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Build A Coffee Table

With this beginner coffee table project tutorial I’m going to show you how I build this simple table using pine boards you can get from any lumber store. This is a basic project that uses a couple types of joinery techniques, including pocket holes and mortise and tenon (the easy way).

How to build a coffee table

I made one almost identical to this a couple years ago, and after using it for awhile in our own house, we sold it, and it sold quick.

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>>Note on buying and using dimensional pine lumber on woodworking projects

Pine is not usually associated with what I would consider “Fine Furniture” projects.

It’s moisure content from the store may be over 20 or even 25%. This means it may warp, cup, or twist as it continues to dry.

It’s always best to let the lumber you buy dry for a few weeks in your shop before starting a project.

However, for a basic project like this coffee table, I’ve personally never done that.

I live in the midwest where it gets very humid in the summer, and dry in the winter. My pine wood projects are holding up just fine.

I figured it’s because of their rustic style, any tiny flaw basically goes unnoticed.

Be sure to buy the absolute straightest boards you can find at the lumber store.

Sometimes I’ll have trouble finding any decent 1-bys for a project, so I get these premade pine panels that Lowes sells. They’re smaller pieces of pine all glued together, and come in various widths and lengths. These are really flat and straight, and I’ll just rip it into narrower boards on my table saw to get the pieces I need for a project.

This works if I’m going for a rustic look, but otherwise be aware these boards will look like a butcher block panel when finished, not like a single solid board.


The Table-Top Panel

Crosscut each 2-by down to 4″ longer than the final length. This allows 2″ on each end to be removed after the panel is glued together.

This serves 2 purposes. One, so you can have a clean flat end to attach the breadboard to.

The other reason is because in a following step, after running the boards thru the planer, I’ll have snipe 2″ from each end – and the excess 2″ getting cut off eliminates that.

Crosscutting the top panel boards for the coffee table, on the table saw

Snipe is the divot made in the board as it passes thru the planer at each end, when only one roller is holding the board down. See This to get a better understanding.

Rip the boards down about 1/16″ on each side to clean up and flatten the edges. I do this for all top boards including the breadboard ends.

Ripping pine boards to flatten the edges

Run each board thru the thickness planer to clean up the other surfaces and remove most imperfections.

If you don’t have a planer, that’s ok. After the glue-up you’ll be sanding it down flat and smooth anyway.

Planing pine boards for the simple coffee table project

If you have an edge jointer, you’ll want to run these boards thru the jointer to make nice clean seams without any gaps.

If you do not have a large jointer that would be needed for long boards like this, you can use a router with a bushing guide to flatten the edges as needed.

Edge jointing with a router and bushing

> How to edge joint with a router

Lay the boards out how you want them, it’s best to alternate the grain direction – If in the first board the grain cups downward, the next board have the grain cup upward, and continue swapping with each piece.

This helps the panel as a whole remain flat, as the natural tendancy to cup in one direction for one board, is offset by the surrounding boards’ tendancies to cup in the opposite direction.

Panel boards on a coffee table top laid out so the grain direction alternates

Using a pencil draw a big triangle on the panel, this makes it easy to keep the boards in order and oriented correctly.

I also recommend doing this on the bottom in case any part of the pencil mark is hard to sand away later due to low spots.

Table top boards marked with a triangle to show board orientation

Now you can go ahead and apply glue to the edges and clamp. If you’re not using any panel clamping jigs or cauls to hold the panel flat, I would suggest either adding biscuits, or only gluing 2 edges at a time.

This would reduce any shifting of the boards during glue-up. However, if you’ve got a panel clamping jig like the one I’m using here, it gets easier to glue the entire panel in one step.

table top being clamped and glued using panel clamps

Once the glue has dried, clean up the joints’ glue squeezeout with a sharp chisel. I like to do this immediately after removing the clamps (within 45 minutes of clamping). The longer you wait, the harder it becomes to remove this squeezeout.

cleaning the glue from the joints of this table top panel

Now draw your crosscut lines along the panel, 2″ from the edge. I used my large t-square (made for drywall), to make these lines.

Marking table top for crosscut using a square

Use your circular saw and a straight edge guide to crosscut 2″ from each end of the panel. Do this with the table top upside down, as the clean cut from a circular saw is on the bottom since the teeth are moving upward into the wood.

I’m using a simple jig I made specifically for my circular saw for cuts like this one. It’s just a long piece of 1/4″ plywood, about 14″ wide, with a 1/2″ plywood fence glued down the middle. Cut one edge from the 1/4″ ply using your circular saw, running it along the 1/2″ fence. Now you’ll just line up the edge of the 1/4″ ply with your cut line, and clamp the jig down on the other side as shown here.

Crosscutting this table top end flat using a circular saw and jig

Now add the pocket holes, for this I’m using the Kreg K4 pocket hole jig. I’ve set it up for 1-1/2″ stock, and I’ll use 2-1/2″ screws.

I put pocket holes at both ends near each corner, and then additional pocket holes in each board of the panel.

Pocket hole joinery here will allow for some board movement as the center boards expand against the will of the breadboard ends. If this were only glued on, this expansion could create warping or even cause a glue joint to fail.

> Pocket hole joinery how-to guide

Table top panel pocket holes in bottom to attach breadboard end

Hold the breadboard ends in place against the panel and mark the final length. This should be about 4″ shorter than the initial rough cut. Remember, you’ll want to remove 2″ from each end to remove the snipe.

Make the final crosscuts for your breadboards back on the table saw.

Clamp the breadboard to the end of the panel and attach using 2-1/2″ pocket screws.

Table top breadboard ends clamped in place ready for pocket screws.

If you want to plug these holes, now is the time. One trick I use for easy and cheap plugs is to glue in a piece of dowel stock, then after it dries just cut the excess off with a pull-saw or a dovetail saw, and sand smooth. This step is obviously optional, as these pocket holes will be on the bottom of the panel.

Plugging pocket holes with dowel stock, glue and a dovetail saw

The Base

The base for this coffee table is a basic 4-leg and 4-apron base. You can build these legs to be square-block legs, which is really popular right now.

However, I’ll be adding some flavor, a little personal taste. I want tapered legs, just because it adds a slight bit of elegance. Even to a rustic piece, I think it will look good.

So I’ll use my straight-edge jig to cut the tapers. This is a really handy jig for your table saw. However, for stock this thick, you will have to flip each piece over and cut twice. Clean up the final tapered surface with a hand plane and sand it smooth.

Coffee table legs getting tapered using this table saw sled

>> I’ve since scrapped this straight-edge jig and designed my own jointer/tapering sled. It’s much lighter and simpler to build. It’s part of Wood Shop Essentials.

Finish cutting your aprons to size and now we can make the mortises in the ends (for loose tenon joinery).

Cutting Mortises In Ends Of The Aprons

You’ll need to set up your mortising jig’s fence for vertical clamping, draw the center and edge lines on the end of one apron, then clamp it in place and set up the router sled position and stops as needed.

Also I’ve adjusted my plunge router to produce 1-1/8″ deep mortises. This leaves space for 2″ tenons, plus some extra room for extra glue to reside when clamping.

Setting up mortising jig for making end grain mortises
Apron clamped in place for end mortises
Set up for end mortises
Lock down jig positioners for the sled
Setting the position of the router sled

Then plunge that mortise, and for the rest of the aprons’ ends you don’t need to mark anything.

Just clamp against the fence, flush with the top of the jig, and it’s positioned.

>> To see this jig in action – watch me use it here.

Cutting Mortises In The Legs

Next you’ll mark the location of the apron for one leg on one side.

Using this, you can now mark the center line (board thickness and the board width centers), and the top and bottom edges of the mortise.

Clamp the work piece to your mortising jig and transfer the center line onto the jig, on a piece of masking tape placed at the edge so it’s not permanent.

Now set up your router sled and make the mortises. You’ll have to flip the direction of the leg on each mortise for every other mortise, so that the outside of the leg is always against the jig.

The only marking you’ll need to do for the remainder of mortises is the center line, which you’ll line up with the mark on the masking tape. The jig is already set up to cut identical mortises each time, so marking the whole mortise after the 1st one is unnecessary.

Just cut the mortise in this table leg with my benchtop mortising jig

This picture is from right after I cut the first mortise for the legs. Notice I offset the apron 1/8″ so that means I had to reset my sled guide knobs, not just the stop blocks, from the setup I had for the aprons.

Making the Tenons

I didn’t have any thick stock, so I planed down some scrap 2×4 to 1″ thick and cut thin strips to match the width of my mortises.

Note – do this on scrap first, so you get your table saw setup just right for making the tenons snug with no wiggle room in the leg mortises.

Then I cut the tenon stock into 2″ pieces, and I’ll use 2 for each joint.

Loose tenon stock cut from 1" thick pine
Loose tenons cut to 2" long
Loose tenons dry fit into apron

Notice the tenon is not rounded and filling the entire mortise.

That’s ok – the strength of the joint comes from the face grain surface area being glued, not the edges.

Leaving this slight gap has 2 benefits:

  1. Much quicker to cut your tenons – no need to get the width perfect and then roundover edges
  2. Allows for some vertical play after you’ve started the glue up, so you can adjust the apron up or down to make it flush with the top of the leg.

Cut Grooves In Aprons

You’ll want cut grooves 3/16″ deep, along the inside top edge of each apron.

I cut it so it left 1/2″ of wood between the groove and the top edge, because my table top fasteners are designed to fit in grooves 1/2″ from the table top.

I set up my table saw to the 3/16″ depth, and my fence for 1/2″, and my feather board for the width of my aprons.

Table saw set up for cutting 3/16" grooves in aprons

Assemble the Base

Now do some final sanding, take care to look at all the surfaces in good light at an angle so you can see any remaining saw or sanding marks that need to be sanded out. It’s easiest to take care of these problem areas right now.

Final sanding on the tapered leg

I’ve chosen to assemble the base before staining, because I believe for this particular project that would just be quicker.

So next, glue up the base. I’ve done it in 2 steps. The long aprons first, then the short ones.

Gluing the legs to the long aprons using pva glue and pipe clamps

Once it’s completely glued up, you can now move on to staining. Setup your area and stain the top and the base together to save time, and rags.

I’ve detailed this staining process here > How to stain wood.

After the stain is dry, you can center it upside down on the bottom side of the top and attach with these metal fasteners.

Attaching table top to apron using metal fasteners - closeup
Attaching table top to apron using metal fasteners

And now it’s ready for finishing. If you want you can take the top off and finish the top separate from the bottom, but for me I found it easiest to just apply poly to the underneath with it assembled, and the next day I started to poly the top.

Here’s the table completed, after 4 coats of Minwax polyurethane.

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