FiveMinute Wrapup: College Table

A year or so ago, I documented the basic creation of a basic table.  There were several things that I mentioned right away that could have been different, better, or simpler.  None of them I did, because… well…

Anyway, time has come to take this table down.  While I could re-use the table in another location, or I could re-use the materials elsewhere, I chose not to.  (In actuality, I chose a little of three options: remove, reuse/recycle, and eliminate.)  The choices you make come down to your personal factors; mine were complicated, so I chose a complicated approach.  This table has done well for me, despite my mistakes and failing to finish the project.  Considering all that I have had going on, I’m not entirely surprised I didn’t do all the little things I mentioned I wanted to do, but some of them would have made it more useful.

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

For starters, the table was two inches too tall.  Rather than disassemble, find tools, find time, coordinate all the approaches, clean up afterwards, reassemble, hope the measurements were right and the cuts clean, and readjust… I left the legs alone.  So the final height of this project was 32 3/4 inches.  Looking at the photo attached here, you can see that the legs themselves are fairly slim.  This was because I used simple 2x4s for legs.  I’ve learned a few things since, and one of the things I’ve learned is that you can make legs from plywood by forming an “L” shape.  This will add stability, rigidity, and some complexity.  Fortunately, it is simple to do this type of leg: the complexity comes in more long and straight cuts, and in holding the pieces together while screwing the legs together.  Sure, you can glue them together, but if you are looking for portability (one of the features that was considered when building this table), gluing the legs into shape is not really a good option.

Keeping in the portability theme, the table top itself is awkward.  Yes, it can be used for a full table.  Yes, it was only a single sheet of plywood.  Yes, it does not fit into the back seat of a car.  If you have a pickup truck or van, no problems: simply lay it flat underneath everything, or on edge and use it as a wall.  Since my SUV is on the smaller side, I have to get creative.  In the end, I cut the table top up into roughly one foot squares and tossed it, but I will explain why in a bit.  I never drilled the holes underneath to install the L brackets (although I do have them) to attach the table top to the frame.  If you do use the L brackets, you will avoid such issues as wood movement (which was also mitigated by the material of choice: plywood), but you will need to keep a bag or jar around to store these screws.  The screws themselves cannot be longer than 3/4″ because the plywood top itself is that dimension.

One of the dirty little secrets of American plywood (even construction lumber in general) is that the dimensions of the material rarely equal the thickness they are supposed to have.  So 2x4s are not actually two inches by four inches.  Most are somewhere around 1 7/8″ by 3 3/4″ (one and seven-eighths inches by three and three-quarters inches, for those not familiar with the common imperial measurement notation).  Plywood usually comes in anywhere from a thirty-second to a sixteenth of an inch shy of the measured thickness.  When the suppliers say it is eight feet long, however, it usually is eight feet long: due to the way lumber is surfaced for sale the dimensions decrease.

I could go on, but plenty has already been said about this phenomenon.  We’ll keep it simple, for now.  The end result of this selling process is that the screws you select to assemble this project need to be approximately a quarter of an inch shorter than the dimensions you are assembling.  This is partially addressed by drilling holes for the screws (a necessity, I assure you).  When you drill the hole, there might be a tendency to drill a little deeper than you needed to, particularly in the countersinks.  Countersinking your holes allows for the head of the screw to hide under the surface of the wood, and helps draw the two pieces tighter together.  Since this table was designed to be disassembled, we want that tight joint through mechanical fasteners like screws and bolts, rather than glue or nails.  The drawback to using screws is that the more you tighten and loosen them, the more you wear out the holes they are in, which eventually requires either longer screws, bigger screws, or another option.

Five Minute Clamp. Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker
Corner layout of the table apron.
Photo copyright the Five Minute Woodworker

Because these legs were simply 2x4s, there are a couple of issues.  There’s a couple of fixes for it, and I will mention those at the end.  First, the legs do not look “even.”  They are thicker from the sides than the ends, and appear flimsy because of it.  (Nothing could be further from the truth.)  To fix this, you could cut the plywood L legs, or laminate (double up two layers) the 2×4 (which might be more difficult if you do not have straight lumber or the appropriate tools), or get 4×4 material.  (Lumber, not trucks.)  One issue I had is that I drilled three holes in the face (wide part) of the leg, and only one hole in the side.  The screws I used all held the wood together, but the leg wanted to rotate by the single side screw, instead of hold fast.  Since the apron was made of overlapping plywood layers, I assumed it would counter the tendency of the legs to splay.  Reality was that the weight pushing down on the legs caused them to rock, and while they didn’t splay apart, the table shifted slightly to bring the feet of the legs closer together.

Now, I had quite a bit of weight on top of this table.  It held at one time (all the same time, I should say) a twenty five pound box of sugar, a bread machine, several dozen plates and bowls, boxes of pasta, jars of salsa and spaghetti sauce, a 5 quart crockpot, and bags of groceries including cans and pounds of meats.  The table ended up in the kitchen (due to space restrictions mostly) and because of it’s height, it was almost ideally suited as an additional kitchen preparation surface.  Unfortunately for me, the table cloth did not last as long as the table, and the table surface did not fare as well.  (This is the main reason I cut the table top into sections instead of reusing it.)

Because I never added finish or sealed the project, the open pores of the wood absorbed water from wet dishes, hot plates, and rain on the bags of groceries.  While the wood eventually took the color of mustard, there was no mustard applied to the wood.  (I know this isn’t making me sound like the neatest person in the world, but it is not quite as bad as you might think.)  If you are going to make one of these tables, add in two or three days to apply a finish.  Something quick like an oil-based polyurethane is a good idea: you will need at least three days for two coats of finish to dry, cure, and off-gas (best done when your roommates are not around).  Follow the instructions by the manufacturer for best results.

Also, when I took the pieces apart, I discovered the sides of the frame had started to bend.  Holding everything flat, the longer of the frame pieces showed definite curving, meaning additional pieces to support the weight would help.  There’s a couple of ways to do this.  Simply adding two pieces of plywood from side to side would help, creating a rectangle with three equal internal squares.  There was enough plywood left over from the initial construction to create these frame supports.  Adding equal sized pieces to go on the inside edges of the legs, in effect snugging the leg into a pocket on three sides, would also add stability to the leg … except the leg still would tend to bend inward in the last area left open to it.  If you chose to do this approach, I would recommend that the thicker legs (be they laminated 2x4s or 4×4 material) be rotated 90 degrees, and that you use bolts rather than screws.  This way, the bolts will go through the material, and are held tight by nuts that can be tightened repetitively to snug the wood back together.  Going through the layers on the face edge will be stronger than through the glue joint, but you can go through the joint as long as you drill first.  (Staggering the holes so you don’t split the glue line will also help.)  If you do use bolts, you will not need to add four per leg; you should not need more than two.

This table/countertop lived in an open space in the kitchen, right next to the dishwasher and a sliding glass window.  It routinely got steamed and frozen, baked by sunlight, nudged, abused, neglected, overburdened, and taken for granted.  For college students, this is really a fantastic entry-level furniture piece, and I don’t say that just as the creator.  For the past two years, I have been going full time to school to earn my degree after years of being in the workplace; this was built in a quick inspiration and break between semesters last year with tools, time, and funds available at the time.  College students or beginning wood workers on a budget should spend extra for the better quality materials (I used a lumber yard rather than a Home Depot, Lowes, or Menards), but it can be made with average materials available to everybody.  The only tools I used were a circular saw and a cordless drill, but if you added a sander, you would have all the tools you really need to complete this project.  (The running joke among woodworkers is that you never have enough clamps: you will notice I did not mention how many you will need.  I did provide one alternative to clamps in the original build, but you can also use bungee cords, moving or ratcheting straps, packing tape, or a number of other options moving students have available to them.)

Based on the use of this table, you might need to alter the dimensions for your project.  Had I known I would put this into the kitchen, I would not have made it as long, and would probably have used the rest of the material to add a lower shelf or two.  This would have turned the table into a sturdy and solid kitchen island, minus the butcher block.  Not something to make doughnuts or bagels on, but a great work surface that a cutting board and table cloth would have sufficed.  Lower the height by two inches, and you have a great table that will seat six (four comfortably).  Lower it by 20 inches, and you will have an aircraft carrier for a coffee table.  But you can cut the pieces into smaller and proportionate shapes to make a better coffee table.

My end feelings on this project, now that it’s been disassembled and sent on its way, is that this was a worthwhile project.  It allows for a skill-builder, a proud moment of “hey, look what I can do in just five minutes,” and fills a convenient gap in college furniture for a fraction of the cost you might pay elsewhere.  Currently, there is a sale running on the corner nook dining table at KMart: this table is right around $200 locally.  It seats five, the bench is a little flexible, and it takes up a dedicated corner.  The College Table provides more table surface, just as much stability, and the same “I assembled it myself” pride.  And it does it for about a third the price.  Given that the price of plywood fluctuates, and the “good stuff” costs more, I would easily estimate you could do this for half of what the flat-pack furniture costs.  And while it doesn’t have the same signature as a table from IKEA, it does look similar and only costs half as much.  (Even with their version of a table, you need to supply chairs.  In a pinch, use the folding chairs available at any large chain.)

Now, I’ve told you what I think of it.  I’m curious to hear what you think of it.  If you have built one, let me know!  Share photos!  If you have suggestions on what I can do to improve it, I’d love to hear that, too.  The next few months are not going to be dedicated to projects like I originally thought, due to some massive changes in the shop arrangement.  (It’s a small shop, maybe 40 square feet.  You’d never know that the changes would be that intense.)  I will still try to get a couple of projects out this summer, though.  I’ve got a couple in mind, and I’ll post the inspiration along with my steps.  (And yes, the Minecraft Pig Bank is on the list.)


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