Have you ever looked at something you created years ago and recoiled at the sheer amatuerness of it?
Ok, maybe I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but I think that mix of shame and discomfort you get when looking at your past creations is pretty common for anyone who’s pursued a skill or art. All of the lessons that you’ve learned between now and then jump out at you. All of your past mistakes just beg to be corrected.
I had that experience recently while visiting my friends’ workshop. They have one of my first coffee tables in their breakroom/lounge area. It was a fun build, and I still really liked the overall design, BUT I couldn’t help but focus on all of the small things I did wrong. I’ve learned a lot since I built that table. While I was looking at it, I couldn’t help but think “man, I could do this so much better now”. So, I decided to do just that.
I’m rebuilding my Herringbone Coffee Table, 2021 style.
Before we start this project I should let you know that there is a video version of this post available. All you have to do is click play on the video above or you can go directly to you my YouTube Channel and check out this video along with all of my others.
I honestly think it’s the best way to see how this project is done, but I know some of you prefer to read about your projects. So if that sounds like you, don’t worry I’ve got you covered there too, just keep on scrolling!
Here are some rough shots of the old table I took while visiting my friends’ shop and filming the intro to the YouTube video. These are pretty unflattering photos, but they give you a sense of the overall design and aesthetic. You can see the full instructable for this build here if you want.
There are a couple of key areas I wanted to improve on, in addition to giving the design a refresh. One big one was the quality of the herringbone pattern. There are quite a few spots where the pattern is imperfect. Unfortunately, herringbone is really unforgiving of errors. Since it’s a repeating pattern, any small errors will compound over time. So I ended up with some pretty gnarly gaps between individual “herringbones”.
The steel base is also made of metal that’s too thin and as a result, it’s a little too “wobbly” for my taste.
And lastly, I was never happy with the finish on this table. I attempted it multiple times with a few different finishes and I just never got it quite right.
There are many other things that I think are sub-optimal about this table, but I don’t want to spoil too much of the rest of this build. So let’s get into it.
Cutting The Wood
As with all woodworking projects, the first thing I did for this build was cut and mill all of the wood I was going to need. And even in this simplest of tasks, I found quite a few ways that I have refined and improved on my old process.
I started by milling all of the lumber myself from rough cut wood that I bought at a mill. I made sure that all of my boards were perfectly straight and all of the right angles were perfect 90s. When you’re working with a repeating pattern, like a herringbone pattern, even the smallest of errors in your measurements can compound into big problems. So I put a lot of effort into making sure everything was square and true before moving on.
When I did the old table, I was using a bunch of lumber that I got for free from a friend of mine. It was a very generous gift he gave me, but it was a bunch of his off-cuts from bigger projects. I made the mistake of just assuming they were straight and square and immediately dove into ripping them on the table saw.
Each of my individual “herringbones” was 2″ x 1″ x 24″. These are quite a bit wider than the ones I used in the original table, which gives the pattern a little bit more of a bold look and feels a little less busy.
I didn’t know exactly how many of them I was going to need when I first set out to build the table, so I cut them in small batches and assembled them into the pattern as I went. In the end, I cut 36 pieces.
The Glue Up (Actually, the Many Glue Ups)
When it comes to gluing things together I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of years, but it all really just comes back to being patient and taking your time. And I’m saying that as an extremely impatient person, so that’s a hard pill to swallow for me.
When I made the original table I tried to glue the whole tabletop as one massive glue-up. Emphasis on the word ‘tried’ there. I quickly realized that that was not going to work, so I settled for doing it in thirds. Even at that, I was gluing 7 or 8 rows of the herringbone pattern at once, which was way too much. I quickly became overwhelmed as I raced against the clock to get everything set and clamped before the glue dried. In my haste, I accepted a lot of imperfections in the pattern and ended up having to use a lot of wood filler to compensate.
This time I slowed everything wayyyyyy down. Instead of doing 8 rows at a time, I started by doing 3, and by the end, I was down to just doing 2 rows at a time. You might think that took me forever, but really, it only took me a bit longer upfront and saved me a lot of time in the long run. Wood glue dries in about 20-30 minutes, so I used that to my advantage. I’d glue 2 rows, wait 30 minutes and then do it again. Before I knew it, I had the whole table glued up without so much as breaking a sweat.
The hardest part about this glue-up was finding things to occupy my time while the glue set.
Trimming Things Down to Size
After all of the clamps came off I was left with something that wasn’t much smaller than a dining room table. A bit too big for my coffee table aspirations. So out came the track saw to trim things down to size.
The hardest part about this step was just figuring out the centerline to pull all of my measurements off of. I’ve seen a lot of herringbone tables in the past that look unbalanced, shifted to the left or the right. This happens because people pick the “wrong” (obviously this is completely subjective and just my own opinion) line to use as their centerline. In the photo above I’ve outlined the centerline I used for my pattern.
On the two short sides of the table, I set my track saw to 30-degrees before cutting and created a slight undercut/bevel. I continued this same line down to the floor through the base, but more on this later.
Generally, I like to make my tabletops a bit bigger than they need to be during the glue-up phase. I then trim them to the exact size I want afterward. I did the same thing here, but, I went a bit overboard. Each of my individual herringbone pieces was 24″ long, I probably could’ve made them 20″ or 21″ and saved a lot of wasted material. I’ll add that to my list of things to improve on for my next build haha.
No glue-up is perfect and this tabletop was no exception. There were all sorts of small variations between the heights of the individual herringbones. In order to fix that and flatten out the tabletop, I used a combination of my hand plane and my drum sander.
When I made the first table I lacked some of the tools I have now (like the drum sander) so I’m pretty sure I flattened it with nothing other than a belt sander, a random orbital sander, and a healthy serving of determination. It took a long time, and I don’t think I really did the best job. In fact, flattening table tops was always a big pain point for me. It takes a lot of time and it’s not very enjoyable work, especially when you’re doing it with a belt sander.
The pain-in-the-ass factor (PITA factor for short) and time suck factor are both very important metrics that I considerer when evaluating a new tool purchase decision. I’ve made my fair share of regrettable tool purchases, but I’ve never regretted buying a tool that makes the worst part of the job easier.
I desperately wanted my herringbone pattern to be perfect for the sake of this build, but realistically, that was never going to happen. In a complex glue-up like this, you are almost always going to have SOME small errors. One of the easiest ways to correct small gaps between pieces of wood is just to use a little bit of wood filler.
On the old table, I leaned way too heavily on wood filler to correct my errors, there are limits to what it can do. Wood filler is really at its best when you’re using it to teeny tiny gaps, not big chasms. Understanding the limits of it is key to use it effectively.
To fill the gaps between walnut pieces, I used an off-the-shelf walnut wood filler that I watered down a bit. Watering down the wood filler makes it easier to work with and squeeze into tight gaps. For the gaps in the maple, I was having a hard time finding an off-the-shelf filler that matched, so I custom mixed my own. It was a 45/45/10 split between golden oak, pure white, and cherry wood filler.
Once the wood filler dried, I sanded the whole table in preparation for applying the finish. Not a lot has changed about my sanding process in the last few years, but again, I have invested in some tools that make it a lot faster and a lot more pleasant. A good dust extractor that can hook up to your sander is worth its weight in gold. (Or even barring that, just duct tape a shopvac nozzle to your sander) It will keep all the dust out of the air and help your sander sand faster.
I also recently upgraded to a 6″ random orbital sander from a 5″ model. It doesn’t sound like a big upgrade, but it’s actually a 44% increase in sanding area and it’s significantly faster than a conventional 5″ sander.
I started out by sanding everything to 120grit and then slowly worked my way up to 220.
Applying the Finish
Like I said before, I was never happy with the finish on the old table. I tried 2 or 3 different finishes on it, and all of them fell short of my expectations. But I don’t blame the finishes themselves, let me explain.
Almost every finish I’ve ever used has some sort of learning curve to it. To get the best results you need to play with a finish for a bit. Try it on 3 or 4 different projects, and really learn the ins and outs of it. As you practice you’ll learn how to get the best results from it.
I think I was overly attracted to new products in the past. I’d see the great results someone else got working with a finish and think I could achieve the same results without practice. That’s really not the case. I was seeing best-case scenarios based on the work others did with tons of experience under their belts.
So for this table, I stuck to my tried and true finish, Saman Stains hybrid satin floor varnish. It’s a great water-based finish that dries quickly and is relatively easy to work with. I applied 4 coats on the top, 3 on the bottom, and left everything to dry overnight.
Cutting the Metal
With the tabletop complete I was free to start working on the table base.
I bought a bunch of 1″ x 1″ square tube steel to do the job, and I paid a little bit more to get 1/8″ thick steel. I made the old table base using lighter gauge angle irons and like I said, it was always a bit “wobbly”. The thicker steel and closed wall design of the square tube meant this table base would feel a lot more solid and rigid.
Because of the trapezoid shape of the table base, I had to cut a bunch of miters at odd angles. All of the 30-degree miters I cut using my metal cold cut saw. Which is by far my favorite way to cut metal. It’s fast, relatively quiet and it gives super clean cuts.
However, it does have one key weakness. It will only cut a maximum angle of 45 degrees. And I needed a bunch of 60 miters as well…
Cutting The Metal Freehand
So out came the cordless angle grinder. I traced some 60-degree lines with a sharpie and then did my absolute best to cut along them freehand. Now, obviously cutting a perfectly straight line with an angle grinder is almost, but metalworking is in some ways a lot more forgiving than woodworking. When you weld a mitered corner together you can easily bridge small gaps with the bead of the weld.
All that is to say, I didn’t have to cut my metal perfectly, I just had to be in the right ballpark with my cuts.
Once I was done with the cutting disc, I swapped it out for a flap paddle disc and used that to smooth out my cuts. I also took a quick second to add a slight micro-bevel to all the seams I’d soon be welding. A little bevel on your metal makes the welding process a lot easier.
Also, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed that I’m grinding and cutting inside, which I DO NOT recommend. Unfortunately, it was both raining and snowing simultaneously that day, so working outside was out of the question. I had to spend a lot of time at the end of the day vacuuming up all the metal dust.
Cleaning The Metal
Have you ever noticed that any time you handle store-bought steel it stains your hand black? Have you ever wondered why? Ya, niether did I haha. I just assumed it was fine metal dust left over from the manufacturing process rubbing off on my hands. What it really is is a thin layer of oil that keeps the metal from corroding while it’s waiting to be sold in stores.
If you don’t strip it off prior to welding and finishing your metal it can create a whole host of problems. The oil will burn off while you’re welding which weakens your welds, makes them look uglier, and releases nasty smoke that you may breathe in. If that wasn’t enough, it will also keep paints from properly adhering to the metal.
It’s just all-around bad, so you’ll want to strip it off before you go too far with your metalwork. A couple of quick swipes with a rag doused in mineral spirits/varsol will do the trick.
Of course, I neglected to clean my metal on the first table herringbone table. I just didn’t know about the oil at the time, thankfully though some more experienced metalworkers have since set me straight.
Finally, it was time to start assembling the table base.
I’ve learned quite a bit about welding over the last few years, and while I’m still far from good at it, I have improved a lot since the first herringbone table. Which, if memory serves me correctly, was the first thing I ever welded. and because I was so new to welding at the time I didn’t really have proper welding tools. Outside of the welder itself, I was really just adapting woodworking tools to do the job. So for this build, I actually invested in some real welding-specific tools. I bought these really sweet magnetic welding blocks.
That larger magnetic block you see can be set at any angle and has 2 large magnetic pads that are activated at the flip of a switch. When you flip the switches you’re essentially locking your two pieces of metal to the block and to the work surface. This is huge for welding together miters, or really any joint, because if your metal isn’t secured in place it will move around as you weld. These magnetic blocks locked my miters perfectly in position and kept them in check as I welded. This meant I spent a lot less time setting up my welds and checking them afterward.
I liked these magnetic blocks so much that I got in touch with the manufacturer and set up a discount code for anyone reading this post. If you use the code ZacBuilds10 at mag-tools.com/ you’ll get 10% off your order. Be aware that this is an affiliate code, so I will get a commission based on any purchases you make.
I started by assembling my two trapezoid-shaped legs. I tacked together all of the joints at first, and then once I was happy with how things were looking, I fully welded together all of the seems.
I then set about joining my 2 trapezoid legs together by installing braces between them. These connecting braces also gave me a place to mount the tabletop. But I wanted to improve on my old design here and have the new tabletop “float” above the base. I never really liked how the old table had metal running along its outside edges. It looked cool, but functionally it wasn’t great because cups and plates would scrape against it if you weren’t careful.
For this redesign, I wanted to completely separate the base from the tabletop, and how better to do that than with a 1″ air gap. So I installed four 1″ blocks on top of the braces, and then I welded another layer of flat bar steel on top of those blocks that I could screw the tabletop to.
Oh, and another thing that greatly improved my welding experience was building a dedicated welding workspace. I set up this little 3’x3′ table and it’s super helpful when it comes time to do any welding.
Drilling Access Holes
There was one slight problem with my plan though, those lower braces completely blocked me from being able to screw the tabletop to the flat bar. There was an easy fix for that though. I got out my drill, some cutting oil, and I drilled access holes in the lower braces.
One way I’ve found to avoid making silly mistakes like this is to make a quick and dirty 3D model of your projects before you hit the shop. It’s not as hard as you might think with software like SketchUp. Creating a 3D model really forces you to think through the details.
Grind The Welds Down
I finally got a bit of nice weather, so when it came time to grind down the welds I took the table base outside and went to town using my cordless angle grinder and more flap paddle discs. This is a messy process, so I highly recommend you do it outside! Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time cleaning up inside, as I did earlier in the build.
Again, the nice thing about welding and metalwork is that you’re adding material when you do it. So even if you aren’t very good at welding, like me, you can always grind away at it until it looks nice. I spent a good hour outside grinding down all of the welds on my base until they looked halfway decent.
Attaching The Feet
I recently bought a big bag of these screw-on felt pads for my Industrial Style Bookcase Build. They’re great because they protect your floors from getting all scratched up by your furniture (and vice versa). As an added bonus if your floor happens to be a little uneven, you can easily shim these feet to make your furniture sit flat. So I attached 4 of them to the bottom of the table base.
These are technically meant to be screwed into wood furniture, but adapting them for metal was really easy. I just pulled out the supplied screws, replaced them with a self-tapping metal screws, and I was good to go.
Painting and Priming The Base
When it came time to pick a paint for this build, I decided to switch things up a bit. I’ve been doing a lot of flat black paint lately and I’m starting to get a bit tired of it. For this build, I picked up some metallic oil-rubbed bronze spray paint instead. Not too crazy of a choice, it’s still quite dark but it has an interesting texture and sheen to it.
One of the reasons I like flat black paint is that it’s really good at hiding imperfections. Which is great when you’re working on a DIY furniture project, because there’s no shortage of imperfections to hide. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this paint, despite being metallic and reflective, is also very forgiving and good at hiding imperfections. I think the subtle texture it has helps to hide slight imperfections. I sprayed on 2 coats and left it for a couple of hours to dry.
Technically the paint I used was a paint and primer in 1. I could’ve just sprayed it directly onto the metal, but I took the time to spray a couple of coats of white primer beforehand. Maybe I’m just being overly cautious, but I always feel like I’m doing a better job when I take the time to prime things separately. Maybe I’m just wasting time though? Do you prime before using a paint and primer in 1?
Attaching The Top To The Base
Thanks to my access holes this part was a breeze. I used a cordless impact driver to screw some 3/4″ #10 screws through the flat bar steel and into the underside of the table, securing the two together.
After a quick inspection, I was ready to take the table home, so I loaded it up into my truck and hit the road.
Taking It Home And Enjoying It
So what do you all think, is the 2021 table better than the old one?
It’s still not perfect, but personally, I do think it’s a big improvement. and I’m really happy with how this table turned out. Then again I was also really happy when I finished the first table too, so maybe in a couple of years, I’ll look back at this one and only be able to see all of its flaws.
Unfortunately, that’s just how it goes when you’re working at a skill or a craft. As long as you’re improving you’re always going to see your old work as less than perfect. I’ll probably spend the rest of my career chasing some ethereal notion of perfection without ever actually getting there. And I’m ok with that because I don’t think humans derive meaning from being perfect. I think we derive meaning from achieving new heights and the process of continual improvement. And that’s what I did here, I improved on my old design. I’m still well shy of perfection, but I like to think I’m a little bit closer.
Alright, that’s it for this build everyone. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed it, if you did you might want to check out my Instagram (Instagram.com/ZacBuilds/) and the aforementioned YouTube channel (youtube.com/zacbuilds) to see the rest of my builds.
If you REALLY liked this build and want to get ad-free early access to all of my builds as well as behind-the-scenes content, consider becoming a supporter on my Patreon. I’m trying to get enough patrons together so that I can afford to hire a video editor and create content faster.
Hope you all have a wonderful day and I will see you in the next build!