Canadian Woodworking

Build a mid-century coffee table

Author: David Bedrosian
Photos: Leah Peacock
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: October November 2022
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This refined-looking coffee table would work well in a formal living room or a cozy family room. It features curved, tapered legs and a top that floats above the base.

  • DIFFICULTY
    4/5
  • LENGTH/TIME
    4/5
  • COST
    4/5
Mid-Century coffee table illo
Mid-Century coffee table
Mid-Century coffee table
Mid-Century coffee table
Mid-Century coffee table materials

The inside and outside edges of the legs of this coffee table are both curved, but each with a different radius. You can lay out and cut the legs by hand on your band­saw and then smooth the surface with hand tools, but I prefer to use templates. It’s easier to get the desired curves on 1/2″ MDF and it also ensures that each leg will be identical. Make a two-sided template for the inside and outside curves of the legs.

To simplify the joinery where the long rail connects to the leg, I make the top of the inside of the leg flat. That way the end of the rail can be cut straight rather than requiring a matching curve. While you’re at it, make a 1/2″ MDF template that will be used to cut the ends of the legs to the correct angle so the legs sit flat on the floor.

Double-Sided Routing
Make a template to shape the inside and outside curves on the legs. Be sure to make it longer than the finished leg so you have an inch or more of lead-in and lead-out. Bedrosian uses a CNC to cut his template and he programmed it to drill a number of 1/4" holes for various stop locations. Wood stops glued to the MDF will work just as well. End stops are not needed for the outside curve since it is cut while the leg blank is over-length. Sandpaper keeps the leg from shifting when it’s clamped in place

Mid-Century coffee table

Keep It Flat
The top 2-1/4" of the inside of the leg should be flat to simplify the joinery to this portion of the leg. To make this flat section, start with a curved template and then use a flush trim bit with a straight section of wood as a guide to flatten the top.

Mid-Century coffee table

Rout the Outside
Bedrosian uses his shaper to flush trim the outside curve of the leg to the template; a flush trim bit in a router could also be used. At this stage, the leg hasn’t been cut to length, so the position doesn’t matter provided the leg extends beyond both end marks on the template.

Mid-Century coffee table

Cut to Length
Use a template to cut the ends of the leg at the correct angle. Start with the wide end of the template flush with the blade and trim the top of the leg. Flip the leg and the template over and position a stop block against the wide end of the template so the opposite end is flush with the blade. Push the wide end of the leg against the stop block and cut the leg to length. Bedrosian has a sliding table saw but these same cuts can be made on a typical table saw with a sled or a mitre gauge.

Mid-Century coffee table


Mid-Century coffee table

Simple Mortising Jig
Bedrosian uses a simple jig with a fence and a stop block to rout all the mortises with a 1/4" spiral bit. Unless otherwise noted, the mortises are 1-1/2" long and 1" deep. For the long rail mortise, clamp the outside face of the leg against the fence and the top of the leg flush with the stop block. The guide bushing in the router rides in the slot in the top of the jig. The same jig is used for the other mortises by repositioning the fence.

Mid-Century coffee table


Mid-Century coffee table

Shelf Mortise
A 3/4" long mortise is machined parallel to the bottom of the leg to hold the shelf. Bedrosian made a separate jig for this operation, but you could easily use the same mortising jig if you limit the router travel in the slot and remove the fence. Be sure the mortise is close to the inside edge of the leg so it doesn’t interfere with the round-over.

Mid-Century coffee table

Refine the Profile
After the legs are tapered, the round over will appear reduced as you look down the leg. To fix this, the radius needs to decrease moving down the leg, so the distance from the apex of the curve to where the round over meets the flat portion of the leg is constant. Bedrosian made a small guide block with two pins that ride on the apex of the curve and a pencil hole that is offset the desired distance. Sliding this block down the leg gives a pencil line a constant distance back from the apex.

Mid-Century coffee table

Add a Round-Over
Bedrosian mounts the leg in the flush trim jig and uses his shaper to round over the outside curve of the leg in a single pass. The same operation can be performed at the router table with a large round over bit. Set the bit just under half the height of the leg and rout both faces. This will leave a flat portion near the centre of the leg which can be sanded to smooth the curve.

Mid-Century coffee table

Plane to the Line
Use a block plane, scraper and sanding block to refine the round over until it meets the line.

Mid-Century coffee table

Mortise the Rails
Bedrosian adjusts the mortising jig so he can clamp the rails to it 90° to the upper surface the router base travels on. This allows him to cut perfect mortises in the ends of the rails.

Mid-Century coffee table

Shoot for a Perfect Fit
The ends of the long rails are cut at an angle to match the top portion of the inside of the leg which was intentionally machined flat. If needed, fine tune the fit with a shooting plane so the fit is perfect.

Mid-Century coffee table

Add a Bevel
The short rails are angled relative to the top of the leg so they appear parallel with the front of the leg. Once the mortises have been cut, dry fit the assembly with slip tenons and mark the bevel angle for the top of the rail. Use this same angle on the bottom of the rail so the top and bottom are parallel. Don’t bevel the long rails.

Mid-Century coffee table

Dovetails Hold the Cross Braces
Bedrosian uses a pair of routers for the stopped dovetails in the long rails. He starts with a straight bit to remove most of the waste and then finishes with a dovetail bit. The top of the rail will be visible under the tabletop so use a backer board to prevent blowout.

Mid-Century coffee table

Clamping Blocks
Bedrosian makes a pair of angled clamping blocks to use for the long rail glue-up. Drill a 2" hole in a block of wood about 2-1/2" thick. Angle your mitre saw about 7° from square and cut the ends of the stop block and then through the middle of the hole at this angle. Glue sandpaper inside the hole so the blocks don’t slip when you apply clamping pressure.

Mid-Century coffee table

Glue the Long Rails First
Clamp the long rail to your bench and use the angled clamping blocks to cradle the legs and provide a flat clamping surface. Check that the legs do not twist as you tighten the clamp. Bedrosian uses blue tape around the joint to make it easier to clean up the squeeze-out.

Mid-Century coffee table

Knife for the Ends of the Shelf
Dry fit the table and clamp spacer blocks to the legs to support the breadboard ends at the correct height. Use a knife to mark where the ends need to be cut so they fit snuggly between the legs. The ends will be at an angle to match the taper of the leg.

Mid-Century coffee table

Bevel the Top
To make the top appear thinner, a wide bevel is added to the underside. Bedrosian does this using a hand plane, but the table saw is also an option.

Mid-Century coffee table

Dovetail the Cross Braces
With the table base dry fit together, you can mark the length of the cross braces. Rout the dovetail on one end of the cross brace and butt the shoulder against the inside of the long rail. Knife a line at the bottom of the dovetail on the opposite rail. Cut the rail to the line and rout the dovetail on that end.

Mid-Century coffee table

Final Glue-Up
Bedrosian prefinishes all the pieces and then uses five-minute epoxy to glue the short rails and the shelf in place. Be sure the short rails are flush with the top of the legs.

Mid-Century coffee table

Secure the Top
Bedrosian drives screws through the cross braces to secure the top in place. Ensure the screws are the right length so they don’t protrude through the finished surface of the top.

Mid-Century coffee table


Curve the legs

Machine the leg stock to 1-1/2″ thick and about an inch longer than needed. Rough cut the approximate outside and inside curves leaving them oversize by about 1/4″. If possible, use rift sawn stock and orient it so the grain follows the gentle curve in the leg. Clamp the leg to the outside curve template and rout the leg flush with a pattern routing bit. Depending on the cutting height of your bit, you may need to make two passes to flush trim the entire thickness of the leg.

To ensure alignment between the inside and outside curves, the leg needs to be cut to length before you machine the inside curve. Do this with two cuts using a sled at your table saw with the tem­plate that orients the leg at the finished angle. The template ensures that both ends of the leg are parallel. Return to your router table to flush trim the inside edge of each leg using the two-sided template.

Plunge router mortises

There are several ways to connect the rails to the legs. I chose to use slip tenons and used my router to cut the mortises. You could also use dowels or Dominos. It is best to cut the joinery before you do any further shaping of the legs.

The long rails mate with a mortise into the flat portion of the inside of the leg. This is machined with a simple mortising jig that has a slot for a guide bushing. Underneath, a fence positions the leg so the mortise is off­set the correct distance from the outside face. Additionally, a stop block screwed to the fence correctly sets the leg angle and posi­tions the mortise relative to the top of the leg. Clamp the outside face of the leg to the fence with the top of the leg flush with the stop block and rout the mortise in two of the legs. Relocate the stop block to the opposite end of the slot and rout the other two legs. Each pair of legs should be mirror images.

Use the same jig to rout the mortises on the inside face of each leg for the short rails. These mortises are angled relative to the top of the leg so the rail will appear parallel to the outside curve of the leg. Rather than using an angled fence, you can leave the fence parallel to the slot and adjust the position so the mor­tise is in the correct location when the outside of the leg is against the fence. The shallow curve of the leg makes it easy to position it approximately parallel to the straight fence at the location of the mortise.

If you’re including a shelf with your table, there is one more mor­tise to rout in each leg. This one is parallel to the bottom and top of each leg. If you use the same mortising jig, be sure to limit the travel of the router since this mortise is only 3/4″ long.

Shape the legs

With the leg joinery complete, you can now round over the out­side of the leg. The radius of the round over is not critical, provided it doesn’t interfere with the joinery. I used my shaper with a 50 mm radius cutter for this operation; a large round over bit in your router table will work just as well or you can even use a block plane to cre­ate the profile.

To lighten the look of the legs, the opposite sides are tapered so the leg is 1″ thick at the bottom. The taper starts 2″ down from the top of the leg on the side with the short rail joint; the opposite side doesn’t have any joinery so the taper can start at the top. I cut the taper at my table saw using a sled with stop blocks and toggle clamps to securely hold the leg in place. A bandsaw with a freehand cut would also work, as would a tapering jig for your thickness planer. Whichever method you use, clean up any saw marks with a hand plane.

After tapering, the top of the leg will appear to have more round over than the bottom. To make the round over look continuous, I used my block plane, a scraper and sandpaper to refine the shape.

Machine the rails

Machine the rails to the finished thickness and width and cut them to length, leaving everything square for now. Rout a mortise in the end of each rail using the same mortising jig. Use a 1/8″ shim between the fence and the outside face of the rail so the mor­tises are in the correct position. The top of the rail should be tight to the stop block screwed to the fence.

If you have not already done so, now is a good time to machine the slip tenons. I made mine from maple and used a 1/8″ radius round over bit on the edges to match the 1/4″ mortising bit. The tenons should fit snuggly in the mortises but not so tight that you need a hammer to insert them. When cutting the tenons to length, leave a bit of room for glue at the bottom of each mortise.

The ends of the long rails need to be cut at an angle to match where they join the legs. Do this after you machine the mortises. If needed, fine tune the angle on the long rails for a perfect fit with the leg.

The top of both short rails need to be bevelled to be flush with the top of the legs. Dry fit a rail with the legs and mark the bevel angle on the end of the rail. Set your jointer fence or your table saw blade to this angle and cut the bevel.

The underside of each rail has a shallow curve which is easily cut with the bandsaw and cleaned up with a spokeshave, scraper and sandpaper. You can tilt the bandsaw table to match the bevel angle when cutting the curve on the short rails, as this will keep the two edges parallel, but to be honest, this detail will be missed by just about everyone.

The final step for the long rails is to rout three stopped dovetails for the cross braces that support the top. The specific dovetail bit isn’t critical provided the widest part of the bit is less than 3/4″ (the width of the braces) and that it can cut 3/8″ deep.

Glue the long rails

There are too many parts to try to glue up the table all at once. Instead, I start by gluing the long rails to the legs. Do a dry fit in case you need to trim the slip tenons. Ensure the top edge of the rail is flush with the top of the leg. Use a pair of angled clamping blocks to keep the clamps from slipping on the curved legs. You shouldn’t need a lot of open time, so PVA glue will work fine for this step.

Add the shelf

The shelf is constructed with breadboard ends mortised into the side of the legs. This is done so the main part of the shelf can expand and contract in width with the seasons, independently of the length of the breadboard ends. Dry fit the short rails to the glued long rail and leg assemblies so you can transfer the exact angle and length of the breadboard ends. Cut the ends to length, machine the mortises and use slip tenons to dry fit them between the legs. With the ends in place, you can measure the width and length of the shelf and cut it to size. Also measure the angle of the outside of the leg at the height of the shelf so you can machine a matching bevel on the front edge of the breadboard ends.

Use your preferred method to join the breadboard ends to the shelf. If you use the simple mortising jig, I recommend machining five equally spaced mortises across the ends of the shelf. The matching mortises in the breadboard ends should be about 1/4″ wider except the one in the middle, which can be a tight fit. The slip tenons should be glued into the shelf, but only the middle one should be glued into the breadboard end. The remaining tenons should be allowed to float to allow for sea­sonal changes in the shelf width.

Make the top and the supporting cross braces

I recommend using your widest boards to make the top so it has the fewest joints. Arrange the boards so the colour and grain look continuous. If desired, you can use Dominos, biscuits or dowels to help with the alignment during glue-up. Once glued together, bevel the underside of the top so it appears thinner. I used a mark­ing gauge to scribe a 2″ wide bevel that left about 1/2″ of material at the edge. I got a workout removing this wood with my hand plane; it would have been much faster to use my table saw with a tall fence and an angled blade.

The top floats above the base on three cross braces that are fastened between the long rails with sliding dovetails. Set up your router table with the same dovetail bit that was used to rout the sockets in the long rails and set the height to match the depth of the sockets. Dial in the fence posi­tion using a scrap the same thickness as the cross braces. When you have a secure fit, do the same operation on the cross rails.

Cut away part of the bottom of the dovetail so the cross brace sits 3/4″ above the top of the rails. Add curves on the upper, outer corners of each cross brace. This curve further exaggerates the floating top look. The curve can be bandsawn then either sanded or pattern routed to its final shape. Next, drill screw holes and counterbores that will be used to fasten the top. The outside holes should be elongated to allow the top to move seasonally.

Glue the rest of the table

I chose to pre-finish the table before I glued it together so I didn’t have to worry about glue squeeze-out. I padded on a dark shellac to highlight the rich colour of the cherry and followed up by spray­ing on several coats of polyurethane. Once the finish dries, you can glue together the base with the shelf and the short rails. I did sev­eral test runs to pre-set the clamps, check that the short rails were flush with the top of the legs and to make sure each joint closed tightly without any gaps.

Once I was satisfied, I was ready to start gluing. You could use PVA glue, but I mixed up some five-minute epoxy to give me more open time to align all the pieces without having to struggle. Once the adhesive hardens, glue the cross braces into the dovetail sockets in the long rails. I used PVA glue for this step. Finally, drive screws into the cross braces to secure the top.


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