The dilemma of the coffee Table

A few months ago I had the good fortune to spend a few days in Mid-coast Maine and dropped in for a look at the Messler Gallery at The Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. I had a wonderful time looking at a collection of student work. You can follow this link for more details on the individual makers. I was especially interested in the interpretations of small low tables or what we often call a coffee table. It was refreshing to see some well executed ideas brought to fruition. For the most part they take a bit more risk than I would, I’m always wondering if it would hold up with screaming grandkids and large excited Labrador retrievers careening around the house. That’s my own bias. I’m fully aware that this is one furniture form open to a huge range of expression.

 Frequently when I attend woodworking shows I get the pleasure of talking with woodworkers about their projects. Inevitably out comes an IPod or digital camera to show me progress and get my opinion. Note: you know you’re an avid woodworker when you carry pictures of your furniture projects around with you. I’m never sure what sort of input people want or can take but I normally ask them the same questions I ask myself. What was the original thought or idea that inspired the piece? Was the goal to harmonize with other elements in the room or is this a focal point? Those questions lead to others and often the conversation becomes a great learning experience and time of discovery for both of us.

 One furniture project that brings out the most questions is the dreaded coffee table. My own theory is that it’s the one form of furniture that knows no bounds. When I think of a coffee table for some reason my mind always goes back to Chris Farley in “Tommy Boy” where he’s delighted to get a “D” on his college exam and celebrates by passing out onto a rickety coffee table creating a mini earthquake.  

 Coffee tables can be so many things. For that reason I think they are commonly picked as a student project in furniture schools. They can easily become an artistic expression and a focal point to a room. I have a few thoughts on designing them and I was wondering about your collective thoughts also. Feel free to contribute.

  1.  Height is about the only functional dimension that appears critical. It’s meant to talk over, view over, prop your feet on, hold trays of beer, food, and er… coffee. It should not be higher than chair seat height.
  2. The room setting should play a role in deciding the shape and size of the top. I seldom use mock ups, but in this case I’d make an exception. Unless you are after an aircraft carrier deck look, it’s probably a good idea to break out the cardboard and try out some top mock ups. It’s important not just visually, but consider traffic flow also.  
  3. Some may disagree but I like a coffee table that’s Tommy proof. In other words, someone should be able to sit on the corner of it and not have the table turn into a catapult that launches beverages into the fireplace.
  4. Unless you are going to use a glass top, remember that the undercarriage is primarily out of view. Floating tops or fancy joinery will not be seen except by roaming toddlers.

    Maybe it's time to do something with that figured walnut slab that's been lurking in the woodpile?

  5. This is a great opportunity to use that extraordinary monolith of wood you’ve been saving. A coffee table is all about the top. Don’t be bashful about using something that’s eye catching.

 I have more to say about designing a coffee table but I’m curious to hear your thoughts?

 George R. Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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8 Responses to The dilemma of the coffee Table

  1. Wilbur Pan says:

    I might take exception to item #4, depending on the room. In a larger room, you could easily be standing far enough away so that you could have a clear view of the undercarriage from that angle. Also, I happen to be sitting on our couch right now with our coffee table right in front of the couch, and from this angle I have a good view of the legs and stretchers.

    I do like the idea of making a coffee table bullet-proof. On the other hand, we also have 7 year-old and 3 year-old boys.

    • walkerg says:

      I agree that from certain angles the undercariage is visible. I was just making the point that the primary focus is usually the tabletop.

  2. Richard Darjes says:

    I agree that for woodworkers, the top of the coffee table is the focal point. Unfortunately, my wife and daughter want to put a large fruit bowl in the middle and to set it off, put a place mat underneath. Add a coffee table book or two and you are lucky to see a few square inches of the table top. Such is life!

    • walkerg says:

      I feel for you. Here in NE Ohio we have to deal with the curse of Cleveland sports. Always need room for a big box of kleenex.

  3. Glen Huey says:

    I’m going to challenge you on item #1. I grew up with tea table as a coffee table and found the 27″ height of no particular problem. When seated, it’s easy to see over to engage in conversation, and when you’re slid back in the couch, your beverage and food plate are close at hand. In fact, the only downside I can remember is the lack of comfort when propping your feet up on Sunday afternoon to watch a game.

  4. Narayan says:

    This obviously depends on the way you have your living room arranged, but any coffeetable I’d consider for our family room would need storage. A simple shelf underneath the top would be fine (and that’s what we have now), but our next one will have at least one drawer (for things like TV remotes).

  5. Jeff says:

    I wish I had made a mock-up of the coffee table I completed recently. I would have made it slightly wider had I seen it full size.

  6. Rule # 6: Don’t make a new cherry coffee table until your kids are beyond the toddler stage. Unless of course you’re laid back enough not to care about dings. I’m not laid back enough.

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