This is Part 1 of my Krenov inspired coffee table build. Part 1 covers the entire case construction. Part 2 will cover the base. Part 3 will be finishing up a lot of loose ends and details. And Part 4 will be the drawers.
This project has been on my to-do list for a couple of years now and has changed in both style and size several times. Originally we wanted to make a living room set that included two side tables and the coffee table. Since then we changed living room furniture and have settled on only having a coffee table. That’s why this is going to be a single table build.
I also changed the wood species at the last minute. Once I finalized the design, my original plan was to make the entire piece out of cherry and use zebrawood for the drawer fronts only. I get my lumber from City Hardwoods in Birmingham, Alabama, and while there I found some 20” wide African mahogany that made me completely rethink the appearance of the piece. I ended up getting the mahogany and enough ambrosia maple to make the entire base and both drawers. Here’s a shot of the mahogany. It was originally one board that was about nine feet long but I had to crosscut it in half to get it home. Truly beautiful stuff.
And here’s the ambrosia maple.
As the title states, I designed this piece with inspiration from a coffee built by James Krenov. You can see his original here:
Overall the two are similar but it’s the details that separate the two. His original has the side rails higher than the front and back rails. My table will be in the middle of my living room so it will be seen from all sides, primarily the side. For that reason I want the side rail to be lower to give more of a floating top look when viewed from the side. The original has two drawers stacked on the left and an open space with a back on the right. Mine will have two drawers, no open space, with the drawers accessed from both the front and back. The original has flush joinery and mine will have exposed, and proud, joinery as much as possible. I really like the way his side rails extend up through a cove to attach the top case to the base so I included a similar approach but mine will be on the front and back rails. Mine will also be shorter and scaled to fit my space. Here’s a rendering of my version without the drawers:
Right off the bat I hit a snag. Even with the mahogany properly sticker stacked and even clamped to a known flat surface the wood still moved more than I liked while acclimating to my shop. Sometimes the wood behaves well and stays flat while acclimating. Other times it simply doesn’t. This is one of those other times. The wide boards developed a twist making using the boards at full width nearly impossible. This meant I needed to rip the panels into smaller boards, mill them flat and square, then glue them back together in the original sequence to get a flat and square panel. I started by marking the end grain to keep track of the order of the boards.
Then each panel was ripped into thirds at the table saw. This was almost painful to do. I really wanted to have a solid, single piece for the entire width of the top. That would have been amazing. But my thought here was that hopefully the glue seam would disappear or at least be unnoticeable without heavy examination.
ABC…easy as 123…
Then each wide face is jointed flat.
These boards were already surface planed when I got them which made seeing what has and hasn’t been planed or jointed difficult. So on the second face I added a bunch of pencil lines to check the progress as I go.
Each board is planed to about 5/8” thickness. Sometimes I find it handy to use my jointer as an outfeed table :)
Then each of the boards are jointed on their short edges. The more material removed here the less likely the glue seam will be invisible in regards to the grain lining up.
And finally the boards can be glued back together. Always, always, always do a dry glue up first to make sure you have everything handy and ready to go before you start.
I only used three pipe clamps and a couple of cauls. If the joints are properly milled then a tremendous amount of clamping pressure is not needed. An even bead of glue squeeze out ensures the joint is tight and there are no glue starved areas. I let these sit overnight. I also made the mistake of not cleaning up the glue squeeze out when it tacked up. That is the best time to remove it. Instead, I forgot about it and it ended up fully curing before I got to it. Letting the squeeze out fully cure is not a good idea because it forms a bond that is stronger than the wood itself which means if you scrape it off it will likely take some of the wood with it. For that reason I used a hand plane to shave it off little by little.
The next day I started by jointing one edge of the panel and cutting them to their final width at the table saw.
I needed to crosscut the case pieces out of these panels but didn’t have a square end grain edge to reference off of. So one needed to be established with a straight edge and a circular saw. Tools without dust collection makes me really appreciate working with good dust collection.
The sequence for cutting these out requires a little bit of planning to keep the grain flow and piece size consistency. If the cuts were made from order of left to right or right to left then the fence needs to be adjusted 3 times and you risk the 5.5” pieces not being 100% identical. They need to be identical more so than they need to hit the 5.5” mark. So to make sure they are identical a little game of musical chairs needs to be played with the fence. Cut one is made with the fence set for the 5.5” piece on the right + the center section + an extra thickness of the blade. Then the fence can be set right at 5.5” to cut the pieces on the far right and the 5.5” piece on the left. Then the fence can be set to cut the center section. If I didn’t explain it well enough here go to about 11 minutes into the video where I explain it a little better.
I want the joinery to be proud of the surface. I did this on my dovetail box last year and really like how it turned out. To layout for the proud joinery I used a thick engineer square + the material thickness to set my marking gauge.
All of the tail boards get marked only on the wide faces and all of the pin boards and the tenon board get marked on all four faces adjacent to the end grain.
A couple of years ago I got really good with a hand saw by practicing cutting one dovetail joint every day for a month or so. I learned with a magnetic guide at first and then cut freehand as it became faster for me and I was getting good results. Fast forward to this project and it’s actually been quite a while since I cut any joinery by hand. For that reason I was a bit rusty and decided to use a magnetic guide to get back in the swing of things (pun intended) and make sure these joints turned out perfect. This piece will be the centerpiece of my living room and I don’t want to mess it up because of time away from the saw.
I think magnetic guides are fantastic. Whether you use one forever or you just use one to learn proper form on, they are a great addition to the tool arsenal. The guide puts the saw in proper alignment to cut accurate joinery (assuming you place the saw blade in the appropriate spot) while you can focus on proper mechanics and body movement to keep the saw tracking perfectly forward and back. I’ve tried a few magnetic guides over the past few years and the one I like the best is the Katz-Moses guide. It has faces for both the tail and pin cuts but also a side to cut a 90 degree cut for tenons.
First the pins are laid out with a divider. I have an entire video showing the layout process in detail. If you’re interested in seeing that video click here.
At this point the exact placement of the saw blade isn’t too critical. Align the magnetic guide so the saw blade lands on top of the pencil line and saw away. Keep in mind that a guide is just a guide. It’s job is to keep you on track to make a good cut but it won’t prevent you from making a bad cut if your body mechanics are wrong. You still need to focus on tracking the saw straight forward and straight back making sure to never see a gap between the saw and the guide. Get your body out of the way of your sawing arm and relax your hand as if you are holding an egg or a baby bird. If you feel the saw binding or see the blade bend slightly, more often than not, you’re probably holding the saw way too tight. This will teach you muscle memory of what is needed to cut the joint properly.
You can chisel out the waste if you want but I always use a cheap coping saw to remove the majority of it.
Then I can chisel to the line going half depth from one side and half depth from the other side. I normally pear away the half pin shoulders from the short face.
Always use a square to check your work as you go. These little machinist squares are sooo handy.
At this point I had the tails cut but ran out of time to cut the pins the same day. When leaving material overnight or for any extended period of time you need to stack it in such a way that air can move evenly around the material. In this case it’s really easy to clamp a thick block between the panels and leave them on their side.
The next shop day started with the pin boards. Because the tail boards are so long I used a spacer block to establish the height of a support block clamped to my tool well. Then the same spacer block is used to establish the height of the pin board in the vise.
It’s critical that the pieces are not only 90 degrees to one another but the shoulder line of the tail board is perfectly lined up with the interior face of the pin board. Then the tails can be traced with a marking knife. And to prevent the marking knife from wandering start off with a super light pass and then follow that with a slightly heavier pass.
Often times when there is repetition involved I’ll complete the first one off-camera to get a feel for the process so here’s the first completed joint. It’s exactly what I’m looking for. Crisp joints with no gaps. One down…hopefully I can make the other three look just the same.
Cutting the pins is just like cutting the tails except the guide is rotated so that the saw blade is perpendicular to the end grain face and it’s angled the same degree as the tail cuts. The most important thing is that the saw teeth touch the marking knife line but 100% of the saw blade is on the waste side of the marking knife line.
For all of these cuts, as well as the tail cuts, I pulled the guide away when I got close to full depth. At that point the cut direction is established and all I’m focusing on is getting to the appropriate depth.
The rest of the process is identical to the tail boards. I use a cheap coping saw to remove the majority of the waste. Chisel to the marking gauge line going to a depth of about half the thickness. Flip the board over and chisel the other half of the waste away.
Then all of the inside corners are cleaned up and a slight hollow is cut into the face of the shoulder just to verify that nothing is in the way when the joint is assembled.
If the joint is properly laid out with a marking knife, all of the cuts are made with the saw touching the layout line but 100% on the waste side of the cut, and you verify all of the clean up work is nice and square with a small machinist square then there should be no test fit needed. Everything should line up on the first try.
At this point I had all of the dovetail joints completed. Next up were the through mortise and tenon joints for the vertical divider. I was a little back and forth on the placement of this. I normally always lean on symmetry for placement but in this case, with this piece being such a focal point of my living room, I thought it would look more interesting with the vertical divider being offset to one side. Maybe a 1/3 2/3 placement. I asked for opinions on Instagram and ended up sleeping on the decision over-night but ultimately decided that it should be in the center. When looking at it from the front I thought it would be nice to have to different size drawers but when looking at it from the top I thought the through tenons would look odd if they were offset to one side.
So, time for the tenons. When laying out the dovetails I just use pencil but because these tenons were going to be a little more random in size I used blue painters tape to get a better visual representation of the tenon size.
I planned on using the magnetic dovetail guide for the tenon cuts as well but at the last minute decided to use the table saw instead. These are simple 90 degree cuts, it’s not a complicated layout, and it’s just too easy to get perfectly accurate and repeatable cuts with a table saw and a miter gauge.
And because the waste area was large enough I used the bandsaw instead of a coping saw to remove the bulk of the waste. I made sure to not get too close to my marking gauge line though.
The rest of the waste can then be cleaned up with chisels with the same process as the dovetail joints. Chisel half way through on one side, flip the board over, and chisel half way through on the other side.
To more consistently layout the mortises I made a quick guide out of plywood and a piece of thick hardwood. The width of the plywood base determines the location of the mortise from one end and the hardwood block gives me something to clamp to. These were just super glued together so it will be easy to break them apart later.
Now the plywood base can be lined up and clamped to one end of the tail board.
And the tenon board can be clamped to the hardwood block. This securely holds the tenon board in its exact location where the mortises will be while I trace around it with a marking knife cutting into a piece of exterior painters tape. I used exterior grade tape here because it’s thicker, cuts cleaner, and leaves more of a pronounced wall to reference the chisel against.
Then the tenon board can be removed and the base of the plywood guide can be used to establish the fourth edge of each mortise.
I first saw this tape layout method being used by Mike Pekovich If you’ve never used this tape method before I highly recommend giving it a try. It’s extremely handy for laying out joinery in the middle of wider panels, especially when you don’t have a panel gauge.
Before chiseling the mortises I used a drill to hog out as much of the waste as possible. I started out with a smaller bit to try to get close to the corners but soon realized less holes with a larger bit would speed the process up a bit (pun intended). Mahogany chisels really easily so I’m not too worried about getting a bunch of waste drilled out. If it were a harder wood like hickory I’d probably stick with the smaller bit to remove as much as possible close to the corner.
Then it’s a matter of just chiseling out the rest of the waste. When there is more supporting waste material it is easy to have the chisel wonder and dig into the areas you don’t want removed while making cuts with the grain. So for that reason the cross grain cuts are made first so that when I get to the cuts that have the grain in the same direction as the chisel edge it’s more easy to slice off waste in thinner, more predictable amounts.
Just like with the dovetail joints the interior faces are checked with a straight edge to make sure nothing is in the way and a slight hollow is cut to verify that nothing will snag while the joint is seated.
And once again, just like with the dovetail joints, if everything is cut on the appropriate side of the marking lines and all of the faces are square and nothing is sticking up in the way there shouldn’t be a need for a test fit. It should just fit on the first try.
These joints all fit together really tight individually so I told myself, and my Instagram followers, that I wasn’t going to do a dry assembly until I was ready to glue the piece together….but I just couldn’t resist. I had to see it all together.
And that’s where I’m going to end this one. This video has covered the entire case construction so far. The case is definitely eye-catching with the exposed joinery but my goal is to make the base just as eye-catching with more exposed joinery and an interesting cove section that will be cut on the table saw. The next video should cover the entire base. Thanks for watching/reading and have a great day!