Build a Coffee table…Just the Way You Like It

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This article is from Issue 79 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Personalize your project by selecting the design details that suit your size and style requirements.

The coffee table needs a new name. Every home has at least one of these low tables, and they do so much more than provide a parking space for caffeinated beverages. The basic design of this coffee table leaves plenty of room for customization. It’s easy to adjust the table’s size, finish details, and other features to suit your needs (see sidebar at right). 

A buddy of mine turned the legs for this table. You’ll recognize them in the duplicate turning article that begins on p. 55. You can use the same profile or come up with your own. Another alternative is to order a set of legs from an online source like

Have it your way

It’s easy to customize your coffee table. Here are just a few options:

  • Table size. Build a bigger table by lengthening the aprons.
  • Finish. Use a different finish for the base, or a different wood for the top. See p. 60 to create a faux soapstone top (photo at right). 
  • Dining table option. Install spring-actuated hardware that enables you to elevate the table top. See p. 28 for installation details.

Turned legs, deep aprons, sturdy joinery, and a stable top

Coffee tables are typically about 16" high, but the footprint can vary. The dimensions of this table represent the smallest size that can accommodate the top-raising hardware shown on p. 28. This simple design has no lower shelf or stretchers to stiffen the table frame, so structural integrity needs to come from strong leg-to-apron joints. A solid wood top will be more resistant to warping if it has breadboard ends, as featured here. Many fine tables of all sizes have this traditional detail. NOTE: If you don’t want to use the top-raising hardware, the plywood inner panel isn’t necessary, and you can attach the top to the base with steel Z-clips or Figure 8 fasteners (see onlineEXTRAS). 

Order of Work

  • Make the legs (see p. 55).
  • Cut the aprons to finished size.
  • Mortise the legs, then make the apron tenons to match the mortises.
  • Mill the decorative profile along the bottom edges of the aprons.
  • Assemble the legs and aprons.
  • Make the top.
  • Finish the base and the top separately.
  • Attach the top.

Rout mortises using an edge guide and an upcut bit. I made my mortising jig to use Micro Jig clamps that fit in dovetail grooves (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 64). But any setup that holds the leg in similar fashion will work. Use a 3⁄8"-dia. upcut spiral bit in the router, and adjust the edge guide to center the mortise on the leg. Rout each 1"-deep mortise by making a series of 1⁄4"-deep cuts.

Mortise the legs, make the tenons, detail the aprons, then glue everything together

The turned legs I’m using have a short, square top section that will look best with aprons centered on the leg profile. I rout the mortises first, then cut the tenons to fit. The mortising jig I use to hold the legs is especially useful in this project. I also rely on it to rout the breadboard ends (p. 26) and to clamp each apron as I rout a decorative bead along its bottom edge. The jig’s vertical face has horizontal and vertical channels routed with a 14° dovetail bit. Special clamps slide in the channels to hold workpieces of different sizes (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 64). 

Make tenons on the router table. A shop-made miter guide enables me to rout clean-cheeked tenons quickly with a 3⁄4" straight bit. Use a stopblock as shown to maintain uniform tenon length. Each cheek cut requires two passes. I cut each tenon to its finished width with a dozuki saw.
Pick your profile. The bottom edges of aprons deserve some decorative treatment. Here I’m milling a bead, but you might prefer a cove or other profile. Instead of doing this shaping work on my router table, I’m clamping each apron piece in my long mortising jig and using a bearing-guided beading bit.

Keep it square. An upside-down glue-up on a flat work board allows me to focus on keeping the assembly square as I clamp the base together. 

Make the top attractive and stable with breadboard ends

Any wide wood panel can benefit from breadboard ends—not just for stability, but for appearance, too. Although there are variations, most breadboard ends join the main wood panel by means of a continuous short tongue interrupted by deeper tenons (see drawing, below). Dowels or square wood pegs extend through the tenons to keep the end in place. By elongating the outer peg holes and mortises, the wood panel can go through its normal cycle of expanding and contracting while still remaining solidly connected to the end piece. Drawboring the pegs as explained in steps 7, 8, and 9 is an effective way to pull the ends fast against the panel and keep the connection tight over time.

Layout and assembly details

  • Lay out the center and outermost tenons first, then locate remaining tenons between them.
  • Cut the center mortise in breadboard end to match the center tenon’s dimensions. Cut other mortises 3⁄8" to 1⁄2" longer to allow for wood movement.
  • Elongate all dowel holes in tenons as shown, except for the hole in the center tenon. 
  • To assemble the joint, glue the center tenon in its mortise. For all remaining tenons, apply glue to dowel only so that tenons can move in their mortises.
Set up a straightedge. The bearing-guided bit I use to rout the tenon needs a straightedge guide. After square-cutting the panel ends, I use a pair of L-shaped positioning blocks to ensure identical shoulder cuts on both sides of the joint.
Create one big tenon. Each tenon cheek requires two passes with the bit. I make the shoulder cut first, then shift the straightedge slightly closer to the end to remove the remaining waste. 

Make smaller tenons, with tongues in between. To create the joint’s tenon-and-tongue arrangement, I cut out waste pieces with a multitool. A jigsaw or coping saw will also do the job. 

Lay out the mortises. Cut the breadboard end to final width but leave it several inches oversize in length. Hold it centered against the tenons to lay out your mortises.
Rout mortises first. With the breadboard end clamped in my mortising jig, I plunge-rout each mortise in a series of 1⁄4"-deep cuts. Take time to carefully adjust the router’s edge guide so that your joinery is centered. Connect the completed mortises with a groove just over 1⁄4" deep.

Find centers for dowel holes. After marking the centerline of each tenon on the panel edge, fit the breadboard end in place on the panel and mark where to drill through the end. Mark hole centers 1⁄2" from the edge of the breadboard end. Remove the end from the panel and drill through the end at each dowel location, using a 1⁄4"-dia. brad-point bit.

Mark tenons with a brad-point bit. Refit the end on the panel and clamp the joint tight if necessary. Then insert your brad-point bit in each dowel hole, and tap lightly with a hammer to mark a center point on each tenon.
Make your holes carefully. Drawboring requires moving each dowel hole 1⁄32" to 1⁄16" closer to the tenon shoulder than the center points made in the previous step. Clamp a backer block to the tenon to eliminate tearout, and elongate holes in outer tenons by making a pair of overlapping holes. Then clean up with a chisel or rasp.

Install the ends. Install each breadboard end after sanding small chamfers as indicated in the photo. Cut dowel pegs about 1½" long and whittle slight points on pegs to help them engage in drawbored tenon holes. Glue the center tenon in its mortise, but allow the remaining tenons to “float” by gluing dowels only. Trim the dowels flush, and you’re ready to sand and finish.

Elevate your table’s versatility with spring-loaded hardware

Coffee tables are usually too low for comfortable eating or working. You can overcome this limitation with some specialized hardware (see Buyer’s Guide, p. 64). This spring-actuated mechanism makes it easy to swing the tabletop up about 8" higher. The mechanism contains a pair of lower mounting bars (for fastening to the table base) and a pair of upper mounting bars (for fastening to the underside of the top). A clearance space of 3-3/4" is required (between the top of the table frame and the lower mounting surface). The hardware isn’t difficult to install, but instead of mounting it on cleats, as shown in the photos at right and below, it’s smarter to install a 3/4"-thick plywood panel between the stretchers, as shown in the drawing on p. 24. The weight of the plywood acts as a counterbalance when the table swings up and out. (I pocket-screwed a plywood panel between my cleats to add extra weight.)   

Center the hardware. Holes in the upper and lower mounting bars make it easy to screw the mechanism to the table base and the top. Start by screwing the lower bars to cleats or to a bottom panel, so that the upper bars are centered in the base opening. 
Center the top. Position the base upside-down on the tabletop, and center the base on the top. Hold it in place while marking the position of upper mounting bars. Fasten the upper bars to the underside of the table by driving screws at hole locations.


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