Most coffee tables are ill-equipped to handle the stresses of modern-day life. Company is coming, and your living room is strewn with books, woodworking catalogs and your spouse’s catalogs. Most coffee tables offer you only a puny shelf to help you tidy up in a hurry. This coffee table does double-duty by giving you a shelf for books and two drawers that are big enough to handle all but the biggest magazines and catalogs. And oh yes, you can serve coffee on it, too.
Construction is simple but sturdy. You build the bottom case that holds the drawers out of plywood and biscuits. Then you screw the solid maple legs onto the case and cover all the plywood edges with moulding and veneer tape. Finally, you screw the top to the legs using figure-eight fasteners and build some quick drawers. And this project won’t cost you a heck of a lot, either. You need about one-third of a sheet of maple plywood (birch will do just fine, too), about four board feet of 8/4 maple and about 10 board feet of 5/4 maple. You’ll also need a little Baltic birch ply and a small amount of 1/4″ ply for the drawer bottoms.
Start at the Top
When you’re at the lumberyard, be sure to pick through the racks of soft maple for this project. Soft maple (Acer rubrum) is a little cheaper than hard maple (Acer saccharum) and is more likely to have some curl or other figure. After you plane your maple down to 1″ thickness, get ready to glue up your top. I like to cut a few biscuit slots in the mating edges of the top pieces. This doesn’t add to the strength of this long-grain joint, but it sure helps keep your boards in line when gluing up your panels. Clamp up your top and set it aside for the glue to dry.
Simple and Sweet Lower Case
The case that holds the drawers goes together really fast. Cut out the parts you need according to the Schedule of Materials. Then cut the biscuit slots to attach the sides, back and divider between the top and bottom pieces. Take some care when locating the center divider to save yourself a headache when making the drawers. See the step photo on the right for the trick to cutting biscuit slots in the middle of a panel.
Now put glue and biscuits in all the biscuit slots and clamp up the lower case. When the glue is dry, sand the case to 150 grit and turn your attention to the legs. To make attaching the legs to the case easier, go ahead and cut some clearance holes in the case’s sides where the case will be joined to the back legs. This is easier to do from the outside before the legs go on.
Eight Screws and You’ve Got a Table
Here’s how to attach the legs: Mark on the leg where the case should meet the leg. Clamp the leg into place on the lower case and then drill pilot holes and clearance holes for #8 screws (I used a bit that drills both holes simultaneously). The holes should go through the case sides and into the legs. After the holes are drilled, screw the legs in place. Do three legs this way and clamp up the fourth leg but don’t drill your holes yet.
You want to make sure that your table sits perfectly level — especially if you have hardwood floors. Place the table on a surface that you know is flat: your bench or a couple sheets of plywood. Then see if the table rocks back and forth. If your fourth leg is a little short, tap the top of the leg with a hammer until the table stops rocking. If the fourth leg is too short, turn the table over and tap the bottom of the fourth leg. When the table sits flat, screw the leg into place.
Trimming the Table
Now you need to cover all the exposed plywood edges on the lower case with moulding or adhesive veneer tape. I used iron-on veneer tape to cover the plywood edges around the drawers, and 1/4″ x 3/4″ maple moulding for all the other edges. Attach the moulding with glue and brads, then sand its edges flush to your case.
To make the back look a little more interesting, I added a piece of moulding to make it look like the front (see the photo at right for how I did this).
Big Slab Top
Now trim your top to finished size, sand it and get ready to screw it to the table base. Your best bet is to use figure-eight fasteners. They are quick, sturdy and let your top expand and contract with the seasons. To install them, chuck a 3/4″ Forstner bit into your drill and cut a shallow hole in the top of the leg as shown in the photo at right. The depth of the hole should be the thickness of the fastener.
Screw the fasteners to the legs. Then turn your top upside down on a blanket and position the base upside down on the top. Drill pilot holes for the screws and then screw the top to the base.
The drawers are simple plywood boxes with a solid maple drawer front screwed to the subfront. Here’s how you make the plywood box. Cut your pieces to size. Then cut a 1/4″ x 1/2″-wide rabbet on both ends of the sides. To hold the bottom in place, cut a 1/4″ x 1/4″ groove on the plywood front and sides that’s 1/4″ up from the bottom edge. Nail and glue the plywood back and front between the side pieces. Slide the plywood bottom in place and nail it to the back.
Now prepare the maple drawer fronts. Cut a 1/4″ x 1/4″ rabbet on the front edges. It’s a decorative detail that gives an extra shadow line around the drawers. Now screw the maple drawer fronts in place on the plywood boxes.
If you like your drawers to have a snug fit, attach a couple short pieces of veneer tape to the inside sides of the case. There’s just enough space for a household iron. Add a couple coats of clear finish and you’re ready to load up your new coffee table with books, magazines and a cup of joe. PW
– Christopher Schwarz
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