For most beginners, building furniture is what initially draws them to woodworking. Learning how to build a coffee table is a great choice for a beginner, and it’s one important piece of furniture that can really tie a room together. But going from making a small serving tray or napkin holder to making a large coffee table can feel like a big step. It is, in many ways, but practicing with this type of basic piece of furniture can set you on your path to taking on more complex pieces in the future.
Creating a Unique Coffee Table
For this project, you’ll need:
- The best 12-inch miter saw
- Four to five pieces of seasoned wood slabs. The slabs should be around four to five centimeters thick, forty-eight inches long, and eighteen-inches wide.
- Wood glue
- Sandpaper-220, 120, 80
- Finish-polyurethane or tung oil
- Router and table
- Router bit-flat bottom
- Flattening jig
- Circular saw
- Pull saw-fine tooth
- Hand drill
- Orbit sander
- Belt sander
Create a Plan
Having a plan on hand when you’re building furniture is crucial. This table’s design is fairly basic with a shelf, four legs, and a top. However, the legs for this table are not straight up and down, but instead are placed at an angle. Once you have a plan for a table, such as the angle needed for each piece and the other important details, make sure you keep the plan on hand. As the project progresses, you may have to adapt due to unforeseen issues and material constraints. Always take simple notes, writing them directly on the design, as you go along. This plan is for a table that’s eighteen inches high, forty-two inches long, and twenty-four inches wide.
Preparing the Wood
As I mentioned earlier, a coffee table can be one of the best small DIY wood projects for beginners. It’s a fairly straightforward type of woodworking project, and you’ll have some room to get really creative. To start off, the steps to preparing raw wood aren’t much different than what you’ve done in the past for a smaller project. Of course, having to flatten several larger pieces of raw wood manually may have you questioning your choice of hobbies. Fortunately, there are some tricks you can try that will make the task a little easier. To flatten wood quickly, create a sled for the router that rests on boards on each side of the slab. This results in a type of track that will allow the router, equipped with a flat-bottomed wide bit, to easily and smoothly move back and forth across the slab as you force the sled from one end to the other. Using perpendicular side guides will ensure the router says under control as you make each pass.
You may only have to make a couple of passes, depending on the amount of warping present. This will include a pass for the higher spots and another pass to equalize the entire surface. Keep in mind that multiple passes will remove smaller amounts of material and can be better than a single deep pass.
When one side of the wood is flat, flip it over and repeat the process on the other side. Be sure that when you put the wood in place that you average out any twists. This can be done by shimming opposite corners to equal amounts. This will reduce the amount of material that needs to be removed. If the planer you’re using is big enough, then you can trim the wood, sending them through the thickness planer, and use the side that was previously flattened as a flat reference. Keep in mind, in order for a thickness planer to get a board square, there must be one flat side.
Choose two of the best slabs for the top of the table and use the rest of the slabs for the base. The pieces that are used for the base should have some structural strength, so make sure you remove any major defects from the wood. You can create a paper template to mark every leg, so you can easily avoid the problem areas. Next, you’ll take a circular saw and make these straight cuts. The cuts should not be parallel to the edge of the board. Eventually, these slabs will be joined together to create the top of the table.
The pieces that are used for the base and the legs will have very specific angles. Cuts must be made precisely so that everything will fit together nicely. You can use a miter saw for this task. When making the cuts, it’s important that you review each cut carefully and compare them to your plans. The legs of the table are designed to splay out 6.5 degrees to the side and 9.5 degrees toward the end. The top of each of the legs will be cut at a 35.5-degree angle. On the upper support, they should be cut at 45-degrees.
When you’re doing a rough trimming for the slabs that will be used for the tabletop, make sure you leave a lot of extra space. This will allow for flexibility later down the line when it comes time to finish the table.
For this table, the cross supports on each end will use traditional tenons and mortise. The mortise joints should be hollow, while the tenon will be a matching protrusion. These joints will fit together to form a nice strong joint. An interlocking miter joint will be used where the legs meet the long upper supports.
Since the miter joint isn’t always very strong, you’ll need to use some large screws to provide an extra layer of strength. When you’re reinforcing the joints with the screws, be sure to drill a bigger relief hole in order to hide the screw’s head.
The tenons and mortise should be made with a router with a straight cut bit. You can use the plunge router here, so it creates the hollow for the mortise. To cut tenons, you’ll use a router on a table. If you don’t have a router, you can take a chisel and handsaw to create this joint.
As I mentioned earlier, the table’s legs are angled out slightly toward the end of the table and toward the side. This will create compound miters. Each time a joint is cut, be sure to pay extra attention to ensure the cut is made at the appropriate angle. Fortunately, a miter saw will make this easier and more practical, compared to making cuts by hand.
Below the jig, the cross support is secured in place, with the router running above it. This results in a recess that will allow the pieces of the shelf to rest parallel with the ground.
Where the shelf piece meets the cross support is the other major joint in the table. So that the shelf pieces are able to rest flush with the support, the inside edge of each cross support will have a supporting ledge. These will be glued later and pinned into place with dowels that are drilled from the bottom. The result is excellent lateral support. A long support piece that runs the length of the table will ensure stability.
To learn more, click here to read my guide on the best miter saw tips and tricks
The Right Fit
Before you use any wood glue and permanently glue wood in place, it’s important to do a dry fit. This will involve piecing everything together, prior to gluing. The fit will tell you if you’ve made any mistakes with cuts and whether or not you need to finetune the joints. Additionally, it will also motivate you to finish the table since you’ll be able to see how much progress you’ve made.
Another important part of a dry fit is planning how you’ll clamp the pieces when you’re gluing. Never start gluing without having an idea of where you’ll need to place the clamps. When you start gluing, time always seems to move faster. Before you know it, you’ll have wasted a lot of time messing with the clamps and the glue will be set before you’ve had a chance to put everything together.
Joining the Pieces
Ensure that the two pieces have square and straight edges so the joint will be tight. For extra strength you can use a biscuit joiner, which will keep the two pieces aligned when you clamp them together. Another option is cutting a channel down the center of each slab and use a router bit to cut spines to fit. Be sure that you don’t cut the grooves near the end of the slabs. Next, mark where the two pieces will meet. Always remember to alternate the clamps down and up to distribute the force of the clamps evenly and to keep things nice and flat.
You can sand before you glue the base together. Doing so will significantly improve the aesthetic quality of the piece. To do, take individual pieces, sanding them before the final project has been assembled. Doing so can reduce the number of impossible to reach places you’ll need to sand later. Since the miter joints between the top and leg supports are supposed to be flush, you should treat those assemblies as one piece and sand them as they’re glued up.
Time for Glue
For the legs, you’ll drill countersunk screw holes. Next, for the legs, apply the wood glue to the miter joints, then screw them together. Use a small brush for glue application on the surfaces of the tenons and on the inside of the mortises. Assemble the cross pieces and legs, then clamp them in place. You can use some scrap wood to protect the legs from indentations caused by the clamps.
To secure the shelf slates to the cross supports, you’ll glue a dowel joint. These dowel joints should be drilled last since things have shifted slightly from the dry fit. Even the smallest change can make it almost impossible to drive the dowel into place. Drill dowel holes from under the crosspiece and into the slats of the shelf. Take a marker or pencil and mark the drill bit for the correct depth to prevent drilling through the shelf. Next, apply the glue to the dowels.
Once the epoxy has had time to cure, you can begin the final sanding. Now is the time to make touch ups to any spots that need attention. For the tabletop, begin by using a handheld belt sander. Once the rough sanding is complete, you can use an orbital sander for any fine sanding.
Apply the Finish
Before you connect the base and the tabletop, you need to apply the finish. Polyurethane is more resilient than tung oil, so it’s always a great choice for tabletops.
Screwing Together the Base and Tabletop
The last step is attaching the base and the tabletop using screws. There should be one screw for each corner of the base. The holes in the base should be drilled larger than the width of the screw to allow for contraction and expansion that naturally occurs with wood. This will allow for small side to side movement, while also allowing you to tighten the top down. The top should not be able to easily shift from side to side if you push on it.
As you can see, learning how to build a coffee table will take time and patience. Otherwise, the wrong cut can turn into a real disaster. Once you’ve completed your first coffee table, you’ll feel both gratified and relieved. If you made any mistakes during the project, then you’ll keep them in mind for future projects. In most cases, most people won’t even notice these minor mistakes. This is a great transition project and one that will allow you to slowly ease into making furniture. This project will teach you a lot about the basics of woodworking, so for your next project, you’ll find that you can handle most complex cutting, sanding, and joinery tasks more confidently.