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Two-Drawer Coffee Table


Two-Drawer Coffee Table

Pass-through drawers offer two-sided convenience.

By Tim Johnson

A coffee table isn’t just for coffee. It displays interesting reading and serves the Saturday night pizza. It hosts Scrabble games, labors under kids’ crafts and gives you a place to rest your feet. It’s a real workhorse that has to be well built and versatile.

Our table is rock-solid, featuring mortise-and-tenon joints, splines, and dovetailed drawers. It’s also easy to build, because simple, shop-made jigs ensure perfect-fitting joints. Its two drawers act like four, because they open from both sides. A standard dovetail jig is all you need to make them. Rare-earth magnets work like magic as two-way drawer stops (see Sources, below).

This table requires only 25 bd. ft. of 4/4 stock and 9 lineal ft. of rough-cut 2-in.-square stock. If you don’t have a jointer and planer,buy turning squares and rip them down to make the legs (see Sources, below). Buy 3/4-in.- thick boards for everything else but the drawer sides. Get 1/2-in.-thick boards for them and a 2 ft. by 4 ft. piece of 1/4-in. plywood for the drawer bottoms. We built our table from cherry, and used birch for internal parts and drawer sides. Our cost, including onehalf sheet of 3/4-in. birch plywood for the jigs and clamping cauls, came to about $250.

The only must-have power tools for this project are a tablesaw and a plunge router equipped with an edge guide. You’ll also need a drill, a coping saw, a sharp 1/4-in. chisel, glue and the usual assortment of clamps, including four 4-ft. pipe clamps.


Start at the Top

I always make the top of a table right off the bat, for two reasons. First, it’s the most important part, visually, so it deserves the best-looking boards. Make the aprons, rails and drawer fronts from the leftovers.

Second, you can start finishing the top early, so the finish will have plenty of time to cure.This is especially important if you plan to build up layers of finish for long-lasting protection. Be sure to apply equal layers to both sides of the top, to keep it stable.

I like to use hide glue when I work with cherry,because of its dark color. Its long open time also makes it easy to fine-tune the joints between the top boards (Photo 1). Wait 24 hours before you remove the clamps.Hide glue takes a long time to dry.

Cut the top (A) to size, smooth it and soften all the edges. I use a router with a 1/8-in. round-over bit for this, but sandpaper and a block will work. If you have children, you may also want to round the four corners for safety.


Size Up the Legs

The four legs (B) are mortised, dadoed and tapered (Fig. A, Detail 1), but they’re not identical. Be sure to make two opposing pairs, one left- and one right-sided. Mark your blanks carefully, so you don’t mess up! You’ll need all three jigs (Figs. B, D and E) to complete the legs; I find it easiest to make them as I go.


Plunge-Rout the Mortises

Use one of the leg blanks for sizing when you build the mortising jig (Fig. B). Make sure the leg fits snugly between the rails of the jig and is perfectly flush with them at the top.

Plunge-rout mortises for the aprons (Photo 2 and Fig. A, Detail 1), after marking the start/stop points (Fig.C). All four mortises are cut with the edge guide at the same setting. Create the groove for the haunched tenons (Fig.F) by routing the first couple passes full length.Then use the start/stop marks to finish plunging the individual mortises.

Next, plunge side-by-side mortises for the lower rails (Fig. A, Detail 1). Both of them are cut from the same edge guide setting. After cutting the first mortise, flip the leg end-for-end to cut the second. Each mortise has its own pair of start/stop marks.

By flipping the leg, the side-by-side mortises will be perfectly centered and their outer shoulders will be identical.

After routing, square the ends of the mortises (Photo 3).


Cut Dadoes and Tapers

The top rail joins the leg in a lapped joint (Fig. H). The leg has a centered through-dado on its top end. To cut this dado safely on the tablesaw, clamp the leg in the tenoning jig (Fig.D) and make two passes (Photo 4). Be sure to dado the face with the side-by-side mortises.

Building the tapering jig (Fig. E), takes longer than using it to taper the legs! Orient the leg so you can clamp it flat on the jig for both tapering cuts (Photo 5).


Make the Aprons

When you machine the apron blanks (C),make an extra one.Use it for testing when you set the blade and fence on your tablesaw.Cut the tenon shoulders first, using the miter gauge and rip fence (Photo 6). Be careful when you set the blade height. A cut that’s too deep will weaken the tenon.

This cut establishes the tenon’s length. Be sure to include the width of the saw kerf when you set the rip fence (with a standard 1/8-in. kerf blade, setting the fence at 7/8-in. results in a 1-in.- long tenon).

Next, set the blade and fence for cutting the tenon cheeks,using a test piece with correct shoulder cuts. Test the fit, using one of the mortised legs.

In this operation, the fence setting is most important because it determines the thickness of the tenon (Photo 7). The blade height isn’t as critical.Being a bit too deep won’t weaken the tenon.

After the cheeks are cut, saw individual tenons from the full-length blanks (Photo 8 and Fig. F). Cut the ends straight, so they fit the mortises. The haunches don’t have to be precisely cut, as long as they’re short enough to allow the joint to close.


Glue the Legs and Aprons Together

Finish-sand the legs and aprons.Then soften the outside bottom edge of both aprons with the 1/8-in. round-over bit. Soften the edges of the legs too, except for the ones on the face with the sideby- side mortises, where the front rails will be attached.

Glue and clamp each side assembly (Photo 9). Be sure the top of the apron is flush with the tops of the legs. Remove squeezed-out glue, before it hardens,with a damp cloth.


Make the Rails Together

Machine the rail blanks (D and E), along with extra blanks for the drawer dividers (F) and to use for test cuts. Although the upper and lower rail joints are different (Fig.H) and the lower rails end up being shorter, the four rail blanks must be identical, and cut square on both ends.

First, cut dadoes for the drawer dividers across the inside faces of all four rails (Fig. G). These dadoes must be carefully sized to fit the dividers and precisely centered on the rails. Equip your miter gauge with a fence and stop block to make these cuts.

After cutting the dadoes, separate the rails into pairs and cut the tenon shoulders (Photo 10). Make a third shoulder cut on the inside faces (the ones with the dadoes for the dividers) of the two upper rails (Photo 11).

Next, remove the waste from the tenon sides. Clamp a test piece on the tenoning jig, with its face against the stop block. Raise the blade, set the fence and cut the outer side of the tenon. Then rotate the test piece 180 degrees and cut the other side.

Test the tenon’s fit in the leg-top dadoes. Adjust the fence, if necessary, and finish cutting the tenons on all four rails.


Finish the Rail Joints Separately

Re-mount the upper rails in the tenoning jig and cut their half-lap tenon cheeks (Photo 12).

Shorten the lower rails so the tenons extend only 3/4 in.Then mark these tenons so you can cut them into the side-by-side tenons (Photo 13). Cut their inner shoulders using the tenoning jig, rotating the rail between cuts. Remove the waste between the tenons with additional passes over the saw blade.


Dado the Rails and Drawer Dividers

Cut shallow 1/4-in.-wide dadoes in the back of all four rails (Fig. G). These dadoes will be used to align and attach the drawer supports, so they must be accurately centered. Cut them on the tablesaw, using your regular ripping blade. Set the fence and make a pass dead center.Then reset the fence 1/16-in. off-center and make two more passes, first one face, then the other, against the rip fence.

Dado the back edges of the drawer dividers, too. Rather than dadoing each short divider, it’s safest to dado a long blank and cut the dividers from it.

After drilling countersunk pilot holes for screws in the rails, dry-assemble the base on a flat surface. Clamp it together and test the drawer openings with a gauge block (Photo 14).


Glue the Base Together

Hide glue is a good choice for this job. Its long open time gives you the opportunity to check the drawer openings and measure diagonals to make sure everything is square before you drive the screws (Photo 15). Be sure to work on a flat surface.

Cut the drawer supports (G and J) to length and dado their ends to match the dadoes on the rails, using the tenoning jig. Then make the splines (H and L).Apply glue, slide the supports in place and insert the spline.Make sure the support stays flush with both rails when you add the clamps (Photo 16).

The ends of the center drawer guide (K) are also dadoed. Splines keep it flush with the dividers (Photo 17). Glue the outer drawer guides (M) flush with the inner leg faces. Install the upper center drawer support last.

Drill countersunk pilot holes through all three upper supports for fastening the top with screws, dead center (Fig. A). Then drill slightly larger diameter holes in the upper rails so the top has freedom to move with changes in humidity.


Make and Install the Drawers

We used a dovetail jig and standard bit to make our drawers (Photo 18). Their finished length is 3/8-in. shorter than the pass-through openings, so they’ll sit 3/16-in. back from both fronts. This reveal matches the ones between the legs and aprons. The length of your drawer sides (P) may vary from ours, depending on the length of the dovetail your jig makes.

For a good fit, the drawers should be up to 1/16-in. narrower, but only 1/32-in. shorter than the front openings. Center the dadoes for the drawer bottoms (Q) in the lowest dovetail socket of the drawer fronts and on the corresponding tails of the sides.Then they’ll be hidden when the drawer is assembled.

Rare-earth magnets (see Sources, below) act as two-way drawer stops. Mount them in pairs (one on the drawer bottom, the other on the frame), on both sides of each drawer. They’re self-aligning, so they’ve got to be precisely located, end-to-end and side-to-side.

Install each magnet in a block (R and S). Mount the blocks temporarily until you get them in just the right spots. Then glue them in place.

The rare-earth magnets we’ve chosen are strong enough to work great even when the drawer is loaded down with ten pounds of magazines.However, you should keep magnetic media, including credit cards and videocassette tapes out of the drawers. The magnets will damage them.



If applying a finish always seems like a chore, cherry is a great wood to work with. Even the simplest wipe-on oil finish will make it look great. For durability, choose one with urethane resins. A brushed-on polyurethane varnish will stand up even longer.

Cutting List

Fig. A: Exploded View

Detail 1: Leg Joinery

Detail 2: Drawer Construction

Fig. B: Jig for Plunge-Routing Mortises

Fig. C: Mortise Start/Stop Marks

Fig. D: Tenoning Jig

Fig. E: Tapering Jig

Fig. F: Haunched Apron Tenons

Fig. G: Rail Dadoes

Fig. H: Rail Tenons


Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.

Adams Wood Products,, 423-587-2942, Cherry Turning Squares, 2-15/16" square x 22" long ASQ3322-3. 

Lee Valley Tools,, 800-267-8767, Toggle clamps #88F05.01; Rare-earth magnets, 4 sets req’d, 3/8" disc #99K32.03, 1/2" cup #99K32.52.

Smith Design and Woodworks,, 908-832-2723, Drawer Knobs SO-118.

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Click any image to view a larger version.

1. Use your best boards for the top. Choose ’em and use ’em right away, so you don’t get caught short later. Cauls above and below keep the boards aligned and flat during glue-up. Use a non-marring mallet to make minor adjustments.


2. Plunge-rout the mortises, using the router’s depth-stop turret to increase the depth of each pass. If you have a variable-speed router, you’ll get a smoother cut if you slow it down by about a third. Start/stop marks let you cut the mortises without stop blocks.

3. Square the ends of the mortises, using a block clamped on the layout line to guide the chisel.

4. Center a wide dado in the top of each leg, using a shop-made tenoning jig. Make two passes, one on each opposing face, so the shoulders are the same thickness.

5. Taper the two mortised faces. Clamp the leg with one mortised face toward the blade and the other face down on the tapering jig. After cutting the first taper, rotate the leg clockwise to cut the second taper.

6. Cut shoulders in the aprons with the blade set to leave 1/4-in. remaining in the center. You can use both the miter gauge and rip fence for this operation because you’re not making a through cut.

7. Cut apron tenon cheeks using the tenoning jig. Set the blade height to score the tenon shoulder. Then adjust the tenon’s thickness with the rip fence. Make two passes, one on each side of the apron.

8. Finish sawing the tenons with a coping saw or on the bandsaw. Be careful with your layout to make sure the haunches are properly located.

9. Glue the side assemblies. Brush hide glue on the walls of the mortises and on the tenon cheeks. Use blocks to distribute the pressure when you clamp things together.

10.Cut the rails’ tenon shoulders simultaneously. Gang them together in pairs, one upper and one lower, and make sure they’re precisely mated when you make the cuts.

11. Cut half-lap shoulders on the inside faces of both upper rails. Use the same setup you just used to cut the tenon shoulders.

12. Cut half-lap cheeks on the inside faces of the upper rails, using the tenoning jig. Orient the rail so the offcut falls out of harm’s way.

13. Mark the inside shoulders of the two lower-rail tenons right from the mortises on the leg, after shortening the rail’s long tenon.

14. Fit the drawer dividers while the base is clamped together in a dry assembly. A shop-made gauge block that measures the width of the drawer opening lets you know when the dividers are the right length.

15. Screw the upper rails to the legs when you glue up the base. These open joints benefit from the mechanical assistance of screws.

16. Wooden splines perfectly align the runners and rails, just like a tongue-and-groove joint.

17. Slip the center drawer guide over the splines, and glue it to the dividers and the lower rail.

18. Dovetail the drawers, using a standard jig. They’re sized so you’ll end up with half-pins at the top and bottom of the drawer fronts.

19. Carefully positioned rare-earth magnets stop the drawers dead center, so you can shut them from either side.

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker February 2002, issue #92.

February 2002, issue #92

Purchase this back issue.



pjbates1 wrote re: Two-Drawer Coffee Table
on 08-30-2009 7:58 PM



Serenity121 wrote re: Two-Drawer Coffee Table
on 06-29-2010 12:32 AM

very nice

phstevens wrote re: Two-Drawer Coffee Table
on 08-04-2010 11:03 AM

My wife saw this project and immediately asked me to build it for her.  Fine.  However, after much effort I am almost done.  Some comments and observations:

1.  The author assumes anyone building this has a plunge router.

2.  The mortises show for the aprons are overly complex to layout and cut.  A simple mortise and tenon construction works perfectly well.

3.  The parts sizing goes down to the 16th and 32nd of an inch.  What for?  

4.  The the mortise jig and tapering jig shown are, in my opinion, overly complex.  I constructed much simper and easier to use jigs that worked quite nicely.

Bottom line:  beautiful piece; overly complex construction.

Phil Stevens

byrdman61 wrote re: Two-Drawer Coffee Table
on 09-17-2010 6:44 PM

Very nice, i like the two way drawers but i am afraid the project for what it is , is a little too spendy for me.  byrdman61