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Designed for a recession

Blog by Rob Brown
Designed for a recession

A few weeks ago, I dropped by my storage locker. One of the pieces I came across was a coffee table I made in 2008.

The table I came across the other week is now in use in our basement. Although our Spring 2024 issue isn’t out yet, the coffee table appears in the lead photo of a wall unit project article I wrote for the issue. It’s a fairly small table, but it’s also not a huge room, so it’s a perfect match.

At the time, there was a recession in Canada and further abroad. I decided to make a coffee table that wouldn’t have a high price tag, but would include some nice curves and figured grain. This was my attempt at making a piece that would be attractive in a recession. I ended up making two coffee tables, along with a round side table I was commissioned to make after someone saw the coffee table at a local outdoor show.

Simple curves, sleek production

When I designed the table, I did so in a way it could be produced fairly quickly and efficiently, as well as not require a lot of materials, all in the hopes I could produce a table that could be priced to sell.

I like curves. Even though they can be time consuming to machine, I knew if I kept them simple, and created a simple jig to assist with machining them, I would have a shot at creating a nice design that wasn’t overly hard to produce. I opted for curved legs and a very subtle curve in the front and back rails.

Joinery: another sticking point

Curves add time to a job, but so does joinery. My basic design included four legs, two long aprons, two short aprons and a top. I needed to fix the legs to the long aprons, then join those two assemblies to the short aprons.

Before any of the curves were machined, I made sure to complete the leg-to-rail joints on the square workpieces. Half-lap joints are very strong. They’re also simple to machine. A pair of notches cut into the front face of each apron assisted in positioning the legs. I could have just glued the legs directly into these notches, but the outer faces of the legs would have protruded too far from the outer faces of the aprons to look natural. This meant that mating joints cut into the rear faces of the legs would be needed.

I used 4/4 material for both the aprons and legs, partially to keep the material types to a minimum. I left both as thick as possible.

Rails first

In the case of both the legs and the rails, I machined the joints first, as it’s much easier to do this when working with square stock. I made a simple 1/8″ thick Masonite pattern that would be placed on top of the aprons so I could mark a pencil line. A trip to the bandsaw and sander left me with aprons with a smooth curve on their underside and ends.

Curvy legs

The legs were the most time-consuming parts to create. They already had the half-lap joint on their upper ends. I made a simple jig to assist me with clamping and flush trimming the curved edges to shape. I used this jig to mark where the curves would be, then roughed the legs out on the bandsaw. Back to the jig, I clamped the workpiece in place and routed the curves in the legs with my router table. I then glued the two sub-assemblies together.

I used a 3/8″ wide dado in the back of the apron sub-assembly to help locate the short aprons. Tenons on the short aprons would fit into these dadoes. Glue blocks on the inside of the joint would then strengthen things.

The top: breaking the law

I didn’t want to get into having to apply solid wood headers to the core before veneering it, as that would take far too much time and material. I knew I was going to veneer the top, as that would give me a chance to fairly easily include some figure (and therefore pizzazz) to this table. I opted to break one of the most commonly accepted laws of veneering: keep your lamination balanced on both sides. Essentially, do the same thing to both sides of the workpiece.

I had a vacuum bag, which allowed me to press up the top in no time, but the thought of purchasing, prepping and adhering veneer to the underside of the top was more than I wanted to do. It almost sounds silly now, as it wouldn’t have really added that much more cost or work, but that’s what I did. I figured since the top wasn’t that large, and it would attach to the base solidly, the top wouldn’t have a chance to warp. And rather than use standard-grade plywood, and have four ugly visible edges on the top, I’d just use Baltic birch, which has a nice edge. Thinking back now, it was a fine balance of being economical with some materials while splurging on others, while also deciding what machining operations needed to be bare bones and where I could go a bit wild.

Fast forward 16 years

All this to say, with all the wants and needs of the maker, designing even a simple piece of furniture can be complex. Even the thickness of the material, how different-sized reveals will look and how easy it will be to assemble are considerations. On top of that, I needed to keep the price point of the finished table in mind if it was going to sell. In a way, I’m kind of glad this piece didn’t sell, as we’re enjoying it right now. Then again, making a custom piece for this space would have been fun, too. I do still need a cabinet to store an X-box and a few other things, so I have room to play.

As I mentioned, I sold one of these coffee tables and was hired to make a similar style of end table for a client not far from me. Thankfully, I made only two coffee tables. Not a great showing, to be honest. You win some, you lose some. I’m happy with where it is now though, so that’s what matters.

I’m sure you’re wondering how the unbalanced tabletop is holding up. Thankfully, it looks great and there are no gaps at all between it and the base. I’ve got half a mind to remove it to see how warped it is, but for now I think I’ll let sleeping dogs lie.

“Recession Coffee Table”

Curves and figured wood highlight this surprisingly simple coffee table build.

Designed for a recession

Breaking Rules

This Baltic birch top was left with its edges exposed. Veneer was applied to its upper surface, but left off its lower surface. The top shows no signs of problems, though I don’t often recommend this approach to veneering.

Breaking Rules

Nice Figure

Karelian birch has some incredible figure.

Nice Figure
Published:
Last modified: February 29, 2024

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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