One’s clenched thighs can grip a beverage for only so long before the crotch succumbs to fatigue. And whether that beverage is hot or cold, catastrophe is sure to follow. Why don’t you set the lamp down on the floor and get that stupid doily off of your head? You’re a Human and you deserve better! There are things designed to hold all of that stuff for you; they’re called “tables”. I think you might like them. In this furniture making how-to, we’ll walk you through how to make stylish cedar side tables.
This pair of side tables is made from (8) 8-foot western cedar 2x4s from the home center. (4) 2x4s per table should allow enough material for any imperfections you may have to work around. Cedar comes in a range of colors, so consider that when buying your lumber. Note that I give many dimensions as “approximately” or “about” in this article. This is because actual dimensions aren’t critical here. When I made these I simply went by what looks good to me and ended up with tables having overall measurements of about 2 foot cubed. My “about” sizes will yield tables very similar to mine. But, as with any recipe, salt and pepper to taste.
Cedar 2x4s are likely to come rough sawn. Go ahead and mill the lumber so that you have flat, parallel faces and crisp, 90° corners. Three of the four 2x4s per table are milled to a thickness of just under 1-1/2” by 2-1/2”wide. The remaining lumber should be left as large as possible, for now. I mill mine using the “jointer, table saw, thickness planer” method. Perhaps that can be a future topic; I’ll conveniently gloss over it for now. Some alternatives are hand planing or seeking pre-surfaced lumber. The important thing is that you have flat, parallel edges with hard, square corners.
From the Top
The table top features a concentric squares pattern. Begin by cutting the square center piece and verifying that its corners are 90°. In my case, the square is about 2-1/2” (because that’s the width I ripped my 2x4s to during the milling process). If the corners aren’t square, you’re begging for trouble.
Each square ring consists of 4 equal trapezoids with 45° angles on the ends. The short side of the ring segments is equal in length to the sides of the square center piece. Glue up and clamp the first four ring segments as shown below. In my case, the tables were made for use on our covered balcony. Since they’re exposed to ambient weather, I used Titebond III, a waterproof glue. For indoor use, any regular wood glue (such as Titebond I) will do the job.
Give the glue enough time to set before unclamping. With most wood glues, a half hour is sufficient. Just keep in mind that it takes a good day or so for the bond to reach full strength, so don’t stress the joint until it’s fully cured. Ideally, you’d set the clamped assembly aside until the next day. However, that drags the project on longer than necessary and your spouse is already tired of waiting. Trust me, I asked. But hey, it’s your marriage.
For visual interest, select cedar with contrasting color and alternate between light and dark rings, as shown. Use the new outside dimension to determine the length of the next ring segment. Cut and glue up the next ring.
Continue adding rings until you’ve reached your desired size. My table tops are about 24” square.
Flatten The Top
If your glue-ups were half decent this step shouldn’t be too painful. Even so, you may need to set aside a couple hours for sanding. If you’re competent with a hand plane, you may want to knock down the high spots that way, observing grain direction to avoid nasty tear-outs. After hand planing, move on to sanding. I began with a belt sander and finished with a random orbital palm sander. Focus most of your efforts on the top of the table. You do want the underside to be relatively flat as well. But it won’t require the same level of smoothness as the topside.
A drum sander would be ideal for a project like this. If you own one, I hate you (a little)!
Cutting The Legs
I began by cutting some of the remaining cedar down to approximately 1-1/2” square rods, 23” long. Four per table. I made a custom jig to taper these at the table saw. You can buy commercially-available adjustable tapering jigs if you’re so inclined. A tapering jig is simply a device that holds the workpiece and allows you to safely pass it through the blade at an angle. Some ride along the saw’s fence, others are guided by a miter slot. The one shown is the former.
The flat side of the jig rides along the fence. The long notch is cut at an angle, which is determined by the desired taper. The work piece sits in the notch and is fed into the blade by pushing the entire jig forward, while maintaining some pressure against the fence. The taper begins 3-1/4” from the top of the leg and extends all the way to the bottom (kind of like that hottie you used to know). The tapering cuts remove 1/4” of material from each side at the bottom edge of the legs, narrowing them from 1-1/2” at the top to 1” at the bottom.
Some people taper their square legs only on two adjacent sides (usually the two inside faces). I prefer the look of legs tapered on all four sides. When an already tapered side is being run in the jig’s notch, I tape the wedge-shaped cutoff back in place to prevent the leg from rocking or otherwise shifting during the cut. There’s not enough room here to fully explain the use of a tapering jig but a simple Google search will turn up lots of helpful information. The use of a tapering jig is something we might highlight in a future woodworking article here on HomeFixated, stay tuned!
We’ll come back to the legs in a bit. But let’s go ahead and lift, I mean cut, the skirts now. More than just a cosmetic feature, the skirts – also known as aprons – provide physical support for the legs.
First of all, determine where your legs will be positioned. You’ll want them set back from the edge a little bit and spaced evenly from the corners. The aprons will then fill the spans between the legs, with their thickness being centered on the legs, as shown above. In other words, the legs extend behind and in front of the aprons by the same amount.
Cut four aprons per table. Mine measure 2-3/4” tall by 3/4” thick. The length should be whatever is required to span the gap between the legs. The aprons will be glued and screwed to the underside of the table top. To facilitate this, drill three counter-bored through holes along the bottom edge of each. One hole is centered along the length. The other two, about 2 to 2-1/2” from each end.
These holes, as stated, are counter-bored through holes. They have a hole large enough for the screw heads to fit down inside of (counter-bore). The depth of the counter-bore dictates how deep the screw will seat when tightened. The “through” part of “through hole” refers to the smaller diameter co-axial hole (large enough for the shaft of the screw to slide through without biting) that goes all the way through and out the other side of the wood. Basically, you’re drilling a stepped hole: Smaller on the top and larger on the bottom.
You’ll have to determine the depth of your counter bores based on the length of screws you use. I recommend having a good 3/4” to 1” of screw threaded into the underside of the table top. The easiest way to do this is as follows: Use screws that are, say, 2-1/2” long. First, drill the holes – just large enough for the threaded shaft of the screw to pass through – all the way through the wood.
Next, from what will be the bottom edge, enlarge the holes to a size that the screw head fits into. Drill deeper a little at a time, taking frequent breaks to drop a screw into it and seeing how far it sticks out of the other side. Once that protrusion reaches your desired depth (3/4 to 1 inch), stop. This is how far you need to drill your other counter-bores.
Now you can attach your aprons. Determine again exactly where they will be located and set them in place. Using an awl or long nail, mark the locations of the screw holes’ center points. Move the aprons aside and drill pilot holes where you just marked the underside of the top. The pilot holes should be the diameter of the screw shaft minus the threads.
After sanding the aprons, glue and screw them in place.
The corner blocks are cut from 3/4” plywood and are as tall as – or slightly shorter than – the aprons. Corner blocks serve to secure the legs to the rest of the table. They work – along with the leg bolts – by pulling the legs tightly against the ends of the aprons, binding everything into one, rigid assembly. Refer to the picture above to judge the length of the corner blocks.
The corner blocks have 45° bevels on the ends. To make these cuts, tilt your table saw blade to 45° and use your miter gauge (set to 90°) to guide the wood through the cuts.
Each leg attaches with a pair of 1/4-20 hex head bolts, so we need two ¼” holes in each corner block. Find the vertical center line (this runs up and down, from non-beveled edge to non-beveled edge) of one of the corner blocks, measure 3/4” from the top and bottom. These are where you’ll drill for bolts.
I used a pair of 45° cutoff scraps to cradle the corner blocks (and later, the legs) as I drilled. Once the support blocks were clamped in place on my drill press table, I had a repeatable reference. This means that I only have to locate the hole positions for the first corner block. The rest will automatically be aligned perfectly when I drop them into the cradle, lined up with the back edge. Simply drill, turn the piece around, drill the second hole then move on to the next corner block.
A pair of threaded brass inserts will be installed into the top inside corner of each leg. These are what the leg bolts screw into. We must first create a facet into which the inserts will go. To determine the boundaries of the facets, place the legs in place and trace the inside edge of the aprons onto the legs. The length extends just enough to provide clearance for the corner blocks. To cut this facet, use a handsaw or pocketknife.
The two 45° scraps from earlier are used again at the drill press to support the legs while boring holes for the inserts. Use one of the drilled corner blocks as a template to identify the proper location and spacing of these holes. Size and depth are determined by your specific inserts, in pretty much the same way as how a pilot hole for a screw is determined.
Some find these inserts tricky to install. With a drill press, however, you can get flawless results every time. Here’s a quick tutorial demonstrating the method so that I don’t have to:
To prevent a wardrobe malfunction, I like to shore up my aprons with 3/4” square rods. Frankly, these may not be needed. But, as Joe Farlow from the show Big Time RV says, “If it’s worth doing it’s worth overdoing.” I’d rather strengthen the aprons than have the table collapse because someone leaned on it too hard at a weird angle.
The support blocks should be glued in place. Screws are used to pull the blocks tightly into the corners, ensuring the best possible glue joints.
Let’s Finish This Thing
After all of the glue has dried, the final step is to apply a finish. For indoor use, lacquer or polyurethane are great choices. For outdoor use – such as on my Florida balcony – a spar urethane would work nicely. I decided to go with a deck sealer made by Ready Seal. Penetrating oil finishes (“Ready Seal”, “Thompson’s WaterSeal”, etc…) soak into the wood, providing a little better moisture protection than surface film products, such as spar urethane. Apply coats until it stops soaking in then wipe off any excess.
Penetrating finishes will generally need a refresher application every year or so, whenever the wood starts looking dry. But doing so is incredibly easy: Simply wash off dirt and dust with a damp rag then apply a fresh coat. No sanding. No hassle.
Note that it’s hard to find a deck sealer product that is crystal clear. A pigment of some sort is almost always added to provide UV protection. In the case of Ready Seal, I chose their lightest colored formula: “Golden Pine”, which barely affects the color of the cedar. Definitely no more so than standard polyurethane.
You have achieved “table”! Congratulations, Grasshopper; you may set down your drink.
You can pick up the threaded inserts used in this article via our sponsor Rockler for around $7 for a package of eight inserts.