How I Built a Custom-Sized Red Oak Dining Table for Under 200 Bucks

As some of you might know, we’ve been trying to do as many things on our own these days. Marcia has crafted tons of clothes for our kids by reusing some of my old tattered shirts and sweats and making some pretty awesome sweatshirts and t-shirts. If you ever see m or o sporting an amazon.com t-shirt, you’ll know where it came from. I think there’s a lot to be said about learning how to do stuff on your own. You get to know the ins and outs of something. When something breaks, you can fix it. This applies to a wide array of commodities from clothing to computers. Over the spring, I finished a cedar patio bench that turned into a living room bench. Then came the next project–a custom-sized dining room table. Our kitchen has an open space that’s big enough to feel spacious with nothing there, but not quite big enough to put a standard width table. So, I set out on a journey to build a solid table that would seat six (and eight in a pinch), fit two place settings face to face, yet still fit in our kitchen space. It was time to get back to the power tools and make some trips to the lumber yard and the hardware store. So how was it built?

It started with a plan from Ana White’s Knock Off Wood site–the narrow farmhouse table. That’s how it started at least. I was going to custom modify the dimensions to fit our size: about 28-30 inches wide and around 5.5 feet long. I picked up some great tips from the site my first time around building the bench, the coolest of which was the Kreg Jig, which allows you to join wood while hiding the connection point. Pretty nifty. The more I got into actually working with the plan, though, the more I realized it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. So I started modifying, pulling out paper and pencil, scaling things with rulers, even pulling out a couple geometry tricks or two. Pretty soon I had something that was quite different from the farmhouse table. So without further ado, here’s what I did:

Part One: Materials

First, my hardware and lumber list. Note that this is what I actually used in the final product, so it doesn’t include mistakes (which I made many), and prices are approximate (I can’t quite remember everything, but I’m really, really close):

Lumber in a Sedan - You can actually carry 10 foot lumber in a four-door

1×4 Red Oak S4S (for the aprons) -  14 feet @ $0.95/foot = $13.30
1×6 Red Oak S4S (for the tabletop) – 30 feet @ $2.15/foot = $64.50
2×3 Red Oak S4S (for the legs) – 10 feet @ $3.50/foot = $35.00
1×3 Red Oak S4S (for the corner and cross braces) – 8 feet @ $2.00/foot = $16.00
Tabletop Fasteners – 3 packs of 8 each @ $2.69/pack = $8.07
8 Hanger Bolts (for the corner brace-leg attachment) – 3/8″ x 4″ @ $1.19 each = $9.52
8 Nuts and Screws (for the hanger bolts) – $0.45 each = $3.60
Minwax Fast-Drying Polyurethane = $6.27
7 – 3″ Foam Brushes @ $0.98 each = $6.86
24 Kreg Pocket Screws = $1.25
16 – #8 3/4″ Wood Screws = $1.00

Total (including tax): $180.25

Look at any furniture catalog, and there’s no way you’ll find a table that is solid wood and built really well to be anywhere close to this price. There were some mass-produced ones from Pier One Imports for $299 or $399, and other solid wood tables from places like Pottery Barn or West Elm that cost close to a grand. Of course, I had to put in the time, which all told was about two and half months, almost exclusively on weekends while the kids were napping. Toward the end, I started getting up at 5 in the morning to really power through it and get some woodworking in before work, but all told, it was worth it.

Part Two: The Tabletop

The five 1×6 pieces were meant to be joined together, lengthwise, to form the tabletop surface. A lot of tables you see out there today are either plywood or cheapo particle board (think of that IKEA desk that you screw the legs onto, the VIKA something that yes, we have). But I wanted to build a super sturdy, long lasting solid wood tabletop. It was gonna be around six feet long and around 30 inches wide, so that meant getting five boards that were 6 inches wide (in reality, about 5.5 inches even though they’re called “1×6″) that were each six feet long. 30 feet of red oak is really heavy. I was originally going to join them with pocket screws, but after talking to an experienced woodworker, Greg, he told me that biscuits–small pieces of wood that slides into slots created in the side of the planks and clamped with glue–were the way to go. So I borrowed his biscuit joiner, some biscuits, and a whole mess of clamps and got started. My buddy Remy came over to help me with this (no way could I have done this part solo–thanks Rems!). Here’s what it looked like:

Biscuit Slot

Biscuit Slots Cut, Preparing for the Join

Glued, Joined, Clamped, and Drying

After the tabletop was dry, I had the edges trimmed on a table saw (thanks again Greg!), and then I sanded it like nobody’s business. Even though the biscuits hold the boards relatively in place and each board was technically the same thickness, they were still slightly off. So I took my 1/3 sheet pad sander with 60 and 80 grit sandpaper and sanded it. It felt like hours. My hands were buzzing after each session, but I had to keep doing it to make it a smooth tabletop. I worked much harder on the side that had the fewest imperfections because that would end up being the top facing side. The top ended up being 65 inches long by 28 inches wide.

Next, I had to do something about those edges. Since this was S4S wood, the edges were sharp! So I had to round them off. I toyed with the idea of doing this manually with a sanding block, but quickly realized how much of a pain that would be. I had to learn how to use a router. No, no, not one of those Linksys things, but an actual woodworking router which has a bit that spins really, really fast and can custom shape wood. I took a 1/4″ roundover bit to all the edges and smoothed them off, following it with a coarse to find sandpaper treatment just like the top. Things were shaping up.

Part Three: The Base

The base consists of a few simple components: four legs, four aprons (the piece of wood connecting the legs to each other), two cross braces, and four corner braces. I cut all of these to size, based on my final tabletop size of 65″ x 28″, leaving a one inch overhang from the aprons. In addition, the aprons were set 1/4″ away from the edge of the legs. I routed all the edges of the legs, all the downward facing edges of the aprons and cross braces, and mitered the corner braces at 45 degree angles. (Additional thanks to Anthony for helping one afternoon with some routing and sanding). Each of the aprons had two Kreg pocket holes drilled into them so they could be attached to the legs. The corner braces also had two 1/2″ holes drilled into the center for the hanger bolts, which would be used to attach the corner braces directly into the leg at a 45 degree angle, adding some super support. Each of the corner braces were also drilled with a countersink bit for the #8 3/4″ screws that would affix them into the aprons. Perhaps this would make much more sense with a picture (note my little helper m still in her pjs):

Dining Table Base

You’ll see some additional biscuit slots cut into the inner sides of the aprons and cross braces. These are for the table top fasteners, which allow the solid wood tabletop to breathe–simply sticking screws from the bottom into the top would trap the top. Over time, solid wood tops expand and contract, and the screws would impede movement, causing it to crack. Thanks to Greg for alerting me to this!

Part Four: Polyurethane Coat

Between Polyurethane Coats

Next up, I had to seal and coat this thing. I didn’t want to stain it, since I like the natural look of oak and our kitchen cabinetry was also a very natural (or slightly golden tinged) oak. I assembled the base before doing this, but I coated the top and the base separately. So I set about with some polyurethane and a whole bunch of foam brushes. To get this right, I had to apply three coats on all surfaces, with a fine sanding in between coats, gradually increasing my grit with each coat (first coat, then 320 sandpaper, second coat, then 400 sandpaper, third coat, then 0000 steel wool). For the tabletop, I ended up doing six coats, since it would have the most exposure to things like pasta sauce, apple juice, and soup.

This took way long. I had to wait at least 4 hours between coats, and probably longer because San Francisco is so damp! So to do six coats on the top, well, you can imagine, was spread out over the course of many days. But in the end it was worth it, because even after some spills and use, the top is still pretty resilient.

Part Five: Assembly

Now that everything was coated and ready, it was time to assemble the thing. First off, I had to get the two pieces upstairs from the basement. Mind you, red oak is very, very heavy. It’s nothing like pine that most people have probably worked with before. It’s unbelievably dense. On top of that the base was already assembled, and the top was almost 30 feet of wood glued together! I wasn’t sure if I would make it, but I did. I don’t want to do that again. By the time I got it upstairs, it was too late to assemble it because it was bedtime for the kids. So I set up the pieces, and then got up at 6am to get it all assembled before the kids got up. Here are the final stages:

Corner Brace Fully Attached

Tabletop Fastener Attached

Tabletop Attached to the Base

Drove in the final screw just as the kids were getting up. And here is the dining table on its birthday, October 20, 2011:

Red Oak Dining Table

And another shot to see the side detail:

Side Apron Detail

It was worth it. I comfortably typed this whole post on this table.

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