Introduction: Distressed Coffee Table
I am making 36" x 48" x 16" coffee table. The bottom half is pine, top half is reclaimed walnut flooring - approximately 100 years old. A resaw effect was done but most of the aging was natural to the pieces. Wood needed: (1) 4/8 sheet of quality 1/2" plywood. (4) 2x4x8 pine. (1) 4x4x8 pine. For the top, the walnut was 6" wide X 3/4" thick tongue and groove flooring. The pieces needed for the top are (6) 37" long, (2) 48" long.
Step 1: Milling the Lumber, Measuring for Mortises
- Mill down 4x4 to 3x3 thickness. This was done using a table saw and thickness planer.
- Cut 3x3's down to 15 3/4" length
- Mark 1/2" down from top - 1/2" in from top left edge, then mark 2" below that. This represents the top mortise. On the same side, measure up from the bottom 2 3/4" and from the left edge 1/2". Then mark 2" above that. This represents the bottom mortise.
- Rotate the table leg clockwise and make the exact same markings, except from the right edge. Repeat this on the other 3 table legs.
- Using a mortise jig for a router, I route the mortises, according to their marked locations 1" deep. The router bit leaves the mortises rounded on each end. I will compensate for this by rounding the tenons as well. Now I have 16 mortises cut - 4 per leg.
Step 2: Top and Bottom Aprons
- The top apron on the narrow ends of the table are 30" - inner measurements between table legs. This includes the 1" of tenon depth on either side. The total dimensions are 30" x 3" x 1". The tenons are 2" x 1/2" x1". I used a router table set to 1/4" depth cut with a router fence set to 1" for the face cuts. The bit was a 1/2" bit so 2 passes were made to clear all material. The same process was done for the cheek cuts, but the bit depth was set to 1/2". This was repeated on all both top apron boards.
- The top apron on the long sides are 42" - inner measurements between table legs. This includes the 1" of tenon depth on either side. The total dimensions are 42" x 3" x 1". The tenons are 2" x 1/2" x 1". I followed the same process as the previous step to cut the tenons. This was repeated on both top side boards.
- The bottom apron on the narrow ends of the table are 30" total length. There are tenons on each end 2" x 1" x 1/2". There are also mortises for the vertical slats between the top and bottom end aprons that need to be cut. This process will be repeated on both top narrow-end apron boards too. The measurements for those mortises are: 7" in from the end of the mortise (either side), then mark off 2". At the end of that 2" mark, measure another 5" and then 2" make another measure line. The result is a 2" x 1/2" rectangle 7" from either side and then after another 5" a middle 2" x 1/2" rectangle. This process will be repeated on the top boards on both ends.
Step 3: Gluing End Pieces
- After all end aprons are marked for vertical slats, use the mortise jig and the router to cut the mortises. The mortises should be cut with a 1/2" router bit 1" deep and 2" long.
- The vertical slats are 10" x 2 1/2" x 1". The tenons on each end will be 1" x 2" x 1/2". These are cut the same way as we cut the tenons in previous steps, using the router table. Before you go to the next step, it is highly advisable to test fit your pieces now. Dry fitting helps ensure we don't have problems with fit after we have dripping glue running everywhere.
- Glue up the top and bottom end pieces with the three vertical slats first. Use a F or bar clamp to set the tenons into the mortises. Often a rubber hammer or a scrap block of wood with a regular hammer (to keep from marring the finished wood) is helpful in seating the tenons. Once you have the vertical slats in place, glue up the top and bottom mortises on both legs to this end piece. Make sure you glue up the correct mortised side as you're doing this. Using large F clamps or bar clamps, put enough pressure on the piece to squeeze glue out but not so much that you warp the wood pieces. I typically alternate sides with clamps - one on the left, the next on the right - this helps to distribute pressure on the piece. Repeat this step for the other end piece. At this point you should have both ends in glue-up and you should leave these to completely set up overnight. If you have a bunch of glue dripping out of the pieces, you can do one of the following to help clean things up. You can let the glue skin over after about 15-20 minutes and take a putty knife to simply scrape the soggy glue away or I tend to use a cloth rag with mineral spirits to just clean the area up. I can get the glue residue off this way and I've not had this affect the staining or paint process afterward.
Step 4: Gluing Side Aprons
- Remove clamps from the end pieces and inspect the glue joints. Remove any extra squeeze out using a chisel or knife, etc. We will be gluing the long top and bottom apron rails to the end pieces next. You will need clamps big enough where the mouth of the clamp can receive a 45" piece. I use 48" pipe clamps for this. You'll need at least 4 of these clamps - one for each top corner and one for each bottom. Following the same steps you did for gluing the end pieces, glue up one end piece on all four mortises then do the other end. It can be a bit cumbersome to get the aprons lined up, you have plenty of time to get them in. It is a good idea to have your clamps opened to the approximate width you will need and sitting on each side of the piece they will be used on. You can use them to help pull the pieces together. Once it is all in position, tighten the clamps enough to squeeze out the glue and seat the tenons in the mortises, but not so much that you tweak or bow the wood. At this time, you will want to clean up the glue squeeze out that is dripping everywhere. Also, you will need to check for squareness of your table base. Using a carpenter's speed square or any square, check each corner to make sure it is indeed square. If a side is out, fix it now. You may need to adjust clamp placement or clamp tension to achieve this. I have also found that using a ratchet strap (like for securing items in a truck) can be used between corners to gently pull a piece back into square. I wrap the cloth strap around opposing corner leg pieces and place the ratchet in the center of the table (so it doesn't mar the wood) and draw it in until it is square. Do this while the glue is still wet. Once square, leave it overnight or whatever your type of glue says is required to fully set. This part is particularly important. A table that isn't square now will only be heartache later.
Step 5: Plywood Shelves
- The 4x8 plywood sheet can be cut in half when you purchase it – to make it easier to transport and maneuver in your workshop. The final dimension of both sheets will be 43 ½” x 31 ½”. Each corner will have a 1 ¾” square notch cut out to wrap around the table legs.
- From remaining scrap pieces cut (4) 1 x 1 x 40” and (4) 1 x 1 x 28” strips. These will be tacked in for the plywood shelves to rest on. Each piece will have a small bead of glue applied and be tacked in place using either brad nails or a brad nail gun. I used 1 ¼” brad nails. The real strength is the glue, the nails simply hold these runners in place until the glue dries.
A helpful tip when gluing/nailing these runners is to make a simple scrap wood jig from a piece of the same plywood. I used a scrap piece of 2x4 cutoff and scrap plywood piece. I tacked the plywood onto the small 2x4 piece to form an “L” shape. Then I use a squeeze clamp to clamp several of these alignment jigs on each side. Then I but the runners to the bottom of the jig and tack them in place. The plywood piece on the “L” jig gives me the perfect depth alignment because it is the exact thickness of my plywood shelves. I repeat the process on all sides – top and bottom.
Another helpful tip on placing the shelves in is to do the bottom shelf first. The space is too tight to try to fit the bottom after the top is already in place. After both shelves are in place, I used more brad nails to simply tack top and bottom into the runners. This secures the shelves.
Now the entire bottom is assembled.
Step 6: Table Base Cleanup
- Before you start on the table top, it is a good idea to get the wood filler out and fix any blemishes in the bottom assembly. Any remaining glue residue should be cleaned up now and any final sanding should be done at this time.
- Paint the bottom assembly. In my case the customer wanted chalk paint. Since I used pine for the bottom assembly, I also purchased a sanding sealer/primer and had it tinted gray. I applied two coats of the sanding sealer to all sides – even those on the underside of the table shelves and the bottoms of the table legs. After that dried completely, I applied three coats of chalk paint and let it completely dry. After it was dry, I set the bottom assembly aside to begin working on the table top.
Step 7: Table Top Assembly
- I made my rough cuts with the miter saw – (6) boards at 37” and (2) at 48”. With the miter saw I set up stop blocks for each series of cuts so that I could be sure each cut was the same. I oversized six of the boards because I needed to cut a tongue in on the ends. I wanted to have a little extra board just in case I made a mistake. In the end, the total board length for 4 of these should be 36 ½”. The tongue is ¼” on each end. The other two 37” boards will have 45-degree miters in them and should be exactly 36” on the long side of the board – tip-to-tip. Again, using a stop block will ensure accuracy on these cuts. The final two boards are the long ones and they should be 48” tip-to-tip with 45-degree miters on each end.
On the piece I was creating, the customer wanted a rough-sawn or resawn look to the boards – but wanted them smooth – not splintery. I ran each board through my bandsaw with the fence set so that the board easily went through but the blade kissed the board faces putting in lines. I wiggled the boards where I wanted more distress, etc. This is all personal taste. When you stain the boards later, the stain will settle in these cut lines and give a really old look to the piece.
- Dry fit everything before you start gluing. You will notice as you place the field boards into position that the last board you put in will have a groove instead of a tongue for the outer board. In other words, you’ll have two grooves side-by-side on one end. You will have to create a tongue spline to fit between the boards. The spline should be no longer than 36” long and is ¼” x ½”. Glue the spline to the last field board and let it set up overnight. The next day, after dry fitting all pieces together, it is time to glue up. Be careful not to use too much glue. The walnut stain will look splotchy if you don’t get all of the glue squeeze out removed. Mineral spirits works great to clean the area up.
Step 8: Table Top Glue Up
- Use pipe clamps to secure the pieces and draw everything together. Use a square to make sure all pieces are true and square – also use your eyes on the miter corners. I used my brad nailer to put a few 1 ½” brads into the mitered corners. I could have put a spline in, but didn’t want that look on this piece. I knew I could make the nail holes disappear easily.
Here’s another helpful tip; if your miter saw is off by the smallest of a degree, you won’t see it until you put that fourth corner together. The error is magnified the more intersections you have – or corners you make. This is why dry fitting is so important.
Be sure to let the table top set up overnight or at least for several hours before you remove the clamps.
- After removing the clamps I use a chisel to clean up any glue spots I missed. I also use three different grits of sandpaper to prep the wood. I start with 80 grit to knock down any areas I need to remove wood or glue blobs. Once it is where I want it to be, I take 120 grit and smooth out the sanding lines, then follow up with 220 grit to finish sand. Keep in mind that this is a rough sawn look, but I don’t want the table to be rough to the touch.
As a side note, I like to take a scrap piece of wood to be finished and play around with a few different techniques for comparison. In the photo I have two pieces of walnut, one with walnut stain, the second with walnut but I used ebony to darken the distressed areas. I ended up going with just walnut.
Step 9: Mating the Table Top to the Base
- I know that I’m going to have a 1” reveal all the way around the table. I turn the table topside down on my bench and clean glue and sand areas as with the top. I vacuum the dust away and take a damp rag to wipe down the bottom of the table. Then I apply a thin coat of walnut stain. I let this sit for about 15 minutes and wipe it off. I am careful not to let it drip down the edges of the table. I will get the edges stained when I do the top. After two coats of stain, I let it dry for 8 hours before applying polyurethane. I use a matte water-based polyurethane for this table. I gave the bottom two coats of polyurethane. The next day I turn the table top right side up and clean/prep the surface for stain.
- I made four small alignment jigs to help me set the table top to the bottom with minimal need for adjustment. I know that I have a 1” reveal all the around the table, so I made another “L” jig where the “L” sticks out slightly less than 1”. I clamp the jig to two opposite corners and this allows me to accurately place to top to the bottom. After I have done a dry fit and adjusted the alignment blocks perfectly, with some assistance, I remove the top and set it aside. I apply glue to the top of the plywood and tops of the four leg posts. I am careful not to put too much on because squeeze out now would make a mess of the table. After I put the top in place I use some 1” brad nails to hold the table top down until the glue dries.
Step 10: Finish Stain and Polyurethane
- Since this side has dips and crevices and knot holes, I use a sponge brush to apply the stain. Let the stain sit for 15 minutes then wipe the excess off with a clean cloth. I repeat this process three times, waiting about 1 hour between coats. The more times you do this, the darker it will get. It is personal preference when to stop or keep going. The directions for my stain require 8 hours of dry time before applying polyurethane. I follow up with three coats of polyurethane.
- The table is assembled now. The customer wanted a distressed look on the bottom, so I used 120 and 220 grit sandpaper to distress the edges, legs, and any area where I thought might be rubbed off over time. I also took this opportunity to drill and nail in a small plastic table pad to the bottom of each leg.
- After the bottom has been distressed, I vacuum and wipe down the surface again. With a paintbrush, I apply one final coat of polyurethane to protect the finish.