bow Saw (for the metal rods)
- Pocket Hole Jig
- Stop Collar Jigsaw (or Bandsaw)
- Larger Pencil Sharpener (optional)
- Hex key (depending on the type of casters you have)
- Paint Brush
Tools - Power
- Radial Arm Saw
- Table Saw
- Miter Saw
- Orbital Sander
NOTE: All tools are bolded in the steps below.
Step 1: Inspiration and Initial Dimensions
Once I had an idea that I wanted to make a bar cart, I wanted to get a sense of what kinds existed and ended up making this Pinterest Board for inspiration.
In order to get the dimensions of the cart, I used my new tape measure to measure some furniture at home to get a sense of the height I wanted. I didn't want it to be too large and there was room near our Ikea 3x3 box bookshelf bar (pictured above), so I chose similar dimensions. I then proceeded to transfer my dimensions on to the lumber to start my initial cuts.
Tip: Do not get too attached to these dimensions, if anything add a half inch to an inch where you can as you are bound to lose some length when you do your final cuts.
Step 2: From Rough 15 Board-Feet to Flat and Level Lumber
After doing the initial crosscuts using a radial arm saw across the 15 board-feet (BF), I needed to convert the pieces into flat & level lumber. This was the first time I ever heard of board feet or the fact that not all lumber was flat. BF was one of many new terms, so in case you are a novice to woodworking like I am (or just need a reminder), here is a quick explanation and nice visual of what a BF is.
The wood I started with was rough, so it was actually a full inch thick as opposed to when you buy pre-cut lumber at the lumber yard (something super important to know is why a 2 by 4 is actually not 2 inches by 4 inches).
How to go from rough to flat & level:
- Run your cut boards over a jointer to get a 90 degree angle on one edge. Use a square to double check that you actually have a right angle, don't just eye ball it, trust me. Getting the wider part of your board might take several tries (or four if you have an especially wobbly piece of wood), but just remember that with each run through the jointer, you reduce the thickness of the board. Once you got one side flat for your pieces and a right angle, you are ready for the planer.
- Run your boards through the planer to get both sides parallel and therefore level for both sides. Do not take off very much wood in any one go so the planer does not get stuck.
Tips: The direction of the grain for jointing matters in order to reduce tearing, see this article. Sometimes it helps to also lightly mark up the surface of the wood your are jointing or planing to see that you are getting the rough parts removed and where they still are.
Step 3: The Top - Making a Wider Surface
Unfortunately, my starting lumber was not wide enough to cover the full width of my bar cart so I needed to glue two pieces together.
It is important that both pieces are of exact thickness so that when you glue them together the surfaces are flush. To achieve this, run both pieces through the planer several times, with the thickest piece going first, until they are the same thickness (this matters more for wider pieces since you will not be able to take them through the planer again once they are glued together).
Apply wood glue to one of the edges you will be joining and use lots of clamps to secure the pieces, applying equal pressure on all sides (do this in stages, meaning do not fully clamp the right side, instead do a little bit on all sides). Use thin scraps of wood in between the clamps and the edges so there are no unwanted indentations.Leave in the clamps for 24 hours before removing them.
Aesthetic: I knew that I wanted the top piece to be the focal point on my cart and so I picked out two pieces that when glued together could potentially pass as one piece. I also wanted the top to have both dark and light grains to highlight the wood grain.
Tip: Cut the dimensions of your top at the very end (but don't forget to do this as I did haha)!
Step 4: Table Legs - Making Them Thicker
After you have finished jointing and planing your pieces, you are going to use the table saw to rip (another word for cutting, but with the grain) the wood you have allocated for you legs. Unlike the radial arm saw, you are going to cut lengthwise with the grain here to get all the pieces the same width (step 1 below).
- Rip 8 pieces to the same width using a table saw
- Glue 2 pieces at a time and clamp all together
- Wait 24 hours to scrape off the glue using a chisel
- Joint the 4 glued pieces to get two edges level at 90 degrees
- Plane one of the sides to get two parallel sides (you can also use the table saw for this).
- Rip the remaining side to final dimension using the table saw, so that the legs are the same square at the base
- Cross cut using a miter saw and a stop block to the final height dimension
Tips: In step 1, do not rip to final dimension as you are going to get rid of more wood in steps 4-7. The glue dries quickly, so don't take too long for application. Place the all four legs between 3-4 clamps and evenly apply pressure across all (glue squeeze out is fine!).
Step 5: Finalize Your Dimensions
Before cutting your aprons to size and drilling holes for your joinery, it would be good to finalize where the shelves should be.
My main constraint here was a wine bottle, I wanted my bottom shelve to be able to easily fit them. I actually realized that my bar cart was tall enough that I could actually fit wine bottles on both shelves, if I correctly placed the middle shelf! The top shelf would require that you put them in at an angle because of the wide aprons, but they would be able to fully stand.
Tips: Don't forget to add the thickness of your shelves into your calculations.
Step 6: Aprons and Pocket Holes
Making aprons helps the support the structure of your cart as well allows your shelves to hold more weight.
Trim the front and side aprons at the same time using the miter saw so that when you assemble the pieces, you will reduce potential gaps from changes in measurement from having done the cuts at different times.
Using a Kreg pocket hole jig and drill, make pocket holes in the top aprons. I did not take a picture of the actual jig, but you can find one here as well as super helpful instructions for how to use one.
Putting in the pocket screws will be one of the last steps in the assembly, but you should add these while your pieces are dis-assembled. The pocket holes allow you to both secure the top and to also hide the screws.
Step 7: Prepping the Frame and Hiding Joinery
Use the stop collar to drill holes on the frame of the bar cart: legs and aprons.
Use the same stop collar on the leg holes as you would on the corresponding aprons so everything is aligned. Make sure the stop collar is always oriented the in same direction (don't be afraid to mark up your wood with pencil marks as all of those will be removed during sanding). Using a spacer (a scratch piece of wood that is the height you want) for making holes for the middle shelf so that they are not crooked.
Tip: If you are planning on adding rails to you shelves, I would recommend making those holes now. Though any point before assembly is okay too. You can still add them in later, but it might require some elbow grease or a special right angle drill bit.
Step 8: The Shelves
I'd recommend making the shelves towards the end when you have all your final dimensions. Just keep in mind, if your pieces aren't wide enough, you will need to allocate enough time for your wood glue to dry.
There are so many different approaches for making shelves, but I went with the version that was easy to slide in and out and rests on top of the aprons.
Also, I wanted to maximize the surface area for the bottles so decided to use a bandsaw to cut out small squares on all four corners to the size of the legs. Alternatively, you can us a jigsaw or make a narrower shelf that just rests on the aprons.
Step 9: Sanding and the Importance of Sandpaper Grit
What to sand:
Only sand the surfaces that will be visible. Do not sand edges that will be joined to other pieces, such as the tops and sides of aprons. You want these edges to lie flat against the other pieces when assembling so there are no gaps. Therefore also mitigate sanding the sections of the legs where the holes are for the same reason as the edges. Use an orbital sander with the same grit paper on all pieces before moving onto one next grit.
A note about sandpaper grit:
Start with the smallest number grit paper (this will be the roughest) and go down in increments of about 20-30 until your desired smoothness. A usual starting grit is 80 and then you can move onto to 100 grit, 120, 150 and 180. If you plan to finish your piece with penetrating oil or stain, you can stop at this grit as you won't notice any of the scratches. For a matte finish, go up to 280/320, but, like before, in increments!
Tips: I actually did this sanding step later and would highly recommend doing it before any assembly! Buy a variety pack of sandpaper to avoid multiple trips to the hardware store to only find out they are missing several grits...
Step 10: Assemble the Sides First
Insert the dowels:
- Brush some wood glue on the dowels and insert into the holes using a hammer. Do this one dowel at a time until all the holes on the legs have dowels in them.
- Trim the dowels to size BEFORE glueing up the sides. Measure the depths of the counter holes to make sure the dowels will FULLY fit inside, otherwise you are going to have gaps.
- Optional: Use a sharpener to smooth over the dowel edges for easier assembly in the subsequent steps.
For each pair of legs:
- Prepare your clamps by widening them the wide of your sides. Place your legs with the dowels on either side with a thin scrap of wood between the clamp and your wood to reduce indentations.
- Drip some wood glue into all the apron holes and insert the other side of the dowels. Start to evenly apply pressure on all clamps. You will want to do this step in about 10 minutes as the glue starts to dry pretty quickly!
- Leave overnight to dry.
Step 11: Darkening Your Wood Using Stain
Highly recommend using a pre-stain so your actual stain does not end up blotchy in places, like mine. Also even before applying the pre-stain, use a spray bottle and lightly spray water on your wood to raise the grain, then use a high grit # of sandpaper to make it smooth again. I actually did some light sanding with 300 grit paper after the first coat because of the raised grain, and that worked also.
Even before I went to Home Depot, I searched "poplar stains" and low and behold there was a 3-minute video for popular poplar stains! Before applying your stain, I recommend trying them on some scraps of wood, just like in that video. I tried out the two stains I got (gunpowder & golden pecan from Varathane) and various number of coats to see what I liked.
Tips: Wipe off any remaining dust from your sanding either using a tack cloth or a clean cloth rag. Use another cloth rag for application, a lot easier than a brush.
Step 12: Alternatively, Darkening Your Wood Using Sunlight
Apparently you can tan certain woods. I did some research on how to get rid of the green in the poplar… which, in hindsight, I should have researched BEFORE staining as not only is it possible but it is a lot easier than I thought based on my initial google searches, which recommended acid (btw no acid necessary for poplar, sunlight is all that is needed!).
Had I realized that I could have gotten rid of the green in the poplar by leaving it exposed to the sun for 4 hours, I don't think I would have stained my wood (but I did learn a lot about how to stain wood in the process and I do like the contrast).
Step 13: Wood Finishes: Oil or Polyurethane?
If you plan to apply polyurethane at the very end, you can skip the oil step!!
Apply a coat of boiled linseed oil to showcase the natural wood. If you are doing both, make sure that they are both oil based, it is not recommended to do a water based polyurethane on top of oil.
If you plan to use boiled linseed oil, use a rag for application. Do NOT throw the wet rag into the trash as it is highly flammable, first lay it out flat to dry and then you can dispose of it in your trash.
Beware that boiled linseed can take up to 3 weeks to fully cure (where it no longer releases gasses). Applying a coat of polyurethane on top could result in bubbles if it is not fully cured (when you can no longer smell the oil). I did not have 3 weeks nor did I read this before I applied the oil… I waited a whole 2 days and took a gamble, thankfully there were no bubbles, but just a heads up!
Tip: If you want to tan your wood more, the oil one will allow for further darkening, the polyurethane stops the tanning process.
Step 14: Picking Out the Casters
I could honestly write an essay about my saga of finding the right casters. In hindsight, it isn’t that hard, you need to decide if you want breaks, how much weight they can hold and what sort of material they will be attached to.
I had long laundry list of what I wanted my casters to do. I also wanted nice looking ones but not ones that cost more than my bar cart. My instructor didn’t like the first set I picked out, so I decided to do some more research. I wanted ones that were small but could hold a lot of weight. I didn’t want them to stick out from underneath my bar cart legs. I wanted ones with a stem and a separate threaded insert to reduce future wood friction and potential wood splitting.
As I said, I could keep going. Ultimately, I found a decent set on Amazon that were very affordable and I decided to spray paint them to make them look more expensive and match more the aesthetic I was going for.
Step 15: Adding Casters to the Legs
Tools matter! There's a reason there are so many tools and each one has a purpose. I didn't have the correct hex key for my threaded insert, used two that fit the width of the insert to get them in. Did not do step #2 below and broke one of the four inserts I had, which resulted in two additional trips to Home Depot and Ace Hardware to try find a replacement with no luck until I finally reached out the manufacturer for additional inserts and ended up buying a pack of 12 (needless to say, I now have 11 that I do not have a purpose for). Thankfully this happened when I still had 2 weeks before my husbands birthday. Long story short (after I told you the long version), the issue could have been easily avoided with the right tool and double checking my measurements.
Correctly installing your threaded inserts for stem casters:
- Us a drill and a drill bit that is slightly less than the width of the threaded insert since you want some resistance for when you insert the threads. You don't want for them to be too small, that you will end up splitting the wooden legs, but you don't want them to be too big so that they fall out.
- Make sure that your hole is deep enough! Check the length of your insert and use a pencil to check that the depth of your hole will fit the hole insert. This will save you the trouble of having to unscrew the insert (and in the process potentially break it like I did).
- Use a hex key that matches the threaded insert to screw the inserts into your legs. If you don't have the right one, though I ended up doing 3 out of 4, it would have been worth the trip to get the right tool, especially since it is inexpensive and will most likely be used again.
- Screw on the casters as the final step, once you assembled and added your final coat of polyurethane. (I put them on before that because I was excited to finally have casters! I also realized I didn't like they had a black trim and so made trip to Home Depot for some gold spray paint).
The above steps depend on the what type of caster you have. I had originally considered ones with a flat plate that you screw on, but my cart legs were too narrow for that so I went ones that were on a stem.
Tip: If you don't have the right tool, sometimes you can get creative and it will end up working out, sometimes it doesn't, but there are reasons why there are so many tools and sometimes having the right ones can save you a lot of headache.
Step 16: Spray Painting the Casters
Spray paint most things gold, well except the screw threads and the part of the wheel that will touch the ground. Use painters tape to cover the parts that you do not want any spray paint to get on. Shake the can and spray about a foot away so at not to have streaks.
Also, I skipped the primer, the paint seemed to not smear (and is still on the casters 6 months later).
This is an inexpensive way to make your wheels look nicer and match the aesthetic of your bar cart.
Step 17: A Nice Accessory: Adding a Drawer Pull
I initially wanted to add this to the side of the table to use as a towel rack but decided the side was too narrow for that. I went online and found a brass pull (after first buying 2 large metal ones and returning them both). After centering it by lightly marking the intersection of two diagonal lines from either corners, I attached the pull by using a scratch owl to mark the locations and using a screw driver for two screws on each side for the pull.
Step 18: Assembling the Rest of the Frame
For this step, you'll need large clamps, which I did not have so drove to a friends to borrow. As in previous steps when using clamps, you are going to want to place some scrap wood in between the clamps and the wood (folding a piece of paper multiple times also works if you don't have small scraps).
Just like the step where I assembled the sides, I again added wood glue to the holes and applied equal pressure on all the clamps little by little to reduce any gaps. Before adding the clamps, I used a mallet to hit the frames over a towel to secure them in place.
Step 19: The Home Stretch: Fastening the Top to the Frame
Pocket holes require special screws called pocket screws (who would have guessed). Regular screws are not advised because they split the wood and may not be as easy to cut through holes that have not been drilled. Place your frame upside down on top of your top and use a drill to for the pocket screws to attach the top.
Step 20: Oil Polyurethane EVERYTHING
Use a paint brush to apply the polyurethane on the frame, make sure that you don't have drips. Wait either an hour (or two before the 2nd application) otherwise wait 24 hours (there is a sweet spot for applying the first and 2nd coat). In order to make the applications stay on better, I read that some light sanding helps. Also, if your wood grains have risen and your pieces are not soft anymore, using a high numbered grit paper will get rid of that roughness. I'd recommend waiting 24 hours before your third coat.
You can do this application in stages (frame first, shelves on their own, and the top last) or once the whole unit is assembled. I first did the frame, once that dried, I attached the top and did three coats once it was screwed on top. I also did the top separately because I had applied burned linseed oil and was waiting for it to cure (the linseed application was entirely avoidable, but I learned a lot about linseed oil and how long it cures in the process...).
Tip: Make sure to clean your paint brushes with ethanol before the polyurethane hardens on them, I did not do this and trust me water does not work (I just didn't want to make the 13th trip to Home Depot). As a result of my laziness, I have streaks on my surface because you truly need a soft brush for applying and the top needs a bit more precision than the frame. You can see some streaks if you zoom in and the light is shining in the right way, but I know they are there regardless of the lighting....
Step 21: Adding the Railings
Another one of those that I put a lot of thought into... and yet would have done slightly differently if I were to do them again. As I called out in an earlier step, make the holes for the rods BEFORE you do any assembling. Make the holes a little deeper and do not worry about centering them (just make sure they are level on both sides). I ended up finding rods that are hallow and extending them to fit my cart exactly (after I initially cut my pieces too short because my initial holes were too shallow and made yet another trip to Home Depot to find additional hallow rods).
Here is a timeline and outline of the the process (the one I'd do in hindsight):
- Drill the upper and lower shelf holes before any assembly
- Drill them deeper than I did to make it easier to insert the rod into the side and then slide the remaining bit into the other leg.
- Do not need to drill them in the center of the legs, I could have drilled them further out, optimizing the shelf surface area even more.
- Use a bow saw to cut the rods to length. If you are using one hallow rod that fits into another solid rod, the lengths do not have to be as precise.
All that being said, the hallow rods and some elbow grease to make the side holes on the legs with a scratch owl worked (though this was risky and could have split the wood). I could have also gotten a special bent drill bit but couldn't foresee any future use cases for it.
Step 22: Fully Assembled and Dried (mostly)! Plus a Tally of Trips to the Hardware Store.
If I had to approximate how long this took me, I'd say about 65 hours, but that was going from almost complete novice (my middle school experience counts for something, right?). The time includes the hours spent planning, learning the basics of furniture making and how to safely use power tools as well as the many many hours spent at the hardware stores. I am hopeful that I could cut the time in half if I were to do this again.
Trips to the hardware store (but who's counting...):
- Additional wood for shelves (planned to buy more from the the woodshop but decided I'd try to find wider ones so I wouldn't have to glue them like I did the top)
- Rods part 1/2 (cut the initial ones too short)
- Caster set #1 (returned, my wood instructor said I could find better ones)
- Sandpaper trip 1/2 (did not have all the grit I wanted)
- Sandpaper trip 2/2 (still missing grit, so ordered online a variety pack of 100)
- Boiled linseed oil, stain and polyurethane, paintbrushes, gloves (did not get ethanol to clean the brushes with...)
- Rods part 2/2 (bought more hallow rods)
- Caster set #2 (did not have breaks, kept for a future project, ordered final set online)
- Replacement caster insert trip 1/2 (after I broke it)
- Replacement caster insert trip 2/2 (not the exact fit, ultimately ordered online a set of 12...)
- Gold spray paint (because I was not happy with the black trim)
- Pocket hole screws (regular ones aren't recommended)
Hopefully you can condense some of those trips, follow the recommended sequence of steps and learn from my mistakes :)
Step 23: And Finally, the First Sip!
Well technically you don’t need a bar cart for making cocktails, but they sure do taste better after making your own! My husband was quite happy with his birthday gift and we have since nearly doubled our bottle collection (I promise you we aren't alcoholics, we just like trying new cocktails).
For anyone who is curious, here are the accessories I got on Amazon (aside from the alcohol):
Step 24: Thank You
To those of you have made it this far, thank you for reading through my first instructable!
I’d be more than happy to answer any of your questions, whether it's about the wood project above or related to cocktails, I’ll do my best, even though I am new to making both :)
A special acknowledgment to my wood instructors:
I also wanted to thank all the awesome wood instructors I had from whom I learned so much. Huge shoutout to my woodshop 1 instructor, Rayan Ghazal, who introduced me to so many power tools and taught me how to safely use them (learning how to safely operate all the power tools is SO important) as well as going over the steps of making a table from scratch and allowing me to modify the original assignment so I could build out my dream project. Also, a big thank you to the assistant instructors whom I peppered with questions as I tried to figure out which order to glue things in, how to properly use the clamps, which direction the drill bit should spin in, how to add shelves, and how to hold the bottles in place (and the list goes on). I am also thankful for my woodshop II instructor, Marcus Miller, for helping me gain additional confidence in safely operating additional power tools and for introducing me to the world of mortis and tenons and teaching me so much about different finishes.
For those who want to learn more:
If you are new the world of woodworking or want a quick refresher on some of the most frequently used 175 power and hand tools (with illustrations), I'd recommend Girls Garage by Emily Pilloton, the founder of the Non-profit Girls Garage. I randomly stumbled on this book a week ago at a clothing boutique, of course after I had already completed my project, but it has been tremendously helpful to refresh my memory on all the tools I used in the making of the Bar Cart plus learn about new ones I'd like to one day fill my own woodshop with.
Second Prize in the