College Table – No Worries.

Assembled Five Minute College Table
Assembled Five Minute College Table

The shadow across the table doesn’t do it justice.  But you get a chance to see what it looks like before finishing (whatever version of finish you choose).  My particular finish of choice was a shower curtain, available at almost any dollar-type store.  You might laugh, but it kept the stains off and did a decent job as a table cloth.

If you are thinking “I could never build a table,” this is a simple build that can reasonably be done in one afternoon.  If you have the skills to do a better table, this might give you some ideas on what the next project might start from.  I’ve tried to consider those who do not have any wood work skills in the creation of this project, and for the most part, anybody could do this project.  The cutting I did was done before I really worked out the plan on how to make this, so I’ve made some of the mistakes for you so you won’t have to.

To start with, you will need one full sheet of 3/4 inch plywood, two 6 foot long 2x4s, one roll of painter’s tape, one drill, one jig saw or circular saw, one pencil, and a minimum of 16 #8 screws that are an inch and a half long.  You will also need a blade for the saw (assuming you didn’t use a hand saw to begin with) and a drill bit.

The materials needed for the College Table Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker
The materials needed for the College Table
Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker

Let’s start by getting the plywood.  I’d recommend, if you have never done any work with a plywood, that you get it cut at the store.  Most places will give you a few cuts for free, some charge for cuts, and some charge for cuts over a certain number.  I planned the cuts on the plan based off four free cuts from the average home center; if yours does more, great.  If not, don’t sweat it.

Simpler than it looks, the cut plan is the basic list of parts for the Table. Art by the Five Minute Wood Worker.
Simpler than it looks, the cut plan is the basic list of parts for the Table.
Art by the Five Minute Wood Worker.

In the cut plan, there are no dimensions listed.  This is not because it’s a “fluid style project where everything is made up,” that’s because of the limitations of the software this late at night.  The cuts are color coordinated, so you know which ones to do and in which order.  And you don’t really need a cargo vehicle to carry your plywood home in: the largest piece you have will fit on top of the average sedan’s roof with just  couple of foam insulator blocks.  (I’d recommend pool noodles or pipe insulation: cheap, disposable, and already long enough to sit on the roof of your car.)  If you have a minivan, larger SUV, or a pickup truck, then obviously this becomes a non-issue.

The two longest pieces are eight feet long.  These will be cut down later, but you can fit these inside your average sedan.  They are only 4 inches wide, so they are flexible enough to fit around headrests and door frames.  (And you don’t necessarily need someone to help you move them from car to the work area.)  Start by getting the store to cut the bottom one first, followed by the second one.  These will eventually become the apron/framework that the table top rests upon, so getting these cut square is important… but not absolutely essential at this stage.  The third cut is the blue one: this separates the table top half from a combination scrap piece and source for additional support pieces, if you feel they are needed.  (I rested 35 pounds on top of the table without them and it held for months: you might not need to use them.)  The fourth cut (the green line) separates the table top from another piece of scrap material.  Keep these scraps – they make great cutting guides as well as support pieces.  (Not everybody will need these.)

The first cut line, the light brown line, is four inches from the bottom.  You want this straight edge, as it will rest against the bottom of the table.  The second cut, the dark brown line, is another four inches from the cut edge.  This will also rest against the bottom edge of the table.  The table top itself is only 60 inches long by 32 inches wide.  The blue line is the third cut, which will require either the plywood rotating 90 degrees, or the saw on the plate rotating 90 degrees.  LET THE LUMBER YARD GUY FIGURE THIS OUT.  (If they break the blade, you are not responsible.  I have been present for three pieces of lumber being cut when they screwed up, including one of my own.  If they screw up, then you do not get held accountable, and don’t have to pay for the replacement saw, blade, or wood.)

The major parts after cutting. Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker
The major parts after cutting.
Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker

The fourth cut just trims the table top to width: this should give you a scrap piece about 60 inches long and 8 inches wide.  This is the part that is variable, however, as you can get your table top cut in whatever width works for you, up to 40 inches wide.  The wider it is, however, the more awkward it is to maneuver.

That’s the big bulk of the cutting.  If you already know how to cut plywood, either on a table saw or with a circular saw, you can skip the step of getting it cut at the lumber yard.  However, I have found having the parts already cut into the major components before loading them into the car to be a fantastic time saver, and can cut the project time on this down by more than five minutes.

So, now you are ready for the next part.  Cutting everything to length (after getting it out of the car) is fairly straight-forward.  The legs are made from the 2x4s, and are 30 inches long.  (I made the mistake of cutting them to 32 inches long on the photographed version.  While it’s a great counter top or kitchen prep table height, it’s not so comfortable to sit at.  I found this entry on common furniture dimensions, and while there are other ones out there, this one provides enough information to work with on this project.)  It is possible to get three legs from one 8 foot section of 2×4, but 6 foot sections fit easier into the car, and leave less scrap lumber.  Use the jig saw and the 60 inch long scrap block to lay out your cut line,

All the parts. Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker
All the parts.
Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker

and mark the legs for cutting.  Don’t forget to take into account the spacing of the base when trying to set up your cutting guide, if you need it.  (The straight edge of the large scrap block provides a good fence to keep the tool in contact with – ensuring a clean and straight cut – as well as providing some weight to keep things from moving too much.)  One trick I’ve learned is to set the saw on the cut, with the blade on the cut line, and then move the guide or fence to it: this way, you don’t cut it too short accidentally.  And remember, you can always take wood off…. but putting it back on still eludes most of us.  Err on the side of caution, and cut on that side, too.

Now, you need to cut the apron sides.  These will be less than 60 inches, because the table top needs to rest on them to be supported.  You need two long ones and two short ones: the long ones will be about 54 inches long, and the shorter ones 28 inches long.  Don’t worry about cutting fancy matching edges, or fancy joinery (joint types, for those who haven’t learned the vocabulary yet), or any difficult angles or bevels.  This is a straight-forward square joint, one end butted up against the other side.  This will be held together by screws, so you can even take it apart and store it behind a door or under a bed when you are done with it.  How will you hold it in place?

Five Minute Clamp. Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker
Five Minute Clamp.
Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker
Five Minute Clamp in action, version one. Photo by the Five Minute Woodworker
Five Minute Clamp in action, version one.
Photo by the Five Minute Woodworker


This shows you most of the information you wanted, right?  The edges are overlapped all the way around, and held together (temporarily) with the painters’ tape.  When I say overlapped all the way around, each corner will look exactly like this.  Doesn’t matter which corner this is, because you will walk around the base, and set them all up so the bottom piece goes all the way to the corner, and the top piece butts up against the cut edge.  Now, you should have about a 14 to 16 inch long scrap section from cutting these apron parts: use these to help hold the apron/frame edges in place.  (If necessary, use your Five Minute Clamp.)


Five Minute Clamp holding the corner of the College Table. Photo by the Five Minute Woodworker
Five Minute Clamp holding the corner of the College Table.
Photo by the Five Minute Woodworker

Now, to hold the edges of the frame in place while you get set to drill, use the Five Minute Clamp to keep it all in line.  (Take some time making sure all the corners are square, or 90 degrees.  If necessary, use the 2×4 you cut for the leg – or the scraps from that job – to hold things in place.  When you are done but before you drill, it should look like this:

After drilling the holes (through the plywood, into the 2×4), you should have two holes on each face of the corner.  The ones for the narrow edge will be a little trickier, because you don’t want the screws to cross each other, but it can be done.  (I laid the prototype’s out with three in the broad face and one in the narrow edge.  This kept the faces flat against the frame, but the frame would twist slightly because it only had one anchor point.  Do yourself a favor and use two screws on the edge.)  Now, it should be mentioned at this point that the four legs should be all running the same way.  Meaning that the flat, long parts should all be facing one way, and the narrow edges be another.  I found it useful to look at other tables out there, and noticed that the legs tend to mimic the table itself: when it isn’t a square (or round) leg, the leg direction runs the same way as the table top.

Here’s where it gets quick and easy: screwing it all together.  If you pre-drilled your holes, the whole table goes together in literally five minutes.  All you have left to do is attach the table top to the table.  Here’s where the scrap pieces come back into play.  I haven’t attached mine with cross braces cut from the scrap, as I had some extra hardware lying around to hold the table top on, but you can just cut one brace from the inside edge of the frame to the other inside edge.  (I’d use the larger block of scrap rather than the 8 inch wide block for this.)  You can either attach it flat, meaning the flat edge of the brace goes against the underside of the table, or perpendicular, so the cross brace looks just like the apron/frame edges.  Drill two holes into the ends (carefully) from the outside edge of the frame and use two more inch and a half #8 screws per edge.  To hold the table top in place, simply screw it to the cross support.  (From the underside, though.  If you set the brace flat, use 1 inch screws, and countersink the hole just a little bit deeper than usual.  Do not use inch and a half screws here, as that will possibly poke through the table top.)

Frame of the Five Minute College Table
Frame of the Five Minute College Table

My table top used L brackets, available at most hardware stores, or in the hardware section of the home improvement center.  Attach two per long edge of the frame (on the inside) to hold the table top in place.  It’s a simple connection, that enables me to store the table top behind the sofa when the table is not in use, and the frame goes on it’s side in the corner of the room.  Simply pull out the frame and place it where you need it:

And then put the table top on.  Simple, quick, and easy.

End view of the assembled Five Minute College Table
End view of the assembled Five Minute College Table

Now, all you need to do is worry about your finish of choice.  But if you start this weekend, you will have plenty of time for the finish (stain, oil, or paint) to dry.  If you wait until next week, I’d suggest the shower curtain table cloth.

Before you apply stain or paint, sand this project.  You will need to go through a progression of sandpaper, and there are several discussions out there on how to do that.  If you already know, or have a sharpening and planing ritual, let me know how well it works on plywood.  If you’ve never sanded before, start with a sheet of 80 grid sandpaper wrapped around a 2×4 scrap block, and just make sure the edges are all smooth-ish, and that the large splinters and chunks are missing.  Follow this with a 120 grid sandpaper, going back over the same edges and in the same path, and then a 180 grit sanding.  (Or, see if you can borrow someone with a power sander.  Not a belt sander, but a “quarter sheet” or “random orbit sander” that you can use.  It will make quick work of this task, although it’s a dusty one.  That’s why I built this outside.)  If you use the scrap block and hand sanding, it will not be a five minute project… but it will be less messy to clean up, and it can be done indoors.

 Well, that’s it!  Simple, easy, and probably faster to build than reading these instructions.  Don’t worry, they will get better as time goes along.  While I’ve been drafting this project for a week, I’ve also been working on two term projects and one term paper, so I really understand the crunch of having only five minutes to do something fun.  Let me know how this worked out for you, and if you need any assistance, drop me a line!  I’m more than willing to help clear up any points that might be confusing.  (And for you experienced folks out there, feel free to drop your tips and tricks on this one.  I’m always willing to let someone who knows more than I have the floor.)


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