Make Nice Things! Part Two.

A table is a mechanism for preventing your stuff from hitting the ground when you drop it.  Gravity is the earth’s own organizational force for keeping your stuff from floating away; tables take advantage of this force by keeping your stuff the right amount of distance away from the ground.

A table thus needs to achieve the following: 1. Keep certain categories of stuff from hitting the ground, i.e. a shop bench needs to support heavy parts, a dining table needs to support elbows and forks and coffees and stuff like that, and 2. Does not wobble or fall over given a reasonable impact. Given these design constraints, it is tough to say why I spent two months of weekends making a table that does these things in addition to looking nice.

Aristotle says that the good and the well reside in the function. So a good table is one that fulfills the basic gravity related needs.  Does a table that looks nice fulfill a greater function?  Well, I think so, but why? No really, I have no idea–hmm, fodder for a future blog post.

For the base, I decided that rather than have four table legs to support the table, I would build a frame that used a “U” shaped base that had two “U”s that met in the middle.  For good effect, I would use 45 degree miter joints in the middle where everything meets, and of course miter joints on the sides where the supports raise from the floor.  The supports would connect to the wood with some flat plate and some holes and it would all be done in a weekend.

None of this could be possible without my friend in woodworking, Gar.  Gar is an old friend, actually a friend of my sisters.  He lives nearby and we recently reconnected.  He was quite confident in our ability to tackle the project, so we enlisted his help and his shop to conduct the table making experiment.

Now, in abridged form, is how the table was built:

We started with eight foot planks of poplar.  We loved the figure and the green tones of the poplar. We bought some lighter sap wood pieces and some darker heart wood pieces, which we decided to alternate to create a mixed grain pattern on the table.

We used the jointer to treat the edges of all the boards, then we used a biscuit joiner to start putting all the boards together.

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Turns out, we didn’t have clamps big enough to glue the whole thing together, so I took some scrap and welded up a contraption to extend the clamps’ reach:

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Now we had a big board.

IMG_1116Turns out, when you glue boards together you’re pretty much guaranteed a rectangle, whereas to make a circle you have to do a lot more steps.
We used a router screwed to a board with a 24” length, with a small nail in the center of the board.  Gar walked the router around the table three times and soon we had a circle.

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Now that we had a circle, it was time to start sanding, which Melissa did beautifully.

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Sanding took quite a few hours, working all the way through the handplane to take down the jointed edges, then working on the dings and scratches that the boards had, then some filling in to other dings in the edges of the table.

Once the sanding was done, we began applying clear waterbased Zar polyurethane finish.  We liked the pale color of the poplar, and we wanted to keep it as white as we could.  Poplar will darken naturally–which you can see in the images as the project progresses.  The finish is actually for wood floors, so we knew it would be durable enough for the table.  Poplar is a soft hardwood, which we knew going into the project, so it was important that the finish be durable.  I was awful at applying the finish.  Once I figured out to use a nice brush, long strokes and then sand with fine grit steel wool, it turned out a lot better.  I applied about seven coats to the top and bottom.

While Melissa was sanding, I focused on building the base.  I began by driving to the post-apocalyptic metal supply store in industrial east Los Angeles, and I bought two 10′ sticks of 2×3” .120 wall steel, in addition to some random steel scraps.  I also went to Lowes and bought these wonderful flat plates that are used for roofing or something, but they were only 36 cents each!

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Now it was time to cut the metal. I had decided that I wanted to do only mitered joints, which means that you have to cut angles into each of the pieces so they fit together nicely.  This also meant that the project would take much much longer.  The chop saw also did not cut as accurately as needed, so the miter joints in the middle of the table where the pieces come together were not totally accurate. The chop saw did however, make a ton of noise, prompting an exasperated neighbor to yell at me from over the fence, “WHAT! ARe! You! DOING!?”

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Now we faced the issue of putting all the supports together.  The opportunities to ruin the whole thing were rampant.  If the table legs were not square, plumb, flat, and perpendicular, this whole exercise would be just a fancy pile of scrap.

I built this rig to pin the table down in place so I could weld it together with the right relationships in tact:

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One might think at this point that we can go ahead and weld in all the joints in a splatter of glory, but sadly you cannot do that.  As you weld, the heat will warp the metal and pull everything out of alignment, so I began the long process of tacking things together extensively before I started to weld.  In the end, the supports still warped inward a little bit, so I put in some reinforcements at the top to put everything back to plumb and square.

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Here the base is actually turned upside down and we can see the clamps and wood pieces I put in to bring the base back into alignment. This was a half-day project in itself.

I also decided that the little angle pieces I cut out of the miter joints would make cool gussets in the corners, which I should have put in before I welded the supports.

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You’ll note the splatter and overall crappy quality appearance of the welds. I was using flux core wire, which makes for ugly but functional welds.

Once I had the thing welded together, Gar had the great idea to run the palm sander with 60 grit sand paper over it to give it the right finish.  We also had to weld together the plates and then create the channels for the wood screws.  The channels were a huge pain and they turned out okay, though they are functional.

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And soon the base was finished.  I took my time with it, and Gar and I solved the myriad problems as they came up.  I can say with confidence that it is near perfectly square, plum, level and you could probably park a truck on it.  It weighs about 60 pounds.

We hit one last snag before we could mount the table to the base.  It would be one thing to just screw the wood to the base, but the problem was that if one were to lift up on one of the sides of the table, the wood screws and all the grain would be holding up the very heavy base.  I was a bit worried that if we lifted from one of the spots parallel to the grain that the board might split off.  We solved this by making battens that ran perpendicular to the grain.  The battens were made from a spare board, jointed, glued and nailed together.  We then put a channel in the battens so that the screws would be hidden from view and we cut another channel in them so the screws could move as the table expanded and contracted. Wood is always moving, I’m told.

Batten construction:

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The battens were then rounded into a small radius turn at the ends using a belt sander.  I put a couple coats of polyurethane on the battens and we screwed them to the table.  Screwing them in to the table was terrifying.  We put a stopper on the drill bit, but as we drilled down into the wood, the stopper moved back and we easily could have drilled through the top of the table.

We then decided that screwing the table to the base would not be great, so we decided instead to use dowel pins that were fit to the specific size holes in the mounting plates.  We put two dowels in the center board, then two more on each side perpendicular to the grain that fit down into the channels on the sides, thus allowing for movement perpendicular to the grain direction.

The table top then drops down into the dowel holes with a very satisfying clunk and feels as if it is screwed down.  If you were to lift up on the table, however, the dowels would release long before the weight of the base would be put on the boards.

Finally, we also knew that not every floor is perfectly flat, so we had to tackle the issue of putting feet on the table.  We decided the best thing was to get some threaded rod and cut it into 1” pieces.  We threaded the rod into small pieces of plywood, and we tapped some holes in the table base.  Then we put a small locknut on the rod and threaded the feet into the base.  I love this detail.

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Here is an early test fit of the table:

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Here it is in the truck:

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Here it is in the house:

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In the end, it was a blast to build, worth every moment.  The total raw cost of the materials was about $250, so Crate and Barrel can seriously suck it.  We need to buy some chairs and I need to sand down the base a little more.  It’s not perfect, but it is done!  Definitely excited for the next big project.

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