Coffee Table: Finished

dsc02264_smThe table is finally finished.  The finishing process dragged on for an eternity, with lots of glitches and complications.   I filled the pores on the table top using Crystalac Wood Grain Filler.  I found this product to be extremely difficult to use.  Sanding with anything coarser than P600 would pull it out of the pores, but the P600 would clog in 10 seconds.  I ended up finding that a gentle sanding with abranet would work well, but I went through the abranet at a distressing rate.  In the end, I have some areas where the pores aren’t entirely filled, and the filler created some blotching.


I guess you’d call this the front view. Normally this side faces the couch for ready access to the little drawers.


Each end of the table has a drawer under the tabletop, which overhangs nine inches. Some of my mahogany was lighter and some was darker: I used a lighter colored mahogany board for the drawer front and framed it with the darker material.


The drawer on the end holds the small card games. I added a divider insert to keep things organized. Note how the curve of the handle echoes the curve of the tabletop.


The table top is book matched “marbled” claro walnut. Look up at the previous picture to see the end grain, which also has an interesting swirling pattern.


This view shows how I curved the end of the table and the edge. I started cutting the profiles with a flat spokeshave, but found it tricky to get an even curve, so I switched to a roundover plane.


The little drawers below the shelf have small claro walnut handles that echo the shape of the tabletop.


The top drawer has a divider to create the pen and paper storage areas.


Here you can see the top drawer loaded up. We haven’t figured out what to put in the bottom one yet.


In this side view you can see how the handle is flat on top but cut at an angle underneath. This works very well and definitely makes the drawers easier to open and close. You can see the joinery here with the half-tail at the bottom to capture the drawer bottom.


The large drawer also uses the sloped underside on the handle, but here the center mount slide requires a large space below the drawer bottom, so the dovetails have a half-pin at the bottom.


From the side you can see the curve of the handle and the marbling of the claro walnut.

I’ve been calling this a “coffee table” but at 24 inches tall it’s not designed like a conventional coffee table. The prototype plywood on boxes was really starting to sag with a pronounced tilt to one side, so the family was jubilant when we could finally use the new table. Happily the design appears sound and it has been working well for game playing.


Here is the table with Ticket to Ride Team Asia underway. I used Ticket to Ride to determine the required width of the table.


Coffee Table: Drawers

Small Drawers

For the two little drawers I decided that 1/4″ thick bottoms would be plenty thick enough.  I planned to plow 1/8″ grooves to hold the bottoms. To actually make the bottoms I found a 9″ wide offcut to resaw into thirds, and then plane down to the desired thickness. However, when resawing I had some trouble controlling the work on the second cut because I was worried about safety. I guess I needed a featherboard or something to hold the work onto the fence. The result was a rather uneven cut. I tried to clean it up a bit with the jointer plane at the bench, and there I discovered that it is not possible to plane material this thin. It would just flex away from the plane, and I couldn’t find a workable way to support it in the center. So I just passed it through the planer and hoped for the best. Final thickness ended up below 1/4″ with various parts of the material unusably thin, but I had enough material for the bottoms.  Planing a bevel on three sides so the bottoms would fit in the groove was easy with a block plane.


The right side of the stack looks good, but the left side has some problems.

For these very small drawers I adopted the approach of having a half-tail at the bottom to capture the groove.  dsc00959_smAfter the drawers were glued together I decided to add a divider to one of them.  This would have been easier before the glue-up!  I used the Lee Valley router plane with the blade pointing sideways, but it turns out that in this configuration you have to extend to blade at least an inch, so I had to use it on top of a spacer block.


I cut this groove with chisel and router plane after the drawer was already glued together.


Here is the divider slipped into its groove (shown from the drawer bottom).


Finished drawer with its divider.

These small drawers are set into the face of the low front apron.  I found it challenging to cut the openings for these drawers with hand tools.  I cut the openings with a jigsaw as straight as I could along my lay out lines.  But then I needed to clean up the edges to make them perfectly straight.  After struggling with planes that wouldn’t fit in the opening or all the way to the edge, a friend suggested using a guide block and chisels.  This worked reasonably well.  The result isn’t really pretty, but it’s hidden by the drawer.  Some people make drawers like this by ripping the apron on the table saw and re-gluing, which guarantees a grain match.  I had to pick out material from elsewhere on the board, but the match is pretty good:


Can you find the drawers?

dsc00561_smThe handles are made from claro walnut and are curved to match the tabletop.  I cut a bevel on the underside to make them easier to grip.   I had originally thought I would just glue them on to the drawer front, but after my problems keeping the shelf aligned during glue up, I decided that would be a mistake.  So I used 1/4″ dowels to align the joints.  It was tricky to get clamps to secure the curvy part , so I am really glad I made that decision.   The finished drawers with handles are a bit easier to find:


Big Drawers

The big drawers move on a center mounted wooden rail.  These drawers are short and I anticipate that they will be opened from the side, so I wanted a method that would control racking.  I followed  a Fine Woodworking article that specified a 1/2″ thick rail, so I needed a large space underneath the drawer.  Therefore I used a half pin and put the drawer groove in the tail above it.


Half blinds in the front, with a half-pin at the bottom this time.


The back is above the drawer bottom, so no pin at the bottom, just a big half-tail. Otherwise you get a space as seen at the top.

When it came to fitting these drawers I discovered a problem: I needed to plane down one of the support rails by 1/32″ or maybe a bit more.   After some efforts with chisels I gave up and bought a bullnose plane.  I could not think of any other way to remove the material and end up with a flat surface.


Here you can see the center rail that the drawer rides on, and the drawer with its mating guide installed:


A neat thing about this design is that it has an integral stop: the back of the drawer front hits the front of the rail.  Unfortunately, I planed the drawer front to its nominal final size rather than leaving it a bit oversized to plane down, so in the end, the stop was in the wrong place.  My first thought was that there is a simple elegant fix: just pare the recess that holds the center rail so it can be mounted farther forward.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a way to do that without buying this, so instead I glued a small pieces to the back of the drawer front:


The drawer front is upside down, with the mortise that receives the guide rail, and right at the top is that small spacer.

This picture shows the drawer from the underside, riding on its rail:


Because these drawers are short, stops to keep them from coming out are essential, but I didn’t want stops that hang down or get in the way.   I decided to use an idea I saw in an article somewhere, with slight modification.  I tapped a hole in the side of the drawer, and installed a 1/4-20 machine screw.  This screw can be accessed from the inside of the drawer and when you screw it all the way in, the screw protrudes into the drawer cavity and it whacks into the leg, stopping the drawer from coming out.  I was thinking I might tack some leather onto the leg to make a slightly softer impact.



Now the drawers are all running smoothly and I just need to make the handles for the big ones.

Coffee Table: Glue Up

Test fits are important.  With this project it was to the point where I needed assistance to do a test fit, but it’s good that I didn’t skip them, because I found that these parts were an inch too short:


An inch too short! Had to remake them.

The problem is that I sized them to the space between the legs (the same length as the short aprons) rather than the space between the long aprons, which is longer.  I guess this is a possible gotcha when sizing parts from the project instead of working with dimensions and plans.  (Note that these weren’t the simplest parts.)

So here’s the final test fit with the shelf omitted to expose the internal parts:


dsc00101.jpg_smThe blue tape marked the edges of the drawer support pieces which all have side-to-side slop.  I carefully checked that they were square to the front, where the openings for the drawers were located.

A friend came over to help with the glue-up.  I chose fish glue for this project because of its long open time.  When we to to the point of checking the drawer supports for square, my friend tried a different method: he quickly trimmed a stick to the width and ran it up and down the drawer cavity space.  His method actually checks the cavity for parallel sides, which is what really matters for smooth running drawers. And it was giving a different result than my test for square to the front!

I discovered that the apron with the drawer openings was not flat, so my reference surface was no good.  We adjusted the drawer openings to be parallel to each other as best we good rather than square to the face.   The glue-up took about 45 minutes.

After the glue was dry, with the clamps off, I discovered that one thing had gone wrong during the glue up.  The shelf had shifted sideways, mainly at one end (which means it twisted).  You can see the effect in the pictures below.  The shelf was supposed to stick out 1/4″ from the leg, and of course by the same amount on both sides.

dsc00564.jpg_sm dsc00562.jpg_sm It appears that in addition to the obvious problem shown above, the whole structure is not as square as when we first put it together and checked for square, and a tiny gap has appeared between the shelf and the rails that support the shelf.  There’s not much I can do to fix any of this.  Planing down the high side is about it.  I think the lesson is that parts need something to register them during glue up.  I had marks to center the shelf, and I spent a lot of effort figuring out where those marks should be and making sure the projection was balanced on each side.  And we lined up those marks when we put the shelf in.  But at the end of the glue up I forgot to check that the marks were still lined up.   (It didn’t help that the marks were visible only from the top and most of the glue up had the table upside down.)

Coffee Table: Getting Started

When I had the idea for the coffee table, I worked out the desired dimensions for the top.  I thought it needed to be about five feet long.  And to test the width I measured the size of the Ticket to Ride board and concluded it should be about 30 inches wide.  At first I thought maybe I would get wood from Greener Lumber.  They are retrieving wood from rivers in Belize where it has been sitting for a couple hundred years, and hence the wood is fine grained and supposedly quite nice.  Of course, it’s also expensive.  To get a better idea about the character of their wood I ordered a pen blank set and frankly, while the wood seemed nice, it didn’t seem amazing.

Meanwhile I heard about Northwest Timber. They have hundreds of unique, interesting boards posted for sale, often at quite shocking prices. I started thinking about marbled claro walnut boards for a coffee table and looking for bookmatched sets the right size. When I showed Joni several choices she unerringly picked the most expensive set as her favorite. But I eventually found a “cheap” set that was exactly the right size, 59 inches long and 30 inches wide.

The next question was what wood to use for the base.  I thought making the base out of claro walnut was an unnecessary expense, but I wasn’t sure what wood I could pair with the walnut that would look good.  I finally settled on Honduran mahogany, which seems to have a similar color to the light stripes in the claro walnut.  My local lumber hard had dimensional 3×3 Honduran mahogany, but no regular 4/4 material.  He claimed he could order some for me.  My local guy is a bit flaky.  I bugged him week after week and he kept saying “not yet” so after about 8 weeks of this I finally gave up and went online. I ended up getting the material from Hearne Hardwoods. It took three days from when I called them for my order to show up.

My plan with the dimensional 3×3 material was that I could orient the leg in any direction to get a rift sawn piece. As it happened, these pieces were already rift sawn, so I ended up with 1″ thick rift sawn offcuts that were 3″ and 2″ wide boards. The material I ordered had a lot of swirling grain that wasn’t ideal for pieces like aprons, so I spent quite a while doing the layout to decide which boards should be cut for which parts. And I ended up using those 3×3 blocks for most of the structure visible at the ends.  The offcuts, being rift sawn, had nice straight grain, suitable for aprons and rails.  And usin gwood from the same board at the ends gives the ends a nice unity in color. The drawer fronts are from a different, lighter colored board providing some contrast.

This picture shows the visible parts, not yet assembled:


The shelf can be seen a bit on the left. In the center the long low aprons with double tenons are behind, and the long top aprons with single tenons are in front. And on the right, piled on the bench are the short aprons and rails.

Here are the legs:


The four legs with all of the mortises and slots for the rails.


Leg close up showing the bottom joinery with the double mortise and the slots for the rails.

Does everything fit together?  Let’s see:

img_0318.jpg_smimg_0319.jpg_smThis dry fit test looks good.  Some of the mortise and tenon joints could be prettier overall, but the visible parts that are on the outside are all looking good.  And the thing I was the most worried about, the length of the shelf, seems to be right.   Next I need to make the internal structure that supports all the drawers, and cut the openings on the front apron.

Coffee Table: Design

It seemed like we needed a table to go in front of the couch.  We could play games on this table instead of on the floor.  I deployed a piece of plywood on boxes as a prototype at the customary 18″ height.  After a while I turned the boxes and raised the height to 24″.  At first this seemed odd but it quickly became more comfortable than the lower height.  Seated at the table you could get your legs underneath it.  It was easier to reach things.  In fact, I began to wonder why anybody would want an 18″ table.  That height seems to be suitable only for use as a footstool.

This was the first project I designed using Sketchup.  The design came out unusual because I wanted to have a large overhang, so that you could get your legs under the table somewhat, but I also wanted drawers.  If I put the drawers in the customary location right under the tabletop then they have the clear the large overhang before you can get anything out.  That didn’t make sense.  If I put them close to the floor, it seemed likely that they’d hit the couch or the legs of the person sitting on the couch.  So I ended up with drawers at the ends instead, with a couple very small drawers on the front for pens and paper.

With the basic form taking shape I had the problem of deciding how to attach the shelf and handle wood movement.  None of the techniques I read about seemed right.  I finally hit on the method of using a tongue and groove joint with the tongue free to expand and contract in the groove.

I asked for a design critique on Design Matters, and tweaked the design based on the suggestions I got there.

Here is the final design in Sketchup:

table1 table2 table3