Packable Shadow Table to Survive UPS




About: Engineer by trade, amateur woodworker and author in the off-hours. Most commonly, I build flag boxes for retiring military members and occasionally gifts and furniture when the opportunities arise. Outside o...

Although I build plenty of pieces for local neighbors, every so often I get requests to build larger projects for people around the country. Now this in itself doesn’t cause me concern, but from experience, every mile a piece needs to be shipped increases the likelihood it sustains damage along the way. Not only that, shipping companies charge for volume as well as weight. Together this means you will pay an exorbitant amount to ship a piece (table, chair, etc.) only to have it not survive the journey. You’ll also pay to send mostly dead space in the middle of the unit; also not recommended.

My solution was to design a table which could be assembled on the far end by a moderately capable buyer. This meant needing nothing more than a drill and/or a hammer to complete. The top, shelves, and long sides would be shipped glued and assembled while the ends would be broken down and packed with the hardware to screw together upon arrival.

I generally build these for military veterans but they're perfect for displaying any type of memento from a special event.

(A few pictures of the one that didn't survive...)

Step 1: Initial Planning

The source for my main shadow table design was a book of Amish furniture. A deeper top is required for displaying objects but the reverse-taper on the legs help keep the piece from feeling too heavy. It requires four 3” square legs attached to skirts at the top and two stretchers on the long sides which are connected to a shelf ~3-4” above the floor. The top is constructed like a picture frame with mitered half-lap joints to hold a glass top in place.

Most of the joints are held fast with screws and/or Dominoes. If you don’t have one, don’t sweat it. Any biscuit jointer or pocket hole system will do; I just find it useful to add strength and keep things aligned.

Step 2: Cutting Parts to Size

My requirement began with a table that was 22x38x24” tall. To that end, I began with 5/4” cherry, which I resawed and planed to around ½” thick for the skirts and stretchers. It’s a little more difficult to find material for the legs. I lucked out and found a length of 12/4x4” cherry that I could use for the legs and nearly match them up side-by-side.

For the tapers, mark out the length of the leg on your blank along with the minimum and maximum dimensions. Mine ended up being 1.5” at the top and 3” at the bottom. Cut each one on a band saw and then mark the side you just opened for the second taper. With both outside surfaces cut and tapered, the insides will be straight and should match perfectly with the skirts and stretchers.

Use some more 5/4 material to cut the lid to size, leaving an extra 4-5” more than what the internal dimensions call for. This allow for the lid to overlap the legs once the table is assembled.

Step 3: Routing and Joinery

You have significant leeway in how you want to tackle the joints for the table. I’ve had very good luck using Festool Dominoes (because I’m lazy and they’re awesome) but a pocket hole jig can do a good job as well if you don’t mind seeing the slots on the inside. Alternatively, you can drive mortises into the legs and carve matching tenons from the ends of the skirts or use capped screws which are drilled from the outside faces.

Since my table needed to be moved, I used two dominoes on the long sides (which I glued ahead of time), with a single domino and two screws on the short side. The domino I glued in place on one side while the screws could be added by the buyer.

Aside from the primary joints, you’ll need a way to hold both the bottom of the shadowbox as well as the lower shelf in place. I added dadoes to the inside of each skirt and stretcher which were sized to fit the plywood I had cut for each one (a little under 1/2”). I also made the upper dadoes a little wider so that they’d fit the suede fabric floor.

Additionally, you’ll need to tackle the corners; you can cut the floor around the legs or vice-versa. I ended up dry-fitting everything and marking the insides of the stretcher dadoes on the legs. From there, I used a hand saw to remove the notches from the corners and cleaned them up with a chisel. I also cut the floor to fit. This method effectively covers all edges of the floor and keeps raw edges of the fabric from showing.

Step 4: Design Changes and Ornamentation

Sometimes buyers request modifications along the way. I’m all about not wasting time and materials but if you can make a change that will make the buyer happy, go for it. I had already cut my legs at 24” when my customer decided they’d rather have the table at 17”; this made it a more manageable size for a coffee table. At 24 it was a beast.

The easiest way I could do this was by cutting the top 5” away from the legs (right to the bottom of the original notches), and taking the remainder from the dead space below the lower shelf. Cons: lost 7” of leg length, 1/8 or so of width, had to re-cut dominoes/notches. Pros: happy client… in the end it was an easy modification to make.

Additionally, I attached flag triangles and a coin rack to the inside of the box. The flag holders are 16” long, >2.5” tall and are seated in the upper corners to contain a folded, 3x5’ flag. Since the sides were getting kind of thin, I decided to pre-drill holes in the floor and attach them with screws from the bottom. I like using a large edge-trimming bit on the outside of the triangles and reduce it to a smaller profile for the inside so that it doesn’t get in the way of the flag.

The coin rack followed the same design style. Cut a thicker piece of matching material to fit between the triangles and route the front edge with a similar profile. Use a dado blade or several passes on a table saw to cut 1-3 notches 1/4” thick at 30-45 degrees. For a normal desktop coin holder a shallow pitch is fine but since these will be viewed from above, a steeper angle is more appropriate.

The front skirt also displays a specialty badge. I won't go into the detail of how to pull off a pyrograph here, but I've got a few other examples in my profile.

Step 5: The Lid

The top of the table is similar to a mitered picture frame with the glass completely enclosed. To build ours, start with a board at least 1” thick. The corner joints will be half-lap mitered joints with a dado on the miter side to hold the glass.

To cut the joints, begin with a 45 degree miter on one side of each of the four pieces. Mark the middle of the edge and use a dado blade to cut back the bottom side at 90 degrees. This will leave you with a mitered tab ½” thick that will rest on top of the facing side.

On the other side, you only be able to cut through the top half of the miter. You can do this with a table saw if you’ve got a long enough miter gauge, but I’ve found it easier to set a depth stop on a miter saw and cut it with a series of slices. Get as close as possible with the saw and use a file or small plane to go the rest of the way. Test fit the pieces until the tops are uniform around the entire length and the entire piece lays flat.

Continue by using a table saw with a dado blade to cut a slot on the mitered, interior face of each piece to hold the glass. A depth of ½ is sufficient for most tables although I went with ¾ since it’s a little on the large side.

Pre-drill and install some small screws in each corner so that they don’t impact the glass nor the routed edges. I advise against gluing these so that the owner can replace the glass should disaster strike. Find a local glass shop and order a piece that fits the internal dimension of the frame plus the slots on both sides. Mine ended up being 22.5x38.5” and cost ~$60.

Step 6: Test Fitting

At this point, you can assemble everything and make sure the parts are square and fit together. Confirm that the top frame is large enough for the glass and trim it if required. Check the fit of the lower shelf within its dado track and add a cap to the short sides if you wish to hide the plywood layers.

I used small, saddle, non-mortise hinges along the top of the stretchers which push the fulcrum out past the edges of the legs and allow the table top to sit vertical

You can also pre-drill and insert the screws however I don’t want to risk stripping the holes by assembling/disassembling the table too many times.

Step 7: Staining and Finishing

Once things can be assembled and square, move on to sanding, staining and finishing. I went with a black cherry stain that pulls the cherry nearly down to burgundy. Brush it on and wipe away the excess. For the top coat, use a traditional polyurethane for the added protection (vs lacquer or shellac). Spray on each coat and let it dry for a few hours.

For the fabric floor, I use blue suede: It's a little on the thick side which improves the look instead of using normal fabric. Cut out an oversize piece on a large flat surface and use 3M permanent spray adhesive to coat the wood panel. Let it dry for ~30 seconds until it becomes tacky and stamp it down on the suede. Being very careful, smooth the creases out.

...the timing here is critical. The glue cannot be too thick as it will then seep through the fabric and you will wipe away the suede fuzz when you flatten it out. This leaves a black splotch and you'll have to try again. Try to keep the coating even and let the glue dry enough to set up and become tacky. This keeps it from making a mess.

Step 8: Final Steps and Shipping!

And that's it! Take plenty of pictures along the way and make sure your customer is able to follow along and put it back together on the far end.

...yes, I know I have screws showing but there's no way I'm test fitting the matching caps at the risk of prying them back off.

Best of luck in your table-building adventures and may UPS be kind.

Step 9:



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    8 Discussions


    2 years ago

    About how much in total does this cost to make ? I am a veteran and I would love to make one of these ! Very nice work !

    1 reply

    Reply 2 years ago

    With a real quick look at the parts list, it comes in ~$250 but that depends on the cost of the cherry; I got mine rough cut for ~$7.50/bf.

    5/4 cherry (top frame, skirts, stretchers): $50
    12/4 cherry (legs): $40
    1/2" birch plywood (2 shelves): $20
    1/4" glass top: $60
    from local glass shop
    hinges: $10 from Lee Valley/Veritas
    Suede Fabric: 1-2 yards, $10, "Suede 5860" from
    Consumables (stain, poly, screws, caps, glue): $40

    Good luck! If you have any other questions, please let me know. -M


    2 years ago

    great table love the craftsmanship in it!


    2 years ago

    That's AWESOME! Good job :)