Coffee tables are magnets for clutter. Traditional living room litter -- magazines and beer cans -- have now been joined by a bevy of digital detritus. Mindful of this problem, I built this coffee table as a wedding present for two old friends who live in a small apartment on the outskirts of New York city. Made from salvaged Douglas Fir, it features a wide laminated top and a slatted shelf for stashing those everyday artifacts. The top, slats, and legs all push and pull past one another, creating an understated visual rhythm equally at home in a modern or traditional room.
Simple lap joinery and pegged-screw connections make this a relatively straightforward, intermediate-level project. It took about 30 hours and cost $25, primarily in sandpaper, finish, and brushes. Prime old-growth salvage lumber like this usually goes for about $1-2 a linear foot if you have to buy it.
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You will need these tools:
- Table saw
- Circular saw
- Drill/driver with countersink bit
- Thickness planer
- Chop saw
- Orbital sander
- Block plane
- Putty knife
- Disposable putty knife
- Sanding block
- 6 36" bar clamps
You will need these materials:
- At least 25 linear feet of 2x10 Douglas Fir, old-growth pine, or similar
- Wood glue
- 80, 100, and 120 grit sandpaper
- 3/8" plugs or 3/8" dowel cut into 3/4" chunks
- Handful of 1-1/4" #8 drywall screws
- Handful of 2" #8 drywall screws
- Clear brushing lacquer (or polyurethane)
- Latex gloves
Step 1: Laminating
I found these 2x10s in the basement of an old building. Some had suffered some water damage; others had soaked up some heating oil. That said, all in all, they were pretty straight, having been stored flat.
Cut the 2x10s into 5 5'-long blanks with a circular saw. Thoroughly inspect for nails, screws, or staples and remove. Rip the edges off of four boards on the table saw. Lacking a jointer, I cut 1/2" off of one side; flipped the clean side against the fence and cut off a 1/4"; then flipped and cut off another 1/4" twice more, until the board had lost a total of 1-1/4" in width. The flipping and alternating cuts is a quick-and-dirty way to clean up and straighten edges.
Cut the fourth and fifth 2x10s into 1-1/2" strips entirely.
Feed the 8"-wide boards through the thickness planer until both sides are clean and smooth.
Set the three wide boards up on cauls on a workbench or other flat surface. Puzzle the boards together until the gaps seem to fit tightly. Alternate the end grain so that it shows smile-frown-smile. This will keep movement to a minimum over time. Coat running seams with a thin, even layer of wood glue, push together, and clamp. Alternate clamps over and under the boards to prevent bowing.
Once glue has cured, set up a straightedge and trim the wild ends off. This table ended up being 24" x 48".
Step 2: Epoxy-ing
Use a block plane and an orbital sander with 80-grit sandpaper to smooth out any mismatches in the lamination and level the surface. Follow up with a pass with 100-grit.
While Doug Fir is a harder softwood, generally speaking, it is still soft and often very full of knots. Since this was salvage, this was compounded by nail holes and other damage. I used a (relatively) inexpensive epoxy called PC Clear that is a simple 50-50 resin/hardener mix to fill knots and nail holes. Use a bit of painters tape underneath if the hole runs through the depth of the table top, then fill gradually in layers to ensure there are no air gaps inside the depth of the hole. Always wear gloves and use in a well-ventilated area. I found plastic silverware or disposable plastic putty knives worked well for mixing and applying the epoxy.
For the first time, I used a wood hardener on this project. I've read mixed things online, but am really pleased with how it worked. Basically a very dilute resin, the hardener brushes on thin, penetrates, and cures into the wood grain for a tighter, dent-resistant finish. Often old-growth wood, especially heart pine, is so hard that this step is unnecessary.
Step 3: Legs & Lap Joints
The leg frames are 17" tall and 20" wide, made out of 1-1/2" strips. Each has five pieces: a top and bottom bar, two uprights, and a crossbar. The top and bottom bar are beveled at 5 degrees to make the leg frames cant outwards.
Using a stop and a chop saw, cut four top/bottom bars at 20" long. Bevel them at 5 degrees on one side on the table saw, taking off as little material as possible. Cut four 17" uprights, mitered in parallel at 5 degrees. Cut two crossbars at 17". Bevel one side at 5 degrees, taking off as little material as possible.
Use the table saw and a crosscut sled or miter gauge to cut lap joints at the end of each upright and top and bottom crossbar. Test your blade height on a piece of scrap first before committing to cutting the final pieces. The laps should be 1-1/2" wide by 3/4" deep. I didn't have a dado set up so I just ran the joints over the blade a bunch of times and knocked out the waste with a chisel.
Step 4: Assembling Leg Frames
Lap joints are a fairly strong construction, with lots of surfaces for glue interaction. They are also neatly self-registering, making square assembly easy. You could probably get away with just gluing and clamping the corners of the leg frames, no problem, but I went ahead and screwed and glued each.
Lay out each screw for a neat appearance and countersink with a 3/8" Forstner bit. Pre-drill with a 1/8" pilot bit, then apply glue to all mating surfaces and join with 1-1/4" drywall screws.
Once the outside frame is assembled, add the crossbar 8" down from the top of the leg frames, with the beveled edge facing up, parallel to the top and bottom bars. Use two 1-1/2" screws and some glue to secure it through the end grain. This is not the strongest connection, but the addition of the slatted shelf will reinforce that.
Plug the joints with pre-made plugs or chunks of dowel. Sand everything thoroughly with 100 and 120 grit sandpaper and an orbital sander. Take care to ease the edges with a sanding block or folded chunk of sandpaper to take off any splinters.
Step 5: Dado-ing
To secure the leg frames in place, two dadoes are required. Setting the legs into dadoes isn't strictly required, but it adds an enormous amount of strength.
Measure 10" in from each end on each edge of the table and make a mark. Connect them across the table. Place the leg frame on the line, canted outwards, and trace the other side to get the width of the dado.
Set the blade of a circular saw at a five degree bevel. Clamp down a straightedge offset from your cut line the width of the base plate of the saw (in my case, and with most circular saws, this is about 1-1/2"). Make a series of parallel cuts in between the lines. Knock out the waste with a chisel.
Make a centerline mark on the dado and the leg frame. Rock them gently into place with some glue and secure with screws. Plug screw holes and sand smooth.
Step 6: Finishing
Turn the table upside down. Using a spring clamp to hold them in place, evenly space out and attach the slats with screws and glue to the crossbars in the leg frames. I used a total of five, but you could use more or less depending on what material you had available. The outside two slats I secured through both the bottom and the side, securing them to the upright and the crossbar. This helps lock the crossbar into place and prevent longitudinal twisting. The slats serve both as a shelf and a brace that keeps the legs from spreading outwards as force is applied to the table top.
Plug the screw holes and sand again, working up to 120 grit. I finished it with 3 coats of high-build brushing lacquer, a 400-grit polish, and a coat of high-quality furniture wax.
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