Building Tables – Walnut Coffee Table

I LIKE TRADITIONAL JOINERY, and I enjoy working with hand tools. But I also like completing a project without having it dragon because the joinery is labor intensive.

This table has all the earmarks of a traditional heirloom: beautiful hardwood, classic proportions and solid construction. And you can build it in a weekend. What’s the secret?

Instead of using traditional joinery to assemble the parts, I used pocket screws, a contemporary joint-making method. I discovered pocket screw joinery years ago, while designing a coffee table project that featured haunched mortise-and-tenon joints, web frame structure, and dovetailed drawers. To workout the design details for that table, I built a prototype using pocket screws. The prototype went together amazingly fast, and it was solid as a rock. The table you see here descends directly from that discovery.

Pocket screw joinery is definitely blue collar: It won’t win any aesthetic awards, but it does a good job with minimal fuss. If you can fit a butt joint, you can master this method. Butt joints, of course, are notoriously weak; pocket screws effectively reinforce them. To give pocket hole joinery a go, you’ll need a pocket screw jig, a specialized drill bit and pocket screws.

Playing with tradition

The table’s design continues the play on tradition. The tapered legs are turned upside down and inside out from their traditional pose(Fig. A). And rather than standing at 90, the aprons follow the slope of the legs.

Thanks to pocket screw joinery, these changes present only minimal building challenges – basically, the apron edges and some of the joint surfaces have to be beveled to fit, and the front ends of the drawer sides have to be cut at an angle, so the drawer front slopes to match the frame that surrounds it. Incidentally, the drawer front and frame are cut from a single board, so the grain flows continuously-a traditional building technique that’s too good – and too simple – to ignore.

This table requires only 25bd. ft. of primary wood and 9 bd. ft. of secondary wood, so building it won’t cost an arm and a leg (see Cutting List). Both amounts include a generous amount of waste, so you may do with even less. Also, all of the pieces are short and/or narrow, so you might not have to buy top-grade lumber, either. You can glue up 4/4 stock for the legs if 8/4 stock isn’t available.


Friday evening

(Okay, it’s gonna be a long weekend.)
1.lf you’re working with rough-sawn lumber, mill all your boards to thickness. Then decide how each board will be used.

2. Choose the best boards for the top (Part A, Fig. B, opposite, and Photo 1).Cut them slightly oversize in length and joint the edges square. When you glue these boards together, make sure their faces are flush, to minimize sanding. Remove all squeezed-out glue before it hardens. Leave the top clamped up over night.

3.lf you’re gluing up the leg stock, do it now.
Use your best-looking boards for the top. You can save money by using #1 Common lumber for this project, because all of the pieces are relatively short and narrow.

Saturday morning

4. Unclamp the top and set it aside for the time being. Stand it on end, so air can circulate freely all around, or raise it on stickers if you store it flat.
5. Make the front apron assembly (Bl-B4) from a board that’s oversize in both width and length (Photo 2).Start by marking a centerline across the board’s width. First, rip a 1″ wide length, to create the top rail (B1).Reset the fence and rip a 4″ wide length, to create the piece that includes the drawer front and end spacers (B2 and B3). The off cut from this second rip, which must also beat least 1″ wide, is the bottom rail (B4).
Make the drawer and its frame from a single oversize board. First, rip the board into three pieces. Next, crosscut the middle piece to create the drawer front. Locate the drawer ends by marking from a centerline.

6. Cross cut the middle piece to create the drawer front. Measure from the centerline to locate both ends. Then make each cut on the outside edge of the line. The two off cuts become the end spacers.
7. Create the front apron frame by gluing the board back together with the unglued drawer front trapped inside (Photo 3).Use the centerline to locate the drawer front and rails, and snug the end spacers against the drawer front ends. Use waxed paper to keep the drawer front from getting stuck by squeezed-out glue. Make sure the rail and spacer faces are flush at the glue joints. Set this assembly aside until the glue dries.
Glue the pieces back together, using the centerline for alignment and the unglued drawer front as a spacer. Set this assembly aside – you’ll rip it to width later, along with the other aprons.

8. Mill the leg blanks(C) square, cut them to final length, and pencil full-length tapers on two adjacent sides. Mark the inside corner on both ends of the blank-it’s the only corner that will remain untouched and square after the tapers are cut.
9. Saw each taper on the waste side of the layout line (Photo 4). Remove the saw marks using a hand plane, a jointer, or by sanding.
Saw tapers on two adjacent sides of each leg. Remove the saw marks by sanding, jointing or hand planing.

Saturday afternoon

10. Use one of the legs to determine the bevel angle (Photo 5).Note the angle (about 2-1/2°) on your saw’s bevel scale, because all of the beveled cuts used to assemble this table will be made at this angle.
Tilt the table saw blade to match the leg’s taper. All the beveled cuts in this project are made at this angle.

11.With the saw blade tilted to the bevel angle, rip the front apron frame’s top rail to final width-3/4″,measured on its back face. Make sure this bevel slopes toward the frame’s front face. Keep the drawer front installed during the cut, to stabilize the assembly.
12. Rip the top edges of the back and side aprons(D and E) at the same angle. Again, make sure each bevel slopes toward the front face.
13. Bevel-rip the front apron frame and all three aprons to final width. On all of these pieces, the top and bottom bevels musts lope in the same direction (Photo 6).The 5-1/2″ final width given in the Cutting List is approximate; the key is to set the fence so that the back face of the apron frame’s bottom rail endsupexactly3/4″ wide. (Keep the drawer front installed when you make the cut.) Once you’ve ripped the apron frame to final width, use the same fence setting to bevel-rip remaining three aprons.
Bevel both edges when you rip the aprons to width. Both bevels must slope in the same direction, so bevel one edge with the board front-face up and the other edge with the board front-face down.

14.Crosscut all the aprons to final length. Measure from the centerline to locate the ends of the front apron frame and keep the drawer front installed while you make the cuts. Make sure that each pair of aprons are identical in length.

Saturday evening

(You’re having too much fun to go out, right?)
15. Drill pocket screw holes in the aprons(Photo 7).Stagger the holes so they’re higher on the side aprons than on the front and back aprons(Fig. A). Then the screws won’t collide when you fasten the legs.
Assemble the legs and aprons with pocket screw joinery. A pocket screw jig positions the work piece and guides the drill bit, which automatically drills a counter bored shank hole.

16. Assemble the table ends(Photo 8).Clamp a side apron to your bench face-side down, with 1/8″ hardboard spacers underneath. Position the legs as shown in the photo, with a square face butted against the apron and the adjacent tapered face on the bench.
Fasten the aprons so they follow the slope of the tapered legs. Use spacers to create the 1/8″ setback. Make sure the top edges are flush. Reinforce the joints with glue.

17. Apply glue to both ends of the apron. Snug the legs against the apron and clamp them to the bench, making sure the top of the leg is flush with the beveled top edge of the apron. Then gently clamp the legs to the apron. Allow the glue to tack-set (5 to 10 minutes).Then install the 1-1/4″ fine thread, washer head pocket screws. Unclamp the assembly and remove the squeezed-out glue.
18. Follow a similar procedure to fasten the back apron to the assembled ends. Before you install the pock-et screws, make sure each assembled end is square to the back apron. Repeat the process to fasten the front apron frame.

Sunday morning

(Option #1: Go to church; #2: Play golf; #3: Sleep in.)

Sunday afternoon

19.Complete the table base. Cut and fit the bottom rail support (F). Bevel its front edge to match the front apron rail and both ends to match the side aprons. To determine the support’s length, measure at the bottom edges of the aprons. Then cut the support to fit. Start oversize in length; then shave one end with additional cuts to achieve a perfect, snug fit. Carefully notch the front corners to fit around the legs.
20. Drill pocket holes in the bottom face of the support (Fig. C).Drill the holes for the leg screws at 45°. Don’t drill these holes full-depth-leave about 1/2″ between the end of the hole and the notch.
21. Apply glue and clamp the support to the front rail and side aprons(Photo 9).The support should be flush with both edges of the rail and with the bottom edge of both side aprons. Let the glue tack; then install the pocket screws.
Install the bottom rail support with glue and pocket screws. To fit the sloping rails, this piece is beveled on the front edge and both ends. Allow the glue to tack-set before driving the screws.

22. Cut the drawer supports(G) to fit. Bevel the outside edge and the backend of these mirror-image parts, and cut the notches.
23. Drill pocket holes in the bottom faces of both drawer supports (Fig. C) and install them with glue and screws (Photo 10).
Install the drawer supports with glue and pocket screws. A special clamp holds the joint flush while you install the screws. Follow the same procedures to install the top rail support and the drawer kickers.

24. Install the drawer guides,(H) using a carpenter’s square.
25. Cut and fit the top rail support (J). Use the same procedure as for the bottom support, but this time, measure between the top apron edges to determine the length, and drill the pocket holes in the top face (Fig. C). Note that you don’t have to drill any holes at 45°. Fasten the top rail support with glue and screws.
26. Cut, fit and install the drawer kickers(K and Fig. C).
27. Cut the drawer front (B2) and drawer sides (L) to final width.
28. Cut the front ends of the drawer sides at the bevel angle (Photo 11).
Cut the front end of the drawer sides at an angle, so the drawer front will slope to match the apron, which slopes to match the tapered leg.

29. Saw or rout grooves to house the bottom in all three pieces.
30.Cut the drawer back(M) to final width. Then cut the drawer front and back to final length, 1/16″ shorter than the opening in the frame.
31. Create the drawer joints. I used a drawer lock bit(see Sources). Used in a router table with a fence, this bit allows routing all the parts from the same basic setup.
32. Cut the drawer bottom (N) to final size and finish sand the inside faces of all the drawer parts.
33. Assemble the drawer with glue and brads. Make sure the inside bottom edge of the drawer front is flush with the bottom edges of the sides. Lay a thin bead of glue in the grooves
and slide in the bottom. Make sure the drawer is square. Then fasten the bottom to the drawer back with screws.
34.Test fit the drawer and make any necessary adjustments. Position the drawer so it’s front is flush with the frame. Then glue on the drawer stops (P). Apply glue and butt one stop to the backend of each drawer side.
35. Make the drawer pull (Q). Bevel one edge of a wide3/4″ thick board at 10°. Return the blade to 90° and rip the pull from the board as an off cut. Cut the pull to length. (I mitered the ends at the 2-1/2° bevel angle, so the pull’s face is wider at the bottom, like the legs.) Sand the pull and the drawer front. Then glue on the pull with its beveled edge down, so it acts as a finger grip.

Sunday evening

36. Glue the screw block (R) to the back rail. Drill holes in the drawer kickers, the screw block and the top sup-port rail for the top-mounting screws (Fig. C). Elongate all the holes but the two at the center, to allow for the top’s seasonal movement.
37. Drill access holes for your screw-driver through the bottom rail and supports(Fig. C). Coincidentally (not intentionally), the outside access holes align with the diagonal screw pockets.
38. Rough sand both sides of the top, to level both surfaces.
39. Cut the top to final dimensions. I beveled both the edges and ends at 2-1/2°,but this time, the bevels slope in at the bottom.
40. Fasten the top to the base (Photo 12). Mark centerlines on the bottom of the top and inside the base. Then use the lines to automatically center the base on the top.
Fasten the top after centering the base and clamping it in position.

41. Clamp the base to the top. Then install the screws.

Next weekend

(You can build this table in a weekent; I didn’t say you could finish it, too.)
42. Remove the top. Then finish-sand the top and the base.
43. Apply your favorite finish. I started with a coat of Seal Coat (dewaxed shellac) to bring out the rich color of the walnut. Then, as this table is likely to get lots of wear, I brushed on two coats of polyurethane.