The Ultimate Coffee Table




Introduction: The Ultimate Coffee Table

The coffee table often resides in the center of our homes where we relax and read. These aspects influenced my design process of the table. The design incorporates a tray into the table top to display and store magazines. The tray was fabricated to allow the magazines or books to slightly rise above the plane of the table top. This allows a person to easily grab one for reading.

Here, I want to share a table I designed and built that is quite useful and attractive. I hope this will inspire you to make something similar.

This was the first piece of furniture I ever built and enjoyed the process. I completed this project while in design school when I had access to lots of machinery and a full wood shop. I don't have many of the tools you really needed to build this now, hence why it would be great to win!

I will explain how I built this table with the tools I had at the time but also give optional fabrication techniques / alternate materials that may be more readily available to you; for instance making the tray for the magazines out of wood instead of plastic.

Step 1: Design Process

I am a strong believer in exploring all options. I know this is on here for you to follow the steps as one defines them, but I assume you are like me if you read the instructables website. That is, you enjoy solving problems, blazing new trails and are a bit creative. So I am a believer in planning your design and pondering what you are going to do before you do it. I know you will end up in a far better position than if you just jump right in.

Below I have included some of my original sketches and ideas which lead up to this table. Feel free to use one of these ideas or let them inspire some new ones. Either way, you can follow the steps I have to build this table.

Step 2: Orthographic & Materials List

The picture below is a diagram of the table with measurements. I would like to briefly mention some information on purchasing your materials.

Purchasing Lumber
To make your fine furniture you want to use hardwood. When one refers to hardwood they are talking about wood that is harvested from deciduous trees (ex: maple, oak, walnut, etc.) When purchasing raw hardwood you we will be purchasing it by theboard foot.The example below is how to figure out board feet.

1 Board Foot: a measurement equal to 1 foot long, 1 foot wide and 1 inch thick or 144 cubic inches. For example, 1 board foot could also be equal to a piece of wood 10inches long, 8 inches wide and 1 3/4" thick which is also 144" cubic inches.

As you figure out how much board feet you need you will also be deciding how you will extract your pieces/parts from the lumber. For example, the legs of the table are 3x 3. The cherry boards I bought were only 2.5 inches thick. Since you must estimate for waste in the process of dressingthe lumber, be prepared to have extra material.

As I mentioned, the cherry boards where 2.5inches thick. So I estimated to have 2inches in usable thickness after preparing the lumber, therefore I will need another 1inch thick board in order to get my 3x 3leg. And this would be necessary for each leg. This would amount to 6 pieces from the rough lumber at 2.5inches thick.

The overall table is 20inches wide by 36inches long and stands 20inches tall. The table top is made of Quilted Maple and the under carriage is made of fine Vermont Cherry. I must say the wood I bought for this was as good as you can buy. And I definitely paid a high price for it. I over bought in both types of wood because I wanted to have enough wood and possibly build two matching side tables. I bought a 12 foot long board of the maple that was 22inches wide and paid $112. The cherry was very costly (but the finest you can get). I bought 2 boards that were 10 foot long, 10inches wide and 2.5inches thick and paid about $360 or so, but the natural beauty of the wood shows.

Material List:
Quilted Maple - Quarter sawn
Vermont Cherry - fine (very few to no knots) - Quarter sawn
Plastic - 1 sheet of Spectar- a copolymer plastic (more elastic and stronger than acrylic) for magazine tray
MDF - for mold
Bondo - for mold
Wood glue
4 wood table top anchors
4 small wood screws
1 can of natural oil polish & rags

Tools: - most steps were not done with power hand tools but machinery in a wood workshop.
Band saw
Radial arm saw
Table saw
Vacuum former
Mortise machine
Milling machine (could use router)
Clamps - large 4 foot clamps & smaller ones
Orbital sander
Heat gun
Safety glasses
Sandpaper (Lots of it!)

Step 3: Step 1: Cut Your Wood Up

After you decide how much wood you need and purchase the raw lumber you will prepare the wood by dressingthe lumber. You are taking your rough lumber and machining it into smooth lumber ready for working.

First, cut all of your large lumber into the general size you need for each piece of lumber, leaving extra for waste that will occur from cutting or planing and jointing your lumber.
For example, I cut the legs into 2.5" x 2.5"x 22"; remember, you will be adding another board later to get your 3 inch thickness (final size of legs: 3" x 3" x 20"). Do this for all your other pieces as well.

Step 4: Step 2: Dressing Your Rough Lumber

Then you will take all your pieces of rough lumber to the jointer. During the process of jointing the wood you must be very careful. Join each edge piece of lumber (the smallest side). You need the sides to be finished smooth to use the planar.

Once your sides are joined you can put your lumber lengthwise through a planar to dress the face of your boards. Once this is all done you have lumber which is dressed smooth on all sides and faces.

Step 5: Step 3: Glue Up the Legs & Table Top

Now take the pieces your have cut, slightly oversized for your legs, and prepare for a glue up. Make sure all the pieces are planed smooth on all sides. Apply wood glue to each side and clamp. When using clamps alternate their direction (the screw for the clamp for the first will be on the right side of the wood, the next will be on the left, etc.). Also place and tighten the clamps evenly. Slowly tighten all the clamps together to get an even bond. Wipe away any wood glue that may be squeezed out of the joint.

Step 6: Step 4: Cut the Undercarriage Pieces to Size

After everything is glued up and all your pieces have been planed as mentioned in step 2 you can cut your parts out. You are now basically cutting all the parts to their exact measurements, cutting any extra waste material. It is best to wait to do this after glue ups because pieces may shift ever so slightly. Now you can cut them to size and then plane your pieces once more, removing minimal material.

Cut your angles on your legs and the apron on the bandsaw. Mark all your cut lines on your pieces (measure twice and cut once). Then cut them out. On a bandsaw it helps to keep your eye about 1 inch in front of the blade on your cut line as you feed the piece through the blade. You will have a straighter cut this way; looking at the blade causes you to be reactionary and causes more errors, so keep your eye on the cut line.

Once your pieces are cut, sand them with rough sandpaper.

Step 7: Step 5: Mortise All the Undercarriage Pieces

On a mortise machine make all of your cuts for the tenons. Each piece that joins each other must be set up facing the same way in order for the cuts to line up.

Step 8: Step 6: Make Final Angle Cuts on the Undercarriage Pieces

Make all the last cuts on your pieces on the bandsaw. Mark all your lines on your parts and cut them out.

Now you have all your pieces for the undercarriage ready for a dry fit assembly. Take all your aprons, stringers and legs and assemble them to make sure everything lines up and is tight.

Step 9: Step 7: Plane the Table Top

Take your table top and sand it with an orbital sander or send it through a large planar taking off nominal amounts of wood.

Step 10: Step 8: Router the Table Top

I used an unconventional way to router the top for this table... a milling machine. At the time I had more access to this than a router, so i used a wood bit in the machine, (no I don't own a milling machine this was the school's).

I double stick taped the table top on a piece of MDF and mounted it to the bed of the milling machine. Then I routered out the top in small increments to get the right depth of 3/8" for the plastic tray.

Step 11: Step 9: Build Mold for Tray

To build the mold for the tray I took MDF and cut them in increments to build a pyramid shape for the mold. I cut them on the band saw and then stair stepped the pieces. I glued up the pieces to create two halves of the mold (top and bottom).

I made two halves so it would be easier to cut on the band saw. Making this angled cut would be hard and dangerous (making a jig would be another option). Then I drew the profile pattern of the tray on the pieces. I cut out each piece on the bandsaw using this line.

Finally, glue these two pieces together, after set up you want to smooth the piece. Any imperfections will be seen in the plastic tray. I smoothed it with an orbital sander. Apply bondo, and sand smooth following the bondo instructions. Use different colors of bondo to help you see any imperfections or uneven areas. It takes time but is worth it to have a smooth part.

The triangular mold sits on a flat sheet of MDF. Drill small holes every 2 inches or so to allow the vacuum to suck down on the part. A 1/8" drill bit is good, too large of a hole will cause the plastic to create divits as the vacuum will pull it into the hole. The smaller bits allow for suction without imperfections in the plastic.

Step 12: Step 10: Vacuum Form Tray

Prep your mold for forming. This mainly entails covering your mold with vasaline, yes vasaline. It creates a thin layer between the mold and plastic and allows the part to be removed from the mold easily.

Take the mold and place it in the vacuum former and lower the bed. Then you clamp the plastic sheet on the frame (spectar 1/4" thick sheet). Then you heat the plastic. It will take a a few minutes on high, but with this mold being so tall I needed to thoroughly heat it to allow it to properly stretch. Unclamp the plastic and flip it to expose the cooler bottom plastic. Then heat this side to get an even elasticity.

Once it heats, the plastic will drop about 10 to 12 inches, then it is ready to be vacuum formed for this mold. Remove the heaters and pull up the bed with the mold while turning on the vacuum at the same time.

Step 13: Step 11: Make Final Cuts for Plastic Tray

Take the part and wipe it down. Take heavy masking tape or substitute and tape it on the bottom and top of the plastic sheet where you will be making your cuts. Build up a few layers of tape. Using the bandsaw on plastic will sometimes tend to shatter or crack the plastic so you have to be careful and gentle when cutting your plastic. The tape seems to help prevent less chipping or cracking. Mark your lines for the cut using a grease pencil on the tape.

Cut your piece out and sand your edges.

Note: if you have any shallow scratches on your plastic use a small torch to remove them, just quickly move your flame over them and they will disappear.

Step 14: Step 12: Glue Up the Undercarriage

Sand all your pieces and prepare for your glue up. Using an orbital sander and a wide range of grits gets it as smooth as possible.

Step 15: Step 13: Attach the Table Top

I used floating table clips to attach the table top. This will allow the ability for the pieces to move due to the swelling of wood during warmer weather.

Step 16: Step 14: Apply Varnish

Use a tung oil gel varnish to coat your wood. I didn't use any stains because of the woods natural beauty. Hand rub with a rag then remove excess with a dry rag.

Step 17: Step 15: Insert Tray and Enjoy!

After the top is attached, simply place your tray in and a magazine. Enjoy.

This is an excellent design that really is usable. An alternative to using plastic would be making the piece out of wood with a slightly different design. Let me know if you have any questions. Good luck!

Finalist in the
Craftsman Workshop of the Future Contest

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    14 Discussions


    8 months ago

    You must be an Industrial Design student! Looks just like furniture studio. Great work!!
    AU IND ‘03


    11 years ago on Introduction

    At first glance I thought that was a coffee filter hanging under the table! Defiantly would have made the ultimate "coffee" table! Nice work and good luck in the next round. Scott

    M L G
    M L G

    Reply 3 years ago

    Me too, I totally agree with you, lol!;-)

    M L G
    M L G

    3 years ago

    Very cool sketching! I'm just looking quickly on my mobile so haven't looked at all steps as didn't bother signing in properly, but did you build it with the turned bowls in the end, I loved that feature, great for when having friends round and movie nights to put your crisps and snacks in, im assuming that was the original idea behind the sunken domes? I absolutely love the super new retro design, my wife would hate it! Everyone's different I guess! Well done!


    9 years ago on Step 12

    whats the machanism of moveing the mold?


    9 years ago on Step 15

    Great project! I love your species selection, I am a huge fan of domestics. I am wondering about the 'floating table clips,' what are they exactly, could you point to an example on the internet? Thank you for this great instructable, I also love the use of vacuum forming.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Reminds me of my days at RIT
    Love your design - you are great!


    10 years ago on Step 3

    that picture... wood-coloured, but what is it?


    Reply 9 years ago on Step 3

    I can't see enough of the grain, but it's either curly maple or maple burl. Do a google image search for it. It's a gorgeous wood when it's finished right.


    11 years ago on Step 1

    Love the illustrations. Great sketch-ups!


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Very well done. I miss my school's shop. Now all I have to work with is a miter saw and a drill, more or less. I really like the modular design you have sketched out, but it would definitely be more work.