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Coffee Tables
or Cocktail Tables

©2013 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

Coffee tables are a recent invention - there is no such thing as an antique coffee table. Nevertheless they have become an essential part of most living rooms, family rooms, and libraries.

We have often used nitrocellulose lacquer, the material used for decades to paint cars, and the primary component of finger nail polish. Lacquer is not normally impacted by alcohol, water, food, or normal household chemicals, and is easily repaired. It is then rubbed to the degree of gloss that you would like - satin, semi-gloss, or high gloss (like a car or piano). Recently we changed to a high-tech version of acrylic lacquer (Target EmTech 6000), that cures to an even harder, more durable finish, similar to catalyzed lacquer. We also can use a conversion varnish.

One of our customers first confirmed that the finish we use would not be damaged by alcohol. He then pointed out that these are often called cocktail tables, rather than coffee tables. I agree - our coffee table is used for books, remote controls, appetizers, and beverages, but is rarely used for coffee. One of our tables was built a little taller, so the customer could use it to eat a meal while watching TV.

Which raises an interesting question. What are the tables called if you neither drink alcohol nor coffee?

How big should a coffee table be? One of our tables was shown in a woodworking show, and was criticized as being too small - not the big square tables that was popular at the moment. I didn't have the opportunity to tell the judge that I have sold several at about this size, none of the "big square", and have had queries about even smaller tables. One of the tables below was built specifically to replace a big square table that "just collected dust and clutter." Answer - you can have any size you want!

Solid Cherry or Walnut

Cherry Coffee Table

This cocktail table is solid cherry. The cherry wood starts as a very light tan, and darkens with age to a rich brown in a year or so, and ultimately to a deep dark brown in a century. This table was dyed to approximate the color that cherry would likely be in about 6 months, giving a head start to enjoy the piece but not interfering with the evolution in the color of the underlying wood. This table is far simpler than those below, with one drawer, opening from one side, and no shelf under the table.


A similar unit was built from Walnut, stained dark, with poplar drawer sides and a finger pull rather than handles on the drawer. The legs are removable for shipping the Walnut unit.


Simple Walnut Coffee Table 2227

Construction details.

The overall size of these coffee tables is 36 inches long, 21 inches wide, and 17 inches high. The drawer is about 18 inches wide, and normally pulls out about 12 inches.

The top and legs are solid hardwood. The top hangs over about 3/4 inch, the top and bottom edges slightly rounded over. (The taper may not be obvious, but without the taper the unit looks "heavy.")

There is one drawer, about 3 1/2 inches storage depth, with limited pull-out to so the table can be close to a sofa without "losing" items at the back of the drawer. The drawer sides of the cherry unit are baltic birch plywood; the drawer sides of the walnut table are poplar. Both drawers ride on waxed hardwood glides. The front is attached to the side with dovetail joints, and is grain matched to the surrounding apron (a single piece of lumber). The handle on the cherry coffee table is bright brass.

Dark Walnut

This coffee table was built from solid walnut, stained, with a satin rubbed lacquer finish. There is a full-size shelf under the table, and two drawers that can be opened from either side.


Construction details.

The overall size of this coffee table is 36 inches long, 21 inches wide, and 17 inches high. The top of the shelf is about 4 inches off the floor, so a toe fits under the table without kicking it.

The top and legs are solid walnut. The top hangs over the front by about an inch, to protect the drawer handles, and over the ends by about 3/4 inch, with a roundover edge with bead. The legs are 1 3/4 inch square at the top, and taper to 1 1/4 inch at the bottom. (The taper may not be obvious, but without the taper the unit looks "heavy.")

There are two drawers, about 4 inches high, that can be opened from either side of the table. The drawers have antique brass handles, dovetail joints, poplar sides, and plywood bottoms, and slide on waxed hardwood tracks.

Natural Walnut

This coffee table was also built from solid walnut, in a natural walnut color. There is a slightly smaller shelf under the table, and two drawers that can be opened from either side. The size of the top is about the same as the unit above, but the base is smaller, allowing a greater overhang with substantially curved corners, giving a different appearance.


Construction details.

Almost identical to the coffee table above, but with rounded top, minimal stain, and a polyurethane finish. Two drawers open from either side, and there is a 10 1/2 by 24 inch shelf underneath, about 4 inches above the floor Overall the top is about 20 by 36 inches, and 17 inches high. Each drawer is 15 3/8 deep, 12 inches wide, and 3 1/2 inches high (3 inches inside), with solid walnut fronts (both sides of the table), baltic birch sides, and an antique brass colored knob (rather than handles).

Tile Top

This coffee table was built with a tile top over plywood, with a wood edge, legs, and frame. The tile provides a durable surface and a far more casual appearance. This table can be coordinated to your home by using tiles to match those in your floor or fireplace - in fact makes much more sense with matching tiles. The sides and legs are dark stained walnut.

$400 using your tiles

Construction details.

The size, shape, color and style of the tiles we see for sale are different each time we look, and the final size of the table will depend on the size of those tiles. This style should be chosen for the appearance and function rather than the apparent lower cost. Most likely you will want to match the tiles in your home (there may be enough in the "spare" tiles most builders leave). If you want us to provide the tiles, the cost will be significantly higher, not just for the cost of the tiles, but for the time to find and choose them with you.

Note that this table does not have a lower shelf, and does not require supports for the legs. This picture is of a table 17 inches high, but another version of this table was built 21 inches high to "eat by the TV"

Designing your coffee table

Coffee tables are closely related to end tables and other living room tables. Be sure to see the notes on end tables.

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This site (design and contents) ©2003,2013 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas USA. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

We primarily serve Austin and the Central Texas area, but travel to the DFW area periodically and are glad to serve the Garland, Plano, Dallas, and other North Texas areas, and are willing to ship anywhere.