Making a Wooden Coffee Table

I am often inspired by jealousy. When I see someone with a skill that I don’t have, I feel an internal urge to obtain it. I am overcome with a sense of longing, one that I can’t cast aside.

I’ll illustrate this with a story.

I dabbled in carpentry during my years at Rishi Valley (my boarding school). I made small objects like bowls, knives, spoons etc. Over time, our carpentry teacher and I grew close, and one day he invited me to his house.

When I got there, I was directed to the living room, where I saw one of the most beautiful tables I have ever seen. It was a Minguren table, a design created by the great George Nakashima. I fell in love with it immediately.

George Nakashima was an American-Japanese woodworker known for his carpentry skills. His work, like much Japanese artistry, exuded simplicity and finesse. His furniture reflects his desire for perfection, with each edge and curve made with utmost dexterity.

Enthralled, I skipped the pleasantries and blurted out, “How did you make that?”. I couldn’t contain myself; I had to know how it was done.

Amused by my curiosity, my teacher gave me a detailed walk of the process. I listened intently, visualising myself doing the same. Much of the techniques he mentioned were new to me but seemed doable. I told him that I had to make one. I wouldn’t be able to sleep adequately had I not given it a shot.

Enthused by my eagerness, we started planning the project. The snacks on the table were replaced by pen and paper, and we began making sketches. We made a list of materials we had to procure to start at the earliest. I went back to my hostel brimming with excitement.

The next day, however, my teacher brought bad news. There was no slab close to the dimensions we required in the carpentry shed. Ordering one would take a few months, and I graduated in a few weeks. 

Crestfallen, I weighed my options. I could either reconfigure the design or scrap the project altogether. Knowing that the opportunity to make a table was hard to come by, I proceeded with a new design. 

We scoured the internet for tables we could model and landed on a simplistic, floating coffee table. This was something I could do with the materials and tools at hand.

The length would be 48 inches, with a height of 17 inches. The top would be a reddish-brown neem wood slab with whiter Akash Mallige legs. Two small plywood pieces would be placed between the legs and the top slab to give the floating feel (this video illustrates the “floating” tabletop well).

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My top slab had two cracks which I wanted to stabilise with bow-tie joints. These are bowtie-shaped wooden inlays placed in cracks to prevent them from opening further. Their shape is carved out of the slab in which this inlay is put. The fitting is made out of another piece of wood, or sometimes even metal. This video demonstrates the concept.

I smoothed the top and leg slabs with 180 grit sandpaper. This had to be done before I made the legs because sanding them after the table was assembled would be a headache. The slabs were attached using biscuit joints and wood screws.

I placed a small piece of plywood between the tabletop and the legs to make the top “float” and help prevent warping (Losing its flatness, bending). Seasonal variations change the composition of wood, particularly the moisture content, which induce warping. Thus it is advised to have something to stabilise it. 

I used a polyurethane finish with shellac for the polish to give it a glossy look. The wood was primed with several coats of shellac, over which three layers of finish were applied. I used a brush for this, being careful not to go over the same spot too many times (to minimise bumps). Once the first layers dried, I lightly sanded the top and applied a final thinned out layer of polish. 

To finish the project, I just needed to screw the legs into the top slab. But Covid 19 was resurfacing in the country again (it was the beginning of the 2nd wave), and thus I had to head home from school. I needed a power drill for the process, something I did not have at home. Thus I employed the local carpenter’s help, who came over for some household repairs and finished the job.

I began this project with a particular vision in my mind but ended up with something different. I faced a problem and had to alter the design to proceed. Such is the nature of craft; one must adapt to the situation. If one can accept such realities with grace and poise, they will fare well in their pursuits. 

One observation I made is that the most challenging phase while making art is when you’re in the middle of the process. You have done a sizable amount of work, but the fruits of your labour are still unseen. You have nothing to show for your diligence and let you know how hard you have pushed on. How do you deal with the burnout you feel then?

I have found that simply persevering works best with blind faith that you’ll succeed. Contemplating will simply inflame your lethargy, delaying the project. Pushing on with only your spirit as fuel always gets me through this phase.

Woodwork has a way of easing your mind. It fills me with the energy of curiosity, encouraging new projects. I went on to make sculptures, bowls, knives, coasters and more. I will write about it in the subsequent posts. 

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Published by Ishan Shanavas

I am a young adult, interested in nature, photography, art and culture. An aspiring polymath, I share my learnings through my blog. I also include insights from my favourite books.

4 thoughts on “Making a Wooden Coffee Table

  1. I have often felt similar urges..! To learn new skills when I see them.. The real tragedy is when we forget to allocate time for it ( which is often what I do) and don’t pursue it..! Great that you did it..!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved how you mentioned that it is hard to go on with a difficult task when the fruits of your labour aren’t immediately seen. Especially in today’s world of instant gratification, it is so great to see how you pushed through a project relentlessly despite the challenges to complete it. Good job!


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