We’ve talked before about how Naomi has a bit of a “chair problem” — as in, she wants to buy every adorable chair she sees (c.f. Brimfield, metal side chair, every thrifting adventure ever). But I have a confession of my own: I have a coffee table problem. I wish that I could have dozens in my home in every style imaginable, but coffee tables are one of those things where you really just need one. It’s a bummer.
When we moved into our house, we bought a generic IKEA coffee table for the time being.
But from Day 1, I knew it wasn’t long term — it was fine, but it was blockier than I wanted and just didn’t feel special. I wanted sleek, industrial, modern, metal, polished wood. And as Naomi pointed out, the living room already felt really “leggy” so we thought a table without traditional legs could work better.
I was especially crushing on that yellow one on Etsy, but ultimately nothing I found was in my price range. So even though I was intimidated, I decided to try taking on this project myself (with the help of some awesome ideas from another blogger, which I’ll dive into more below).
Of course, nothing is ever as easy as you think it will be. I could have shown you the photos above, declared mission accomplished, and left it at that. But the reality is that things went a little sideways (literally):
This, my friends, is called “racking” — that’s the woodworking term for when a piece shifts out of square alignment. It’s not going to fall over completely (just shift around a little) and I can get it to stay totally square as the photos show, but we like to be able to move the coffee table around and I just can’t live with something that is constantly going a little wonky. The screws are totally tight and the only way to completely prevent racking is cross-braces across the angles…and that means altering my sleek modern look.
I have a plan, though! I just haven’t had time to implement it yet, and I wanted to share this project (and the related challenges) in real time. I’d rather show you a glamorous success, but instead I’m trying to live up to the part of the blog name that promises you disaster. So today I have a tutorial for how I created the frame as it currently stands (or, leans…ahahahaha). Monday I’ll be back to share how I constructed the tabletop (which has its own associated disaster, but that one I already solved), and then I’ll keep you posted as I test out a solution! I’m confident that I can get this to work, so providing this tutorial isn’t totally in vain. I hope. (UPDATE: I did successfully fix it — be sure to check out my post about the finished table!)
So first up, I am giving a shoutout to Sarah Dorsey, who has an amazing blog full of incredibly adventurous and creative projects. When I started investigating how I might construct a metal coffee table, everything I saw either involved creating a faux metal look out of wood, or enlisting your welder friend to help out. I was not interested in either of these options, and then I remembered the gorgeous herringbone coffee table that Sarah made a few years ago: (please pin to original source)
Sarah used 1″ wide steel pieces to construct her table base and bolted them together, so I thought maybe — MAYBE — it was something I could accomplish. Since her post was focused more on the incredible herringbone driftwood tabletop she constructed, I figured there would be some value for me to write a detailed tutorial for constructing a metal base (plus I made some alterations). Also Sarah doesn’t mention having any issues with racking, so that’s my own special twist (pun intended). Though to be honest, I don’t know why because in retrospect it seems inevitable with this design — but she is a DIY goddess and I a mere mortal so she may be immune to the normal laws of the universe.
So, here we go! First I went on an epic Home Depot run with Naomi (seriously, we were there for 2.5 hours picking out supplies for various projects, this one included). My plan was to construct a square metal box, with angled steel forming the vertical supports and straight steel forming the horizontal segments around the top and bottom. I picked my dimensions by marking it out in my living room, but also by looking at the common dimensions for the lengths of steel I was buying to figure out how I could make as few cuts as possible since I was nervous about this part (in retrospect, unnecessarily so).
Sarah’s table frame included the corner and bottom pieces, but not the top pieces. However, her table was a lot smaller than mine and I felt like I needed the top pieces to provide additional support for the top around the edges.
Here’s what I needed for the frame (separate supplies list for the tabletop to come on Monday!):
- Horizontal pieces of frame: 4 lengths of 72″-long x 1″-wide straight steel (To have 4 segments around the top and 4 around the bottom each 36″ long, I needed four 72″ inch lengths of steel each of which I cut in half)
- Vertical pieces of frame: 1 length of 72″-long x 1″-wide angled steel (To create an 18″ tall table, I needed to cut a 72″ length in quarters)
- 12 shorter bolts and 4 longer bolts and hex nuts: I selected #6 machine bolts at 3/8″ long for the shorter ones and 1/2″ long for the longer ones. The long ones are the four that will also go through the brackets that attach to the table top (so need to go through three thicknesses of steel), and the shorter ones are for the rest of the joints. Make sure to get rounded head screws rather than flathead– these will actually sit more flush against the hole unless you have a sunken screw hole, which I was obviously not going to be drilling myself.
- 4 angle brackets to attach the frame to the tabletop
- 2 cans yellow spray paint, 1 can clean metal primer, 1 can clear gloss topcoat (all Rustoleum)
- White vinegar (this is to soak the coating off the metal — I’ll get to that later)
- Scrap wood (to put under the metal when drilling)
- Jig saw with metal cutting blades*
- Drill-bits for metal: Sarah suggested drilling each hole with a smaller bit first and then a larger one to make the drilling easier, so I bought a multi-pack of black oxide bits. I bought two of them in case I broke a bit. However, I ended up being able to drill using the exact size I needed the first time around, so I really only ended up needing one size (1/8″). So in retrospect, I could have just bought a few of those as singles. But having the multi-packs for the future may be helpful. (To figure out what size you need, you can look online to see what bit size you should use for the bolt size you’ve purchased — just make sure to test out a hole before you drill all of them to make sure it’s right.)
- Dremel: I used this for grinding down a few rough edges after the fact, but it wouldn’t be necessary if you didn’t already own one.
- Needle-nosed pliers
- Phillips head screwdriver
- Safety goggles
* Jigsaw: I didn’t own a jigsaw prior to this, but had been thinking about buying one for awhile. The metal-cutting aspect of this was the most intimidating part to me, and I did a lot of research. Sarah recommended a jigsaw, but other places suggested that a hack saw (ie doing it by hand) or an angle grinder would work. I asked for two opinions at Home Depot, and one person recommended an angle grinder and the other a jigsaw. The one who recommended the angle grinder did not seem convinced of my ability to do this project, so I decided to go with the guy who had faith in me. Plus a jigsaw will be a much more versatile investment for me. I bought a very reasonably-priced Ryobi model that the guy said would hold up well under moderate use (just not good enough for someone who uses it literally every day). I bought a pack of metal cutting blades since Sarah warned they would get dull or even break.
- 4x flat steel pieces: $38.88
- 1x angle steel piece: $12.97
- Pack of metal cutting jigsaw blades: $8.97 (I didn’t include the cost of the jigsaw, as that’s an investment for other projects too — the one I bought was $60)
- 2x black oxide drill bit set: $9.94
- Screws and hex nuts: $5
- Corner brackets: $1.97
- 2x yellow spraypaint: $7.74
- Clean metal primer: $3.76
- Clear gloss lacquer: $3.76
Okay! So now that we’re 1500 words into this post, let’s start the step-by-step!
First I had to scrape the labels off the steel pieces — why all construction materials seem to come with super sticky labels that are difficult to get off is beyond me. I used a putty knife.
Step 1: Cutting the frame
This is the part I was most nervous about, but it was pretty easy actually. I started with the flat pieces, and marked each one with a sharpie where I wanted to cut (I was cutting each one in half).
Then I put two tables a few feet apart from one another, and clamped a single piece of steel across the divide with the cutting mark very close to one of the table edges. That way, right where I was cutting was pretty tightly secured to the table, but the other end was clamped to the adjacent table so it wasn’t vibrating everywhere.
Then I got cutting! The jigsaw was so easy, it was just a matter of go slowly and taking brief pauses so the blade wouldn’t overheat. I didn’t break any blades, but I did switch it out halfway through all the cutting since the first one was getting dull (which I could tell because the saw started to jump a little). Each cut took less than a minute.
The trick for cutting the angled pieces was to clamp them with the angle enveloping a table edge, cut through the top edge, then flip it over and cut through the other. I learned this from much trial and error.
You may not be able to cut through the corner, but at that point you can easily bend and break the piece. This is where the dremel came in handy — this technique left a few rough corners, so I grinded those down quickly:
And just like that, the part that had scared me most was over!
I arranged the pieces on the floor in a rough approximation of the frame, and used this shape throughout to keep track of the pieces and move methodically.
Step 2: Drilling the holes
Next up was drilling the holes. Every flat piece needed a hole in each end, so I marked and drilled those first. To get the right location, I set them inside the angle pieces where they would ultimately go and marked a hole approximately in the middle with a sharpie. I made sure not to push the straight piece all the way into the corner, since when it’s assembled there will be a straight piece coming from both sides and they couldn’t both be pushed all the way into the same corner.
Below is not a good example of what I just described — this is before I decided to use that technique, and indeed this particular corner made for a very snug fit when it came time to assemble everything.
To drill, I clamped each piece to the edge of a table on top of a piece of wood:
On the first hole I used Sarah’s suggestion of starting with a smaller bit size and then redrilling with the size I actually needed, but I decided to try just drilling the right size immediately on the second hole and that worked fine so that cut down on the work.
Still, it took me about 3 minutes to drill each hole:
I had 32 holes to drill total, so factoring in the additional time to mark and set up each one it took me a few hours of constant drilling.
My tips for drilling are just to go nice and slow (but apply enough pressure that you’re making progress), and take breaks to wipe away the metal you’re churning up and let the bit cool. You may break a bit or two — I broke one about halfway through the process:
Drilling the angle pieces was a little harder. I wanted to make sure that each of those holes lined up exactly with the holes in the straight pieces that they would be attached to so that they would be exactly flush — I didn’t want one sticking out more than the other, which would create an uneven surface on the bottom or along the top of the frame.
When you’re drilling, the bit can jump a little as you’re getting started and the hole ends up being a tiny bit shifted from where you intended. To make sure I drilled in the exact right place, I actually clamped the two pieces together to drill into the angled piece through the existing hole in the straight piece:
As I went, I numbered each set of holes so it was clear which ones lined up with each other. In the cases where it was a hole that would also have one of the four attaching brackets, I numbered that too.
I worked my way around the configuration on the floor, keep everything arranged in the right order.
Step 3: Cleaning the metal
Just like Sarah, I found that there was some coating flaking off of some of the steel, especially the angle pieces.
She had good luck soaking hers in white vinegar overnight, so I decided to do the same. Even though I planned to paint mine, I wanted to be sure the paint was adhering to a clean, smooth surface.
This presented a bit of a challenge, since my straight pieces were each 36″ long and I didn’t have a container that could accommodate them. Instead, I had to have them sticking out the side and then flip them the next morning. I did add a little water as well to increase the level of the liquid to get as much of the steel submerged as possible.
It made it hard to get the very middle section, but I did a lot of scrubbing and basting. It ended up being good enough for my painting purposes, but if you want a raw steel look you should be sure the whole thing is submerged overnight.
Before submerging them, I tied on paper tags with the holes labeled, since I assumed the vinegar would take off all my careful sharpie labeling (Naomi’s genius idea).
In the morning, I had this lovely sight:
Mmmmm. I took a scotch bright pad to the part that had been submerged, and it was like a whole new piece of metal. The different between the raw steel and the coated steel is so striking, even on the straight pieces where the coating wasn’t flaking to begin with:
I also used steel wool to get some of the tougher spots — the coating in the places that were fully submerged overnight just rubbed right off super easily, so if I had been able to fully submerge the whole thing I don’t think I would have needed to scrub hard at all.
Here’s the lovely vinegar pool when I was done scrubbing.
Once I was done scrubbing the pieces, I washed each one thoroughly with water and then dried them.
Step 4: Assembling the frame
Next it was FINALLY time to assemble the frame! I was super nervous. This would be much easier if you had two people, but I was on my lonesome so it took some finagling to get the first pieces together and balance correctly. I suggest working your way around the frame attaching the bottom pieces to the angle pieces in each corner, and then go back around doing the top pieces. It’s as simple as putting the screw through the right holes and tightening the hex nut — you can use a pair of pliers to hold the nut while you tighten the screw with a screwdriver.
But sure to use the slightly longer bolts for the four holes where you’re also attaching an angle bracket to attach the tabletop. Here’s a photo showing some of the joints — one with a bracket (left), and ones without brackets (right). The one in the bottom right was the tightest one I made, and that was a close call — the two pieces almost didn’t both fit into the corner together (per my earlier warning when marking the holes to drill).
Step 5: Painting the frame
I had visions of a bright yellow frame, so once the frame was together I brought it outside on the dropcloth to paint. First I gave it a coat of primer, then two coats of yellow gloss spraypaint, and then finally a coat of a protective gloss topcoat. I did use scrap wood to lift the frame off the dropcloth so the bottom of the frame wouldn’t get stuck to the dropcloth by wet paint.
I did have one small disaster at this stage — I went to run some errands while the first coat of yellow paint was drying, but when I got back the wind had blown a corner of the dropcloth onto the frame and ruined some of the paint. I had to wait a few hours for it to dry nice and hard, sand that part down, and repaint it. Frustrating, but these things happen.
Okay, now that I’ve written a novel about this, I’m going to break here! On Monday I’ll be back to share how I made the table top. (Update: here’s the link to that post!) Despite the current state of affairs, I’m still proud of myself for having tackled a project with metal. And I know I can solve this. I think.