My mother has worked in early childhood education almost all of her life, and currently is a Reading Specialist at the elementary school I attended as a kid, working out of a room connected to their library. A while back, the library decided to update their database and move to an electronic system, making the Dewey Decimal card catalog method that many of us grew up with obsolete. She was keen enough to snag one of their well-used old card catalog racks that was being discarded during their renovation, thinking that her budding maker son might some day have use for it. Years later, as an aspiring woodworker, it is time for me to make good on that thought, and craft a one-of-a-kind work of reclaimed furniture centered around this piece from my alma mater.
Seeing that this is a unit made up of five drawers, I naturally gravitated toward the thought of turning this into some sort of table, and its dimensions (33" x 17") make it tailor suited for a coffee table build. Seeing that this is a piece of reclaimed wood - and in a way, a piece of my childhood - I wanted to integrate reclaimed lumber in the rest of the design. As such, every component of this table is made with reclaimed or scrap materials, and I'm thrilled with how it came out. As always, I'd love to hear any questions, thoughts, and suggestions in the message board section at the bottom, and please take a moment to vote for my project in the Reclaimed Contest and Furniture Contest at the top of this page when you're done taking a look! And to see more of my work in my journey toward becoming a woodworker, give me a follow on instagram at @sexywithpowertools
Here are the materials and tools that I used on this project:
Table Saw (w/Crosscut Sled and tapering jig)
Orbital Sander & Sand Paper
Beadlock Joinery Jig
Clamps (parallel, bar and F-style)
Drill & Bits
Painter's Tape and Double-Sided Tape
Old Library Card Catalog Rack
General Finishes Arm-R-Seal Semi Gloss
West Systems Epoxy Resin (105) and Hardener (205)
3/8" Dowel Plugs
Safety Gear (goggles, respirator, hearing protection)
Latex Gloves and Shop Towels
Old T-Shirt Fabric (for applying finish)
Ketchup (I know... keep reading...)
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Step 1: Selecting and Milling the Lumber
A few months ago, a neighbor of mine offered up to me a couple of pallets that he's had sitting in his garage for many years. Naturally I was hesitant to take them, as (like many of you) I have enough pallet wood of my own piled in my garage... but what he had was something special. Most pallets are built with heat treated pine, and aside from some cosmetic effects almost all of these are the same. (Note: please take a look at my Pallet Bible instructable for more information on finding, inspecting, and building with pallet wood.) These pallets, however, were made with a different sort of hardwood that I had never seen in others. I took a block plane to one of these boards to get an idea of what laid beneath the gritty, stained surface and was shocked at the unique grain patterns and characteristics of the wood. I kindly accepted the two pallets and stored them neatly in my garage until this project came along.
I'm still unsure of the exact species of wood these pallets are made out of. I've done some research, and asked wood working friends, online communities and my local hardwood lumber shop, and have gotten a wide range of possible species. The most common suggestion is mahogany, while others felt confident about jatoba, blackwood or some uncommon form of oak. These pallets don't have any stamps on them which means they are likely decades old, so I wouldn't be surprised if they are one of these species of non-domestic hardwoods that were suggested to me. The issue in identification here is a wide variation in characteristics from board to board, and some of them have several dark black streaks in them. These are caused by a phenolic reaction in the lumber due to how the tannins in the wood interact with the iron oxide deposited by the hardware (nails and brackets) used to assemble the pallets. This results in some striking characteristics that combine with wild gain patterns to produce truly unique pieces of lumber.
Anyway, my ramblings about wood identification aside, it was time to get to work. I used a combination of a pry bar, mallet and a sawzall to separate the pallet boards from the stringers, and proceeded to remove any and all metal from these pieces. Since I will be using both the boards and stringers for this project and will need to mill these to size with a jointer and planer, I cant take the chance of any small nails or metal shards ripping up my cutting heads. A cheap handheld metal detector can do the trick in assuring that there is no hidden metal somewhere in this lumber.
A jointer is one crucial piece of machinery not present in my shop, so I went over to a friend's shop to begin the milling process. I used his early 1940's jointer from the American Woodworking Machine Company to flatten one face and one edge of each board and stringer before returning to my shop. I used my planer to mill all of the boards to 3/4" thick, and my stringers (I only ended up needing one for the table legs) to 2 1/2" square. I then used my table saw to rip these boards and legs to final dimension (11 3/4" long for the legs, 33" long for the boards).
Step 2: Assembling the Table Top
With the top boards milled to size, it's time to join them together. I was recently working at a buddy's garage shop discussing joinery, and he recommended that I check out the Beadlock joinery jig for simple joinery tasks, such as this table top. There are tons of ways to join these pieces together: mortise and tenon, dowels, biscuit joiner, pocket screws, and on and on. Mortise and tenon is the most structurally sound method, and combines the strength of dowels with the ease of alignment you get with biscuits. Cutting these by hand however is a difficult task that requires great skill and patience, and machines that cut mortise and tenon style joinery (like the Festool Domino) can be prohibitively expensive for the amateur woodworker.
The Beadlock system is inexpensive, provides easily reproducible joints and is very quick to work with. All you need is a drill, some of the tenon stock that comes with the jig and wood glue, and you're all set with perfect joints in your boards. I picked up a 3/8" Beadlock kit for about $40 and couldn't be happier. After marking my joint points on the surface of the boards with a straight edge, I drilled the mortise holes using the jig, cut some of the 3/8" tenon stock to length (I went 3/4" deep into each edge of the boards for my mortises), rounded over the edges of these tenons to help them slide into their mortises more easily, applied some wood glue and clamped these in place. When doing a glue up with multiple boards laying flat, I recommend using some clamps on the face of the boards to ensure that there is no bowing during the gluing process.
After the glue dried, I used a card scraper to remove the excess squeeze out, and did a rough sanding with 80 grit on my orbital sander. I intentionally cut these boards to length with the plan of having the old nail holes from the pallet present in my table top, as I think this adds to the reclaimed wood aesthetic. I decided to use epoxy to fill in these holes, and will be employing a two-part West Systems epoxy resin and hardener - my go-to for any sort of hole/crack/void filling in lumber.
Since the nail holes go all of the way through the boards, I need to close up the bottom of the holes to prevent the epoxy from running out of the bottom. Standard blue painters' tape is perfect for this, as long as you apply a good amount of pressure when laying the tape to ensure that you get a strong seal. You'll also want to clean out these nail holes, removing any dust, chips or loose wood before filling. After addressing the holes, I mixed together the two part epoxy, making sure to stir the mixture thoroughly. I apply this epoxy in a variety of ways in my projects depending on the type of void I'm looking to fill. In this case, I'll use a small craft syringe to inject the epoxy into the holes from the bottom up. This will help to eject most of the air out of the hole and assist in lessening any internal bubbles you might encounter.
Nevertheless, you will invariably have some small bubbles in your epoxy after filling these holes, and there are a few ways to get rid of these. Firstly, always make sure to generously overfill your epoxy pours - bubbles will rise to the top, and if they harden before you can eliminate them, you'll be planing or sanding these off anyway. Secondly, give your work surface some good whacks with your fist after you've filled these - this will help agitate some hidden bubbles to the surface. Lastly, have a flame source on hand when doing epoxy work. I use a small propane torch, but a torch lighter or even a BBQ lighter will do the trick. Lightly and briefly pass the flame over your epoxy fills, making sure not to apply enough heat to cure the epoxy - you'll see the bubbles quickly pop away. Let your epoxy cure for about a day and it will be hard to the touch. Use either a sander or plane to scrape off the excess until it is flush with the surface of your wood. You may come across a small bubble hidden in the hardened epoxy (as I did in the picture above), and you can just blow out any dust in there and reapply a little more epoxy to fill it in. With the table top assembled, we'll move on to some other steps and readdress this piece of the build when it's time to apply a finish.
Step 3: Designing and Manufacturing the Legs
I wanted to build my table legs out of the same reclaimed material as my table top, so I used the thicker pallet stringers for this stock. After milling them to 2.5" sq x 11 3/4", I knew that I wanted to design the legs to be a little more interesting than a plain rectangle. I decided to taper the bottom 2/3 of the legs by a few degrees, to at least make them sleeker and lead the eye up from the floor to the table body. There are a few different ways to cut these at an angle, and you could use just about any saw to accomplish this. The safest and most accurate way to accomplish a slight angle on these legs is by using a taper jig on a table saw, which allows you to securely hold the leg in place while creating an easily reproducible cut every time.
There are a ton of taper jig designs and guides out there, including some really nice ones on youtube. After doing a little research, I decided on going with a triangular adjustable jig design that you'll see around online, which will suit my purposes nicely. I wont go in to building this jig, as you can find a detailed guide for one of these in several other places. I decided that I wanted my legs to have their taper begin 7" from the foot of the leg, and transition from a 2.5" square shape to 1.5" square at the feet. After drawing this out on one side of one leg and lining this mark up with a straight edge on my table saw, I aligned the taper jig to this angle (it measured out to be approx. 5° of slope) and tightened down the bolts. I can now accurately repeat this cut a total of 16 times for all four sides of all the table legs, using a GRR-Ripper push block to safely hold the legs in position during cutting.
With the legs now cut, I wanted to go about epoxying the nail holes for these legs the same way that I did for the table top in the last step. The only difference here is that the holes do not go all the way through the pieces, but instead have holes on opposite sides that end in the middle of the legs, meaning that I have to fill and let them harden twice instead of once. Once all of the holes were filled, I used my table top belt sander to very quickly clean up the excess epoxy and rough sand all of my legs, cleaning up the lines from the tapering cuts as well.
With this done, I still felt like the legs could use some more design improvements - they just didn't jump out to me. Since doing any decorative carving is outside of my skill set at the moment, I opted to use a bit on my router table to inlay some groves into the face of my legs, while being careful not to cut anything that would interfere with my plan of using dowels to join the legs to the table body. I set up a 1" round bit on my router table to cut this groove, and raised the bit to 3/8". I offset the fence on my router table to place this bit directly in the middle of the face of my legs, and proceeded to route out the groove on all four faces of all the legs.
If I didn't have a design that stood out before, I sure do now. This groove works very nicely with the taper in the legs, as the groove slowly fades away the further down the leg you look. The last step on the legs is to drill the dowel holes for joinery. To do this, I wanted to create a jig that I could use on all four legs and the table base to ensure that all of the dowel pins would match up properly during the final assembly. I cut a 2 1/2 inch square piece of 3/4" ply that fits perfectly on the top of the table legs, and marked off a square on this piece 5/8" from each edge. The intersection of these lines is where I'll drill my holes, which gives adequate clearance from the grooves on the legs. I used a punch to mark these hole positions and drilled out 5/16" holes in the jig to accommodate the dowel pins I'll be using.
In case of any slight error in hole alignment, I marked each face of the jig with a T or L (to make sure that the jig is properly positioned on either the table or leg tops) and noted which two edges of the jig will be on the outside facing corners. With some double sided tape, I attached the jig to the legs and drilled out all of the dowel holes, using some blue painter's tape on my drill bit to ensure the proper hole depth. The legs are now done and ready for finishing.
Step 4: Building Drawers
Now on to the drawers. The original drawers had a wooden faceplate with some brass hardware, attached to a plastic base suited for storing old library catalog book cards. I definitely wanted to upgrade these and get rid of the cheap plastic, so I decided to use the last couple pallet boards (specifically the ones that didn't pass the cut to be table top boards) to manufacture new drawer bodies. Since the slots for these drawers are very specifically built into the table base, I'll have to be precise in my construction of these to ensure a good fit.
I removed the drawer faces and set aside all of the brass hardware - I'll come back to these later in the guide. It was at this point that I made the decision of whether or not to refinish the body of the table, aka the card catalog. The exterior of this piece is made of oak, with a cheaper softwood on the interior. The color of this oak and its finish doesn't exactly gel with what the finished color of my table top and legs will be. I took one of my drawer faces and gave a light hand sanding to the edge of the piece, to see if I could get an idea of what the unfinished color is. Unfortunately, the oak has a natural color similar to what it looks like finished, and this old finish is likely a shellac that doesn't add much color to the wood. So my options are to leave it finished as it currently is, or strip the old finish and use a darker stain on it. I chose the former option, and will leave the base looking like it has for the last several decades.
I milled the lumber for the drawer interior just to make it flat, not worrying about dimensions at this point. I then ripped a series of 3/8" thick and 2 1/2" wide strips to use for the drawer borders. The side strips will be 16 1/4" long and the back plate will be 5 5/8" long. A crosscut sled on a table saw is ideal for this, as you can set up a stop block to get repeatable cuts every time, and are assured of having perfect 90° cuts. I HIGHLY recommend building your own crosscut sled if you haven't before - it was a game changer for me and there are a multitude of guides online for designing your own. I now set to cutting the drawer bottoms out of some pieces of scrap 1/4" ply I had in my lumber cart. Now it's time to sand... then do some more sanding... then, well, you get the idea. I sanded all of these by hand rather than on my belt sander to ensure that I didn't remove too much material.
When the drawers were ready for assembly, I gathered all of my materials together. I'll be using a combination of wood glue and my handy new electric brad nailer (I got tired of having to fire up my air compressor every time I needed to drive a few nails...) to assemble these boards, as the pieces simply are too thin for any dowel joinery and I don't have enough confidence in my dovetail joinery yet to get into building five drawers worth of them... I applied a liberal amount of glue on one of the side boards, used another board to prop the bottom up while I placed the first side piece, assured a 90° angle with a carpenter's square, and drove in a few brad nails to hold it together while the glue dries. Then I attached the second side piece in the same manner, and followed this up with the back plate. I cleaned off as much glue as I could, and then rinsed and repeated four more times.
The dilemma here now is how to attach the face plate, as I didn't want want to cut or nail into the face of the drawers. I opted to test a simple glued butt joint for this piece, and will discuss that in a minute. Since the part of the boards I am attaching the face plate to are all end grain, I need to get as much glue in this joint as possible. After lining it up, I used a parallel clamp to tighten this securely and left these all to dry over night. After taking them out of the clamps the next day, I performed a couple of stress tests since this is a weak joint, assuming that if the faces came off with much pressure, I could simply come up with another method without losing anything. However, I was surprised at the strength of this joint, and couldn't remove the face plate - even with considerable pressure. I sanded all of the drawer bodies (not the face plate of course) to round the corners and improve the sliding function of the drawers (I'll be adding some paste wax on the bottoms of these drawers to help them slide). After a quick test fit, they all slid easily and snugly into the drawer slots in the base!
The last step in the drawer builds is to clean up the original hardware, and restore them to their former shiny state. These drawer pulls have some nice decade-worn petina on them that I don't want to eliminate entirely, but I want to remove some of the surface staining and brighten them up. Store-bought brass cleaners will touch them up more than what I'm looking for, so I decided to use a more natural solution. I had heard of tomato acids being used to clean brass, so I took a tupperware container and filled it with the drawer hardware and a good dressing of ketchup from my fridge. After about 45 minutes of soaking, I removed the pulls and scrubbed them under warm water with a dishcloth. This did a great job of removing all of the grime while keeping the aged nature of the brass intact.
Step 5: Finish Prep & Applying the Finish
My motto in woodworking has always been: "I love woodworking, I hate sanding." While this has become less annoying and time-intensive as I've gotten more efficient in the sanding and finish prep process, it still takes a good deal of time to sand down all of the surfaces to make them ready for finish. The table top, drawers and legs all need thorough sanding with increasing grits of sandpaper, and I use my random orbit sander for most of this work.
All of these pieces were rough sanded with 80 or 100 grit at one time or another up to this point, typically after milling them on the planer or while cleaning up the epoxy. I proceeded to sand them down to a finer surface, starting with 120 grit, then 150, then 180. This will give a very smooth surface free of most imperfections, and I use some sheets of 220 to finish these up by hand. The finish process is very tactile and really all about feel, so I recommend using your free hand while sanding to feel out the piece and go back over any rough spots or raised grain you may encounter.
With all of these sanded down, I will be moving inside to apply the clear coat. It's too cold in New England at this time of year to allow the finish to properly cure outside, and doing this process away from my garage shop will give me a better chance of avoiding any dust or sanding debris from settling on the pieces while the finish dries. Obviously, most finishes you will encounter have fumes that you don't want to leave yourself exposed to, so a respirator is a must and do you best to work in a setting with good ventilation. .
When using any sort of wipe-on varnish or finish, I prefer to use old t-shirt fabric cut into rectangles. Rags that you buy at the store typically have issues with small pieces of lint, and brushes or sponges can leave lines in your surface that you have to be very cautious about. Some old t-shirt fabric is perfect for this task, and I fold over the edges of these to create thick pads that can absorb a good amount of the finish. Now, there are a multitude of finishing strategies, and the type of wood and finish you're working with can alter this process drastically. My preferred finish is General Finishes Arm-R-Seal semi-gloss wipe on varnish - I find it very easy to work with and always get good results. Although I'll go through the steps that I take through the finishing process, I want to point you to the place where I formed my base finishing strategy. Matt Cremona is one of my woodworking idols, and he has a great youtube video about working with wipe on varnishes, so check it out for some valuable tips and detailed instruction.
I begin by wiping down the surfaces of all of my pieces with a rag soaked in mineral spirits. This is a great way to remove all of the sanding dust that you have on your pieces, and cleans the surfaces up for the finish. Your first coat of varnish is going to be soaked in by the wood at a rapid pace, as the wood is very thirsty in this step. Use a rag to apply a generous amount of finish on the surface, rubbing it in and going back over any spots that look as though they've soaked in more finish than others. Note: for a piece such as a table top where you will be finishing both sides, always apply finish on the "less important" side first (aka the bottom of a table, the back side of a panel, etc). If you're using painters pyramids like I am, they can leave tiny marks on the side that is resting on top of them, so you want to apply the coat on your primary side last.
With the finish on the wood, I like to take the rag and wipe very gently along the grain in straight, overlapping patterns across the entire length of the table. This removes any patterns in the wood finish and ensures a good even coat. This finish will need several hours to dry (see your finish can for instructions), so hopefully you have some other projects to work on in the mean time... When you come back to a fully dry and non-tacky surface, it's time for some more sanding. With 400-600 grit sand paper, you'll want to sand over the surfaces of your finish very lightly, just enough to smooth out any nibs or imperfections in your surface. I recommend going with the grain of the wood to avoid any swirl marks.
Now you'll want to repeat the above steps several more times. A little mineral spirits to clean up the sanding dust, a much lighter coat of finish (it's all about building up a finish slowly over several coats), let it dry and sand lightly to remove the imperfections. I put a total of four coats on my table top, two on the legs and a single coat on my drawers. When you're finished, you should have a beautifully smooth surface free of any bumps or nibs. If you encounter any, use a sheet of 1000 grit sand paper to finish them off. It's time for me to move on to the assembly, but remember that if you aren't happy at this point with your finish, you can always sand it down and start over.
Step 6: Assembly, Finishing Touches, and Final Thoughts
Back in my shop, it's time to put everything together. I initially decided that I wanted some sort of border on this table to hide the seam between the table top and table base, and wanted to go with metal instead of wood. I'm no welder, so I took my plans to a local welding shop to see if they could assemble a quick border for me. They wanted $150 for the job, which is out of my price range for only a decorate element on this table... I'm happy with how the table looks without a border, but I may come back to this at a later date, once I get my flux core welding chops up to snuff.
Now, on to the legs. Everything should fit together perfectly assuming that the holes were drilled properly (spoiler alert: they were!), so slab on some wood glue, place the dowel pins in their holes, and clamp everything down for an hour or so to dry. Since it will be hard to clean up dried glue on the leg/table seams, I was careful to remove as much wet glue as I could with damp shop towels.
The table top has a few more factors to consider. The most important one here is wood movement. Even old woods expand and contract over the course of the changing seasons, and not taking this into consideration can cause your woodworking projects to crack and be ruined. As such, I don't want to use wood glue that will restrict the movement of the wood in all directions. The option here is to use figure-8 fasteners, which will hold my table top in place while still allowing for wood movement. I used a 5/8" forstner bit to recess holes in the top of my table base and attached two figure-8s there, using a mallet to pound them into place and a screw to attach them. This method is especially easy since I have access to the bottom of the table top through the base, so I inset the rest of the screws there and the table top is safely joined.
Lastly, I re-attached the brass drawer pulls and inserted the drawers.
Before moving the table back inside, I gave a last light sanding with 1000 grit sandpaper, and wiped everything down with a very thin amount of mineral spirits just to clean up any standing dust on the piece. I can tell you that a patiently, well-finished table top is just about the smoothest thing you can imagine. The table is now done, and in its new home.
This project was a ton of fun and allowed me to re-purpose a piece from my elementary school into a table that I can hang on to for years to come. This build incorporated a few different types of joinery, was my first chance to get to mill lumber in my garage, and forced me to come up with some creative design concepts to bring the final product to life.
Thanks for reading, and again I welcome all questions/thoughts/suggestions in the comments section below. I would also greatly appreciate your vote in the Reclaimed Contest and Furniture Contest in the box at the top of this page. Happy woodworking!