Introduction: Small Table Made From Cardboard, Duct Tape and Papier Mache

About: Crafting as a means to distract myself from the horror show that was 2016. If I'm making things or plotting to make things, it makes me happy.

This year I was having trouble coming up with a birthday present for my brother in law. I asked my sister for advice, and joked that unless she had any bright ideas, he'd be getting a papier mache bedside table as a gift. She thought I was joking. I thought I was joking. I turned out not to be joking. About the papier mache bedside table part, at any rate, because I noticed I needed a better table for in the spare room, and gosh, we had a lot of cardboard to go for recycling in the shed...

This project was completed over the space of a week, but that was working around a lot of interruptions, work, weather, and storm flies (don't attempt to paint or glue with them around, they'll just get stuck to your project, which is annoying unless you're going for the whole death to bugs vibe). The actual amount of work for the table itself would be a few afternoons worth, to account for drying times as well. There may be extra time if you have any wild and wonderful plans for decorating your table.

As this is a table made from cardboard, it's not going to take the weight of a person or a TV or anything heavy like that. However, it's plenty strong enough to take the weight of a lamp, some magazines, books, tea/coffee mugs (use your coasters!) and phones and tablets. It can also take a cat sitting on it quite happily (though both you and the cat are going to be unhappy if it tries to sit on it while the paint or glue is still wet).

It may not be able to take the weight of the responsibility of an alarm clock.

Step 1: What You Will Need:

  • Corrugated cardboard - single and double wall (tough, looks like two pieces stuck together)
  • Gaffer (duct) tape - LOTS of it
  • Newspaper - again, lots
  • Plain white paper - optional, see guide for details
  • PVA glue - or papier mache goop of your choice
  • Water
  • Container - for the glue mix
  • Paint - colour of your choice, you may need a white base coat
  • Hard coat Modge Podge - or a tough sealant varnish of your choice
  • Felt pads for furniture feet
  • Tape measure
  • Ruler
  • Pen - sharpie or CD marker
  • Box knife - or sturdy craft knife
  • Scissors - tough ones are best
  • Paint brushes
  • Small paint roller - optional, for quicker paint coverage
  • Fine sandpaper
  • Dust/paint sheets - throw these down any time you're papier macheing, gluing or painting
  • Optional items for decorating that you'll choose yourself

Step 2: Making the Legs and Support Poles

The legs and support poles will just need single ply cardboard. Ideally the pieces of cardboard should be big enough to draw the templates on, but as long as the cardboard is tall enough to accommodate the length needed to make the support poles you can always make the sides individually and gaffer tape them together, it's just more fiddly that way.

The best way to do it is to draw out the box-like template (see diagram above), cut around the edges, then score down the inside lines to make them easier to fold. Fold them up to form a square tube, then stick a bit of gaffer tape on the open edges to join it together.

Once this is done, crumple up some of your newspaper and stuff it into the square tube, then wrap the whole tube up in gaffer tape - don't go overboard, though, as they need to fit through some holes later. I actually stuffed mine with spare packaging paper and stuff from Amazon deliveries as well. This is going to do two things. First, it's going to make it solid enough to wrap it in gaffer tape easily and keep the square shape. Second, it's going to make the whole lot rigid and provide support in the finished table.

The only difference between the poles and the legs is that the ends of the poles remain open, and the base of the legs get closed with their cardboard flap and gaffer taped up like the rest of it.

You'll need to make four legs and four poles (or more if you end up with more poles and legs for support). Set them aside for later, and move on to making the surface and shelf.

A note on size and dimension: The sides of my legs and poles ended up as 1.5". This is because that's a nice chunky size, and also the width of my ruler, which makes drawing the template (and making the holes they go in later on) that much easier. The leg height is 3", and the pole height 10". Poles were designed to be high enough to store some magazines or a box or two, but not tall enough the table would end up rickety. The leg height was decided on as I wanted it reasonably low, but high enough for an extension lead with plugs in the sockets to slide under. This is based on UK sockets and plugs, which are really nicely shaped and sized for this kind of thing. You're on your own for planning it if you want to hide US power points under there.

Step 3: Making the Bottom Shelf and Top Surface

This needs the double ply cardboard just because it makes the whole thing more sturdy. I had a big box lurking from a desk chair delivery, but if you don't have any, then doubling up on regular single ply might help make it more rigid - do a bit of experimenting. Gluing the single ply together to make double ply would likely aid this, possibly with the 'grain' going in different directions (I don't know, structural cardboard experts may be able to offer better advice).

Decide on what size you want your table to be, and adjust your measurements to fit. Much bigger than mine and it may need some extra legs, which would be easy enough to do, though I have no idea what it would do to the overall integrity of your table. Also remember that gaffer tape and papier mache will add a little bit extra to the dimensions, so take this into account if you're planning on slotting this into a tight space.

I cut my table with shelf and surface panels at 24" x 14". You're going to need FOUR pieces of double ply cardboard cut to this size - two for each shelf. You'll need the box cutter for this, unless you have the grip of Captain America and can take this on with industrial scissors. If you go with single ply cardboard, you'll need EIGHT pieces cutting out, gluing them together so you end up with FOUR.

Once your shelves are cut to size, draw a grid (as pictured) on THREE of the panels. The fourth panel shouldn't have any holes in it, as this will be the top surface.I did mine with two ruler widths, so the lines are 1.5" apart. Doing two lines for each side creates the 1.5"x1.5" space for the legs and posts in the corner. The line away from the edge can be whatever width you like, but the second line must be the width of your leg sides away from the first line. Cut out the square holes you get as a result with your box knife. Keep the square pieces that you cut out if they're in reasonable enough condition, you'll be able to make use of them later.

Step 4: Joining the Legs, Poles and Panels Together

The diagram is a side-on view of how it slots together, with the flaps in the legs and the poles helping to support the surface panels, and the surface panels in turn helping keep the legs and poles secure once they're stuck together.

Take one of the panels with holes in, and stick the legs in through the holes (you might need to force it a bit, the fit may be tight) until the open flaps butt the top of the shelf. Tape the flaps down securely on the shelf, but don't tape over the hole.

Now you need to fill the legs up some more. With the table sitting like, well, a table, get a ruler or a stick, and shove the newspaper (or handy excess packaging) down to the bottom, as far as it will go. Then stuff more crinkled newspaper in there, jamming it all down. Keep doing this until the legs are still square but the newspaper wants to burst out of the top. Taking one of the spare squares of card from earlier (or cut new squares out if you didn't save them), trim it down a little bit so you can stuff it into the top of the leg as a stopper, then seal it shut with some gaffer tape. You should end up with a nice, solid leg that only has a little bit of give when you squeeze it hard.

With the remaining two panels, follow the same process with the poles so the flaps come out of the top of one panel and the bottom of the other. Decide which end is 'bottom' and stopper the end with card squares and gaffer tape it closed. Then, with this side on the floor, stuffing the poles and stoppering the tops in exactly the same way as you did for the legs.

Step 5: Making the Constructed Parts Into Something That Looks Like a Table

Now, if you put the top section onto the piece with legs, you'll notice those flaps sit on each other, and create a gap between the panels. This doesn't do much for stability and usability of the bottom shelf. It's easily fixed by taking the spare scraps of cardboard you probably have from cutting things to size, and piecing them together to form a layer between the panels. I recommend securing these pieces in places with a few strips of gaffer tape so they don't wander in the next step.

Pop the upper section onto the leg section and make sure it lines up, then secure it together with gaffer tape all the way around. I recommend that you do a couple of securing strips on each side to keep things in place, then go around and do a thorough job afterwards. Pull the tape tightly over the edges and around, you want this to be secure and firmly joined.

Once you're satisfied, add a layer of card pieces to the top panel, then position your final surface panel on top of that, and secure that in place with gaffer tape as well.

Do a final check to make sure there are no holes, and tape them over if there are. You will also notice that there are gaps in the joins where the poles and legs go into the panels. It's worth going over those with a bit of gaffer tape so they're sealed, which will keep gunk out and make it easier to papier mache and paint later.

Congratulations, you have a table made out of cardboard and gaffer tape! Now you need to turn it into a table you can actually use.

Step 6: Getting Gooey With the Papier Mache

Why papier mache? For one, it adds a little to the rigidity of the table, and another layer of sealing. Mostly, it provides a nicer, more uniform base to decorate as it helps cover and soften the lines from the gaffer tape. Tape can also be a pig to paint on, whereas covering it with glue and paper is simple enough.

It boils down to personal preference as to which papier mache method you use. I'll talk about how I did it, but there are so many tutorials out there if you want to try something else.

I used a mix of 1 part PVA glue (good old school glue) to 1 part water. It's also possible to use wallpaper paste, or even a flour and water mix. The flour and water mix would work just fine (I've used it in the past and it's satisfyingly solid), but I personally cannot stand the smell. I also understand that you need to make sure that you let it dry completely before doing anything else with it as there's a possibility that it might rot. A rotting table would not be useful. The PVA/water mix is cheap, durable, doesn't smell, and dries fairly quickly in the sunshine.

The basics are to rip your paper into strips (cutting makes a harsh edge which can show up more when painting), and glue them onto the surface you want covering. You can dip the paper in the glue and slather it on the table with your hands, or you can paste the table in small sections with glue, stick some paper strips on, then brush the paper with a paint brush until it's soaked with glue - it depends on how messy you like to be and what you have to hand. I like the cleaner method, because it's easier to just mix up glue when you need it in small quantities, rather than making a big bowl to dunk paper in and have to dispose of it when you're done.

Apply paper and glue with your chosen method until all the cardboard and gaffer tape is all covered up, and leave it to dry. If it's a warm, sunny day, you may find the first section you did is dry before you even finish papering the last section. Once it is dry, do another layer of glue and paper, just for luck, and let that dry out. You might get away with just one layer, see how you feel. Finally, make sure all stray parts are stuck down, gluing down any flappy bits you find.

For my second layer I used some plain white paper to act as a base colour. I have cheap, 60gsm art pads for this kind of thing. The reason for this is because covering newspaper with paint can take a couple of layers just to get a decent enough base coat if you're using light colours, and I have better luck with this method.

Step 7: Preparing the Surfaces Then Painting and Sealing Your Table

Papier mache can produce all kinds of interesting bumps and rough spots (especially if you use the flour and water mix). This is to be expected with such a project, and if you were wanting glass-smooth surfaces, then a table made out of cardboard and papier mache is probably not for you, as it's destined to have a bit of a rough and rustic finish to it - it's all part of it's charm. However, you might find that there are a couple of blemishes that should be fixed, and the surface will probably need some minor prep for painting.

To deal with the bumps and ridges, gently and smoothly run (don't rub) your thumbnail along them a couple of times to flatten them out. Then arm yourself with your fine sandpaper, and GENTLY sand the surfaces to rub away any harsh lines, small flour lumps (if you used that method), loose paper shreds or detritus that simply stuck to it while it was wet. In the event you rub too much, don't worry. Just smooth the area and patch it up it with a dob of glue and small strip of paper. Once it's dry, you're all set to paint your table.

I wanted to use white paint, so the white paper base meant I could use less paint and meant less time spent on it overall. If you're doing a dark colour, then you may find that one or two layers of paint do the job nicely with just the newspaper layer. This is where your mini paint roller comes in handy as it's faster and gives an even coverage, but regular paint brushes will do the job fine. You'll need to use the brush anyway to get into any awkward spaces, such as where the legs and the poles meet the panels.

I used acrylic paint because it was what I had on hand, and it doesn't do anything weird to paper. You can probably use other paints, perhaps ones with better coverage, but just check what they'd do to a paper and cardboard base first. Spray paint would also be a good, quick alternative, giving you an interesting option of finishes - the following steps would probably need adapting or omitting, depending on what you use.

Whatever you use, let the paint dry, then touch up any spots you missed (or spots that got a bit damaged from removing the odd bug getting where it shouldn't, so speaketh the voice of experience).

If you don't want to decorate your table any further at this point, give your table a final, quick rub with sandpaper to smooth it down before covering the entire thing with a couple of layers of hard coat Mod Podge. It's available on Amazon in both the US and the UK, and probably any number of craft shops. There are also other products out there that will do the same thing - you may already have a preferred brand - just shop around a little. I like Mod Podge hard coat because it Just Works™. The hard coat variety adds some durability and doesn't leave a sticky residue like the regular Mod Podge does. There's also a furniture variety of Mod Podge, so if you have that, use it, but I don't see any real benefit to that over hard coat for my use.

Finally, stick some felt furniture pads to the bottom of the legs (this stage is not pictured as the ones I bought wandered off, so I'm adding them later). This is more about protecting the base of the legs from wear than protecting floors, and worth doing in the event the table gets moved about a bit so that the coating and paper don't get rubbed through.

Step 8: Optional: Decorating Your Table

If, like me, you wanted to make the table decoration more elaborate than a coat of paint, then it's worth doing this before you slather it in Mod Podge (though I put a layer on the surface of mine as it was a better finish to work on for what I chose to do). This section isn't really about how you should decorate, just to make you open to the idea and let you know what I did for those who are interested.

In my case, I decided I was going to do a mosaic pattern using card tiles. While I was browsing through Instructables, I saw this DIY Fun Wall Art by Muhaiminah Faiz. I really liked the effect and decided I could do something similar for my table surface with cardboard tiles and shapes. I also wanted some colour on the bottom shelf, but not anything complicated, so went with a simple line of card tiles along the edge.

Your table top is a blank canvas, so it's fun to look around and see what art projects people have done for inspiration. You could do pictures or patterns in paint, use funky wallpaper, decoupage with photos or comics, or use up your old CDs to make lightweight mosaic tiles (beats trashing them).

The world is your creative oyster, have fun!

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