I designed and built the above “Factory Cart Coffee Table” for the October 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. As happens with many woodworking projects, I pulled inspiration from a variety of sources. Recently, it has become popular to re-purpose old factory carts to serve as coffee tables , to bring an old-world, rustic charm to your living room. These carts have popped up in furniture catalogs including Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn, and are even sold online by antique dealers. You can sometimes find an original cart in an un-restored condition for a few hundred dollars, but a fully restored one will usually cost more than $700.
While browsing the web site of one dealer, I noticed that some original carts had stenciled company labels on their sides. One label immediately caught my attention: TOWSLEY CINCINNATI.
I thought locating information on a company that created carts in the 1880s would prove difficult, but a quick Google search brought me to the Old Wood-Working Machines web site. Steve Shanesy brought this site to my attention while he was restoring an old Delta Unisaw, and it contains a wealth of information about old tools and manufacturers.
On the John T. Towsley Manufacturing Co. page, there are images of advertisements, patents and a catalog , the last 12 pages of which are nothing but factory trucks (carts). This catalog not only provided me with some general dimensions of the carts, but also inspired me to make a modern version , complete with a CINCINNATI stencil.
Around this time I was also referred to a blog called Knock Off Wood. Ana White is the author of the blog, and from her home in Alaska she reproduces furniture from stores and galleries using dimensional lumber from the home center. You should definitely check out her site – there’s tons of inspiration and plans for weekend projects. She has a factory cart coffee table design, but it looked a little too small and delicate for my taste. But White makes building these projects seem so easy that it gave me the confidence to build a design of my own.
Armed with the Towsley catalog and the confidence, my first step was to design the coffee table in SketchUp. You can download the final SketchUp model below. The great thing about SketchUp is that it allows you to adjust the dimensions of the project on-the-fly , it has a built-in “wood stretcher.” Visually, it allowed me to see how the table would look with the top boards flush with the sides, or with various amounts of overhang. Without SketchUp, I wouldn’t have been confident of how a 1″ versus a 2″ overhang would look without some work in the shop.
After finalizing the overall dimensions, it was time to acquire the materials. The rubber casters sold at the home center didn’t give me the “old-school” look I was going for, so I managed to find a set of spoked steel casters from an industrial supplier online. The next part of this puzzle was choosing the material for the top. After a visit to see an original factory cart at the Restoration Hardware across the street from our office, I decided that I wanted a weathered and slightly mismatched top. If a cart got a lot of use in a factory or warehouse, inevitably one of the boards would need to be replaced. So I decided to construct the top out of pallet boards. How’s that for reclaimed lumber!
Constructing this project was a breeze; it’s outlined in detail in the October 2010 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. I was already familiar with pocket screws; I used them when I built my storage bench for the June 2009 issue, so I decided to use them again in this project.
The final element was to choose a finish. I wanted a balance between looking clean but rustic. After another visit to see the original cart, I decided on amber shellac. After using it on this project, I understand why Senior Editor Glen Huey recommends it , it applies easily and dries very quickly. Perfect for this weekend project.
If you decide to build this coffee table let me know, and please send photos. I’d love to see what you come up with. And that’s my favorite part about this project: You can customize it to match your tastes and your home.
I’ve uploaded the entire project plan for the “Factory Cart Coffee Table.” You can read the entire article online and download a PDF copy.
I used the Kreg Jig to build this project, but I lost the manual. Luckily the Kreg web site has instructions as well as videos on using the jig system.
Also, we’ve published a book of many projects you can easily do in a weekend. Right now it’s on sale for $13.59.
And take a look at “The Table Book.” There are several small size table plans and you can check out the entire contents by visiting this blog entry.