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This morning, I spent a few hours in the shop fitting tenons for a coffee table and gluing up the base. Obviously, I need to make and install a web frame and the drawers (which, if everything is close enough to
square, will push/pull through from both sides). But I’m at a design impasse. I simply can’t decide what to do about the top. So read on, then please give me
your opinion in the comments.

Initially, I designed a frame-and-panel top, and I still
like the way it looks. But as my coworkers pointed out, one coffee spill or one crumbled cookie, and I was going to be very unhappy when the crud seeped under
the panel and got stuck (or worse, dripped down into the drawers). I could stick with this design and put a piece of glass over the top, but I just don’t like the look of glass on the top (though I could be

I have a wide enough piece of cherry with nice-looking
figure for a two-board glue-up, so I could just go with that, and add some kind of edge treatment – probably a simple ogee or bullnose. But I dunno – that
seems kind of plain, and I’m a mite worried about the panel staying flat because the temperature and humidity fluctuate wildly in my house (I’m too cheap to turn on the air-conditioning if it’s 85° or below, and in the winter, 60° is as warm as it gets).

Option three is breadboard ends. Maybe pegged. Maybe not. But, while I can’t articulate why, I’m not sold on that look for this piece.

So what do you think? And other suggestions are welcome.
(Caveat: I’ve been known to ignore good advice in the past.)

— Megan Fitzpatrick

• Assuming I figure out what kind of top I want to make, this coffee table will likely appear in a future issue of the magazine. But if you’re looking for table plans right now (or for an altogether different sort of table or aesthetic), check out “The Table Book,” in which you’ll find plans, cutlists and step-by-step instructions for 35 table projects, in a variety of styles and sizes. 

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Showing 33 comments
  • bob l.

    in remembering an episode from this old house norm made a kitchen out of cherry he used an inlayed top

  • Rod


    I like the panels top from your Initial drawing of the top. You could lay some mementos or cool woodworking tools in the pockets. Then you could flood the top with bar top epoxy. I would take care of all your spill issues plus it would make for a great conversation piece



  • Ed

    This is going to sound odd at first, but hear me out. I faced the same exact issue, and came up with 2 solutions. Both involved free granite. I went to my local granite countertop installer. They had a yard full of offcuts, and welcomed me to lighten their load by taking whatever I wanted. I use some for sharpening (couldn’t be flatter), and others for weight when I need a big glue-up.

    I had one series of pieces that were gorgeous. I had one cut into a top for the end tables, one cut into the top for a game cabinet (storing monopoly, etc.), and one cut into the top for the coffee table. I also could have used the huge pieces (too narrow for a countertop, luckily for me) as tile; placed within panels and epoxied around the edges where they marry up to the wood. Or, I could have just as easily used them as breadboard ends, or even as accents around the piece. The choices are endless, and the contrast is beautiful.

  • michel chamberlain

    if you are really sold on f&p, i would suggest a veneered insert, with the gaps filled with epoxy, or ca, sanded smooth, and finished clear.

  • E H

    Might seem like sacrilege, but how ’bout covering your frame and panel with some tempered glass with a bullnose? This is a practical treatment for a piece meant for real-world use. It shows off your technical skill, while keeping the crud out.

  • Keith Wilson

    I agree, I think the solid top looks best. If a plank really wants to warp, a breadboard end won’t stop it. If you think it looks too plain, one possibility for decoration would be some simple inlay – perhaps a stripe of dark wood an inch or so from the edge as a border? It’s way easier than it looks; you can cut the groove with a router and edge guide, and if you hand-plane a slight taper on the inlay strips they’ll fit as tight as you like. I’ve done this with walnut on cherry several times, and it looks pretty good; understated but fancier than just a plain board.

  • Charles Molnar

    Why not go with the solid top and just route in the look of your frame and panel top design. That is, faux frame and panel, then you can be a sloppy or clumsy as you like with no leakage paths to the inside.


  • Fred Freitag

    I like the two piece glue-up myself. I think that it’s what looks good on the base, it’s the traditional top for that type of piece, that it will be easiest to maintain (considering the use of the piece), and last the longest.

  • Matt Kleinscmidt

    How about a faux frame and panel top. Use a router and cut a frame and panel profile around the top. You could even lower the field of the panel with a router and an extended (very extended) base. Then use a chisel to clean up the corners. Then you would have a frame and panel without the frame and panel. You could even just run the router off of the ends and glue on a breadboard end that looks like a part of the frame and panel. If you make it from the same wood, it would blend right in.

  • Greg

    I agree that you should stick with the original frame and panel concept. You may need to use a veneered engineered substrate so you can make the joints liquid-proof, but I’d be inclined to simply live with the risk of spills (how messy are you planning to be, anyway? 🙂

    One big advantage of f&p is that you can mount the top solidly to the aprons without worrying about wood movement.

  • anon

    what about a 3rd "breadboard" down the middle to tie in the center divider for the drawers.

    Otherwise the comments for a veneered top might be right.

  • John Walkowiak


    I like the frame and panel idea best, but to me the SU design using 2 panels looks like a screen door frame laying on top of the table. If it were mine, I would use 3 panels. It would then mimic a chest of drawers design where the drawers get smaller at the top, graduating from 2 to 3. To get around the possible problems with recessed panels, I would have the panels overlap the frame, such as on Roy Underhill’s tool chest. I have used this on a piece of furniture having a walnut frame and a cherry panel and it looks great. On your table they would not have to be T&G into the frame like the tool chest, you can attach them like a table top with wooden buttons or use the metal ones. This way makes finishing easier also, as the frame and panels can be finished and then assembled. If the panels expand and contract a bit it won’t be noticable.
    Good Luck!

  • John

    I think this table is going to look great no matter how it ends up. I say go with your gut and send us the pictures when it’s done!

  • Dan La Jeunesse


    I like the lines in the frame and panel sketch up you show. Would you be willing to glue up the two cherry panels and then route the frame and panel design into the solid top? You get the desired look and avoid the risks associated with crumbs and spills.


  • Matthew Holbrook


    I like your design for a frame / panel top. The two panels "echo" the two drawers below. To address the potential to contain coffee spills consider this:

    1 Make up the frame as you normally would but the center stile should be 1/4 inch thinner.

    2 Run a 1/4 inch rabbet around the inside of the frame on the bottom.

    3 Cut a piece of quality 1/4 inch plywood to fit this rabbet.

    4 Cut your two panels so they will fit in the panel groove (which you put in the middle of the thickness of your frame, assuming you use 3/4 inch thich frame stock).

    5 Fit the two panels and glue up the frame.

    6 glue in the piece of plywood to the rabbet on the underside of the frame.

    This serves as a "leak panel" to prevent coffee spills seeping into the drawers below.


    Matthew Holbrook

  • TomL

    I like the frame & panel. If a 5/4 top would not look out of place, make the panel out of one piece of 3/4 cherry plywood or venered MDF. Make the frame to fit over the panel and hide the edges with a 1/2" deep recess for the panel. Make the divider separate. Hold it all (or the divider) down with rare earth magnets so you can remove it to clean up any spills.

  • Brent

    I personally like the slab top. To address the wood movement problems, you could use sliding dovetailed battens to hold it flat. Hiding the battens by doing stopped dovetailed and then glue the two halves together, plane and sanded. Or just use slotted/enlonged holes in the drawer kicks (if that is the right term for the top part of the drawer glide).

    There is a Fourth look, a cherry frame with mitered corners with a cherry veneered mdf panel divided by a contrasting banding. I would constructed by first veneering the panel then sizing the panel. Then glue the banding to the panel using tape has clamps. the banding would be thicker than the panel. then biscuit joint the frame to the panel . Lastly use a smoothing plane and cabinet scraper to bring the frame and banding level to the panel.

  • Mike

    Well, unfortunately my joke about the "Coffee Table book about Coffee Tables" has already been taken. Darn.

    What about, and I know this may be cheesy (or is it cheesey?) using a v-tip router bit and make a faux frame and panel that way? The top would still be flat, but you make square shapes in the top so that it simulates the look you are going for. Just a thought, and probably not a good one at that.

    Though let’s be honest…anytime I can reference Seinfeld in some way I’m going to say something. Perhaps next you’ll find that 2 street toughs will steal an armoire from you.

    Mike T.

  • Tom

    The bottom looks like it is made from mahogany? I would do a striped top with cherry and mahogany. I would vary the widths for visual interest. Not equal amounts of both woods but just a splash of mahogany.

    I then would look to see if inlay would make sense.

  • Dean

    Frame and panel look alike. Put all pieces in place on a flat surface. Maybe a sheet of plywood the same dimension as the base top. Almost butt the interior interfaces together but leave a gap (gap size your choice), and then fill the gaps with string inlay between the interfaces. The outer pieces would be thicker than the interior pieces and extend beyond the edge of the plywood and have a rabbet underneath to overhang the plywood edge to cover it and make them flush with the interior pieces. Once finished there should be no leaks.

  • Don

    If you like the panel & frame look,think about an inlay that would simulate the look. the frame could be as wild,plain or any color as you want.
    A inlay that compliments the legs, would solve the problems outlined by other comments. While inlays can be difficult, with a panel & frame look all lines would be straight, and all widths could be the same. Personally I would go with an inlay, not a veneer.

  • robert

    I agree with Tim, copper would look very cool. Especially if it was slightly and randomly oxidized or weathered.

  • LeeJ

    I think the frame & panel is the best overall look. It keeps everything "connected". I like the idea of mortising the stiles into the rails to tie it in to the construction of the base.
    Now about spills and crumbs, detritus, etc. If this is for your personal use I would go to my local "to-the-trade" finishes supplier and ask about a catalyst cured polyurethane or polyester. Expensive stuff but will seal that top up, give you whatever gloss level you want and last forever. They can be sprayed with common spray systems and mixing is easy, usually 1-1 or 2-1 catalyst to finish.

  • Mike Dyer

    I like the frame and panel look for this piece, too.

    I also like the concept of making the panels from a nice veneer plywood, glued in place – no leaks and it does teach you another skill set, although I’d put some sort of reveal at the panel edge – easier to fit and nicer looking overall.

    Another approach would be to set your traditional frame and panel over a single plywood dust panel. This would stop the migration of cookie crumbs and spilled milk left by Santa as he hurries on his way.

  • Ezra Herman

    How about a veneered panel or panels trimmed out with cherry? You could even do a frame and panel layout look this way.

  • Tim Aldrich

    Make the top out of ply and cover it it copper.

  • Mike

    How about a butcher block top. You can serve coffee on it and prep for the evening dinner. I know it is a wacky idea but but fun anyway. I like the design of your table and I can see why you are looking for a good top. I am looking forward to seeing it in the magazine.

  • Steve

    I like the frame-and-panel top, but I’d make the outside corners go the "other way" (with the end rails having the mortises), so that the pattern of the top mimics the pattern of the front.

    For a table top, though, I’d make the panels out of veneered plywood and install them flush with the top and glued all aroung. That keeps the top perfectly flat (no wine glasses tipping over) and leakproof. It’s a good technical challenge, too, to make the top nice and flat–without cutting through the veneer.

  • Bruce Jackson

    I agree with the previous comment about utilitarian as opposed to decoration functions. Given the curved shape of your legs, you may want to try rounding the corners of a plain top using a radius which matches or complements the curves in your legs and then treat the edges to roundovers, using a 1/2 in radius on the bottom and a 1/4 in radius on the top. This treatment softens the edge nnd introduces a subtle open feeling that you, the hostess, may want to convey to your coffee get-togethers.

  • LizPf

    I think the reason the f&p top looks right is because the bottom of the table looks a bit complicated, with the turned legs and drawer frame rails.

    If you’ve worked hard to match grain on the sides of the table with the drawers, the whole may look simple enough for a plain top to stylistically match. If the bottom will be painted, breadboard ends may work, giving the whole a more "country" feel.

    But if the table has clear finished wood with interesting grain, the top needs some complexity. I might think about doing some inlay banding, or experiment with veneer and grain direction. Yup, this adds complexity and new techniques.

  • Craig Ambrose

    I’m normally a huge fan of breadboard ends on everything, but I agree with your gut feeling, it doesn’t look right on this piece. There is something about the sketch up model with the breadboard ends that seems unbalanced, like it needs something in the middle there. One idea that occurred to me, which you could try fairly quickly in sketch up, is to place a piece of wood about the same width as the bread board ends along the center of the top (since you’re gluing up two pieces anyway). That’d need to be contrasting to your top, and the same colour as the breadboard ends. I’m not sure if the wide capital "H" shape that it’d make would be pleasing or not, but at least it wouldn’t have the problems of the frame and panel approach, because it’d be a glue joint, the only moving and potentially gappy joints would be the breadboard ones.

    On that same note, I guess you could glue dark strips to each of the two long edges of your table top, and then breadboard the ends. That’d give you something looking like a frame a panel joint, but with very different characteristics. I have no idea whether it’d look good or not though. 🙂

  • Mike Zilis


    If it were me, I’d go with breadboards ends made of a slightly contrasring wood – padauk, bloodwood, etc.


  • Chester Field

    Why don’t you read Kramer’s coffee table book on coffee tables to get an idea?


    Agreed–frame and panel is not a very practical choice.
    If it will be used a lot, the furniture’s function in this case goes a long way to determining its form–function demands a utilitarian approach–a flat top will save you a lot of cleaning time and potential grief.
    Good luck.

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