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Modern Coffee Table Made With Hand Tools

author-gravatar joelav Dec 11, 2016

I made a small modern inspired coffee table for my home office using cherry, poplar, and some milk paint. Many mistakes were made, but I fixed them along the way - which is half the battle. 

Small coffee table made with cherry and poplar. The poplar base is painted with Old Fashioned brand milk paint and the top has an oil, shellac, and wax finish

A little mistake fixing turned into a nice detail. Rosewood and canarywood details 

The top is basically a surfboard shape. This retains the sort of narrow width, but gives a little more space to walk around it

Close up of the canarywood and rosewood detail

The bottom of the table has a heavy undercut to reduce the visual weight

I like using milk paint because it has a really soft look and feel while being a very protective finish. 

Like with every project I like to start sharp. I take the tools I know I will be using right off the bat and give them a good once over.

Here is some cherry and poplar for the table. Originally the top was going to be all cherry, but after planing it down there were a lot of worm holes present. I still ended up with one visible worm hole, but to get to the desired width I added a strip of poplar to the middle  

I  then get the boards to rough length. This makes all the next steps a lot easier than dealing with a single 8.5 foot long board

Using winding sticks, I check for twist. This piece was actually pretty bad and I had to shim the bottom to plane it otherwise it wobbled

To start I use an aggressively set Stanley No5 to take thick cross grain shavings. This took all the milling marks off and eliminated most of the twist the board had

Next I switch to a finer set jack plane to take the rest of the twist out - planing at about a 45 degree angle for the length of the board. Once I am satisfied the twist is gone, I used my No7 jointer plane to flatten it. 
After the jointer, I like to go over it with my finely set No4. Because it is short and takes fine shavings, it will clean up any small high spots the long No7 skates over. 

Once both pieces are flat and the same thickness (7/8" in this case), I work on the edges. First I use a jack plane to take the rough stuff off, then I use my large jointer plane. The extra length ensures a flat surface

To bring the other edge of the board in parallel to the one I jointed, I use a panel gauge to strike a line to the desired width, then plane to that line.     

After squaring up the poplar board that will run down the middle, I match joint the faces that will be mated together in the glue up. I clamp both boards together and plane them at the same time. Even if there is a slight deviation when planing them, the deviation will match and they will fit perfectly

I had some issues with this poplar. It did not want to stay flat. Because it's a light and flexible species, I decided to give the joint some mechanical advantage to pull it flat and keep it that way. I am using loose tenons here. marked where the bow started in the poplar and chiseled a 1/4" mortise on the edges of all the boards.

Once that was done I made some loose tenons out of cherry. These are not exactly "loose", but not as tight as a traditional mortise and tenon. They should be able to be pulled out by wiggling them. I planed the stock, squared up the faces on a shooting board, and then cut them to length. I didn't drive it home on both ends for a test fit because it would be impossible to pry it apart without damaging the wood fibers. After the successful test fit I drilled holes for the dowel pins and glued it up

These will be pinned also. I turned these pins out of Zircote. However my pin placement was mistake number 1. I drilled one hole on the wrong side of the center line leaving a very obvious misaligned pin. Time to make lemonade    

I decided to cover the misaligned pins using some rosewood and canarywood. I cut a shallow mortise and fit the pieces in. Because the Zircote was so hard, I had to use a drill. The router plane and chisel were skipping right over the pins

Now on to the legs. I made a template out of plywood with the length and inside/outside tapers I wanted. I want the top to have an 8" overhang over the legs, but the splayed legs make that difficult. This was my way of aligning the bottom of the leg to the 8" mark on the table

I then transferred my template to some 5/4 poplar 

I cut them with a ryoba

Then planed to the pencil lines. Because the taper on each side is different, planing to the lines is very important. 

All 4 legs match perfectly. I'm glad I took a lot of time to get this right. It paid off once the base was assembled.    

Now for the base joinery. I don't know why, but I didn't capture any pictures of cutting the mortises in the legs. I did the mortises first because it's easier to trim a tenon than it is to mess with a mortise and have everything still line up. Especially since there is an 8th inch reveal. This is the layout for the mortises. Since the grain on the legs now runs on an angle, chiseling alone would cause spits. I decided to go through the top. I sawed out the lines first then removed the rest with a chisel

I laid out the tenons using a bevel gauge to transfer the angled cheeks. I made the vertical cuts first with my small Ryoba

For the cheeks I used a ruler to knife over my pencil line, then chiseled into the knife line which makes a ledge for my saw to rest against. I sawed the waste off then tuned up the shoulders with a shoulder plane

The short sides of the apron are a little harder. Because the legs are tapered, these needed to be tapered along their length. Using my bevel gauge again I marked the taper on the edge of the board. I did this on one long board that I will cross cut to fit each side after

I set my marking gauge to the angle I transferred on the end grain, then marked each face 

I planed down to the line leaving the edge of the board intact. Here you can see the bottom has already been done

Now I cross cut them to final length

I had to use dowel joinery here. The angled grain bit me again and the first mortise I chopped resulted in making another leg. 

After a successful dry fit, I planed all the surfaces smooth in preparation for finishing

I added some strong chamfers to the legs and aprons with my Japanese block plane

I am going to attach the top to stretchers that run across the aprons. To do this I am going to use a lapped dovetail. I first cut the dovetail and remove the waste from the cheeks 

Then I saw down the tail for the lapped portion of the joint

Once I saw to the baseline, I remove the waste with my carcass saw at a bench hook. Sawing the dovetail first gives me the added advantage of defined shoulders so the carcass saw has a clear entry and exit path

Now for the pin socket. Dovetails are traditionally cut into end grain. This is face grain and this is a risky operation. Splitting is really common and really easy. I sawed the edges like a half blind dovetail then gently pared away most of the waste with a sharp chisel - staying clear of both baselines. I cleaned it up with my router plane

The astute will notice I marked the dovetail on the wrong side initially. Fortunately this will never be seen.

That careful matching of the legs paid off. Out of the clamps, the base is square and all 4 legs touch the bench at the same time. The joinery fits very snugly and there are no gaps at the shoulder lines.
After this step, I applied 4 coats of Real Milk Paint brand "Cream" colored milk paint. After that dried I coated it with 2 coats of Boiled linseed oil for added protection; and to soften the bright-ish white color to more of a buttermilk color

Now for the top. It's going to be slightly oval shaped - like a surfboard. I segmented the panel in quarters and made a cardboard template for the curve. I used my turning saw to cut away most of the waste, but leave the pencil line 

I used a combination of a spokeshave and rasps to get all the way to the line and refine the shape

This is a small table with a thick top. To reduce the visual weight, I am adding a very large undercut. I made a similar template to the one I used to cut the curves, and laid out where I want the undercut to be. I also used a marking gauge to mark a line on the edge of the board

I used my larger Japanese plane to remove the waste and connect the two lines all the way around the table. 

Once the waste was removed I cleaned up the surface with a freshly sharpened card scraper

Before I apply a finish to the top, I need to figure out how to attach the base again. Since I cut the table into an oval, I have no flat/square surfaces to reference anymore - and I need to remove all my pencil lines to smooth and finish the bottom. I clamped the base in place to the existing lines and drilled pilot holes. The holes are elongated in the stretcher to allow for wood movement and a shouldered screw is used    

Once drilled, I used number punches to reference to the base after. These are pretty deep and they will not plane or scrape off

Now on to the wormhole. I contemplated leaving it, but ended up cutting a patch. If I were to do this over I would have made the edges of the patch round. It's less noticeable however it's almost invisible like it is. The patch is circled in the picture. 

Finishing time! I've found the best finish to bring out the natural deep color of Cherry is the following:
 - 2 liberal applications of boiled linseed oil applied with 320 grit sandpaper. I Brush on a very heavy coat of oil, sand it in, wait 20 minutes, then wipe of the slurry against that grain. This fills the pores and creates a smooth surface
  - 3 wiped-on coats of 1lb cut amber dewaxed shellac. This can be applied right over the BLO without waiting for it to cure. The amber color really brings out the beauty in the cherry
 - 10 very light coats of wiped on blonde shellac. Too much amber is a bad thing. To build a protective enough finish with the amber alone leaves the cherry a little too amber, so I switch to a clear shellac for my finial finish. If I needed more protection, I would use a polyurethane here.
 - Paste wax applied with 0000 steel wool. This evens out the finish and takes away a lot of the gloss for a subtle looking finish. Because I used the clear shellac over the amber, there is no risk of removing my color coat with the steel wool.

I used the clear wax (mineral oil and carnauba wax) mix for the table legs since it is clear and will impart no further tone

Now I align the base to my stamped numbers and get ready to insert the screws. I am using slotted brass screws here because I like the look (even though they will probably never be seen). Brass is soft. Cherry is hard. Before using these I use the same size steel screw to cut threads into the cherry. After that I wax the brass screws and use a turn screw of the appropriate size to install and clock the brass slotted screws. Modern straight slot screw drivers are terrible and never actually fit right

That's it. Base installed and finished.

The finish really looks great in natural light


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