How to Build a Side Table

Since the weather has gotten warmer, Renee and I have been spending a lot of evenings out on the porch. We have comfortable chairs to sit on and a growing garden to admire, however we were missing a little side table to put our drinks and candles on. Seeing as I had a lot of scrap 2×4 white lumber laying around, I thought it would be quick an easy to build a nice little side table for ourselves.

I like using SketchUp to create designs for projects I’m working on. I usually start by creating a quick sketch of a design on paper and then transposing that to SketchUp to be able to play around with measurements until I get something that works. If you use SketchUp, I have made this model available to download.

The parts list for the project consists of:

  • Legs: 4 @ 23.25″ x 1.5″ x 1.5″
  • Long rails: 4 @ 21″ x 1.5″ x 1.5″
  • Short rails: 4 @ 10″ x 1.5″ x 1.5″
  • Table top: 4 @ 3.5″ x .75″ x 13.5″
  • Lower shelf: 4 @ 3.5″ x .75″ x 12″

The legs and rails of my table were made from scrap 2 x 4s. Since the 2 x 4s had rounded edges, I first trimmed those off before ripping the boards in half, leaving me with 1.5″ x 1.5″ pieces. The table top and lower shelf boards were 3.5″ x .75″ boards so I only had to cut them to length.

After cutting all of the parts to their correct sizes, I carved lines into the legs to mark where the mortises would go using a knife and a mortise marking gauge.

Even though the mortises are pretty small (.5″ x.5″ x .5″), I still didn’t want to have to completly chop 16 of them by hand with a chisel. To make the work a little easier, I used a forstner bit to drill most of the wood out of the marked mortises, and then only finished up the rest of the mortises with a chisel. This made the chopping take less than 30 seconds per mortise.

After finishing all of the legs, I started on the tenons. Since I was going to be making 16 tenons, I decided to use my table saw and cross cut sled in combination to make the process a little easier. Since the tenons are .5″ x .5″ centered in the middle of the 1.5″ x 1.5″ rails, I just raised the table saw blade to a height of .5″ and made cuts on all 4 faces of the rails until the tenons were made. A dado blade would make quick work of cutting these tenons, but since I don’t have one I had to make around 6 passes on each face of each rail in order to take out the correct amount of wood.

Once all of the tenons were cut, I was ready to assemble. Before adding any glue to my work pieces, I always dry fit the wood pieces first. By dry fitting first, all of my clamps will be ready at the correct widths and if I need to make any slight adjustments I can do so now before racing with the fast drying wood glue. At this time, as well as once I add glue, I check for squareness by measuring the distances between corners as well as by using a 90 degree triangle.

Once I glued and clamped everything down, the leg frames were done.

Next, I followed the same dry fit and then clamp and glue process as above to glue the pair of leg frames together.

With the table frame done, it was time to start on the table top and the lower shelf surfaces. For these surfaces, I created a laminate of 3.5″x.75″ boards. I cut the boards slightly longer than their final sizes so that when they inevitably slid around when I glued them together, I could just trim them to the correct length once the glue tried.

Once the laminates dried, it was time to plane and sand to get a smooth and even surface that would be ready to have finish applied to it. It’s best to plane and sand not only the top surfaces (the ones that will get used once the table is finished), but the bottom surfaces as well so that the bottoms will sit squarely on top of the frame.

With both sides of both laminates planed and sanded, it was time to cut the corners off of the bottom shelf so that it would fit into the frame. I found that flipping the finished frame upside down and putting the bottom shelf onto the leg bottoms was the easiest way to trace cut lines onto the boards. After cutting the corner squares out, I was able to dry fit the bottom shelf into place in the frame.

After the bottom shelf fit into place, I clamped the bottom shelf to the frame and flipped the whole table upside down. I wanted to attach the surfaces with 2″ wood screws, so I drilled some pilot holes into the rails. I only attached the bottom shelf to the long rails since the grain of my boards ran in the direction of the short rails. This way, when the wood expands/contracts, it will have some room to move.

After trimming the uneven ends of my table top I used a round over bit on my router table to round the edges and then attached the table top in the same manner as the bottom shelf.

Once the table was assembled, it was time to apply a finish. Since the table was going to be sitting outside during brutal heat waves and drenching soakers, I decided to go with a stain + sealer combo that contains UV protection and is meant to be used on decks. I brushed on the finish and let it dry overnight. The next day, we had a nice new side table to rest our drinks on!

Originally published at on June 3, 2014.

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