Easy-To-Build End Table
using Pocket Screw Joinery


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When my daughter-in-law traded in a large sofa for a smaller one, she wanted to frame the new seating with a couple of end tables. Their function is to hold lamps, and also protect valuables such as photo albums and the remote control from her three small daughters. To that end, they have locking doors (so they can also be used as drinks cabinets around teenagers). There's a long history of logging and milling around here, so we decided to use local timber in the pine, spruce and fir family. Some of the material was salvaged and recycled. These softwoods don't present a lot of challenges, but they are not as dense or rugged as the hardwood species that I usually use for furniture, so a different joinery approach came to mind. Rather than mortise and tenon or dovetailing, I chose a more modern approach: pocket screws. The jigs are very durable and relatively inexpensive - you can find a local dealer worldwide at Kreg Tool. In the U.K. for example, the Kreg jig shown below was £114 online from Snainton's in Scarborough (spring 2017), but basic kits that will do the job (such as the Kreg Mini) sell for a whole lot less.

Pocket screws come with a coarse thread for softwoods and a fine one for hardwoods. They provide a great deal of strength, and a fast construction method. The joints are simply butts, so the woodworker just cuts parts to length, drills for screws and then assembles. One doesn't always have to use glue, although that is an option. An advantage to no glue is that parts can be disassembled if something was done incorrectly, and then reassembled after a correction is made. This entire project can be built with a table saw, a few clamps, the pocket screw jig, a drill, and a sander. A small hand plane can sometimes replace the sander.

Start At The Top
The only large, glued-up subassembly in these end tables (many people will build two) is the tabletop. I began with wider boards and ripped them so that each top is comprised of five narrower boards. This helps reduce cupping problems later. Some of my recycled boards had bolt holes drilled in them, as you can see on the ends. Cut the parts a little long and wide, and then glue and clamp them together (shown at right). Try to alternate the crowns: looking at the grain on the end of each board, place one with the bows up, the next down, and so on. This won't always work perfectly, as the grain can change from plain sawn to rift (straight across to angled) depending on where in the log each board originally lay. The idea is to distribute stress factors so that they work against each other and tend to keep the tabletop relatively flat over the years.

 
 

After the glue cures overnight, sand the tops (left). The boards I used were recycled from some stadium seating, so I had to work around holes that had been drilled for the original application. Note the pencil lines that I'm erasing: these helped me keep track of the orientation of each board during glue-up. I picked up a simple habit over thirty-five years of cabinetmaking: when writing notes on parts, use the side of the pencil lead rather than the point, as a sharp point can dig deep and be harder to sand out.

After sanding, I trimmed the tops to width, taking the same amount off each edge so the five boards in the assembly remained visually centered. Then I cross-cut them to length: the board in the background is all done. Use fine sandpaper to lightly break the edges after the panels are cut to length and width. This will prevent slivers.

Pick A Pocket
Aside from the jig itself, a pocket system relies on two components. There are the self-tapping square-drive screws, and the special two-step drill bit (right). It's thick most of the way, and then skinny for the last little bit near the tip. That allows the bit to bore a two-step hole, and the jig holds it at the correct angle. The narrower part of the bit drills a pilot hole for the screw all the way through the first wooden part, and this hole's primary function is as much to avoid splitting as it is to guide the trajectory (direction) of the screw's travel. Then the thick part counterbores for the screw head so it sits below the surface. There is no need for a pilot hole in the second wooden part because the screws are self-tapping. That is, their tips are something like a drill bit so they make their own pilot hole.

 
 

The Kreg pocket hole jig that I use has a large base with a dust collection port. The photo at left shows my left hand connecting the black dust hose from a shop vacuum to the port. There's a toggle clamp to lock the part in place. The block with the drill bit in it has hardened bushings in the holes. This block moves up and down in the base, and a brass thumbscrew locks it in position. That movement lets you locate the pocket hole lower or higher on the workpiece. As the holes are angled, altering the altitude changes the whole set-up. You'll want to experiment on scrap to find a height for the block that lets the screws exit the wood about halfway across the butt end of the wooden piece. I mounted my jig on some plywood with a cleat on the bottom that locks into the workbench vise. The wood in the photo is vertical, but sometimes the joint requires that a part is horizontal. That's what the two little mahogany blocks are for – to support long parts. A couple of eyehooks let me store the jig on the wall.

Build A Skeleton
In keeping with the simple joinery theme, the body of this project begins with a screwed-together skeleton to which panels are later installed. There's a helpful drawing of this on the Parts List. Cut the legs to the dimensions on the list and sand them, breaking all of the edges very slightly. To create the 5-3/4" long by 1/2" deep taper on the front legs, I used an adjustable square to draw the line (see photo), and then hand planed to it. You could also band saw close to the line and then use a belt sander. I very slightly chamfered a 45° angle on the bottoms of the legs using a sander (shown in some images below).
Next, follow your jig's instructions to drill pocket holes on the inside face of each rail - two at each end. To mark their locations, clamp the legs and the front rails together, orienting them so that the inside faces are up. That is, the pocket screws will be inside the cabinet, so they aren't visible after assembly.

 
 

You'll want to experiment with the jig on some scrap to make sure the screws are located so they get the best grip when tightened, and also that they aren't too close to any edges or surfaces. To assemble the frames, make sure the top (inside) surfaces are lined up in the same plane, tighten the clamps, and simply screw the rails to the legs. Begin here with the top rails, and then use a scrap wood spacer (shown) to make sure the bottom rails are parallel to the top ones.

 

Attach the side rails to the front legs in the same manner, and then attach the back legs. Before installing the bottom rail in the back, it needs to have a channel milled, into which the back panel will fit. First, cut the plywood panel itself to the rough size shown on the list, and sand it. Then mill the channel in the rail. Start by setting the table saw blade height to 1/2" and move the fence so that the cut is roughly centered on the bottom back rail. Make a pass, reverse the workpiece and make a second pass (see photo). Then move the fence and repeat the process, nibbling the same amount from each side of the groove every time - which of course keeps the cuts centered - until the plywood panel fits. As you work, constantly dry fit the rail to the panel (left, below) until you get a snug but not tight fit.

 
  When the groove is made, install the bottom rail with a pocket screw on each end, driven up through the bottom (middle photo). Then use the nibbling process to mill 1/4" deep channels in the two vertical back cleats (right), and trim these to length.
 

Install the cleats with glue and screws driven through countersunk, pre-drilled pilot holes located in the bottoms of the channels (left). Put a generous dab of glue in the center third of the channel in the bottom rail, and slide the plywood panel down from the top and into place. You don't want to glue it all around, as this would prevent the parts from moving with the seasons and might cause cracks over time.

You should now have a complete skeleton assembled (right). We'll install the bottom later.

 

Dealing With Movement
Next up, it's the two-board panels that close in the sides. Wood moves, and must be allowed to do so. Boards move across their grain, swelling when humidity is high and shrinking when we have drier weather. To accommodate this, the panels here are splined. That is, each side of the table is made up of two boards that are connected but not glued together. Where the edges meet, each board has a groove milled in its edge, and a floating spline sits in each pair of grooves. Trim the boards so that together they are 1/8" narrower than the distance between the legs. To mill the grooves, return to the table saw (right). The featherboard being used here has been around for almost twenty years, and it's a real champ when machining the edges of boards and panels.
For more details on the featherboard, click here. The spline (below) is made from a scrap of 1/4" plywood. A piece of solid wood won't work here, as it will just split along the grain over time.

 

 

Lock the spline into one groove as shown, with a single dab of glue in the middle just so it doesn't slide out the bottom. Don't glue it into both grooves. Then screw the sides in place from the inside, driving the screws into pre-drilled, slightly oversized pilot holes through the rails and into the boards. It's a good idea to clamp everything in place as you go.

 

That 1/8" of sloppiness you left at the outside edges (by the legs and shown at right from the inside - the dark line) will allow the boards to expand a little, as needed.

Cover the gaps in the center on the outside and by each leg with a piece of box molding. This is just a strip of wood with slightly rounded edges at the front and square edges at the back. Secure it with screws driven from inside the cabinet, again using pre-drilled and countersunk pilot holes. You can see one of these screws in the middle of the panel in the photo above right that shows the green drill. In that photo, the drill is tightening up one of the box moldings adjecent to a leg. The moldings can also be glued to the panles before being screwed in place.

 
With the sides in place, you can install the bottom. Screw 3/4" square cleats to all four bottom rails, flush with the lower edges, and then cut a piece of plywood to fit snugly but not too tight. After sanding the plywood and gently breaking the edges, secure it in place with screws driven up through pre-drilled, countersunk holes in the cleats.

 

If you're going to add doors, you will probably want to glue and clamp doorjambs to the insides of the front legs (left), just for looks. There's no need for nails, as the grain is running in the same direction in both parts. Use a damp (but not wet) cloth to clean up excess glue squeeze-out as you tighten the clamps.

Lay the entire table upside down on the workbench, center the skeleton on the top (keeping it flush at the back), and screw the top in place. Now all that's left to do is make the door, if you want one.

I used standard mortise and tenon construction for the door, gluing the rails into the stiles and allowing the panel to float. You may choose to go with a chicken wire or a smoked glass panel - or no door at all and just install a shelf inside. In fact, that's what most people seem to want.

Mine is an inset door, which can be tricky to get to fit perfectly. What I do is make it exactly the side of the opening and then use my large stationary belt sander to reduce it slowly until I get a perfect gap all around. You can do this on the table saw, too, just moving the fence about 1/3 of the thickness of your blade every pass. You'll need to add a cleat top and bottom behind the door to the skeleton, to make it close flush.

The door could also be made as an overlay, or half overlay. And because pine is so soft, I used three small hinges rather than two, for strength. Follow the lock and hinge instructions to install the hardware, which you should have in hand before mortising for it.

 


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