Introduction: Shadow Box Coffee Table

About: I love making things in my workshop, whether it be fine furniture or a simple tool or jig. Hopefully you'll be inspired and maybe learn a thing or two while following along. I look forward to your comments!

I made this shadow box coffee table with the help of my neighbor. He just retired from the U.S. Navy after more than 20 years of service and wanted to have a table for his living room where he can display his medals, the U.S. flag, and his sword.

The table is 40" long x 24" wide x 17" high and is made from red oak. The tempered glass insert is 32" long x 17" wide x 1/4" thick.

If you'd like to watch me make this table, you can watch it on YouTube by clicking here.

Step 1: Materials You'll Need

  • Table legs - We probably could have made our own table legs, but it would have required a LOT of effort. We decided to order these Queen Anne legs instead. If that's not your style, there are a variety of leg types that you can choose from that you could use instead of these.
  • Lumber for the rest of the table. We decided to go with rough cut red oak that we milled up ourselves. You can use any type of lumber that you'd like. Depending on your tools, you may want to use dimensional lumber so that you don't need to use a jointer and planer. If you decide to go with dimensional lumber, you will need to adjust the plans to account for the different thickness of the table top.
  • 1/2" Plywood for the table bottom. A 2' x 4' piece will be sufficient.
  • Glue - We used Titebond II
  • Double sided tape - this tape will be used for an important step towards the end.
  • Spray adhesive - there are lots of options, but we ordered this one.
  • Blue felt - we ordered 2 yards of this. The color is up to you.
  • Sandpaper - 120-grit, 150-grit, and 220-grit
  • Pre-stain wood conditioner - this is optional, but helps to prevent a blotchy stain application. We used the Minwax Pre-Stain Wood Conditioner
  • Stain - this is optional as you may prefer a more natural wood look. We chose the Minwax Golden Pecan Interior Wood Stain
  • Polyurethane varnish - you can decide on the type of finish. Polyurethane is just one type. We chose a satin finish. We used the Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane Clear Satin Finish
  • Tempered Glass - we ordered a piece online to be 32" x 17" x 1/4"

Step 2: Tools You Will Need

Here are the tools that you will need to make this project. There are a variety of ways to do things, so you may be able to substitute for the tools that I've used. I've provided some suggestions (in parentheses) for alternatives if you do not have some of the more specialized tools.

  • Table saw
  • Dado set (or just use a regular saw blade with multiple passes)
  • Jointer (you don't really need this if you purchase dimensional lumber) (hand plane)
  • Router bits: 3/8" and 1/4" spiral up-cut bits; some kind of an edge treatment bit, if desired for the table top
  • Planer (you don't really need this if you purchase dimensional lumber) (hand plane)
  • Circular Saw (or just a plain ole hand saw)
  • Band Saw (jig saw)
  • Tri Square (combination square) (carpenter square)
  • Router (mortising bit) (chisel)
  • Chisels
  • Clamps -- you'll need a variety of clamps, including some that can go up to four feet
  • Random Orbit Sander (sand paper and a sanding block)
  • Sharp knife
  • Paint brush (or a rag if you use wipe-on finish)

Step 3: Cut Wood to Rough Lengths

With a miter saw or circular saw, but the wood to the rough lengths.

The final lengths that you will need are:

Table Top:

  • 2 pieces 24"
  • 2 pieces 37 1/2"

Table Apron:

  • 2 pieces 38 5/8"
  • 2 pieces 20 5/8"

When rough cutting the lengths, be sure to add 1-2 inches to these dimensions that you will be able to trim off later.

Step 4: Joint the Lumber

If using rough cut lumber, you will need to joint one face and one edge of the lumber. After jointing, this will give you one straight and flat face, and one straight edge that is square to the jointed face.

If you do not have a jointer, you may want to use dimensional lumber instead, or you can carefully plane the wood by hand to end up with straight and flat sides.

Step 5: Plane to the Desired Thickness

Using a planer, you can plane the wood to the desired thickness after it has been jointed. I planed the top pieces to be 1" thick and the pieces for the apron to be 3/4" thick.

If you are using dimensional lumber, you will probably have 1" dimensional lumber (which is actually 3/4" thick) and you can skip this step. However, keep in mind that if you are using 3/4" material for the top, you will need to adapt the plans so that the mortises and tenons are in the proper position.

Step 6: Cut the Boards to the Exact Length

Carefully measure the boards and mark the correct length. Then cut off to the correct length using a table saw or a miter saw. Be very careful that you do not cut too much.

After making the cuts, re-measure and re-cut, if needed.

It's important that the lengths of the side pieces and end pieces are matching. It's more important that they match than it is that they are exactly correct. If they do not match, your joints will likely not end up being 90 degrees when you assemble the table.

Step 7: Cut the Boards to the Exact Width

The boards for the table top need to be cut to 4" wide.

Cut the boards for the table apron to be 3 1/2" wide.

Step 8: Quick Test Fit

It's a good idea to do a quick test fit at this point. This will help you to keep oriented and to ensure that everything is the correct size at this point.

Step 9: Create the Mortises in the Table Top

The side pieces of the table top will have tenons on each end and the end pieces will have the corresponding mortises.

Carefully measure the position of each mortise. The mortises will be 3/4" thick, 1 1/2" wide, and 1 1/4" deep.

You can use a router and a jig to cut the mortises. I used a jig that I built based on a video from Fine Woodworking that I saw here. I used a 3/8" spiral up-cut bit to cut the mortises.

If you have a mortising set for a drill press, you could use that instead.

If you have neither of these tools, then you'll have to carefully cut the mortises with a chisel.

Step 10: Route Mortises Into the Table Legs

Carefully measure the position of the mortises in the table legs.

Since the table aprons are only 3/4" thick, the tenons will be only 1/4" thick (typically 1/3 of the thickness of the wood). Therefore, the mortises in the table legs need to be 1/4" thick. They will be 1 1/4" wide and 1" deep.

Step 11: Cut the Tenons

Carefully measure the position of the shoulder of the tenon and draw a line across the board. This will represent the depth of the tenon.

Next, cut along this line using a table saw, cutting only slightly into the board so that you do not cut into the resulting thickness of the tenon. This will give you a very clean edge along the shoulder.

Step 12: Cut Out the Shoulder

Next, cut out the unwanted pieces on both sides of the tenon. You can do this on a band saw if you have one. If you do not have one, I would be inclined to do with a good hand saw. There might be temptation to use a jig saw, but I think you might get poor results. It's very important to have a clean edge. If you do use a jig saw, be sure to leave a small amount of material that you can clean up with a chisel.

Here's an article that may help you cut and clean up the fit of your mortise and tenon.

Step 13: Cut the Tenons to the Desired Thickness

If you have a tenoning jig for your table saw, you can use it to cut the tenon to the desired thickness. It's important to do this carefully and to test the fit after each cut. The goal is to have a fit that is tight when you insert the tenon in the mortise. Tight, but not too tight...

If you do not have a tenoning jig, you could create one. There are a variety of methods that you can find on YouTube or by googling an article on the best ways to cut a tenon.

Step 14: Fit the Tenons Into the Mortises

I used a router bit for the mortises but the tenon has square corners. You'll need to decide whether you want to square up the corners of the mortises with a chisel, or round over the corners of the tenons using a rasp. It's usually easier (and faster) to round over the tenons.

Be sure to do this carefully and test the fit along the way. After all the tenons and mortises have been prepared, do a test fit with the table top pieces and adjust, as needed.

Step 15: Test Fit of the Table Top and Apron

It's a good idea to test the fit of the table top, the apron, and the table legs just to make sure everything is fitting well.

Step 16: Cut a Ledge for the Glass

You will need to cut a ledge into the top to hold the glass in place. The ledge will be 1/2" wide and it will go along the length of the board.

Carefully measure the blade height. I did this by setting the glass beside the blade to get the desired height.

Step 17: Cut a Dado to Hold the Table Bottom

Cut a 1/2" dado along the inside of the apron pieces, 1/4" from the bottom edge. This will be used to hold the plywood bottom.

The plywood needs to be cut to 39 1/2" x 21 1/8".

Step 18:

Using a band saw (or jig saw), cut out the corners of the bottom plywood so that it can fit around the table legs. The cutout needs to be approximately 1 1/4" x 1 1/4".

Then do a test fit to make sure the bottom fits correctly.

Step 19: Glue and Clamp the Table Top

Put glue onto the ends of the long pieces and around the tenon. Also put glue inside the mortise on the end pieces. Then connect the pieces together and clamp, making sure everything is square.

You also want to make sure that the table top remains flat. To ensure this, I clamped the table to to my table saw table because I know that it is a very flat surface.

Step 20: Glue Up the Table Apron and Legs

It's time to glue up the table apron and the legs. If you have a band clamp, it's helpful to hold everything in place. Also check to be sure that everything is square before the glue dries.

Step 21: Cut and Insert Strips to Hold the Table Top in Place

Using excess material that you hopefully have, cut strips of wood that will be glued to the underside of the table top. This will keep the table top from sliding off. We chose this method of holding the top in place so that it is easy to remove the top any time you want to adjust the items that are inside the shadow box.

To position the strips, we applied double sided tape to the top of the inside of the table apron and then stuck the wooden strips to the tape.

Then we applied glue to the tops of the strips of wood.

Then we carefully set the table top back in place, making sure that it was positioned correctly with an equal overhang all around.

Then we clamped the top to the strips and let the glue dry. After the glue dried, we were able to lift the top off and remove the double-sided tape.

Step 22: Route the Edge of the Table Top

If desired, you can route the edge of the table top to give it a nice profile. There are a variety of edge treatment bits that you can use for this.

When routing along the end grain, it's a good idea to route using a climb cut to prevent any tear-out. This means going in a clockwise direction just briefly. After you have done that, you can revert back to the normal counter-clockwise direction for routing the edge to help maintain control of the router.

Step 23: Sand the Table

Thoroughly sand the table starting with 120-grit and progressively working up to 220-grit (or higher).

Step 24: Finish the Table

We planned to stain the table with a relatively light colored stain. To prevent blotchiness, we used a pre-stain wood conditioner. Then we stained the wood and followed up with three coats of polyurethane.

Step 25: Install the Felt and the Glass

We used spray adhesive and double-sided tape to secure the felt in place. You will need a very sharp knife to cut the felt around the legs so that you get a smooth cut and no jagged edge along the fabric.

Then set the glass in place.

Step 26: Add the Medals

This is what the table looks like now that it's at my neighbor's house. The only thing left to do is to make a triangular frame for the U.S. flag. The flag will be flown on a U.S. ship at the end of August 2016. After he receives the flag, we will go ahead and make the frame, so I'll add those steps toward early in the new year.

If you'd like to watch me make this table, you can watch it on YouTube by clicking here.

Wood Contest 2016

Participated in the
Wood Contest 2016