Storage Ottoman

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This article is from Issue 89 of Woodcraft Magazine.

A footstool, seat, table, and storage unit, all in one attractive li’l package

My good half recently decided that she wanted a storage ottoman for our living room. I wasn’t aware of this particular furniture configuration until she pointed out the hundreds of versions available online. Turns out storage ottomans are all the rage these days, and for good reason. They provide a place to prop tired feet, sure, but they also offer convenient occasional seating, as well as a place to tuck couch blankets, pillows, or books out of sight but close at hand. Some can even convert into small coffee tables. Sizing typically ranges from a diminutive 15" height to a lofty 22" or so. And designs include everything from cheap collapsible units and fully upholstered pieces to wood versions that tend toward industrial and contemporary “crate-wood” styling. 

I wanted something with class and full functionality. After a bit of head scratching and pencil sketching, I came up with this version, which incorporates everything I desired. Being an approximate 17" cube, it’s a good size for both propping feet and taking a seat, while maintaining a small footprint and minimal weight for easy placement and maneuverability. The top lifts off for access to the interior, and removing the cushion creates a small table. I made the framework from walnut, veneering 1/2"-thick, shop-grade birch panels with maple on the sides and walnut on the lid. Whatever woods you choose, I recommend 1/16"-thick veneer for the lid for durability as a table top.

Stout and thought-out

This ottoman derives great strength from plywood side panels glued into grooves in the rails and legs, which are stoutly connected with mortise-and-tenon joinery. The top frame overhangs the box by 7/8" to allow easy lifting of the entire unit. The lid frame, which corrals a cushion, is coved at its bottom edges to provide finger access to remove the lid. The locator panel glued to the underside of the lid panel restrains it and strengthens the lid for seating.

Order of Work

  • Make and veneer the panels.
  • Make the legs.
  • Make the side rails.
  • Fit the panels and assemble the box.
  • Make the top frame and lid. 

Begin with the veneered panels

Saw the lid panel and side panels about 1" oversized in width and length. Don’t make the bottom or locator panel yet. Construct veneer sheets for the outer faces of the side panels and the top face of the lid panel as shown. To glue the veneer to the panels, roll a thorough (but not soaked) coat of yellow glue onto just the panel, press the veneer into the glue, and then lightly spritz the veneer with distilled water to prevent curling. Quickly place a few sheets of newspaper atop the veneer, and clamp the veneered panel between 3/4" MDF panels for a couple of hours. Afterward, remove the veneer tape by spritzing it and letting it sit for a couple of minutes before scraping it off. (For more on basic veneering, see OnlineEXTRAS.) 

Oversized veneers for oversized panels. Cut the veneers to suit your oversized panels. Tape the ends of a stack of several veneers to prevent shredding, and then use a veneer saw guided by a thick straightedge to make the cuts. A number of repeated pull strokes will do the job cleanly in short order. 
Joint the edges. With the edges of several veneer sheets projecting 1⁄16" or so from between two dressed boards, use a plane to joint the veneer edges. For woods prone to tear-out, use 80- and then 120-grit sandpaper adhered to a flat sanding stick. Check the jointed edges with a good straightedge before unclamping them. 

Tape the backside, then the front. With the “show” face of the veneer downward, pull the jointed seams together and use blue painter’s masking tape to temporarily hold the pieces together. Then inspect the show side. Readjust the pieces to fix any gaps, rejointing if necessary. Next, with the show face of the veneer oriented upward, apply wet veneer tape. Then briefly apply high heat from an iron to dry the tape. Finally, remove the blue tape from the opposite face before veneering the panels.

Mortise first. Clamp 2 legs end-to-end at the edge of your bench with the mortise faces (taped here as a reminder) oriented upward and outward as shown. Place the remaining 2 legs to serve as additional router support. Outfit your plunge router with an edge guide and a 1⁄4" upcut spiral bit set for a 7⁄8"-deep cut. Rout the first pair of mortises, first plunging full-depth at both ends of a mortise before removing the waste between in successively deeper passes. Rearrange the legs as necessary to rout each subsequent pair of mortises in the same manner.

Mortise, groove, and notch the legs

Mill the legs to size, ripping them from rift-sawn stock (with diagonally oriented end grain) to display relatively straight grain on all faces. Use a stop block to ensure precisely matched lengths. Group the legs with the best faces outward, and mark the top ends for reorientation later. Fully lay out one mortise, which you’ll use to set your router’s edge guide. For the other mortises, you need only lay out the mortise length extents. Rout the mortises first, then the grooves. Next, saw the notch, and then rout the corner rabbets. 

Groove second. Without changing the edge guide setting, adjust the bit depth for 1⁄4", and rout the panel grooves, again making sure to register the fence against an inside leg face. 
Saw the notch. Having set up a dado head to suit the thickness of your nominal 1⁄2"-thick plywood bottom panel, feed each leg in turn across the saw using a V-cradle guided by a miter gauge. A rip fence set 21⁄2" from the blade serves as a stop for cut consistency.

Make the side rails

Mill the top and bottom rails to final size, using a stop when crosscutting to ensure they are all exactly the same length. (Then mark the parts for the best aesthetic orientation.) Saw the tenons first, cutting them a bit fat, and then trimming them to fit after mitering their ends. Plow the 1/4 × 1/4" centered grooves for the panels, and then the 5/16 × 1/2" grooves for the case bottom. Finally, make a 1/2" plywood template for the bottom rail curve. After tracing out the curve on each rail and bandsawing just outside the line, use the template to finesse the curve on the router table as shown.

Saw fat. I cut the tenons with a dado head, sawing one cheek in two passes, then flipping the stock over to cut the other. After sawing all the cheeks, raise the dado head to 3⁄8", and stand the stock on edge to cut the tenons to width. 
Trim to fit. Use a shoulder plane and/or fine sandpaper wrapped around a dead-flat block to remove equal amounts from opposing tenon cheeks to achieve a perfect joint fit. The tenon should slide in place with a moderate amount of hand pressure only, with no smacking. 
Spring the curve. I lay out the lower rail template curve using a metal yardstick sprung to a bow and clipped to a couple of #8 finish nails driven into a scrap board at the corners of the template. Double-faced tape holds the template board to the scrap. 
Clean rout. Fasten the template to the rough-bandsawn rail with double-faced tape, and clean up the cut with a flush-trim bit. An “over-under” bit with top and bottom bearings allows flipping the work over to cut cleanly downhill with the grain in each direction. 

Hold your tongue. After cutting the rabbet shoulders with the work flat on the saw, stand the panel on edge to make the cheek cuts. Registering the tongue between the fence and the blade ensures that it will be a consistent thickness for a good fit in its grooves, especially with a featherboard pressing the work against the fence. Raise your featherboard above the rabbet to prevent pinching and kickback of the offcut strips.

Dry-assemble to fit the panels

Dry-fit the rails to the legs, carefully aligning and squaring the parts. When you’ve determined that everything fits well and that the panel openings are consistent, measure them for the panels, adding 1/2" in width and length to accommodate the 1/4"-deep grooves. Also measure for the bottom panel, noting how much needs to be nipped off the corners. Then sand the panels to 220 grit, saw them all to size, and rabbet the side panels to create tongues for the grooves. In preparation for assembly, I sand everything through 220 grit, making sure to re-mark any joint references as necessary. Then I “pre-finish” the parts, avoiding the joint surfaces and the top edges of the top rails. Finally, I glue up the unit in two stages as shown.

Stage 1: Assemble opposing sides. After making a strip of 1⁄2" plywood that fits the bottom groove and notches, apply glue to the mortises and tenons for one leg. Attach the rails, aligning them with the top of the leg and the notch. Then spot-glue the panel rabbet and slide it in its grooves. Repeat for the opposite leg, and apply clamps. Make sure to clean up any glue squeezeout inside the open adjacent mortises and notches using a clean brush. 

Stage 2: Join the side assemblies. Dry-fit the rails again to ensure good seating. Glue one end of each bottom rail to a side assembly, and insert the bottom panel. Then glue a top rail in place and install a side panel as shown. Repeat for the remaining side panel, add the opposite side assembly, and clamp up the box. 


When a project has offset panels and joints, it's sensible to apply a couple of coats of finish before assembly. It makes the application and intermediate scuff sanding a lot cleaner. Plus, the dried finish will ease any glue squeezeout removal. I first wiped the 220-grit-sanded surfaces with one coat of Seal-a-Cell, wiping off the excess after a half-hour. The next day, I scuff-sanded with 320-grit stearated paper before wiping on a thin coat of Arm-r-Seal, which I left to dry overnight. After scuff-sanding with 400-grit wet/dry paper, I was ready to assemble. Two more coats followed after assembly. 

Make the top frame and lid

Dress the rails for the top frame and lid frame. Also saw the lid panel to size. Cut the lid frame rabbet, gauging its depth from the thickness of your veneered lid panel. Miter and dry-fit the lid frame rails around the lid panel, ensuring snug corner joints. (See OnlineEXTRAS for a great miter sled for the job.) On the router table, round over the outer edges of the top frame and the inner and outer top edges of the lid frame with a 1/8" roundover bit.

Sand the lid frame and panel through 220 grit, and glue up both frames, joining the top frame miters with #10 biscuits. Rout the cove on the router table, slot the corners of the lid frame, and then make, install, and trim the splines. Sand and glue the top frame to the top side rails. Finally, make the locator panel, sizing it for a close but easy fit in its opening, and then glue it in place, centered on the underside of the lid panel.

Lid frame glue-up. Having dry-fit the lid frame rails, dry-clamp two of them to opposite edges of the lid panel. Then glue on the adjacent pieces, raising the clamps on riser strips to direct clamping pressure against the edges of the panel. After the glue cures, attach the remaining pair of rails.

Trim the splines. A flush-trim saw nicely levels oversized splines, as its teeth are set to one side only to prevent scarring the surface. I finish up the job with a finely set block plane and 220-grit sandpaper.

Saw the spline slots. To cut the slots for the reinforcing splines, use a jig to carry the workpiece at a 45° angle over the blade. Incorporate a backer to prevent exit tearout. 

Wipe your feet rest. After making the lid and attaching the top frame, give them a couple of coats of finish before applying a final coat or two to the entire project.

Finish up

Inspect all your surfaces and do any necessary clean-up finish-sanding, making sure to ease any sharp edges in the process. Then apply the same finish treatment to the top frame and lid that you did to the assembled box earlier. Following that, apply at least one more coat to everything. I wiped a total of 5 coats on the lid for extra protection against liquid spills. Finally, I rubbed out the finish with 0000 steel wool. 

Buyer’s Guide

See page 70 for tools and supplies used in this article.

Pillow Talk

I bought my cushion from, which offers a variety of foam types and fabric covers in many sizes. I ordered a fabric-covered 2 × 15 × 15" boxed-edge polyurethane foam cushion with square corners, no fiber batting, and no ties, for $65. Whatever size ottoman you make, the cushion should be 1⁄2" less in width and length than the distance between the lid rails to allow for the covering and slight discrepancies. 


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